A Collectible Issue, If I Recall

11 Examples of Comics That Were Recalled for a Variety of Reasons, Many of Them Actually Valid

1. Action Comics #869 (DC, 11/2008)
Reason for recall:
The original Gary Frank cover showed Superman (in civilian garb, his “S” visible under his unbuttoned shirt) and his adoptive father each enjoying a bottled beverage outside the Kents’ Smallville farmhouse. The labels on the bottles appeared to say “root beer,” though the word “root” is not as apparent as “beer.” DC issued a statement to retailers saying the issue was recalled and asked that any copies featuring the original cover be destroyed. The following week, DC reprinted the issue featuring a cover in which the labels on the bottle were changed to read “soda pop.”

Was it justified? Hard to say. On the one hand, DC has a right to protect its flagship character’s Boy Scout image, and no one can blame the company for not welcoming the hassle of hyper-sensitive parents up in arms about sending veiled messages about drinking, “root beer” or no. On the other hand, given the current composition of Superman’s readership it’s very unlikely anyone would have raised a fuss if DC hadn’t mentioned it first, and the solution — a very orange label with “SODA POP” in block letters — is so out of sync with the rest of the picture that pretty much anything else (including ample use of actual Wite-Out on the covers) would have been an improvement.

2. All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #10 (DC, 08/2008)
Reason for recall:
Goodness, a comic suggesting that street-level superheroes might occasionally use naughty language? Heavens. DC was understandably nervous about letting Bat-fans see four-letter words in their reading material, but instead of using such  time-honored devices as dashes (“you motherf—-!”), punctuation marks (“What the $&!*–?”), or squiggly clouds of ink to denote foul language, the story’s full text was placed in the speech balloons with the offending words blacked out. Problem was, two different shades of ink were used on this particular issue, and the “bad” words were clearly visible. Tens of thousands of copies were recalled and destroyed. Frank Miller probably summed up the feelings of most fans when he said, “It’s just one of those terrible and glorious things that happen from time to time in publishing… and my first reaction is simple: I want at least three copies.”

Was it justified? Sure. While the title wasn’t aimed at kids, it also didn’t have a “mature readers” warning on the cover, so the offending f-words and s-words were likely in violation of a DC policy about foul language in its publications. It’s their product and they have the right to exercise quality control whenever they see fit, and no one can fault them for that. Still, one hopes this incident helped drive home a valuable lesson taught in Journalism 101: If you don’t want to see a word make it into print, then don’t write it down in your copy. (Of course, there’s always the possibility the whole thing was planned as a publicity stunt to drive up sales and create an instant collectible… but nobody in the comic business would stoop to those shenanigans, now, would they?)  

3. Elektra (Vol. 2) #3 (Marvel, 11/2001)
Reason for recall:
Elektra’s nude figure is implied in some fairly tame images. Really, that’s it. But apparently that was enough to prompt Marvel to recall the issue and give her some underwear.

Was it justified? For crying out loud — it says “mature/violent content” right on the cover! Did anyone at Marvel seriously think that the typical Elektra fan would be outraged by a panel that merely hinted at the concept of nudity? If anything, those cries would have been drowned out by the cries of anguish from fanboys bemoaning the concealing nature of shadows and speech balloons.

4. Elseworlds 80-Page Giant (DC, 08/99)
Reason for recall:
In Kyle Baker and Liz Glass’s short story, “Letitia Lerner, Superman’s Babysitter,” the super-toddler, among other super-feats, drinks milk directly from a cow and climbs inside a microwave oven. Paul Levitz, then president of DC Comics, objected to this portrayal of the infant Clark Kent and all issues were recalled and pulped. Some of the issues that were shipped to England survived, though, and this book is now a highly sought-after collectible.

Was it justified? Oh, please. There is no way anyone reading this story would have seen it as anything other than a humorous take on what it might be like to babysit a child with super-powers (see the cartoon short on The Incredibles DVD for another great example). Either Levitz was experiencing a severe shortage of humor that day, or his lawyers convinced him that DC might get sued because someone out there might see the story and might treat a real baby in the same way. I’m leaning towards the former. The fact the story later won two Eisner awards (for Best Short Story and for Best Writer/Artist – Humor) and ended up in DC’s Bizarro Comics collection without an ensuing epidemic of baby-zapping or udder-slurping only demonstrates how pointless this recall really was.

5. Halle the Hooters Girl #1 (Cabbage Comics, 01/98)
Reason for recall:
This promotional comic was specially produced (only 2000 made) for the National Tour of the swimsuit/calendar models who were the inspiration for the comic. But a lawsuit alleged Cabbage Comics used the Hooters name without permission in the title and content of this comic, leading to the comic being recalled.

Was it justified? Lord, yes, and not just for the legal reasons cited. Here’s the opening line of this book: “When Halle woke up that morning, when had no idea that her life was about to change dramatically over a chicken wing.” Our heroine is an average Hooters server when a fateful collision with a truck carrying toxic waste turns her into a super-powered Hooters Girl, “trouble in a tank top!” (As a bonus for readers, the firefighters who show up to pull her from wreckage use their hoses to turn the rescue into an impromptu wet T-shirt contest — it’s every bit as classy as anything else associated with Hooters, let’s put it that way.) According to a 1998 news article in Restaurant News, Halle the Hooters Girl was conceived by Cabbage Comics (“cabbage” being Hooters lingo for “money,” or so the article says) as a promotional tool for the restaurant chain known for its buxom servers. The article reports that Cabbage Comics had an agreement with Hooters Inc. that granted it exclusive rights to create, publish and distribute the comic book and to sell merchandise associated with the character, but that claim is contradicted by the lawsuit filed by Hooters. So from a legal standpoint, yes, the recall was justified. Only one issue of the comic was ever printed, and the copies that survived the recall are now collectibles — for their rarity, not their contributions to English literature.

6. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. 1) #5 (America’s Best Comics, 06/2000)
Reason for recall:
Alan Moore’s mash-up of Victorian fiction and the Justice League was entertaining enough, but the mini-series also came with authentic-looking — and highly amusing — advertisements for fake products written in an early 20th-century style. This particular ad, however, “advertised” a product that actually existed back then: a Marvel-brand “whirling spray syringe” (what we’d call a douche today). Fearing legal reprisals from DC’s main competitor, Paul Levitz ordered the entire print run destroyed. No issues were distributed in the U.S., but a small batch shipped to the U.K. escaped the recall. Only 100 issues are thought to exist, making this book probably the rarest modern comic in existence.

Was it justified? OK, let’s assume someone at Marvel saw the fake ad and decided this was worth hiring lawyers over. I’m not a legal expert, but I think any libel case would have to demonstrate a loss on the part of the plaintiff (financial, emotional, etc.) that can be directly attributed to the defendant’s actions. I would seriously love to see someone explain in a courtroom how a fake ad in one issue of a comic book that only uses one word associated with another comic publisher could have hurt Marvel in any demonstrable way. Yes, it could have been seen as a clever way of Moore calling Marvel executives a bunch of douches, but… so what? There was a time when Marvel and DC regularly lobbed friendly barbs at each other in their magazines; was Levitz (or his lawyers) really that concerned that someone at Marvel would lawyer up instead of laughing it off and publishing a story of their own that, say, mentioned DC-brand colostomy bags? Moore had several longstanding issues with working for both Marvel and DC (DC owned America’s Best Comics/Wildstorm, which published LoEG; Moore only worked with ABC on the assurance that DC wouldn’t interfere editorially), and this incident likely only furthered his resolve never to work with either publisher ever again, so… nice job, everyone.

7-9. Millennium Edition: Mad #1 (DC, 02/2000); Phonogram: The Singles Club #5 (Image, 10/2009); Tangled Web: The Thousand #1 (Marvel, 06/2001)
Reason for recalls:
Incorrect masthead and copyright information (Mad); previous issue’s barcode placed on cover by mistake (Phonogram); wrong paper stock resulting in an incorrect matte finish (Tangled Web).

Was it justified? Eh, sure. These are recalls arising from printing errors more than threats of lawsuits or secret messages. It’s a quality control issue, so no big deal.  

10. Universe X: Spidey #1 (Marvel, 01/2001)
Reason for recall:
This alternate-universe Spider-Man book was recalled after it was discovered that artist Al Milgrom had hidden unkind comments about former Marvel editor Bob Harras within the issue. Specifically, the spines of books on a bookshelf in a panel background read, “Bob Harras, ha ha, he’s gone, good riddance to bad rubbish he was a nasty s.o.b.” (Harras was Marvel’s editor-in-chief from 1995 to 2000.) The comic was distributed to retailers but then recalled and pulped when someone spotted the hidden message. Milgrom was fired and quietly rehired several weeks later.

Was it justified? Again, it’s Marvel’s product and they have a right to do whatever they want with it, even shredding every copy if that’s what they decide to do. Plus, without knowing all the details of Harras’s departure, it’s reasonable to assume that Marvel, had it not taken some kind of action once it knew about the hidden message, would have left itself open to a defamation suit by Harras. On the other hand, it’s doubtful anyone outside of Harras or his circle of supporters would have been really upset by this surreptitious sniping; you have to look really hard to see the hidden message, and even then you have to know who Harras was and why Milgrom cheered his apparent departure from Marvel. The fact that Milgrom’s exile was temporary suggests even Marvel didn’t think it was that big a deal… but enough of one, apparently, to justify the cost of a massive recall and reprint of the issue.

11. Wolverine #131 (Marvel, 11/98)
Reason for recall:
This issue featured a caption in which, instead of the word “killer”, the Anti-Semitic slur “kike” made it into Wolverine’s description of his archenemy Sabretooth.

Was it justified? Um, yeah. Ambiguous bottle labels and hidden secret messages are one thing; actual ethnic slurs showing up in print is quite another. To make matters worse, the book shipped out on Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. As I noted in a past list about massive Marvel bloopers, Marvel immediately sent a letter out to retailers confirming the error and asked them to withdraw all copies from sale and wait for replacement issues. The letter did not, however, explain how such a patently obvious (and baffling, since neither Wolverine nor Sabertooth are Jewish) mistake made it through the editing process. It’s doubtful this bizarre and potentially incendiary incident hastened Harras’ departure from Marvel… but it certainly wouldn’t have helped his case, either.

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