As a matter of course, I’ve found the now-annual works of non-fiction cartooning from Box Brown published under the auspices of his deal with First Second to be enjoyable, if not exactly groundbreaking, and I’m highly (pun only slightly intended) grateful for the stability they no doubt bring Brown, therefore giving him enough financial “breathing room” to continue his ongoing Retrofit publishing program — so please keep all that in mind if it sounds like I’m damning his latest graphic novel, Cannabis : The Illegalization Of Weed In America, with faint praise.
Such, I assure you, is far from my intent. As with his “graphic biographies” of Andre The Giant and Andy Kaufman, and his historical overview of the Tetris video game phenomenon, this is a highly readable, often-times engrossing work, sensibly laid-out, agreeably illustrated, and convincingly argued in terms of advancing its point of view. But — and you knew this was coming — one gets the sense, at this point, that he’s settled into something of a rhythm with them, and could almost crank one of them out in his sleep.
Fortunately, he doesn’t seem to be interested in trying to do that, and a reasonable amount of effort and research clearly went into this extended anti-drug war polemic. It’s also probably worth noting, however, that he’s pretty much preaching to the choir with this one — and I do have to wonder how much of what’s contained in these 200-plus pages (which First Second has now deigned to publish in hardcover format, with a $24.95 price tag attached) is really going to be new to its readership, heavily immersed as many of them no doubt are in the minutiae of “cannabis culture.”
For my own part, not being much of a “pothead” these days myself (although I had a few distinct periods earlier in life where I was, not that I think that necessarily makes a huge difference to my reading of the material — I guess I’m just throwing my bona fides out there in case anyone wishes to reflexively dismiss this review as the product of a “square” critic), I found the book’s early going to be its most interesting part, given that the connection between cannabis and the Hindu myth of creation was something I knew nothing about, and ditto for the plant’s ubiquitousness (I realize that’s not actually a word, but give me a break — neither is “illegalization”) among the Aztecs post-Cortes. This stuff is really quite impressive, as is the clever and more idiosyncratic cartooning that Brown employs to convey these scenes of “ancient” history, a mix of his usual smartly-constructed figure drawings with Keith Haring-esque abstraction and dynamic mythical flights of fancy. So far, so damn good.
It’s when things got more contemporary — and more consequential — that, bizarrely, my interest began to wane a bit.
I’ll be the first to admit, however, that we’re very much into “your mileage may vary” territory at this point, as readers who have little to no idea of the racism that’s been part and parcel of the “drug war” since well before it was even labeled as such will probably find the “meat” of this book — you know, that whole “illegalization” aspect — quite fascinating, and more power to those folks. They’ll derive a ton more enjoyment out of this than I did, and probably walk away from it suitably furious at the travesty that “reefer madness” has always been. That’s clearly the reaction Brown’s aiming to elicit, and his grimly accurate depictions of such historical villains as original racist “drug warrior” Harry Anslinger, Richard Nixon, and Ron and Nancy Reagan will no doubt get the blood of any novices on the subject of weed history among the audience absolutely boiling. But, again, the question that pushes its way to the forefront of my mind is — how many people who aren’t intimately familiar with this shit are really going to bother picking this thing up in the first place?
Maybe I’m approaching everything too logically here — I figure that if I know most of this history already and I almost never get high anymore, the people who are really into “smoking out” are probably sure to know everything Brown relates here, and them some. If the book was called “Weed History For Dummies,” that’d be one thing, but as it’s pretty squarely aimed at the “stoner crowd,” I’m sort of failing to see why they really need a regurgitation of the litany of abuses, injustices, and deprivations unleashed in the name of cannabis prohibition. I don’t buy into the stereotype that it’s impossible to get “potheads” off their asses and motivated to act, but it seems to me that it’s going to take more than this “un-greatest hits” compilation to do the job.
I also have some qualms with Brown giving short shrift to the threats posed by the prison-industrial complex and the militarization of police, but he at least takes the time to rail against the absurdity of mandatory minimum drug sentences and to justly laud the efforts of various “buyer’s clubs” in providing assistance to folks who absolutely need medical marijuana to ease their suffering. There’s certainly plenty to admire here, not least of which is the sheer fluidity of the book’s narrative thrust, which sews a lot of seemingly-disparate threads together into a reasonably cohesive whole. No one can accuse this of being anything less than a highly competent piece of work.
And yet — nowhere does it feel inspired, and anyone who’s read any of Brown’s more personal comics knows that when he cuts his imagination loose, he’s one of the very best cartoonists working today. The strictures of the remit he’s operating within at First Second are beginning to feel like they’re hemming him in, and as generally solid as his work for them is — this book being no exception — this is still “it is what it is” stuff.
I’m appreciative of the fact that “what it is” consistently makes for good reading — and fairly brisk reading, as this book can probably be finished in just a few hours even if you’re high as a damn kite — but I’m ready to see Brown challenge himself again. When he does, I’ll be first in line to check out what he’s come up with — but as things stand, I think I may be “checking out” of his continuing efforts with First Second. I like it all just fine, but I’m more than ready to love Box Brown comics again.
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