Addiction, Self-injury, and Women In Comics

Trigger Warning: This post discusses drug addiction, self-injury, and other mental health issues.

In September, DC landed itself in some seriously hot water when a proposal went out for artists to draw Harley Quinn naked and attempting to electrocute herself in the bathtub.

The proposal, dreamed up by series writer Jimmy Palmiotti, drew quick condemnation from fans, as well as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

While that controversial episode was a failed attempt at black humour, there have been considerably more interesting attempts to portray female characters dealing with issues of depression and self-harm.

Laura Kinney, aka X-23, is perhaps the most well-known comic character who suffers from an addiction to self-injury. Laura, a clone of Wolverine’s, was physically, mentally, and emotionally abused from a young age and was bred to be nothing more than a killer. She is emotionally withdrawn and reacts poorly when she experiences feelings that are unusual for her, such as guilt, love, and anger. She cuts her wrists with the bone claws in her hands as a form of self-condemnation. For example, when Laura sees someone else kissing Hellion–a boy she had feelings for–she runs away in despair and begins cutting herself.

Laura has the ability to heal herself almost immediately, and as such does not bear the physical scars that an ordinary person who self-injures in this way would.

The act of cutting seems to give Laura a sense of relief from overwhelming emotions. It is also an addiction for her: she has consistently cut herself throughout different titles she has appeared in, including her own self-titled series written by Marjorie Liu.

laura kinney

According to a 2006 Cornell University study, women were more likely than men to self-injure. This reality is to be represented in the existence of a few other female characters who self-injure, including Despair from the Sandman series; Nico Minoru from Marvel’s Runaways and Violet Lightner from Marvel’s Avengers: The Initiative series.

Self-harm is also characterized not only as a mental health issue, but also as an addiction. When we think of addiction issues in comics, there are a few characters that come to immediate mind, but they are often male characters rather than female. Obviously, Tony Stark dealt with alcoholism in the Ironman arc Demon in a Bottle. And Roy Harper, the first sidekick of the DC hero Green Arrow famously battled a heroin addiction in the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 and #86.

While these stories of heroic male characters dealing with addiction, depression, and self-harm are more well-known, the stories of female characters dealing with the same issues are less so. This is despite a closing of the gender gap between male and female drug addiction rates. Renee Montoya and Dexedrine Parios, of Stumptown Investigations–coincidentally, two women written by Greg Rucka–both suffer from alcoholism. Renee ends up committing more violence while under the influence in the Gotham Central arcs, and Dex has a combination of both alcohol and gambling problems.

There were a few peripheral female characters who battled addiction: Stephanie Brown (otherwise known as the Spoiler) watched as her mother, Crystal Brown, abused painkillers and had depression. Catherine Todd, Jason Todd’s adoptive mother, died of a drug overdose. `

Rose Wilson, Deathstroke’s illegitimate and only daughter, is quite a bit like Laura Kinney. She too was bred to kill and was mentally and emotionally abused by her father. And Ravager, too, deals with mental health issues, depression, self-harm and addiction. When told by her father that she has failed on a mission, and in a depressed and psychotic state as a result of the super soldier serum Slade forced her to take, she cut out her left eye to prove her worthiness to him.

The troubled young woman later found solace by taking epinephrine via asthma inhalers, introduced to her by the Clock King. She denied that she ever had a problem when it was pointed out to her and even resorted to stealing drugs to get her fix. Unfortunately, the reader is left to assume she detoxed at some point, because she later tells Roy Harper that she would not judge him for his drug use when he relapses after his four-year-old daughter, Lian, was killed.

For the more prominent female characters who dealt with addiction and mental issues, like Renee Montoya, Dexedrine Parios, Laura Kinney, and Rose Wilson, they all had one thing in common: they are portrayed as complex, complicated women who try to be heroic. Their stories are fascinating to read because of how human they are, and because they make us want to see these characters overcome their own personal struggles.

Liz Pfeiffer

Liz Pfeiffer

Elisabeth Pfeiffer is a master's candidate at Trent University. She is currently working on her thesis, which examines the comic series Bitch Planet, and representations of race and gender within it.

3 thoughts on “Addiction, Self-injury, and Women In Comics

  1. Interesting piece, particularly the connection between self-harm and addiction. Like you I like it when characters have these flaws and they are a challenge they face without the writer using it as a chance to preach. I’m pretty sure Rucka has included women with drinking problems in other work of his too, but it works because he always makes it convincing and uses it to build empathy.

  2. Carol Danvers is also a recovering alcoholic, though that may have been retconned out at some point.

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