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On a recent trip to my childhood home in New Jersey, I discovered a stack of comic books in an old shoebox, one of which was DC Comics’ The New Teen Titans (Drug Abuse Awareness) Issue #1, a promotional giveaway that was part of President Reagan’s Drug Awareness Campaign. Flipping through its yellowing pages, I was transported to another time: John Belushi had recently overdosed, the World Series-winning Pittsburgh Pirates had been busted for coke inside their locker room, and in an elementary school like mine on the other side of the country, a little girl had asked Nancy Reagan what to do if she was offered drugs. Cultural hysteria reigned, but when my fifth grade teacher Ms. Ellis handed out copies of the educational comic, it wasn’t the dangling limbs of a dead child held aloft by a masked superhero that initially caught my eye, but the friendly elf in the corner.
The Keebler elf immediately communicated what audience the comic book was targeting: kids who were allowed to consume Keebler cookies. These were kids who were allowed to wear “rock t-shirts” and ride their bikes to Burger King without supervision, who amassed collections of BB guns and bottle rockets rather than baseball cards and Bubblicious. They were the cool kids. In my health-conscious household, whether or not you were permitted junk food was a line in the sand between “us” and “them.” So, to this naïve, overprotected, 10-year-old in suburbia, that Keebler elf signaled one thing: This comic was a portal to the forbidden.
Entering the fictitious, urban world of this comic book was like diving into a drugged-out version of Sesame Street where cute kids from a veritable rainbow of backgrounds played together, studied together, and took PCP together. There was little to the plot—mostly a series of strung together anecdotes about the Teen Titans using their superpowers to save a group of teens from falling under the influence of drugs. One of them, a 15-year-old named Roger Levine confessed to habitual use of alcohol, pot, hash, cocaine, uppers, downers, acid, mushrooms, and glue. At the time, I had only a vague notion of what these drugs even were. Alcohol and uppers and downers—the drugs that killed Elvis—I understood, and I had come to learn what cocaine was through the jokes that neighborhood kids used to tell that mocked the soft drink’s jingle, “Coke is it!” As for the others, all I could do was speculate: Hash called to mind another food we didn’t eat in my household; acid, a destructive force that descended to the earth via rain; mushrooms, something that we did eat at my house, but which I couldn’t stand; and glue…Elmer’s?
Despite lacking the knowledge base to understand all of the references, to the comic’s propagandizing credit, it somehow managed to seamlessly integrate all of the scare tactics and conspiratorial theories of the time: the idea that soft gateway drugs forged an inevitable path to the harder stuff; that dressing “differently” was a telltale sign of using; that the drugs sold to kids were routinely “laced” with deadly poisons; that the lacing was done by people who were determined to get you hooked; and, more than anything else, that drugs were everywhere—from playgrounds, to beach parties, to the hallways of the school, to your older sibling’s bedroom. The moral of the story was that without true vigilance, anyone might fall prey to drugs. There was even an exercise at the back of the comic book where you could sign a “Declaration of Independence” from drugs. The climax of the story actually captured one such declaration. At a “detox center,” a 13-year-old named Betty Simpson rises to her feet and admits to taking pot, hash, uppers, downers, cocaine, and PCP before vowing, “I’m a druggie, and yes, I’m gonna stop!”
I distinctly remember snickers from the back of the classroom at that moment—the kids with the rock t-shirts, mostly. I can’t say that the comic book traumatized me, but looking back, something about not being in on the joke stayed with me. The experience taught me that drugs lay in the domain of the other, a kid who was much cooler than I was. However inadvertently, the collaborative effort of the Teen Titans, Nancy Reagan, and Keebler had achieved its intended effect.
Until I found that old Teen Titans comic, I hadn’t given my longtime aversion to drugs any more thought than I did my longtime aversion to golf, Dave Matthews, or the color turquoise. I now wonder whether I missed out on something. While so many of my contemporaries have fond memories of getting baked in the high school parking lot or lying on a shag rug while listening to Pink Floyd and staring at black light posters, the closest I ever even came to the drug hysteria of the 1980s was a comic book.
Images courtesy of DC Comics
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