As seen just recently with the controversy over J. Scott Campbell's variant cover for "Invincible Iron Man" #1, it is very easy for Marvel comic books to cause controversy nowadays. This isn't a bad thing, just an acknowledgement that since social media became more prevalent, it is easier to start controversies because voices that once were unheard are now heard very clearly.
Because of that, the idea of "controversy" regarding comic books is a strange notion, since for many years, there was no way for people to really express their feelings about comics outside the letter pages of comic books and at comic book conventions. So naturally, there have been more notable Marvel Comics-related controversies in the past 10 years than there were in the previous 45 years of Marvel's existence. Therefore, when looking at the 15 most controversial Marvel comic book stories of all-time, some context for the different eras has to be taken into account. With that all in mind, here are the 15 most controversial Marvel Comics stories.
15 Ms. Marvel #1 (2014)
In November 2013, Marvel Comics announced that they would be launching a brand-new "Ms. Marvel" comic book series (since the former Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, was starring in her own series as "Captain Marvel"), and that it would star Kamala Khan, a child of Pakistani immigrants living in Jersey City. This new Ms. Marvel, who was created by writer G. Willow Wilson, artist Adrian Alphona and series editor Sana Amanat, was a Muslim, which did not go over very well with a small but vocal portion of the general public.
Wilson nicely summed up a lot of the negative outside reaction by saying, “There’s been some hate from people who don’t read comics, which I ignore because in terms of this medium, they are illiterate. There’s this sense that [Muslims] shouldn’t even be there because it’s somehow un-American.” When "Ms. Marvel" #1 was actually released in 2014, it was nearly universally acclaimed and the series has been a big success for Marvel since, with the character becoming a major part of its Universe.
14 Captain America #25 (2014)
July 2014 was a busy month for Marvel in terms of controversial announcements. That's when they announced that Sam Wilson would be taking over as Captain America from Steve Rogers in the last issue of the then-current "Captain America" series (by writer Rick Remender and artists Carlos Pacheco and Mariano Taibo). The reaction to an African-American Captain America was vocal, and not all of it was positive.
Plenty of people accused Marvel of adding too much "political correctness" to their comic books. Amusingly enough, Nick Spencer, the current writer of the "Captain America: Sam Wilson" comic book series, has worked some of those reactions into the ongoing series, with the fictional Marvel Universe having a lot of the same reactions to Sam Wilson's stint as Captain America as the real world. His most recent storyline -- about how a lot of Americans want Sam to give the famous shield back to Steve Rogers now that Rogers has returned as Captain America-- even became its own hashtag in #takebacktheshield.
13 Thor #1 (2014)
Earlier in the same week that Marvel announced Sam Wilson as the new Captain America, it made another announcement that got even more attention (strange, isn't it, how much some of these things rely on how slow a given news day is). The announcement was that popular series "Thor" would be relaunched by Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman to feature a brand-new female Thor, after the previous hammer-holder (now known by the name Odinson) was mysteriously deemed unworthy to wield his famously magical mallet, Mjolnir, in the Marvel crossover "Original Sin."
Reaction to a female Thor was more notable because, in this case, Thor was the previous character's actual name, so people who were already against more diversity in comics found that to be an easy angle to base their outrage upon. Like "Ms. Marvel," though, the "Thor" series has been a critical and commercial success since it launched in October 2014.
12 Civil War
In 2006, Marvel released the extremely popular crossover event, "Civil War," by writer Mark Millar and artists Steve McNiven and Dexter Vines. The series was one of the most popular companywide crossovers of all-time, and its success clearly impacted the structure of Marvel Comics releases since (as it made a sort of blueprint for future crossovers to follow).
At the same time, its very premise -- that the superheroes of the Marvel Universe would, in effect, go to war with each other over a Superhuman Registration Act -- was controversial, as it basically ended with Iron Man (as the leader of the Pro-Superhuman Registration Act) becoming a villain, of sorts. Same with Mister Fantastic of the Fantastic Four.
They even created a clone of their presumed-dead friend, Thor, who killed the superhero Black Goliath. The event also had Spider-Man shockingly reveal his secret identity and the whole thing ended with the death of the leader on the losing side of the fight, Captain America. Captain America's death in 2007's "Captain America" #25 received widespread national coverage. The effects of "Civil War" continue to this day, especially as Marvel is in the midst of a sequel crossover, "Civil War 2".
11 The Clone Saga
In the 1990s, comic book sales had reached such a high point that publishers were increasingly being driven by their marketing departments, chasing as they did as many short-term sales boosts as they could. That impulse is likely what led to the disaster that became known as Spider-Man's "Clone Saga." In 1994, the "Spider-Man" line of titles (then four monthly books) launched a storyline where Ben Reilly, a clone of Peter Parker (thought killed in an earlier storyline involving clones back in 1975), showed up alive. He ultimately decided to become a superhero himself, going by the name the Scarlet Spider.
The sales went through the roof on the story, and thus Marvel's marketing department insisted that it become a lot longer, despite it originally being written as a quick hit. The whole thing ended up lasting almost a year, and by the end of it, Peter Parker was revealed to be the real clone and Ben Reilly took over as Spider-Man. The reaction to this news was dramatic, as fans dropped the "Spider-Man" titles in droves, leading to Marvel reversing their stance and bringing back Peter Parker as the real Spider-Man and killing off Ben Reilly. Ben was Spider-Man for less than a year.
10 Alpha Flight #106
When John Byrne launched the "Alpha Flight" ongoing series in 1983, he wrote the character of Northstar was as gay. Since this was the early 1980s, Byrne couldn't be explicit, but he put in plenty of clear cues about Northstar's sexuality.
Over the years, later writers tended to shy away from the topic until finally, in 1992's "Alpha Flight" #106, Scott Lobdell, Mark Pacella and Dan Panosian put out a story where Northstar adopted a young baby dying of AIDS. An older Canadian hero, Major Mapleleaf, was outraged at how the media was fawning over the infant, while his son was shunned when he was dying of AIDS. Mapleleaf attacked the hospital where the girl was being treated as a protest. During their battle, Northstar himself came out as gay. When the fight ended, Northstar decided to come out publicly, which he did soon after his infant daughter passed away from AIDS.
As you might expect, a gay story and an AIDS story in a early 1990s Marvel comic book was a shock to the general public and garnered quite a bit of negative attention for Marvel, but also plenty of plaudits for addressing the topics period. The controversy that occurred decades later when Northstar got married in 2012's "Astonishing X-Men" #50 (by Marjorie Liu and Mike Perkins) was extremely understated in comparison.
9 Ultimate Fallout #4
Superhero race seems to regularly be a big motivator of Marvel controversy, although that may finally be changing. The more recent announcement of an African-American teenage girl taking over as the star of "Invincible Iron Man" has received a slightly less-vocal reaction, possibly due to the law of diminishing returns. By the time Marvel drew controversy for that, as well as its changes to Ms. Marvel, Thor and Captain America, the company already had an idea of what reader reaction would be like. This is because it experienced something similar back in 2011, when it was revealed that the new Spider-Man in the Ultimate Universe would be Miles Morales, a half-black/half-Puerto Rican teenager.
Marvel had already drawn a lot of attention when it killed off the original Spider-Man of the Ultimate Universe (a line of comic books starring familiar Marvel Comics characters in a brand-new continuity), but when it was revealed that he would be followed as Spider-Man by Miles Morales, there was quite an uproar. Popular conservative pundit Glenn Beck even discussed the topic on his program (SPOILER: He was not a fan). Since then, Miles has become a huge fan favorite, with his creator, Brian Michael Bendis, even using Miles' current "Spider-Man" series (now merged into the Marvel Universe) to address some of the racial issues that sparked the fervor, as well as addressing current racial issues, like the "Black Lives Matter" movement.
8 Captain America #602
In most of the cases on this list, Marvel more or less knew what they were getting into in terms of public reaction. However unfortunate it might be, you don't announce an African-American Captain America and not expect some sort of reaction from the public. Heck, you want a reaction from the public (just not a racist one). That's what made 2010's "Captain America" #602 so strange. In the story, Captain America and Falcon (before Falcon took over as Cap) were going undercover at a political rally that was basically based on the "Tea Party" movement, without specifically saying so.
However, the letterer for the issue just used Google Images to find some generic signs to pop into the background and some of the ones he picked were from actual Tea Party rallies. The reaction was overwhelming and writer Ed Brubaker soon found himself deluged with angry Tea Party supporters, even receiving death threats over the issue. Nick Spencer had a somewhat similar experience when he had Sam Wilson run afoul of some anti-immigration members of the Serpent Society, which real-life anti-immigration supporters took umbrage with, not happy about being classified as fascist supervillains.
7 Captain America Comics #1
We recently covered the politics behind Jack Kirby's cover to "Captain America Comics" #1 in 1940. To reiterate, at the time that Kirby and "Captain America" co-creator Joe Simon decided to have the first issue of their new hero's comic book showcase him punching out Adolf Hitler, the United States was not at war with Nazi Germany, and would not be for a full year after that issue's release.
Therefore, Kirby and Simon were making a powerful political statement with the cover; one that was answered by death threats from Nazi sympathizers in the United States. New York City officials felt that the threats were so legitimate, they assigned police officers to guard the pair at Marvel Comics' offices (then called Timely Comics). The Mayor of New York at the time, Fiorello La Guardia, even called them to say that they were doing a good job and that he would make sure they didn't get hurt.
6 Death of Gwen Stacy
In general, the deaths of major comic book characters tend to draw a lot of attention from fans, but it is hard to say that they are "controversial," as fans are also used to superhero comics killing off characters. These days, it just doesn't draw as much outrage as it used to. However, that was not the case back in 1973, when Spider-Man's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, was killed off in "Amazing Spider-Man" #121 (by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, John Romita and John Tartaglione).
Fans were shocked that such a major character would be killed, and boy, did they let Marvel have it; specifically Stan Lee. Lee had recently stopped writing comics regularly, but he still made plenty of public appearances at fan events and conventions, and was distraught by the reactions he was receiving for a comic book that he did not even write. He quickly insisted that Conway find a way to bring Gwen back to appease the masses, which led to the original Clone Saga.
5 Avengers #200
"Avengers" #200 was a bit of a hodge-podge from a creative standpoint. The original plot of the issue had to be re-written almost at the last minute due to a similar idea being used in an issue of "What If...?" Writer David Michelinie was joined by Jim Shooter, Bob Layton and even the book's artist, George Perez, in figuring out a new story for the anniversary issue. Their end result was that Ms. Marvel would give birth to a child who would turn out to be her lover from another dimension. Marcus, son of the Avengers foe Immortus, had fallen in love with Ms. Marvel from his dimension and brought her to his dimension, wooing her with what he called a "subtle boost" from his machines to make her susceptible to his advances.
He then impregnated her with... well... him, so that he could travel to her dimension. However, things went haywire and he had to leave. Ms. Marvel decided to go back to his dimension with him, and the Avengers thought that was totally cool. Carol A. Strickland wrote an article in a fanzine called "The Rape of Ms. Marvel," which inspired writer Chris Claremont to then write "Avengers Annual" #10. In it, Ms. Marvel returns to Earth and basically rips into the Avengers for allowing her to leave with a guy who, at best, had used subtle mind control to make her sleep with him. It took decades for Ms. Marvel to recover as a character from the events of "Avengers" #200.
4 Avengers Disassembled
In 2004, Brian Michael Bendis, David Finch and Danny Miki took over as the creative team on "The Avengers" with a re-numbered #500. That issue began "Avengers Disassembled," which eventually resulted in multiple dead Avengers, plus the team breaking up. This was all designed to set up a new series by that same creative team, "New Avengers," where Bendis would revamp the team by adding Marvel's two most popular solo heroes, Spider-Man and Wolverine, along with other new members Luke Cage, Spider-Woman and Sentry.
Bendis' changes made the book a commercial success, as the Avengers soon became the dominant team book at Marvel Comics. That, coupled with Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's take on the Avengers in the Ultimate Universe, helped to form the basis of the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, the whole "tearing down the Avengers to build them back up" part of the change rankled many fans, some of whom you may still see talking about the "real" Avengers as being the team pre-"Disassembled."
3 Amazing Spider-Man #700
At the end of 2012 -- the 50th anniversary of Spider-Man as a character -- Dan Slott wrote "Amazing Spider-Man" #700, which was the final issue of that volume. The book finished off a storyline in which a dying Doctor Octopus had switched bodies with Spider-Man. Peter Parker, in Doctor Octopus' body, tried valiantly to get back to his own, but the issue instead ended with Octopus' body dead (with Peter's mind in it) and Octopus officially taking over as Spider-Man.
This lead into a new series called "Superior Spider-Man," as Doc Ock vowed to be an even better hero than the original Spider-Man. Naturally, Spider-Man apparently being killed by an arch-nemesis, who then got to go on using Spider-Man's body as his own, got a lot of fans angry. Slott even received death threats over the story. "Superior Spider-Man," however, ended up being a commercial and critical success, and a key talking point whenever you want to point out the folly of prejudging a storyline.
2 Captain America: Steve Rogers #1
As noted earlier, sometimes Marvel knows that a storyline will court controversy, and sometimes the powers-that-be are surprised at fan outrage. In the case of 2016's "Captain America: Steve Rogers" #1, it was both at the same time! In the first issue of the new series, highlighting Steve Rogers' return as Captain America (after giving up the title following the loss of his Super-Soldier Serum-given abilities), there is a major twist at the end where Captain America reveals that he is a member of the terrorist group, Hydra, and always has been! Marvel knew that the twist would get a lot of attention, but there was no way it knew just how much attention the twist would get.
There are a lot of factors at play when it comes to controversy, and one of the major ones is timing. On a busy news day, a popular culture story gets buried. On a slow one, it could become a big story. This one was huge, as the idea that Captain America was a villain this whole time shocked a lot of people. However, it was the idea that he was specifically a Nazi that got people the most outraged; especially since his creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, were Jewish. Time will tell how this storyline, which is currently ongoing, will be remembered, but it is already one of the biggest (and to some, most surprising) controversies Marvel has ever had.
1 One More Day
For years, Marvel Comics had been trying to move away from the 1987 marriage between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, but without divorcing the two. Execs felt that a divorced Peter Parker aged the character just as much as a married Peter Parker did, and their main goal was to make the character seem young again (as he was supposed to be in his early 20s). In fact, one of the driving forces behind the Clone Saga was that by making Ben Reilly Spider-Man, readers would have a single Spidey again. That didn't work, nor did an attempt to "kill off" Mary Jane later in the 1990s (by having her die in an explosion that clearly did not actually kill her), nor an attempt in the early 2000s where Mary Jane and Peter took a break from each other while Mary Jane pursued a career as an actress in Hollywood.
Finally, in 2007, Marvel came up with the ultimate solution in a storyline called "One More Day." Aunt May had been shot by a sniper, whose bullet was meant for Peter. The guilt of her impending death drove Peter to make a deal with Mephisto -- a longstanding devil character of Marvel's -- where he and Mary Jane would give up their marriage (the love in their marriage was so powerful that Mephisto wanted it) in exchange for Aunt May living. Fans were outraged over the loss of the marriage (by 2007, Spider-Man had been married as a character for almost as many years as had been single), and the idea that Spider-Man was making a literal deal with the devil. It's been almost a decade since "One More Day" and there are still a lot of fans angry about the story. But the now-single Spider-Man has been popular as well, so it just goes to show that there are always multiple sides to any comic book controversy.
Which Marvel comic book story do you think was the most controversial? Let us know in the comments!