The comic book industry is no stranger to controversy, having killed off heroes and villains alike for decades. Through the years, certain storylines have brought tears of joy and rage to comic book lovers everywhere. Whether it’s dealing with personal demons or real ones, comic books have a way of stirring our emotions in ways movies and television simply can’t.
Every now and then a storyline comes along that leaves us breathless and hyperventilating into a little paper sack. We wonder what these glorious madmen were thinking when they wrote them, and if maybe, just maybe, they’ve finally gone too far.
Without further ado, here are the 12 Most Controversial Comic Book Storylines.
Fair warning: the second to last entry on our list contains potentially massive spoilers for the upcoming AMC series, Preacher. You have been warned.
Demon in a Bottle
Tony Stark has been well-known for enjoying the occasional drink or 10, but in the 1979 storyline, Demon in a Bottle (Originally, The Power of Iron Man), he loses control and becomes addicted to alcohol. It all starts with the malfunction of his Iron Man suit at a Stark Industries event, which results in the death of a foreign ambassador. He gives the suit up for inspection at the request of the rest of the Avengers group, and he steps down as their leader. The story reveals the malfunction was caused by rival Justin Hammer, and after battling him and other supervillains, Tony is cleared of everything.
His drinking doesn’t stop and he drunkenly yells at Jarvis, leading to the butler’s resignation (remember MCU fans, Jarvis is a person in the comics, not a computer program). Tony’s drinking spirals out of control, and it isn’t until Bethany Cabe tells him about her own brush with addiction with her fiancé that he finally makes the choice to get help. It’s with her help that he’s able to weather the extreme withdrawal symptoms, kick the habit and reconcile with Jarvis. While Stark was not exactly a boy scout (a la Captain America), it was shocking to see a major superhero struggling with addiction.
Snowbirds Don’t Fly
In 1971, DC Comics decided to teach kids about the horrors of drug abuse by getting Roy Harper (aka Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy) hooked on the stuff and entering a life of petty and pathetic crime. The whole thing reads like the Reefer Madness of heroin addiction, including a shocked Green Arrow exclaiming “My ward is a junkie!” The brief series is essentially a PSA on drug abuse where Green Arrow catches Harper involved with a gang of street thugs mugging people for drug money. Oliver refuses to believe that Speedy is a heroin addict until he sees it with his own eyes, which you can see in all its glory above.
Since 1970s comic book heroin is apparently as easy to kick as a Peeps addiction, Harper quits cold turkey. Arrow and Green Lantern work together to color coordinate and take down the drug kingpin that’s putting the stuff on the street. When one of his former drug pals dies, Speedy is shown attending the funeral, an effort by the writers to hammer home the dire consequences of drug abuse to their readers.
Heroin addiction was/is a very real problem, and writer Denny O’Neill wanted to do something that merged his love of writing and social advocacy. His decision to make a well-known character the comic book poster boy for heroin addiction was an odd one, though hopefully one that did some good.
In Spider-Man lore, Gwen Stacy has revered status as being the first person Peter Parker lost because of Spider-Man, which was a highly controversial moment in its own right. Her death had a tremendous impact on him as a character. She sure didn’t look like the type, but in one of the most shocking moments in comic history, she not only cheats on him, gets pregnant and has twins, but the father is his arch nemesis. In 2004-2005, the Sins Past storyline by J. Michael Straczynski (shout out to Babylon 5 fans) had Gwen traveling to France and being seduced by Norman Osborne. She gave birth to twins in France and was planning to go back and raise them with Peter, but Norman had other plans. Fearing problems with his heir apparent, Norman killed Gwen and raised the children as his own.
Given the pure relationship between Stacy and Parker, fans were outraged that she would be shown cheating on him with Osborne, of all people, a betrayal that someone cheapens the impact of her death. Straczynski planned on Parker being the father, but the higher-ups didn’t like the idea of him having adult kids (most likely quickly aged to adulthood because of his radioactive genes) but more on that later. Straczynski hated how it turned and wanted it retconned, but was vetoed.
Spider-Man has gone to hell and back for his relationship with Mary Jane, but in the perviest way possible, it actually killed her in the Reign storyline of 2006. We fast forward to the future of one of Marvels 5 billion alternate Earths to see how things turned out for the now geriatric webslinger. New York City is run by a corrupt government using a police force called The Reign to keep everyone in check. After being spurred on by a half crazed J. Jonah Jameson and the tentacles of a long dead Otto Octavius, Spider-Man comes out of retirement to take on a really old version of the Sinister 6 and a monomaniacal Venom. The really disturbing part is why he retired.
Peter Parker quit being a superhero after Mary Jane died. Did she die by the hand of some evil villain? Did she sacrifice herself so others could be saved? Nope. After prolonged exposure to Peter Parker’s radioactive sperm, she developed cancer and died. Seriously. This tops Gwen Stacy’s Green Goblin twins reveal, but only just barely.
Those this entry is in fact an animated movie based in the continuity of the Batman Beyond animated series (1999-2001), and not in any actual comic, the development of Tim Drake into Joker Jr. is one of the most controversial storylines to date. Back during his time as Robin, Tim Drake is captured and tortured for weeks by the Joker and Harley Quinn, where he is brainwashed and, eventually, transformed into an adolescent version of the Joker. Batman finally manages to track them down, and the Joker tells Drake to kill Batman. Drake still retains a small piece of himself and instead shoots the Joker, killing him. He suffers a complete mental breakdown, but eventually recovers, though Batman refused to ever let him be Robin again. Drake seemingly settles down into a normal life, though an even darker twist (the Joker installed a microchip that allows his consciousness and physical form to subvert Drake’s, morphing the former Boy Wonder into a Joker clone) is later revealed.
The idea of the Joker torturing a kid for weeks and turning him into a deformed miniaturized version of himself was pretty shocking. It ended up being the death of the Joker (in the animated world, anyway), but it would have repercussions on Tim Drake years down the road. While this is only one part of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, it’s the part that matters to us. Perhaps because the animation is so vivid, and seeing this child’s transformation is so disturbing, we have a difficult time processing it. Anyone who watched that little boy fall into tears as killing The Joker knows how moving comics (and media based off of them) can be.
The Death of Captain America
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, odds are you’ve heard about the Captain America: Civil War movie. The Civil War comic storyline sets up The Death of Captain America, and has had a major impact on the comic universe as a whole. As he’s being led into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, he’s shot and killed, leaving Bucky Barnes to take up the mantle.
The death of superheroes has become almost cliché these days. You kill them off and magically a year or so later they get resurrected, were never really dead, got sent back to prehistoric times, etc. What really made this impactful was a mixture of two concepts: who he is, and that he wasn’t coming back. Steve Rogers has been an institution since World War II, and his death was one of the more shocking events in comic history. Bucky was great and all, but he simply wasn’t Steve Rogers, the everyman who became the first Avenger. Marvel also touted that he wasn’t coming back. They wanted to put a finality to it…but that was a crock. The Death of Captain America ran from 2007-2008 and then Captain America: Reborn started running just one year later.
From 2000-2008, Marvel created the Ultimate Universe to modernize the origin stories of many classic heroes and villains. It existed outside the main Earth-616 universe. There were hints that the Ultimate Universe storyline was coming to an end, though few could have expected the sheer number of dead heroes, villains and civilians it would leave in its wake. After the death of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, their father, Magneto, decides the death and destruction of the entire planet was a wise course of action. He brings about global devastation by flipping the magnetic poles, killing millions of innocent people and more than a few superheroes in incredibly gruesome ways.
The Blob feeds on Wasp’s corpse in something straight out of The Walking Dead and Hank Gym becomes Giant Man and =bites his head off. Doctor Strange is constricted to the point that his head explodes. Doctor Doom’s head gets crushed by The Thing. Thor sacrifices himself for Captain America Valkyrie. Magneto is decapitated by Cyclops. The list goes on and on. The whole thing was a nightmare, as we watched beloved characters get hacked to pieces one after another.
Lost in Space-Time
Time travel can be complicated, and in the 1985 series Lost in Space-Time, we had three different sets of heroes traveling back to the same point in time from three different points in time. This whole series is pretty messed up to begin with, but there are two points in particular that make it deserving of this list. Hank Pym’s body can’t handle the stress of shrinking and growing anymore. Since he feels he can no longer contribute, he decides to kill himself. Suicide is a taboo subject, one rarely explored in comics, but Hank almost completes the deed. He writes out letters to his loved ones and even puts a gun to his head before Firebird intervenes. She’s able to show him he has too much to live for, and he leaves his superhero monikers behind and continues on as Hank Pym.
While Hank’s having his existential crisis, Bobbi Morse aka Mockingbird is trapped with the rest of the West Coast Avengers in the Old West. While there, The Phantom Rider slips Mockingbird a love potion and rapes her. Once she realizes what happens, she goes after him, and while she doesn’t kill him, she doesn’t help him when he’s about to fall to his death. Rape and suicide in one storyline is pretty heavy.
Rape of Nightwing
Dick Grayson struck out on his own after his Robin days to become the protector of Bludhaven. As Nightwing, he fought off villain after villain, but he couldn’t fight off the advances of Tarantula. Nightwing and Tarantula were fighting Blockbuster and he allowed Tarantula kill the villain, which put Grayson in a state of shock and he collapsed. She then proceeded to rape him while he was too weak to defend himself.
Rape has been used often against men and women in comics for decades in all its forms. Countless heroes and heroines have been drugged, forced or tricked into sexual intercourse for the sake of the plot, though comics often gloss over the fact that one of the most damaging crimes imaginable has been committed. While the incident is occasionally depicted as a defining moment in the character’s life (think: Jessica Jones), too often it’s cast aside casually or never mentioned again.
As comic book lovers, we usually want to see our heroes as good people. Even darker characters like Batman live by a strict code of ethics, and anti-heroes always seem to make the right choice in the end. Watchmen showed more true to life and humanized versions of superheroes. The Comedian is psychotic. Doctor Manhattan loses all connection with humanity. Rorschach is driven by the abuse he suffered as a child. Watchmen is set in an alternative history where costumed superheroes helped win the Vietnam War and other real-world conflicts through the decades. The world is on the brink of nuclear war, and Ozymandias devises a plot to unleash a creature on the population and bring the world together through a perceived alien invasion. In the end, Rorschach is killed, Dr. Manhattan leaves the planet, and countless innocents are dead from an “alien.”
We all want our heroes to be above reproach, but reality is an ugly thing. Time takes its toll and the good guys don’t always win. Alan Moore created a story where without an easy way out, a world where our heroes really are just people wearing costumes.
Garth Ennis has become a legend in the comic book world, with much of his fame due in large part to his series Preacher, which was released in 2000. It’s the tale of small town preacher Jesse Custer, who has The Word of God thanks to possession by Genesis, an infant born of an angel and a demon. Jesse sets out to find God, who has left heaven and seemingly abandoned the world. He’s pursued by an immortal gunfighter called The Saint of Killers, who was sent by God to kill Custer. Throughout the comic, God is not portrayed as a nice, forgiving being, and instead as a petty jerk. Custer convinces the Saint of Killers to kill God, since his bullets can kill anything. When God returns to heaven, he finds all his angels dead, and the Saint of Killers the proceeds to kill God.
Wow, ballsy. You have to give it to Ennis to kill the most powerful being in the universe with a grizzled gunfighter. Needless to say, a large number of people found his depiction of their lord and savior to be…in poor taste.
The Killing Joke
We’ve got another Alan Moore classic in The Killing Joke. It’s both an origin story and one of the most controversial plots in comic history because it permanently paralyzes a major hero. Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, is shot in the spine by the Joker in a home invasion. The Clown Prince of Crime then kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and forces him look at pictures of his daughter injured and naked, the goal being to drive Gordon insane — an effort to show that a single day can turn a normal man insane. Thankfully for the Commish, the madman’s plot doesn’t work and Batman ends up saving the day, but it did effectively put an end to Barbara Gordon’s tenure as a costumed crimefighter.
The comic one-shot won award after award, and has been lauded as the best Joker story ever told. It not only gives the Joker a definitive origin, but also shows how Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other. But the crippling of Barbara Gordon did not sit well with many fans, even though her subsequent persona (as the Oracle) proved to be a popular one. Still, the Joker’s sheer brutality and lunacy are at their height in this comic, the effects of which are still felt in the industry today.
Did we miss your favorite controversial storyline? Which entry on our list shocked you the most? Be sure to sound off in the comments below.