For decades, the comics industry proceeded at a relatively sedate pace when it came to pushing the envelope of good taste. To be sure, comics were considered mostly entertainment for children and low brows (soldiers serving during WWII don’t count as they were more or less a captive audience), never achieving the status that its newspaper comic strip cousin had. Although, there too, early strips more often than not, featured more slapstick material than intellectual. But it was regular comics’ lowly status that initially allowed the industry to fly beneath the public radar so that when Lev Gleason Publications published Crime Does Not Pay in 1942 followed by Avon Publications’ Eerie Comics #1 in 1947, the first horror comic, no one but readers took notice. It didn’t take long however, before other publishers took notice too and soon, magazine racks became crowded with violence and gore culminating in EC Comics’ various early to mid-1950s titles such as Crime Suspenstories and Crypt of Horror.
Following numerous local attempts by public crusaders to draw attention to comics they deemed unhealthy for youngsters to read, the industry attempted to regulate itself but early attempts failed when the larger publishers refused to associate with the smaller, more disreputable companies. Finally, the outcry against violence in comics became so great that Congress took notice and held hearings on the subject. That was enough to scare the publishers more than any story they ran in their comics and they ended up forming the Comics Code Authority whose strictures against horror and violence were finally accepted.
Such was where things stood in the late 1960s when Marvel editor Stan Lee published an issue of Amazing Spider-Man dealing with drug abuse (a subject banned by the Code) without the Authority’s stamp of approval. That event led to a loosening of the Code that would eventually unwind the whole ball of yarn.
Fast forward to the 1980s. Comics had grown into a major mass medium through the early 1960s and then began a steady retreat as first television and later, video/computer games dominated more of children’s time. Soon, youngsters became all but absent from comics fandom leaving only a small but hardened coterie of young adult enthusiasts. Comics mostly disappeared from public view, abandoning local newsstands and drugstores for the comics specialty store, usually tucked away in forgotten storefronts in empty downtowns or open air shopping plazas. Recognizing the shift in readership, the few remaining publishers changed their marketing tactics and began to concentrate on direct sales to comics shops. There, away from the prying eyes of the general public as well as impulse-buying youngsters, decades of caution was pushed aside and adult content was reintroduced to comics.
Of course, such content had always been present in underground comics cranked out by driven creators with a beef against the prevailing culture, but now it began to creep into mainstream comics and when there was no real backlash, the pace increased. By the new century, Marvel and DC had publicly broken with the Code Authority and the Authority itself was finally disbanded in 2011 leaving the door wide open for publishers to do whatever they wanted in their comics.
Companies adopted their own ratings systems for comics (largely useless for the discerning parent) as figleaves for the widespread inclusion of material that even the most sanguine of 1940s publishers would ever dream of putting between two primary colored covers. But for the purposes of this list, we’ll divide the kinds of adult material being presented today into two categories: material that is simply shocking and subject matter that goes beyond shock to downright disturbing on a deeper, psychological level. A level that perhaps says more about the creators’ psyche than the tastes of the readers who buy such material.
It happened in Marvel Premiere #14. In that issue, Dr. Strange pursues a wizard from the future who has discovered that there’s only a finite amount of magical energy in the universe and that there wasn’t enough to go around in the future age where he lived. So, traveling back in time when there were progressively fewer and fewer users of magic, Sise-Neg would accrue more of the energy to himself becoming more and more powerful until finally, arriving at the end of time, he destroys the universe. But being a god, his ego demands that he create a new universe in its place.
That’s when he discovers that the former universe had already been a perfect creation and so decides to recreate it just as it was declaring himself the God of Creation…Genesis…in the process. A pretty shocking ending for a comic published in 1974, and disturbing as well for the average reader who likely held basic Christian beliefs about God and the universe. It was an ending that held certain meaning for the state of the Marvel Universe that many readers preferred not to contemplate as well. From its very start, the MU had always been presented as a realistic milieu whose inhabitants looked and acted pretty much like people did in the real world. But in a way, the Sise-Neg story pointed in a direction that the comics industry would eventually follow, one that would eventually hold its own most cherished creations in contempt.
9) New Teen Titans vol. 2 #1
By today’s standards, it doesn’t seem much but its symbolic significance is enormous. In 1984, DC announced it would begin a hardcover/softcover program for its most successful titles including the New Teen Titans. This is how it would work: the regular book would continue with its normal numbering scheme with new stories for 12 months while simultaneously, a new title on high quality mando paper would appear concurrently but only be available in comics shops. At the end of a year’s time, the regular book (still available at the time in corner 7 Elevens and such) would begin reprinting the hardcover stories while the hardcover would continue with new stories. But the fact that the hardcover would only be available in comics shops meant that the rules of the Comics Code need not apply and writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez, taking full advantage of the situation, decided to show Dick Grayson (Batman’s partner Robin or Nightwing as he was then called) and alien princess Starfire sharing a queen sized bed. It was a relationship hinted at in the regular, Code approved comic, but never made literal as it was in the hardcover New Teen Titans vol 2 #1. That issue broke a huge barrier for mainstream comics but more disturbingly, heralded a coming era of perversion, darkness, and mayhem never before seen in all the history of comics. And this time, it wouldn’t just involve throwaway characters in some horror or crime story, but brand names like Superman, Captain America…and Robin.
The Blackhawks were a long-running comics institution when their title was finally canceled in the late 1970s. With its militaristic back story, the series was considered outdated when the group was revived for a three issue mini-series in 1988 written and drawn by Howard Chaykin. The writer/artist had cemented his reputation with the independently produced American Flagg where Chaykin exercised his prurient interest in things sexual. So it couldn’t have been a surprise to editors at DC that when he revived the Blackhawks in the company’s squarebound, prestige format, he wouldn’t be taking a traditional approach to the characters. Sure enough, amongst the series’ expected adult content was a disturbing scene of oral sex that may have even taken the editors by surprise. Blackhawk was a brand name character. Not quite of the caliber of Superman or Spider-Man, but definitely one that had long been established. Further, this was no underground comic, this was your father’s Blackhawk! Proceeding quickly with only four years separating New Teen Titans from this Blackhawk series, already comics were seeing the disturbing trend of creators imposing their own personal sexual interests onto iconic characters they enjoyed as children but now, uncaring about any new generation of young readers, sought to rob them of the heroic idealism they represented.
7) Kid Miracleman
Once, when Captain Marvel and his extended family of Marvels were riding high, L. Miller & Son, Ltd
acquired permission to reprint their adventures in England. But once DC’s lawsuit took hold against Fawcett Comics and the Marvel family put out of business, Miller continued his profitable line by simply changing Captain Marvel’s name to Marvel Man and coming up with his own original stories. Such is where writer Alan Moore found things when he began scripting the revamped series a few years later. When the series ended, the rights to the character were leased to Eclipse Comics, which was forced to change the character’s name to Miracleman so as to avoid legal problems with Marvel Comics. Again, Alan Moore was recruited to script the new series and very quickly, Moore applied the adult themes he’d been plying over at DC’s Swamp Thing to Miracleman and with even more freedom available to him with an independent company, soon turned out one of the most horrifying comics of all time in Miracleman #15 (1988) as Captain Marvel, Jr. doppelgänger to Kid Miracleman, is unleashed, ravaging London and killing thousands in sadistic, ruthless ways. Like Chaykin, Moore took a child’s comic book hero and reinterpreted him in a worldly, cynical manner, imagining what such beings as the Marvel family with their near godlike powers would do with them if they really existed. Moore, as his entire career in American comics would show, kept busy stretching the bounds of good taste beyond the breaking point.
6) From Hell
Writer Alan Moore struck again with his independently produced graphic novel From Hell published between 1989 and 1996 which actually displayed excruciatingly detailed research in the sordid career of Jack the Ripper. Moore’s unhealthy interest in the minutiae of a madman whose modus operandi was the killing and dismemberment of women was disturbingly highlighted as never before in an issue length, clinically detailed, murder, and dismemberment of a prostitute by the Ripper.
One of Moore’s colleagues, also recruited from the British comics industry, was Neil Gaiman. Like Moore and the third member of this triumverate, Grant Morrison, Gaiman often displayed an unhealthy interest in things sexual and violent. Also like the others, while he could destroy classic comics characters on one hand, on the other he often came up with intriguing insights into their personalities that made reading the material they produced exciting and even fulfilling. But with the caveat that readers would just as likely be exposed to disgusting or disturbing material as they did in Sandman #5-6 where the action follows a 24 hour period as Dr. Destiny holds a handful of hostages in a bar. During that time, the hostages are forced into a number of situations from forcible intimacy to self mutilation to murder to cannibalism. Ultimately, they go mad and are forced to kill themselves.
Taking a clever idea about teaming figures from classic literature together and leaguing them against some world conquering threat, writer Alan Moore again displayed his talent for storytelling and vast research. Unfortunately, his undoubted skill as a wordsmith is spoiled with a seemingly twisted interest in sex, violence, and paganism. As displayed in another of his projects, the X-rated Lost Girls that tell of the sexual exploits of such beloved fantasy characters as Dorothy of Oz and Alice of Wonderland fame, Moore exercises the same questionable taste in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen when, after discovering that the Invisible Man has betrayed the League to H.G. Wells’ invading Martians, Mr. Hyde brutally beats and rapes him to death.
One of the most disturbing displays of adult imaginings about all ages comic book characters ever conceived, this mini-series written by Mark Millar and dreamed up by then-Marvel editor Joe Quesada and publisher Bill Jemas, the 2003 five issue Trouble mini-series tells the story of Spider-Man alter ego Peter Parker’s beloved Aunt May’s relationship in her teenaged years with Peter’s parents, Richard and Mary Parker, and Richard’s brother, Ben. It seems that far from being Peter’s widowed aunt who raised him from the time he was left with her when his parents disappeared during a secret mission for the US government, Peter was actually May’s illegitimate son by Richard all along!
As the travesty called a story unfolds in Trouble, May and Mary are friends working at a resort who end up having sex with brothers Richard and Ben. May becomes pregnant by Richard and runs away to avoid facing her parents about her condition. She ends up living with another man until forced to decide whether to have an abortion or not, she returns to Mary for help. Naturally, May has the baby but gives it up to Mary and Richard to raise as their own. Truly, it was disturbing to contemplate the perverted minds that thought up such a sordid betrayal of classic characters and concepts. More than anything, projects like this alienated long time readers and contributed to the industry’s ever shrinking readership.
Again, Alan Moore led the movement to smash whatever vestiges of the Comics Code might still linger in the offices of Marvel and DC with his prestige format one shot Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). In this story, the Joker is on the loose again with an opening move that was truly disturbing for the time and still shocks with its cold blooded brutality. Sure there were plenty of shootings in comics before but this time it was personal. One day, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara hears a knock at her door and upon seeing who it is, is promptly shot by the Joker, crippling her for life. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Joker next captures the commissioner himself, has him stripped naked by a pair of sado-dwarfs, forces him to watch films of his daughter wounded and naked, and finally humiliatingly leashed and caged like an animal. Moore’s sick preoccupation with perversion was on full display in this, one of the most truly disturbing comics ever produced and one that seemingly provided the imprimatur for others to follow in his footsteps.
1) Karen Page
Perhaps the single most disturbing image in comics history was provided by writer Frank Miller (and artist David Mazzucchelli) for the splash page of Daredevil #227 (1986). There, readers are reintroduced to the much loved supporting character who had not been seen in the book for many years. Karen Page appeared in the very first issue of DD along with Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson and immediately became the romantic focus of the two men. Eventually, she chose Matt but over time, after discovering that he was really Daredevil, Karen became disillusioned with their relationship and realizing it was only leading to a dead end, broke it off and moved to California. There, she became a model, then a successful actress and that was the last readers heard about her until her reappearance in DD #227.
It was then that readers discovered to their horror that Karen’s career had fallen on hard times, fueled by addiction to drugs. With jobs in Hollywood drying up, she turned to stag films and pornography and eventually to prostitution as the plaything for Mexican drug lords. Drawn and withered, old before her time, and desperate for money to pay for her next fix, she sells the secret identify of Daredevil to his enemies, thus initiating a plot by the Kingpin to destroy Matt Murdock. Not only was the condition that Karen Page was found in shocking, but more disturbing was the fact that she was a long-established character in the DD sub-verse, one well liked by fans, even of newbies who may not have been around when she first departed the strip. The destruction either physically or morally of such established characters would eventually become a cliché in comics’ emerging dark age from Blackhawk to Barbara Gordon to Karen Page and many others, a process that goes on to this day.