The new Spider-Man video game, released last week for the PlayStation 4, is one of the most enjoyable, ambient gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time. The game is set in a nearly-photorealistic recreation of New York City, through which you move by web slinging from building to building as Spider-Man himself. You can spend hours swinging through the skies, enjoying a view of the city from top to bottom. It’s almost unfortunate that there’s the normal video game stuff to do — fight bad guys, complete missions, gain experience, collect multi-colored tokens with various purposes — but the game isn’t overwhelming. It builds a compelling window into Spider-Man’s world, as you try to balance his real-life responsibilities with the work of being a superhero.
Largely, that means helping the cops. Random crimes occur throughout the city, which you glean by listening in on a police scanner, and swinging in to stop the robbery, the car chase, and so on. In the comics, Spider-Man’s relationship with the police is often contentious, but he’s always been a crimefighter — just because the cops want to arrest him, too, doesn’t mean he’ll stop fighting the good fight. In the video game, he has a particular enthusiasm about the role, inventing a humorous “Spider-Cop” persona he pretends to be, much to the consternation of one of his friends on the force.
That the fictional NYPD is not as problematic as the real one, and that Spider-Man has absolutely no reservations about gleefully filling its cells with anonymous baddies, is not at all surprising. This is a video game, not a history book on police oppression, and modern mainstream comic books are pointedly apolitical, brimming with cliches about truth, justice, and the American way but never calling out the forces oppressing these values. (Last year, Marvel published an incredibly long, ill-advised series imagining Captain America as a modern-day fascist, which ended in his defeat but not after several unnecessarily nuanced monologues portraying him as basically right.) But one aspect of Spidey’s fictional crime-fighting sticks out nonetheless: The way he fights drug dealers.
Here is how a typical encounter works in the game: You get a notification from the police scanner about a drug deal taking place in an alley or, confusingly, on top of a skyscraper. As you get closer, you hear the masked dealers spout villainous lines like, “You ain’t never seen anything like this stuff” and “scientists who cooked this up ain’t never heard of the Geneva Convention.” (I’m serious; I have the captions turned on.) Then, you kick their ass as Spider-Man quips away: “Drug deals and criminals go together like cookies and milk!” “Knocking the living stuffing out of drug dealers is my anti-drug!” “Fellas, you can’t keep ducking income tax like this!” You web them up, and leave before the cops show up.
That’s as far as we go. Okay, sure, it’s just a video game, though the idea that video games should be stridently apolitical is a recent one, bolstered by the disingenuous Gamergate movement. It’s also inherently conservative, as it ignores the invisible connections between just about everything, and insists on the freedom to have personal fun without thinking about anything else. (As Spider-Man himself knows: with great power comes great responsibility.) And with politics in mind, I couldn’t help but think about one of the most famous Spider-Man comics ever written: A three-issue saga from 1971 in which Peter Parker discovers that his best friend, Harry Osborn, is a drug addict.
When the comic begins, Peter is in the middle of some girl drama. He tries to go out with his friends, only to stammer uncomfortably when the vivacious Mary Jane Watson starts hitting on him, even though she’s ostensibly involved with Harry. The pressure of watching his girl flirt with his best friend is too much for Harry, and while he and Peter are arguing, he starts shaking. “I’m all right!” he says, when Peter asks if he’s okay. “Just need something for my headache — and to make me sleep.”
That something is an unnamed pill, which makes him pass out. Peter has never seen this before, though the evidence has been there: “Now that I think of it, he’s always had a lot of bottles in his medicine chest — pills to keep him up — to relax him — and to put him to sleep.” Still, he isn’t too concerned: “That’s the trouble with those blasted things — a guy like Harry gets to depend on them. Well, I better let him sleep it off.” And then, he’s actively disdainful: “What makes Harry so weak? He’s got everything going for him — his own pad — a car — and a father who denies him nothing.”
Harry’s troubles aren’t over. The next day, Mary Jane flirts with Peter again, so he looks for help from an unlikely source: a mustached drug dealer (go figure) wearing a purple suit and gingham shirt (the unlikely part). “I’ve got something that’ll make you forget all about that chick — something that’ll make you feel like you’re king of the world,” he tells a sweating Harry, who starts fixating on the way Mary Jane looks at Peter. When he tells the dealer this is the “first time — and the last time,” the dealer snidely waves him off: “Yeah — that’s what they say.”
The pills force Harry into a frenzied state, and he confronts Peter again, threatening to kick him out of the apartment they share. “I’ve never seen him this way before!” Peter thinks. “Those highs and lows of his — he’s becoming irrational — but he isn’t aware of it.” When he offers help, Harry rejects it — and Peter, unwisely trusting his judgment, decides to attend to other matters. After he leaves, Harry goes right back to the pill bottle, sending him into a hallucinogenic state rendered perfectly by artist John Romita’s sharp pencil. “It — must be — the pills — they’re driving me — out of my mind!” When Peter comes back to the apartment, Harry is lifelessly slumped on the bed.
Peter gets him to the hospital in time, and though he still struggles to understand why Harry turned to drugs, he takes out his anger on the drug dealer and his cronies, who he stumbles upon in public. (It’s a comic book; they run on coincidence.) Peter is out of costume, and visibly furious. He proceeds to beat the hell out of them, but pulling his punches just enough so they don’t know he’s Spider-Man. “If I ever see you pushing that stuff — anywhere again — you’ll think that this was just a playful picnic,” he threatens as he walks away from their broken bodies.
This is the superhero part: see a problem, and beat it up. But the writing, as provided by industry legend Stan Lee, is explicitly political about the drug problem, and threaded throughout the story (which primarily focuses on Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin, who also happens to be Harry’s father, Norman). Early on, Norman gets into an argument with Randy, a black friend of their group, who’s actively disdainful of the Osbourn family’s monied ways. “Everyone figures it’s the black man’s bag — but it ain’t! We’re the ones who hate it the most! ...but it ain’t just our problem! It’s yours, too!” Randy spits at him.
Later, editors at The Daily Bugle — the in-universe fictional newspaper where Peter works — debate running a story about Harry’s drug-induced hospitalization. “I’m showing that drugs aren’t just a ghetto hangup!” Robbie Robertson, one of the paper’s black employees and a perpetual voice of reason, tells his skeptical editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson. “They hit the rich — same as the poor. It’s everyone’s problem! We’ve all got to face it!” The story runs, Peter’s conflict with the Green Goblin concludes, and Peter ends everything on a hopeful, albeit moralizing note: “Now, all that remains is to hope that poor Harry will soon be all right. And, to hope that he’s learned you can’t solve your problems with pills.”
The story didn’t develop in a vacuum. In 1971, Lee received a letter from the then-existing Department of Health Education and Welfare, asking him to write a story about the horrors of drug addiction. As Lee later recalled: “I was determined not to allow the ‘message’ part of our story to be so prominent, so blatant, as to make it seem like a sermon. I didn’t want our readers to feel we were preaching to them just because they were a captive audience — and yet, it was important that the message come across, loud and clear. The answer seemed to be to inject the theme of drug addiction as a peripheral sub-plot which would in no way dilute the action, drama, or suspense of the regular super hero theme.”
But when Marvel submitted the comic to the Comic Code Authority, a regulatory board responsible deeming comics “appropriate” and affixing them with a standard-bearing seal, it was rejected. “They said, ‘according to the rules of the Code Authority, you can’t mention drugs in a story,’ Lee recalled. “And I said, ‘Look we’re not telling kids to take drugs, this is an anti-drug theme.’ [They said,] ‘Oh no it doesn’t matter, you mention drugs.’ And I said, ‘but the Department of Health Education and Welfare, a government agency, asked us to do it.’ and they said, ‘it doesn’t matter, you can’t mention drugs.’” Still, Lee was convinced of the righteousness of the comic. With the go-ahead from Marvel’s publisher, they decided to run the comic without the CCA’s approval — the first time in company history.
The story was immediately heralded as a classic, winning coverage in the mainstream media. And though Marvel’s defiance caused some waves, DC Comics, their main competition, soon ran their own anti-drug story in the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, which was also received with high praise. Not long after, the CCA revised its rules to allow for stories like these, a notable shift in the industry. The CCA is completely out of use today, largely because publishers found the increasing courage to buck institutional notions of what was “appropriate.”
Reading that 1971 comic today, it doesn’t feel overtly hokey. Through the lens of the modern opioid crisis (it’s never specified what pills Harry is taking, though it seems to be a mix of uppers and downers), Peter’s struggle to understand his friend’s problem feels realistic — especially the way he finds relief by punching it out. But the commentary from the supporting characters is essential, too. Drug addiction isn’t limited to any one class or color of people; it affects everyone, which was as true in 1971 as it is today. Contrasting all of this with the treatment of drugs in the Spider-Man video game, where there’s no personal stakes — no quivering Harry, no believably seedy drug dealer — and the invocation of “fun” as some kind of self-sustaining justification for thematic shallowness seems completely laughable.
This week, multiple outlets have run stories on the discomfort of Spider-Man’s limited pro-cop politics. I’ve noticed that all of them have garnered Twitter replies from angry gamers disdaining the idea that games should think about anything serious, or that Spider-Man should have complicated feelings about crime and order. (This, despite the fact that the police are almost always after him in the comics.) “Haven’t you ever picked up a comic?” one person tweeted at me, after I tweeted something glib about strange it is that helping the cops is such a core part of the game. But the original comics didn’t shy away from complicated portrayals of a real-world problem; they knew how to weave the serious stuff in with the superhero stuff to create something meaningful, and lasting. The Spider-Man game is very enjoyable, but these types of stories matter the most when they try to do something more.