When Comics Get Political
In this column I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. This time Spider-Man and the War on Drugs.
War on Drugs Background
Amazing Spider-Man #96 came out May 1971. This was one month before Nixon declared “War on Drugs” and long before the Reagan era, where it became a full force initiative. However, the problems with street drugs was at the forefront of the American issues. Drug use has been demonized in a variety of ways from prohibition of alcohol (throughout the 20s and early 30s), to the exaggeration of marijuana dangers in the 30s (exemplified in the film Reefer Madness, 1936). This became a bigger issue with the drug use of the countercultures of the 1960s and 70s, where the contents of this comic were set.
Addiction as an illness
This comic is just the first part of a larger arc, but it hits on one of the general ideas of how drug use should be viewed. At the start of the comic, a young man is jumping off a roof of a building, as he is too high to know better. While this trope has been seen many times in media before and is often used in a problematic nature, the treatment of it changes the outcome. Spider-Man saves the young man but it is not seen as him stopping a crime. He makes a point to say the addict is “sick” and the police rush to help save his life. So rather than blaming and demonizing the user, they show empathy and respect. Calling drug use a health issue, rather than a criminal one, shows some real progressive attitudes. Literally, one month after this comic was produced, and the “War on Drugs” started, incarceration rates raised. If only the attitude of this comic became the prevailing nature of the government.
This comic not only juggles drug issues as an isolated fear but rightfully incorporates race into the discussion. It is not controversial to point out that minorities are often targeted far more for their drug use than any other group. Robbie Robertson’s son, Randy, is the political voice of this comic. Robbie is typically used as the progressive voice at the Bugle, but his son is often used to voice concerns that deals with issues pertaining to youth. Randy states that African Americans are already isolated and ostracized by society. Because of the systematic racism they face, they are an easy target for drug pushers. He directly blames Norman Osborne for not using his wealth and influence to try and help society. Norman is the successful libertarian business owner, who sees all issues outside of his realm as problems for other people. He even goes so far in saying that he is only one man, and cannot be expected to try and change the world. Randy rightfully points out he is one of the few that do have the power to make real change. By placing the antagonist in this issue as a rich white man, and the conflict surrounding drug use in the black community, it isn’t hard to parse out the political message of this story. In later issues in the arc, we learn that Harry Osborne has a drug addiction problem, making the point that drug addiction affects everyone. Harry’s addiction is also treated as a mental health issue and with empathy. Yet it was Norman, Harry’s father, who refused to see why he should help his community.
Stan Lee, John Romita, and Gil Kane (the team on this book) took a bold stance in producing a highly political comic. It is interesting to see that these old issues penned by Stan Lee, thus part of the very fabric of Spider-Man himself, are not afraid to tackle social and political issues.