Let's be frank, racism and sexism were simply a whole lot more acceptable during the 1940s than they are today. We're certainly not going to try to tell you that everyone is super enlightened now and that the present is always better than the past, but it is simply indisputable that racism and sexism were more accepted years ago. They were prevalent in popular culture, and thus, they appeared frequently in older comic books. The real tough situation, though, is when problematic plot points appear in comic books that are otherwise classics of the genre.
We're going to take a chronological look at some classic comic book stories that would be seen as offensive to a modern audience. We don't mean simply all the old Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America stories with racist parts in them, though, because to be honest, the really racist ones tend not to be the best remembered ones. People aren't clamoring for "that Batman story where he kills 'Chinamen,'" you know? These comics, though, are legitimately well-regarded classics that would also likely offend a modern audience.
15 EVERY WILL EISNER SPIRIT STORY
Unlike contemporary heroes like Batman or Superman, it is much more different to separate the Spirit from the racism of the era. This is because the character (created by Will Eisner as a special newspaper supplement beginning in 1940) had a partner named Ebony White who was drawn in an offensive Minstrel Show style.
Ebony was a heroic character, of course, but he was such an offensive stereotype that his design overrides the fact that he was meant to be a hero. Ebony appears in pretty much every Spirit story, and a result, despite Eisner delivering some of the best noir comic books of the era, the Spirit is always going to be a difficult comic to read due to Ebony's presence. It's hard to find full pages without an offensive Ebony panel on it, let alone a full story.
14 EVERY PRE-CRISIS BLACKHAWKS STORY
Will Eisner was also involved in the creation of the most successful of the titles released by Quality Comics (the main creator of the Blachawks was Chuck Cuidera), the heroic World War II flying squadron known as the Blackhawks (led by their enigmatic leader, whose name also happens to be Blackhawk). At the height of the Blackhawks' popularity, the series was selling as well as Superman!
In one of their first appearances, they met a Chinese man named Chop Chop who became the team's mascot and cook. He was an offensive depiction of an Asian character and yet he was so popular that he received his own comedic back-up stories, starring only Chop Chop. As the years went by, later writers tried to redeem Chop Chop, but the "best" idea was to make him a martial arts expert (get it? Chop Chop!).
13 THE MONSTER SOCIETY OF EVIL
Another series that rivaled Superman in the sales department during the 1940s was Captain Marvel. In 1943, Captain Marvel Adventures began one of the most epic storylines of all-time and by far the longest storyline during the Golden Age. In that story, writer Otto Binder and artist C.C. Beck began a nearly two-year storyline introducing a new team, the Monster Society of Evil, which was a collection of Captain Marvel's greatest foes, all organized by a mysterious new villain named Mister Mind.
By the end of the storyline, we learned that Mister Mind was actually a telepathic worm! Worm or not, he became one of Captain Marvel's most notable villains. The problem was that Captain Marvel had other villains in the storyline, including his Japanese rival, dubbed "Nippo." It has been difficult for DC to reprint the story due to the racist imagery in the storyline.
12 VOODOO HOODOO
Fans of the hit TV series, DuckTales (soon to be rebooted!), are likely familiar with the basic setup of Carl Barks' classic Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books. Donald and/or Scrooge would go on globe-trotting adventures along with Donald's young nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. While these made for some legendary stories, as you might imagine, traveling around the globe would also often invite some cultural stereotypes of the indigenous people that the Ducks would encounter.
For the most part, though, Barks avoided the really awful stereotypes of other comics of the 1940s, but there were occasional exceptions, like 1949's "Voodoo Hoodoo," where Donald is accidentally the victim of a voodoo attack meant for Scrooge. The gang traveled to Africa to cure Donald. This story was offensive enough that it was re-drawn in the 1960s. Even in the '60s they knew that this was offensive!
11 BROOME/KANE GREEN LANTERN RUN
After the success of the rebooted Flash in Showcase #4, DC decided to try another rebooted Golden Age superhero. This time, they chose Green Lantern, and in 1959's Showcase #22, John Broome, Gil Kane and Joe Giella introduced the world to test pilot Hal Jordan and the powerful ring given to him by a dying alien. Jordan proved just as popular as the new Flash and soon got his own series by Broome and Kane.
In his secret identity as a test pilot for Ferris Air (which, in and of itself, was sexist, as we had Editor's Notes specifically telling us that, don't worry, Carol Ferris is only watching the business for her father, she's not really Hal's boss), Hal was good friends with his mechanic, who he nicknamed Pieface, which was a slang term for Asian people (unrelated to Eskimo Pies) because of their supposed broad faces.
10 JACK KIRBY AND STAN LEE'S FANTASTIC FOUR
The Marvel Age of Comics was launched by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with their new superhero series (an answer to DC's newly launched Justice League of America), the Fantastic Four. The hook on this new series, which helped to make Marvel's comics stand out from DC Comics, was the fact that these heroes really acted like a family, which meant that they bickered and got short with each other.
However, the "mother and father" of the group, Reed "Mister Fantastic" Richards and Sue "Invisible Girl" Storm, had a relationship that was very much "of the time," as Lee and Kirby would often have Reed act like such a jerk to Sue and it was clear that it was not meant to come off quite as offensive as it appeared. Modern audiences would not put up with it.
9 RED SONJA'S ORIGIN
In the early 1970s, a surprise hit for Marvel was their adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. Smith left the series after a few years to retire from comic books entirely (to pursue other artistic endeavors). One of his final stories introduced Red Sonja, who Thomas had roughly based on another Howard character.
Red Sonja proved to be a breakout character. However, her origin was very problematic. When she was young, she was raped by a group of mercenaries. A goddess then appeared to her and offered to transform Sonja into a great warrior, but Sonja had to promise to never have sex with a man unless that man first defeated her in battle. So... yeah, you can see why that origin has been repeatedly revised over the years.
8 DEADLY GENESIS
In 1975, it had been a number of years since Marvel had released a brand-new issue of X-Men (the series had gone to reprint-only in 1970). That changed when Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced the All-New, All-Different X-Men in Giant-Sized X-Men #1. The new characters, including Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Thunderbird, were a revelation, as was a character who had debuted the year earlier, Wolverine.
However, looking back at the issue, some of the introductions of the new heroes would probably draw some outrage nowadays, including Storm's "worshipped as a goddess in Africa" origin and, more importantly, Thunderbird's cliche-o-rama origin. We know Professor X was just trying to get a rise out of Thunderbird with his anti-Apache rhetoric, but it still came out pretty quickly for the good Professor.
7 DOCTOR STRANGE AND IRON FIST ORIGINS
What's interesting is that the Netflix Iron Fist TV series got a lot of negative attention for the depiction of the traditional "white savior" origin for Iron Fist, as Danny Rand ended up in an ancient Asian city and became the immortal Iron Fist (the origin was directly lifted from Marvel Premiere #16 by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Larry Hama, Dick Giordano and Klaus Janson). However, that is almost exactly the origin for Doctor Strange that we first saw in Strange Tales #115 (by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko).
It almost seems as though Doctor Strange, then, got a bit of a pass for having the "white savior" origin in the Doctor Strange film, but presumably if the comic book story had debuted today, modern fans would be all over that angle of the story, as they would be with Iron Fist's origins.
6 GOD LOVES, MAN KILLS
In 1982, Marvel released the fifth in their then-new graphic novel series. Dubbed "God Loves, Man Kills," it was intended as a more adult-oriented look at the prejudice against mutants that the X-Men faced. Written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Brett Anderson, the story actively seeks to evoke a visceral connection between violence against African-Americans during the Civil Rights movement to violence against mutants today.
This is highlighted when Kitty Pryde gets into a fight with a student in her dance class who refers to mutants as "muties." When her teacher, Stevie Hunter (who is black) doesn't understand why Kitty was so upset (she doesn't know that Kitty is a mutant just yet), Kitty asks her how she would react if the student had used the N-word. While bold in its time, it is unlikely that the use of the N-word would fly in a modern comic book story.
5 THE JUDAS CONTRACT
Marv Wolfman and George Perez introduced Terra in 1982 as a new young teen member of the Teen Titans. What no one knew is that she was secretly working as a double agent for Deathstroke the Terminator, who was using her to spy on the Titans and learn their weaknesses so that he could capture them to complete the contract that his son took out on the Titans years earlier.
Terra was revealed to be sleeping with Deathstroke, as well. Perez described Terra as, "I wanted her to look almost eleven, so that when you see her for the first time wearing full-make up and dressed in a provocative outfit where you know she's just been in bed with Deathstroke that it does jab you a bit. 'Whoa, good God! This little girl is a slut!'" We think you get how that would not go over well today.
4 BATMAN: YEAR ONE
In his classic miniseries, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller revealed that in the years since Batman retired, Selina Kyle, the former Catwoman, had become the head of an escort service. In the context of that series, that was not particularly outrageous, as all of the characters in the series ended up with over-the-top fates (like Superman becoming a tool of the U.S. government).
However, when Miller then revamped Batman's origin in "Batman: Year One" with artist David Mazzucchelli, he once again had Catwoman working as a prostitute before she became a costumed criminal. This origin was controversial then, as writers kept trying to explain it away (like Selina was under cover as a prostitute for a job!), it would be particularly ill-received if it debuted today.
3 THE LONGBOW HUNTERS
Inspired by the success of the more adult-oriented Dark Knight Returns, Mike Grell wrote and drew a miniseries starring Green Arrow and Black Canary where they move to Seattle and Green Arrow gets caught up in a CIA operation involving a deadly archer named Shado. Meanwhile, Dinah is doing a separate investigation. However, she gets captured and then tortured (in such a fashion where she can no longer bear children following the torture).
Green Arrow rescues her in bloody fashion, murdering the man who was torturing her. Besides the overly graphic torture scenes (which also served to remove her superpowers, as Grell did not like her having superpowers), the idea that Dinah ends up being rescued by Green Arrow and that even her torture seemed to be more about how it made Green Arrow feel, it was not something that would go over well today.
2 THE KILLING JOKE
Batman: The Killing Joke was treated like an instant classic when it came out. The conceit behind the comic (by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland) is that the Joker decides to prove that "one bad day" could force anyone, even the most just person, to snap. He chooses Commissioner Gordon as his test subject and proceeds to put Gordon through hell for a day (while intercutting a possible origin for Joker, which was based on the idea of him having "one bad day").
The issue is that one of the ways that Joker tortured Gordon was to shoot and cripple his daughter, Barbara, the former hero known as Batgirl. Barbara in the comic is, in effect, just a prop to torture Gordon. She has no agency, and to do that with a character who was a longtime superhero was disheartening.
1 A GAME OF YOU
1991's "A Game of You" from The Sandman #32-37 (by Neil Gaiman, Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, Bryan Talbot, George Pratt, Stan Woch and Dick Giordano) tells the story of a young woman who got sucked into her own dream world and how her friends in the building (a lesbian couple and a transgender woman named Wanda) try to save her with the help of the witch, Thessaly.
Gaiman's handling of Wanda is what would likely draw offense if the story was released today, but much of that is simply a matter of timing. While Gaiman certainly did not handle Wanda perfectly (particularly how she ended up being part of the "doomed transgender character" trope), he did a much better job than most pop culture depictions of transgender characters of the time. Luckily, though, we know more now and thus, a "good" depiction in 1991 could be improved on a lot had Gaiman wrote it in 2017.
What other classic comics do you think would offend modern audiences? Let us know in the comments section!