Has a comic book character ever realized they were… eh, a comic book character? It is called “breaking the fourth wall” – when an imaginary character realizes they are a fictitious character living in a fabricated world. Breaking the Fourth Wall (or Noticing the Fourth Wall) occurs occasionally in comic books to great effect.
Notable examples of comic book characters breaking the fourth wall
Here are a few brilliant (and notable) instances where a comic book character realized they were not real.
Breaking the fourth wall is part of Deadpool’s everyday schtick. He is of course, fully aware he is a comic book character. He frequently jokes with the reader, references prior issues, and occasionally provides his own humorous (and self-congratulatory) narration in “little yellow boxes”.
Deadpool [in a little yellow box]: Do I still think in those little yellow boxes?
Deadpool: “I’m good!”
Deadpool [in a little yellow box]: Oooh, I missed you little yellow boxes! What fun we shall have together!”
In Deadpool Team-Up #885, he even cuts open a page to yell something at himself in an earlier issue. In another comical instance, his talking to readers is overheard by the other characters in the panel.
Deadpool: “Waaaay back in issue one…”
Character 1: “Are you talking to me?”
Deadpool [points thumb at reader]: “No, them.”
All the characters in the frame: “Who’s ‘them’?”
Deadpool even recognizes a fourth wall exists.
Deadpool: [talking to the audience] “When it comes time to lick wounds, there’s no place like home. And I share that home with someone you’ve met. The old blind lady from the laundromat, Al.”
Al: [flashback] “God, I miss cocaine.”
Flashback Deadpool: “Her. [gasps] Fourth Wall break inside a Fourth Wall break? That’s, like, 16 walls!”
Deadpool’s fourth wall antics extended into the Deadpool movies too. In the first Deadpool movie, he visits Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. Viewers were left wondering where the other X-Men were. Deadpool turns to the camera and jokes that the studio couldn’t afford any more X-Men. Humorously, his statement was likely true at the time.
It should come as no surprise that the God of Mischief would naturally be prone to breaking the fourth wall. But in Deadpool Vol 1. #37, Loki smashed the fourth wall when he revealed to Deadpool, that they were living in a comic book controlled by a man with a typewriter. Deadpool was noticeably stunned into silence.
Loki: For thou alone knowest the truth of all these matters is… None of this is really happening. There is a man… With a typewriter…
Deadpool: Which means you’re my father?
Loki: A better question for thee would be… How dost thou know I am not?
Slapstick is one of the more colorful Marvel characters who despite a marvelous persona, isn’t well-known among most comic book readers. That is surprising because he has a near-indestructible ectoplasm body and uses a giant mallet to hammer anything that gets in his way. Slapstick frequently breaks the fourth wall. For instance, in the final page of The Awesome Slapstick #4, he turns to the reader and begs them to write Marvel editors requesting he be given his own solo series.
Jack of Fables
Nobody breaks the fourth wall better than Jack who frequently talks (complains) to the reader. Being rather impish, he even sometimes lies to the reader about the upcoming storyline. In one humorous instance, he got too rambunctious and angered the artist who got even with Jack by drawing him as fat. The preview for the comic book drew out the suspense.
“Jack’s back out on his own, but after his grave insult to the artist who’s drawing this story, what will become of Jack? Will the artist seek vengeance and have Jack go bald? Get fat? Grow a tail? Will he be covered in scabs and lesions? Or will the artist simply ignore the script and have Jack brutally murdered on the first page and bring in a replacement? Who knows? Anything is possible…”
DC Comics’ Bat-Mite is a powerful imp that first appeared in Detective Comics #267 (1959). In his inaugural appearance, he wore an ill-fitting Batman costume to ridicule the Dark Knight. Throughout Bat-Mite’s run, his sole purpose seemed to be to drive superhero characters up the wall. For instance, he would routinely put superheroes into uncomfortable situations, like fighting each other, for his own entertainment. He differed from other DC characters in one significant way – he is perfectly aware that he is a comic book character.
Cerebus was created by Canadian cartoonist Dave Sim as an examination of comic book form, an experiment that created a massively popular work. Cerebus the Aardvark was published from 1977 to 2007 in a colossal run that spanned more than 6,000 pages. In the “Minds” story arc, Cerebus begins to travel through space and into the future. By issue #193, he begins to hear a voice in his head that calls itself “Dave”. Dave would give Cerebus advice on how to survive in the future world. As the story arc progressed, it was revealed that “Dave” was Dave Sims, the creator/writer of Cerebus, who was speaking directly to his comic book character.
Fantastic Four was released in 1961 and from the onset, the crew (Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny) would reply to fan letters. At one point, readers began to show disdain for Sue. She didn’t fight much and was always putting the other three in dangerous situations. Before long, it was clear fans wanted Sue to go. Reed Richards and Ben Grimm broke the fourth wall to defend her and spoke in length of her many accomplishments.
SUE (hand over face, crying): “There! A number of readers have said that I don’t contribute enough to you… You’d be… better off without me! And perhaps they’re right.”
REED (show Ben the letter): “She’s not exaggerating Ben! Look!
BEN: “I never expected anything like this!”
REED (looking angrily at the reader): “Well, it’s time to set the record straight – here and now!”
Writer Mark Millar wrote a storyline for British publishers’ 2000 AD where the main character came to realize he was a comic book character – and that his time as a toon would soon end. With nothing to lose, the character goes on a murder spree. “It’s not really murder, you see. None of these people even have names!” He then is caught, arrested, and tries to pin the murders on the reader (by pointing them out to a policeman).
Scott Pilgrim explores all things geeky – manga, video games, anime, etc. And of course, he also explores comic books. But since Scott Pilgrim himself is a comic book character, he is forced to be aware that he is a character inside a comic book. The effect breaks the fourth wall frequently. For instance, when Ramona asks Scott about a new job he’s getting, he tells her he will explain it further in the next issue.
Superboy-Prime was made to break the fourth wall and why not. He lives in the Earth-Prime universe where superheroes and villains only exist in comic books. In 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earth, when the universe collapsed, Superboy-Prime was banished to another dimension. This angered him so much, he punched reality causing ripples in the DC Universe timeline. He was returned to Earth-Prime where he began reading comic books, complaining directly to the reader, and even attacking DC Comics headquarters.
Ultra Comics broke the fourth wall in the most bizarre manner. The comic opened with a superhero character explaining to the reader that he was created “38 pages in your future”. The character then warned the reader to stop reading -now!
The storyline explained how the readers’ collective consciousness powered the superhero named Ultra Comics. Ultra Comics interacted with the reader with each turn of the page. In the end, Ultra Comics launched an attack on the reader’s brain.
Like Bat-Mite, Mister Myzyzptlk continuously harasses DC superheroes, especially Superman, with his tricks from the firth dimension. In 2001’s World’s Funnest, Myzyzptlk and Bat-Mite destroy several universes during an epic battle against each other. In the midst of the battle, Myzyzptlk begins deploying dirty fourth-wall tricks in an effort to win. For instance, he uses an eraser to erase Captain Carrot’s universe and tears up comic book pages to destroy others.
She-Hulk (Jennifer Walters) is another Marvel character who frequently breaks through the fourth wall as part of her character. She was introduced in Savage She-Hulk #1 in 1980 and immediately began breaking the fourth wall. She argues with editors about how she is drawn and once fired the narrator when he described the storyline in a manner she did not like. In one issue, she even ripped through a page and right through an advertisement, presumably costing Marvel millions in lost advertising revenue.
Character 1: He’s gone! He’s left us here to rot! She-Hulk, what are we going to do??
She-Hulk: Wait a second… Wait a second… I think I’ve got this think knocked. We’ve been letting Bong play the game by his rules.
She-Hulk [tear open page to reveal advertisement underneath]: Let’s see what happens if we start playing by mine!
The clown prince of pranks has of course, broken the fourth wall on several occasions. In Detective Comics #476, the Joker gives a wordy speech about his big plans and then to save the reader time, reaches out and turns the page for them. He breaks the wall again in 2010’s Batman 80-Page Giant when Joker tells his psychiatrist that he misbehaves for the readers because after all, they are comic book characters. He then turns to the reader and deadpans, “Are the fans real?”
In Joker’s Asylum, he again debates whether comic book readers are real or not.
The Joker: “Not crazy! Like hell I’m not crazy. I mean, if I’m not crazy, what am I doing in the looney bin… all alone in solicaty confinement… talking to my imaginary…
The Joker [turns to reader]: “You are imaginary, right? Right?!?”
Animal Man has been around since 1965’s Strange Adventures #180. However, by 1985, he had only appeared in about a dozen issues. In 1988, Grant Morrison revived the character in Animal Man where he travels through Comic Book Limbo, a world of unused black and white characters, trying to stop Psycho-Pirate from reviving characters who were killed during Crisis of Infinite Earths. During this travel through Limbo, Animal Man carries on a lengthy conversation (in Animal Man #26) with Grant Morrison about why his character had been ignored for so many years.
Animal Man [reading an open comic book]: Why? Why did you do this? You killed my family. You ruined everything. Do you know what you’ve done to me?
Shadow of a writer at a desk: Of course I know. I wrote your grief and your rage and your acceptance. It added drama. All stories need drama and it’s easy to get a cheap emotional shock by killing popular characters.
Animal Man: “But that’s not fair!”
Ambush bug has been both a villain and a superhero who survives on nothing but luck. He first appeared in DC Comics Presents #52 in 1982 and is completely bonkers – and totally self-aware. Ambush Bug argues with the writers, criticizes the editors, jumps across panels, and frequently tears down word balloons if he does not like the lines the writer gave him. He was even taken to court by DC Comics for “contempt of comics”.
Ambush Bug to villain talking on phone: “Hey Flamebrain! Is that the pizza place? There them no M.S.G.!
Villain: “What? He was? Really, Arkham? No, he didn’t mention…”
Ambush Bug [snatches phone out of villain’s hand]: “Hello, room service! Send up a plot and three pages of dialogue right away! The weekly grind is tarin’ me apart!”
Even the Flash has broken the fourth wall. In The Flash #179, Barry Allen accidentally comes into our earth. He meets with the editor Julius Schwartz, who helps him return home.
Flash [thinking out loud to himself]: However, what Fox didn’t realize is… That when he was asleep, his mind “tuned in” on another vibratory world – Earth-2, where Jay Garrick really existed! My guess is that a similar phenomenon is taking place here…”
Flash [opens up a Flash comic book]: In the Parallel-Earth, I’m stranded in now, another write must “tune- in” on my world… and then they write about my adventures! Therefore, here I am just a fictional character… which explains this comic magazine!
Spider-Man comically breaks the fourth wall at will. For example, when listening to two characters talking with speech bubbles spelling his name as “Spiderman”, he interrupts to point out the missing hyphen.
CHARACTER 1: “Yeah, I’ll admit, very savvy P.R. move. Well orchestrated too…
CHARACTER 2: “You could’ve been a part of it. But instead you desecrate these grounds by bringing the Spiderman…”
SPIDER-MAN: “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry to interrupt but, see, I can tell you’re saying it without the hyphen and that just… It just bothers me…”
Our modern-day Superman is straight-laced and serious, but in the Silver Age of Comics, he frequently broke the fourth wall. In many of the Superman comic book end panels, Superman would joke about his secret identity while winking at the reader. Even Lois Lane got in on the fun when she asked him who he was winking at. “Oh, no one,” he replied, then winked again.
Marvel MCU movies are typically pretty serious affairs but in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. Baby Groot tumbles into a camera. To most viewers, it goes unnoticed. But listen carefully and you will hear the tiny sound of Groot bumping the camera lens. It is the first time Marvel broke the fourth wall in the MCU universe and is all-the-more funny given that Baby Groot was completely CGI-generated.
Image CreditsExamples of Spider-Man breaking fourth wall to correct hyphen in name via Marvel with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
The Flash #179 Fact or Fiction via Marvel with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
The Joker breaking the fourth wall via DC Comics with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Fantastic Four breaking the fourth wall defending Sue via Marvel with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Animal Man #26 - Animal Man meets Grant Morrison via DC Comics with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Ultra Comics breaking the fourth wall via DC Comics with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Superman Clark Kent breaking fourth wall by winking at reader via DC Comics with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Mister Mxyzptlk breaking the fourth wall via DC Comics
Superboy Prime breaking the fourth wall in Infinite Crisis via DC Comics
Scott Pilgram breaking the fourth wall via Oni Press with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Cerebus the Aardvark #193 - hearing the voice of Dave via Aardvark-Vanaheim with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Deadpool Vol. 1 #37 Loki breaking the fourth wall via Marvel with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
She-Hulk #9 variant cover - She-Hulk and Deadpool break the fourth wall via Previews World with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Ambush Bug breaking the fourth wall via DC Comics with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
She-Hulk breaking the fourth wall via Marvel
Deadpool breaking the fourth wall via Marvel with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)