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

In the first two blogs in this series, we explored the historical portrayal of drug use and addiction in American comic books and graphics novels as well as the factors related to addiction vulnerability. The present blog examines the portrayal of addiction-related effects on global health and social functioning within 35 American comic books and 9 graphic novels that contained an addiction storyline.

Physical Consequences

Physical deterioration was among the most prominent consequences of addiction conveyed within the comic books and graphic novels reviewed. Physical manifestations of addiction included portrayals of hangovers and morning drinking as an attempted cure (Julia Wertz / Drinking at the Movies; Tony Stark / The Invincible Iron Man), memory blackouts (Ruben / Buzzkill), as well as an overall erosion of self-care and personal hygiene. Addiction was graphically portrayed via images of dirty, ashen skin, unshaven faces, and disheveled clothing. Physical emaciation of addicted characters was common as was self-expressed concerns about physical health (Karen Page / Daredevil; William Seabrook / The Abominable Mr. Seabrook). A typical scene has the central character looking in a mirror and reflecting, “My skin’s a bit green and I pissed blood the other morning. But it’s easier said than done, to kill yourself with booze.” (The Abominable Mr. Seabrook). Physical insults from addiction also included physical injury from accidents while intoxicated (William Seabrook / The Abominable Mr. Seabrook; Larry and Alex /Sobriety), painful drug withdrawal (Bane), and alcohol or other drug overdose and hospitalization (Tony Stark / The Invincible Ironman, Carol Danvers / The Invincible Ironman; Rose Wilson / Teen Titans). Drug-related death by overdose or suicide were also represented (Leslie / Hey Kiddo; Larry and Alex / Sobriety; and William Seabrook / The Abominable Mr. Seabrook).

Psychological Consequences

The comic books and graphic novels reviewed detailed early psychological effects of addiction. Such effects included embarrassment from drinking behaviors–drunk calls/texts/emails/social media posts, and Amazon buying in Julia Wertz / Drinking at the Movies), getting into fights while using (Ruben / Buzzkill), sexual encounters while drunk (Jessica Jones / Alias), the diminishment or loss of superpowers (Rose Wilson / Teen Titans), and cognitive impairment (inability to concentrate, impaired decision-making as illustrated by Tony Stark in The Invincible Ironman: Demon in a Bottle. The accumulation of secrets and shame was a common theme. As Ruben (Buzzkill) reflected:

“Every addict or junkie has their own secrets. Things they’ve done or said. People they’ve hurt… We tell ourselves that the meetings and the journaling will help us to deal with these secrets…What it amounts to is baring every nerve, forcing yourself to face the parts of your story that don’t want to be told. Facing them and making them submit. Dragging them, scrabbling and screaming into the light.” 

As addiction progressed within the comic book and graphic novel storylines, early psychological effects were followed by two dominant experiences. The first was radical personality changes while using and overall psychological deterioration marked by hallucinations, paranoia and fear of insanity (Marjane Satrapi / Persepolis; Rose Wilson / Teen Titans; Matt / Sobriety), sometimes requiring psychiatric hospitalization (Klaus / The Umbrella Academy). As William Seabrook’s alcoholism progressed, he vacillated between periods of self-loathing and a grandiose sense of self-importance accompanied by a hyper-criticalness of others. In the Amazing Spider-Man series, the character Freak, while addicted to heroin, breaks into a laboratory and injects himself with loaded syringes he believes to be heroin but contain instead animal stems cells that turns him into a monster—a metaphor for the deforming experience of addiction. A Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde portrayal of addicted characters is common in American comic books and graphic novels, with references to “feral anger” and portrayal of characters with a “monkey on their back” as rabid—wild eyes, sneering mouth, clenched muscles (Ironman). Larry, the Alcoholics Anonymous member in the graphic novel Sobriety explains such transformations: “Put a drop of booze or mood-altering chemical in us and we change, we become that which we never thought we would: manipulative, lying, stealing, self-centered people…only headed to jails, institutions, or death.”

The second dominate experience involves loss of volitional control over drug use decisions and complete domination of one’s life by drug seeking and drug use. Several central characters describe such effects.

Bane: “I was driven by Venom…It controlled me, not the other way around…the Venom weakened my judgment and I lost everything.”

Larry (Sobriety): “And that’s the thing about alcohol use: For a while I thought I was managing it. That’s not really the way it was: It was managing me. I would come to learn that my addiction would, in due course, demand priority over everything, even the woman I married.”

Holly Robinson (Catwoman) “And when you’re a junkie that’s all you do—wait to score, wait to shoot up, wait for it to wear off, wait for the guy who gives you more money to score again, do anything he wants to get it, wait to score, wait to shoot up…And, then when you quit, it’s all waiting–to not see the world in junkie-vision, I guess…I wonder when that starts”

Matthew Parker (Larceny in my Blood): “Heroin was the dictator of my higher brain functions at the time…2 + 2 = heroin. The capital of Thailand is opium. I think, therefore, I am a junkie.” ; “I couldn’t conceive of a world without heroin. I loved it that much.” 

Brandon Novak (The Brandon Novak Chronicles): When asked if he believed in true love, Novak responds, “I believe I truly love heroin!” When asked if he would eat poop for a million dollars, Novak responds, “I’d do it for free if you dipped it in heroin!”

Effects on Social Functioning

The physical and psychological effects of addiction as represented in American comic books and graphic novels/biographies/memoirs exacerbated multiple areas of social functioning within the affected characters:

  • Dropping out of college: Ruben (Buzzkill)
  • Employment challenges (Julia Wertz / Drinking at the Movies); loss of leadership position (Tony Stark / Avengers); court martial (Carol Danvers / Avengers)
  • Financial distress (The Abominable Mr. Seabrook),
  • Indebtedness (Matthew Parker / Larceny in my Blood),
  • Housing instability and homelessness (Matthew Parker / Larceny in my Blood; Matt / Sobriety; Holly Robinson / Catwoman);
  • Loss of driving privileges (Ruben / Buzzkill), and
  • Drug-related arrests, imprisonment, and revocation of probation or parole (Leslie / Hey Kiddo; Matthew Parker / Larceny in my Blood; Matt and Hannah / Sobriety.)

The addiction-crime link is vividly described in The Brandon Novak Chronicles:

“In the daily life of a Junkie, at any given time there is a crime of the moment….Dope provides the addict with the relentless compulsion to lie, cheat, and steal at every opportunity in order to score, and this transformation robs the dope fiend of his humanity.”

Relationship Effects

American comic books and graphic novels also depict the devastation addiction inflicts on interpersonal relationships. Such effects encompass addiction-related family conflict and family dissolution (Karen Page / Daredevil), intimate and collegial relationship conflict over drug use (Tony Stark / Ironman; Holly Robinson / Catwoman; Jessica Jones / Alias; Carol Danvers / Avengers), parent-child alienation and lost custody of children (Wilty / Wash Tubbs; Debby / Sobriety; Hey Kiddo), and multiple divorces (William Seabrook / The Abominable Mr. Seabrook). The strain on social and intimate relationships is revealed in the storylines of numerous characters.

Matthew Parker (Larceny in my Blood): “I was crazy about Maria. But I was crazy for narcotics first.”

Ruben (Buzzkill): “None of my friends will talk to me anymore. I understand why. I get it, but it’s just hard.”

Brandon Novak (The Brandon Novak Chronicles): “I am a predator and a tortured soul. She [former girlfriend] is my prey and my savior.”

Closing

American comic books and graphic novels have revealed perceived roots and consequences of addiction within their storylines. The depth and texture of such portrayals could increase through collaboration between addiction professionals, recovery advocates, and the authors and illustrators of comic books and graphic novels.

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

 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.