Drug Addiction in Graphic NovelsA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Claire Rose
Drugs in graphic novels may seem like a modern development with releases such as Buzzkill hitting the shelves. However, drug-takers have been subtly (or not so subtly, in some cases) folded into the pages and plots of many-a-piece of graphic literature before our very eyes for decades. Characters in comics such as Spiderman, Batman and Iron Man have often been plagued with addiction acting as a moral guideline for their intended audience. The way these storylines have played out, firstly in the background and more recently in the foreground, has shed light on the world’s changing attitude towards addiction; a shameful illness that should be kept out of the spotlight, to an issue that needs to be addressed.
Drug users within the pages
In most graphic novels, the drug user is not the main character; more often they are an extension of the protagonist, a friend, for example. This allows the writer to portray the negativity of drug use vividly without the story becoming primarily about addiction. One such example of this is Harry Osborn, Peter Parker's – or Spider-Man’s – best friend. In the Amazing Spider-Man comics by Marvel, Harry becomes addicted to pills whilst dating Mary Jane Watson. After their relationship ends, he overdoses on LSD.
The character Freak, also included in the Amazing Spider-Man comics, enters the tale by stealing a donation box containing money so that he can buy heroin to feed his addiction. While on the run, he crashes through some windows into a laboratory where he finds several syringes of what he assumes to be heroin, which he injects. The drug then turns him into a cocoon and when found, it’s discovered that he’s injected animal stem-cells, which has transformed him into a monster.
There are also many fictional drugs fabricated for comics; this distances the comic realm from our non-fictional world, while still carrying a message. Johnny Quick, the evil counterpart to the Flash in DC comics, has to ingest ‘speed juice’ to gain his super-human speed and when he doesn’t, he suffers from crippling withdrawal symptoms. While Bart Allen uses ‘Velocity 9’ to quicken his pace so that he could keep up with his enemy, the Flash. Additionally, Ultimate Colossus, who also deals with issues such as sexuality and unrequited love, appears in the Ultimate X-Men comics and takes a drug called ‘Banshee’ to enhance his powers.
More widely known is Bane, Batman’s nemesis, known as the man who ‘broke the bat’, who had to self-administer growth hormone known as ‘Venom’ to obtain his humongous size, strength and healing powers.
Tony Stark, the man underneath the suit in Iron man, is an alcoholic, an aspect from the comics that the movie hardly breathed upon and deliberately avoided in detail. There was even a series of comics released by Marvel called ‘Demon in a Bottle’ about Stark’s battle with alcoholism.
Comics about drug use
Amongst the graphic novels containing drug users, there’s the odd comic mainly about drug use itself. A Scanner Darkly is the graphic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novels in which Bob Arctor, an undercover detective, poses as a drug dealer who deals in a drug known as Substance D and becomes wrapped up in his fake life. The highly addictive drug leads to a split personality, extreme paranoia and insanity for the user. With a large portion of the population hooked on this drug, the government finds ways to spy on their people. The comic book strips are made up of stills from the movie adaptation, which was released around the same time, which included the actors Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Rider and Woody Harrelson. The film became something of a cult classic, only grossing just under $400,000 at the box office, but become popular afterwards.
Additionally, Buzzkill from Dark Horse is a comic about a man called Ruben, an alcoholic superhero who actually draws his powers from getting intoxicated, who decides to get sober. While the resolution to these issues often manifests itself through a lot of anguished actions mediating towards justice, revenge, or something in between, the hero often relies on their lone state or the help of a friend or mentor in order to fully recover, with some comics opening up to the more progressive and open-minded approach towards treatment through social measures such as rehabilitation. Often these are juxtaposed as the hero is often apart from society while being for it, but the complexity of tackling abuse is becoming increasingly less stereotyped in its portrayal through the medium and seeking social help is often seen as the hero's step towards "humanizing" themselves and accepting a degree of vulnerability.
The topic of drugs in the comic book world has been around for longer than the movie adaptations like to divulge; hiding in the shadows like the villains we love to read about. However, contrary to the evil geniuses and mutants that we can close the pages at any time to defeat, drugs are an obvious and very real issue we have today, had yesterday and will have tomorrow. The way addicts have been written into graphic literature over time depicts society’s attitude towards drugs over time, initially in the background with Spiderman as a cautionary tale, or tongue-in-cheek destructive personality trait in Iron Man, and now very much in front of our eyes with Buzzkill; holding up an - albeit smudged - mirror of today’s society’s view towards narcotics.