Comic creators have a rough time. They need to keep readers interested, but to do so, they need to continually up the stakes for their characters. In doing so, they will inevitably annoy a few fans causing a few storms in more than a few teacups. However, there are times when these controversies have overflowed into the mainstream. Presented here are five such cases.
Amazing Spider-Man #96 (1971)
With the introduction of the Comics Code Authority in 1954 comic publishers were not allowed to have any mention of illicit drugs at all, be it positive or negative. However, in 1971 drug culture had become quite a problem within the youth of America. To tackle the issue, the National Institute of Mental Health asked Marvel to raise awareness of the issues of drug use in their most popular title to help educate their readers. Of course, Marvel and Spider-Man writer and co-creator Stan Lee agreed. He created a three-issue arc in which Harry Osborn starts taking drugs.
Despite the Comics Code not allowing the mention of drugs in comic books Marvel went ahead and printed the three issues anyway, albeit without the Code’s stamp of approval on the cover. The New York Times picked up the story and interviewed all parties involved. The Comics Code people were none too pleased, and DC Comics then-publisher Carmine Infantino used the opportunity to put the boot into Marvel. However, Stan stood by the decision to publish the story, saying “…if this story would help one kid anywhere in the world not to try drugs or to lay off drugs one day earlier, then it’s worth it.” The incident also highlighted the ridiculousness of the Code and began the wheels turning for its demise.
Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #15 (1988)
While it is not uncommon at all for an artist to use photos and images of real-life people as a reference when creating their work, Jackson Guice chose the wrong picture to use for the cover of this issue. Rather than mere reference, he all but copied an image of Christian singer Amy Grant from the cover of her Greatest Hits album and used it as the cover background. Grant sued Marvel not for using her image without permission. She asserted that by using her picture on the cover of Doctor Strange people might assume she approved of a book that promoted magic, sorcery and the dark arts and thus alienate her fans and harm her career. Marvel settled and agreed to pull the issue from shelves. Though enough time had passed that plenty of Doctor Strange fans had already picked up their copy.
The Phantom (1936 – )
When Lee Falk created The Phantom in 1936, the world was a very different place. Race relations were not the political and social hot topic it is today. The comic strip stared a white man who arrives on an African island inhabited by black natives and becomes the “Lord of the Jungle.” Contemporary critics have since accused the strip of promoting white supremacy. While it can be easy to level this accusation at The Phantom, the issue is not that simple. One must consider the time and context in which Falk created the strip. While a whole article could be written about this alone, we will point out here that The Phantom was also very progressive for its time. It was one of the first comics to show strong female characters, and it depicted a black president.
While they have retconned the “Lord of the jungle” aspect in today’s Phantom stories, the idea that the character represents a form of white supremacy is one that has not been settled.
Frank Cho and Spider-Woman (2015)
The depiction of women in any media and their sexualization has always been a controversial topic. Comics are no stranger to this controversy, and many times in the medium’s history it’s been discussed. However, things blew up in 2014 when Marvel commissioned Italian artist Milo Manara to produce a variant cover for their new Spider-Woman #1. The resulting image was a bit too sexy for many. After a backlash from the mainstream media as well as comics media, Marvel pulled it from shelves.
Skip to January 2015 and Frank Cho. He is another artist famous for his depiction of sexy ladies, offered up a tribute to Manara’s cover. It was basically the same image, albeit in Cho’s style and added Spider-Man checking out Spider-Woman’s potent posterior. This depiction caused further outrage from fans and the media. Cho responded to the controversy as only Cho can — by creating more sexualized covers.
The more people that took to Twitter to complain about the over-sexualization of women in Cho’s work, the more of these covers Cho produced. These became colloquially known as the “Outrage covers,” a series of images that both parodied sexism as well as criticizing it. However, it did all culminate in Cho losing his cover artist gig on Wonder Woman over at DC. Then writer Greg Rucker complained that one of Cho’s variants showed too much of Wondy’s skin and they edited the cover. In protest, Cho walked off the series.
X-Men Protest (2017)
In 2017 Marvel debuted several new X-Men books. One of these books was X-Men: Gold with art by Indonesian artist Ardian Syaf. After the book went to print and fans started picking up their copies Indonesian fans began to notice that Syaf had hidden some rather political messages within the book’s art. Throughout the book’s pages, the numbers 212, 51, and “QS 5:51” are found. They relate to protests against the then Christian Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was running for reelection.
Basuki was accused of blasphemy and promoting the large-scale protests which the number 212 represents. These protests were reportedly spurred on by the Islamic Defenders Front (IDF), an organization known for violent rhetoric and hate crimes. “QS 5:51” also related to protests by IDF which pushed anti-Jewish and anti-Christian messages. Marvel was quick to respond and alter the art for future printings of the issue and canceled Syaf’s contract.