Being an ex-con is some rough stuff. Trying to reintegrate into society and make something of themselves is hard work, and many people will never disassociate their criminal past with the lives they lead now no matter how hard they try to walk the straight and narrow. All that said, folks love stories of redemption, which is why media is littered with stories of bad guys finding they’re into doing the service of the angels. Comics take this idea one step further and has not only had characters reform, but become superheroes. We’re here to look at some of the unlikeliest heroes to ever grace the funny-book pages.
First of all, I’m only looking at truly reformed characters, not anti-heroes or bad guys who also do good. So as much as love characters like The Goon you aren’t going to see his mug. The people on this list are far from perfect, and might even slip from time to time, but they are truly trying their best to do the right thing and be better people. Secondly, I’m looking at people who found their path to the light because of their powers. People who took the opportunity to try and reinvent themselves and found a piece of salvation in this whole capes and cowls thing. Lastly, I’m looking at characters that are still defined today by their criminal past, the characters where it remains an integral part of understanding who they are and why they do what they do. Hawkeye for instance did some dumbass stuff when he first put on the costume, but nobody would say the crimes he did at that time are what defines the character, so he doesn’t make the cut.
With that all out of the way, let’s dive into this list of former crooks who’ve managed to steal our hearts.
5. Grifter (Cole Cash)
It sucks being the Grifter, man, it really does. Hell, originally I was going to give this spot to either John Constantine or the Black Cat, but decided to go with Grifter the more I realized he was exactly the kind of character I wanted to talk about. I mean, the guy calls himself Grifter. He was made for this list.
Cole Cash grew up in one of the rougher parts of Chicago, and made a name for himself stealing and often joyriding cars. Eventually, a judge told Cole that he had to pick between two uniforms, a prison or military one. Cole opted for the camo instead of the stripes, and despite being thoroughly independent and headstrong, Grifter made one bad-ass soldier as he excelled in all things, especially marksmanship, which landed him a spot on the special ops team code named Team 7. In their endeavors to make Team 7 into even greater warriors, the people behind the program experimented on the group, and Cole gained psychic and psionic powers which never worked right to begin with that he has since mentally locked away to protect his sanity. Grifter also has a limited healing factor that slows his aging process and lets him take Rocky movie level beatings semi-regularly and live.
Tired of being messed with and killing people for reasons he was hardly, if ever told, Cole ditched the military and became a con-man, as it allowed him to stay under the government’s radar. His continuity has gotten messy since DC bought Wildstorm, but both versions have him donning the mask and becoming Grifter to fight the Daemonites. It isn’t fancy or pretty, but Grifter knows how to protect humanity and get the job done. Here is hoping that DC can eventually get it together and do something cool with this dead-eye desperado.
4. Gambit (Remy Lebeau)
Most of the X-Men you could name have a crime or two in their past. Storm for example was a thief on the streets of Cairo in her youth. Despite all that, there is only one hero in the X-franchise that comes to mind when people think of criminals, and that’s everyone’s favorite Ragin’ Cajun, Gambit.
Gambit’s life pretty much started out with a crime as he was kidnapped at birth by the Thieves Guild. Raised and trained by the Guild, Remy became a world class fighter and thief. After killing the brother of the woman he was supposed to marry to unite the Thieves and Assassins Guilds in self defense, Gambit was exiled from New Orleans and wandered the world until eventually falling in with the X-Men. His skills along with his mutant power to change the potential energy of an item into kinetic energy and make things go boom, have made Gambit one of the most popular and recognized X-Men ever, even though he’s not a current member of the team. Ever the scoundrel, just be glad that a majority of the time these days all he steals are kisses.
3. Star-Lord (Peter Quill)
Finding your own way in space is hard, and nobody knows that better than the outlaw turned hero, Star-Lord. The son of a human woman, Meredith, and the eventual ruler of Spartax who spent a brief time stranded on Earth, J’son, Peter Quill was orphaned at age 11 when a group of aliens were tasked with wiping out J’son’s family. Even without knowing his heritage, Quill dreamed of space and was determined to get there by joining NASA and becoming an astronaut. Talented, but also a loner and bit of a jerk, Peter made it to space where he and his fellow astronauts were visited by an entity that promised to give them the abilities of an interplanetary “cop” known as the Star-Lord. Peter volunteered but was rejected and even grounded. Not willing to be denied, he stole a space ship and rocketed off to the coordinates where the chosen astronaut was to be picked up and took his place.
Now in deep space with all kinds of aliens zipping about, Quill joined Yondu and his pirate group, the Ravagers. Being a pirate was cool and all, but Star-Lord eventually decided to break away from the Ravagers and make his own way among the stars. Eventually he formed his own group of galactic protectors, the Guardians of the Galaxy. Even though Star-Lord now fights for peace and justice, he and his fellow Guardians have pissed off most of the major players in space, and have retained their outlaw status in several systems throughout the galaxy.
A clever tactician and leader, Peter has made quite a name for himself with nothing more than a pair of guns and a breathing/tactical mask. Star-Lord has also proven to be quite the charmer and he is currently engaged to Kitty Pryde of X-Men fame. Either in front of or behind bars, Star-Lord remains one to watch.
2. Ant-Man (Scott Lang)
Ant-Man has been able to go from being a C-list character to one of the most well known and popular characters in the Marvel Universe thanks to a hit film that finally got folks (myself included) to stop and give the ex-burglar turned hero, Scott Lang, his due.
Although a talented electronics technician, Scott wasn’t able to make enough to support his family and so turned to burgling homes. This worked for a time, but soon enough, Scott found himself caught, jailed, and divorced. When Scott was released, he vowed to clean up his act and get his life in order. He even managed to get hired by Tony Stark and help install security systems in the Avengers Mansion. However, luck was never Mr. Lang’s strong suit. When his beloved daughter, Cassie, fell ill, Scott once again gave into his criminal ways and stole the Ant-Man suit from Hank Pym. Able to defeat some bad guys who had kidnapped the only person who could save his daughter’s life, Hank decided to let Scott keep the suit and the name, as long as he promised to put it to good use.
What makes Scott Lang so great is his “everyman” quality, he’s talented and clever to be sure, but not in any special or spectacular way. Even with all his and cool powers and abilities he isn’t even very good at being a hero. He’s just a guy who loves his daughter and wants to do some good in the world. Currently in the comics (which you should be reading because they are awesome), Scott is heading up a fledgling security company while still making time to punch and get punched by the bad guys. This ex-burgler gone buggy may not be that lucky in life, but to his fans he’s a real winner.
1.Plastic Man (Patrick “Eel” O’Brian)
You just can’t top the OG. Created way back in 1941, our intrepid hero began life as Patrick “Eel” O’Brian, a talented safecracker and member of a criminal gang. After getting shot during a job, abandoned by his own crew, and doused in some unknown chemicals, Eel gained the ability to stretch and mold his body however he wanted. Seriously, if I was to take the time to go into all the different things that he can do, we’d be here all day. You’d think a career criminal suddenly gaining crazy super powers would keep right on committing crimes, but Eel was inspired to go ahead and give being a hero a shot, and thus, Plastic Man was born.
Plastic Man may not be as well known as some of the others on this list, but his status as a cult character has stood the test of time, and he is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, hood gone good in super hero comics. More than just off the wall powers and wisecracks, Plastic Man is guy who still deep down feels a tug to commit crimes because of just how easy it would be for him to do so. Despite the allure of the criminal lifestyle, he works hard to prove to himself that he’s better than that. Most of Plastic Man’s allies don’t know about his criminal past, and with the threat of possible jail time always looming over his head, he’d prefer to keep it that way. Able to turn a negative into a positive, Eel has the uncanny ability to put himself in the mindset of a criminal, and often solves a crime from that perspective. His detective work is good enough to have even earned Batman’s respect.
His unique character and backstory makes Plas a standout not only from his Golden Age brethren, but even the comics of today.