CANNABIS CULTURE – If you were a comic book reader in the 1950s (and almost every young person was), you were told over and over that marijuana was a scourge that inevitably led to prison or worse. This was true whether you read superhero comics, romance comics, or crime comics. The theme was always the same: marijuana is evil.
In a nod to those bad old days, comic historian and graphic artist Craig Yoe has collected twenty-one vintage marijuana-themed comic book stories in a fascinating new book titled Reefer Madness Comics (Dark Horse Books). Printed in full color throughout, the book is a cultural and historical trip through an era in which everything about cannabis use was bad, from the people who sold it to the people who used it. These stories were a public warning against a perceived national menace, and they pulled no punches in delivering their message to readers.
“I started collecting these comics back in the ‘60s,” Yoe told Cannabis Culture. “It took a long time to score all the stories I include in Reefer Madness Comics. These comic books are rare and crazy expensive because they include very collectible artists like Joe Shuster, the co-creator of Superman, and Jack Kirby, who co-created much of the Marvel Comics Universe.”
Indeed, a great number of popular artists dipped pen in ink to reveal the horrors of Satan’s Cigarettes. In addition to those noted by Yoe, the book contains stories illustrated by the likes of Robert Crumb, fantasy master Frank Frazetta, NYPD cop-by-day Pete Morisi, and Everett Raymond Kinstler, who went on become one of the nation’s most esteemed portrait painters.
The stories contained in Reefer Madness Comics share common themes, regardless of genre. In most cases, the protagonist is an innocent who is introduced to marijuana by a friend or colleague. Of course, he or she becomes addicted almost instantly, and engages in the kind of behavior more common among hardcore addicts, including dropping out of school, stealing from friends and family, and alienating those around them as they struggle toward their next score. When marijuana no longer provides the thrills they seek, they inevitably turn to harder drugs. Meanwhile, family and friends fret over the user’s behavior, and inevitably the law gets involved. Most stories end on a high note, with the protagonist kicking his or her addiction to drugs and living a prosperous life. But others end on a downer, with the protagonist in prison or, worse, dead. The moral is obvious.
What’s often undiscussed about this genre of comic book story is how informational they are to readers who have never tried marijuana. They commonly show how and where to get weed, how to smoke it (“That’s it, doll. Draw in a big mouthful and hold it in your lungs for a few seconds. It’ll get your dancing feet on the glory road!”) and the pleasant physical effects of being high (“Are you gone, doll? Are you riding the golden chord?” “Mmmmmmm. I feel like a million!”) Some stories up the ante by also showing the use of harder drugs, including how to prepare heroin for snorting or injection. Considering how such stories were intended to show the horrors of drug use, this aspect is a bit disturbing.
In addition to mainstream comics, the evils of cannabis use was the topic of numerous educational comic books, which were commonly distributed for free in schools and churches. Typical of this genre is “Hooked!,” which appeared in Public Health Service Publication #1610 (year unknown). It tells the story of Eddie, who is introduced to marijuana by his older brother’s gang. Eddie takes to cannabis like a fish to water (“Hey, man…great! I feel goofy, the way my old man looks when he’s drunk!”) and begins his inevitable plunge to rock bottom. He starts hanging with a bad crowd, quits school, and engages in the usual bad behaviors of an addict out of control. He soon turns to heroin, steals to feed his habit, and eventually finds himself in prison, where a kindly doctor helps him kick his habit.
Now clean, Eddie marries his girlfriend, Jeanie, and life seems good. But one day Eddie is in the dumps, and meets an old friend, who encourages him to take one more hit off the ol’ needle. In an instant, Eddie is addicted again, and his life starts to crumble. In a bizarre twist, Jeanie agrees to try heroin so she’ll understand what he’s going through, and becomes an addict herself. To feed their habit, Eddie turns to burglary and Jeanie to prostitution. Jeanie eventually dies of an overdose, while Eddie continues his wayward ways. In the last panel, Eddie, waiting for his pusher, observes, “You know, some people call us junkies ‘the living dead.’..An’ I guess they’re right. Anyway, that’s what it’s like to be hooked!”
There’s a lot of fun to be had in Reefer Madness Comics, even if many of the stories are real downers. It’s insightful to see how cannabis was viewed from a law enforcement/social perspective during that period in American history, and compare it to today’s changing sensibilities.
“Many of the stories have young innocents taking one puff of a Devil’s Finger and immediately becoming axe-wielding mass murderers. I guess my favorite is whichever story has the biggest body count as it will serve as a stern warning to those who might be tempted by Satan’s Lettuce,” jokes Yoe. “Reefer Madness Comics is one of our best-selling books by far, and people of all stripes and ages are relating to its important message and many axe-murders have been averted.”
To purchase Reefer Madness Comics and see the other bizarre volumes Yoe has for curious minds, visit yoebooks.com.