The Roots of Addiction as Portrayed in American Comic Books and Graphic Novels (Alisha White, PhD and Bill White, MA)

The complete addiction story answers many questions. Who was the addicted person prior to drug exposure? What were the motivations and circumstances of initial and continued drug use? What personal or environmental factors contributed to loss of control over drug use and its related consequences? Is there a recovery and life after recovery story?

The end of the addiction story is a product of how affected individuals and families and their communities answer such questions. In this second of our series, we explore how a sample of 35 American comic books and 9 graphic novels and graphic biographies and memoirs with addiction storylines portray the root causes of addiction.

Addiction as Mystery

Some comic books present the etiology of addiction as an unanswered mystery. For example, Wilty, in the early (1949) Wash Tubbs comic series, experiences drinking problems that lead him to an exchange with Ben, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Ben explains:  

He happened to belong to that 5% of drinkers who are alcoholics. And didn’t know that until it was too late….Unlike the ordinary drinker, the alcoholic’s mind is so affected that he no longer has the choice of quitting without proper help.….I am an ex-victim myself. .…Doctors have found it’s a form of allergy. But they still don’t know why it is only present in certain people, any more than why certain others are allergic to pollen.

“It’s in my blood.”

American comic books and graphic novels often portray the root cause of addiction in terms of a unique genetic or biological vulnerability. A family history of addiction is the backdrop for addiction storylines in several comics and graphic novels, including the heroin addictions of the characters Leslie in Hey Kiddo and Holly Robinson in the Catwoman series and the alcoholism of Julia Wertz in Drinking at the Movies and the AA member Larry in Sobriety. William Seabrook (The Abominable Mr. Seabrook) suggests family history as an explanation for his uncontrolled drinking: “Grandma Piny [who was addicted to opium] may be responsible for the drunken dreamer I am today.” Similarly, Matthew Parker (Larceny in My Blood) offers a similarly simple explanation when asked the reason for his addiction and compulsive stealing: “It’s in my blood.” A clue to this unique vulnerability was sometimes one’s very first response to intoxication, Ruben, the central character in Buzzkill, expresses this fatalistic epiphany: “From the day I took my first drink, I knew it was only ever going to end like this. It was only ever going to end in screams.”

Adverse Family and Childhood Experiences

American comic books and graphic novels commonly note the role of family turmoil and early age of onset of drug exposure as causative or contributing factors within their addiction storylines. Parental addiction, adverse childhood experiences (abuse, abandonment), or a turbulent family environment are pre-addiction contexts in the storylines of William Seabrook (The Abominable Mr. Seabrook); Leslie (Hey Kiddo); Matthew Parker (Larceny in My Blood), and Alex, Larry, and Debby (Sobriety). Alex describes how the older boys became his father figures and led to his selling marihuana for them in the estates (projects) and Leslie laments,

“Ma’s drinking was out of control. It was nothing but yelling and screaming between the two of us. I couldn’t take it anymore. Nobody could take it anymore. I had started using before I moved out, but things got worse fast once I got my own place.”

Matthew Parker, as a context for his own drug use, described his mother’s involvement in smuggling and selling drugs and her enlisting his help in selling drugs when he was just 13. Within three years, he was injecting heroin. 

Lost Control of Performance Enhancement

Comic book characters who used drugs to enhance their performance prior to their addictions include Batman, Dr. Cecilia Reyes (X-Men), Rose Wilson (Teen Titans), Johnny Quick, Bart Allen, Ultimate Colossus, and Ruben (Buzzkill). Ruben initially introduces himself as follows:

“My name is Ruben and I’m a superhero. Who happens to get his powers from drinking alcohol and doing drugs. It doesn’t make me one of you. It doesn’t make me weak, and it does not make me an addict. It makes me a hero.”

Rose Wilson, in the Fresh Hell storyline notes the performance enhancing properties of drugs and the diminishment of that power over time:

“Sometimes all you need to keep going… is direction. That’s what epinephrine gives me. A signpost. A glimpse of what’s to come. Or at least it used to.”

Using drugs to offset diminishment of personal powers is also noted in the storylines of Tony Stark (Ironman) and Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel). Tony uses alcohol in response to his Iron Man suit not working, and Carol uses alcohol when her powers aren’t working. Klaus, in The Umbrella Academy, uses drugs to offset the emotional distress related to his special powers (e.g., using drugs to quell voices and images of the dead.

Self-medication of Emotional Pain

Using drugs to self-medicate emotional pain is also a common theme among the addicted characters in American comics and graphic novels. Such emotional distress includes unrequited love (Karen Page / Daredevil), breakups of intimate relationships (Harry Osborn / Spider-Man), grief following death of a friend (Alex / Sobriety), paternal abandonment (Julia Wertz / Drinking at the Movies), and PTSD related to wartime experiences (Wash Tubbs) or trauma (Jessica Jones / Alias).

Emotional pain is a central theme in the portrayal of the onset, maintenance, and progression of addiction. After Matthew Parker experienced the death of two brothers—one murdered and one by suicide, he records, “I took to heroin with a vengeance.” The character Hannah (Sobriety) suggests:

“It gets to the point where you’re willing to go to any lengths to get to a place where there isn’t any pain.  It’s not about getting high anymore—it’s about just stopping the pain.”

The Addictive Personality

Addiction vulnerability is also attributed to temperament and character excess (e.g., an “addictive personality”) in American comic books and graphic novels. The character Hannah (Sobriety) illustrates such attribution related to rebellion, excessive behavior, risk-taking, and sensation seeking: “I’m what you call a high achiever. When I want something, I go all out. So, summer before college, I hit it [drug use] hard.”

Social Influences

The role of intimate and social relationships in the onset of addiction also appears prominently in American comic books and graphic novels. As Hannah (Sobriety) notes, “He [boyfriend] liked to drink and party. Pretty soon, I did too.” Peer influence in the onset of drug use and subsequent addiction play prominently in the storylines of Debbie O’Hara (New Teen Titans Drug Awareness Special Issue), Karen Page (Daredevil), and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis). Maryjane describes her first exposure to drugs:

“I didn’t like to smoke, but I did it out of solidarity….The communal life went hand in hand with the use of all kinds of mood enhancers.”

Famed writer William Seabrook similarly described how his drinking fulfilled his perception of great writers as great drinkers within a social world of heavy-drinking authors and celebrities.

The roots of addiction are in some cases linked to predatory influences and encounters with “bad characters.” Examples include the forced injection of Venom (designer steroid) into Bane by the evil Dr. Ruger and Rose Wilson’s addiction to adrenaline by her farther, Clock King. In a flashback scene, Rose sees her father saying to her: “This right here, this will make you something greater. You’ll have my strength. My speed. And more.” When she says she’s not sure she wants to take it, he says “You misunderstand me. This isn’t an offer.”

Closing Reflection

One of the initial challenges faced by addicted individuals and their family members is answering questions that mark the starting point of recovery: Who was I before I became addicted? Why and how did I become addicted? What has my addiction cost me? What will it take to recover my old life or discover a new life? One can look to many sources for answers to such questions and find possible answers in unexpected places, including in American comic books and graphic novels. This suggests interesting possibilities for future collaborations between addiction scientists, clinicians, and recovery advocates and the writers and graphic artists who portray addiction and recovery within the growing legions of American comics and graphic novels.

The addictions field has historically been dominated by theoretical siloes that each proposed a primary causative pathway of addiction, a common course of progression of the disorder, a narrow approach to treatment, and a singular regimen of successful recovery maintenance. Such siloed views are giving way to more nuanced understandings of the multiple pathways of addiction entrance and egress that differ across clinical populations and cultural contexts. In our review of the portrayal of factors of addiction vulnerability in American comic books, we found many such noted influences. In future blogs in this series, we will explore how these same media portray addiction consequences and pathways of addiction recovery.  

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.

Coming Next: The Portrayal of Addiction Consequences in American Comic Books and Graphic Novels