even though superheroes have towered over pop culture for decades, the general public still doesn’t really know what to think of superheroes. although most people have some kind of understanding of superheroes from their youth or after watching movies like justice league, the weird intricacies and tropes of comic books still aren’t widely understood. superhero fans and comic readers might understand alternate universes, endless temporary deaths and the every-changing nature of comic book worlds, but the uninitiated might just see the corruption of their childhood icons. while changes to iconic heroes might not shock jaded fans, they’ve caused international controversies in the eyes of an unfamiliar public.
now, cbr is taking a look back at 15 times dc comics; heroes made national news for all the wrong reasons. in this list, we’ll be going through some major and minor controversies involving justice leaguers and other dc heroes like batman, superman and wonder woman. while some were bigger than others, all of these controversies from comics and film made headlines in news outlets that don’t usually cover comics. some of these items were major scandals within the comics community, but all of these events shocked a larger population that doesn’t always keep up with some of earth’s greatest heroes.
15. batman returns
when tim burton’s batman hit theaters in 1989, the well-reviewed film topped the box office and had a massive marketing campaign that helped make the film a cultural phenomenon. when burton’s sequel, batman returns, was released in 1992, expectations were through the roof. michael keaton’s second outing as batman was another financial success, and it was generally well-reviewed by critics, especially with regards to michelle’s pfeiffer’s catwoman.
the problems started after parents started taking kids to see the film. although it carried a pg-13 rating, some concerned parents took issue with danny devito’s grotesque penguin and the film’s violence, innuendoes and pervasive dark tone. most of the anger over the film’s content targeted mcdonald’s, who promoted the film’s happy meal toys and tie-ins. although that promotion ran its course, this backlash was the main reason why the next batman movie, joel schumacher’s batman forever, had a brighter, more kid-friendly tone.
14. ambassador wonder woman
before wonder woman director patty jenkins and gal gadot breathed new life into dc’s amazon, wonder woman’s 75th anniversary ended in disgrace. on october 21, 2016, the united nations named wonder woman an honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. with this honor, diana joined other fictional ambassadors like winnie the pooh and peter pan‘s tinker bell, who were recognized for their symbolic importance in the real world.
while wonder woman has been the amazon’s ambassador to mankind, her real world ambassadorship wasn’t celebrated for long. after an initial ceremony that featured gadot and wonder woman star lynda carter, u.n. staffers launched an anti-wonder woman petition that was signed almost 45,000 times. the petition included complaints about wonder woman’s “overt sexualization” and argued that she wasn’t “culturally encompassing or sensitive.” although the u.n. never officially addressed the petition, wonder woman’s ambassadorship ended two months early later that year.
13. harley quinn’s wild ride
since its modern inception, the harley quinn comic book has found success with its trademark brand of cartoony, boundary-pushing humor. as part of a 2013 talent search, one of those jokes angered fans when hopeful pencillers were asked to draw a suicidal harley in a bathtub surrounded by electric appliances. the winning contestant’s page was supposed to appear alongside work from jimmy palmiotti, amanda conner, jim lee and other creators as part of a comedic tale in harley quinn #0.
after the full details of the contest were released, dc apologized in the face of a quickly growing public outcry. palmiotti, the scene’s writer, also apologized and explained that the scene was part of a dream sequence where harley misunderstood what the phrase “suicide squad” meant. in the published issue, that scene, which was penciled by jeremy roberts, was replaced with a scene where harley was riding a rocket in space.
12. citizen superman
in 2018, superman’s series, action comics, will draw headlines and make history as the first american superhero comic book to reach 1,000 continuous issues. in 2011, that series’ last landmark issue, action comics #900, became an international news item for a less celebratory reason. in “the incident,” a short story by david s. goyer and miguel sepulveda, superman announced his plans to give up his american citizenship.
for a character who once famously fought for “truth, justice and the american way,” this was a milestone moment. in the context of the story, superman made the decision after protecting a group of protesters in iran. after this drew the ire of multiple governments, superman decided to renounce his citizenship to make it clear that his actions abroad did not constitute american foreign policy. although most of this context was lost as the story disseminated through the media, it was forgotten fairly quickly.
11. batwoman’s relationships
despite batman’s continued success, batwoman disappeared after a handful of adventures in the late 1950s and late 1970s. despite that lengthy absence, batwoman became the center of a firestorm when she was reintroduced in 2006’s 52 #7, by geoff johns, greg rucka, grant morrison, mark waid, keith giffen and ken lashley. while kathy kane, the original batwoman, dated batman, the new batwoman, kate kane, made international headlines when she was her status as a lesbian was revealed.
while this announcement drew a predictable mix of praise and outrage, batwoman quickly became a regular part of the dc universe. after dc rebooted its universe in 2011, the publisher was plagued with several controversies involving alleged editorial interference. in 2013, batwoman co-authors j. h. williams iii and w. haden blackman abruptly left the series, claiming that the publisher scrapped plans for batwoman’s marriage as part of a company-wide mandate against all nuptials.
10. wonder woman’s new duds
whenever a major superhero gets a new costume, comic shops and message boards are filled with discussions and debates about the outfit’s merits and its place in the hero’s costume gallery. while redesigns usually don’t cause controversy outside of comics fans, jim lee’s new wonder woman costume made headlines before its official debut in 2010’s wonder woman #600.
in lee’s redesign, wonder woman traded her traditional armored one-piece for full-length pants, a black jacket and a slimmer, more contemporary top. as part of the redesign, diana lost the golden eagle that had adorned her costume since the 1940s. some pundits took issue with this and claimed that the redesign erased american imagery from her costume. the redesigned costume and its accompanying storyline, j. michael straczynski and don kramer’s “odyssey,” were both fairly unpopular, and were erased by dc’s new 52 reboot in 2011, when lee, ironically, redesigned wonder woman again.
9. superman’s death
while the general public is just starting to understand how temporary superhero deaths are, most of the public certainly didn’t when “the death of superman” rocked the comics world in 1992. during the height of the comic collecting boom of the early 1990s, superman and the kryptonian monster doomsday famously beat each other to death in dan jurgens’ superman #75.
while dc was prepared for superman’s death to be an event, that issue became an absolute sensation. nationwide, it set a sales record and helped comic shops pull in an estimated $30 million in one day. thanks to a fairly slow news day, it was widely covered by the mass media in a way that made his death seem permanent. despite the high sales, the public had stopped paying attention by the time superman came back, and the story cast a long shadow over superman’s legacy for years.
8. nightrunner’s debut
on a few different occasions in its history, dc has introduced a few international heroes based in countries outside of the united states. while a few of these characters have become fan favorites, most of these heroes are usually forgotten after a few appearances. although he’s been reduced to an occasional background player, the french hero nightrunner stirred up controversy when he debuted in 2011’s detective comicss annual #12, by david hine and agustin padilla.
unlike most of batman’s allies, bilal asselah is a sunni muslim of algerian descent. a few bloggers took issue with nightrunner’s religion and ethnic heritage, but their complaints were largely ignored by the wider news media and comics readers. although nighrunner didn’t have any more starring roles, he occasionally appeared alongside batman’s other international allies in batman, incorporated, where he served as batman’s parisian operative.
7. sandman’s challenges
starting in 1989, sandman took comics to new literary heights. the neil gaiman-penned masterpiece helped lay the groundwork for the dc imprint vertigo and stands as one comics’ most influential works. while morpheus, the lord of dreams, and his fellow endless earned rave reviews, this sprawling series hasn’t been well-received on all fronts.
according to the american library association, sandman is one of the most frequently banned graphic novels in the united states. on a few different occasions, crusading individuals have tried to get the series pulled from library shelves or college courses, usually citing content like foul language or “anti-family themes.” as gaiman has stated, some of these incidents occurred after the title, which is explicitly for “mature readers,” was shelved in young adult sections. despite this, gaiman has also said that the title’s notorious nature probably made it even more attractive to rebellious young readers.
6. the death of robin
in a world that was still learning that comics weren’t just for kids, the death of robin made national headlines in 1988. during jim starlin and jim aparo’s infamous batman storyline, “a death in the family,” jason todd, the second robin, died in a bomb blast after the joker beat him with a crowbar. in a ground-breaking twist, todd’s fate was decided by readers, who could call in to a telephone poll to vote on whether he should live or die.
the story was one of the first comic book tales to garner coverage in mainstream outlets like usa today and the new york times. those mainstream outlets had to clarify that dick grayson hadn’t been robin for some time and featured a number of disappointed comments from fans. although editor dennis o’neil promised that todd was dead for good, todd came back as the vigilante red hood in 2005.
5. new green lanterns
since the green lantern corps are essentially the space police, there’s no limit to the number of green lanterns the dc universe can sustain. despite that, two new green lanterns made international headlines when they were introduced in 2012. the first controversy came with the introduction of green lanterns‘ simon baz, who was created by geoff johns and doug mahnke in the new 52: free comic book day #1. as a gun-wielding muslim hero of lebanese decent, simon faced a predictable amount of outrage from some circles.
many of those same critics took issue with the introduction of earth 2‘s alan scott a few months later. while alan has traditionally been a heterosexual character with a wife and kids, james robinson and nicola scott’s alternate universe version of the character was openly gay. although this revelation caused a media frenzy, this lantern has rarely appeared outside of alternate universe tales.
4. swamp thing: the movie
even some of dc’s biggest heroes are still being introduced to moviegoers in films like justice league, swamp thing starred in his own wes craven-directed film in 1982. despite alan moore’s later revisions to the character, the film’s swamp thing was still the muck-monster created by len wein and bernie wrightson. the film, which starred dick durock, ray wise and adrienne barbeau, was well-reviewed and performed well enough to warrant a much-derided sequel and a live-action tv spin-off over the next decade.
in 2000, swamp thing was released on dvd. although it still carried the pg rating that accompanied the american version of the film, this release contained the movie’s international cut that included some brief nudity. this wasn’t an issue until 2002, when a texas woman discovered the unadvised content after renting the movie for her kids. mgm ultimately recalled the dvd and reissued it with the american cut.
3. superman and social justice
although superman spent his early years fighting various social ills, the man of steel is more famous for battling various types of sci-fi threats. in the 2010s, a pair of stories made controversial headlines when they took superman back to his roots as the original social justice warrior. in 2015’s action comics #42, by greg pak and aaron kuder, superman protected a group of protesters and punched an aggressive policeman. while this moment drew the ire of news outlets, pundits and police organizations, it was softened by the next issue’s reveal that the cop was actually an evil shadow monster in disguise.
in 2017’s action comics #987, by dan jurgens and viktor bogdanovic, superman made headlines again when he saved some undocumented immigrants from a gun-wielding vigilante. while that didn’t make as many headlines as superman’s encounter with the shadow monster, a few pundits took issue with that brief scene.
2. seduction of the innocent
in one of the most famous episodes in comic book history, psychiatrist fredric wertham turned comic books into a national hot topic with his infamous 1954 book, seduction of the innocent. wertham claimed that comic books were responsible for juvenile delinquency, and those accusations fueled book burnings and congressional hearings about content in comics.
although wertham’s worst attacks were directed towards ec comics’ horror titles, he still took issue with several dc heroes. he attacked batman, robin and wonder woman by claiming that they all had homosexual undertones, and warned that wonder woman promoted a sadistic anti-men agenda. he even took superman’s adventures to task for promoting a “fascist setting of violence and hate and destruction.” in the wake of all of his accusations, the comic industry began policing itself with the newly formed comics code authority, which imposed draconian content restrictions that changed the course of american comics forever.
1. v for anonymous
in 1988, alan moore, david lloyd and tony weare’s v for vendetta introduced readers to v, a heroic anarchist who railed against a totalitarian fascist state. the hallmark of that story was v’s striking guy fawkes mask, which was modeled after the 17th century british revolutionary who tried to blow up parliament. when the wachowskis adapted the comic as a film in 2005, hugo weaving’s v made the mask an icon to a whole new audience.
even though that version of the guy fawkes mask is owned by time warner, it became an international symbol for real-world anarchists and revolutionaries. starting with the infamous hacking group anonymous, the mask was associated with a number of significant protests including the global occupy movement and several arab spring-inspired movements in the middle east. although several countries have banned the mask from public events, it’s still an immensely powerful symbol worldwide.
stay tuned to cbr for all the latest in comics and pop culture news! let us know who your favorite news-making hero is in the comments!
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