The Portrayal of Drug use and Addiction in American Comic Books and Graphic Novels (Alisha White, PhD and Bill White, MA)

Representations of addiction and addiction recovery in literature, music, art, film, theatre, and comedy simultaneously reflect and shape the historical evolution of these experiences. In this first of a five-part series, we explore the portrayal of drug use and addiction in American comic books and graphic novels.

Comic books in the United States began as syndicated series within newspapers and then emerged in the 1930s as independent publications—spurred in great part by the enormous popularity of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman. The success of Superman spawned the “superhero” genre of American comic books, including Captain America, Plastic Man, Flash, Green Lantern, Captain Marvel, and numerous others. Topically, comic books expanded exponentially into the arenas of science fiction, fantasy, adventure, romance, police procedurals, animal stories, horror, cultural satire, and pornography. New formats emerged as compiled collections, webcomics, graphic novels, and graphic biographies and memoirs. Comic books evolved into a social subculture and industry whose central characters have been further popularized in television and film.

In 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America banned all drug references in its “Comics Code” based on the belief that such references would trigger youth curiosity and drug experimentation. Stan Lee, Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics, challenged this code in 1971 by portraying addiction and its consequences in The Amazing Spider-Man series #96 – #98. Lee’s action, and the positive public response to the series, opened the door for the portrayal of drug use and addiction in American comic books. Lee’s actions were part of his larger effort to address social issues of his day, including civil rights, disability rights, gay rights, war, and civil disobedience. Lee’s efforts set the stage for the subsequent portrayal of addiction and recovery in American comic books and graphic novels.  

Since The Amazing Spider-Man, superhero comic books have weaved authentic human struggles, and specifically mental health disorders, within their storylines. American comic books and graphic novels have been effective vehicles for conveying information on a broad spectrum of health challenges, including childhood trauma, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive Disorder, anorexia, and a wide spectrum of substance use disorders (A. White, 2020). 

The authors are currently investigating the historical portrayal of addiction and recovery within American comic books and graphic novels. To date, we have identified 35 comic books and 9 graphic novels, and graphic biographies and memoirs that portray drug use, addiction, and addiction recovery within their storylines. Below are some preliminary observations on the portrayal of drug use and addiction.

Format Limitations

Drug use, addiction, and recovery in American comic books appear in a few panels or page spreads, often unfolding across multiple volumes, within a larger dramatic storyline. In addition, characters often come in and out of storylines across different titles often called crossovers. For example, both Carol Danvers and Tony Stark have addiction related plots that cross over between The Invincible Ironman and The Avengers series. This can make it difficult to track down each relevant plotline in long running comic book series. In contrast, graphic novels, such as The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, The Brandon Novak Chronicles, and Sobriety: A Graphic Novel provide a more focused, nuanced portrayal of addiction and recovery.

Addiction as Inevitable Consequence of Drug Use

The portrayal of addiction and recovery is a subset of the much larger portrayal of alcohol and other drug use within American comic books and graphics novels. American comic books, mirroring popular and professional conceptions, make little distinction between drug use (particularly illicit drug use) and drug addiction, with drug use portrayed primarily as an inevitable precursor to addiction. Portrayal of positive aspects of drug use are rare (e.g., Animal Man) and mostly contained in such counter-culture classics as The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, James Bong, and Marijuana Man. Illicit drug use is portrayed dichotomously as abstinence (good) or addiction (evil). American comic books portray addiction as a progressively accelerating process of personal deterioration, social estrangement, and economic impoverishment.

Addiction as an Intrapersonal Vulnerability

American comic books and graphic novels portray addiction in highly personal terms (i.e., individual vulnerability) with little reference to its political, economic, and social ecology. Such portrayal is congruent with biological and psychological models of addiction but ignore environmental influences on the etiology and long-term course of addiction. The portrayed class context of drug use follows two lines: impoverished inner-city environments or the subculture of wealth and celebrity. This dichotomy can be seen clearly when comparing Holly Robinson’s narration in Catwoman: Crooked Little Town of drug use within life on the streets with Tony Stark’s alcohol use as part of a lavish celebrity lifestyle in The Invincible Ironman: Demon in the Bottle.

The Drug Menu

American comic books portray addiction to a broad spectrum of drugs and other compulsive behaviors (i.e., shoplifting, pornography, self-injury). The addictive substances include those with a traditional pedigree (alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, opium, heroin, prescription drugs, ketamine, designer drugs) as well as fictionalized substances such as Venom, Miraclo, Rave, Chocos, Mutant Growth Hormone, Kryptonite, and Substance D that possess a wide range of narcotic, hallucinogenic, or performance-enhancing properties. The rarity in which cannabis appears in addiction/recovery storylines within American comic books is interesting in light of both increased clinical interest in cannabis dependence and changing legal and social policies toward cannabis. Rather than portrayal in fictional comic books, cannabis is a topic explored through graphic nonfiction, such as Box Brown’s Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America.  

Single versus Multiple Drug Use

Addiction in American comic books is most often portrayed as dependence upon a single substance, in contrast to the polydrug use pattern most prevalent among those currently entering addiction treatment in the U.S. 

Addiction Demographics

Early comic book culture in the U.S. was dominated by 20- and 30-something White men. Although comic book characters have evolved toward greater diverse representation, the portrayal of women, people of color, and LGBTQ within addiction/recovery storylines remains missing or narrowly subscribed.

Addiction Gender

Addicted women are portrayed physically, morally, and sexually degraded beings devoid of self-agency. Stoddart (2006) suggests this portrayal fits the poisoned maiden archetype: “the female drug addict who is preyed upon by villainous men and saved by heroic men.” Left untold are the transformations that unfold for female characters through the recovery process—an issue we will explore in more depth in a forthcoming blog.

Portrayed Color and Sexual Orientation of Addiction

Addiction-related American comic storylines present characters of color as part of the multi-hued illicit drug culture—a stage for the actions of White superheroes. The only key characters of color in addiction story lines were Cecelia Reyes (X-Men), Eli Bradley (Young Avengers), and Tyrone Johnson (Cloak & Dagger). Although gay characters are beginning to appear in comic books (e.g., Iceman, Young Avengers), we found only two LGBTQ characters appearing in an addiction/recovery storyline—Holly, a lesbian and recovering heroin addict (Catwoman), and Klaus, a gay white male (The Umbrella Academy). There are yet to be stories highlighting the cultural contexts of addiction among people of color and cultural pathways of addiction recovery.

Closing Reflection

Comic books and graphic novels provide a unique vehicle to convey information about addiction, addiction treatment, and addiction recovery. We envision a day when research scientists and recovery advocates will collaborate with the creators of American comic books and graphic novels to create more science-based and recovery-focused portrayals of alcohol and other drug problems.

Coming Next: The Roots of Addiction as Portrayed in American Comic Books and Graphic Novels

References

Stoddart, M. C. J. (2006). They say it’ll kill me, but they won’t say when! Drug narratives in comic books. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 13(2), 66–95.

White, A. M. (2020). Analyzing visual representations of bipolar disorder in Marvel’s The Unstoppable Wasp. The ALAN Review, 47(3) Special Issue Exploring Adolescent Neurodiversity and Mental Health in YA Literature (Summer 2020).

About the Authors: Alisha White, PhD, is an associate professor of English Education at Western Illinois University. Her research focuses on representations of disability and mental health in young adult literature and teaching with arts-based practices. William White, M.A., is Emeritus Senior Research Consultant at Chestnut Health Systems. His research focuses on the history, prevalence, pathways, stages, and styles of long-term addiction recovery.

Appendix

Comic Books and Graphic Literature with Addiction/Recovery Storylines

Comic Book Characters

[Character Name, Codename(s) (Series Name, Volume or issue #, year)]

*Alphabetical by character’s last name

Bane (Batman, Vengeance of Bane, Special #1)

Billy Batson, Captain Marvel (Justice League)  

Tandy Bowen (Cloak & Dagger, Spectacular Spiderman, #64, 1982)

Eli Bradley, Patriot (Young Avengers, Vol. 1, #1, 2005)

Theresa Maeve Rourke Cassidy, Siryn / Banshee (X-Men, X-Force #31, 1994)

Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski, none (Strangers in Paradise, Sanctuary, Vol. 7, 2009)

Carol Danvers, Captain Marvel (Avengers, Iron Man, ongoing)

Steve Dayton, Mento (Doom Patrol)

Klaus Hargreeves (The Umbrella Academy, ongoing)

Roy Harper, Speedy/Arsenal (Green Arrow/Green Lantern, Vol. 12, #85-86, 1971)

Tyrone Johnson (Cloak & Dagger, Spectacular Spiderman #64, 1982)

Jessica Jones, none (Alias, ongoing)

J’onn J’onzz, The Martian Manhunter (The Martian Manhunter, ongoing)

Kal-Il, Ultraman, (The New 52, Forever Evil #1, 2013)

Laura Kinney, X-23 (X-23)

Henry Philip “Hank” McCoy, Beast (X-Men, Amazing Adventures Vol 2. #11, 1972)

Jack Monroe, Bucky/Nomad (Captain America #345, 1988)

Michael Morbius, The Living Vampire (Spider-Man)

Harry Osborn, Green Goblin (The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, 1971)

Karen Page (Daredevil #227-232, 1987)

Allan Quatermain (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol 1, 1999)

Danny Rand, Ironfist (Immortal Iron Fist #1, 2006)

Cecelia Reyes, none (X-Men #101-113, 2000-2001)

Holly Robinson, none (Catwoman, Crooked Little Town, 2003)

Steve Rogers, Captain America (Captain America)

Ruben (Buzzkill, 2013)

Marc Spector, Moon Knight (Moon Knight #1, Vol 5, 2006)

Tony Stark, Ironman (Ironman, Avengers, ongoing)

Starfire (Teen Titans, Red Hood and the Outlaws, #1 and #36, 2011)

Eugene “Flash” Thompson, Agent Venom (Spectacular Spider-man 249-250, 1997, Amazing Spider-man # 654, 1999)

Rex Tyler, Hourman (# 48 Adventure Comics, 1940)

Richard “Rick” Tyler, Hourman II (Infinity Inc. #31, 1986)

Wash Tubbs (April4-May 14, 1949; Daily newspaper comic strip from 1924 to 1949)

Bruce Wayne, Batman (Batman, Dark Knight #16,1993)

Rose Wilson, Ravager (Teen Titans, #72-73, 2009)

Graphic Novels/Biographies/ Memoirs

John “Derf” Backderf (My Friend Dahmer)

Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Hey Kiddo)

Daniel D. Maurer and Spenser Amundson (Sobriety: A Graphic Novel)

Brandon Novak (The Brandon Novak Chronicles)

Joe Ollman (The Abominable Mr. Seabrook)

Matthew Parker (Larceny in My Blood)

Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis 2 The story of a return)

Julia Wertz (Drinking at the Movies, The Infinite Wait and Other Stories)

David Wheatley (Qualification: A Graphic Memoir in Twelve Steps)  

Graphic Non-Fiction

Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America (Box Brown)