Flyin’ high

spideydrugs1Here’s what happened: in the course of a series of Spider-Man issues which included more and more youthful voices and more and more explicit political positions, Stan Lee and Gil Kane did a pretty intensive story including street drugs.

It began with a scene in #96, cover date May 1971, in which a black man is wandering around on a rooftop, gorked on something or other, and is either about to fall or to jump in the fancy that he’s a bird. The complete three-issue story concerned Harry Osborn getting hooked on speed. (The later bit in which Harry drops a ton of LSD is during the Conway run.)

I’ll begin with that opening scene. It’s absurd how stupid the internet is … you can find people describing this scene as “a man strung out on drugs,” which is definitely not what is happening nor is it how anyone in the story describes it. I might as well educate them as needs it:

  • Stoned = originally meaning drunk, repurposed in the late 60s as a generic term, and only later, probably mid-70s, tied specifically to pot – so Spidey’s use of this term is absolutely accurate and in-period
  • Dope = originally meaning opium or one of its analogues, repurposed to mean heroin perhaps during the beatnik era, then to mean pot when marijuana was officially tied to “hard drugs” in the early 1970s (you might not know that the term and policy War on Drugs comes from 1971-72, in the run-up to and during Nixon’s second term) (I don’t know whether the same term meaning model or airplane glue has anything to do with this)
  • Depressants = the term applies to neural function, not to overall behavior, such that alcohol, for instance, depresses certain neural complexes which inhibit behavior, and so sometimes behavior is elevated, disinhibited; still, it’s true that most depressants settle a person into torpidity, especially opiates and barbiturates, hence “downers” [related point: the term “narcotics” is derived from opiates’ downer effect and has been inaccurately synonymized with any illegal drug] [also related: the term anti-depressant is a misnomer, as the indicated substances are not stimulants; don’t let it confuse you]
  • Stimulants = same goes for this term, but in this case, heightened neural activity does correspond to heightened behavior; hence “uppers” is pretty much a synonym for both levels – that’s your speed and crank and coke ‘n all
  • lots of drugs are neither uppers nor downers, such as hallucinogens and marijuana
  • O.D. = overdose, meaning a barbiturate or other depressant has inhibited the vagus nerve enough to interfere with heart rate and/or with the general parasympathetic system to interfere with peristalsis (hence continuous vomiting and consequent suffocation), resulting in coma or death due to oxygen deprivation either way; you can’t O.D. on non-depressants, for example, hallucinogens
  • Strung out = withdrawal, in the grip of multiple stress responses brought on by the absence of a drug one is addicted to (a limited subset of drugs; usually the term implies opiates or related things like over-the-counter painkillers, but withdrawal also occurs with alcohol and a lot of uppers like cocaine, caffeine, and nicotine); the point being that the person is currently not high but is horribly sick-feeling and desperate to find some

comics codeAll right, this Spider-Man story was naughty in mainstream comics culture. It violated a core dictum of the Comics Code Authority, a committee which had been erected following the publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and its use during hearings in 1954, more-or-less a HUAC in miniature. As is often the case with such things, including the Hayes Commission, the committee had literally no authority to enforce anything, but its real power lay in distributors’ profound risk-aversion. A comic without the Code stamp was perfectly legal to distribute and to be on the newsstand – but no distributor was ever going to do it, out of utter terror of being labeled a pornographer or a seducer of the innocent.

It also matters that we’re talking about a three-issue story, not a single scene. Comics go in the can long before they hit the newsstand or store, so this was not a matter of tossing it in, or a feeler. Marvel, meaning specifically Goodman and Lee, couldn’t “just” do it, they had to do it.  [There’s more to this too – Lee was actually working with a federal agency’s request; bear in mind the Code was not a government office or function]

The outcome is well-known: the newsstands turned out to be more interested in moving the next issue of Spider-Man than in caving to toothless terrors, and the Code was standing there with its dick in its hands. The next step was for the committee to revise the Code to permit a wide variety of things of which Fredric Wertham would not approve – vampires and werewolves to be sure, but more importantly, to portray law enforcement in a wider range of moral terms, and for stories to end on a wider range of outcomes. This, kiddies, is when superhero comics became “dark and edgy,” not in the mid-80s, when the darkness and edginess merely became dumbed-down.

So, lesson 1, it was Stan Lee who broke the Comics Code Authority’s back, not Denny O’Neil, whose great work in Green Lantern / Green Arrow mustn’t be discounted, but came after the policy changes. Lesson 2 is to look a little harder at how Spider-Man drug scene was portrayed and what it had to do with anything in real life. I’ll go back to the single scene. This guy’s hallucinating. He’s talking about flying like an eagle. He then falls sort-of voluntarily half-jump and half-collapse, so people can see him “fly.” Open and shut – the drugs have addled him to the point that he’ll fall to his death without it even being a a suicide.

No, this isn’t from Reefer Madness, even with its scene of a woman jumping out a window. Reefer Madness was a 1939 movie – old news, as laughable in 1971 as it is now. The relevant context isn’t the movie at all, but rather a recent and very prominent event: in October 1969, Art Linkletter’s daughter Diane died in an apparent suicide jump from a four-story window, and he claimed she was or had recently been tripping on LSD.

Art who? OK, Arthur Linkletter, in the generation prior to mine, was one of the nation’s most recognized and best-beloved celebrities, the very model of the doting TV-family father. Diane’s death was huge news, a matter of great media concern – something that could jump any which way, in terms of cultural narrative. Linkletter’s position was


One important detail is that the previous year, the Linkletters had recorded an album including Diane and Art debating about how permissively one should raise one’s kids, with Diane taking the “free the kids” side. This album was now released posthumously, with the implicit messsage of “see, Dad was right,” and used as a prop in the fervent anti-drug campaign which Linkletter would wage for the rest of his life.

This message was immediately picked up in spades by Spiro Agnew’s antidisestablishmentarian speeches (written mainly by William Safire), which redefined “conservative” to this day and tied it to “family values.” They were also part and parcel of linking radicalism to drugs, and framing drugs as “the problem with those black people” – a completely cynical spin developed by Nixon’s PR team, and relevant to my point here, which received fierce opposition in this Spider-Man story.

But back to the personal and specific issue, you can probably see why Linkletter’s position is so tempting. If that LSD made her do it, made her “think she could fly,” then launching herself into space out a fourth-story window is instantly absolved of being suicide. Drugs are the evil. Free kids are confused kids, who turn to drugs. Stern families are the solution. (The autopsy on her body came up negative for any controlled substances; this detail is ignored. Jumping into space while tripping, evidently when intending to fly, is not substantiated by any event.)

And back to Spider-Man, this opening scene has two important features. First, it evokes Diane Linkletter’s death but is exquisitely ambiguous whether the guy literally jumps or just passes out and falls, neatly avoiding taking sides regarding her specifically. Second, it’s characteristically vague and inaccurate about drugs. The actual drug is completely unspecified, although strongly implied at first to be LSD. When Spidey catches the guy, he has gone into shock and isn’t breathing, and everyone acts as though this is “what drugs do,” but that’s appropriate for an opiate overdose, or alcohol (why do we call that “poisoning” not O.D.? rhetorical), not for hallucinogens. These things are important because they are not the same for the bigger story, throughout #96-98.

The bigger story is much more specific and surprisingly accurate, concerning Harry’s pills. Stressed out by Mary Jane more-or-less dropping him and flirting with Peter and probably everyone, he turns out to have been relying on uppers and downers for a while – implied to be prescribed, or possibly over the counter. So he’s crabby, paranoid, and prone to sudden naps.

spideydrugs3Then, when MJ does indeed give him the boot, a smooth-talking pusher on campus – who is extremely accurately depicted – provides him with some of the “real” stuff, also pills. Now, he gets peppy and zingy, but crashes hard into disorientation and depression, and Peter does the right thing by rushing him to the hospital as soon as possible. The text doesn’t use the word, but what those pills are is in no doubt.

I notice they stayed away from pot as an issue like it was on another planet, which given the generic, Linketter-consistent scene on the rooftop, might seem odd. But I can also easily speculate that the idea of the 1970s bullpen wreathed in pot smoke putting out an anti-pot story is too hilarious to contemplate, and if ever there were a 50-year-old man tokin’ with the young folks, his name was Stan Lee. Who I further speculate may have known well that his pot-smoking readership would not cotton to any such thing.

She goes running for the shelter

She goes running for the shelter

Instead, this time, they were right on the money. Everyone who knew anything about drugs, which was probably emphatically few in law enforcement or media, knew that speed was the killer of the day, and to a great extent, including its various versions, still is. What is it? Any amphetamine or major neural stimulant actually, but specifically, Dexedrine, active ingredient dextroamphetamine, a common medical substance. It’s a great high, fast and bright, the life of the party, confidence, the big “get up & go” mood. It’s easy to acquire for a wide variety of diagnoses, and all you have to do is take more than you’re prescribed. Notably, Dexedrine was  standard combat issue during the Vietnam War. You didn’t have to get into the H to come back from there with a bad habit.

Medical uses for Dexedrine rarely exceed 50 milligrams per dose. An addicted person is usually knocking back up to 5 g at a time, 100 times that amount. Keep that up, and the things that can go wrong with you are legion: kidney failure, outright heart failure … Even without these, you’ve still got rapid heart-rate + raspy frantic breathing, metabolic acidosis (the result of the first two), muscle degeneration hence the skinniness, compulsive body motions, twitching, bugging-out eyes, repetitive thought and speech, and the charmingly-named amphetamine psychosis. Typically a person slowly burns him or herself out through these accumulated medical problems, rather than literally killing themselves with too much of the drug at some point, but that can happen too, usually due to an aneurysm. For comparison, a person can die of a heroin overdose, but unless they get an overdose, they won’t – whereas speed will in fact kill whoever gets this heavy into it. It’s a one-way ticket.

The heads, casual users of pot and acid, hated the stuff and policed their own social circles against it, as with the Diggers in the Haight-Ashbury scene. Speed pushers were considered cockroaches. When Peter finds the campus pusher and beats the shit out of him and his goons (and Miller me no Millers, Gil Kane can draw a beatdown), you can bet the pot-smoking Marvel readers cheered. I completely agree. You can be friends with a pothead, an acidhead, even a junkie (if you keep an eye on your stuff) … but not with a speed freak, and later for the same reasons, not with a cokehound or methhead. They’re intense, obsessive, hyper-reactive, paranoid, confrontational, and generally assholes, compounded by a complete inability to process information or interactions. It’s not just when they’re literally speeding, either – at this point, they’re like this all the time, high or not. Whether they go off violently on someone may not be as guaranteed as in the movies (you kind of have to be that sort of person already), but in a lot of ways, they’re worse if they don’t: weaselly, rapid-fire lying, impulsive and compulsive, given to extreme passive-aggressive bullshit, and completely unreliable in any normal sense of the word, because they’re reliably such assholes. And it’s usually not one person, but a whole social circle trading around this nonsense among themselves and dragging in anyone unfortunate enough to care about one of them.

One of the worst things about a dead speed freak besides the senseless waste of life in the first place is that frankly, by that point no one is sorry to see them go. I speak from personal knowledge.

Therefore, Harry getting into speed, and how it goes for him, isn’t an establishment anti-drug fable. That’s why I think it’s important, way past the sort-of myth about “defying the Code.” Lee and Kane could have stuck with the one rather stereotyped, Linkletter-ish scene with a black hippie-looking man stoned on a vague “drug,” which would have warmed the cockles of Agnew’s evil heart, but they didn’t. It’s not a smarmy “very special issue.” It’s a deadly serious, street-savvy cautionary tale about exactly the right shit. And that was more important than any Code.

Links: The 10 most absurd superhero drug freakouts, Top 10 Green Goblin storylines: #9

Next: Snakes and hotties

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on August 23, 2015, in Politics dammit, Vulgar speculation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Osborn addendum: Apparently, ever since someone made fun of the Osborns’ hair in the comics, fandom has been able to talk about nothing else. The “more cowbell” of Spider-Man. God I hate that SNL skit, everything about it.

    Irish people often have coarser, kinkier hair than Anglo-Saxon people. Wiry, curly, whatever you want to call it – it was a deep ethnic marking factor in the 19th century and most of the 20th century. Everyone totally forgets that Irish were routinely called monkey-faced and considered profoundly nonwhite, or if they do, they think it’s some quaint thing from olden days.

    The solution for Irish trying to assimilate – and no one in literature is a better example of assimilating into industrial-gentry Anglo-Anglican American culture than Norman Osborn – was to cut it fairly short (but you can’t buzz it; crewcuts were not fashion, being purely for military) and use gallons of Brylcreem to comb it flat. It didn’t really work, of course. You get these bumpy layers in rows.

    (Possibly obscure reference: in the film version of “Sleuth,” Michael Caine’s Irish-Italian character has a similar hairstyle, and the other guy’s reaction to it is so nasty – because he underplays how “not really English” that is, he doesn’t have to rub it in because all of society
    already does.)

    More Irish details … Osborn is close friends with Jameson, who also has wiry and difficult hair. Like a pair of whiskeys from the oul’ sod standing next to each other on the shelf. Note that both men are absolute fanatics about their sons being successful in completely unquestioned American status terms. In Harry’s case, he’s trying so hard to please his dad, and/or been so under his thumb, that he has probably worn the same hairdo his whole life – in fact, I think the flashbacks show that explicitly.

    Don’t post here about the latter-day hair jokes. I don’t need citations or discussion about it of any kind. It’s not code for anything or a trick or a joke, or even “weird.” It’s a pretty accurate depiction. It’s pointed and significant content that our generation simply doesn’t have the context to understand.


  2. Brian Renninger

    And, somewhere in there is a metaphor about Mary Jane as a euphemism for marijuana. Harry should have stuck to the pot and not the pills.


  3. I’m not as clued-in to the full drug culture of the time as Ron, but I played D&D in plenty of pot-scented rooms without a single concern. Those guys who got a mid-game express package of white powder “photographic media” from Columbia, though – I didn’t play with them again. Good to see that the comics captured some complexity.

    Irishness … yeah, a generation or two back saw it more, but the context of Irish, Italians (especially) and others as “not white” was definitely still a lingering stench in the air when/where I grew up. A consequential stench.


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