When Comic Books Addressed Social Commentary: The Classic and Controversial Drug Storylines of Yesteryear
The Early Years of Comic Books and Social Commentary Explored Drug Addiction
There have been several comic books that have dealt with the subject of drugs and drug addiction. In the current, more adult-oriented landscape of comic books, plots revolving around drug dealers are, quite honestly, conventional and have been so for well over two decades. As the saying goes, it did not always use to be that way.
Plotlines dealing with drugs were once rare and enormously controversial. Such tales were not allowed in prior generations under the oversight of the then all-powerful Comics Code Authority.
Not so anymore.
Perversely, there is a similarity between the use of drugs and reading comic books. The prime reason people abuse drugs is to change a state of mind and to engineer an escape. Comic books do the same thing but in a far more positive way. Yet, the drug user and an avid comic book reader may both be reaching for the same goal: a means of escaping a miserable existence in the present.
The 1950s: E.C. Comics Provides A Cautionary Tale
Escapism was never at the core of the early drug tales in the 1950s. Quite a few of the popular crime comics of the era offered cautionary tales about addiction. The legendary E.C. Comics, the publishing house for Tales from the Crypt, presented a tale that was quite eye-opening for its time.
Again, the presence of drugs in a comic book was something that was banned by the comics code. The comics code emerged out of the fall of E.C. Comics in 1955. To avoid seriously bad publicity causing the ruination of the industry, more child-friendly standards were imposed. D.C. Comics certainly did not want to collapse like E.C. had.
Ironically, it was E.C. that published a hard-hitting tale of heroin addiction titled "The Monkey" in Shock SuspenseStories #12. The narrative is slightly preachy, but it never loses the edge common among the excellent E.C. stories of the era.
"The Monkey" was a shocking work, as was the case with many of the social commentary works produced by E.C. The more violent and, truthfully, very creative horror tales are remembered thanks to the enduring popularity of Tales from the Crypt. The science-fiction, war, and crime comics ventured into themes that had a much stronger, emotional resonance to them. Shock SuspenseStories sought more frequently to delve into social commentary than the other titles until becoming a mostly crime book, which did not reflect a decline in quality as the book remained consistently excellent.
Told in the first-person, the story shows the fast descent of Eddie after he tries drugs for the first time at the bequest of the neighborhood pusher. The narrative may be a little straight forward, but the art makes this story work. Artist Joe Orlando amazingly captures the squalor Eddie lives in, squalor representing the bleak contrast to the upbeat suburban life he once lived, an experience also expertly presented by Orlando.
"The Monkey" presented a brilliant cautionary tale to young male readers about the dangers of slipping into the drug and party scene that existed as an underbelly subculture in the 1950s. Drug cultures, at the time, existed on the fringe of society, but all this would change in less than 10 years after the debut of "The Monkey" in print.
The Amazing Spider-Man Bucks the Code
When Stan Lee chose to take The Amazing Spider-Man in a new direction of social commentary with the now-classic drug issues, he did so through bypassing the Comics Code by depicting Harry Osborn's decent in addiction. The narrative of the drug storyline spanned from #96 to #98 during the year 1971.
As all are aware, thanks to the popularity of the movies, Harry Osborn is the son of Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin. The drug addiction storyline shows the continued maturity of the title that established itself as something very unique and different in the very the first issue. Sadly, shortly after the publication of these very groundbreaking issues, other than the death of the Goblin and Gwen Stacy, the title would slip into well over a decade of mostly standard writing.
One tremendous benefit to the three-part story arc is it never preached to the audience, although the stories indeed sought to get a message across. The message was delivered, but never at the expense of telling an excellent Spider-Man tale.
It would be another decade before Marvel would again take on drug use in a controversial story arc.
Daredevil and The Punisher Fight the Same Foe
The Daredevil story arc (Daredevil issues #182 - #184) featuring the horrors of PCP may very well have been the most shocking of all the comics to deal with drugs at the time. While the violence level in comics would be increased tenfold over the next several years, very few books delivered the dark, malevolent menace found in this three-part arc. In other words, drugs were the evils of a subculture that crept into a civilized society. In Frank Miller's vision, society has already collapsed, and what now exists is little more than squalid decay. Drugs simply are a common part of the landscape. Daredevil, while just as disgusted with the presence of severe drugs as the other heroes in the Marvel and D.C. Universes, seemingly accepts their presence as inevitable.
What complicates matters more is the presence of The Punisher, who feels the same way as Daredevil. However, he has been absorbed by the collapse of the civil society and wishes to execute and eradicate away the pestilence afflicting society. The Punisher's journey is a long, arduous, and fruitless one doomed to fail. Eliminating those who poison society can, seemingly, force the creation of order since the evil elements are being eliminated, and those who remain may be too fearful of acting.
The fool's journey of The Punisher is he cannot possibly have a large enough effect to achieve these results, and his acts do nothing to address the root cause of the afflictions creating the drug scourge. The irony here is the chaos The Punisher brings to the scene only further contributes to turmoil, misery, and dystopia. PCP may very well have been the perfect drug to focus on in this story arc, considering the surrealistic nightmare New York City is presented as in both the narrative dialogue and the brutal, gritty artwork.
The Hard Traveling Heroes Tackle Heroin Addiction
Denny O'Neil and Neil Adams saw potential in two very flagging D.C. Comics superheroes, Green Arrow and Green Lantern. Their individual books were not selling. Green Arrow was very much (at the time) a Batman knockoff, and an argument can be made that Green Lantern, initially influenced by the pulp work of E. E. "Doc" Smith had become little more than a Superman carbon copy. O'Neil and Adams took a chance on two comic books that had become little more than "fish wrap" and combined them into one book. A bold new direction was taken with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, the Hard Traveling Heroes, since there was nowhere to go but up.
The liberal Green Arrow and the conservative Green Lantern would travel down the roads of America to learn about its people and its changing culture first hand. The two would not battle super villains as much as they would experience cultural upheaval up close and personal.
As O'Neil would put it, the end result was more fish were wrapped. No one bought the books, and cancellation was unavoidable. In time, a greater appreciation for the groundbreaking work on the series was achieved.
The Hard Traveling Heroes, heavily influenced by the music of Bob Dylan, sought to explore social themes and, of course, provide a vehicle for the creators' social commentary. A bit of polarization exists among comic book historians and fans when it comes to the merits of the work of O'Neil and Adams on Green Lantern/Green Arrow. One camp suggests the stories were ridiculously preachy, and others say they were far ahead of their time and greatly influenced comic book writers for generations to come.
The legacy of the work is found somewhere in between preachy and influential. It could be said that Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics were not much different from records released by The Velvet Underground. The band probably only sold 10,000 albums, and everyone who bought them became rock stars.
Of all the issues published under the Green Lantern/Green Arrow line, the drug issues are the most memorable and more famous.
Green Arrow, again, was a Batman knockoff early in his publishing career. Like Batman, Green Arrow had his Robin, a sidekick called Speedy. To Green Arrow's great shock, Speedy falls victim to the hold of heroin addiction. The legendary cover of Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 was shocking for its time. Imagine seeing that issue stare at you from a drug store shelf circa the fall of 1971.
The two two-part story arc appearing in issues #85 and #86 titled "Snowbirds Don't Fly" and "They Say It'll Kill Me…But They Won't Say When!" gain much infamy for the latter issue's cover. Within its pages is a very poignant message given by a young man who says how can people believe what authority figures told about drugs when the same authority figures imposed Jim Crowe laws? This question is almost like a koan since its answer has to be pondered.
All of the themes in all of these classic E.C., Marvel, and D.C. Comics are worth pondering...and reading. Add them to your trade paperback collection.
Last thought: Will the Arrow T.V. series adapt the old drug storylines from the classic issues?
Bronze Age Reflections
Modern comics don't shy away from tackling controversial themes, but readers do expect creators to delve into social commentary. During the Bronze Age of Comics, doing so was outright shocking. More so, the stories were trailblazing and laid the foundation for modern, adult-themed storytelling. And they are timeless, which is why we continue to see the reprints decades after decades.