It may be a comic book, but the kids inside tell their stories Synanon-style: "Hi, I'm Anna Juarez, and I'm 12 years old. I've taken pot, hash, hash oil, Dilaudid, cocaine, downers and Quaaludes. I've been taking them for three years. My brother Juan, he was the one who started me using drugs. Now look at him--he's dead."
The name of the sole story in this comic book is "Plague!" It pits the New Teen Titans against the drug underworld, with the health and sanity of America's children at stake. It is to be given away at some 35,000 American schools.
The major impetus for the comic is not the comic book industry, which has shied away from most mentions of drugs ever since 1954 hearings on how comic books warped America's youth into "juvenile delinquents." Instead, the driving force is the White House--in particular, First Lady Nancy Reagan and the work she sponsors under the name of The President's Drug Awareness Campaign.
Presidents have appeared as characters in many comics (the Reagans sit this one out), but "Plague!" represents the first official-commercial tie-in between Pennsylvania and Madison avenues. As a war, this time on drugs, it may rekindle the kind of camaraderie that was once strong between the comic industry and the political arena.
"During World War II, there were a lot of messages from and stories connected with the war effort and the White House," says Bob Overstreet, publisher of the influential Overstreet Price Guide for comic collectors. "That was a popular war. The whole comic industry was behind it and propagandized that war quite a bit."
Like the New Teen Titans themselves, antidrug stories have had a long in-and-out career in America's comic books. This is the third go-round for the Teen Titans, who first appeared in the mid-'60s spouting mod, with-it dialogue. After six years they were shelved, then were revived briefly in the late '70s and resuscitated by a crack new production team in 1980. Right now, the Teen Titans are as hot as can be, DC Comics Inc.'s number one seller--which may be why Mrs. Reagan has drafted them in her well-publicized war against drugs.
This teen club is, well, pretty powerful. There's a whole crowd of teen marvels, including street-smart black superhero Cyborg--half-man, half-robot--who grew up in mean panels and knows what drugs can do to kids. There's also Speedy, the Battling Bowman, prote'ge' of the Green Lantern and, more than a decade ago, himself a kid heroin addict saved by a superhero's kindness.
And there's The Protector, product of a battle of corporate titans.
The Protector looks suspiciously like Batman's teen pal, Robin, and in fact, Robin has been a longtime Titan. However, a million copies of the Titans/Reagan anti-drug comic were printed under the sponsorship of the Keebler Co. Robin, unfortunately, is licensed to rival Nabisco. An overnight costume change pasted over the figure, a few changes in the panels just before going to press, and Robin became The Protector.
"Robin was leaving the Teen Titans for some movie deals anyway," says Dave Manak, special projects editor for DC Comics. "We felt this was a good opportunity to take Robin out. We also felt it might be nice if we had a spokesperson we could use all through the books." (Two more comics, geared toward fifth- and sixth-graders and dealing with school and family situations, are scheduled for the fall.)
Comic-book heroes campaigning on social issues are not rare: Spiderman has been a spokesman for Planned Parenthood, Superman for the American Lung Association. DC's superheroes even did a "Super Healthy Cookbook."
Comic-book heroes in giveaways are nothing new, either: DC, the second largest comics publishers, recently did special projects with Pizza Hut, Atari and Radio Shack (the TRS-80 computer helped Superman). But nobody remembers the kind of tie-in between a commercial comics company and a presidential drug awareness campaign evident in "Plague!" Nobody's surprised, either.
"Comics really are just a mirror of sociological events," says Bob Overstreet. "Just about anything that is going on is reflected in some comic book."
Comic books have had a strong antidrug stance, dating back to the '40s. Since there have always been good guys going after bad guys, it was only natural that some of those bad guys be drug dealers.
"The attitude in comics has been and continues to be that drugs are bad, that they ruin young kids' lives," says comics historian and editor Catherine Yronwode.
The drugs most often mentioned in the old days were opium, marijuana and cocaine, but the list of ingredients in "Plague!" reads like a drugstore moved into the van parked in the alley.
Because it is directed at fourth-graders, most of the sad stories are told by young teen-agers like 14-year-old Joseph Cummings (who's "done pot, hash oil, uppers, downers, PCP, acid and glue . . . yeah, I'm a druggie") and 15-year-old Roger Levine, who's done everything Joseph has, plus mushrooms and alcohol.
Ironically, the last time that the federal government took this big an interest in comics it was to say that they were ruining the minds and morals of the young. The industry's response was the Comics Code, following the 1954 Kefauver Committee investigation into juvenile delinquency and the crusade led by Frederic Wertham, a child psychiatrist whose late-'40s campaign against comic books culminated in the controversial 1954 book, "Seduction of the Innocents."
According to Yronwode, Wertham's basic tenet was that "delinquents were known comic-book readers, therefore comic books led to juvenile delinquency. What he failed to note was that everybody else read comics, too."
Under the code, drug references became almost totally taboo.
In the early '70s, things began to change, slowly. After Marvel Comics defied the code to publish a Spiderman that mentioned drugs, they followed up with numbers 96 through 98 on drug abuse (collectors please note).
At about the same time, there was the Green Lantern issue that introduced Speedy's drug problems (Speedy's been around since the '40s, but comic characters seldom age), and the doors were open. Yet as recently as three years ago, the Code board refused approval of a Daredevil "Angel Dust" story. The book was held up for almost two years, and in the meantime, the board loosened up. When it finally came out, it was a big seller.
"Plague!" is in a long line of educational giveaway comics that date back to '40s. Some of the very first originated in Baltimore when the Baltimore Chapter of the American Medical Association commissioned Will Eisner to do a comic in favor of vivisection. Eisner, creator of "The Spirit," came up with "A Medal for Bowzer" (Jules Feiffer was the writer). The AMA also commissioned "Waiting Room Willie," a comic set in a future after socialized medicine has taken over and destroyed America.