When I was young, Superman died in the comics and the world lost its damn mind. It made headlines, was covered in TV news segments and was turned into a SNL sketch. The event even landed on magazine covers. Since then, I’ve never known a time when comic books were anything but serious, cerebral business. The themes of comics simply seem to grow and age with their collectors. There’s nothing kid-friendly about the modern landscape of comic book themes: apocalypse, sex, overpopulation, gender politics, graphic violence (I feel bad for Archie fans). Also, among my friends, comic books weren’t abandoned after adolescence—they were simply better collected, cataloged and cared for. Some people I know organize their comics with the meticulous precision of bank auditors, detailing dates, writers and artists.
For every familiar title, there seem to be another 10 grittier, darker ones out there, like 100 Bullets, Hitman and Hack/Slash. Most every classic superhero has been given a dark makeover, too. That said, comic books and graphic novels provide some of the most accurate, intense and haunting depictions of addiction ever created. In fact, comics easily compete with any film or novel in their treatment of the subject, providing windows into worlds that are all too familiar to alcoholics like me. Here is a list of comic books about addiction and alcoholism that are worth another look. For me, it’s deeply affecting to know that while some heroes may be bulletproof, they’re not immune from the struggles many of us face on a daily basis.
1. Tony Stark (The Invincible Iron Man)
It’s hard to imagine that Tony Stark/Iron Man existed long before Robert Downey, Jr. Throughout the years, the super-rich genius/engineer battled countless threats and super-villains but in 1979, it was Stark’s own alcoholism that broke through his industrial-grade armor. The storyline, famously known as “Demon in a Bottle,” chronicles Stark’s descent into binge-drinking and losing his leadership over the Avengers. One of the covers is a classic, showing a sweaty, five o’clock-shadowed Tony Stark staring helplessly into the mirror. It’s less important in its stab at exploring alcoholism than it is a comic book taking a character flaw and turning it against the main character. While Stark’s troubles are conquered a bit too easily, it remains a bold statement about what comic book storytelling can accomplish.
2. Karen Page (Daredevil)
Blind since birth, Matt Murdock/Daredevil has always lived in the dark—but there was no way for him to ever see the events of 1986’s “Apocalypse” coming. Murdock’s ex-girlfriend (and former secretary) Karen Page returns, turning his life inside-out. Karen’s revealed to have had minor success as an actress before becoming a junkie/porn star. Turns out, Karen has sold Matt’s secret identity for a fix which, in turn, gets sold to Daredevil’s nemesis The Kingpin. Over the course of subsequent issues, Murdock helps Karen beat her heroin addiction and rebuild their relationship.
3. Harry & Norman Osborn (The Spectacular Spider-Man)
It’s probably not the first comic book you’d peg for dealing with drug addiction, but it’s a subject that’s repeatedly been woven into the web of everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-Man. In the comics, Peter Parker’s friend Harry Osborn is driven to self-destructive drug use a number of times—largely because of Harry’s father, Norman Osborn (aka Green Goblin). Norman, as it turns out, has his own inner demons to deal with, having experimented on himself with harder and harder drugs. Norman’s mental instability pushes Harry to pill use and then an overdose. Even more fascinating is that particular 1971 storyline was requested by the Department of Health Education and Welfare and was then, according to creator Stan Lee, instantly rejected by the Comics Code Authority for mentioning drugs in the first place.
4. Roy Harper (aka “Speedy”)
A Navajo trained in weapons and martial arts, Roy Harper was once Green Arrow’s sidekick named—wait for it: Speedy. Yes, Speedy. Underwhelming hero name and all, teenage Roy had a rough go of things in 1971. While Green Arrow was away, Roy got hooked on heroin. When Green Arrow returns, he’s horrified by this discovery. In fact, he reacts as only a comic book superhero can be expected to react: he punches the kid. Seriously. Still, years after withdrawing from heroin, Roy would become a drug enforcement agent.
5. Siryn/Banshee (X-Factor)
An Irish mutant with the power of a “sonic scream,” Siryn (and later known as Banshee) grapples with crippling alcoholism. In one issue, she’s poetically seen battling with the bottle and losing. She’s shown bottoming out and feeling as though she’s beyond rescue, likened to a withering flower (“All because of a glaring lack of attention to the needs of the plants—it would take so much work to bring it back to life.”) That said, in recent issues of X-Factor, she’s notably depicted leading a happy, determined and sober life. It’s a rare bright spot in a list of dark comic book moments.
6. Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski (Strangers in Paradise)
Terry Moore’s self-published thriller, notable for its black-and-white artwork, traces the thorny triangle between three characters and their role in undermining the American political system. Katchoo is one of the most well-drawn (pun intended) recovering alcoholics in any comic out there. An artist and former prostitute, she’s also been making the AA meeting rounds since she was a teenager. As an adult, Katchoo is shown constantly struggling with her drinking, demonstrating as complicated a relationship with alcohol as she has with everyone else around her.
“Batman” and “drug addiction” don’t belong in the same sentence. If anything, the Caped Crusader is most likely to be addicted to glowering or brooding. But in 1991, Batman went down an unexpected path. If the cover art of a bearded, out-of-it Batman surrounded by his cape and scattered pills isn’t compelling enough for you, I don’t know what is. After failing to save the life of a little girl, Batman goes off the deep end. He’s introduced to “Venom”—a steroid that makes him both aggressive and gleeful in his rage. The experimental drug is also (naturally) highly addictive. The story doesn’t pull any punches with Batman’s withdrawal or the fight for his sanity. Like Bruce Wayne’s childhood, it’s a painful and tortured experience that makes his recovery all the more compelling.
I love the simplicity of this character. Scientist Rex Tyler has superhuman strength and speed—but only for one hour and only after taking a drug that gives him said superpowers. Hence the name Hourman. It also sorts of begs the question why his enemies just don’t wait an extra minute to shoot him dead, but I guess that’s beside the point. Still, after taking the drug Miraclo, Tyler becomes Hourman—a hero who’s as addicted to the drug as he is crime-fighting. At one point, he nervously paces as the drug works its magic and pleads with the universe for a criminal to fight. The addiction is later passed onto his son, Rick—a second Hourman.
9. Captain America
Remember that time when Captain America was taking down a Manhattan drug ring, the meth lab exploded, and good old Cap went insane? No? You don’t recall that he gets jacked on meth, beats the hell out of Daredevil, and shouts “Bock bock bock bock!” like a chicken? It’s all part of the heavy-handed 1990 storyline “Streets of Poison” that ends on one of the most obvious “Just say no” moments ever. Quite literally, in fact. While it’s not one of the finest moments in comics history, it’s still an interesting time capsule into America’s War on Drugs campaign.
10. Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel)
Otherwise known as Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers is often considered one of the most iconic female characters in comic book history. She is also one of the most important recovering alcoholics in comics. In one story, as her powers start dissipating, her drinking problem increases. Naturally, Tony Stark sees Carol’s problem straightaway, but it’s too late. Instead of dealing with her problems, Carol does what many alcoholics do with their problems: she runs from them. She quits the Avengers and tries to make a new life for herself as a writer. However, she fails to overcome her drinking, eventually getting alcohol poisoning. In a happy ending, she ultimately finds sobriety and starts regularly attending AA meetings.