It is a universal truth that whatever art form that is ever created, someone will adapt it for “scandalous” purposes soon enough, and comic books have certainly been no exception. During the early 20th century, black market X-rated comic books called “Tijuana Bibles” were prolific and the world of pornographic comic books has never ceased since, they’ve just become more and more acceptable (especially comic book erotica, like Colleen Coover’s excellent “Small Favors”).
However, when sexualized works of comic book art get mainstream attention, that’s when you see the scandals occur, and they have been occurring more and more on a regular basis. Here, we will take a look at some sexualized comic book works that caused quite the blowback over the years.
15. ELEKTRA COMPLEX
Chuck Austen’s comic book career began in an unusual place, as one of his earliest assignments was drawing Alan Moore’s “Miracleman” for Eclipse Comics. Around that same time, Austen wrote and drew the acclaimed erotic comic book series, “Strips.” He worked on various other series throughout the 1990s, but he flew under the radar a bit. That changed when he came to Marvel in the early 21st Century, working on a “War Machine” series before getting tapped to be the artist on Brian Michael Bendis’ much-anticipated “Elektra” series in 2001.
The series saw controversy early on when issue #3 was actually recalled by Marvel due to accidental nudity in the issue. The nudity in question, though, was ridiculously minor. Do you see the above image? That’s the corrected edition, but the “nude” version is literally the same above image without the underwear added. We’re seriously just talking about the fact that her back and her thigh were exposed… that’s it. However, that was enough for Marvel to pay the price of recalling an entire issue, pulping it and reprinting it.
14. THE WRONG KIND OF POWERPUFF
An interesting trend in comics over the past decade is the proliferation of variant covers. Variant covers have been around for more than 20 years now, but in the current decade, it has gone to a different level that we have never seen before, with most independent comic book companies putting out three to four covers for every comic that they produce. There is nothing wrong with that, but what it generally means is that there are more opportunities for particularly niche variants, because there are already so many variants for each issue.
That niche approach caused controversy in 2014 when Cartoon Network hired artist Mimi Yoon to do a variant cover for “Powerpuff Girls” #6 showing older versions of the Powerpuff Girls. After seeing a preview for the cover, a comic book retailer complained that it was an inappropriate sexualization of little girl characters and Cartoon Network agreed to pull it.
13. ARMORED AND DANGEROUS
Beyond just typical variant covers, an even more recent trends with comic book series is the creation of special variants for comic books that are only made for certain retailers who ordered a certain set amount of copies of the comic book. Like, say, if you order 5,000 copies of “Amazing Spider-Man” #1, you would become eligible to have your own one-of-a-kind retailer variant for that issue. These variants are often drawn by the most popular comic book artists, the ones who specialize just in drawing covers, like J. Scott Campbell.
Campbell, in particular, had established a relationship with the large New York City comic book store chain, Midtown Comics, doing a number of covers for them. Campbell was then hired to do a retailer variant for “Invincible Iron Man” #1, the debut of teenager Riri Williams as the new lead character of the series (going by the superhero name Ironheart). Campbell did not have a lot of design references to go by, but he did his own particular take on the character. However, his take was found by some to be overly sexualized for a teenage hero. Ultimately, Marvel had the variant pulled.
12. THE WRONG KIND OF PALS AND GALS
After working for Atlas Comics for many years (even creating a newspaper comic strip with Timely/Atlas Editor-in-Chief, Stan Lee), Dan DeCarlo found himself at a crossroads. He was the top teen humor artist in comics, but as the 1950s came to a close, Atlas’ sales were down and he had to look to Archie Comics, the king of teen humor, for freelance work. However, he was sick of how they insisted on everyone there drawing like Bob Montana, the original artist on the “Archie” feature. Finally, they were able to woo him full-time to Archie by promising to let him draw however he’d like. Soon, then, it wad DeCarlo’s art that became the new “house style” for Archie, with many of their artists still basically drawing like him to this very day.
In 1980, though, that familiar art style was now used on a pornographic comic called “Cherry Poptart,” by Larry Welz, who decided to do a porn parody series of “Archie” starring his buxom heroine (who he had to eventually call just “Cherry” because of the whole “Poptart being a trademark” thing). Due to its similarity in style to “Archie” comics, “Cherry Poptart” drew attention unlike most porn comics.
11. TORCHY TROUBLE
Like many comic book artists of his generation, Bill Ward ended up in the military during World War II. While stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, Ward created a comic strip for the base newspaper about a ditzy blonde named Torchy. It was very popular and was soon reprinted in military newspapers around the world. Comic strips were big sources of distraction for the troops at the time, and “Torchy” was right up there with the British comic strip, “Jane,” by Norman Pett, which thrilled soldiers with her scantily clad adventures (the great Milton Caniff launched a “free for the military” strip called “Male Call,” starring a sexy character named Lace, that was also designed to appeal to the similar audience).
After the war, Ward was hired by Quality Comics to make a new “Torchy” feature. It proved popular enough to get its own series in late 1949. However, Torchy was considered too risque for the time (The feature, “Jane,” for instance, couldn’t become syndicated in the States because of all of the nudity) and ultimately Quality dropped it to appease protesters. They let Ward keep the character, and he used Torchy a lot over the next few decades until he died in 1998.
10. GOOD GIRL ARTISTS GONE BAD
One of the most underrated superstar artists in the history of comics was also one of its most historic, as Matt Baker was the first known African-American illustrator to become a successful comic book artist. Baker, like Ward, was an expert in “good girl” art, which is basically another term for “pin-up girl” art. Pin-up girls were very popular in the 1940s, especially during World War II when photos of pin-up girls like Bettie Page were present in the foot lockers of most soldiers in the war.
In 1947, Matt Baker re-designed the superhero Phantom Lady, and his risque covers became very popular, but also very big targets for criticism, with the one we have featured here specifically used by Fredric Wertham in his book, “Seduction of the Innocent.” And that was with the general public not even knowing that Baker was black! When “Good girl” art was shamed out of existence, Baker hung around before dying in 1958 from a heart attack. He has retroactively received many plaudits, including being a member of the Eisner Award Hall of Fame.
9. REVEALING A PROBLEM
As we noted earlier, there are certain artists who are best known for their cover work, as their particular art style makes it difficult for them to maintain regular deadlines for the 20 pages they would have to draw in a month for a regular comic book series. Frank Cho does a lot more interior work than most artists in this category, but still, he is mostly known for his covers at this point.
When DC relaunched “Wonder Woman” as part of its companywide “DC Rebirth” relaunch, Cho was hired by DC’s legendary senior art director, Mark Chiarello, one of the greatest talent evaluators and innovators in the comic book industry, to do variant covers for “Wonder Woman.” However, what Cho (and presumably Chiarello) did not know was that the writer of the series, Greg Rucka, had a deal that when he signed on to the series, he would have final say over all covers for it, and that was invoked to edit a Cho cover to remove a shot of Wonder Woman’s underwear. Cho quit the series in response.
8. SLIME TIME
As we have noted, very often the covers of comic books are drawn by different artists than the ones who drew the interiors of the comic, and as a result, sometimes you run into problems when the cover artist takes a surprising, sometimes controversial approach. That was the situation that Marvel higher-ups found themselves in with their comic book series, “Heroes for Hire,” which starred Misty Knight, Colleen Wing, Black Cat and some other heroes (like the mercenary Paladin).
The 13th issue of the series was a crossover with the “World War Hulk” event, where Hulk attacked Earth with the support of an army of aliens, one of whom fought the Heroes for Hire. The cover of the issue, though, by Japanese artist Sana Takeda, showed Misty, Colleen and Black Cat surrounded by a tentacle monster, and the tentacles were oozing clear goo, with one of the tentacles dripping close to Black Cat’s mouth. While it was likely not Takeda’s intent with her cover, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada conceded that people could legitimately draw parallels to “tentacle porn,” an infamous subset of anime in Japan, where women are basically sexually assaulted by… well, tentacle monsters. Marvel still published the cover.
7. COVERING THEIR ASS
In Europe, comic book erotica is a lot more acceptable than in the United States, and as a result, there is a bit of a disconnect when American comic book companies hire artists from Europe, who are well-known for their erotic artwork and then are shocked — shocked we say — to see these artists draw in a similar fashion to their European work. This was the issue at hand with the controversy to the cover of “Catwoman” #0, where Spanish artist Guillem March drew a contorted Catwoman in such a way that the cover could spotlight both her breasts and her butt.
If you look at March’s past work, it is clear that he is a fan of drawing the female form, and he has done many “pin-up girl” style drawings. He had already been drawing “Catwoman” for a year at this point, including some rather provocative drawings, so it likely should not have been much of a surprise at what he came up with. The outcry, though, led to DC commissioning a new cover for the issue by March.
6. THE BUTT OF A JOKE
All throughout his comic book career, Frank Cho has been known for his drawings of the female form. He likes to draw buxom women with a lot of curves. Cho also likes to make fun of the controversy surrounding both his work and the work of others. The way that Cho does this is by doing sketch commissions on the blank covers that Marvel and DC do as variant covers for a lot of their books.
These sketch covers have Cho drawing various characters in an infamous pose (that you will see later on in the list), from Black Cat to Spider-Woman to Darth Vader! When Cho did the same with Spider-Gwen, though, who is a teenage hero, it drew a lot of outrage from people (including Robbi Rodriguez, the artist on “Spider-Gwen”). Cho just rolled with it, though, and began to add a little drawing of Spider-Gwen on these sketch covers with her shouting “Outrage!” at whatever Cho came up with this time.
5. THE MOST MAGICAL PLACE ON EARTH
One of the greatest comic book artists that ever lived, Wallace Wood never quite hit it big, financially, as a comic book artist. Instead, he just did lots and lots of assignments wherever he could get them. One of the strangest assignments he worked on was for Paul Krassner’s independent magazine, “The Realist,” which was a sort of “grown-up” version of “Mad” magazine (Wood had been one of the original contributors for “Mad”).
After Walt Disney died in 1966, Krassner had the idea for a double-page spread of the Disney characters cutting loose now that their creator was gone. Wood drew the big “orgy,” which was published in 1967. It was honestly relatively tame for this sort of thing (although obviously we’ve shown here one of the least offensive parts of the drawing), but for the time, it was a sensation. The Walt Disney Company decided not to sue because they felt it would just draw more attention to the piece. The black and white piece then just got pirated for years, so Wood never made anything off of it (outside of his original payment). Disney did sue a company that tried to colorize it and sell it as a black light poster, though.
4. WOMAN OF KLEENEX
For decades from the late 1950s through the mid-1900s, Curt Swan drew “Superman” comic books every month. His career as a “Superman” artist came to an abrupt halt in the late 1980s, however, after the “Superman” line of titles was rebooted. DC made sure to give Swan some assignments right away, with Byrne, in particular, not wanting to put Swan out of work (so Byrne had Swan do some projects with him). However, after Byrne left DC, Swan’s projects began to dry up as he entered his 70s.
Therefore, that places into context why he took an assignment in 1995 from “Penthouse Comix,” where he drew panels to go along with a reprinting of a 1971 essay by acclaimed science fiction author, Larry Niven, called “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” which discussed the problems that would come with having sex with an alien like Superman. So seeing the classic Superman artist, Curt Swan, drawing Superman having sex with Lois Lane was seriously disturbing, but who could blame the guy? They were giving him actual work! He drew one last set of drawings for the marriage of Superman and Lois Lane before passing away in 1996.
3. TOO MUCH FOR ALABAMA TO HANDLE
In 2001, Marvel launched a new line of comics called “Max Comics,” which were basically R-rated comic books. The highlight of the series launch was Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ “Alias,” which starred former superhero turned private detective, Jessica Jones. In the first issue, Jones is at a low point in her life. She is so depressed that she can’t seem to feel anything. So she has sex with Luke Cage and has him do things in bed that are designed to make her feel something, even if it was pain or humility.
When the issue was set to be released, though, Alabama’s American Color Graphics, a printing company used by Marvel, refused to print the comic because of the contents of the issue. It is unclear whether it was the sex period, the interracial aspect of the sex or the implied sodomy (Alabama was one of the few states that actually had laws against sodomy still in 2001). Whatever the reason, Marvel had to find another printer. Decades later, a version of that scene ended up in Netflix’s “Jessica Jones,” which is kind of amazing when you think about it.
2. THE CONTROVERSIAL CROUCH
In many ways, the culmination of what we’ve been discussing regarding comic book variant covers and the use of European comic book artists best known for their erotic artwork was Milo Minara’s variant cover for “Spider-Woman” #1 in 2014. The cover (which was available to comic book stores for every 50 copies they ordered of the regular cover) depicted Spider-Woman crouching in an especially unrealistic pose…
The superstar Italian artist Manara had been drawing characters in poses like this since his career began in the late 1960s. He had even been doing other variant covers for Marvel for a few years at that point, but for whatever reason, this particular cover touched a real nerve. Marvel’s Senior Vice-President of Publishing, Tom Brevoort, acknowledged “I think that the people who are upset about that cover have a point, at least in how the image relates to them” (Brevoort then pointed out, though, that this was par for the course for Manara covers). It was this pose that Cho later used on all of those sketch covers that we mentioned before.
1. A SUPER NIGHT OF HORRORS
One of the most scandalous comic book-related controversies ever was the pamphlet series, “Nights of Horror,” which was released in 1954. The series featured a number of examples of fetish sexual stuff, like bondage, torture and other BDSM stuff. What made it particularly weird is that guess who drew the series? None other than Superman co-creator, Joe Shuster, whose comic book career had been in trouble after he and Jerry Siegel were fired by DC Comics for trying to get the rights to Superman back (and their follow-up character, Funnyman, was a bomb).
While Shuster’s involvement is shocking, it wasn’t known at the time. Back then, the comic became a major source of controversy due to a group of teenagers in New York City who went on a spree torturing and killing people. Known as the “Brooklyn Thrill Killers,” one of the young killers admitted to reading and enjoying “Nights of Horror.” Psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham interviewed the killer and used it as part of his whole “Comics make kids evil” routine. The comic was banned by the state of New York and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which allowed the ban to remain in place!
What do you think is the most scandalous comic book art that you’ve ever seen? Let us know in the comments section!