Drug-Taking Heroes: A Criminological Analysis of Comics and Culture

Jock Young’s seminal work The Drugtakers (1971) was pioneering. His work looked at how the media reinforced stereotypes of the drug user, making them a scapegoat for society’s problems. He posited that in turn, the drug users may latch onto some of these stereotypes creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Society reacts to the stereotype: not the reality (Young, 1969; Young, 1971, Marsh and Melville, 2011: 7).

Drug related comic covers

Green Arrow and Spider-Man both broached the subject

In the comic book world, both DC and Marvel Comics had ground-breaking books that were socially relevant to the time delving into the drug question. The two main series which broached the subject were Marvel’s The Amazing Spider-man and DC’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Can Young’s work be used to explain this shift in the comic medium?

In order to analyse this, it is important to define various perspectives.

Labelling Theory Deviant Law abiding citizen Anomie Deviancy  amplification
People define each other and their environments A socially, created phenomenon. An Individual who is thought to have different norms and value to rest of society. Does not have to break society’s laws. Perception is crucial. Can label self.  Something is deviant when society reacts negatively towards it. A socially created phenomenon. An individual who is thought to subscribe to society’s norms and values. Society’s norms and values are too difficult to obtain and therefore a state of anomie is created. An increase in anomie leads the deviant to greater deviancy.


Labelling Theory explores how people define each other and their environments. The way a person labels others can lead to the labelling of an individual as a “deviant” from the rest of society. For example, an individual may label another as a “geek” when they see themselves as a “jock” illustrates that they believe they see the world differently due to certain characteristics.

A deviant is socially constructed: the only thing deviants have in common is that they have been classified as a deviant (Becker). The deviant is an individual whom the rest of society believes has differing norms and values to society as a whole. The media will use the deviant as a scapegoat for society’s problems (Young, 1971). They do not have to have broken society’s rules for this to be the case; rather they are perceived differently (Sykes and Matza, 1957). An act is only deviant once society has reacted negatively towards it. Rules differ dependant upon gender, ethnicity, class, religion, etc.

The lawabiding citizen (again a socially constructed phenomenon) is an individual who attains society’s norms and values.

Anomie is a state where society’s law, norms and values are so difficult to achieve by the vast majority of society that they deviate from these norms in order to survive.

Young’s (1971) concept of Deviancy Amplification is where an increase in anomie can lead the deviant towards greater deviancy: society classifies the deviant leading to the deviant regressing further into deviancy. Furthermore some rules only occur in certain circumstances consequently deviancy depends upon society’s rules.

Comic books themselves were the deviant scapegoat for America’s problems in the nineteen-fifties with the comic book witch hunts instigated by Dr Wertham (Thrasher 1949). This stigma continued as was evidenced by the first issue to mention drugs (The Amazing Spider-Man number 96) not being given the Comic Code stamp of approval. However, although The Amazing Spider-Man may seem to be once more a scapegoat for society’s problems, the answer is more nuanced than this.

When looking at the issue in question, the reaction towards drug use is again a stereotypical one: Harry Osborn is low and finds solace in drug abuse. The comic never names the drug of choice but it seems to be something similar to LSD. In Green Lantern/Green Arrow issues 85 and 86, Denny O’Neil illustrates that any kind of drug abuse is the worst problem in society. O’Neil depicts a very conservative way of looking at society, portraying even the use of cannabis as a slippery slope that will ultimately lead to downfall. The drug-using Speedy (Green Arrow’s Ward and Sidekick), follows the stereotypes of coming from a broken home.  Oliver (Queen, Green Arrow) begins to worry when he is attacked by an arrow that looks like one of his own. He mentions that he has not seen his ward for over a month, having neglected him, due to his own relationship woes.

Speedy represents the child that falls into drugs due to the broken home. Speedy lost his real parents early in his life. Oliver Queen would later adopt him. This meant that Speedy was without a strong mother figure and who’s only father figure encouraged him to fight crime in a costume, flouting certain of society’s rules which label him a deviant. Speedy was unable ever to be as good as Green Arrow making the norms and values of his society too difficult to attain, thus creating anomie. Speedy’s deviance is amplified, leading to greater deviancy through his drug abuse. Choosing Speedy to be addicted to heroin was an interesting choice because here it continues to illustrate society’s expectations: the deviant is the scapegoat for all of society’s ills, proving Young’s point made in the opening section of this article.

Although comics were (and in some circles, still are) seen as a deviant part of society, they still subscribe to the same norms that the general law abiding citizen does. Consequently, their work is an example of the media reinforcing stereotypes instead of fixing the actual problem. The scapegoat is two fold: firstly comics are the scapegoat for society, whilst the comic itself continues to reinforce stereotypes of the drug user: not helping society, but reinforcing its problems.

Another stereotype that Young commented upon was the drugtaking couple:

“Drugtaking, couples making love while others look on, rule by a heavy mob armed with iron bars, foul language, filth and stench, THAT is the scene inside the hippies”

– (Young, 1969)

When looking at The Amazing Spider-Man, this stereotype could be seen yet again with Harry Osborn. Cannabis is often portrayed as a gateway drug to harder substances. In the Spider-Man story, Harry takes something that looks more like harder drugs than typical depictions of cannabis after his break up with then girlfriend Mary Jane. In this example, could Mary Jane Watson be an analogy for cannabis? Cannabis is often referred to as “Mary Jane”. When Mary Jane Watson broke up with Harry, he needed to find something to get over the pain; he needed to find a new drug. He discovered hard drugs. So, Amazing Spider-man illustrates the stereotype of cannabis being a gateway drug as a subtle, almost covert depiction.

Thus, Marvel and DC took a bold step to illustrate broader themes that society was dealing with, rebelling against the comic code. By doing this, comics were both deviant as well as maintaining society’s norms. The exploration of drug abuse was a step forward in illustrating what the comic medium could do but at the same time the issues in question reinforce stereotypes. Green Lantern/Green Arrow in particular illustrates the use of the deviancy amplification model through the character of Speedy.


  • Marsh, I and Melville, G (2011), ‘Moral Panics and The British Media-A Look At Some Contemporary ‘Folk Devils’, Internet Journal of Criminology
  • Young, J. (1971) ‘The Role of the Police as Amplifiers of Deviance’, in Cohen, S. (ed) Images of Deviance, Harmondsworth, Penguin
  • Young, J. (1969) The People
  • Young, J (1971) The drugtakers: the social meaning of drug use, MacGibbon and Kee: California
  • Sykes, G et al (1957) Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency, Irvington Publishing
  • Thrasher, F. (1949). ‘The Comics and Delinquency: Cause or Scapegoat’, Journal of Educational Sociology, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Dec., 1949), pp. 195-205
  • O’Neil, D, Adams, N (2004) Green Lantern/Green Arrow Volume 2, DC Comics: New York
  • Lee, S et all (2006) Essential Spider-Man Volume 5 TPB, Marvel Comics: New York
– Luke Halsall
Geek Syndicate Magazine Issue 8

This Article was originally published in Issue 3 of Geek Syndicate Magazine. The magazine is our free quarterly publication and it’s jam packed with features, interviews, previews and more. Check out the back issues here.

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