Since they were first published, comics became a means of expression and a vehicle for ideologies in the United States. As a consequence, the genre became fodder for many detractors among the dominant classes, which considered them a source of destabilisation, disturbance and even anti-patriotism, and it wasn’t long before comics became an object of persecution and a form of socio-political resistance. By analysing some of the most well-known characters from the history of comics and of the drugs that appear in their stories, we see a chronicle of the cultural, social and political zeitgeist of our most recent past, which reflects the progressive prohibitions introduced, basically, by the USA, to restrict or eradicate the supply, demand and consumption of substances known as drugs.
Since they were first published, comics became a means of expression and a vehicle for ideologies in the United States. As a consequence, the genre became fodder for many detractors among the dominant classes, which considered them a source of destabilisation, disturbance and even anti-patriotism, and it wasn’t long before comics became an object of persecution and a form of socio-political resistance.
By analysing some of the most well-known characters from the history of comics and of the drugs that appear in their stories, we see a chronicle of the cultural, social and political zeitgeist of our most recent past, which reflects the progressive prohibitions introduced, basically, by the USA, to restrict or eradicate the supply, demand and consumption of substances known as drugs.
Now to turn to the superhero par excellence, Superman, who, as we have already mentioned, made his first appearance in 1938 penned by the American writer Jerry Siegel and the Canadian artist Joe Shuster. Superman is a fictional character reminiscent of the heroes of traditional mythology, who cures the ills of the society in which Siegel and Shuster lived, fighting against tyranny and for social justice. Also known as the Man of Steel, his superpowers come from his place of origin: the planet Krypton. Who doesn’t know the story of Superman and how he got to planet earth? Despite his superpowers, as is the case too with our heroes of mythology, Superman has an Achilles’ heel. He is vulnerable to green kryptonite (1943), a type of mineral waste from Krypton transformed into radioactive material by the same forces as those that destroyed the planet. Exposure to the radiation from kryptonite cancels out Superman’s powers and freezes him, causing him severe pain and nausea, and prolonged exposure can cause his death.
With cocaine and opium in lawmakers’ sights, in the 1930s the consumption of amines became rife. These are nervous-system stimulants that are much more active than cocaine and much cheaper in comparison. They are not only able to increase resistance, but also to considerably increment intellectual capacity. Amphetamine, dextroamphetamine, and methamphetamine are but a few ‘amines’ that could be bought easily in any pharmacy as they were sold as a cure for blocked noses, motion sickness, obesity, depression and overdose of hypnotic drugs. However, the euphoric effect produced by the amines made them, above all, the best antidote for depression. Because of this, thousands of soldiers started consuming amphetamines in large quantities because, among other things, amphetamines could curb appetite for several days and stopped nausea and tiredness. In that same year, in 1938, methamphetamine, which had been synthesised in Japan in 1919 under the name Methedrine, started being sold. Amphetamines or barbiturates were freely sold as medicines and they were available to anyone, so they were used during the Second World War, by both sides, to stimulate the troops. These substances appear to be formed of small pieces of transparent crystals and, although normally white, there can be other tones. They are also known as “ice”. Abusing these substances can form a progressive and serious deterioration, harming dopamine-producing brain cells and reducing the quantities produced of that chemical.
The only matter on earth that can protect Superman from kryptonite is lead, which blocks radiation. Lead is also the only known substance through which Superman is unable to see using his X-ray vision. Although green kryptonite is the most common form, the screenwriters have introduced many varieties throughout the years: red, gold, blue, black and white, each one with its own specific effect. Strangely, severe lead poisoning is another potential risk run by methamphetamine consumers. A method used frequently to make this drug, albeit illegal, uses lead acetate as a chemical reactant. As a result, the errors that can occur in this phase of production often result in methamphetamine being contaminated with lead.
There have been cases of severe lead poisoning in addicts who inject methamphetamine. We can deduce that the parallelism that exists between kryptonite and methamphetamine is pretty clear. The link with the development of the US Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938 is also clear. This gave the FDA the power to examine all new medicines before they were introduced to the market in the States.
MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN
With our next character, everything becomes much more explicit. Mandrake the Magician is a series of comics created by Lee Falk and Phil Davis in 1934. Mandrake is an illusionist with a fast and effective hypnotic technique, who fights against criminals and gangsters by making them believe that his arms are snakes or fire bolts. The name Mandrake is also the name for a plant, which is also known as Mandragora, and is a genus of the nightshade family. In ancient times, and in Europe, this plant was used for its healing properties.
The roots of the plant have been used for magic rituals throughout the history of mankind.The mandrake plant is very toxic and both mandragora autumnalis and officinarum can penetrate the skin so handling these plants is a very risky activity that can produce dizziness, bradycardia and breathing difficulties. It has featured in many legends and nowadays it is used, when cured as a cooking condiment, and when not cured as a drug. It contains alkaloids such as atropine and scopolamine, and used to be widely used as an anaesthetic. There is no doubt that Mandrake, or non-synthetic drugs, is in juxtaposition to Superman, or synthetic drugs, but is always competing in the same crusade.
BATMAN & JOKER
1939 saw the birth of a new superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger: Batman. This character is a philanthropic millionaire, Bruce Wayne, who has incredible abilities as a detective and who disguises himself as a bat, with a cape and black mask, to hide his secret identity. But the peculiarity, and the most innovative and distinctive feature of Batman is that he has no superpowers but rather uses his intelligence and scientific and technical knowledge to create weapons and tools that help him fight crime.
Several years later, his first arch-enemy and antagonist, the Joker, entered the mix. Created by Jerry Robinson, the Joker is an intelligent psychopath, twisted and sadistic, who uses a wide range of toxic substances that he concocts himself, to finish off his victims, killing them with laughter. One of his most frequent substances is Joker Venom spores which cause anaphylactic shock and leave his victims with a grotesque smile fixed on their face. The toxic gases used by the Joker represent the use of drugs as chemical weapons, there being no consent on the part of the user. They are used as a method of eliminating people, and to a specific end. The Joker is one of the most influential villains in the history of comics, a threat to heroes and villains alike, and one of the most sinister and dangerous antagonists of the DC Comics universe.
START OF WORLD WAR II
During World War II, the superheroes born in the thirties were also called up to military service, becoming an instrument of political propaganda that served to motivate the population in such difficult times of conflict. The two most significant companies in the country, DC Comics and the company that was later to become known as Marvel Comics, had to reorient their subjects and stories, so we see a change from superheroes fighting mafia bosses to starting to combat the Nazis and the Japanese.
Even before America entered the conflict, Captain America was already flying the flag for anti-Nazi sentiment and patriotism. This much was clear from the very first issue in which the hero was depicted punching Hitler himself. This character, created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon for Marvel Comics, appears in 1941, a few months after the start of the war. Captain America is Steve Rogers, a young man who tries to join the army but is rejected for his weak constitution. His last chance to enter the armed forces is to offer himself up as a volunteer for a government project, which turns him into a super-soldier, with above-average strength and intelligence.
The drug that converts him into a super-soldier is a mysterious serum administered orally and intravenously, later to be combined with Vita-Rays, which bestow him the perfect athlete’s physique. This serum is similar to what we know today as steroids or anabolic steroids, synthetic substances that provoke, among many other adverse effects, the growth of skeletal muscle, i.e. anabolism. These substances were developed towards the end of the thirties and, although neither stupefacient nor psychotropic, in many cases they are used as part of a pattern of abuse, as much for recreational purposes as for aesthetic or competitive purposes, which many specialists consider a form of drug addiction, and which can cause health problems, physical problems and in some cases mental problems over the short- and long-term.
The Scarecrow is a supervillain that appears in the comics published by DC Comics for the first time in the autumn of 1941, penned by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. His alter-ego is Dr Jonathan Crane, a psychology professor with a good knowledge of biochemistry, who turns into a criminal after being sacked for conducting an experiment on the psychology of fear by shooting bullets into the air in a class full of student to demonstrate one of his theories. He uses a series of drugs and psychological tactics to exploit the fears and phobias of his enemies, as well as his scarecrow disguise that serves as a tool to instil terror. He forms part of the gallery of Batman villains. He doesn’t have superpowers but he does administer his victims a toxin, a psychotropic that makes them visualise their greatest fears, rendering them powerless against his attacks.
Psychotropic drugs are chemical substances that have an effect on mental processes. These agents affect the central nervous system and can change anything from conscience to behaviour to perception. The introduction of synthetic hallucinogens began in 1943, when Albert Hofmann experimented with taking LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, which he himself synthesised for the first time in 1938 when he was studying rye ergot) and was able to describe its psychological effects. Fifteen years later in 1958, Hofmann again isolated psilocybin and psilocin, the two psychoactive ingredients of the magic mushroom, Psilocybe Mexicana. From 1948, psychopharmacology began to experience a boom, which continues to this day, and constitutes a change in the treatment of mental patients.
During the fifties, the use of drugs was limited to the more marginalised sectors of society. In the States for example, they were considered characteristic of people who lived in ghettos, jazz musicians, etc. In other words, drugs were consumed by society’s rejects. In the sixties, the situation changed and a much wider sector of society contributed to the defence of drugs, sometimes through trying to gain higher states of consciousness or an enhanced perception of reality through the use of drugs. The discovery of new drugs also helped their spread. The investigator R. Gordon Wasson and his photographer, Allan Richardson, were the first foreigners to take hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mexico. Later on, Carlos Castaneda would open the way to entheogens for future generations with his anthropological investigations.
In the third part of this article, we will cover a few more superheroes who emerged in the sixties and whose popularity is still on the rise today thanks to film and the new era of comics.