If you have read Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman, Tetris: The Games People Play or André the Giant: Life and Legend, you will already be aware of Box Brown approach to comics; his stripped-down, formalistic illustrations, matter-of-fact storytelling and subtle humour all used to explain subjects skirting the edge of the mainstream.
His latest graphic novel from Self Made Hero, Cannabis: An American History, is no different. The Overtake asked Brown what it is that keeps him exploring the peripheries of pop-culture.
Depending on who you ask, there are between 147 million and 189 million people on the planet who regularly smoke weed. Add to that the number of casual or one-off users and the people that haven’t taken a single drag but have strong opinions on casual drug use all the same and it’s fair to say that cannabis, whether it’s a part of your identity or not is a hot topic right now. For Brown, the spark for this book is a personal one yet it will be familiar to many readers.
“I was arrested for smoking a joint with a friend when I was 16 in 1996. I was very new to cannabis and the experience left a big impression on me. Of course, the police were looking to scare me and they very much did.”
The impression left on Brown inevitably made its way into the book. While it is a history that follows cannabis from its first, tentative experiments, across Eurasia to South America, then up to the States through Mexico, while taking a look at prohibition, the swinging sixties, Regan and the AIDS epidemic, the book is essentially a debate. A conflict between fact and fiction and the powerful against the powerless. So frequently in this story, unfairly targeted users are left silenced in panels as authorities dictate imagined morality.
Characterisations and simplification can occasionally labour the side of the debate Brown falls down on, but that’s an expected side effect that of Brown’s goal. “I think there’s a lot of curiosity in the general public but also a lot of ignorance and misinformation. I tried to make a straight forward narrative that will help people better understand the situation.”
Here Brown succeeds. An extensive bibliography show’s that he has done his historical, social, and scientific research (“there is a lot of misinformation out there. It takes not only a lot of research but critical thinking about what you’re reading.”) and pits them against one another. The science behind cannabis use is treated pretty rapidly with an expectation that the reader and the characters — acting without personal agendas — should accept it. While the bulk of the book deals with how science is cast aside in favour moral grandstanding, pushing racist and authoritative agendas.
Regarding his own arrest, Brown says: “Even then, as a child, I knew there was a great amount of hypocrisy going on.” This is really the most interesting thesis of the graphic novel. The plainly setting out and explaining the social impact of prohibition on people of colour, the LGBT* community and people with chronic illness. Something that Brown has achieved in his previous work and is one of the strengths of presenting this debate in a comic.
“I think comics are really good at boiling things down to their essential elements and conveying information in a fun and efficient way. Things like IKEA instructions, Plane evacuation instructions, are comics.
“They’re comics that explain complicated information in a way that’s easy to read and understand. If you just take that concept one step further and add dialogue and story elements, now instead of reading through a comic and ending up with a small wooden table, you’ve read a comic and ended up having an enriching internal experience.”
The closet Cannabis gets to a story and antagonist is in following Harry Anslinger, a racist government man who was hellbent of the vilifying cannabis. He is an interesting (and horrible) man who invented the lie that cannabis is a gateway drug and in reports would purposely misspell marijuana, marihuana with an “H”, to invoke the image of Mexican immigration in a xenophobic and racist America.
It feels like the whole book could have been based solely on this character. Luckily it isn’t. The book is at it’s best when it’s moving from character to character, switching scenes and exploring weeds cultural and societal impact beyond legislation. It’s also where Brown is able to have the most fun with the art. Moving into myths, folklore or anecdote, he can play around with the imagery — though he does restrain himself rather go to an obvious Ditko inspired psychedelic. At the same time, he goes a good job at using interesting visual approaches to static scenes such as Senate hearings or handshaking, maintaining the pace and interested in the story.
Overall Brown’s comic isn’t a neat, storied narrative. There is a focus on villains and few heroes. But that’s almost to be expected. This isn’t book that says everyone should smoke pot. It says we’ve been lied to about pot and that has a horrible effect on society and vilifies minority groups.
“I think in the coming years people are going to be making a great number of political decisions about legalisation.” says Brown, “I often see people in power making decisions about this stuff who seem to not understand it at all.”
If you are interested in the role cannabis plays in any society, this is a light and comfortable way of getting up to speed with parts of the debate you won’t hear from politicians. It’s a fantastic primer on looking at the morality around drug use that’s as accessible but more informed than an afterschool special.
Like any history of America, it explores the influences from the Old World that preceded it and the huge impact the superpower has on the rest of the world. This gives the book a nice mirroring of the beginning and end, both in terms of the effect cannabis has had on America (and vice-versa) but also in terms of potentially asking what happens next. We asked Brown that same question.
“[I’m] always working on new comics every day. Expect a new book every year as long as I can physically do it.”
All images are by Box Brown and used with permission of Self Made Hero