From the very beginning, comic books as we know them have been a controversial storytelling format. Early on, moral crusaders and other varieties of self-righteous culture police tried to assert that comics lead to violent behavior, chronic masturbation, and general social delinquency in readers (especially minors). Fast forward to the 21st century: thanks to the now-defunct Comics Code Authority and various mass-media mergers over the past few years, mainstream comic books are generally seen as harmless and family-friendly stories for the most part, but obviously there's more sophisticated intellectual fare on the shelves.
As we at CBR close out the 2010's, we've taken a look back at some of the more controversial, avant-garde, and "dangerous" titles of the past decade:
10 Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
Since its debut in 2012, this series has been a surreal wild ride through the infinite cosmos and incredibly complicated social concepts. Battlefield PTSD, human trafficking/sex slavery, and parenting through separation are just some of the wide range of issues explored in this stunning sci-fi epic. Some themes may be relatable to the reader, while other themes will challenge their comfort zone. the best part is that it's not controversial for the sake of being sensational, but because of the rich complexity of the universe and depth of characters that inhabit it.
9 Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
On March 31st, 2012 Matt Fraction sent an email to former Toronto mayoral candidate Chip Zdarsky with the simple, silly sex-positive premise: "What if we did a sex comedy about a guy who, every time he ejaculates, stops time?" From there Sex Criminals has become a title that's been hailed as both sincere and sexy. It's snowballed into one of the quirkier comic sub-cultures, with fans calling themselves "brimpers" after an absurdly impractical coital maneuver referenced in the first issue.
8 Secret Empire by Nick Spencer and Steve McNiven
What began with two little words that shook comic fans to their core in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 all came to a head in an event miniseries called Secret Empire. Folks who already hated the idea of Cap being a Hydra sleeper agent certainly didn't want to see what the world would look like if he won, and that's exactly what this event was all about.
After manipulating the Marvel character chessboard during the events of Civil War II, Hydra-Cap took advantage of the emotional riffs and made his move. Of course, this is comics, so by the end of the mini-series, Steve Rogers was back to his normal self. Which some more of the die-hard "fans" probably should have considered before sending Nick Spencer death threats.
7 The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack
A fun and spooky venture into the world of Archie's horror comics, but don’t let the wholesome branding of the publisher fool you: this Sabrina title is more like the Netflix reboot it inspired, just cranked up to 666. A stylish and sexy title, it deals with feminist concepts head-on and without fear - and with the same earnest coming-of-age sensibilities that have always made the character endearing and captivating in any interpretation. It even features cameos by Archie and Jughead as members of a volunteer search party for missing teen Harvey Kinkle. Betty and Veronica show up in a very surprising capacity that will inspire the most wicked of laughs. And of course, there's the fan-favorite Salem. After all, who among us on the internet doesn’t love a sassy talking cat?
6 Bitter Root by David Walker and Sanford Green
In a time when the examination of racial tensions and matters of black culture are finally pushing to the forefront of mainstream culture, Bitter Root is unafraid to put its finger on that pulse. From the creative team that brought you the hands-down best Power Man and Iron Fist stories EVER, comes a steam-punk inspired monster-infested version of the Harlem Renaissance. Think 'Hellboy' and ‘Ghostbusters’ meets ‘Harlem Nights’. This madcap alternate history offers an all-black cast of principal characters and world-building that has tremendous depth and nuance that only Walker can deliver. Combined with sci-fi horror sensibilities, this instant classic is brought to life with Greene’s kinetic style, Brown's sharp dialog, and Rico Renzi’s notorious eye-candy color pallets.
5 Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan
This book reads like Mark Russell had a John Berendt style southern gothic fever dream featuring the most harmless of childhood memories filtered through the lens of absurdist subversion fueled by equal parts Robitussin and Hanna-Barbara cartoons.
Here, Snagglepuss is reimagined as a gay playwright during the McCarthy era facing down the House Committee on Unamerican Activities and a corrupt LAPD in the name of free speech, free love, and cultural preservation. It features some amazing and thought-provoking appearances by Augie Doggie, Huckleberry Hound, Quickdraw McGraw, and Clint Eastwood.
Chelsea Cain was already a New York Times bestselling author before she stepped into comics. After her incredible Mockingbird miniseries ended in controversy, she thought that she might walk away from comics, but instead, she decided to double down hard. If trolls hated Mockingbird for being too feminist, then they were going to loathe Man-Eaters. Using the premise that after puberty young women do actually begin to turn into terrifying werecats that maul any man in their path to explore women's issues is probably one of the most brilliant modern acts of Swiftian style satire ever crafted, and Kate Niemczyk's artwork does it proud.
3 Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro
After her critically acclaimed run on Captain Marvel, DeConnick decided to follow up with her own title that would allow her to explore social intersectionalism with greater depth. The story of a future where women that demonstrate any sort agency are labeled as "noncompliant" just before being shipped off to a prison colloquially known as "Bitch Planet" is a brutal exploration of intersectional feminism through the lens of a sexploitation visual motif. This title goes hard, like If Marget Attwood and Doris Wishman storyboarded a women-in-prison sci-fi exploitation film in the late '60s while doing peyote with Philip K. Dick. Bitch Planet is a conceptual prison riot against patriarchal values: it doesn't pull punches and its coming for the warden.
2 Before Watchmen
A prequel mini-series to one of the most influential comics ever published, Before Watchmen, boldly retcons what many fans consider to be hallowed ground. Of course, it doesn't help that the source material has been embroiled in industry controversy since the mid-'80s. As soon as DC stops publishing Watchmen and associated characters the rights revert back to the creators, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
In classic super-villain maneuver, DC has never allowed Watchmen to go out of print and many see any projects related to it as a means of keeping the rights indefinitely, including the TV series remix/sequel.
1 Fight Club 2 & 3 by Chuck Palahniuk and Cameron Stewart
In Fight Club 2, Chuck Palanuick explains that anyone that started a fight club after reading the book or watching the film severely and hilariously missed the point. Fight Club 3 deals with the ramifications of Tyler Durden becoming a father himself. The insanity of the furthering the already mind-warping plot of social deconstruction and mayhem could only be brought to life in an avant-garde medium such as comics. Cameron Stewart’s sharp illustrations and progressive layouts perfectly capture the journey down the rabbit hole of reality-bending mental instability and absurdist deconstruction of contemporary masculinity. Twist: it's been ok to talk about Fight Club the whole time. [Fun-Fact: if you look hard enough in Fight Club 2, you can find Man-Eaters author Chelsea Cain in the writing group.]