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Real Subtle: 15 Secret Messages Hidden In Comic Book Art

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Real Subtle: 15 Secret Messages Hidden In Comic Book Art

Like many of our readers, we here at CBR love finding little Easter Eggs hidden in the pages of our favorite comic books, whether it’s a reference to another title, a dig at the competition or a meta-message to the fans. But while in-text references rarely go unnoticed, more subtle contributions to this practice by artists and pencilers don’t always get the recognition they deserve because they’re so cleverly disguised in the artwork. Some secrets can go years, even decades, without being uncovered!

RELATED: Professor Xavier’s 15 Darkest Secrets

CBR reckons it’s always better to be in the know, and that’s why we’ve collected the 15 most interesting and intriguing examples of secret messages hidden in popular comic book artwork for your viewing entertainment. Prepare to fall down the rabbit-hole, kids!

15. ALL THAT GLITTERS AIN’T GOLD

New publication “X-Men: Gold” #1, created by writer Marc Guggenheim and artist Ardian Syaf, has just received considerable backlash after fans discovered politically inflammatory messages hidden in Syaf’s artwork. In one panel, Colossus is depicted wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “QS 5:51,” referring to a passage in the Quran Surah which, in some translations, can be interpreted as saying: “Do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies… Whoever is an ally to them among you… is [one] of them.” Additionally, the numbers “212” and “51” are hidden in a group scene (on a storefront and civilian’s T-Shirt, respectively), linking this passage to political protests in Indonesia against Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama on Dec 2, 2016.

Although Syaf claims his message was one of “justice” and “love,” he couldn’t have chosen a more inappropriate comic to air his political grievances. Not only are the struggles of the mutants seen by many fans as analogous with those of marginalized minority groups around the globe (like, say, the Christian/Jewish populations of Indonesia), but the multicultural, multiracial X-Men team is now led by Jewish character Kitty Pryde and includes devout Catholic Nightcrawler. So, yeah, cooperation and unity are kind of integral to their success. Awkward!

14. SORRY SEEMS TO BE THE HARDEST WORD

Jarvis Resignation Letter in Iron Man 127

The message hidden in Bob Layton and David Michelinie’s “Iron Man” wasn’t exactly subtle given it had its own panel, but its inclusion embarrassed its creators, left many fans bewildered and raised difficult questions about how Marvel treats its staff. Intrigued? Take a look at the resignation letter Jarvis hands Tony Stark in “Iron Man” #127 after his latest drunken outburst, which cites the “disintegrating morale” of the Avengers and “unfair, malicious or vindictive treatment” he and his colleagues suffer as his main reasons for leaving his post.

But wait… how does that relate to Tony Stark’s alcoholism? The truth is, it doesn’t: the letter is the notice of resignation submitted by Dave Cockrum to Marvel, modified and inserted into the comic by an unknown employee in place of the intended material written by Layton and Michelinie. It’s still not entirely clear why someone felt the need to do this — it could have been meant to show solidarity with Cockrum, or as a joke at his expense — but it led to Michelinie issuing an apology in “Iron Man” #130 for its inclusion and some rather red faces over at Marvel HQ (as Cockrum was still a freelancer there). Oops!

13. THINKING OF YOU… AND YOU… AND YOU

Aquaman Jumbled Telepathy in Aquaman 50

Next up is a rather famous panel by artist Jim Aparo which featured in “Aquaman” Vol.1 #50 back in 1970. In this issue, Aquaman is zapped into another dimension by a bunch of aliens with weird, green bubble guns (because, y’know, bubbles can be really dangerous) and finds himself drawn to a strong telepathic signal coming from a nearby futuristic city. However, our fishy hero is unable to make sense of what he’s hearing, because it’s so “jumbled and garbled,” and he concludes that the signal must be emanating from multiple sources before swimming off to investigate.

This all seems rather straightforward, until you look more closely about the jumble of words surrounding Aquaman in this panel: they’re not random words or details related to the plot, but the surnames of just about every comic book professional Aparo could think of. His name is there, of course, as is that of the issue’s writer Steve Skeates and editor Dick Giordano. Aparo isn’t stingy with his shout-outs, though, and also gives a nod to Irv Novick, Jack Sparling, Pat Boyette, Murphy Anderson, Frank Robbins and Brian Wood, to name just a few. How many names do you recognize?

12. CAN’T SEE THE TIME FOR THE WATCH

Watch Face in Chrononauts 1

Mark Millar and Sean Gordon Murphy’s “Chrononauts” is a quirky time-travel adventure, so it’s not hard to see why its creators would want to include a time-related secret in their first issue. The weird thing about this particular Easter Egg is that most of us will never be able to see it, no matter how hard we look. See the watch on the left-hand side of the picture? To most of us, this appears to be blank apart from the cracked glass of the screen. However, about 1 in 15 people — those with a semi-rare form of synaesthesia affecting their occipital lobes — will see a purple watch face with a large green hourglass at its center.

Although Murphy subsequently claimed on Twitter that “right-brain dominant” people such as artists, writers and musicians are more likely to see the hourglass then their left-brained counterparts, this assertion is based on pseudo-science that has long since been disproven. Still, it’s a cool optical illusion, and makes those who can see it feel like they’ve got superpowers (admittedly rather limited ones, but still, the CBR team will take whatever powers it can get!).

11. THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF A CAREER

Superman and Super Baby in Superman 224

Curt Swan had a long and illustrious career before his death in 1996, but is perhaps best-known for his Superman-related artworks, spanning from “Superman” #5 back in 1948 right up to 1986 when he worked on the non-canonical “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” with the legend that is Alan Moore. However, it wasn’t commonplace in the ‘40s and ‘50s for artists to be credited as contributors, so sadly, Swan’s name rarely made it onto the cover in the early days.

Swan wasn’t deterred by this lack of appreciation, though; instead, he found a rather ingenious way of hiding his name in plain sight on the cover of “Superman” #224… in the building blocks of the Super-Baby (who’s preoccupied with making the Man of Steel spell words like “C-A-T” against his will, oh the humanity!). Upon closer inspection of the blocks, you can see they spell “SWAN” — “S” and “W” being the first and second blocks on the second row, and “A” and “N” being the third and blocks on the third row. There’s also an “R” and “T” in the fourth row, which is halfway to “Curt.” Extra points for inventiveness!

10. JIM REALLY, REALLY LOVES CARLA

I Love Carla Secret Message in Superman Unchained 3

Remember when you were back in high school and used to doodle your crush’s name all over your books? C’mon, be honest, we’ve all done it. Well, it appears that Jim Lee never really grew out of that phase; he’s head-over-heels in love with his wife Carla and isn’t afraid to tell the world. On more than one occasion, he’s slipped a secret love note into his artwork, which simply reads: “I Love Carla.” These words are usually surrounded by chaos and destruction, but hey, CBR reckons it’s still sort of romantic!

The first example of this can be found in a panel in “Justice League” #5 released back in 2012 when Lee’s wife was heavily pregnant: his message is embedded in the lines of a shattered car windscreen (in the lower corner of the panel where Batman decides to “get Superman”). A year and a half later, Lee created another love note for his wife, this time putting it on the cover of “Superman Unchained” #3 and spelling out the words “I Love Carla” in pieces of shattering chain. Who needs roses, eh?

9. SOME WORDY PYROTECHNICS

Legion Cruiser Explosion in Superboy 217

Hidden messages can serve a variety of purposes, as can be seen when considering the earlier entries on this list. They can be messages of love, have political or religious sentiments, provide important plot hints and details, or ensure artists get proper credit on the cover for all their hard work. However, the hidden message in Jim Shooter and Mike Grell’s “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes” #217 is none of the above. In fact, it doesn’t appear to serve any purpose… apart, of course, from looking awesome!

In this panel, while the Legionnaires are locked in a battle with the Khunds, Lorca attempts to steal the Legion cruiser. However, the fusion tank ignites and blows the cruiser to smithereens as a result of building pressure, meaning that Lorca actually ends up saving the heroes rather than killing them (the latter, of course, being his real goal). If you look closely, you’ll see that Grell hid the words “Holy Cow! Dig the Fireworks!” in the rays splintering off from the resulting explosion. Cool, huh?

8. SEVERAL LAYERS OF HELL

Watchmen 3 Cover Allout Helter All Hell Smoke Skull

The cover of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen” #3 is about as iconic as it gets, yet many fans missed the multi-layered sociopolitical messages hidden in its artwork. It depicts a fallout shelter — not surprising, given the threat of nuclear war is intrinsic to “Watchmen’s” plot — but the sign is cropped to read “Allout Helter” (“helter-skelter” being synonymous with confusion, disorder and chaos, though most people just associate it with the kids’ ride). This sums up the widespread state of confusion and fear that permeates the story, and foreshadows the faux-alien carnage lurking around the corner.

Additionally, the sign is obscured by smoke, which forms the shape of a screaming skull; the idea that smoking is a threat to life is contrasted in the comics with the impending doom of nuclear war, so the death imagery is pretty heavy here. If that doesn’t have you convinced, check out the letters left uncovered (“All Hel”) and volume title (“The Judge of All the Earth”) — combined, they refer to passages of Genesis, which talk about God unleashing “all hell” after judging mankind unworthy of the Earth. Yikes, pessimistic much?! Check out further analysis here if you dare!

7. SOME RUBBER JOKES ARE JUST NASTY

Hawkman Hawkgirl Tiny Titan in Hawkman 9

Like some of the other artists mentioned on this list, Murphy Anderson took pleasure in hiding his name in his artwork (like, for instance, the “URPHY” on the side of that pencil), but that’s not why Anderson and Gardner Fox’s “Hawkman” #9 made the list. Nope, there’s another little Easter Egg hidden in this panel that’s not as innocent as a simple name-drop, and it’s got nothing to do with what’s happening in the foreground.

Spotted it yet? If not, CBR recommends you take a closer look at that box of rubber bands to the right of the panel: beneath the product name, written in tiny letters, are the words “Product [of] Elongated Man.” While this reference to a fellow Justice Leaguer is a nice touch, we can’t help but wonder how the super-stretchy hero managed to produce the rubber for all these bands! Are the Justice League milking him like a cow for stationary supplies? Or are they using peeled-off bits of Elongated Man to hold their papers together? Whatever your theory, odds are it’s probably gross…

6. IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON, AND THAT ANDERSON GUY

Murphy Anderson Name in Bible in Flash 165

Well, we did say Anderson liked hiding his name in the artwork of his comics, and the cover of “Flash” #165, entitled “One Bridegroom Too Many!” and written by John Broome, contains perhaps his most inventive example of this practice to date. The cover depicts Barry Allen rushing to the altar to save Iris from marrying his evil doppelganger, who is actually Professor Zoom/Reverse-Flash with a modified face trying to steal the Flash’s life… y’know, because that could totally happen.

Understandably, most fans were too preoccupied with the WTF-ness of the plotline that they didn’t spare a second glance for that Bible on the cover. If you examine it more closely, though, you’ll notice that the stylized capital letters marking the beginning of each new paragraph spell out the name “ANDERSON.” It’s been said before that comic book writers and artists are like gods that can make and unmake their universes, but inserting your name directly into scripture is taking this idea to a whole new level!

5. MADUREIRA SWIPES BACK

Cruz Swipes Again Headline in Uncanny X-Men 325

Although they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it can also be rather annoying, especially when your copycat keeps claiming your work as his own. This was the problem faced by Joe Madureira in the mid-‘90s when his artwork kept getting swiped by fellow artist Roger Cruz. Swiping is hardly a new phenomenon — it was common practice in the ‘90s for lesser-known artists to borrow from industry leaders in order to produce large quantities of artwork on tight deadlines — but Madureira’s distinctive, manga-inspired style, combined with the limited number of comics he had produced, made his original panels much easier to identify. Check out CBR’s comparisons to see some of Cruz’s best swipes (Spoiler: they’re pretty damn blatant!).

Madureira found this artistic thievery hard to swallow so early in his career, and so he decided to call Cruz out by leaving him a hidden message in “Uncanny X-Men” #325. It’s disguised in the form of a newspaper headline that reads: “Cruz Swipes Again.” Ouch, burn! CBR likes to imagine Cruz was halfway through copying it when he noticed (yes, we know that’s unlikely, but still, very satisfying!).

4. A STYLISH SHOUT-OUT

Deadman and Rama Kushna in Strange Adventures 215

The next one’s an oldie, but definitely a goodie; it’s also a great example of how imitation can indeed be flattering in the right circumstances (swipers, take note!). When Neal Adams was working on “Strange Adventures” in 1969, it’s fair to say that fellow artist Jim Steranko was at the top of his game — he’d had a storming run over the last two years working with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on titles like “The Hulk,” “Strange Tales” and “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and was blowing everyone away with his inventive and original artwork.

In order to pay tribute to Steranko in true comic book fashion, Adams incorporated a hidden message into one of the panels of “Strange Adventures” #216 (the one where Deadman meets an irate Rama Kushna in his cave and his request to return to the outside world is granted), imitating his counterpart’s trademark style in order to convey his sentiment. If you look closely at the pinkish flames emanating from Rama, you’ll see they actually spell out the words: “Look! A Jim Steranko Effect!” — pretty cool, eh? CBR’s certainly feeling the love!

3. SEX ON EVERY PAGE!

Cyclops Jean Grey Emma Frost Sex in the Bushes in New X-Men 118

Remember when Ethan van Sciver turned the X-Men into Sex-Men (geddit?) in the pages of “New X-Men” #118? And no, we don’t mean the mutants spent the whole issue getting down and dirty — rather, the word “sex” is cleverly hidden in panels throughout the comic. But hey, it got your interest, right? And once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it… That bush sat innocuously in the background behind Emma Frost? Look between the fourth and seventh railings of the gate covering it for the word “sex” spelled out in topiary. In another panel, there’s a glowing, needle-filled cranium that literally has “sex” on the brain — it’s written into the squiggles on the right lower hemisphere. It’s in tree branches, it’s in Jean Grey’s hair, it’s literally everywhere!

So what’s the point of it all, apart from giving us all something to snigger about? Some fans argued that these subliminal messages were a nod to the villain Sublime, whereas others thought it foreshadowed Cyclops’ affair with Emma Frost. However, this was a classic case of overthinking, as van Sciver later admitted he was simply a bit irked with Marvel and wanted to cause some good ol’-fashioned mischief.

2. A MEATY BATTLE-CRY

Queen of Hell Discussing Balls in New Mutants 17

The penultimate entry on this list is CBR’s personal favorite and arguably the most comprehensive message here, given that it’s written in another language… well, kind of. In Zeb Wells’ “New Mutants” Vol.3 #17, the mutants-in-training wind up in Hell on the wrong side of its Queen and her demon army, struggling to make peace as the demons speak an unintelligible dialect. Not that verbal communication is necessary — all that weapon-waving and angry scowling speaks volumes! Plus, demon-to-demon dialogue isn’t important to the overall plot.

However, there is one instance where a demon’s speech is translated. It’s only a few sentences, but that was enough for eagle-eyed fans to spot a pattern and draw up a basic substitution cipher (where each symbol used corresponds to a letter of the alphabet). This allows these demon conversations to be translated back into English, and the results are pretty damn hilarious! In the above panel, the Queen of Hell asks a minion whether he saw “that guy’s balls,” to which he replies, “Yeah… they were weird.” In another, we get to see a warrior chick riding into battle screaming “PORK CHOP!” (maybe she’s hangry?). It’s totally bizarre and well worth a second look!

1. DING, DONG, HARRAS IS GONE

Reissued Panel of Universe X Spidey 1 and Closeup of Original Detail

Clinching the Number 1 spot is probably the most famous secret message ever hidden in a comic book. If you’re not aware of this story, then where have you been?! In Jim Krueger’s “Universe X: Spidey” #1, artist Al Milgrom made some very disparaging comments about Marvel’s former editor-in-chief, Bob Harras, and celebrated his departure with undisguised glee. His message to his former boss was hidden in a stack of books, the spines of which read: “Bob Harras, ha ha he’s gone, good riddance to bad rubbish, he was a nasty S.O.B.” Wow, Milgrom, tell us how you really feel, why don’t you?

The hidden message was spotted, but only after the comic had already been distributed to retailers as part of the First Look Scheme, landing Milgrom in serious hot water and getting him fired (at least temporarily); all issues were then recalled and reprinted without the book titles, presumably to prevent Harras from suing for libel. However, there is still a German version of the comic entitled “Universe X Special” #2 in which Milgrom’s artwork remained unchanged, so if you’re desperate to get your hands on a copy, you know where to look!

Have you spotted any secret messages in your favorite comics that aren’t mentioned on our list? Hit us up in the comments section and let that geek flag fly!

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