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When DC Took on Drugs

The Longbox Theory

A young hero succumbs

A young hero succumbs

The opioid crisis has reached epidemic proportions that dominate headlines on the subject. Stories of addiction and accidental overdoses are all too common, as communities deal with a problem that seems to have no solution.
This isn’t the first time heroin addiction has stepped out of the shadows and alleys most people associate with the drug. In 1971, Writer Denny O’Neil and Artist Neal Adams crafted the pivotal story, “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” in their award-winning series; Green Lantern/Green Arrow (issues 85-86).

Given where we find ourselves today, it’s a great time to look back at that story and how it came to be.

Back in the days of the Comics Code Authority when DC published the story, mainstream comics could not receive the CCA stamp of approval if they presented the use of drugs. O’Neil and Adams’ book had already tackled a number of social issues and received a great deal of acclaim along the way, but they felt strongly about taking on the topic of addiction, despite the rules against it.
They pushed to do the story; but before they could publish theirs, Marvel beat them to the punch in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man (issues 96-98) depicting Peter Parker‘s best friend, Harry Osborn addicted to, and eventually overdosing on, pills.

Marvel, Marvel, Marvel... with apologies to The Brady Bunch

Marvel, Marvel, Marvel… with apologies to The Brady Bunch

The CCA stamp did not appear on the issues’ covers, and in response to that move and the reasons behind it, the publishers got together and rewrote the code. Weeks later, O’Neil and Adams published their story, complete with the harrowing image of Green Arrow catching his teenage sidekick (and core Teen Titans member, Speedy) Roy Harper shooting up heroin.

If the image didn’t make the statement clearly enough, the tagline “DC attacks youth’s greatest problem… drugs!” hammered it home beyond any doubt.
This wasn’t Spidey’s best buddy mainly succumbing “off stage,” … this was a beloved, established character—a hero—getting his fix right in readers’ faces. Marvel might have gotten there first, but DC’s take was the more impactful.

O’Neil and Adams had already taken on racist tenement slumlords mistreating the poor, exploited workers, cults, Native American sovereignty rights, overpopulation, rampant consumerism, and power-hungry judges, in the pages of their run. However, the “drug issues” expressed a new level of social activism. Clearly, drugs were bad—but “bad” people weren’t the only ones using them. The creators put a face on addiction and humanized the problem in a way that many people hadn’t imagined until then.

The tale featured Roy’s journey to sobriety—surprisingly, without the help of Green Arrow, who was for all intents his father. That was another bold move, presenting Oliver Queen (Green Arrow’s civilian identity, and the title’s social conscience until then) in a negative light. It gave the story credibility, as young people often have to face this problem without the support of those they love. It also demonstrated the risks the creators were willing to take, possibly alienating fans, to tell an important story as well as a good one. O’Neil and Adams didn’t absolve Roy of the bad choices he’d made (though they presented the reasons behind them); he had to own them as well as their consequences.

Later that year, the story won the Shazam Award for Best Individual Story. It also paved the way for exploring more contentious social issues, including race relations with the introduction of John Stewart as a new (and very different, angry and independent) Green Lantern, social activism, and pollution—the latter including a hinted at subtext of the second coming, no less.

The Mayor of NY was so moved, he wrote DC a letter thanking them

The Mayor of NY was so moved, he wrote DC a letter thanking them

These were bold statements for the time…

Perhaps they still are. It would seem we’ve grown no wiser, as nearly five decades later we’re still struggling with all the topics covered in this run. Worse yet, given the vitriol that greets any perceived attempt at making a political statement or having an agenda, how would a contemporary audience greet these books?
O’Neil and Adams were unabashed “social justice warriors” who started a new and important conversation every month—ones we never seem to get around to resolving all that successfully. Many people come to comics looking for an escape from these issues, but the books have never just been escapist fiction for their creators.

I respect the work (as well as the essential bravery of risking the repercussions), even if I haven’t always agreed with every opinion expressed.
People are once again dying at epidemic levels from opioid abuse. The victims on all sides of this crisis deserve a voice…and a face. If you want a unique perspective on the issue, you might consider picking up the collected volume of the O’Neil and Adams run. Amazingly, sadly, it’s still relevant: For better… and for worse.

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