Motion pictures were among the first aspects of popular culture to aggressively vilify marijuana, as illustrated by such cinema classics as Reefer Madness (1936) and Assassin of Youth (1937). Long on hysteria but short on facts, such films commonly showed marijuana use inevitably leading to murder, mayhem, excessive giggling and wild-eyed dancing.
Reefer Madness Comics
A decade later, comic books took a similar tact, typically portraying marijuana as a gateway to harder drugs, particularly heroin. In almost every story, a single toke leads to violent addiction and personal downfall. No one ever just wants to get high and watch television (or read comic books).
Inspired by the growing acceptance of medical and recreational marijuana, comic book historian and graphic artist Craig Yoe of Yoe Books has collected twenty-one vintage comic book stories with a marijuana theme in a full-color anthology titled Reefer Madness Comics (Dark Horse Books). Featured are stories from a wide variety of comic book genres, including crime, romance, and even superheroes such as Dollman.
“The idea for the book had been in my head for many years and I had been collecting related stories toward that end, but it was the fact that marijuana has become such a big part of the public discourse that made me step up and put it on the front burner,” Yoe told Printmag.com. “That’s what pushed us to get Reefer Madness Comics to press.”
Marijuana as Muse
Making Reefer Madness Comics truly special is the cavalcade of renowned artists who put pen to paper to illustrate the horrors of Satan’s cigarettes. “We have Jack Kirby, who later created the Fantastic Four and other Marvel Comics superheroes,” Yoe observes. “And speaking of creation, we have Joe Shuster, who with his partner Jerry Siegel pretty much started the comics industry with the creation of Superman. A year after the first publication of Superman, they did an anti-pot tale for Adventure Comics that is pretty cool.” Other contributing artists of note include underground superstar Robert Crumb; fantasy legend Frank Frazetta: Everett Raymond Kinstler, who went on to become an esteemed portrait painter; and Pat Morisi, who worked by day as a New York City police officer.
The stories presented in Reefer Madness Comics follow similar themes, regardless of genre. Usually, an innocent is introduced to the Devil’s lettuce by a friend, and quickly becomes addicted. Once weed no longer provides the high they desire, they move on to harder drugs. Their lives fall apart, they lose their friends and family, and inevitably turn to crime to support their habit. Sometimes a kindly doctor or cop helps them get well. Other times, a far worse fate befalls them.
“I think such stories were an excuse for the writers to do something really sensational,” Yoe says. “They could come down against marijuana in a big way, but it was titillating for the young people who were buying comic books to read about it. Yes, they were condemning marijuana, but in reality it was getting some kids more interested in it. The romance comics, especially, would suggest that you could get yourself involved in some pretty racy parties.”
A Cautionary Tale
In addition to mainstream comic book stories, Reefer Madness Comics contains two tales from the type of educational comics that were once distributed for free in schools and churches. They dealt with a variety of social issues, and drug use was one of the most popular. Typical of the genre is “Trapped!,” published in 1951 by Columbia University Press and Harvey Comics. It tells the story of Bill Jones, a popular high school student who is introduced to marijuana by a friend – and likes it. He tries to get his girlfriend, Kathy, to try weed while on a double date, but she refuses and runs away.
Three months later, Bill is hooked on the Devil’s lettuce. He can’t concentrate, gets fired from his job, and soon starts sniffing heroin. He begins stealing from friends and family to feed his habit, and even attacks his father. He goes from sniffing heroin to injecting it, and engages in dangerous, irresponsible behavior. Eventually, Bill is sent to a recovery hospital, but skips out on the second day in search of a hit. He’s nabbed while buying drugs and ends up in jail, where his buddy hangs himself. Bill learns his lesson, crying to his mother, “Oh, God…Why did I ever take that first reefer! Now I’ll never be able to stop. I’ll wind up like him!” From there, it’s off to a “federal hospital” to get well.
Comic book stories about the evils of marijuana and other drugs were essentially morality plays meant to educate the reader about a perceived national scourge. However, many crossed the line in both story and art and their publishers found themselves in the crosshairs of a national anti-comic book crusade that in 1954 led to the creation of the Comics Magazine Association of America and the Comics Code Authority, a self-policing code of ethics and standards that, among other things, took a hard line against any mention of drug use. A decade later, however, pro-weed comics would flourish in the unregulated underground, thanks to artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, creator of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
Ironically, drug stories eventually helped loosen content restrictions in comic books and led to the demise of the Comics Code Authority. In 1971, Stan Lee was approached by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to publish a Spider-Man story that would warn kids about the dangers of drugs. Lee wrote a three-parter with a strong anti-drug message, illustrated by Gil Kane, and was stunned when it was rejected by the CCA. Lee and publisher Martin Goodman made the decision to run the story anyway in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, without the CCA seal. “I felt the United States government somehow took
precedence over the CCA,” Lee commented in Michael Mallory’s Marvel: Their Characters and Their Universe. The CCA went defunct in 2011.
All images courtesy Reefer Madness Comics, edited by Craig Yoe (Dark Horse Books).
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About Don Vaughan
Don Vaughan is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. His work appears regularly in Writer's Digest, Military Officer Magazine, Boys' Life and other publications. He also is the founder of Triangle Association of Freelancers.View all posts by Don Vaughan →