CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America is the new graphic novel by Box Brown, published by First Second. It is a most remarkable book in how it packs together a disparate clump of facts and myths and makes sense of it all. Here you find a detailed yet accessible answer to the question: How do you take something essentially good and make so many people believe the exact opposite–and why? The short answer: Because it is something running counter to the self-interest of those in power. The long and twisted history of how and why cannabis became illegal in the United States is the latest in the always insightful and informative Box Brown books. The following is my interview with the author of artist himself conducted via email:
Will we ever get back to a sensible approach to cannabis? Will cannabis ever lose the stigma attached to it?
It’s getting better every day and I think in states where it is legal we are seeing the stigma end. They’re seeing that it’s a good, normal industry and the world has not in fact ended. It’s more difficult for teenagers to get cannabis in legal states, people aren’t turning into sociopaths or anything. I think people really need to live through things to really get used to them and understand the real truth about things. My new mantra is that we need to legalize the whole plant. There is still tons of stigma baked into medical cannabis laws. As a PA medical patient you have to go to this special facility with all kinds of security and pay in cash, etc. this is not helping the stigma. It makes patients feel like they’re carrying some sort of radioactive material. It’s going to be a constant push and pull for the next 10, 20 years or more!
In looking back at how a stigma was created over cannabis, you feature how Mexicans were turned into scapegoats during the Great Depression. The “over-immigration” of Mexicans was blamed for lack of jobs for U.S. citizens, the evil of marijuana and whatever else Mexicans could be blamed for. I guess everything old is new again, right?
This was what immediately stood out to me. I knew cannabis was tied to race now. It was disheartening, though unsurprising to find out it’s been like that since the beginning. The first laws against cannabis were in places where Mexicans were butting up against Americans. El Paso, TX had the first local ordinances and it was 100% just so they could arrest Mexican people, almost nothing has changed in these 90-100 years.
The road to cannabis illegalization in the U.S. was secured when it became a matter of self-interest for the federal government to discredit cannabis. And you show how William Randolf Hearst promoted his own brand of “fake news” in the campaign against cannabis. That propaganda took its toll and has left its mark. Is it your hope that your book will help in rehabilitating how the general public views cannabis—or are you just reporting the facts?
I think my philosophy in this respect is that the facts themselves are so absurd that they make their own argument for legalization. I want people to walk away from my book not only supporting legalization but realizing that this isn’t just a cash grab. Ending cannabis prohibition is righting an 83-year-old wrong. It’s not there simply for people to get rich. We screwed up royally with prohibition and we need to fix it.
What sparked your interest in pursuing this book? Maybe you can provide a window into what set the wheels in motion. It seems to me that it might be a case of the more you learned about the federal government’s misinformation campaign, embodied in Anslinger, the more it motivated you to document it.
I was arrested for cannabis possession when I was 16, 1996. Since then this has been an extremely passionate interest of mine. It just didn’t make sense to me that cannabis possession was treated with handcuffs, probation, possible juvenile detention, court, etc. and underage drinking was treated with a phone call home. I found out in my research that in 1996, the year I was arrested the Clinton administration was looking to be tough on drugs and the number of people arrested for cannabis in the US in 1996 DOUBLED from the previous year. I was caught up in Clinton wanting to be perceived as tough on drugs.
What can you tell us about your process? I asked you once at some convention about your hand lettering and you said that you prefer to hand letter since you get the best kerning that way. I think you’re right. Share with us how you put a page together and what you do by hand and what you do digitally.
Okay, so I do most everything with traditional tools: pencils, bristol board, ink, micron pens. Everything is hand-lettered. Then I scan inks and do finishing in photoshop, this basically just means adding screen tones. Although recently I bought a bunch of actual screentones from Japan and scanned those. So now when I add tones in photoshop I’m adding in a scan of an actual screentone.
Share with us anything you might like about the research involved. How long did it take for you to put this book together?
It’s kind of a never-ending process. I feel like I’m still researching the book even though it’s been done for a long time and is now published. I had to edit my bibliography for space, the book would have had 20 more pages. Even still I feel there are things that could be updated but you have to call it a day at some point. The whole process takes 1 to 2 years.
You have certainly achieved an impressive level of excellence in creating graphic novel format work that manages to go into detail, finds just the right places to linger, while being mindful of being concise and consistent. Has your storytelling style come to you naturally or did you set out with a plan on how to tackle a subject, being it Andre the Giant or the story of Tetris?
I often think of it the way I think about comedy improv. I think all of writing and creating is improvised. There’s never a plan from the beginning. Even people who do sit down and make a plan are improvising when they’re making up the plan. You’re always making stuff up as you go along and then editing out the bad or irrelevant or inauthentic stuff. I’ve definitely learned a lot since I made the Andre the Giant book. I think I’ve matured a lot as a person and as a cartoonist. Still trying to work on my drawing though!
What lies ahead? Please give us any final thoughts on projects up ahead, whatever comes to mind.
Very focused on cannabis right now, but I will say I’ve got two projects in the pipeline both concerning 1980’s television.
CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America is a 256-page trade paperback available as of April 2, 2019. For more details, and how to purchase, go right here.
Box Brown is a cartoonist that I really admire for being able to take a subject he’s passionate about and distill it to its essentials into a comics format. His previous graphic novel was on the all-time great pro wrestler, Andre the Giant. You can read my review here. Brown’s latest book is all about the all-time classic video game, Tetris. Published by First Second Books, “Tetris: The Games People Play,” is a testimony to Brown’s determination to collect all the pieces to a story and create a greater whole.
Page excerpt from TETRIS: THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
You most likely know the game even if you don’t normally keep up with games. It’s right up there with such legends as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. It’s a game with a simple charm and an uncanny allure with origins dating back to antiquity. You can learn more about it and play it for free at the official Tetris site right here. Essentially, the goal of the game is to arrange little blocks as they fall down your screen in the most efficient way possible. There’s a Zen vibe there in its relative simplicity. Ironically, the innocent little game of Tetris became entangled in a complex legal fight that found the game industry giants, Atari and Nintendo, locking horns.
Tetris was originally created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov. Brown faithfully follows the creator’s journey and all related Tetris canon. Now, what you probably do not know is that there is a lot of intrigue behind what happened to this game on its way to becoming a classic. When Pajitnov created the game, it was the result of his passion for games without any other plans beyond that. As a citizen of the Soviet Union, his only plan was simply to be a good computer programmer for the government. Brown runs with the story once a profit motive is triggered.
Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov
And so our story gains numerous twists and turns as a cat and mouse game is played out. It is at this point that all the machinations can get a bit overwhelming. Brown handles all these moving parts well. He keeps to a basically lean and clean grid of panels that helps to steady the eye. And, at various intervals, he will devote a page to a portrait of the next key player in the drama. It is a modest little portrait set off by a black background. It amounts to a perfect pause, a great way to catch one’s breath.
Brown seems to hold back a bit more with his artwork than he did in his last book. He has a rather pared-down style to begin with. For this book, I think he opted to simplify as much as possible for the sake of clarity given all the details involved. Some work in comics is mostly to digest information. Other work is mostly to admire the artwork. And so on. Brown strikes a nice balance of conveying information with a certain zeal and style all his own. Once you start this book, you’ll want to keep with it and get the whole Tetris story.
“Tetris: The Games People Play” is a 256-page duo-tone paperback, published by First Second Books. For more information and how to purchase, go right here.
Box Brown is the one cartoonist born to create a graphic novel in honor of pro wrestling and its greatest warrior: “Andre the Giant: Life and Legend,” published by First Second Books. As Brown describes in the introduction, he became hooked on the sports spectacle after a buddy brought some wrestling magazines to school in the fourth grade. Brown respectfully explains that there is a pact between the audience and the wrestlers to suspend disbelief. It is known by the voodoo-sounding term, “kayfabe.” For a brief time, you return to childhood and you let yourself believe that a man can fly.
“Drag Bandits” sounds like one of those titles resulting from a game of free association. But, no, it’s more to the point. This story features Stephen, a 17th century aristocrat, who enjoys robbing coaches in drag, thus the title. I’ve followed Colleen Frakes’s mini-comics for years and have always found them to be quite intriguing and reveling in whimsy. For this latest work, she teams up with Betsey Swardlick, who writes the story. Both are graduates from The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, led my master cartoonist James Sturm.