Ever since comic books first came to be, some writers and artists have sought to use the medium as a vehicle to get across messages draped in social commentary. Others have used comics to shock, surprise, or to just flat-out disgust. And then there are those comics that existed and still exist merely to make you feel better about the world, and that there really are good people out there looking to do good things to make the world a better place.
In amongst the history of the comic book itself, though, are a whole bunch of stories and images that couldn’t help but stir up controversy amongst the masses upon them being placed on the shelves of your local comic book store. Some of this controversy was aimed for, some of it was stumbled over, and other parts were simply too ahead of their time for people to fully comprehend. Be it as propaganda tools or honest-to-goodness depictions of the time, the cover of a comic book can be a powerful tool when used to its full capacity.
So, with that said, here’s 15 of the most notorious, controversial, and shocking comic book covers of all time. Sure, one or two of them may seem timid by today’s standards, but that’s not to say that they didn’t cause uproar when they were first released. Similarly, some of those innocently released decades prior have caused controversy and surprise to those viewing them with modern eyes.
Take a look for yourself and see if these infamous comic book covers really were worth the hype surrounding them.
15 Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #106
Really, is much explanation needed here? Just look at the cover above.
To give a little background to this issue of the Superman spin-off title, investigative journalist Lois Lane wanted to see what life was like for a black person living in Little Africa, aka the slums of Metropolis. Upon arriving in Little Africa, nobody wants to speak to the woman who quickly gets labelled “Whitey”. Undeterred, Lois decides to use Superman’s Plastimold machine in order to turn herself black for a day. Yes, this really did happen.
Once the black Lois Lane, complete with an afro, turns up in Little Africa, she’s welcomed by the locals and gets to dig deep into the story she’s planning to write. Unfortunately, now she’s ignored by some white folk under her new appearance.
You can see what DC were trying to do here as they attempted to address the racism and racial tension of the time, but the cover art and story were about as subtle as a kick to the face.
14 World’s Finest #14
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
Many a comment has been made over the years of Batman’s relationship with his ward, Dick Grayson/Robin, and things like the cover art to 1941’s World’s Finest #14 don’t help.
Of course, during the ‘40s such a cover didn’t raise an eyebrow, for this was a more innocent time where two fully-grown adults could go swimming with a group of scantily-clad boys without having to worry about how wrong this situation may be viewed. Looking at this through a 2016 lens, though, gives a whole different reaction.
Such a cover these days would have so many people up in arms due to a whole load of sexualization being lavished over the events that appear to be at hand. After all, what we’re looking at is simply two men in superhero outfits, casually ogling a group of young boys who just so happen to have barely, if any, clothes on…
13 X-Statix #15
This one is a comic book cover that left many perplexed, particularly those who call Great Britain home.
In fairness, the whole X-Statix title was a little bit ‘out there’, to say the least. Designed as a parody of sorts of the X-Men, the team were known for featuring a bunch of oddball characters and bizarre imagery. And then came X-Statix #15, which featured a mutant version of Diana, Princess of Wales on its cover.
Yes, the same Diana who tragically passed away in 1997 following a car crash partially caused by a high-speed paparazzi chase.
To many, Diana still remains a figure of hope, sincerity and positivity in the world, and placing her on the front cover of a comic book 6 years after her death was odd, controversial, shocking, and arguably in extremely bad taste. With covers like this, you just really have to question what the powers that be were thinking.
12 Life With Archie #36
With 2014’s Life with Archie #36, the huge decision was made to kill off Archie Andrews.
Whilst he may not be quite as mainstream in popularity as some of Marvel or DC’s biggest hitters, Archie had built up a huge fanbase since first debuting way back in 1941. With issues such as gun laws and the LGBT community being addressed during this particular time in Life with Archie’s run, poor Archie would actually die after he literally took a bullet for his openly gay pal Senator Kevin Keller.
This was a monumental moment to so many, with the death of Archie Andrews being the perfect way to reflect the death of innocence that has long since been lost to a world of hate, bigotry, and anger.
Of course, the younger Archie was still alive and well in other comic book titles, and more recent days have seen him share bizarre crossovers with the likes of Predator, the Glee cast, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
11 The Amazing Spider-Man #422
For anyone even vaguely familiar with Spider-Man’s gallery of villains, you’ll know that Electro is a rogue who can control, manipulate and generate electricity. With The Amazing Spider-Man #422’s cover, though, we saw the brutal realisation of Electro attempting to regain his powers after temporarily losing them.
As such, Max Dillon straps himself to an electric chair and gets shocked to death. Yes, the cover here was essentially depicting capital punishment at its finest as Max risks death via electric chair in order to hopefully get his former powers back.
Of course, this whole scheme would work and Electro would return as a more powerful force than ever before. Still, that didn’t mean that the cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #422 wasn’t a true, err, shocker of its time, with the image of Max Dillon being electrocuted to death an image that stayed with many a reader long after this issue left shelves.
10 Superman #75
When you talk about monumental moments in comic book history, the death of Superman is one of the biggest standout stories.
You have to keep in mind, this was a point in time where comic book characters were rarely killed off, and when they were, they stayed dead. This was before the days of characters dying and instantly coming back from the dead, or the modern days where comic book deaths essentially mean nothing.
At the time, nobody thought that Superman would ever be killed off, but DC went and did just that. In The Death of Superman arc, the monstrous Doomsday debuted and fought to the death with the Man of Steel. With Superman seemingly as dead as dead can be, the comic book world was thrown into a state of disarray, and key to this was the iconic, shocking cover for Superman #75.
Of course, Superman would indeed return from the dead – well, he’d be revealed to actually have been in a deep Kryptonian sleep rather than having died – eventually, which in turn started the trend of characters not remaining dead, and death itself being redundant and a non-issue in comic book lore.
9 Spider-Woman #1
In terms of modern times, one comic book cover that caused major uproar and controversy was Marvel’s Spider-Woman #1. This 2014 variant cover from Mila Manara for the relaunched Spider-Woman title was hugely criticized for its erotic style and the sexual nature in which it portrayed Jessica Drew.
The problem here, however, is that Marvel Comics totally knew what they were getting into with Manara – a talent best known for work that falls into the genre of erotica – and the company defended their choice of artist for the sexually-charged variant cover by saying that fans should have been expecting such a cover from the moment Manara was handed the gig.
What was most headscratching here was that this came at a time when Marvel was trying to do its best to appeal to female readers, with characters like Spider-Woman and Captain Marvel being positioned as main players. And what better way to make female readers feel as if you’re taking female characters seriously than by having one of Marvel’s key women posing with her curvy behind on display? Urgh.
8 Captain America #1
Does it really get any more attention-grabbing than having your hero cracking Adolf Hitler across the face, especially in 1941 during the on-going World War II?
That’s exactly what Timely Comics (later to be known as Marvel Comics) did when they introduced Captain America to the world. And what better way to introduce a hero at that time than to have him laying the smackdown on one of the most notorious villains ever known to man.
Bringing in Cap in this way was a masterstroke, with the character used as a patriotic tool to champion the cause of the US and its allies in the battle against Nazi Germany. Sure, the Sentinel of Liberty has been used as a propaganda tool at times to some quarters, too, but he’s been streamlined over the decades to become a sign of hope, ambition, honesty, and simply doing the right thing and making the hard decisions.
With Captain America #1, the Star-Spangled Avenger was introduced in a major, controversial and impressive way.
7 Astonishing X-Men #51
What makes Astonishing X-Men #51 so memorable is that the issue featured the first ever gay marriage in Marvel Comics’ history.
At that point in time, Marvel had already featured gay characters at times, but this was the first time that they’d tackle the topic of gay marriage; something which was and still is making headlines in the US depending on which state you live in.
The couple at the centre of this controversy were Northstar and Kyle Jinadu, and the pair got hitched in New York City in front of a whole boatload of familiar X-faces. With some US states then and now still refusing to acknowledge gay marriage, Marvel made the bold move to show support for the gay community. After all, the whole creation of the X-Men back in 1963 was done in order to show how everybody is different and unique, and that we should all be treated as equals regardless of our backgrounds, cultures or beliefs.
6 Iron Man #128
As seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark is a man who likes to have a nice tipple now and again, usually some sort of fine, expensive, rare scotch. But whilst Robert Downey Jr.’s Stark is positioned as a largely loveable character who just so happens to have the occasional alcoholic beverage, the comic book Tony Stark has had some far more severe issues with alcohol.
This was never exemplified better than with 1979’s Iron Man #128, which was part of the iconic Demon in a Bottle story arc.
After several teases and blips, this story finally saw Tony Stark hit the bottle in a way that was shocking, striking, and something never before seen in major comic book lore. Stark had been chugging on the booze to such an extent that he’d lose control of Stark International, not to mention wrack up a whole load of other problems.
5 Crime SuspenStories #22
This particular comic book title may be one that has passed some casual comic book fans by, but E.C. Comics’ Crime SuspenStories #22 features a comic book cover that has gone down as one of the most infamous and shocking of all-time.
Sure, these days we’ve all seen far worse, and the cover itself isn’t particularly offensive, graphic or shocking. But back when this book was released in the early 1950s, the world was a very different place and there was absolute outrage over the fact that the cover featured a severed head and a bloody axe.
So controversial was this cover, it was actual used as evidence in a court case intended to highlight the moral decay of America’s youth by the Senate Committee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Sadly, court cases like this and the bad press they brought helped to bring sales of horror comics to a crashing holt, and it could be argued that they’ve never recovered since then.
4 Ultimates #8
Two people casually embracing, right? Not quite…
The controversy here is that the duo pictured are Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who just so happen to be brother and sister. Now a brother and sister combo on the cover of a comic book is far from controversial, but the shocking part of the “Ultimate” Marvel world’s take on Pietro and Wanda is that they were actually involved in an incestuous relationship.
The fact that Marvel chose to have a brother and sister romantically involved with one another is one of the more shocking, controversial plot points in modern comic book history, and everything you needed to know about this jaw-dropping relationship was perfectly encapsulated on the cover of Ultimates #8.
So controversial was this storyline and this particular cover, it almost came as a relief when Marvel finally decided to kill off their “Ultimate” Scarlet Witch and bring an end to this whole shocking relationship.
3 Lobo #1
Firstly, no, not that Lobo. The Lobo in question here is a far more controversial character than his badass, intergalactic bounty hunter namesake.
Back in 1965, the little heard of Dell Comics gave the world a new comic book title called Lobo, with its titular hero being an African-American cowboy cracking skulls and saving the day in the Wild West. At the time, this was a huge moment for comic books in general, for it was the first time that a black character adorned a comic book cover. Not only that, this was the first black comics character to not be pigeon-holed into the role of an offensive stereotype.
So controversial was this at the time, Lobo only actually managed two issues before it was cancelled. Sadly, in 1965 the world wasn’t ready to embrace an African-American hero figure. Still, this was a completely ground-breaking comic book, and it paved the way for the more diverse comic books and comic book characters there were to come in the ensuing years.
2 Adventure Comics #415
Oh, what’s that? Yes, it is indeed what it looks like.
The cover to Adventure Comics #415 is unsurprisingly one of the most shocking and controversial covers in comic book history, depicting an unconscious Supergirl being dragged by her hair to what appears to be a non-consensual marriage. And in the story itself, the Captain of the spaceship at the centre of this actually takes his own life, adding further controversy to the book.
Complete with caveman-esque ideals, this cover is still one that shocks even to this day, with themes of sexism and brutality well and truly accounted for. One thing that’s also surprising, though, is that the reaction to this book back during its release in early 1972 was relatively non-plussed.
Obviously mindsets have changed over the decades, and such a cover just wouldn’t fly today. Then again, the ‘70s was a time where views towards more gender equality were ever-expanding. Clearly nobody was all that bothered about comics at the time, though.
1 Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85
This one right here is one of the absolute most controversial, shocking and momentous covers in comic book history.
To the credit of DC Comics, this was their way of tackling the ever-growing drug issues that were dogging society back in 1971. As such, the jaw-dropping cover sees Green Arrow and Green Lantern walk in on Roy Harper, the Emerald Archer’s sidekick, in the midst of injecting drugs into his system. Yes, Roy Harper, Speedy, later to be known as Arsenal and Red Arrow, was at one point in time depicted as a drug addict.
At the time, and even still to this day, the cover of Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 is an image that can’t help but shock, regardless of how many times you’ve seen it. Tackling such a huge real-life issue was a bold move from DC, but it certainly paid off as that cover and that particular story arc became one of the most memorable of that particular moment in comic book history.
Of course, for poor Roy Harper, his problems would continue over the years, most notably losing an arm, seeing his daughter die, and even suffering from impotence.