Comics aren’t often accused of being too realistic, but sometimes they eerily tip-toe into the realm of non-fiction. Here are 10 comics that brushed uncomfortably close with real life—some inadvertently, others on purpose.
1. THE LEXCORP TOWER AND 9/11
In the days after 9/11 there were lots of disaster-themed media that suddenly seemed wildly inappropriate in light of the tragedy that just occurred. Comics had their own uncomfortable example of this when Adventures of Superman #596 hit stores the day after the 9/11 attacks with an image of the smoking, damaged husk of Lex Luthor’s single L-shaped Lexcorp tower which, viewed from the angle below, looks much like the Twin Towers (keep in mind for everything on this list that comics generally take months to produce and distribute before they hit the stands so these are all incredible coincidences).
Unbelievably, later in that issue, an image of the actual Twin Towers is shown with damage that is remarkably close to where the real hijacked planes crashed into them.
2. WONDER WOMAN AND THE DEATH OF PRINCESS DI
In August 1997, DC Comics released Wonder Woman #126 in which Wonder Woman, also known as Princess Diana of Themyscira, would die at the hands of the demonic villain Neron. Her death would actually happen in the following issue and she would be brought back to life (of course) shortly after. This was to be the beginning of popular comic creator John Byrne’s run on the title.
Four days after this comic hit the stands bearing the cover below, Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash and every newspaper in the world suddenly had a headline that was eerily similar to the subhead in this one.
3. SUPERMAN AND THE CHALLENGER DISASTER
There's no explanation for why there are so many Superman comics on this list, but just as strange is the number of items that involve comics creator John Byrne.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch, killing all seven crew members including school teacher Christa McAuliffe. John Byrne had just completed the first issue of his new Man of Steel limited series which would introduce a brand new iteration of Superman to DC Comics. However, in the issue was a scene where Superman saves a space shuttle that was carrying a special passenger—reporter Lois Lane.
Byrne quickly redrew the scene so as to avoid seeming insensitive, replacing the shuttle with an odd-looking futuristic “space plane."
4. SPIDER-MAN AND THE NEW YORK CITY BLACKOUT OF 1977
In Marvel Team-Up #60, Spider-man and the Wasp join forces to fight a villain named Equinox. In the course of their battle, a transformer is blown up and all of Manhattan suffers a blackout. This issue came out on the same week of the great New York City Blackout of July 1977. It should be noted that there hadn’t previously been a major blackout in New York City since 1965. The next one after was in 2003, so to have this comic and an actual real live blackout happen in New York on the same week is pretty amazing.
Oh, and guess who drew this comic? You got it, John Byrne. It doesn’t even end here.There are enough coincidences like this that people took to calling it “The Byrne Curse.”
5. LEX LUTHOR AND THE ATOMIC BOMB
In Superman #38, released in 1946, Lex Luthor terrorizes Metropolis with an “atomic bomb.” This comic had actually been written and produced two years earlier, but when the U.S. government got wind of it they sent agents to the offices of DC Comics to stop publication until they received official permission. At the time, the Manhattan Project was underway and the government did not want the Axis powers to know that they were working on an atomic bomb and were closely monitoring any public mention that could be considered a clue. The folks at DC were not given a reason for the censorship and could only assume they had hit on something sensitive, but they did not know what. Two years later, with the war over, the comic was cleared to be released.
However, not knowing what they had done wrong, DC toed the line too closely for the government's taste a few more times before the war ended. A newspaper strip showing Superman getting bombarded by a cyclotron (atom smasher) and a comic depicting an atomic bomb test were also forced to be delayed.
6. UNCLE SAM AND PEARL HARBOR
In National Comics #18, released in November of 1941, the Germans attacked Pearl Harbor in a ruse to lure the U.S. Navy away from their primary target—the Eastern seaboard. Not even a month later, on December 7, Pearl Harbor actually was attacked by Japan.
7. SUPERMAN AND THE JFK ASSASSINATION
In Action Comics #309, Superman upped his game of increasingly elaborate attempts to throw people off the trail of his secret identity by having President John F. Kennedy pose as Clark Kent for him. The issue hit the stands the week after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, too late for DC to recall the issue.
8. DICK TRACY AND THE LINDBERGH BABY
Whereas the previous items in this list show comic creators inadvertently referencing real life, the next two entries show comics that purposely chose to mirror it.
In March of 1932, the nation was captivated by news of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's 20-month-old son. Chester Gould, the creator behind the popular daily newspaper strip Dick Tracy, decided to rip this story idea from the headlines. In the comic, Buddy, the son of millionaire John H. Waldorf, is kidnapped and Dick Tracy is put on the case. Readers followed both this and the real Lindbergh case simultaneously, though unlike the real case, Gould’s story had a happy ending. It turns out Buddy was kidnapped by another real-life analogue—Big Boy Caprice, an obvious stand-in for Al Capone who some at the time believed was behind the Lindbergh kidnapping.
In other examples in this list, comic creators tried if they could to avoid similarities to the real event, but here Gould did the opposite. Though it may seem off-putting now, the way Dick Tracy stories drew parallels to real news stories was part of what made it such a big hit to readers at the time. The happy endings supplied the types of escapist fantasy that people wanted to read.
9. SUPERMAN AND THE HOLOCAUST
To celebrate Superman’s 60th anniversary in 1998, DC Comics released a series of comics where Superman time-traveled to different eras of the past 60 years. One of those would be the era of his origins in the 1930s, and they made the risky decision to show Superman intervening during the Holocaust.
The editorial team decided not run any of the writer's references to Holocaust victims as “Jews” or “Jewish,” fearing those words would be taken as slurs. The result was a comic that aimed to educate about a historic event but purposely omitted a key aspect of it. Holocaust scholars and the Anti-Defamation League raised concerns once they learned of the comic, and DC quickly offered an apology. The ADL accepted, saying, "The intention was OK but the execution wasn't. One can get so locked in trying not to offend, you offend."
10. DONALD DUCK DISCOVERS METHYLENE
Walt Disney/Western Publishing
Published in 1944, Walt Disney Comics and Stories #44 showed Donald Duck receiving a nasty bump to the noggin causing him to become “the mightiest chemist in the universe.” He begins spouting out chemical equations, one of which—CH2—happens to be the formula for methylene, an unknown compound at the time. It would turn out to be the first published mention of methylene, and the panels below would be used as a footnote in the 1969 paper “The Spin States of Carbenes” by P.P. Gaspar and G.S. Hammond as well as other academic papers in following years.
The man behind this Donald Duck comic is the famous Carl Barks, known during his career as “the good duck artist” whose Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics foretold more than just the invention of methylene.