2016 was another great year for Marvel when it came to their movies. Captain America: Civil War made over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, and was a superb movie as well. Doctor Strange then performed admirably in November, becoming the most successful MCU origin story movie for a new hero.
But as the plaudits flew in for their movies, the comic book publishing side of the company had a much more mixed year. Angering fans with yet another relaunch of the universe, Marvel’s comics were characterized by declining sales and story directions that made fans feel uncomfortable. This was compounded by the fact that their Distinguished Competition, DC Comics, had a banner year thanks to their incredibly successful ‘DC Rebirth’ relaunch.
This list will include a few 2016 entires, thusly, but the history of Marvel is full to the brim of questionable moments and baffling creative decisions that made fans feel queasy, so some of these entries go back as far as the 1980s. Heck, there might even be some entries that made readers uncomfortable, but not in a bad way, necessarily. Sometimes storytelling features moments like that, and they’re included to give drama to the proceedings in a way that feels earned and essential.
16. Bruce Banner’s Father Abuses His Family
Bruce Banner’s father Brian was a very mixed up man. He hated his own father, who he regarded as a monster, and therefore promised himself that he would never have children, for fear of passing on the ‘monster gene’ he believed he’d inherited. However, Brian did end up having a child with his wife Rebecca; young Bruce.
Brian worked for the US government on a clean energy project, and the stress of the job made him become an alcoholic. He eventually caused an explosion at work and was fired, and he believed the explosion changed him on a genetic level.
The first instance of abuse is shown in #312, on one Christmas morning when Bruce was young. Brian had kept himself emotionally distant from Bruce, and on this particular morning, when Bruce assembled a complicated Christmas present with no help from his parents, Brian was convinced he was right that his son was genetically ‘different’. He beat Bruce and then Rebecca, when she tried to help her son. This relationship with his abusive father was a major contributing factor to Bruce becoming the Hulk.
15. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch Get Too Close For Comfort
Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch mightn’t have been a package deal in every comic they’ve ever appeared in, but more often than not, the twins were inseparable. The son and daughter of chief X-Men baddie Magneto, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff debuted in X-Men #4 in 1964 as members of The Brotherhood Of Evil Mutants. They weren’t villains for long though, and by 1965 had joined The Avengers.
In the year 2000, Marvel launched the ‘Ultimate Marvel’ imprint, which allowed creators to tell modern stories with classic characters, unencumbered by 40+ years of continuity. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch soon appeared in ‘The Ultimates’, a more militaristic take on The Avengers.
Now, this version of Pietro and Wanda were very, very close. In 2008, it was revealed that they were in an incestuous relationship, which is taboo enough. But it was also hinted that Ultimate Wolverine might have been their real father, and he actually watched them make love in the jungle. Yuck.
14. Karen Page Becomes A Heroin Junkie And Stars In Adult Films
In 1986, maverick comic book writer/artist Frank Miller was convinced to return to write Daredevil, the title he had taken from the brink of cancellation to the top of the sales charts in the early 1980s. Miller re-teamed with his Batman: Year One collaborator David Mazzucchelli and they created ‘Born Again’, a story in which The Kingpin drives Matt Murdock/Daredevil to the brink of insanity and destitution. It’s a heavy read, folks, but a damn good one.
Unfortunately for Karen Page, Nelson & Murdock’s former secretary and Matt’s former lover, her character took quite a hit in this story. Karen had left Nelson & Murdock’s law offices years previously to pursue a career in acting, but this story revealed she had become a heroin addict and was reduced to starring in pornographic films in Mexico.
She was so broken and desperate for a fix that she ended up selling the information that Matt Murdock is Daredevil for a hit of heroin. This information was then sold up the line until it reached Kingpin. For fans to see a character stripped bare so much was deeply uncomfortable, but it did make for a compelling read.
13. Hawkeye Murders Bruce Banner/Hulk
Unless you were living under a rock in 2016, you probably saw Captain America: Civil War. The story for that film was very loosely inspired by Civil War, a Marvel Comics event from 2006. And in the hopes of tying in with the movie, Marvel put together Civil War II. To say it wasn’t well-received by fans would be an understatement. In fact, this was one of the most hated comic book events in many a year.
Why was the story disliked so much, though? Well, things like Hawkeye shooting an arrow straight into the brain of Bruce Banner didn’t help, that’s for sure.
The story revolved around Ulysses, an Inhuman who had terrible visions of the future. In one, he saw The Hulk killing The Avengers. Naturally, they’re nervous about this, and confront Banner. In the middle of a conversation, in which the characters were trying to work something out, Hawkeye simply shoots Banner dead, before revealing that Banner had approached him months earlier to make him promise that he would kill him if he ever lost control of The Hulk. Regardless of this reasoning, fans hit the roof, deeply upset at one beloved hero murdering another.
12. The Blob Partially Cannibalizes The Wasp’s Body
Earlier, we detailed Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s uncomfortably close relationship in the Ultimate Marvel universe. Well, in Ultimates 3, Pietro and Wanda both died, and it led to their father Magneto going off the deep end and trying to destroy the world in Ultimatum, a miniseries that was designed by Marvel as a method of culling the extensive mass of characters that had accumulated in the universe in nearly 10 years of publication. And cull them they most certainly did.
Ultimatum is widely regarded as one of the most violent and excessively gory mainstream superhero comics ever published. The sheer level of death and destruction presented within its five issues was enough to make any fan’s head spin. Doctor Doom’s head was crushed by The Thing, while Dr. Strange’s head exploded entirely. Cyclops decapitated Magneto, and was then shot in the head by Quicksilver.
11. Iron Man Becomes The Villain
The original Civil War storyline was an incredibly successful miniseries that had wide-ranging repercussions on the Marvel Universe. And sold by the bucketload. Written by Mark Millar (Kick-Ass, Kingsman) and drawn by the wonderful Steve McNiven, the story excited and outraged fans in equal measure.
We think that the most uncomfortable thing about the story was that it ultimately set up Tony Stark/Iron Man as the villain of the piece. Tony was staunch in his belief that all heroes should register and act under official government regulation, whereas Steve Rogers/Captain America believed it was an affront to their civil liberties.
This ideological difference is compelling, but as the story developed, Tony and those on his side like Mr. Fantastic and Ms. Marvel began acting increasingly authoritarian. To some fans, Tony simply wasn’t acting like a hero any more, and this was compounded when, at the end of the story, Steve Rogers was assassinated after he surrendered and was being taken to prison. This led to the heartbreaking one-shot Civil War: The Confession. Here, Tony confessed to Steve’s lifeless body that if the cost of the war was the death of his friend, then none of it was worth it.
10. Was Ms. Marvel Raped By Marcus Immortus?
Avengers #200, is a comic book that was so misjudged that it prompted comic book historian Carol A. Strickland to pen an essay entitled ‘The Rape Of Ms. Marvel’. But what happened in those 22 pages to illicit such a reaction? Well, this is where it gets complicated. And uncomfortable.
In the story, Ms. Marvel/Carol Danvers is kidnapped by Marcus Immortus and taken to an alternate dimension. There, she is brainwashed, seduced and impregnated by Marcus. She went on to give birth to the child, but he rapidly grew up… into another version of Marcus. Wait. What?! Carol then goes back to the alternate dimension with her son/lover, claiming to have felt something between them. And this is completely unopposed by The Avengers.
Strickland believed that this was rape, just given a different name, and that Marvel presented Carol as a victim who enjoyed the process and even swooned over her rapist. It’s easy to see why this story angered a large number of fans, and former writer Chris Claremont even apologized for its inappropriateness. He later ‘undid’ this story a year later, an example of comic book ‘retconning’ (i.e. retroactively changing continuity).
9. Cyclops Kills Professor Xavier
If you were to ask anyone who has seen the X-Men movies who Cyclops is, they would likely reply with something like: “He’s the boring guy whose girlfriend loves Wolverine. Oh, and he shoots lasers from his eyes.”
However, Cyclops’ comic book counterpart started to shirk that perception in the early 2000s. First he psychically cheated on his wife with Emma Frost. Then he formed X-Force, which was basically his mutant kill-squad designed to do the dirty missions the X-Men couldn’t. He had a spectacular falling out with Wolverine, leading to him setting up shop with a host of mutants on the island of Utopia. You see, Cyclops didn’t really believe in Charles Xavier’s ideal of peaceful co-existence of mutants and humans anymore.
It all built to Avengers vs. X-Men, which saw a Phoenix-force possessed Cyclops murdering Charles, his mentor and father-figure since his teenage years. If Marvel’s intention was to make Cyclops less boring, well, they succeeded. But it unsettled many fans as Scott was now so far removed from the character they had known before.
8. Norman Osborn Slept With And Impregnated Gwen Stacy, Before Killing Her
When it comes to ill-advised storylines, ‘Sins Past’ takes some beating. Fans always knew Gwen Stacy as Peter Parker’s girlfriend before Mary Jane Watson, the one that was murdered by the Green Goblin when he threw her off The George Washington Bridge in 1973. Gwen wasn’t feisty and sexy like Mary Jane; she was just a genuinely nice person, who Peter had great affection for.
But in ‘Sins Past’, writer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) revealed that Gwen had an illicit one night stand with Norman Osborn (aka The Green Goblin). She became pregnant with twins named Gabriel and Sarah, who she gave birth to in France. She vowed Peter would be their father and denied Norman access, and this is why he killed her. He then raised the twins himself.
If this all sounds bafflingly judged, it’s because it was. Even Straczynski thought so, as he has said his original intention was for Peter to be the father but editorial felt having two adult children would age Peter too much. So they made the upsetting decision for it to be Norman, Peter’s greatest nemesis. Bad move, Marvel. Bad move.
7. Sue Storm Suffers A Miscarriage
Superhero comics started to change throughout the 1970s, dealing with more adult themes and real-life topics in all the colourful superheroics. This was due to their core fanbase growing up. This carried over and continued to evolve in the 1980s. In Fantastic Four #267-268, Sue Storm and Reed Richards suffered through one of the worst things a couple can go through in real life; Sue miscarried their second child.
Even today, this subject matter would be alarming to see in a superhero comic and would have to be handled with care and written with dignity and respect. But in 1984, this was unheard of. When read today, the comics themselves come across as slightly muddled, lurching uncomfortably from true to life, heartbreaking drama, to cheesy superheroics with very little grace. But it’s still an important piece of comic book history, and credit has to be given to Marvel and writer/artist John Byrne for tackling such a serious issue.
6. Hank Pym Hits Wife Janet Van Dyne
Hey, it’s the Ultimate universe again! Boy, this imprint really made for some uncomfortable reading from time to time.
Domestic abuse is, obviously, a disgusting thing that unfortunately occurs a lot in this world. It has cast an uncomfortable shadow over the characters of Hank Pym (aka Ant-Man) and his wife Janet Van Dyne (aka The Wasp). In the regular Marvel universe, Pym hit Janet once, a backhanded slap that forever changed his character in the eyes of fans. Writer Jim Shooter said he intended for the scene to feature Pym striking Janet by accident, but artist Bob Hall inadvertently turned it into more of a deliberate move.
Now, in the Ultimate universe, Hank Pym was also a domestic abuser. But this time it was no accident. In The Ultimates #6, Pym hit Janet, who shrunk to a tiny size to escape him. He then sprayed her with RAID, telepathically calling his ants to attack her. She was eventually found and hospitalized. An appalled Captain America then tracked Pym down and beat the holy hell out of him. Don’t expect to see Chris Evans and Michael Douglas re-enacting this story in the MCU movie anytime soon.
5. Spider-Man’s Radioactive Sperm Gave Mary Jane Cancer
Spider-Man: Reign, written and beautifully illustrated by Kaare Andrews, is inspired heavily by Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns. Set 30 years in the future, it features a retired Spider-Man who returns to combat the injustices of a vastly different New York City. It’s basically an alternate universe ‘What If?’ story, proposing the darkest possible future for Peter Parker. It’s a suitably grim and compelling read, and features one particular moment that made fans squirm with discomfort.
This Peter Parker is a lonely senior citizen, working as a florist and living alone in a small apartment. He suffers hallucinations of his late wife Mary Jane Watson, who died after contracting cancer from Peter’s radioactive bodily fluids exchanged during intercourse.
This revelation is utterly devastating in the comic, and a tremendously power piece of comic book storytelling. To apply such crushing reality to superheroes is always a risky move, and it definitely turned some fans off. They thought it was distasteful and too dark even for a grim n’ gritty future story. But we felt this level of discomfort worked for the story. Andrews wanted readers to feel uncomfortable, and we felt it heightened the drama tenfold.
4. Peter Parker Saves Aunt May But Erases His Life With Mary Jane
Now, this one’s a doozy. We hesitate to use the word ‘controversial’ again, but the Spider-Man story ‘One More Day’ certainly fits the bill!
Beginning by showing Peter Parker’s beloved Aunt May slowly dying from a gunshot wound, Spider-Man was desperate to save her life. He encountered the demon Mephisto (for all intents and purposes, the Marvel Universe version of the Devil), who offered to save May, on one condition: he would erase Peter and Mary Jane’s entire marriage. The couple shockingly agreed.
This whole thing was basically a way for Marvel to reset Spider-Man somewhat. Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada felt dissolving the marriage and returning Spider-Man to his roots was essential for preserving the longevity of the character. Quesada felt so passionately about this that he returned to his own roots for the story, providing the artwork. However, he and writer J. Michael Straczynski (again) disagreed over the direction of the story. JMS wanted his name taken off the last two issues, but Quesada was able to talk him out of this decision.
3. Captain America Is Revealed As A Hydra Agent
These two little words sent the internet into a feeding frenzy in May 2016. In Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, writer Nick Spencer gave readers the ultimate twist ending: Cap had been a Hydra agent all along.
Readers were not happy. Social media went nuts, with Spencer receiving constant abuse and even death threats from a fanbase that felt betrayed. Cap is meant to be the idealistic ultimate representation of America, and many felt this was like saying he’d been a Nazi all along. Spencer and Marvel editor Tom Breevort’s public reaction to the outcry was also questionable, as it seemed like they were fanning the flames in order to get more publicity and refusing to acknowledge how seriously hurt the fanbase was.
Naturally, all was not as it seemed, and Spencer soon revealed that Steve had false memories implanted into his head by the villainous Kobik. So he hasn’t always been a Hydra double agent… he just thinks he has. Regardless, this positioning of Steve as an undercover villain of the Marvel Universe is not exactly one fans have been embracing, and we fully expect to see things returned to normal soon enough.
2. Ms. Marvel Punches A Hole In Iron Man’s Chest
Writer Brian Michael Bendis, an esteemed scribe responsible for many of the best Marvel comics of the 2000s, has been accused of dropping the ball with this one. Fans couldn’t help feeling like both Iron Man and Captain Marvel were written in an extremely out-of-character way for the entire story. The reasons for their war were just never as compelling as the Superhuman Registration Act in the original Civil War, and the series padded out its story for eight long issues, when it really could have been finished much quicker.
The story ends with the two heroes fighting to the bitter end. Ms. Marvel damages Iron Man’s suit of armour so much that he winds up in a coma, and no one learns anything about the error of their ways. No personal growth. No reflection. Just one hero punching a hole in another hero’s chest.
1. Peter Parker Is Revealed To Be A Clone And Is Replaced By Ben Reilly
The Clone Saga, which ran from 1994 to 1996 across the entire range of Spider-Man titles, is easily one of the most controversial comic book storylines ever.
Regardless of whether you love or hate it, it will definitely provoke a reaction in any Spider-fan who was reading at the time. After all, this was the story that introduced Ben Reilly, Peter Parker’s clone, but then pulled the rug out from under everyone by saying that Peter was the clone, not Ben. Yes, the Peter Parker fans had held in their hearts for over 30 years was then pushed aside and replaced by Ben Reilly, who Marvel editors were intent on forging ahead with as the real Spider-Man.
Naturally, this went over terribly with fans and even with some of the creators. Sensational Spider-Man writer Dan Jurgens disliked the story so much that he wrote a memo to Marvel editorial proposing a way to return everything to the status quo again. However, due to editorial interference and a reticence to settle on a direction to go in, Jurgens left Marvel in frustration.