When you look at the history of comic books and their general perception by the public, there really are three distinct periods when people in the mainstream cared. There was the Golden Age, back when comic strips were one of the dominant forms of entertainment in the United States and thus, comic books got similar treatment at first. Then there was the comic book speculator boom of the 1990s, where comic book stores were suddenly on seemingly every other corner in every town. Finally, there is the last decade, where the mixture of the social media boom, the 24 news cycle and the superhero film boom have made comic books a popular thing for people to get outraged over.
However, “outrage” is not the same thing as a PR disaster. When people freak out because Thor is now a woman, that’s not a PR disaster. That’s just people being outraged over stupid things. Comic book companies are prepared for things like that. A PR disaster, on the other hand, is when unexpected controversies pop up and comic book companies are unduly embarrassed and/or forced to apologize for something that happened. Here, then, are the 15 worst comic book PR disasters.
15. SEXIST BATMAN T-SHIRTS
For the most part, comic book companies do not have to worry about licensed material. There is just so much licensed material out there (just go to a Target and see how much superhero-related clothing you can find — you’ll be there for hours) that people get that they are different than materials released by comic book companies themselves.
However, sometimes the licensed products are so bad that the comic book company still gets blow back, and that was the case in 2014 when two T-shirts got negative attention. One was Superman kissing Wonder Woman with the caption, “Superman does it again,” thereby positioning Wonder Woman as a conquest. The other was a “Training to be Batman’s wife” shirt. Ouch. DC addressed the issue, releasing a statement, “All our fans are incredibly important to us, and we understand that the messages on certain t-shirts are offensive. We agree.”
14. ONE MORE DAY
Again, as noted earlier, controversial stories are not the same thing as “PR disasters,” because comic companies often do storylines designed to get attention. Marvel does not send out press releases about, say, Iron Man becoming an African-American teenage girl and think that no one is going to react.
However, in the case of “One More Day,” the storyline where Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker trade their marriage to Mephisto to save Aunt May’s life, no one really wants to talk about the story itself. Marvel just wanted to get to the next step, which was a single Spider-Man, something that every Marvel Editor-in-Chief had wanted pretty much as soon as Spider-Man got married. Luckily for Marvel, the mainstream media really didn’t find “Spider-Man sells marriage to devil” that interesting, so they didn’t have to deal with outside media attention too much on this one. Fandom, however, exploded.
13. HYDRA CAP
On the other hand, for whatever reason, “Captain America has secretly been a member of Hydra this whole time” caught mainstream attention in a way that few other controversial comic book stories ever have. Again, Marvel clearly intended for the story to draw attention (they revealed the twist in Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 in a national newspaper article), but the difference was that Marvel clearly did not think that the story would hit quite the nerve that it has for many people. This is especially true of the people who painted the angle revealing that Captain America (who was created by two Jewish creators) was a Hydra agent, given the group’s connections to Nazis, as being anti-Semitic.
Things have gotten so bad with Marvel on the optics of this storyline (soon to be finished in the pages of the otherwise extremely popular and well-received Secret Empire) that they even issued a press release asking people to be patient with the story until it was finished!
12. NORTHSTAR COMES OUT
A perfect example of how very often the issue is not the story itself but how the story is handled would be the case of Northstar coming out in the pages of Alpha Flight #106 (by Scott Lobdell, Mark Pacella and Dan Panosian). During a battle against a retired Canadian superhero who is angry over how his son was shunned for being gay before he died of AIDS, Northstar revealed that he understood, as he, too, was gay.
The issue was fully approved by Marvel editorial, but everyone was taken unawares by how big of a deal the story became. A story about a gay superhero that was also about AIDS in 1992 was downright scandalous, and Marvel corporate clearly was not happy with it. So, Marvel ended up going radio silent instead of actually embracing the story, thus making it seem like they were ashamed of their story.
11. TWISTING THE DAGGER TYPE
DC Comics got a lot of great press when they revamped Batgirl with a new creative team of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr that brought Batgirl to the “hipster” area of Gotham City, where Batgirl received a revamped look that was keeping in the style of her new neighborhood. The revamped book was a hit, but just a few issues into the revamp, they also hit a major misfire.
During a story where someone was committing crimes disguised as Batgirl, Batgirl unmasked the villain and it turned out to be a villain, Dagger Type, who seemed to identify as a man. This obviously played into all of the worst stereotypes of the “crazy cross-dresser”/”crazy transgender person” tropes and the Batgirl creative team quickly apologized for the story.
10. SUPERMAN VS THE HOLOCAUST
In 1998, DC Comics celebrated the 60th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance by first bringing back Superman’s classic look (he had been wearing an electric blue costume, along with new energy-based powers, for the previous year) and then launching into a series of stories where Superman was sent to different points in history.
Writer/artist Jon Bogdanove did a great story set in the 1940s with Clark Kent and Lois Lane sneaking into Poland to do a story about the Nazi atrocities there. The problem was that despite clearly involving Jewish people, the story never once used the word “Jew.” DC thought kids might use the word as a slur. They apologized for the miscue. The Anti-Defamation League accepted the apology, noting the heart of the issue by saying, “the intention was OK but the execution wasn’t. One can get so locked in trying not to offend, you offend.”
9. HARLEY QUINN: SUICIDE SQUASH
In 2013, DC Comics ran a contest for the then-upcoming debut issue of Harley Quinn’s solo series by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti. The idea for the contest is that artists would draw a sample page and the winning artist’s work would appear in the published issue (the issue had a number of different artists each draw a page or two, so it made sense for the flow of the story).
The sample page showed Harley Quinn attempting to kill herself (as a play on the fact that she was in the Suicide Squad). The final panel was Harley naked in a bathtub preparing to drop electrical appliances in to kill herself. Readers objected to the sexualization of suicide and DC apologized and the panel was changed in the published comic (artist Jeremy Roberts won).
8. DIVERSE PROBLEMS FOR MARVEL
In April of 2017, Marvel’s longtime Vice President of Sales, David Gabriel, was quoted as saying of Marvel’s recent October/November 2016 sales slump, “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not … We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.”
Gabriel later clarified his statements, but it was too late, as the sound bite of “people didn’t want any more diversity” was soon played on every news site out there, even gaining mainstream attention.
7. END OF CARD ON SUPERMAN
In 2013, DC launched a new anthology series, Adventures of Superman, where different writers and artists could take a crack at Superman (including the great Chris Samnee, who drew the cover for the first issue, featured above). One of the writers they enlisted was acclaimed science fiction author Orson Scott Card. However, Card was also a well-known opponent of gay marriage. In fact, he was a board member for a group that founded to specifically oppose same-sex marriage in state legislatures.
There was a lot of negative attention to the story, with the assigned artist for the issue, Chris Sprouse, deciding not to draw the story. DC claimed that they were still going forward with the story (while making sure to note that their views did not match Card’s), but the story never came out, so it was presumably discretely scrapped
6. A KILLING JOKE
In 2015, just a few months after the controversy over Batgirl #37’s Dagger Type, Batgirl was in the middle of another controversy, but this time it had nothing to do with the story inside of the book. All DC Comics released in June 2015 were going to have a special Joker variant to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Joker. However, the Rafael Albuquerque variant for Batgirl #41 featured the Joker tormenting Batgirl (famously echoing The Killing Joke, wherein Joker shot and crippled Barbara Gordon).
While a striking piece of art in a vacuum, people objected to the cover when it was solicited in March as clashing with the forward-looking tone of the series itself. Albuquerque asked for the cover to be pulled and DC agreed. That, though, caused its own mess, as people who liked the cover were outraged that it was pulled. It was a true lose-lose situation for DC.
5. HYDRA TAKEOVER GOES BAD
As noted before, Marvel was surprised by the negative reaction to the storyline where Captain America was revealed to have been part of Hydra his whole life (as a result of a Cosmic Cube altering Captain America’s reality). However, while the story itself was one thing, the way Marvel handled things once it was clear that the story had struck a nerve was a whole other thing.
As part of the promotion of Secret Empire, where Cap’s loyalties are revealed as he and Hydra take over the United States, Marvel planned Hydra “takeover” events, where they would “take over” websites and stores, draping them in Hydra logos. Since people were already sort of creeped out by what some felt was Nazi-related imagery of Hydra, asking stores to deck themselves out in these symbols was considered by certain fans, retailers and readers as an odd misstep for Marvel.
4. THE CROUCH THAT LAUNCHED A THOUSAND THINK-PIECES
For a number of years, Marvel had been doing variant covers that were only available to retailers if they ordered a certain amount of copies. They would choose popular artists whose work would be seen as much as an incentive that people would want to pay the premium that stores would charge for the book. One of these artists was the famed European erotic comic book artist, Milo Minara. Naturally, his variant covers were often sexually suggestive drawings of female superheroes.
However, for whatever reason, his 1:50 variant cover for 2014’s Spider-Woman #1, featuring Spider-Woman in a backbreaking crouch, drew so much outrage that Marvel eventually agreed that there was something to the critiques. Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort noted, “I think that the people who are upset about that cover have a point, at least in how the image relates to them.”
3. TRUTH, JUSTICE AND….?
As we have mentioned a few times, the biggest key to a public relations disaster is when the company does not what they’re getting into. When they prepare themselves, things tend not to go too poorly, as they know just what to say. When they’re unprepared, though, things go pear-shaped quickly. That was the case for Action Comics #900. The issue featured a few short stories, one of which was by David S. Goyer (who wrote Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and artist Miguel Sepulveda.
In it, Superman decides that since all of his actions were considered as being officially approved by the United States government, he would fix things by officially renouncing his U.S. citizenship so that no one could blame the United States for his actions. Fairly normal idea, right? But how it was reported was “Superman hates the United States!”
2. SIGN LANGUAGE
At least with Action Comics #900, while DC certainly did not expect the innocuous short story to get blown into a national story, they at least knew that the story was there. That was not the case for Captain America #602, which was about Captain America (then Bucky Barnes) and Falcon (Sam Wilson) going undercover into a political movement that was connected to the former Captain America fill-in, William Burnside. The story was clearly meant to evoke the protests of the Tea Party, but was not meant to literally be the Tea Party.
However, a letterer accidentally made the subtext text by adding some outright Tea Party signs to the mix and forcing Marvel to apologize for making the story explicitly about the Tea Party (now the “Freedom Caucus”) when that was not their intent.
1. HIDDEN MESSAGES CAUSE VISIBLE PROBLEMS
In the case of the Captain America #602 snafu, while Marvel did not intend to explicitly criticize the Tea Party, at least the story pretty much was a critique of the Tea Party. That was something, at least. That is what made X-Men Gold #1 the biggest comic book PR disaster of all-time.
You see, the artist on the issue, Ardian Syaf, hid references to a controversy in Indonesia where the Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama suggested that his opponents were mis-quoting a verse from Quran Surah 5:51 (or QS 5:51) into saying that it meant “Muslims should not appoint the Jews and Christians as their leader.” The issue had nothing to do with the controversy. Marvel now suddenly found themselves with a comic with hidden references that could be seen as Anti-Christian. They apologized, recalled the issue and fired Syaf.