Recently, Marvel and Midtown Comics announced that they were pulling a controversial J. Scott Campbell variant cover for “Invincible Iron Man” #1, after determining that the cover was not an appropriate depiction of Riri Williams, the 15-year-old new star of “Invincible Iron Man” (as the hero “Ironheart”). Recalling a comic book cover (even one that was just a retailer exclusive variant cover) this late in the game is a rare occurrence, but far from the only time that Marvel has had to pull a comic book back. In fact, there have been a few occasions where a comic was further along the lines before Marvel pulled the book. A particularly notable example of Marvel recalling a comic book came in 1998 when they had to pull an issue of “Wolverine” a week before it was released because it turned out that it had an ethic slur in it!
In 1998, “Wolverine” was a title in transition. Following Larry Hama’s long run on the title, Warren Ellis wrote one memorable story and then Chris Claremont had a short stint on the book. While waiting for a new writer to take over (ultimately Erik Larsen got the gig), editor Mark Powers had Todd DeZago write some fill-in issues. DeZago plotted out three issues’ worth of stories, but after a conflict with Powers over his script to “Wolverine” #130 (DeZago felt that Powers made too many changes to his script), DeZago decided not to script “Wolverine” #131. Marvel had to get someone to script the book quickly. They ultimately chose a young writer who had taken part in a special comic book writer’s workshop given by Marvel Comics at New York University in 1996 and was breaking in at Marvel scripting over the plots of other writers. That young writer’s name was Brian K. Vaughan.
The book was drawn by Cary Nord and Scott Hanna. At one point in the comic, Wolverine’s then-wife (from Claremont’s stint on the book), the evil Viper, thinks back at some recent events in Wolverine’s life. Here is how the page was supposed to look…
See where it mentioned “the killer Sabretooth”? In Vaughan’s original script for the issue, he wrote either “the assassin Sabretooth” or “the man known as Sabretooth.” Whichever one he originally wrote, Powers crossed it out and hand-wrote in “killer” instead. The edited script was then faxed to the Comicraft letterer for the issue, and it was garbled and the letterer (working on a very quick turnaround as the whole issue was now late) put in “kike” instead of “killer”, so you had the following…
Since the book was late, it wasn’t fully proofread and the issue made its way all the way through to being published and sent to retailers as part of a “First Look” program where retailers were given certain books a week ahead of time so that they could A. promote the book better by reading it ahead of time and B. re-order books ahead of time based on the content of the book. It was at this point that Marvel realized what was going on and they recalled the book (they asked retailers to send the “First Look” copies back, but, as you might imagine, many retailers did not do so) and released a corrected version very soon afterwards.
Naturally, the news media picked up on the story a little bit, as “Marvel published a comic book with an ethnic slur in it!” was a good hook and Marvel got some bad PR.
Richaed Starkings, founder of Comicraft, recalled the situation to Andrew Wheeler as the “long, dark teatime of the soul”, noting:
The Comicraft letterer who made this egregious mistake did so unwittingly, with no malice in his heart. The word intended by the editor – ‘killer’ – was hand-written on the script in place of the scriptwriter’s original phrase ‘the man known as’. It seems to me quite likely that my employee typed the letters he thought he saw, without realizing that together they represented such an overwhelmingly offensive racial remark. He was a young guy and didn’t understand that ‘kike’ was a slur even when it was pointed out to him. Mark Powers and I have always got along well, and he didn’t blame Comicraft, instead he took the bullet for us before the powers that be at Marvel, and I took the rap in Marvel’s press releases. It’s a testament to Comicraft’s reputation that industry professionals saw this for what it was and continued to work with us harmoniously. Nevertheless, no one here forgets the incident to– I won’t let ’em!
DeZago had an interesting end note on the whole thing, “The saddest part of this whole incident is that many people told me that they didn’t even know what the word meant–we may have inadvertently re-introduced a hateful word back into a culture that had forgotten it.”
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