Over the last month, I’ve been working through the materials and discussions for the Social Issues Through Comics (or SuperMOOC2) online class. The first module covered Addiction in Comics, dealing primarily with source material like Denny O’Neill’s Batman: Venom and famous Green Lantern/Green Arrow arc “My Ward is a Junkie,” as well works like Donny Cates’s Buzzkill. Over the course of reading the materials and talking with classmates, I came to realize something I’d never really considered about super-heroes.
They’re all addicts.
This is not to say that every super-hero is addicted to drugs, or alcohol, or internet porn, but that they are addicted to heroism itself. Over a lifetime reading comics, I have craved the sort of abilities that these four-color heroes and heroines possess. If you’re like me, you’ve longed to fly, teleport, shoot force beams from your eyes, or read the minds of those around you. Perhaps you’ve even longed to have the ability to right a great injustice, just as the technicolor avatars on the printed page have been doing for decades. What separates us from the heroes in comics is not a lack of demand (in an economic sense) but a lack of supply.
Heroism as an Intoxicant
There are innumerable examples from comics of heroes who simply love what they do. How many times have we seen the look of transcendent joy somehow radiate through Peter Parker’s full-face mask as he swings through the city, taking down corner store robbers or purse snatchers? How many times have we seen Superman grin as he absorbs a hail of machine-gun fire in the pursuit of justice? The high that comes from the heroic life is a trope that is repeated over and over in comics throughout the decades. There are heroes who take tremendous joy in their roles as protectors, deriving immense satisfaction from them, and this is shown as something to be admired. However, in the same way that workaholics can be seen as having an addiction to the task-reward cycle of their jobs, heroes suffer the same affliction. Their sense of self-worth is, in many cases, totally tied up in their performance of their chosen duties.
Heroism as a Coping Mechanism
The tragic origin is a staple of super-hero stories. Whether it’s the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, Iron Man’s horrific injuries, or Booster Gold’s fall from grace, tremendous loss is at the core of nearly every super-hero’s origin story. To a one, these losses continue to define these heroes’ adventures even today. What’s more, their actions serve as a means to combat those losses. Batman takes to the rooftops ostensibly to avenge the death of his parents but focuses the rage which results from his loss on the mundane and extraordinary criminals of Gotham, none of whom were actually responsible for his parents’ murder. Iron Man builds stronger, more powerful, and increasingly numerous suits of armor, building an ever-stronger wall between himself and the vulnerability exposed in the explosion which served as the inciting event for his origin story. In both of these cases and in any number of similar stories the characters’ journeys carry an undercurrent of compensation wherein they use their extraordinary abilities (money, invulnerability, etc.) as a means of coping with the trauma which made them who they are. It is not unlike substance or activity addicts who use those means to dampen the effects of their own personal and physical traumas.
Symptoms of Addiction
Most heroes, if they’re published long enough, inevitably demonstrate some of the classic signs of addiction.
They lie to those around them, be they family or colleagues, keeping them at a distance rather than allowing themselves to consider the possibility of stopping their “use.” Maintaining their ability to continue what makes them feel good or powerful is more important than honesty, even for characters who are held up as paragons of virtue. The fact that Superman’s and Lois Lane’s relationship was predicated for decades on the lies Clark told to keep up the illusion of his secret identity was central to their relationship arc during Dan Jurgens’s run on the series, as the relationship was nearly destroyed when Clark finally revealed to Lois that he’d been deceiving her for years.
They deny their need for what they do, often choosing (for brief periods) to step away from their costumed identities only to inevitably relapse. Peter Parker has tried on repeated occasions to give up his Spider-Man identity only to be drawn back to it every time. Some of this is obviously due to the needs of the publisher to keep producing Spider-Man stories, but it bears the question: how would Peter cope with his guilt over Uncle Ben’s death if he weren’t fulfilling his responsibilities as Spider-Man?
In those instances where they stop performing heroic acts or lose their powers for an extended period of time, these characters almost always suffer from withdrawals, whether overtly physical or more subtly psychological. We’ve seen this presented often in comics and comic book-derived media, from Hal Jordan’s descent into depression and alcoholism following the loss of his power ring to the hammer-over-the-head approach in Dick Lester’s Superman III.
Understanding this (or admitting that our heroes have a problem) is only the first step. It is a useful tool in examining the persona journeys of these characters as they pass through various stages. I can’t say for certain how this has altered my perception of these characters as role models, but one thing I can say is this: it has certainly made them more human.