Vancouver’s Hippie Cartoonist: Rand Holmes

Rand Holmes was born in Nova Scotia on February 22, 1942 and arrived in Vancouver in 1969, where he would introduce the pot-smoking comic character Harold Hedd to the west coast’s laid-back hippies. In 1982 he would leave Vancouver when that lifestyle came into disrepute, and retreated – as many did then – to the Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Rand Holmes spent his last 20 years with his wife Martha on Lasqueti island before succumbing to Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 60. Holmes lived a simple life on Lasqueti, a place with no outside source of energy or electricity; all power on the island is from solar panels or wind-turbine generators. The 400 residents are like a giant, wholesome family. It takes an hour of crossing the turbulent Georgia Strait waters by ferry to get to Lasqueti, a trip required to attend the fifth anniversary of Rand Holmes’ death, an art show called the Rand Holmes Retrospective. I tolerated my sea-faring nausea on March 17th to travel to Lasqueti and pay respect to Vancouver’s cannabis culture cartoonist.

There have never been many Canadian superheroes in comics of any kind, but the counter-cultural everyman Harold Hedd, which Rand Holmes developed in the Vancouver weekly The Georgia Straight, was my kind of guy to have as a role model at age 15 in 1973. It painted Vancouver as such a charming place of hippies, hippie girls eager for sex – all with exaggerated breasts – and weed so plentiful it was almost like currency. The first Harold Hedd Comix collection appeared in 1972 as a series of one-pagers from The Georgia Strait: the oversized Adventures of Harold Hedd. Holmes was appointed cartoonist chronicler of the politics in Vancouver from 1969 to 1973, and the everyman Hedd was always tangling with the Vancouver establishment and police. It includes Harold Hedd’s commentary on the Gastown Police Riot of August 7, 1971 (see Vansterdam then and now, page 74). Then #2, The Anus-Clenching Adventures of Harold Hedd, came out in 1973, and it is generally considered the best Canadian underground comic from the golden era. It’s a story of every doper’s fantasy: after the landlord kicks you out, your grow is discovered, and your boss fires you, you take your best friend and make the most humongous weed deal ever imagined and all you have to do is fly 3,000 miles in a 1942 WW2 bomber from Mexico to Canada. I’ve read Harold Hedd #2 many, many times and it’s the inspiration behind a 33-year-old movie idea I’ve had. The story could be changed a bit; make it heroic Canadian and California stoners flying an ancient WW2 airplane loaded full with millions of cannabis super-seeds impervious to all predators, with instructions to Overgrow The Potomac. Surviving all disasters and Homeland Security, the plane leaves Humboldt and goes east to drop its entire botanical payload over Virginia and Washington, DC!

But Holmes’ disillusionment with how the ’80s undid the ’70s encouraged him to move somewhere secluded. Lasqueti was an island with a certain reputation for growing pot, which some residents feel was undeserved – especially when you considered the limited growing space they had compared to their larger island neighbors to the west. Holmes continued to do cannabis-inspired oil paintings, drawings and other art projects while living on Lasqueti. Harold Hedd’s last appearance and adventure was 1984’s two-part story Hitler’s Cocaine. With the counter-culture seemingly gone it was not well received and marked the end of Holmes’ iconic Vancouver stoner everyman who had first appeared in 1969.

I met Rand Holmes only once, in July 1996. I had called him up by phone and asked if he wanted to do a Harold Hedd-style poster to commemorate, 25 years later, the police riots and brutality at the Grasstown Smoke In & Jamboree. Vancouver activists were going to take over the main traffic nexus in Gastown that year to mark the 25th anniversary. Holmes agreed and came in to the Cannabis Canada magazine offices in July to meet editor Dana Larsen, activists David Malmo-Levine, Hillary Black and myself. When we showed him our old copies of Harold Hedd and The Georgia Straight, he was amazed. “I can’t believe anyone remembers,” he said, “And that this is all going on,” – ‘this’ meaning our activism. He was delighted his influence lived on in ways he had not known about.

Holmes’ last cannabis drawing was in 2001, a year before his passing. It’s a beautiful cannabis leaf laurel used by the local island mint. Yes, the island of Lasqueti has its own precious metal coinage! The 1997-2007 coinage motifs are inspired by the Gulf Islands in an attempt to establish an exchange system between the islands based on bullion. Lasqueti mint master Tolling Jennings explains, “The laws of Canada decree that fine metal bullion coins may be issued and sold free of any tax, provided that the purity of the metal, the weight of each coin and a maker’s trademark are shown on each coin’s face. It’s traditional for national mints to put the agricultural products of their countries on their coinage, and because Lasqueti was known in the media as ‘Pot Island’ for much of the ’70s and ’80s, we issued these special coins. The marijuana coin series started with the 2001 issue of our 1/10-ounce (3.11-gram) gold coin, with the cannabis laurel artwork done by Rand Holmes. In 2006, we issued 1/10oz. silver coins, which are 0.9999 percent silver, the finest in the world. These coins circulate on and off the island. The Lasqueti mint continues production of pure gold and silver coins in anticipation of the collapse of the mega-nation state and its paper money.”

The 1997-2007 tenth anniversary marijuana-motif silver coins are worth $10, and the 1997-2007 gold coins valued at $120. Together with fellow mint master Ray Lipovsky, Jennings issues new coins each year. Coins from previous years are sold out and worth more on the market than their issuing price. Marijuana motif coins as real money? Only on Lasqueti Island – with thanks to the artistic talent of the late Rand Holmes!

The Rand Holmes Retrospective

By Patrick Rosenkranz

Underground artist Rand Holmes died five years ago, in 2002, but his body of work was resoundingly resurrected on March 17th and 18th at an art show and celebration in his honor. It was held at the community hall on his remote island hideaway of Lasqueti in British Columbia. Pen and ink original pages from Harold Hedd Comix, covers for The Georgia Straight, sexy cartoons for the Vancouver Star paper, science fiction comics and covers, as well as self-portraits, landscapes and the group of mysterious oil paintings he began ten years before his death were spread out through the main room. All day and into the night people arrived, with kids, food and musical instruments. The beer and wine bar opened on the front porch and the herbal remedy society convened on the back veranda. Five island sheep who died to provide meaty victuals were steamed, skewered, and barbequed with love. It was an art show, it was a party; it was an arty-party.

Holmes’ neighbors and admirers came from nearby and far away. Some were comic collectors on a pilgrimage. Most were friends and fellow islanders, curious to see what this quiet, unassuming man produced during his lifetime. Few people had ever been invited into his studio, and most had no idea what sort of things he drew. Once a year, he would bring one painting to the group show at the Lasqueti Art Center. He didn’t talk much about his past; the 1970s were long gone and nobody cared about ancient history.

Rand Holmes had been the best-known counterculture cartoonist of the Vancouver scene for his character Harold Hedd of Harold Hedd Comix, a pot culture hero who, in classic comic tradition, thwarted evil (the police and prohibition) and got the girl in globetrotting madcap adventures.

His hilarious stories featured dope smuggling, standing up to ‘the man’, wholesome enough sex and nudity, and political commentary. Hedd and his cousin Elmo flew a bomber load of pot from Mexico to British Columbia, and dove for Hitler’s secret cocaine stash on a submarine off Nova Scotia. His later comic stories ventured into outer space and horror, and chronicled the musical adventures of the Grateful Dead.

Rand Holmes made no attempt to disguise his fondness for marijuana in his life or his published work. In fact, Hedd comic books were probably instruction manuals for many young readers. Holmes once told me that he didn’t care if people objected to his explicit depictions of sex and drug use. “I’m not an immoral person, and I put into my comics what I feel is right. I would personally be outraged if anyone saw fit to tell me what should go into them; I think I should have the same rights as any novelist, painter, or songwriter.”

Holmes obviously had a rich imagination. His fantasies took place in an inner landscape that only he truly knew, not only in his writing, but also in his lifestyle. He might have been born two centuries too late, for he really felt he belonged to the 1700s of long ago. He constructed his own black powder rifles, made skin clothing, and periodically headed off alone into the woods with his weapons, a bit of flour and salt, and lived off the land. He had a private little cabin tucked away in the old growth where he could live like mountain men of yore. He needed that time alone so that he could create, said his son Ron. It was as necessary as breathing, for him to get his space. The Rand Holmes Retrospective in his honor, which I had an opportunity to be part of, was my contribution along with others in keeping his spirit alive.