For most of their existence, comic books have been perceived as two things: 1) entertainment for children, and 2) terrible, morality-eroding entertainment for children. In order to strike back against these perceived problems, Marvel and DC have frequently produced public-service announcement comics, generally referred to as PSAs, using their superheroes to promote awareness of things need to be aware of, or warn kids about bad things like drugs, sex and landmines. Since these comics were educational and given out for free, they were almost invariably terrible and lame. But a few of them were terrible and insane. Here are 10 comics that were significantly crazier than they were educational.
1) Superman and Wonder Woman: The Hidden Killer
DC Comics, the U.S. Department of Defense, UNICEF and the Mine Action Center joined together to publish this PSA comic promoting "landmine awareness." While it's super-depressing to remember there are areas of the world where children have to be told to watch out for landmines, this comic does feature Supes and Wonder Woman teaching three kids about landmine protection in the least superheroic way possible — specifically, with posters and graphs. Admittedly, they do trot out a child who had been a victim of a landmine explosion, which would probably be a traumatically effective lesson, but it's hardly one that requires Superman to teach it. Besides, if Superman had the time to make posters, then shouldn't he have had the time to use his x-ray vision to find the mines and remove them? Wouldn't that be a more effective use of his time?
2) Spider-Man and Power Pack Vs. Sex Abuse
This infamous PSA comic from Marvel, the National Committee For Prevention of Child Abuse, and the NEA was published in 1984, but it isn't about Spider-Man sexually abusing Power Pack, if that's what you were wondering. Peter Parker hears the kid in the apartment next door getting abused by his giant babysitter (you can read the issue here; she's gargantuan), but comes over as Spider-Man before it gets too far. Spidey then comforts the boy by telling him about the time that he was molested by his friend Skip (Spidey doesn't name himself in the story, but it's very clearly a young Peter Parker in the comic). Tony tells his parents, and Spider-Man admits to himself that he's been living with the crippling shame and guilt of Skip's abuse until that very moment. Fun! The second story stars Power Pack, who hunt for a classmate who ran away from home because her father sexually abused her and her mother didn't believe it. They find her, and Power Pack's mom gives her a hotline number. Thanks, Power Pack. Thanks for using your incredible superpowers to open a phonebook.
3) The New Teen Titans Vs. Drugs
There were three anti-drug Teen Titans comics produced in the ‘80s, two by Keebler (the magic elf cookie company) and one by IBM. All three replaced Robin with a generic hero named The Protector, because of some weird Nabisco-Batman relationship that made Keelber want to ditch the Boy Wonder. Of course, that doesn't explain why the Protector also starred in the IBM-sponsored comic, discussed here, but that's the least of its problems. A boy named Jesse does some drugs provided by his older brother Dave, then is forced by his mother to go to an anti-drug rally featuring the Teen Titans. The drugged Jesse basically freaks and jets out of the rally, and then tries to run off the nearest cliff he can find. Beast Boy stops him… but then Jesse tries again and succeeds, forcing Raven to catch him. This has the odd effect of transferring all the drugs in Jesse to Raven. Watching a PCP-fueled Raven freak out, it slowly dawns on Jesse that drugs might be bad, and he decides to stop. Good call, because Raven on drugs sounds like the scariest thing ever. I'd rather wrestle Darkseid and the Anti-Monitor simultaneously than hang out with Raven on smack.
4) Captain America Goes to War Against Drugs
The title of this 1990 FBI-sponsored PSA comic is somewhat misleading, as Cap doesn't really "go to war" against drugs. He may "go to war" against "one kid who does drugs," but even then it's less "war" and more "being tangentially near a kid that does drugs." The story begins when a kid named Keith narcs on his buddy Mitch to Cap. Mitch is doing drugs, which leads to him beaning a batter in a baseball game, which is just the sort of brutal, rock-bottom wake-up call Mitch needed. He punches his drug dealer and never does drugs again. Which is a good thing, since the drug dealer was actually an alien, who was testing to see if his race could conquer humanity by getting them hooked on drugs. Clearly, Mitch is a perfect indicator of the entire human race, so the aliens go home. Meaning while Cap was "waging war against drugs," Mitch was "busy saving the entire goddamn world from alien enslavement."
5) Supergirl and Seat Belt Safety
Supergirl starred in two seat belt PSA comics in the mid-‘80s, thanks to the U.S. Department of Transportation and Honda. In the weirder of the two, Supergirl is driving two random children to an undisclosed location. The kids fall asleep, and dream they drive into a town of fairy tale characters, all of whom are in cars, and all of whom are terrible drivers. They see accident after accident — Humpty Dumpty is cracked, the Big Bad Wolf runs into the Little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, and Supergirl has to catch two of the Three Little Pigs after they're forcibly ejected from their truck during a crash — on their way to see the Crash Test Dummies perform some kind of show (not the band, natch). Then the kids wake up. Still, the larger question remains: Wouldn't this comic have been slightly more effective with a superhero who couldn't fly?
6) Batman: Death of Innocents
DC actually made two other anti-landmine comics; one starring Superman, and this one, mostly notable because Batman is holding a dead child on the cover. But if anything, the story inside is even bleaker — Bruce Wayne visits the formerly civil war-torn nation of Kravia, where he learns that Wayne Enterprises employee Ted Orbley and his daughter Sarah's friend were killed by a landmine, while Sarah was captured by rebels. Batman rescues her in standard Batman fashion, but as she and Bruce Wayne wait for their airplane to get out of Kravia, Sarah picks up a toy on the ground... which of course happens to be a landmine. And explodes. Even the Joker thinks that's kind of dark. Anyways, the moral? NEVER PLAY WITH ANY TOYS EVER.
7) Spider-Man: Riot at Robotworld
This IBM-sponsored comic may be ludicrous, but it's still certainly the most awesome one featured on this list. It was written to get kids interested in an engineering career, so putting a giant rampaging robot dinosaur on the cover is a smart move. Peter Parker is covering the Robotworld exhibition when Ultron takes control of all of the machines and makes them start attacking people. Spider-Man basically gets handed his ass until three high school students make some kind of remote control for Ultron which shuts him down (boy, I bet the Avengers wish they had one of those). In the end, the moral is, "Would you like to build a giant robotic dinosaur, with no regard for the potential consequences? Try a career in engineering!"
8) Captain America Meets the Asthma Monster
A kid named John is so excited to meet Captain America at a mall appearance he gives himself an asthma attack. At the doctor's, he receives an inhaler and meets Ruth, a fellow asthma sufferer. Meanwhile, a a villain emerges… one whose diabolical plan is to go around to elementary schools and give kids asthma. Thanks to their inhalers, Jack and Ruth are immune from the Asthma Monster's attacks, so in rage he heads off to kill their doctor or something. Captain America finally steps in, picks up the kids, and explains that he had asthma as a kid but the super-soldier serum cured him, meaning there once was a cure for asthma but the Nazis destroyed it. Sorry, kids! Enjoy sucking on those inhalers for the next 60 years! When they get to the doctor's office, the kids spray the Monster with their inhalers, which reveals that the Monster is just an adult with asthma, who decided making a supervillain suit and attacking children was a much more reasonable solution to his situation than just getting an inhaler himself.
9) Heroes Against Hunger
Published in 1986, this comic features Batman and Superman trying to fix the Ethiopian famine. Superman brings topsoil for farming, while WayneCorp is shipping in food — all of which is destroyed by "The Master," who isn't a dude with any superpowers or any apparent agenda other than being an asshole to starving people. While Superman "defeats" the Master, Batman asks Lex Luthor for help with the famine situation, who agrees only so he can succeed where Superman failed. After Superman brings new, fresh topsoil, Lex develops a super-plant growth formula... to absolutely no effect. A Peace Corps worker tells them that the soil in Ethiopia is so screwed from years of poor farming that it'll take years to fix. Famine: 1, the combined efforts of Superman, Batman and Lex Luthor: 0.
10) Spider-Man Vs. the Prodigy
This 1976 comic is the most legendary of the superhero PSAs, and for good reason. When Spider-Man sees a bunch of non-rich-looking kids get into a helicopter, he gets suspicious and stows on board. The kids are being taken to a mansion owned by an alien named The Prodigy, whose evil plan is to get teens to have unprotected sex so he can send their babies back to his home planet as slaves. This means the alien does the following: 1) tells kids they can't get pregnant before they're 15, 3) tells them having sex is the only way to prove you're a man, 3) explains the only reason adults don't want kids to have sex is because of a secret anti-fun agenda, and 4) pregnancy cures acne. The Prodigy is very conveniently just about to broadcast a TV program to educate the fuck-happy teenagers of America on these little-known sex facts, but when the film starts rolling, Spidey pops in, rips the Prodigy's face off (to reveal he's an alien in camera), shoots him in the throat with his sticky white webbings in a scene that might possibly have some other connotation to it, and then the end. And no one had sex ever again!
...except years later, when Spider-Man was wanted for murder, he posed as four different superheroes... and one of them was named Prodigy. Coincidence? Or did Spider-Man finally see the error of his anti-teen sex ways?
For more info on PSA comics, superhero and otherwise, definitely check out Polite Dissent, an invaluable resource for this article.