“My life as Spider-Man is probably as dangerous as any, but I’d rather face a hundred super-villains than toss it away by getting hooked on hard drugs! ‘Cause that’s one fight you can’t win!”
~ Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man #96 (May 1971)
When comic book icon Stan Lee died on November 12th at 95, the world lost an irreplaceable legend. Lee was the co-creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Daredevil, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and literally thousands of other instantly-familiar characters.
But for all his creations that have captivated generations of comic book readers, Stan Lee leaves an even richer legacy than most people are aware of.
Introducing Important Social Themes
“Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God ― a God who calls us ALL ― His children.
~ Stan Lee, 1968
Under Lee’s bold tenure, Marvel Comics addressed a number of important social issues, all under the guise of mere entertainment—racism, prejudice, equality, the Vietnam War, disability, and student activism were all presented in a format that readers could easily understand and relate too.
In 1968, Lee used his monthly column, “Stan’s Soapbox”, to strongly denounce bigotry and racism, calling them “insidious evils”. Without fanfare, he promoted equality and tolerance at a time when it wasn’t the norm in American society.
Subtly, Marvel Comics reflected Lee’s vision. For example:
- Black Panther was the first black superhero, debuting in 1966, during the height of the Civil Rights era.
- Many of the X-Men’s storylines mirror the struggles of both the Civil Rights movement and the fight for gay rights.
- Several Marvel characters, including Professor X and Daredevil, have physical disabilities.
But in 1971, Lee took on a subject that had been totally forbidden in the comic book world—drug abuse. This meant standing up to the strict Comics Code Authority, and that was an enormous risk that most comic book publishers did not dare take. Defying the CCA was tantamount to corporate suicide.
But this is the story of how Stan Lee did just that, and by doing so, he elevated adolescent “funny books” into something far greater.
But this is the story of how Stan Lee did just that, and by doing so, he elevated adolescent “funny books” into something far greater.
Understanding The Power of The Comics Code Authority
“He once claimed he did a survey that demonstrated that most of the kids in reform schools were comic book readers. So I said to him, ‘If you do another survey, you’ll find that most of the kids who drink milk are comic book readers. Should we ban milk?’ His arguments were patently sophistic, and there I’m being charitable, but he was a psychiatrist, so people listened.”
~ Stan Lee on Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who wrote about the negative effect comic books had on teenagers
In 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America created the Comics Code Authority with the original intent of proactively self-regulating content. The Code was inspired by and loosely based on similar production and content standards found in the movie industry.
Generally, the Code prohibited specific lurid content such as overt sexuality and graphic violence. However, in other, more subtle ways, it was a way to censor ANYTHING that an individual screener might find personally objectionable. This was a broad power. For example, even though the original Code listed in point-by-point detail which scenes and subjects could not be depicted in comic books, it also surreptitiously slipped in a rather vague-yet-empowering phrase:
“All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency.”
Any comic book that adhered to these nebulous standards was permitted to showcase the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” seal on the front cover. And while the Code was voluntary self-regulation and held no official power over publishers, non-compliance was an almost-immediate death sentence for sales. As a result, most comic book distributors would not even carry any titles without the seal.
How influential was the CCA within the comic book industry?
After the CCA was established, the total number of comic book titles sold in newsstands plummeted from 650 to about 250, and several prominent companies—most notably United Feature Syndicate’s comic book division and EC Comics— were forced out of the business altogether.
This was the Code’s actual power when put into practice.
And this is the all-powerful influence that Stan Lee and Marvel Comics challenged in 1971.
An Official Government Request
“I got a letter from the Department of Health Education and Welfare which said, in essence, that they recognized the great influence that Marvel Comics and Spider-Man have on young people. And they thought it would really be beneficial if we created a story warning kids about the dangerous effects of drug addiction“…they were concerned about drug use among kids. Since Marvel had such a great influence with young people, they thought it would be very commendable if we were to put out some sort of anti-drug message in our books.”
~ Stan Lee
In 1971, while Lee was the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel, he was officially approached by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare about possibly publishing a story that could highlight the dangers of drug use and addiction. HEW was the forerunner of both the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.
And to ensure that this important anti-drug message would reach the most adolescents and teenagers possible, HEW requested that the story is printed in Marvel’s most popular and best-selling comic book, The Amazing Spider-Man.
Amazing Spider-Man, Issues #96-#98: The Story Arc That Changed It All
“I was determined not to allow the “message” part of our story to be so prominent, so blatant, as to make it seem like a sermon. I didn’t want our readers to feel we were preaching to them just because they were a captive audience — and yet, it was important that the message comes across, loud and clear. The answer seemed to be to inject the theme of drug addiction as a peripheral sub-plot which would in no way dilute the action, drama, or suspense of the regular superhero theme.”
~ Stan Lee
Lee was more than happy to help, although he admitted that he had very little knowledge of the subject matter, saying, “My problem is that I know less about drugs than any living human being! I didn’t know what kind of drug it was that would make you think you could fly! I don’t think I named anything; I just said that he had “done” something.”
But ignorant about drugs or not, he was adamant about how he wanted to tell the story—he didn’t want to sacrifice the story just to deliver a blatant, heavy-handed message to his readers.
To have the most impact, it was decided that the drug addiction sub-plot had to involve a major supporting character who was both familiar and important to readers. A new or minor character simply wouldn’t resonate as much with long-time fans.
Harry Osborn, Peter Parker’s best friend, and roommate and the only son of Spider-Man’s arch-enemy, the Green Goblin, was chosen. By this point, Harry had been appearing in the comic book for over five years.
This is how Harry’s storyline was written:
- After being dumped by his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson, Harry turns to drugs, saying “It’ll be worth anything to get her out of my mind.”
- A dealer preys upon Harry’s vulnerability, reassuring him that “Just try a few, and nothing’s going to bother you.”
- Peter, his roommate, notices that Harry has a lot of bottles in his medicine chest—“Pills to keep him up…to relax him…and to put him to sleep.”
- He takes pills over his friends’ concerns, saying, “You don’t like it, that’s really tough!”, before passing out.
- Later, Harry takes more drugs and starts wildly hallucinating—“I never felt this way before. It’s like I’m drowning…falling…dying inside! Nothing seems real…nothing hangs together! The pills…it must be the pills! They’re driving me out of my mind!”
- He then collapses from an apparent overdose.
- Luckily, Peter walks in on the unconscious Harry just in time to get him to the hospital.
In this particular story arc, the drugs are unnamed pills, but later issues establish that Harry has used cocaine, amphetamines, and LSD.
Defying the Comics Code Authority
“And when they were reading these [Spider-Man] stories, before they would put the seal of approval on the magazine, they said, ‘oh no, you can’t do this story.’ And I said, ‘why?’ They said, ‘according to the rules of the Code Authority, you can’t mention drugs in a story.’ And I said, ‘Look we’re not telling kids to take drugs, this is an anti-drug theme.’ [They said,] ‘Oh no it doesn’t matter, you mention drugs.’ And I said, ‘but the Department of Health Education and Welfare, a government agency, asked us to do it.’ and they said, ‘it doesn’t matter, you can’t mention drugs.’”
~ Stan Lee
While you would think that a request by a governmental agency to put out an anti-drug message to young people via the popular comic book medium would be just the sort of thing that the CCA would approve of, you would be wrong.
Despite HEW’s request, the entirely-negative portrayal of illicit drug use, and the positive outcome of Harry going into the hospital for professional help, the content of the storyline was rejected by the CCA. Perhaps extremely significant, the Code’s regular administrator was severely ill at the time, so the final decision fell instead to his temporary replacement.
The stated reason for the rejection was that the arc violated “good taste or decency” by featuring a storyline that featured ANY drug use—good or bad.
Because of the power and influence of the CCA, that would normally have been the end of it—in most cases.
But Stan Lee made the courageous – and controversial – decision to go ahead anyway, reasoning correctly that “we would do more harm to the country by not running the story than by running it.” He took his case directly to his publisher, Martin Goodman.
It is important to understand that since the establishment of the Code 17 years earlier, Marvel had NEVER put out a comic without the CCA seal of approval. If buyers stayed away, the repercussions could have been disastrous. But in a powerful and brave show of support for Lee and the rest of Marvel’s creative team, Goodman gave the go-ahead by saying, “Ok Stan, you go ahead and do it and I’ll back you up.”
What Happened Next Was More than Anyone Expected
“The world did not come to an end. We got the greatest mail from parents, teachers, religious organizations praising us for that story.”
~ Stan Lee
At first, Marvel executives worried that their expensive gamble to publish a full three-issue run of ASM without CCA’s seal of approval had monumentally backfired. Rival publisher DC Comics publicly blasted Marvel’s decision and announced they would never print any drug stories that were not fully compliant with the Code.
But… that was about all that happened.
The public support for the anti-drug storyline was overwhelming. The New York Times gave Marvel a boost with a positive write-up. Sales did not drop off. There was no outcry. Besides withholding the seal on those three specific issues of Amazing Spider-Man, the Comics Code Authority did nothing. That’s entirely the point—they never COULD do anything else.
And best of all, the Code was changed. While illicit drugs and abuse still could not be shown in a favorable or positive manner, anti-drug stories were no longer banned.
Another way to educate young people and open a dialogue was created.
Comic Books are Changed Forever
“Drugs are a symptom, and YOU, like the rest of society, attack the symptom, not the disease! But this symptom is worse than most—it maims…it pains…it dims you! It drives you to the edge of insanity and over… and one day ends your trip on a slab in the morgue.”
~ Speedy/Roy Harper, “Snowbirds Don’t Fly”
Very shortly afterward, DC Comics followed suit. In September of that same year, Green Lantern-Green Arrow #85 made the shocking announcement—with the CCA seal— that Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, was addicted to heroin. DC didn’t try to be subtle about it, either—the cover of the book showed Green Arrow and Green Lantern catching Speedy in the act of shooting up. The two-part storyline was titled “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” and won multiple comic industry awards that year.
Importantly, the door was opened for a more mature and realistic depiction of substance abuse.
“You don’t understand. If you could be inside my skin…if you could feel what I’m feeling, you’d know…you’d know that I’ve got to drink…I’ve got to…”
~ Iron Man/Tony Stark, ‘Demon in a Bottle”
In 1979, Marvel Comics’ Iron Man featured a nine-issue arc that addressed Tony Stark’s alcoholism. This powerful storyline, aptly-titled “Demon in a Bottle” has been lauded as the “quintessential Iron Man Story”. It took an important, titular character and gave him a real-life problem.
Up to this point, the Iron Man title was not a book that was known for telling particularly deep or significant stories. But by giving Tony Stark/Iron Man a true-to-life disorder that couldn’t be “fixed” from one issue to the next, Marvel highlighted the seriousness of out-of-control drinking. The story arc took nine months to complete, and the impact continues to define the character today, almost 40 years later.
“…I’ve been too busy to drink, too, so I guess that’s good. Doesn’t mean I don’t think about it…every time I pass a liquor store. It’s always with me, though, y’know? Whispering to me. And I know, deep down, that all I have to do is let my guard down just once.”
~ Agent Venom/Flash Thompson
Since then, other costumed heroes and well-known supporting characters have been depicted battling with various addictions and substance abuse problems. This granted artists and writers opportunities for reaching and teaching without preaching.
- Captain America–Methamphetamine
- Iron Fist—Opium and Alcohol
- Agent Venom—Alcohol
- Moon Knight—Painkillers and Alcohol
- Starfire—Alien drugs
- Captain Marvel—Alcohol
- Cyborg—Marijuana and Alcohol
- Karen Page, Daredevil’s girlfriend—Heroin
Comic Books and Public Service
“Declare that you will stay drug free. At any cost. You’re guaranteed to win. And you’ll be a hero–to your mother and father, family and friends, but most of all, to yourself.”
~ First Lady Nancy Reagan, in a preface to the Teen Titans drug awareness comic book
Sometimes, comics were specially-printed as anti-drug public service messages. These were usually published at the behest of another organization and told self-contained stories involving well-known characters. Although these tended to be more heavy-handed than regular issues, they could be mass-printed and handed out in school, at regional promotional events, or sponsored by specific corporations.
Some of the most well-known issues were:
- Captain America Goes to War Against Drugs, 2 issues
- The New Teen Titans (The President’s Drug Awareness Campaign), 3 issues
- Spider-Man: Skating on Thin Ice, Double Trouble, and Hit and Run, 3-part series
In addition, many regular monthly comic books would include one-page service announcements with anti-substance use messages. For example, Captain America talked about when Mom or Dad drink too much, and Archie Andrews and the Riverdale gang declared that “Drugs are Uncool!”
In fact, in 2011, squeaky-clean Archie Comics, which generally avoids controversial stories, teamed with Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the first annual PowerTalk 21, a national conversation day when parents talk with their children about alcohol.
Archie Comics Double Digest # 217 includes a story aimed at preventing underage drinking, starring the Archie characters and Dallas Cowboy Jason Witten. Co-CEO Nancy Silberkleit said, “I am so pleased that the Archie Comics characters can help give parents the tools to keep their kids alcohol-free. It’s our hope that families will continue these conversations year-round, opening up an important line of communication in households across the country.”
“When I ran with Ron’s gang, I did some drinking, tried pot once or twice. But I was really into sports an’ I didn’t want anythin’ messin’ up that. Ron and the others were always bored an’ tired. They didn’t care about nothin’ but smokin’ dope. An’ when they said I wouldn’t be their friend if I didn’t, I knew I made the right decision.”
One of the most important lessons imparted in most anti-drug comic books is the need to resist negative peer pressure. This a bigger problem than you might realize.
A 2011 study conducted by the University of Southern California discovered that humans are biologically “programmed” to ascribe more value in winning as part of a group than to individual victory. Per the researchers, this explains why when their friends are watching, people are much more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors.
This is a mechanism dating back to prehistory, when belonging to a group increased was often the only way to survive—pooling resources, reducing labor, larger mating pool, protection from animals and enemies, etc.
Put another way, it is human nature to “go along” with others in the group and mimic their actions. This biological imperative has stayed with us, still influencing group behavior today via peer pressure. In the specific case of teenagers:
- 70% of teens who smoke cigarettes say they started because they have friends who smoke, or because they were pressured to try it.
- 55% of teenagers who have experimented with drugs admit doing so because they felt peer pressure.
- Teenagers who see positive “liked” images on social media of other teens drinking are at tripled risk of initiating alcohol use.
But there is good news—positive peer pressure also works.
In 2011, a Harvard University research team found that peer pressure actually causes measurable changes within the regions of the brain associated with determining subjective value and reward.
Researcher Jamil Zaki says, “…what you like and are motivated by can be really altered by what people around you like and find motivated to them.”
This is important because, in virtually all anti-drug comic books, the afflicted substance abuser isn’t helped by punishment or imprisonment, but rather by other characters showing them a better way. They use positive peer pressure as an influence.
“…me an’ a few friends started drinking each day before class. Another friend was doing ‘smoke’ and asked if I wanted to. I didn’t, not at first. But then I said ‘sure’. I mean, most of my friends were. Besides, everyone thinks pot’s safer than alcohol, right? Then we started doin’ other stuff, too, an’ that’s when everythin’ went real bad.”
~ 13-year-old Debbie O’Hara, The New Teen Titans Drug Awareness Special
In 1982, when DC put out the New Teen Titans Drug Awareness Special, the issue contained one-page “confessional” asides with young characters in the story talking about how they got into drugs. These are meant to be diverse and representative so that readers can identify with their struggles.
Two things about these confessionals really stand out.
First, the characters were YOUNG—one was only 12 years old, and she said that she had been using drugs for three years. While that may sound shocking, it’s not far from reality. The average age of first use of alcohol is 13 years, 2 months, so obviously, many users will be even younger than that.
Second, the progressive nature of substance abuse was clearly shown. None of the children started with “harder” drugs like heroin or cocaine. They first used so-called “soft” substances like cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, or inhalants before moving on to stronger, more dangerous drugs.
This is also accurate because even “soft” intoxicants sensitize the reward pathways of the brain and increase the likelihood of addiction to ANY illicit substance. This is why they are known as “gateway drugs” because they lead to harder substances.
As Speedy says in his confessional, “Once you start experimenting, you don’t stop. Each new drug leads to another. I kept needing stronger stuff because I needed newer highs, something better than the last one.”
“My brother Juan, he was the one who started me using drugs. Now look at him – he’s dead. I used to think like that wouldn’t happen to me. But now, I don’t know, maybe they could. Maybe I could die, too.”
~ 12-year-old Anna Juarez, The New Teen Titans Drug Awareness Special
In an attempt to stay as realistic as possible within the confines of a comic book storyline, real-life consequences of drug abuse have been shown. For example:
- Harry Osborn collapsed while overdosing and had to be hospitalized.
- Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel drank so much that she suffered from alcohol poisoning.
- An unnamed young boy dies in the Teen Titans Special, even though they got him to the hospital as quickly as they could.
Unfortunately, these tragedies reflect real life. Right now, the ongoing drug epidemic has been called the “worst public health crisis in US history”. For the 19th straight year, the number of drug deaths has gone up, each subsequent year setting a horrific new all-time record.
In 2017, approximately 72,000 Americans died because of fatal drug overdoses. To put that number in perspective, in 1999 – approximately one generation ago -there were “only” 16,849 overdose deaths in the country.
That is an increase of 429%.
The drug death crisis as being driven by opioids:
- 63% of fatal overdoses involve illicit and/or prescription opioids.
- Deaths due to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl jumped by 72% in 2015.
- Between 2010 and 2015, heroin overdose deaths skyrocketed by 428%.
Part of the problem is that drug cartels are increasingly boosting the potency of their products by cutting it with cheap, laboratory-made fentanyl, an extremely-powerful synthetic opioid. Even worse, sometimes other drugs are entirely replaced by fentanyl.
This is so dangerous because fentanyl it is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine. And without a laboratory test, there is no way for the user to know the difference. This means when someone thinks they are taking heroin, for example, and it is instead fentanyl, their “normal” dose can be deadly.
A fentanyl dose the size of just six grains of salt is enough to kill a full-grown man.
Steering Kids in the Right Direction
“Kids, listen, for your own sakes, check into a detox center or some other program. Believe me, I know—there can be hope.”
It’s also encouraging to see how often the affected character receives outside help, as opposed to the mistaken idea that they should be able to overcome their addiction through willpower alone. For example:
- Harry Osborne is put into a hospital where he can recover physically and get help for his drug problem.
- Flash Thompson/Agent Venom is shown attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
- Roy Harper/Speedy becomes an addiction counselor.
- When Tony Stark/Iron Man is temporarily lost to alcoholism, Captain America stages a one-man intervention.
This is important because it moves away from the misconception that addiction is just some kind of character flaw that can be corrected with enough determination.
Removing the Stigma from Addiction
“People, inside that office is a boy who needs our support, not a lot of breast-beating.”
~ Captain America
In comics, heroes don’t shame people with addictions or make them feel guilty for their illness. Instead, they are treated with compassion and concern, even while they are being urged to stop what they are doing and get help. No already-vulnerable person is made to feel unworthy of love and support.
This is a valuable lesson for the rest of us, and it’s somewhat ironic that we have to learn it from comic books. Many of the storylines mentioned here were written before addiction was officially classified as a disease.
In the real world, there is still a great deal of undeserved stigma attached to substance abuse disorders. In 2013, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a study that found that the general public has a significantly worse attitude towards alcoholics and addicts than they do regarding people with mental illness.
The study, which was published in the October 2014 edition of Psychiatric Services, revealed:
- Only 22% of people are willing to work alongside someone with a drug addiction.
- Comparatively, 62% are agreeable to working with someone with a mental illness.
- 64% that employers should have the right to deny employment to someone with a drug addiction.
- But only 25% feel the same about people with mental illness.
- 43% think that addicted individuals don’t deserve health benefits equal to those of the general public.
- Just 21% were opposed to granting equal benefits to the mentally ill.
- Alarmingly, almost a third of people believe that it is impossible to successfully recover from addiction.
Worst of all, this stigma actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it can interfere with a person’s recovery. If someone doesn’t believe that they are worthy of sobriety, they won’t seek treatment.
Compassion and freedom from judgment makes a difference. Look at this powerful exchange between Mitch, a young drug addict, and Captain America:
Mitch: “You’re going to give me the whole drug talk now, right? Going to throw stats at me, show me charts, the whole bit. Well, go ahead, I’m ready for it.”
Captain America: “Are you sure? It’s pretty tough to hear.”
Mitch: “Oh, I’ve heard ALL the bits, seen the commercials. Go ahead. Gimme the whole stupid speech. Go on.”
Captain America: “Okay, here it is. We’re on your side.”
Mitch: “Oh…that’s IT?”
Captain America: “That’s it.”
Mitch is so shocked that he isn’t being given another lecture that he opens up to the idea of getting help.
Comic Books Show Recovery is Possible
“Wait. We want to thank you for all you’ve done. Their health is better, their grades are up, and they’re laughing again.”
~ Parents of a young addict to the Teen Titans
At the end of the Teen Titans special issue, most—although tragically, not all—of the young teen drug users are receiving help through an outpatient treatment program. They are all making significant progress, and improvement is being seen in every area of their lives.
This is how modern evidence-based treatment strategies can help drug addicts and alcoholics safely and successfully regain their sobriety. For example, when the “gold standard” of addiction treatment is utilized –behavioral counseling combined with FDA-approved anti-craving medications -up to 70% of patients are able to remain abstinent for a year or more.
And while the person is drug-and-alcohol-free, they can learn and apply the lessons taught during recovery. They can make the lifestyle changes that support their continued sobriety.
Comic Books Reach the Right Audience
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
~ Amazing Fantasy #15
There are over 22 million Americans on Facebook who self-identify as comic fans, about 55%-45% male vs female. That is a lot of people who can be reached when there is a positive message to be conveyed.
But even more important are the ages of those readers. 86% of people who read comic books started before they turned 15, and 99% before they turned 30.
This matters, because these are the ages when most people experiment with drugs and binge-drinking. And because the human brain continues to develop and mature into the mid-’20s, the damaging effects are magnified by underage use.
So if comics books can effectively deliver an anti-drug message to its young audience that keeps even a small percentage from experimenting or continuing to use alcohol or drugs, then their value is immeasurable.
At the very least, comics can open the door for a conversation between young people, parents, teachers, counselors, and families about the challenges and dangers of substance abuse.
Comic Books as Socially-Important Art
“If my books and my stories can change that, can make people realize that everybody should be equal, and treated that way, then I think it would be a better world.”
~ Stan Lee
Think about the paradigm shift that has occurred. Once upon a time, comic books could not even mention drug use. But now they are used by law enforcement, mental health professionals, civic organizations, and even the White House to educate young people and facilitate greater communication about the dangers of drug use and excessive or underage drinking.
Comic books have come a long way since the establishment of the Comics Code. In the 60-plus years since comic books have become an influential medium with iconic characters recognized by billions of people around the world. The books and movies remain an ideal platform from which to spread positive messages.
With no apologies at all to Mr. Bill Maher, that’s precisely why Stan Lee and comic books matter. None of this would have been possible today if Lee and Marvel Comics had not courageously bucked the system nearly 50 years ago.
These stories—now also told on TV and in blockbuster films— continue to reach a new and growing audience that once was completely denied representation in comics. Since his death, many people have posted on social media how inspiring Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe was to them on a deeply personal level, helping them cope during periods of depression, loss, loneliness, and addiction.
For multiple generations of readers, “Uncle Stan” created wonderful worlds of outcasts, addicts, weirdos, and misfits who somehow overcame it all to become…heroes.
Excelsior, Mr. Lee, and ‘Nuff said…
If you need help for alcoholism, illicit drug addiction, or the misuse of prescription medications, click HERE.
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