In an October 1970 article for New York magazine titled
The Radicalization of the Superheroes, Marvel Comics writer and editor-in-chief Stan Lee said,
I feel that comics could do much good as far as helping kids avoid the danger of drugs. Less than a year later, Lee would make history with the same sentiment.
I got a letter from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Lee recalled,
which said, in essence, that they recognized the great influence that Marvel Comics and Spider-Man have on young people. And they thought it would really be very beneficial if we created a story warning kids about the dangerous effects of drug addiction.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow #86 © 1971 DC Comics. COVER ART BY NEAL ADAMS.
The comics industry's self-censoring Comics Code Authority would not allow the depiction of drugs under its 1954 Comics Code, so a comic that broached the subject would have to do so without its seal of approval. Lee forged ahead with a novel Spider-Man story about the dangers of drugs, which he fought to publish in The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #96 (May 1971). In this issue, Spider-Man rescues an African-American youth who, under the influence of drugs and imagining he can fly, jumps from a skyscraper. Later in the story, as alter ego Peter Parker, the hero muses,
My life as Spider-Man is probably as dangerous as any—but I'd rather face a hundred supervillains than toss it away by getting hooked on hard drugs! 'Cause that's one fight you can't win!
The first issue published by a comic-book company without code approval since the code's inception, Spider-Man #96 (and subsequent issues #97 [June] and #98 [July]) challenged the code to revise its language. And revise it did. The Comics Code's new language stated,
Narcotics addiction shall not be presented except as a vicious habit. With the adoption of the more lax standards, DC editor Carmine Infantino went on record in a 1971 New York Times article with his support of the code's new attitude:
I think this can prove that the medium that was considered junk for one generation will be jewel for the next. It can explore the social ills for the younger generation and help them decide how to direct their lives. It didn't take long for DC to follow in Marvel's footsteps—publishing Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 in September 1971, which boldly portrays the Neal Adams–rendered Green Arrow sidekick, Speedy, shooting up drugs on the issue's front cover. The tagline?
DC attacks youths' greatest problem
relevance. Beginning in May 1970 with Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76, frank discussion of various American social and cultural topics du jour took place inside Green Lantern/Green Arrow's pages—including prejudice, Native American rights, women's liberation, ecological waste, consumerism, overpopulation, and campus unrest. Said O'Neil of the series,
It was superheroes questioning themselves for the first time. This critically acclaimed approach to realism in superhero comics had come to its natural conclusion by the mid-1970s, as the readership tired of having superheroes confront social ills instead of the standard fare of mad scientists and alien invaders. However, with more attention to narrative impact than social obligation, such themes have returned sporadically but prominently in the decades since, with the recurrent alcoholism of Iron Man's secret identity Tony Stark and the abused childhood of the Hulk's alter ego Bruce Banner being just two of the best known.