What was Popeye really puffing in his pipe? Did the Swamp Thing traffic in psychedelic potatoes? Is Spider-Man a narc? These are the questions that ran through my mind as I investigated the world of comic books…
What I found was an untold connection between the Mafia, comic censorship and marijuana prohibition. A continuing plot by the White House to subvert artistic license and turn comic books into vehicles of anti-drug propaganda. A war between conservatism and counter-culture that has played itself out in battles between super-narcs like the Green Arrow, super-potheads like the Freak Brothers, and super-sexpots like Little Annie Fannie.
The ultimate truth about comics? Right from the very start they were about pot.
Popeye the pot-head
According to Harry J Anslinger ? director of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1931 to 1962 ? Popeye was a pot head, and that wasn’t just spinach going into his pipe!
Popeye was originally created in 1929 by Elzie Segar, as a new character in an already 10-year-old strip called Thimble Theatre. He immediately became America’s favourite cartoon character, heralded as single-handedly saving the US spinach industry.
Yet Popeye‘s use of a pipe to consume the green stuff, and his resulting super-human powers and violent behavior, convinced the paranoid Anslinger that something sly was slinking around behind the scenes. It fit perfectly with Anslinger’s delusions about the effects of smoking cannabis. Anslinger believed that “Marijuana is the most violence causing drug in the history of mankind,” and in 1937 he testified with these exact words before US Congress, resulting in the United States’ first prohibitions against pot.
It may have aroused Anslinger’s suspicions that Popeye was also a sailor. Mariners had contact with the mighty marijuana herb since the dawn of sailing, preferring it over all other fibers for making sails and ropes. Sailors were also the original pot pipeline of the British Empire, bringing smokable cannabis to foreign and domestic shores, if for nothing else but their own use. Through cannabis, sailors had a long-standing relationship to the early jazz scene, especially in places like New Zealand, where grass was largely imported from foreign shores in the 20’s and 30’s.
It’s unlikely we will ever find out for sure what was going through Segar’s mind when he created the spinach-sucking sailor, but he did have a reputation as a bizarre satirist, and portraying cannabis as spinach would have fit well with his modus operandi.
In 1938, one year after US pot prohibition, the famous jazz band Julia Lee and her Boyfriends recorded The Spinach Song, which was regularly performed in clubs thick with cannabis smoke. The Spinach Song contains lyrics that likely fed Anslinger’s suspicions. Especially the chorus “I didn’t like it the first time, but oh how it grew on me,” and lines like “now somehow I can’t get enough.” That same year, Elzie Segar, Popeye‘s creator, suddenly died.
By the time The Spinach Song was released, “spinach” was already a jazz-industry code-word for “cannabis.” So it seems likely that Segar intended his readers to know that Popeye the Sailor Man gained his super-human strength from tooting back more than just a mere garden vegetable.
Steven Grant is a clever and talented writer responsible for such political comics as The Badlands, which explored the John F Kennedy assassination, and Whisper, which depicted CIA drug involvement long before it became big news. In an interview with Cannabis Culture, Grant related a story of intrigue and subterfuge that may link comics to the sickly heart of cannabis prohibition.
“In the 20’s,” said Grant, “during [alcohol]prohibition, the mob bought acres of Canadian timber land, so that they could use the timber to smuggle booze into the US, a racket that was used in Brian de Palma’s movie The Untouchables. So when prohibition ends, the mob has tons and tons of trees [and logging equipment], and the only thing that they can make it profitable with is paper. So my theory is that the mob specifically encouraged the magazine and comic business, which has rapid growth after prohibition ends. It gives them something to do with their trucks, and with their trees.”
According to Steven Grant, the Independent News Distribution company (IND) ? the biggest magazine newsstand distribution service in the US ? was mob influenced and operated from its beginnings. Grant relates mob interest in the magazine industry to the widely-held conviction that the tree-paper industry had a hand in anti-hemp laws, a secret history unveiled in Jack Herer’s famous pot-prohibition history The Emperor Wears No Clothes.
“You may remember that hemp makes far more superior paper than trees,” related Grant. “So by encouraging the banning and illegalization of marijuana they not only cut out competition for that market, because suddenly people can’t grow hemp anymore, but they also give themselves a new prohibition to rake in ridiculous amounts of money.”
The post-WWII “McCarthy Era” gripped the US with anti-communist fever that included witch hunts to ferret out socialist sympathizers and jail or execute them. Comics, which in the 40’s and 50’s depicted crime and graphic violence, were also scrutinized under the baleful countenance of the McCarthyites. The comic Teenage Dope Slaves, first published in 1952, was cited in psychologist Frederic Wortham’s bestselling book Seduction of the Innocent, in which Wortham hypothesized that comics caused children to enact the very stories they told. Seduction of the Innocent became a rallying cry for anti-comic censorship laws.
In Steven Grant’s opinion, however, the greatest pressure against comics was really a veiled attack on the mob, which by the 50’s was pretty much in total control of newsstand distribution. Pressure against the mob manifested itself as dozens of state laws against what had become known as “crime and horror comics,” said Grant.
Then, in 1954, when the federal government was considering creating country-wide anti-comic laws, some of the biggest comic publishers of the time, Archie, DC and EC Comics, created the Comics Code Authority with the idea that self-regulation would be better than all-out censorship.
What happened next supports Grant’s theory. Despite pressure for censorship laws, the US government agreed to a Comics Code Authority (CCA) and federal anti-comic laws were never passed. The IND, closely associated with DC Comics and the mob, refused to distribute any comic that didn’t have the CCA stamp, and drove crime and horror comics out of business… comics that just happened to be DC’s biggest rivals.
The CCA wasn’t enough for Canada, however, so parliament passed anti-comic laws in 1955. Any comic that depicts a crime was banned under the law, which would eliminate every super-hero comic if enforced. These laws are considered antiquated and are rarely enforced, except for the purpose of arbitrarily censoring material that questions authority. Cannabis Culture, for example, was targeted by these laws earlier this year in Timmins, Ontario, but police were forced to back down and let our magazine into stores (CC#29, Cannabis Culture defeats censorship cops).
Similarly, in the US, state anti-comic laws have often been used to ban certain materials that the local moral minority consider offensive. The Comic Book Legal Defence Fund, founded by underground comics guru Denis Kitchen, exists to fight comic censorship oppression.
But back to the 50’s. By about 1957, in both the US and Canada, kids’ favourite and most subversive comics had almost totally disappeared. The kids remembered.
Little Annie Fannie gives birth
One big influence on those kids was the work of Harvey Kurtzman, a writer and artist who created MAD Magazine and did the first 24 issues in the early 50’s, and then went on to do 25 years of classic sexual satire for Playboy in his Little Annie Fanny series, which began running in October of 1962.
Besides being filled with eye-catching nudes, Little Annie Fannie also regularly operated as social commentary that had as recurrent themes drug use, hippy hedonism, and communal living.
In the January, 1970 Little Annie Fannie, Kurtzman has Ralphie, one of Annie’s many admirers, ironically attempt to educate about the harmlessness of pot during a police raid. While Ralphie pontificates, frame after frame shows him beaten, bruised, and bloodied at the hands of brutal cops who haul him off in a paddy wagon, satirically signaling to the reader that the real harm of marijuana is in its prohibition. In another panel, a cop is depicted as a pig.
Kurtzman was an influence on the great Robert Crumb, whose explosion onto the scene in the late 60’s heralded a true renaissance for underground sex and drug comics. Some consider Crumb’s blatant, sometimes disturbing sexuality and his euphoric psychedelic freedom as a reaction to the violence of war, as epitomized in his father, a WWII veteran who Crumb says never spoke to him after seeing his son’s first published comic. Crumb was a regular cannabis smoker, and attributes his greatest inspiration to the psychedelic experience.
“I took this weird drug [in 1966],” Crumb relates in the excellent documentary film Crumb, “supposedly it was LSD. But it had this really weird effect… it made my brain all fuzzy. It lasted a couple of months and I started getting these images, these cartoon characters. I let go of a coherent fixed idea of what I was trying to do. All the characters that I used during the next few years all came to me during this period.”
Crumb’s LSD-inspired characters included the world-renowned Fritz the Cat and Mr Natural. As Kurtzman inspired Crumb, so did Crumb inspire Gilbert Shelton who, along with Paul Mavrides, co-created, wrote and illustrated The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, with main characters reminiscent of a genetically-modified cross between the three stooges, Cheech and Chong, and Hunter S Thompson, encountering calamitous adventures in their epic quest for cannabis. Arguably the most famous pot comic of all time.
Underground sex and drugs
The sex and drugs revolution of the 60’s transformed both comics and the way they were distributed.
Denis Kitchen started out as a notable comic artist and writer, and became the founder of Kitchen Sink Press, which drew together the talents of Kurtzman, Crumb and other gifted comic artists of the times.
“In the 60’s there was a real revolution in the medium that parallels the whole anti-establishment movement,” Kitchen told Cannabis Culture. “We knew that comics were stultified, largely puerile and unimaginative and it was impossible to use the medium with any sense of real freedom and exploration. Those of us who considered ourselves hippies, caught up in the anti-war movement, and ? yes ? smoking pot, just looked at the world in a very different way. And comic books were a part of that world that we questioned. It was an instinctive reaction.”
At least two other comic publishers were instrumental in the liberation of comics from the stifling world of the CCA to the much more exciting worlds of sex and drugs. Like Kitchen, Freak Brothers creator Gilbert Shelton had a hand in founding Rip Off Press in San Francisco in 1969, which published and distributed Freak Brothers and other Shelton comics like Feds and Heads.
Last Gasp Press was founded soon after, in 1970. Like Rip Off Press, Last Gasp was based in San Francisco, where it began publishing such classics as Rand Holmes’ Harold Hedd, named after the comic’s main character: an intellectual, muscular, marijuana and LSD-ingesting hippie who flies planes and hangs with gorgeous and often naked women. Dr Atomic was another Last Gasp hit comic, entertaining with stories about a pot-Einstein and detailed “how-to” chemistry sections for the serious psychonaut.
Eventually, during the 70’s, Last Gasp, Rip Off, Kitchen Sink Press and other underground publishers began co-distributing their comics to a whole new market phenomenon that suddenly sprouted from weed culture: pipe and paraphernalia-hocking head shops.
Underground comics publishers remember that when head shops were targeted by US narcs in the 80’s, their comics were squeezed out. Vivid, illustrated depictions of pot use, it would seem, made it too obvious that the rolling papers and pipes sold in the same store were there for smoking weed.
“There was an immediate connection between going to get some papers and bongs and going to get your comics,” said Kitchen. “That was a natural alliance and I think a lot of people considered getting high and reading underground comics a natural thing to do.”
“Back in the late 60’s early 70’s almost all the people who read comics were heads,” said Ron Turner, founder of Last Gasp. “That’s how you turned people on. They would be stoned, and you would say, ‘hey, read this.'”
According to Turner, comics were an essential part of psychedelic and alternative culture. Comics touched the hearts of both acid-guru Timothy Leary and poison-cool aid guru Reverend Jim Jones, whose penchant for mass-suicide led to the Jonestown Massacre.
“Tim Leary was a complete comic nut and there was even a comic book about Leary called neurocomics,” said Turner. “And Robert Crumb’s Dirty Laundry Comics had Tim Leary coming down in a spaceship to pick him up. I was a very good friend of Tim’s, and he was very in love with this stuff.”
In 1994, Timothy Leary wrote a forward for Denis Kitchen’s All-American Hippie Comix, an anthology of Kitchen’s earlier Dope Comix series from the late 70’s that largely contained cautionary tales about how people can badly head-trip each other when high. Leary’s interest in underground comics may have come from their faithful promotion of the Leary creeds “think for yourself” and “question authority.” Leary was also enthralled with the implications of mass-communication and the ability of technology to interface with the state known as “being high.”
“Underground comics would have the absurd endings that you would imagine straight comics coming to, but they weren’t straight,” said Turner. “They were very trippy and they would speak to the state of mind that you were experiencing. They were drug trips, poured out from the cartoonist’s own experience, but they weren’t expressed as such. People would read a strip by Robert Crumb, and they would double over in hysterics, because it would reflect how the mind jumps around when you are high. Also, when you are stoned it’s kind of hard to hide a falsehood. And that is one of the wonderful things about cartoons is that they can get in there and penetrate with truths when you are stoned.”
In the days of “flower children” and “turn ons,” Last Gasp was also contacted by Reverend Jim Jones who wanted a supply of Last Gasp comics for his literacy program. Turner remembers Jones explaining that for some people, underground comics were an incredible motivation to read and learn.
Captain Marvel’s Acid Test
According to cartoonist Steven Grant, comics were largely responsible for the whole hippy “look.” The story begins with Ken Kesey, who in the early 60’s was a subject of LSD experiments by the CIA. After getting high on government acid, Kesey rejected mainstream society, founded the “Merry Pranksters,” and began touring America in a bus named “further,” smoking pot and distributing LSD to the nation at a non-stop on-the-road party called the “Acid Test.” And the clothing worn at these parties was originally modelled after Captain Marvel.
“From Captain Marvel, Kesey got the idea that if everyone was going to be their own hero, damn it, they ought to dress like heroes,” said Grant. “In clothing colorful, gaudy and individualistic: an idea that played into the acid lightshow trippiness of the Kesey experience.”
The plentiful supply of LSD and the on-the-road style of The Acid Test became a prototype for thirty years of touring by the soon-to-be famous Grateful Dead, who played their first shows at the Acid Test. Meanwhile, Kesey’s colourful fashion style became, as Steven Grant says, “the prototype for what would later be derogatorily known as the hippie.”
Eventually, the worlds of party-dosers and theoretical eastern gurus collided when ? in the late 60’s ? Kesey paid a visit to Timothy Leary. Leading to the speculation that it may have been Kesey who first turned Leary on to comics.
In the early 70’s, the US government started trying to subvert comic books towards their anti-drug stance. Stan Lee ? the creator of many of Marvel Comics’ most popular heroes, including Spider-Man ? was contacted by US feds and asked to create a story telling the dangers of drug addiction. In the Spring of 1971, Spider-Man debuted its anti-drug storyline (Spider-Man #96) featuring a cliched and predictable scene in which a black man is shown dancing dangerously close to the edge at the top of a building shouting “I can float ? fly like a bird!” There is no indication of what he has taken to induce this state. Later in the series, a rich white friend of Spider-Man‘s turns out to be a pill junkie.
It is quite possible that DC Comics’ Denny O’Neil was also contacted by the US government, for 1971 also saw O’Neil write and DC publish an anti-drug Green Lantern/Green Arrow, in which Green Arrow‘s sidekick, Speedy, turns out to be a needle junkie, and gets beaten senseless by the Arrow who catches him fixing.
Interestingly, the 1971 anti-drug Spider-Man was the first Marvel comic not to get the Comics Code Authority seal of approval, because of its depiction of drug injection. The Green Lantern/Green Arrow anti-drug comic was also threatened, when the CCA took particular exception to it having two large syringes on the cover. But when DC compromised and printed it with only one syringe, the CCA gave Green Lantern/Green Arrow the green light. Not much of a fuss was ever made of either comics’ difficulties with the CCA.
ONDCP comic pay off
Last year, in a scandal that rocked the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the press revealed that the ONDCP’s advertising campaign included paying television networks to infiltrate regular sitcoms with anti-drug story lines. Cannabis Culture has discovered that they were doing the same thing with comics.
What the ONDCP was supposed to do with their five-year, billion-dollar advertising budget, was find networks, magazines and other media that were willing to give advertisements at half price, or who would donate an equal amount of advertising free. What the ONDCP did instead was let networks fulfill their requirements by hiding anti-drug messages in television programs.
The mainstream press missed the fact that the ONDCP also paid ? and continues to pay ? comic book manufacturers DC and Marvel for anti-drug ads. Meanwhile, more suspicious anti-drug story lines have been popping up in the world of super-heroes. Marvel’s Spider-Man, a government narc since the early 70’s, takes a huge roll in a four-part series devoted to slagging marijuana. The saga appears as a special eight-page addition to comics like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Girl (late 1999 to early 2000), and features a marijuana promoting movie-star named Zane Whelan with a pot-leaf t-shirt, who smokes weed and then pulls off perilous pranks, like dancing on steel girders high in the air. One of Zane’s fans then tries the same thing on a bridge, without the aid of safety harnesses. The implication here is “monkey see, monkey do”… ironically much the same argument used by psychologist Frederic Wortham to stir up anti-comic sentiment in the first place.
DC also carries an ONDCP ad on their website, with a link to the ONDCP’s “Freevibe,” a website with tons of anti-pot hysteria. The Freevibe site, like other ONDCP sites, was the subject of controversy for having spy programs that would capture the identity of anyone looking at them. Meanwhile, the Freevibe site invites young people to “relate their experiences,” potentially leaving themselves and their family at risk of DEA investigations.
Like Spider-Man, Marvel’s The Uncanny X-Men series also contained covert anti-drug messages. In the January 2001 issue, Mutant Cecelia Reyes, having taken a drug called “Rave” (an obvious reference to Ecstasy) has an uncontrollable dance attack, gushing her super-hero powers dangerously in all directions during a psychedelic freak-out session that nearly kills all her friends. DC’s Batman carried similar anti-drug messages.
In 2000, both Marvel’s Spider-Man and DC’s Batman received White House awards for their command prohibitionist performances. Yet the ONDCP’s own follow-up research indicates that their anti-marijuana media campaign hasn’t changed the minds of today’s youth; it has only been a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.
Behind the Scenes
The Swamp Thing, made of vegetable matter, is unable to have sex with his girlfriend because he lacks the carrot to accomplish the act. So he sprouts a psychedelic potato from his chest, which he tears out and offers her to eat. She takes a bite… and psychically connects with the living earth in a ground-breaking masterpiece of comic art, uniting with the Swamp Thing on the elemental plane.
Written by Alan Moore in 1984, and appearing in DC Comic’s Vertigo line, the Sex and Death episode of Swamp Thing is a breakthrough in above-ground comics, destigmatizing the psychedelic experience as harmful and illusionary. Moore was the first of a growing cadre of comics writers, popular because their stories are magically real, because they portray psychedelics as tools that unfold the realms of mystery.
In the early 90’s, Grant Morrison materialized on the psychedelic scene with the The Invisibles, a story that engages with a time-travelling, dimension-skipping magician, who initiates his apprentice into the world of sorcery by smoking mold with him in a pipe. The mold is blue, the same blushing blue as psilocybe mushrooms, and tears away the illusion of the normal world, exposing the city as an energy-focussing Masonic structure, while opening doors to vaster planes.
These themes hearken back to the works of Carlos Casteneda ? the “new-age” grandfather of a resurgent interest in shamanism ? and even earlier to certain sects of Tantric Buddhism that point to psychedelics (cannabis in particularl) as one of the buttons that turns on the machinery of spiritual evolvement by cooperating in the process to unmask consensus reality as a farce.
It seems implicit that such an intimate empathy with psychedelic magic could only come from personal experience. Indeed, Moore was busted for dealing pot in high school. And one must wonder whether Moore researched plants enough to know that the Solanaceae family, which includes the potato, is the source of psychedelic alkaloids so powerful that even experienced trippers like Jim DeKorne, author of Psychedelic Shamanism, warn about their potency.
Grant Morrison is also a legendary tripper. Grant Morrison’s epic psychedelic trips are chronicled in the stories of co-writers like Warren Ellis on the informative Comic Book Research website, where Ellis describes his last visit with Morrison. Morrison was on LSD and shrouded “in a vast cloud of dopesmoke,” an experience that translated into inspiration for The Invisibles:
“Shortly after you leave,” Morrison tells Ellis, “there am I drooling and buzzing in the presence of seven times seven times seven deranged bizarro beings all boiling in the interference moire of the SELF/NOT SELF boundary. A lot of the direct transmissions go straight into INVISIBLES volume 3 #5…”
Now that Marvel has asked the mega-trippy Morrison to take over the X-Men series, what will happen? Will taking Rave and freaking out become a shamanic initiation for mutants?
It seems like a paradox that writers like Moore and Morrison should even be allowed to exist in the ONDCP-enriched universes of Marvel and DC. Yet they do. Perhaps by some miracle of the plant allies they invoke in their stories. Or maybe because people would rather read thought-provoking philosophy about the nature of reality than boring, government-funded rants.
? Comic Book Legal Defence Fund: PO Box 693, Northampton, MA 01061; tel (413) 268-7776; [email protected]; www.cbldf.com
? Comic Book Resources: www.comicbookresources.com
? Last Gasp: 777 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA, 94110; tel 415-824-6636; [email protected]; www.lastgasp.com
? Rip Off Press: PO Box 4686, Auburn, CA, 95604; tel (530) 885-8183; [email protected]; www.ripoffpress.com
? DC Comics: www.dccomics.com
? Marvel Comics: www.marvel.com
? Office of National Drug Control Policy Media Campaign Page: www.mediacampaign.org
? Special thanks to Scooter at the Comic Shop in Vancouver for his invaluable assistance in comic research. The Comic Shop: (604) 738-8122