The comic book industry is no stranger to stirring up controversy.
From scantily clad superheroes adorning graphic novel covers to the tragic deaths of beloved characters, it’s not hard to find a comic book that has been deemed offensive at one point in time. Though it was inevitable that some comic storylines would stir the proverbial pot more than others, certain comic books pushed the envelope hard enough to still be considered contentious among fans and critics to this day. We’ve chronicled 5 of the most infamous of these comics below.
5: Snowbirds Don’t Fly
Heroin has been a global epidemic for many decades, and nothing illustrates the longevity of this problem better than the two 1971 issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow known as Snowbirds Don’t Fly.
As a social activist who endured seeing his friends succumb to heroin addiction, writer Denny O’Neil wanted to illustrate the dangers of drug abuse in order to educate and deter his readership. However, his decision to cover this topic faced heavy opposition from the Comics Code Authority, which forbade the publishing of comic books depicting drugs in any context. The comic was eventually released after changes to the Comics Code were made, and Snowbirds Don’t Fly received critical acclaim from journalists and even New York Mayor John Lindsay.
That said, Snowbirds Don’t Fly didn’t sit well with all fans due to the decision to make Green Arrow’s Ward, Speedy, the one battling the addiction. Speedy was ultimately chosen to show that even “good kids” could wind up addicts, but the shock was still hard to swallow at the time.
4: Elseworlds 80 Page Giant
Elseworlds 80 Page Giant would appear to be a mostly innocuous collection of DC comics at first glance. That is, until you get to the panel of Letitia Lerner, Superman’s Babysitter that depicts baby Superman being heated in a microwave.
To be fair, this isn’t that severe in context. After all, even as a baby, a little radiation is nothing to Superman. However, the scene was disturbing enough to cause DC President Paul Levitz to halt production on the comic, causing its value to skyrocket shortly thereafter. Letitia Lerner would go on to be republished in other comic book collections in the wake of its infamy, and the entirety of Elseworlds 80 Page Giant was reprinted in 2012 as part of Elseworlds 100 Page Spectacular.
It’s one thing to dramatically or graphically kill off a superhero, but it’s another to slaughter a multitude of characters in ways that resemble a gory horror movie. Ultimatum is the latter of these.
Heavily hyped up as the conclusion of the first chapter of the Ultimate Universe comics, Ultimatum was a five issue series that pushed its shock value too far for many fans. In short, over 20 major characters die during the events of Ultimatum, with causes of death involving decapitation, explosions, and even cannibalism. The series was panned by numerous critics, and thousands of readers stopped purchasing the comics as the series progressed. One review went so far as to call Ultimatum “the ultimate nightmare.”
2: Emerald Twilight / Green Lantern #54
Though most of the controversies on this list could be considered self-contained affairs, Green Lantern managed to become the poster child of a controversial issue that continues to be hotly debated.
In Green Lantern #48, during the first part of the Emerald Twilight storyline, the reader is formally introduced to Alexandra DeWitt, the love interest of the titular hero. However, a mere six issues later, Green Lantern returns to his apartment to find DeWitt strangled and stuffed into his refrigerator. While this particular death is disturbing in its own right, it became immortalized in 1999 by a website titled “Women In Refrigerators.” The thesis of the website was to chronicle the trend of female characters in comic books being tortured and/or murdered as means to motivate the hero for a revenge story, and to this day, the term “Women in Refrigerators” is used to describe this trope even outside the realm of comic books. Though Green Lantern would change as the years went on, its stigma attached to this trend remains.
1: The Killing Joke
The depths of the Joker’s capacity for evil has often been characterized in the Batman comics and movies, but some might ask if the iconic villain has ever gone too far by even his own twisted standards. To answer this question, enter The Killing Joke.
Note: The following paragraph may be disturbing or “not safe for work,” potentially more than the controversies we’ve described up to this point.
Written by Watchmen writer Alan Moore, The Killing Joke details the Joker’s descent into insanity following a series of tragic events in rapid succession, including the death of his pregnant wife. Later in the graphic novel, the Joker shoots the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, Barbara (AKA Batgirl), causing her to be permanently paralyzed. The Joker then proceeds to photograph Barbara being stripped, tortured, and beaten, and then shows the pictures to Commissioner Gordon after capturing him and stripping him as well. The goal of this plan, according to The Joker, is to illustrate how it only takes “one bad day” to drive a man insane. Fortunately, his attempt to mentally break the Commissioner is thwarted by Batman. Even so, the event leaves a major character crippled, and readers are left with no illusions that the Joker’s insanity has any limits.
The Killing Joke was widely praised by reviewers for its writing and insight into the Joker’s character, and it even won an Eisner award in 1989. However, The Killing Joke has also drawn ire from many critics, as the treatment of Barbara which renders her a paraplegic is so unabashedly insidious. Moore himself has expressed regret with The Killing Joke, noting that Barbara’s fate “was probably one of the areas that (DC Comics) should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.” Even today, between Batgirl’s own comic series progressing under the narrative shadow of The Killing Joke and the infamous graphic novel getting an animated film adaptation this year, the controversy is ever ongoing.
Though opinions will vary on such a divisive piece of comic history, its impact on the industry and the Batman canon cannot be ignored. Either way, The Killing Joke demonstrates without a doubt that many comic books are not the children’s stories they once were.