“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
When comic book legend Stan Lee passed away on November 12th at the age of 95, the world lost someone irreplaceable. Lee was the co-creator of Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and hundreds of other characters, but his legacy goes far beyond that.
Under his tenure, Marvel comic books addressed many social issues under the guise of entertainment—prejudice, the Vietnam War, racism, student activism, and equality were all presented in a format that readers could understand.
But in 1971, Lee took on a subject that was forbidden in the comics world—drug addiction. This meant defying the Comics Code Authority and taking an enormous risk.
But by doing so, he elevated “funny books” into something far greater.
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, talking about Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who wrote about the negative effect comic books had on teenagers
In 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America established the Comics Code Authority as a means of self-regulating content. The Code was loosely based on similar production standards in the movie industry.
Chiefly, the Code banned such specific content as graphic violence and overt sexuality, but in some ways, it was a way to surreptitiously censor ANYTHING objectionable. For example, although the original code spelled out in point-by-point detail what could not be depicted, it also included a rather vague 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.”
Among other things, this included illicit drug use.
Any comic book that complied with these standards could bear the seal “Approved by the Comics Code Authority”. And although the Code had no official power over publishers, non-compliance was a virtual sales death sentence. Most distributors would not carry comics without the seal.
After the CCA was established, the number of comics in the newsstands dropped from 650 to about 250, and several companies—most notably EC Comics and United Features Syndicate’s comic book division— were forced out of the business.
This was the Code’s actual power.
And this is what Stan Lee and Marvel Comics took on in 1971.
Spider-Man #96-#98: The Arc That Changed It All
“My life as Spider-Man is probably 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)
In 1971, while Lee was serving as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel comics, he was approached by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare about publishing a story highlighting the dangers of drug addiction. To ensure that the anti-drug message would reach as many young people as possible, they asked that the story be printed in The Amazing Spider-Man, the company’s most-popular comic book.
Lee was happy to help, and even though he admitted that he new next to nothing about drugs, he knew how he wanted to tell the story, saying, “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 come 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 super hero theme.”
Importantly, the sub-plot about drug addiction involved a major supporting character—Harry Osborn, Peter Parker’s best friend, roommate and the son of the Green Goblin, Spider-Man’s arch-enemy. After being dumped by his girlfriend and turns to drugs, eventually suffering a dangerous overdose.
Peter walks in on the overdosing Harry just in time to get him to the hospital.
In this particular storyline, the drugs are unnamed pills, but later issues would establish Harry’s use of cocaine , LSD, and amphetamines.
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
Despite the request by the governmental agency, the negative portrayal of drugs, and the outcome of Harry going into the hospital for help, the content was rejected by the CCA. Significantly, the Code’s administrator was ill at the time, so the final decision was made by his temporary replacement.
It most cases, that would have been the end of it.
But Stan Lee made the controversial and courageous decision to proceed, reasoning that “we would do more harm to the country by not running the story than by running it.” He went directly to his publisher, Martin Goodman, to plead his case.
Since the inception of the Code, Marvel had never published a comic without the seal. The results could be disastrous. But in a powerful display of support for Lee and the rest of the creative team, Goodman said, “Ok Stan, you go ahead and do it and I’ll back you up.”
Nobody Expected What Happened Next
“The world did not come to an end. We got the greatest mail from parents, teachers, religious organizations praising us for that story.”
At first, Marvel worried if their expensive gamble to publish three issues without the CCA seal of approval had backfired. Rival DC Comics blasted the decision and announced they would not print drug stories that were noncompliant with the Code.
But that was about it.
Public support for the story was overwhelmingly positive. The New York Times gave Marvel and the storyline a good write-up. Best of all, the Comics Code Authority was changed. While of course drugs could not be depicted in a favorable manner, the Code did now permit anti-drug stories.
Shortly thereafter, DC followed suit. In September 1971, CCA-approved Green Lantern-Green Arrow #85 made the shocking announcement that Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, was a heroin addict. They weren’t subtle about it, either—the cover depicted Speedy immediately after shooting up. The two-part storyline was titled “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” and won industry awards that year.
These stories opened the door for more mature, realistic depictions.
In 1979, Marvel’s Iron Man ran a nine-issue story arc that dealt with Tony Stark’s alcoholism. This storyline, entitled “Demon in a Bottle” has been called the “quintessential Iron Man Story”. It took a character that wasn’t known for particularly deep stories and giving him a real-world problem that couldn’t be solved in a single issue—it took nine months to complete the arc, and the impact still defines the character today.
Since then, other superheroes and supporting characters have been shown with various addictions and drug-related problems, allowing writers and artists to reach out without preaching.
- Iron Fist—Opium
- Captain America—Methamphetamine
- Starfire—Alien drugs
- Moon Knight—Alcohol and painkillers
- Agent Venom—Alcohol
These stories continue to reach a new audience that once was denied representation in comic books. Since his death, many people have taken to social media to post how inspiring Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe was to them on a deep personal level. For generations of readers, “Uncle Stan” created worlds of outcasts and misfits who somehow became…heroes.
For his part, Stan Lee had this to say, “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.”
Excelsior, Mr. Lee.