Comics have never existed in a vacuum - and have always reflected the time in which they existed. Whether it was the X-Men acting as a super-powered analog for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, or Superman as an allegory for Jesus, these stories were never just tales of powers and punching - they told us something about the society which created them.
But this doesn’t mean that with the benefit of hindsight, and viewed from our vantage point of 2016, that some old comics don't look really, really fucked up.
Here’s some of the most bizarre and horrifying examples.
Back during World War II, Captain America didn’t tend to display any of the complex patriotic doubt that Chris Evans did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Instead, Cap was pretty much the ultimate symbol of American propaganda. Famously, a number of issues featured him punching Hitler on the cover. Clearly being a blond haired, blue eyed ubermensch wasn’t enough to make Cap like the Nazis.
But it was the war in the Pacific that probably caused more panels that didn’t age well, as Japanese characters were consistently illustrated as grotesque caricatures:
In 1970, journalist Lois Lane was trying to get a story on “Little Africa”, a black ghetto in Metropolis. So she did what any star reporter would do back then… Umm, transform herself into a black woman using a machine while supervised by Superman, of course.
To say it is rather hard to imagine this taking place in a post-Rachel Dolezel world is probably understating it.
But she’s a reporter… so she must be a strong woman, right? Who isn’t going to let sexism stand in her way. Not so much.
In 1961 she got super powers which enabled her to fly alongside Superman - but lest any male readers get worried about her being better than Superman, in Lois Lane #28, it was made clear that she knows her place:
Ant-Man’s Domestic Violence
It took a long time for Marvel’s Ant-Man to finally make it to the big screen. As keen Marvel watchers will know, the film was first mooted years ago, before falling into “development hell”. Just before they started shooting, director Edgar Wright walked out. Amazingly, the finished film turned out great… though it did leave out one infamous aspect of the character mythos.
Back in the comics, Hank Pym (the film’s older Ant-Man) hit his wife, which saw the character seared into readers’ minds as a domestic abuser. Amazingly, when Marvel rebooted and started the “Ultimate” universe, the company chose to make Hank even worse - turning what was a one-off incident into a more consistent character trait. And being an absurd comic, this meant attacking his wife, The Wasp, with a can of Raid insect repellent.
Perhaps Scott Lang taking over the Ant Man mantle wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Mr Definitely Not Fantastic
Amazingly too, Hank Pym isn’t the only Marvel hero with a historically problematic attitude towards women. Here’s Reed Richards being a complete dick towards Susan because of her “foolish female outbursts”:
And like Pym, Reed has also been depicted hitting her:
The Beano and The Dandy
Image Credit: http://comicvine.gamespot.com/the-beano-1/4000-161158/
Retrospectively dodgy attitudes were not just the preserve of American comics. Over in Britain, we weren’t terribly enlightened any earlier as demonstrated by The Beano and The Dandy.
In 1938, DC Thompson published the first edition of the Beano. This was decades before Dennis the Menace was invented, and instead the character that graced the front page was an ostrich called “Big Eggo”. But what’s really shocking is in the top left, next to the masthead – a racist caricature of a black kid, who is eating a watermelon and has what appears to be bananas in his pocket.
Stories have also relied on racial stereotypes. 80 Page Giant found this jaw-dropping Lord Snooty strip from 1953, in which the pint-sized aristocrat gets a servant from Africa. Called Sambo. Really.
The Beano’s stablemate, the now defunct Dandy, also displayed questionable racial attitudes. In 1966, Korky the Cat became a barber, and this was literally printed on the front page:
In 2011, a reprint of the first Dandy annual from 1939 caused controversy when it was reproduced as an exact facsimile - leaving in one strip about a character called Smarty Grandpa which repeatedly used the N-word. The publisher told the Telegraph that “We should celebrate the fact that we live in a time where such ideas around race are no longer seen as appropriate and our society does not condone this kind of language”, before awkwardly adding a code that would ensure that no one would be happy: "But if anything, it is promoting racial harmony. Smarty Grandpa earns money for pals for a slap-up feed because they couldn't do it. I don't think he says anything that can be considered racially prejudiced."
Holy Terror, Batman!
So the good news then is that all of these horrendous comics are relics are from the past… right? It's behind us, yeah? Perhaps not quite.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Frank Miller who is best known for writing The Dark Knight Returns, 300 and Sin City came up with what he thought was a great idea for a comic: Batman vs Al Qaeda.
Needless to say, the proposal caused a lot of controversy for DC Comics, which eventually parted way with Miller on the project meaning that he couldn’t use Batman. So Miller had to re-write it for a new ‘hero’ called ‘The Fixer’ (whether he drives around in a Fixmobile remains unclear).
The final graphic novel, simply called Holy Terror was finally published in 2011 and was criticised by many for conflating Islam with terrorism. Here’s an example panel, which might explain why: