In the late 1930s, superhero comic books had become such a big deal that nearly every publisher in the business wanted to get in on to the action. Martin Goodman was no exception. He had a lot of success with his pulp magazines, but he saw how big comic books were getting and he quickly got involved. Little did he know that his small side business would eventually become what he would be most remembered for. Things were a lot freer in the 1940s, though, as there was little oversight into how comic books were produced.
Therefore, comic book companies did pretty much whatever they felt would get readers to pick them up, which often involved some tactics that would never fly today. Goodman's Timely Comics (later Atlas and then even later Marvel Comics) was never quite as risqué as other companies like EC Comics, but it still held its own. Even when the Marvel Age began and the Comics Code was well into effect, there were a number of covers that were okay by the standards of the 1960s that would never fly today (including some racy jokes hidden in covers). Here are 15 classic Marvel Comics covers that would never be allowed to be published today.
15 CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #31
For a character who is best remembered for his connection to World War II, it's interesting to note that Captain America debuted over a year before the United States got involved in World War II. Right off the bat, even though the United States was not at war with Germany, Captain America was punching out Hitler before it was cool.
When the United States entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese soon became the most despised people in the United States and their "otherness" led to artists going overboard with disgusting depictions of Japanese soldiers as part of propaganda for the war. Captain America Comics was no exception and there were a number of covers, like this Al Avison one, that showed gross caricatures of Japanese soldiers.
14 MYSTIC COMICS #9
Of course, when it came to propaganda, it was not just Captain America who was getting in on the action for Timely back in the day. If you were a Timely superhero, you were going to be featured on a comic book cover punching out Nazis and Japanese soldiers. The fascinating thing is that while the Nazis and the Japanese were both seen as evil, the depictions of them were quite different.
Just look at this Mystic Comics #9 cover by Al Gabriele and Syd Shores. The Destroyer is attacking Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito, but the depiction of Hitler is much more "normal" than the one of Hirohito. Oddly enough, Nazis tended to even get better depictions in the comics than the Chinese, who were American allies during World War II.
13 CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #9
In the early days of Captain America, with the United States not yet at war with the Nazis, Captain America was a stateside hero, so while he did fight against enemy saboteurs and Nazi agents in the United States, he mostly fought against the standard supervillains of the era. The problem is, of course, that the standard supervillains of the era could sometimes get pretty racist.
For instance, this Jack Kirby cover for Captain America Comics #9 depicts the villainous Black Talon, an artist who became a murderous supervillain when he was given a hand transplant and received the hand of an African-American killer. The depiction of a black man turning an innocent white guy into a villain is quite disturbing to see on a comic book cover.
12 MARVEL MYSTERY COMICS #46
As noted, the rest of the Timely line of comics were filled with propaganda covers during World War II that depicted the Japanese as disgusting-looking monsters. However, there were a couple of other common cover tropes of the era that you can see present in this Alex Schomburg cover of Marvel Mystery Comics #46 (Schomburg was Marvel's most popular cover artist during World War II).
One is the idea of a bound woman helpless on the cover. This was all over Timely's covers, but they at least tended to not be quite as racy as other comics with women in bondage. The other is the sheer violence on the cover. Look at Human Torch burning the Japanese solider's face. That is a level of violence that would never fly on a comic book cover today, but was quite common in the 1940s.
11 YOUNG ALLIES #7
Often, people will point to racist depictions in popular culture and say, "Hey, that's just what society was like at the time. You can't judge them for it." And okay, there can be a certain amount of understanding for the spirit of an era, in that society was clearly a good deal more openly racist in the 1940s. However, if anyone tells you that no one knew that racist depictions of African-Americans were bad in the 1940s, they are way off base.
People did complain back then and Fawcett Comics, for instance, did drop a racist character from their titles. So "it was just what society was like" is not an excuse for Whitewash Jones of the Young Allies, drawn here by Alex Schomburg. It was never acceptable to depict African-Americans like that.
10 JUNGLE TALES #5
After World War II ended, the comic book industry took a major hit as the sales of superhero comics plummeted. While many comic book companies went out of business, others stayed afloat by pivoting to different ideas for comic book series. One popular type of comic book was the "jungle comic," tales of adventure in the jungles of Africa in the style of Tarzan.
Timely got in on the act with Jungle Tales, a series with some seriously racist depictions of Africans (the cover copy even talks about the "White Hunter). Years later, Marvel began to reprint some of these stories in the pages of Jungle Action, and staffer Don McGregor convinced them to stop due to the racism of the stories. Instead, Jungle Action transitioned to Black Panther's first ongoing series!
9 YELLOW CLAW #1
As noted, in the 1950s, comic book companies were trying all sorts of approaches to try to find new successful series. Stan Lee, the Editor-in-Chief of what was mostly called Atlas Comics in the 1950s (Martin Goodman really didn't care what the company was called, so it had a few unofficial names), tried out a novel approach for a spy series called Yellow Claw.
The series was notable for actually starring an Asian-American FBI agent, Jimmy Woo, as its hero. He was brought in to fight against the Fu Manchu knock-off known as the Yellow Claw. The idea by writer Al Feldstein was well-meaning enough (especially for the era), but the depictions of the Asian characters were still quite crude (the book was called the Yellow Claw, after all).
8 APACHE KID #1
Another example of Atlas Comics trying out an idea that was at least a little bit progressive for the era but still painfully stuck in the 1950s was Atlas' attempt at doing a series starring a white hero who was raised by Native Americans and therefore became the Apache Kid. Western comics were huge for Atlas in the 1950s, so it kept trying new approaches.
The whole "Indian or White Man?" riff was not one of its most inspired ones. This Russ Heath cover has the double distinction of also having a crude depiction of a Mexican character on the cover, so it gets to be offensive to modern audiences in two different ways! A young John Buscema did some of the first work of his career on this series.
7 DAREDEVIL #48
In the mid-1950s, the Comics Code Authority was introduced as a joint force between a few different comic book companies (with DC Comics and Archie Comics being the major heads of the group) to avoid the government from getting involved in the censorship of comic books following the disastrous reactions to comic book covers in the early 1950s. It was very strict, so some of the racy content of the 1940s would never fly.
Therefore, when you wanted to try something a bit risqué, you would have to hide it in the cover, like Gene Colan and George Klein did on this Daredevil #48 cover, with the marquee below Daredevil on the cover showing what a supervillain might feel if a superhero went through his system like Daredevil appears to be doing on the cover.
6 TALES OF SUSPENSE #55
One of the hilarious-in-hindsight aspects of the Comics Code is that it was very strict with lots of things, but when it came to casual racism, it was totally cool with it. That really says a whole lot about censorship groups of the past. It was all about not allowing the things that they had a problem with and not necessarily keeping out "bad" ideas.
Marvel continued its poor depiction of Asian characters with the villainous Mandarin on the cover of Tales of Suspense #55 by Jack Kirby and Sol Brodsky. The Mandarin has long been one of the most difficult and problematic Iron Man villains for creators to handle in modern times, since the original version of the character was just such a racist stereotype.
5 KA-ZAR #1
The very first Marvel Comics series was Marvel Mystery Comics in the late 1930s. Well, in the early 1970s, we got another Marvel mystery comic, but this time, the mystery was who hid an obscenity on the cover of Ka-Zar #1? The comic book series was a reprint collection of early Ka-Zar stories and right there on the cover, in the shadows behind the backside of Ka-Zar's sabretooth buddy, Zabu, sure seems to be something ending with the letters "UCK."
The creators on the cover were Marie Severin and John Verpoorten, but neither of those creators were the sort to try to sneak obscenities onto a comic book cover, so precisely who at Marvel did the risky move is still a mystery and likely will remain one!
4 TALES OF SUSPENSE #72
This is one of the more surprising pieces of censorship in Marvel Comics history. This classic Tales of Suspense #72 cover by Jack Kirby and Mike Esposito tells the story of the Sleeper, a Nazi doomsday device that had laid dormant since World War II and was not activated and set loose on the world, leading to Captain America having to take it down. It was a classic superhero adventure.
So what's the problem with this cover? The swastika on the robot. The issue arose after the father of a comic book reader expressed displeasure that his son owned a Marvel trading card with the Red Skull on it, which also had a swastika. Marvel has since made it a point to avoid the depiction of swastikas on its comic book covers.
3 TALES OF SUSPENSE #91
When the Marvel Age of superheroes began in the early 1960s, Stan Lee's go-to supervillains for his heroes to fight were Communists. Iron Man, especially, found himself constantly fighting against Soviet agents, at least one of whom, the Black Widow, would go on to become a popular Marvel superhero. There were even the occasional Communist Chinese supervillains.
As the 1960s ended, most of these villains went out of style. However, surprisingly enough, a new group of Communist villains began to pop up for Iron Man to fight -- Cuban Communists! Oddly enough, Marvel decided to depict Cubans in the same sort of caricature style that it did with Japanese characters. One example was the Crusher on the cover of Tales of Suspense #91 by Gene Colan and Frank Giacoia.
2 HERO FOR HIRE #5
In the 1970s, Marvel began to step up its game when it came to African-American superheroes. Creators introduced the Falcon in the middle of 1969 and then Marvel's first black superhero to get his own comic book series, Luke Cage, in the pages of Hero for Hire. A year later, the Black Panther would get his own series in Jungle Action!
When it came to the depiction of black characters in these comics, Marvel had a strange approach. Its heroes were pretty much totally fine. Luke Cage, while a bit of a cliche, was still a fairly positive depiction of an African-American character. The villains, however, were often over the line, like Black Mariah here on this cover by the late, great Billy Graham.
1 GIANT-SIZE MAN-THING #1
One of the great things about context is that there are certain times you can pretend that you don't know the context of a joke, therefore allowing the joke to pass on through without incident. Once the context becomes obvious, though, the joke suddenly cannot be allowed. That was the case with Giant-Size Man-Thing, a series that Marvel released in the mid-1970s as part of the Marvel Giant-Size line of comics (an attempt to do multiple annuals per year).
Everyone at Marvel got that Giant-Size Man-Thing sounded like it was, well... you know... what a "giant-sized man-thing" would imply. However, they also knew that it was not so obvious that it would not be allowed to be published, so Marvel put out this series like it was no big deal (Mike Ploog drew the cover). Nowadays, the joke would be too obvious and the series would not pass muster.