In previous editions of Strange Comic Books, I’ve looked at certain comics that had varying degrees of oddness. However, this latest entry really is an especially bizarre item. Published by Marvel Comics, the Captain America: The Drug Wars special is mind-bogglingly weird.
A little background first: if you went to school in the 1980s and early 90s, you might remember that Marvel and DC used to work with various government agencies and private companies to publish what were the comic book equivalent of Public Service Announcements or After School Specials. These were distributed to schools around the country, and featured popular superheroes in stories educating students about drug addiction, teen pregnancy, child abuse, asthma and, um, tooth decay… yeah, what can I say, not all childhood dangers are created equal. As you can imagine, none of these comic book PSAs offered what could be regarded as particularly subtle or nuanced examinations of complex societal problems.
Captain America was one of the characters to appear in these. There were not one but two specials entitled Captain America Goes To War Against Drugs that were created by Marvel in the early 1990s. I was reminded of these recently when someone mentioned them as part of a discussion on Comic Book Resources about the “Streets of Poison” story arc. Cap is perhaps not the most judicious of choices to use as a spokesperson to convince kids not to use drugs, considering he gained all his physical abilities via the Super Soldier Serum. Though, to be fair, Steve Rogers volunteered for Operation Rebirth because he selflessly wanted to help protect the world from Fascism rather than, say, break the record for most home runs in a season of baseball. I’m sure you can see the difference between Cap and Barry Bonds.
Oddly enough, the first of these specials was sponsored by Guardian Life Insurance, who less than a decade before had been depicted in Captain America #291 as an evil corporation scheming to rip off supervillains in a massive life insurance scam. I guess Guardian wasn’t one to hold a grudge.
According to both the Grand Comics Database and the Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators, the cover for the first special, seen above, was penciled by industry legend John Romita and inked by Jose Marzan Jr. Yep, that certainly looks like Romita’s work.
These two specials were, unsurprisingly, about as heavy-handed as you can get in terms of depicting drug use in a negative light, and in hammering home, over and over, the “just say no” message. But obviously that was their point. In the end they were well-intentioned propaganda devices that clumsily but earnestly were hoping to protect teenagers from turning into dope fiends, or something like that.
No, where things get odd is when Marvel decided to reprint the two Captain America Goes To War Against Drugs stories as Captain America: The Drug Wars in 1994 and sell it in comic book shops. They even had a brand-new cover for it, courtesy of S. Clarke Hawbaker. (Whatever happened to S. Clarke Hawbaker, anyway? I always enjoyed his work.)
And then we get to the actual material within Captain America: The Drug Wars. The first story is more or less straightforward, with Cap trying to help out a teenage athlete named Mitch who has become addicted to drugs. Yes, straightforward, except for the fact that Mitch gets his supply from an alien drug dealer. Really!
However, these extraterrestrial narcotics smugglers are more or less a side issue in this tale. As Cap astutely points out to Mitch, it doesn’t really matter who he got the drugs from, but rather what the drugs are doing to him, like, say, causing him to accidentally knock out people with his fastball during high school baseball games. Oops!
To be fair, veteran comic book writer Peter David does a good job scripting a story that has a Very Important Message without it becoming too cringe-worthy. And there’s some pretty good artwork courtesy of Sal Velluto & Keith Williams.
It’s only in the second installment that the proceedings become insanely anvilicious. Cap, still working on tracking down the drug ring seen in the prior chapter, has joined forces with the teenage superhero group the New Warriors. Following the criminals to their lair, Cap and the New Warriors find it defended by a quartet of super-powered teenage criminals with the names Weed, Crack, Ice and Ms. Fix, collectively known as the Drug Lords… no, I am not making this up! And then Silhouette of the New Warriors unmasks the hooded mastermind lurking in the shadows. Yep, it’s those pesky alien drug pushers, the Tzin, once again.
The Tzin leader and the Drug Lords escape by teleporting to an orbiting spaceship. We soon see that the Drug Lords may have gained their powers through the use of narcotic substances, but (of course) this has also turned them into addicts.
Back on Earth, Silhouette pays a visit on her friend Dorreen, only to discover the teen dance prodigy is using drugs to relieve the pressure she’s under. This is all observed by Ms. Fix, who has been trailing Silhouette. Ms. Fix realizes that Silhouette, who uses crutches, wants to regain full mobility, and tries to tempt her into joining the Drug Lords. Silhouette surreptitiously summons Cap and tricks Ms. Fix into teleporting them all to the Tzin spaceship. During the fight the ship gets trashed, and the Drug Lords’ supply goes up in flames, causing them to turn on their alien masters. Cap, Silhouette, and Dorreen (who somehow also managed to end up on the ship) teleport back to Earth before everything goes boom. Wrapping things up, Silhouette offers to help Dorreen overcome her addiction.
The writer on this half of the book is George Caragonne, who penned a handful of stories for Marvel in the early 1990s. What makes Caragonne’s association with this anti-drug comic especially odd is that soon after he became the editor of Penthouse Comix. And then a year after that he committed suicide. Yeah, all joking aside, that was a really awful end for him.
Having the story focus on Silhouette was a good decision on Caragonne’s part. As so effectively established by writer Fabian Nicieza in the ongoing New Warriors series, Silhouette was a former athlete who became partially paralyzed, but who continued to actively fight crime, not letting her disability hold her back. So she was an ideal character to utilize in attempting to show that you do not need to fall back on mind-altering substances when adversity strikes.
This second part is penciled by A Distant Soil creator Colleen Doran, with inking by Greg Adams. I have to say it looks very beautiful. Doran and Adams probably could have phoned it in if they wanted to, given the somewhat hokey, throw-away nature of the story. Instead they turned in some real quality artwork.
It’s worth nothing that, by collecting those two PSAs as Captain America: The Drug Wars, those stories became an official part of Marvel canon. I kid you not. The Tzin even received a profile page in the Captain America: America’s Avenger handbook-style special in 2011, with a profile image illustrated by Gus Vasquez.
I’m still waiting for someone to bring the Tzin back. Because when you think about it, they actually had a somewhat more plausible scheme for conquering the Earth than most other alien invaders. If you really are that hell-bent on attempting to take over the Earth, which has several thousand superheroes living on it and has successful driven off the Skrulls, Kree and Galactus on multiple occasions, then there are certainly worse schemes to hatch than getting the teenage population of the planet addicted to drugs. Sounds like Marvel’s next big crossover if you ask me!