The Portrayal of Addiction Recovery in American Comic Books and Graphic Novels—Part 1 (Alisha White, PhD and Bill White, MA)
Earlier blogs in this series have explored how a sample of 35 American comic books and 9 graphic novels portrayed drug use, the causes of addiction, and addiction-related consequences on individuals and families. The present blog explores dominant themes related to the portrayal of addiction recovery.
Limited Portrayal of the Recovery Experience
While addiction is a central thread within many American comic book and graphic novel storylines, the addiction recovery process receives scant attention. For example, Julia Wertz’s graphic memoir, Drinking at the Movies, portrays the evolution of her drinking throughout the book, but devotes only one page at the end to her decision to stop drinking. Hey Kiddo shows Jarrett visiting Leslie in the halfway house, but it isn’t until much later that Leslie describes her recovery to him. There is within the brief recovery storylines a sense of being free and an awakening of previously unrecognized inner strength. Bane, for example, declares, “I am free of Venom. I am truly free for the first time in my life….I didn’t need Venom then. I don’t need it now.”
Recovery as an Incremental Process
American comic books and graphic novels portray addiction recovery as a difficult process often involving multiple efforts before recovery is sustainable. This pattern of repeated recovery attempts is present in the character storylines of Tony Stark(Ironman) , Roy Harper (Green Arrow), Bane, Bruce Wayne (Batman), Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski (Strangers in Paradise), Carol Danvers (Avengers, Ironman), Allan Quartermain (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and Rose Wilson (Teen Titans). Comic book storylines often portray stable recovery preceded by failed promises and resolutions to stop drug use (Matthew Parker) and by experiments in drug substitution. Matthew Parker (Larceny in My Blood) laments, “I’m bent on substituting the slobbering inebriation of alcohol for the nihilism of heroin” before relapsing once again to heroin addiction.
The transition between active addiction and recovery initiation is preceded by elaborate defenses to sustain drug use, e.g., denial, minimization, rationalization, projection of blame, and anger/aggression. These are elaborately detailed over three years (1998-2000) in the sustained storyline of Carol Danvers crossing over from Avengers to Quicksilver and Ironman and eventually ends with Carol going to AA with Tony. Comic book storylines portray the movement towards recovery as a tortured effort to see oneself and the world as they really are. Regarding the distortions that commonly precede recovery, Willie Seabrook’s second wife Marjorie Worthington described Willie’s repetitive lies in his written work and in his life: “Willie always told the truth: His truth.”
Motivation for Recovery
Momentum for addiction recovery as portrayed in American comic books and graphic novels rises in tandem with the erosion of drug effects, escalating consequences, and experiences within active addiction that serve as a catalyst of recovery. Brandon Novak (The Brandon Novak Chronicles) describes the diminishment of drug effects: “But there is one law that every drug fiend is incapable of breaking: The law of diminished returns.”
Other push forces toward recovery include fear of loss of one’s powers (Dr. Cecilia Reyes) and fear of death if they don’t stop and if they do. Willie Seabrook, his drinking at its worst, prophetically writes his publisher, “I think I’ll die if I don’t stop drinking.” Carol Danvers (Iron Man) and Rose Wilson (Teen Titans) are both told by doctors that continued drug or alcohol use will lead to their deaths. Rose Wilson is told, “…You don’t lay off the epinephrine, you’ll be dead” because of the damage to her heart. She’s warned of the effects from prolonged epinephrine use including “migraines, tremors, blurred vision. Oxygen deprivation. Heart failure.”
Comic books and graphic novels also note positive forces within the addiction experience itself that can serve as push factors toward recovery.
“As devious as we have become, junkies are still capable of emotion, compassion, generosity, and charity. And sometimes we depend on each other to extend kindness, and through this selfless act our humanity can be restored, even if only for a few hours.” (The Brandon Novak Chronicles)
There are references in comic books and graphic novels to what today would be called “interventions” (e.g., Batman’s role in the recovery of Martian Manhunter), there is a surprising lack of references to institutions of control that play such a prominent role in the lives of addicted men and women (e.g., law enforcement, courts, prison, and the child welfare system). In one example we noted (Hey Kiddo), Leslie’s sobriety is implicitly tied to her time in prison. When she is released on probation and gets a job, her family worries that if she does not stay clean and keep her job she will return to prison. In another example, Carol Danvers (Avengers) is court martialed after making serious mistakes due to excessive drinking during a mission. The court martial scene is drawn like an intervention with each Avenger giving a statement about the impact her alcohol use has had, but she quits Avengers before they can demote her.
Styles of Recovery Initiation
There are varied styles of recovery initiation portrayed in American comic books and graphic novels. Recovery for most is portrayed as an incremental, stage-dependent process—a progressive accumulation of drug-related consequences. The turning point is often depicted as a “hitting bottom“ experience. The alcoholic character Wilty in the Wash Tubbs comic series proclaims, “I’m through saying I can quit if I have to…I can’t. I don’t drink any more to get a lift, I drink to stay alive….I’m licked.”
An AA member in the graphic novel Sobriety laments, “This is the case for many of us. We don’t want sobriety until it hurts badly enough.” Later, that same AA member notes the varieties of recovery experience: “Different people have different spiritual experiences. A few are sudden and dramatic… A lot of people—in fact, most—have similar experiences [more gradual and prolonged] that come as a result of working the steps.”
Comic book and graphic novel storylines where the change process was portrayed as unplanned, positive, and permanent include the character of Bane. While imprisoned in solitary confinement, Bane reviews the traumas of his life (e.g., in prison since his birth, subjected to experimental drugs, victimized by other prisoners) and experiences a vision conveying the message that he had “the strength of innocence to overcome the poison [Venom].” That vision marked the beginning of his recovery process. There are also examples of altered states of consciousness or sudden epiphanies that marked recovery initiation. Klaus (The Umbrella Academy) experienced a vision of himself in a stark white desert where he hears God commanding, “Stay off the drugs, Klaus.” Julia Wertz (Drinking at the Movies) experienced a sudden realization that she has been drowning in self-pity and blaming everything but herself for her problems. Matthew Parker, who had resisted NA and AA and varied treatments, had an epiphany in jail that marked his recovery initiation:
“I was totally, irrevocably, utterly in their control and had been for the past 13 years….I wasn’t a thorn in the side of The Man, but rather old meat trapped in his intestines….I therefore decided, right then and there, to quit using. To turn my life around.”
Viewed as a whole, recovery initiation in American comic books and graphic novels is portrayed as an intersection of pain and hope.
The Need for Sustained Vigilance
Even successful recovery, as in the case of Tony Stark (The Invincible Iron Man), is accompanied by the need for sustained vigilance against cravings and impulses to use: “It’s always with me…whispering to me.” Holly Robinson in Catwoman is constantly reminded of her addiction during the early months of her recovery: “…And I just can’t stop seeing these streets in junkie-vision…Or noticing how easy it would be to give in…”.
The need for sustained vigilance against impulses to use are well illustrated in the Wash Tubbs comic series, as Ben (AA member) describes Wilty’s continued vulnerability during the early days of Wilty’s recovery:
“Let’s get that straight…there is no cure. I’m what we call a permanently arrested case….one of perhaps 50,000 in AA who will never take another drink but we’ll always be alcoholics because we’re still allergic to alcohol. However, we can live normal lives! We’ve quit kidding ourselves that we can ever be social drinkers.”
“Gig’s [Wilty’s] chief danger now is a false sense of security, as he gradually loses his urges to drink. Unless we help him keep his guard up, an emotional upset…fatigue…an impulse to join friends in a “quick one”…or even a sudden piece of good luck could cause a relapse. ”
An AA speaker in the graphic novel Sobriety shares similar sentiments:
“Addiction isn’t just in our heads—it’s in our bodies and our spirits too. ….As an alcoholic I will always “have it”—but it doesn’t have to have me!”
“There’s no cure as yet—It’s a chronic illness that needs to be managed, like diabetes. But there’s a spiritual solution in the Twelve Steps.”
Recovery Support Resources
Recovery was often achieved in American comic books and graphic novels through reliance on resources and relationships beyond the self. Examples of this include Batman’s rescue and detoxification by his assistant Alfred, Captain America detoxing with the aid of Black Widow, the support Tony Stark received from his girlfriend and butler, Theresa Cassidy’s (X-Force) recovery with the aid of Warpath, Speedy’s cold turkey withdrawal with aid of Black Canary, and Harry Osborn’s rescue by Spider-Man. In the X-Men series, Dr. Cecelia Reyes achieves recovery after being rescued by the X-Men and through the support of Xavier through her drug withdrawal process. After Carol Danvers achieves sobriety with the aid of Tony Stark, she later helps him when he returns to drinking following revelation of his true identity. After Danvers achieves sobriety, she rejoins the Avengers on the condition that she be supervised and continue her AA involvement.
In the Catwoman series, Holly Robinson’s friends Selena and Karon serve as key support to her recovery. Leslie (Hey Kiddo) describes how she and her boyfriend support each other’s recovery, “He’s getting treatment, just like me.” (p. 229) … “Miguel and I are on this road to recovery together.” (p. 230). All five characters in the graphic novel Sobriety are involved in a Twelve-Step program, and one of the characters (Alex) references living in a recovery residence.
While in France, Willie Seabrook asked the famed author Gertrude Stein for guidance on his drinking problem. Her advice was simple: “stop drinking so much and return to writing….You must stop drinking and you must begin to write again.” Following that advice, Willie wrote his publisher in September 1933 asking for help. His publisher responded by making arrangements for Willie to return to America and be admitted to Doctors Hospital under the care of Dr. Alexander Lambert.
Character Transformation in Recovery
Recovery within American comic books and graphic novels provides an opportunity for the acquisition of new powers and altered qualities of character. Following Bane’s recovery from Venom addiction, he uses this period of isolation to strengthen his body through extreme physical exercise and strengthen his mind through meditation. Many American comic book characters who transitioned from addiction to recovery went on to develop a recovery-focused service ethic. Batman, after his own recovery, was involved in supporting the recoveries of three other characters: Arsenal, Speedy, and The Martian Hunter. Arsenal then goes on to become a drug counselor and law enforcement officer. Batman served as a recovery role model and recovery coach for others. Other examples of such service activities after recovery initiation include Dr. Cecilia Reyes’ volunteer activities at a homeless shelter (X-Men) and Karen Page’s operation of a legal clinic in Hell’s Kitchen (Daredevil).
Wilty, in the Wash Tubbs comic series, reflects on the therapeutic effects of helping others as part of one’s own recovery: “I had to call on Ben (AA member) again last night. He took me with him to see a very pathetic case. I think we helped him, but it helped me even more.” Holly Robinson in the Catwoman series worked undercover to take down drug dealers following her recovery from heroin addiction. Reflecting on this work, she explains, “I can use my life experience to my advantage for a change…And that makes me feel stronger…Prouder.”
In the graphic novel Sobriety, Dan and Alex describe their lives in recovery
“I once had a life that was destroyed by drugs and alcohol…But I got life back because of the Twelve Steps. It’s different than it was before. It isn’t perfect…But it’s full of surprises. And it’s worthwhile… Sobriety is more than the definition we find in a dictionary. It’s a new lifestyle that we embrace. It gives us real existence.”
“Now, I’ve left that life. I’m selling fine automobiles in London. And I’m happier than ever.”
Matthew Parker (Larceny in my Blood) described channeling his propensity for excess into his recovery process, using education as a pathway to recovery: “Being an excellent student also makes it easier to stay clean. I now channel my compulsion into more productive activities. Compared to the hard work involved in being a junkie, becoming an honor student is ridiculously easy.” Describing his experience in college and his writing aspirations, Parker describes the irony of his new circumstances: “Credit [to pay for school] is my new heroin, and debt its walls and razor wire.”
While limited in the range and depth of storylines, American comic books and graphic novels have portrayed recovery as part of addiction-related storylines, including the motivations for recovery, styles of recovery initiation, and the potential of recovery as a medium of personal transformation and service to others. In our next and final blog, we will highlight the portrayal of recovery mutual aid groups and addiction treatment in American comic books and graphic novels, as well as portrayed risk factors for addiction recurrence and the paucity of attention to family 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.