The Portrayal of Addiction Recovery in American Comic Books and Graphic Novels—Part 2 (Alisha White, PhD and Bill White, MA)
The Role of Recovery Mutual Aid Groups
The supportive role of recovery mutual aid groups was limited exclusively to Twelve-Step groups (Alcoholics Anonymous) within American comic books and graphic novels that contained addiction storylines.
Characters seeking recovery through AA include Tony Stark, Carol Danvers, Katina (“Katchoo”) Choovanski, and five characters in the graphic novel Sobriety. Tony Stark and Carol Danvers even go to the same AA meetings in multiple issues. In Iron Man: Resolutions #313, Tony spends New Year’s Eve at an AA meeting reflecting on his early exposure to alcohol as a pre-teen and current struggles with alcoholism. The role of an AA sponsor is portrayed through the character of Dr. Black, who serves as Ruben’s (Buzzkill) sponsor:
“The rest [beyond admitting you have a problem] is going to be tough, but I’ll be here to guide you. I’ve been through this before. It’s not impossible, Man.”
All five characters in the graphic novel Sobriety were involved in a Twelve-Step program. Larry noted his early perceptions of rehab and AA: “Look at rehabs: They’re invested on getting reimbursement from health insurance companies—the very same companies that require a medical treatment. It seems to me that the Twelve Steps are about something else; it’s like a cult!”
Several characters report getting sober through the help of other AA members. The character Matt (Sobriety) describes how the Twelve-Step program works:
“The problem is easy: we have a disease of the body that causes us to lose control when we drink or drug, and an obsession of the mind that causes us to drink and drug. That’s the powerlessness that step one describes…The solution to that irreconcilable dilemma is that the other steps give us a way to restore purpose and meaning to our lives.”
Resistance to Twelve-Step programs was portrayed via the character of Matthew Parker in Larceny in My Blood. At one of his parole hearings, Parker declares: “Well, I’ll tell you what I won’t do. I won’t go to NA meetings, or AA meetings, or any of that other crap.” (He was then paroled based on his honesty). In speaking of a later parole hearing, he recalls: ”I told them what I really thought of their rehabilitation policies and 12-Step programs in particular. I just think it’s all bullshit.”
There were no references to secular, spiritual, or religious recovery mutual aid alternatives to Twelve-Step programs in the comic books and graphic novels we reviewed. Given the national and international growth and diversification of alternative groups such as Women for Sobriety, SMART Recovery, LifeRing Secular Recovery, Celebrate Recovery, and numerous others, it is somewhat surprising that they have yet to appear within comic book and graphic novel addiction storylines.
Portrayal of Addiction Treatment
The representation of addiction treatment in American comic books is limited. Natural recovery is far more common than professional treatment, and comic book storylines offer few details related to the actual nature of treatment beyond medical withdrawal. In spite of the portrayal of opioid addiction in numerous storylines, there is little portrayal of the pharmacotherapy of opioid addiction. Recovery most often involved heroic rescue or was portrayed as an isolated episode that when shaken off allows other storylines to proceed without continued references to a recovery process. Below are the few treatment references we located.
In the Batman series, there are references to Doctor Leslie Thompkins and Tiffany Fox operating addiction treatment programs without reference to what such treatment involved. The DC Fandom Wiki explains, “Doctor Thompkins ran the free Thomas Wayne Memorial Clinic for criminals and drug addicts in Gotham City. While the majority of her patients were repeat offenders, she continued to do her job with great perseverance and determination.” Dr. Thompson later ceased her helping role and became a vigilante.
There are numerous examples over multiple decades of Tony Stark seeking treatment for alcoholism, however they rarely show details of what that treatment entailed. In Iron Man: Deliverance #182, Tony is admitted to a hospital for detoxification and later shown attending AA meetings.
In Vengeance of Bane, the psychiatrist Dr. Flanders, who Bane saw while in prison, is portrayed as empathic and skilled
The character Leslie in Hey Kiddo references going to a clinic after her release from prison and getting involved with another patient there: “He’s getting treatment, just like me….Miguel and I are on this road to recovery together.” She relapses and later dies of a heroin overdose.
Alex (Sobriety) entered a government-sponsored rehab for four weeks following an overdose. He warmly describes his counselor, who introduces him to the Twelve Steps: “David was a guy who listened—really listened—to me. He was in recovery himself. And he let me see the truth of my life: that it had spun out of control and was insane.”
The most detailed of addiction treatment appears in The Abominable Mr. Seabrook.
William Seabrook’s physician admitted him to Doctors Hospital, dried him out with the aid of “prescription booze”, and then discharged him as cured. The images of this episode show Seabrook looking through bars. Following his discharge from Doctors Hospital, he immediately returned to heavy drinking and was subsequently committed to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. Seabrook was a challenging patient, often objecting to various rules of the institution. Treatment at Bloomingdale consisted of “cold turkey” withdrawal from alcohol, hydrotherapy (baths and wetpacks), and psychotherapy to address his “addictive personality” and his sexual perversions. Seabrook was discharged after seven months and later detailed his experience there in his book Asylum. At the end of Asylum, he proclaimed himself cured, that he could now drink without excesses of the past and that he had conquered his writer’s block. “I’m now able to take a drink or two without desiring another and I seem to be cured of drunkenness.”
Seabrook’s drinking again raged out of control.
Matthew Parker provides the most detailed account of treatment resistance in his graphic memoir, Larceny in my Blood. Parker describes being ordered into a halfway house by a judge: “I was allowed to go to work and report back to the rehab each night, which made it easy to maintain my habit.” When arrested for failing a drug test, he “played the contrite junkie.” At a later 28-day rehab, he sarcastically describes his superficial compliance: “Oh, yes, I’ve seen the light. Hit rock bottom. I’m powerless over my addiction. I have to give it away to keep it.” Then released to Maverick House, he described feeling like he was “being conned.”
On Addiction Recurrence
Addiction recurrence following a period of recovery is described in several comic book and graphic novel storylines. Carol Danvers experienced a recurrence of drinking at a time she is struggling with writer’s block. Another time, she follows the Avengers into a bar on a mission commenting that she will need to stay vigilant to avoid another recurrence. Tony Stark experienced multiple relapses across his many storylines. Below is scene from Ironman: Demon in the Bottle that offers a typical depiction of the tensions that often precede a recurrence:
“For days, the stalemate rages—until at long last, emotional blocks begin to crack, then crumble—and Tony Stark spills his pent-up pain like milk from a spilt pail. He sighs, he shudders…and he shakes.” The purge helps and he returns to work. He apologizes to Jarvis saying he has “a handle on it now,” and Jarvis responds, “You have an illness. I quite understand.” While he’s at the Avenger’s mansion, Tony knows there’s a bottle in his room but says, “I don’t need the booze…I can handle this on my own without any counterfeit courage at all.” Later back at the mansion, Tony starts to pour a drink and Beth stops him. His face is sweating, eyes are down, he’s frowning, his hands are shaking. It’s described as the “hardest battle of his life.” Beth reminds him of his life’s dream, and shaking he recaps the bottle.
The self-talk that feeds addiction recurrence is vividly displayed in The Abominable Mr. Seabrook. Following treatment and a period of sobriety, Seabrook tires of the sober life and proclaims: “I’m tired of being a cripple. From now on, I’m going to prove that I can take a drink or leave it alone, like any other man.” After losing control over his drinking again, he would pledge sobriety anew but soon became bored and commence his drinking binges. His repeated refrain when talking to himself in the mirror: What do drunkards do? They drink themselves to death.” At a later stage of his story, Seabrook’s lover and third wife-to-be plunged his hands in boiling water to scald the skin so that he would be unable to pick up a drink. Seabrook continues drinking from a liquor bottle using a straw. He was committed to the Hudson State Hospital in mid-1945. A few months later and after his release, Seabrook committed suicide with sleeping pills and whiskey on September 20, 1945.
Brandon Novak (The Brandon Novak Chronicles) re-experienced heroin addiction after publishing his book, Dreamseller, in which he recounted losing his career as a professional skater due to his heroin addiction. In his graphic memoir, he describes coming back from his “insatiable appetite for heroin.”
Addiction, Recovery, and the Family
An area of scant attention in the addictions storylines of American comic books and graphic novels is the effect of addiction upon the family or the involvement of affected families in family support groups or addiction treatment. The few conclusions that can be drawn related to family include the following.
Addiction inflicts repeated episodes of humiliation, helplessness, worry, guilt, anger, and loss on the family (The Abominable Mr. Seabrook; Drinking at the Movies, Hey Kiddo).
Addiction can become so imbedded within the marital relationship that recovery may pose more of a threat to the relationship than continued addiction. Willie Seabrook’s second wife reveals, “I confess, Willie had handled the teetotaling better than I did.”
Sustained family support can play a crucial role in addiction recovery. Jarrett’s grandfather (Hey Kiddo) purchases a house for Leslie when she finishes the release program to support her new sobriety. Matthew Parker in Larceny in my Blood recounts such support:
“But as pissed as she [his mother] was, I always had a place to live. She was too kind and I used her…. At 41 years old and on my fifth trip to prison, she [mother] saw no reason for hope…But my mom never gave up on me—I think because our shared struggles showed how bad it could get….We were still family, not despite but because of all that we had lost.”
Sustained recovery brings indescribable relief to the family. Again, Matthew Parker reflects:
“She [mother] was not convinced of my commitment to kick heroin until a year after my release, during my second semester at SCC….I think that was the first time in 40 years that my mom could relax.”
The portrayal of the role of recovery mutual aid organizations in the process of addiction recovery is limited within the storylines of American comic books and graphic novels to Twelve-Step fellowships. In spite of their recent growth in the U.S. and internationally, the existence of secular, spiritual, and religious mutual aid alternatives have yet to be portrayed. Addiction treatment is briefly referenced within the addiction storylines of American comic books and graphic novels without substantial details related to the nature of such treatment or its degree of effectiveness. Addiction recurrence following an initial recovery attempt is common within the addiction storylines, with trajectories ranging from death to a final re-stabilization of recovery. American comic books and graphic novels have yet to fully portray the effects of addiction on the family and the processes, stages, and long-term effects of family recovery from addiction.
We anticipate a future in which collaborations between addiction professionals, recovery advocates, and the writers and illustrators will produce a new generation of addiction storylines within American comic books and graphic novels that more accurately portray the prevalence, pathways, stages, and styles of long-term 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.