If you’ve ever shredded the devil’s lettuce, chances are you’ve heard Reefer Madness referenced more than a few times. The infamous film that made marijuana out to be a hysteria-inducing narcotic serves as the inspiration for Craig Yoe’s new comic collection by the same name. The two hundred page collection featuring anti-weed comics from legends like Jack Kirby and Jerry Siegel is an utterly fascinating history lesson on the intersection of weed prohibition and comic books, while also providing for some hilarious reading thanks to the unintentionally hysterical comics of the early 20th century.
The 32 page introduction by Yoe with Steven Thompson provides an in-depth contextual analysis of the comics presented throughout the collection. The two compile a mountain of anecdotal and statistical evidence pointing to just how absurd the public perception of weed had become in the mid 1900s thanks to the invention of yellow journalism by William Randolph Hearst.
The introduction explains how Hearst’s new “journalism-minus-truth” partnered with the divine righteousness of Harry Jacob Anslinger made weed go from a relatively unknown inhalant used mostly by musicians and day laborers to public enemy number one associated with murderers, rapists, and thieves. Yoe and Thompson educate readers on how all of this fervor was set forth simply because of marijuana’s textile applications. It’s mind-blowing how all signs point to the prohibition of weed stemming from the sheer possibility of lost profits due to hemp manufacturing.
That being said, by far the most fascinating facet of the book’s opening pages show how intertwined comic books, marijuana, crime, and government censorship all are. I never knew the anti-comic book crusades in the early ’50s were inspired by the same tactics Andelfinger used to demonize weed a decade earlier, nor how vehemently Dr. Frederic Wortham fought against comic books.
In a way, the Comics Code Authority was birthed from the prohibition of weed. You see, when Anslinger attacked weed in congress, there was no governing body to defend weed, so Anslinger got his way. When Wortham similarly attacked comics (due to their glorification of crime, but not over the fact that it was actually mobsters printing comics at the time as Yoe points out) in congress, comic book creators learned from the mistakes of the marijuana prohibition, creating the CCA to avoid any government oversight. Without weed, comic fans would be reading government funded propaganda stories.
The individual stories themselves are hilarious in our modern lens, although they were meant to be gripping when at publication. Most the issues feel like they’d make for a hilarious episode of Drunk History if delivered with the right timing. The uneducated hysteria over marijuana that plays out in some of these comics is nothing short of hysterical, if not a little frightening.
Once the comedic factor wears off, readers may start to realize just how absurd this time in American history was. None of the claims against marijuana in any of these stories were based in fact, even if some claimed to be “true” stories, yet the public still perceived them as such. If they were true, there’d be a lot more murderers and thieves running around our country now that weed is legal in several states. These stories not only highlight the laughable misinformed view of marijuana, but they remind readers just how f----d up our country was in the early 20th century.
There’s rampant racism and misogyny in these comics, with racial slurs being casually tossed about and women being relegated to nothing more than damsels in distress, or worse, heinous drug addicts who drive otherwise good people to a life of debauchery. It’s a frustrating reminder of just how bad things used to be, and in some ways, still are.
One thing these comics certainly prove, however, is that comic books are inherently a political medium. A very vocal minority in today’s comic book community furiously type on Twitter about how comics are too political these days and politics must stay out of comics. This collection stands as a testament to the political foundation comic books were built upon.
I suggest not reading this collection all at once, as after a while the stories begin to blend together, feeling more predictable and repetitive than archaically entertaining or comedic. It’s definitely a great book to have on your bookshelf for rainy days or even as a coffee table book for a more open-minded office setting.
Reefer Madness is an incredibly interesting and mostly entertaining look at a weird time in comics but a dark time in the country. The comics collected showcase just how ridiculous the misinformed hysteria around weed was while the forward by Craig Yoe and Steve Thompson provides a fascinating study on the intersection of comic book history, censorship, and marijuana prohibition. This is a great read for both fans of comic books and marijuana enthusiasts.
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