Wonder Drug: LSD in the Land of Living Skies, by Hugh D.A. Goldring, Nicole Marie Burton and Dr. Erika Dyck. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2021, 96 pp, $19.99.
A Train in the Night:The Tragedy of Lac-Megantic. By Anne-Marie Saint-Cerny, Christian Quesnel, translated by W. Donald Wilson. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2022. 192 pp, $24.99.
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
Time was, and not long ago, that color printing for radical comics seemed too much to demand, either for the publisher or for the hard-pressed artist. That time may be passing, at least for the innovative, less-than-giant Between the Lines publishers in Toronto.
The story of LSD offered in Wonder Drug is a story almost never heard south of the Canadian-US border, and for good reasons. Aldous Huxley’s major collaboration in the early decades of research happened to be a less-than-famous Candian researcher, Dr. Humphry Osmond. A veteran of WWII, employed at a psychiatric clinic in a London hospital, Osmond met scientist John Smythies, who would become his long-term collaborator. Osmond coined the term “psychedelic,” but the two seem to have “discovered” the value of LSD and Mescaline.
In distant Saskatchewan, in a research center, the two worked on synthesizing peyote, known and used by Indigenous peoples across the Americas for millennia. Mescaline could be laboratory-produced, as they discovered. But they also hit up on Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, from an ergot fungus. Research became global back in 1943, separately from the Canadian experiments, when a Swiss scientist accidentally ingested LSD and went on a what we could call “A Trip.” Happily, somehow, he did not fall off his bike when returning home.
Here comes the fascinating political part of the book. Saskatchewan, with its social democratic government, The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (or CCF) set out to attract world scientists for its own version of socialized medicine. Treatments for alcholism among other problems embraced the use of drugs more and more as the decades passed. Dr. Osmund happened to see an ad for a job at the British publication, The Lancet, and snapped it up: the Wayburn Institute was a natural. Osmund also snapped up some LSD.
Enough of the intriguing plot, which carries us foward through better-known territories of the 1960s, official “moral panic” and, everntually, a return to the origins: psychedelics legitimated for the supervised use of psychiatric patients. Onward—says the reviewer—to the way the comic looks and feels. There has never been an all-color comic quite like this one, and we realize it best in the many trippy moments, captured (in my own personal experience) beautifully and successfully, “bad trips” included. The art is therefore a job and a lesson. Better things can be done with comics.
By contrast, A Train in the Night, the saga of a needless train disaster in 2013, offers the colors of horror. Not so different in its agonies from East Palestine, the small town in Ohio, USA—if not Trump territory in the Canadian case—the village of Lac-Magnetic is the victim of this story. The former logging town of Lac-Magnetic, if never itself beautiful, stood close enough to the emerging tourist trade in Canada’s majestic northeast to thrive and provide a living for many of its residents.
What is the danger and where did it come from? In an explanatory sidestep, the author/artists take us to fracking and oil in North Dakota, for a few pages. The 2008 economic crisis fell upon all, but hardest upon workers in the fracking operation. A boomtown in an extractive district has grey skies, a lot of heavy drinking by the working people there for temporary well-paying but also dangerous jobs. They risk their lives to extract the oil that goes on trains for destinations far away, with layoffs and health consequences for themselves ahead.
The train that started off in North Dakota, picking up its fracked load, was to deliver the dirty goods to New Brunswick. Lac-Magnetic just happened to be along the way. The train, armored against potential disaster from air breaks, also needed the engine to be engaged for the brakes to work. Because the company took the short-cut of a one-man crew, the driver himself had not been on hand to apply the hand-brakes. Poor safety regulations and poor maintenance brought 72 tank cars full of crude oil to catastrophe.
As the fire on the train appeared and grew, local firefighters learned to their horror that an earlier problem had been “corrected” with the use of flammable epoxy glue. In the worst possible place, five million litres of toxic explosives went up in a fireball. It was the “the train from hell,” as a nine-year-old described it. “The fault of one guy who didn’t follow the rules,” as a leading corporate figure responded. This claim was echoed by a raft of similar claims by Canadian authorities.
Less than 200 days later, train service returned with similar toxic loads. Survivors who had abandoned town returned, anxious for their property, enraged that a settlement was so small, for citizens that is. The pharmacies and the supermarket chain got a million Canadian dollars. Investigations were blocked, by leading figures in Canada’s ministry of transport. The railroad corporations across North America basically continue to write their own rules.
The last, beautifully horrible pages of this book are the hellscape/aftermath, with testimony of the victims prominent, and the courage of the survivors our consolation. At least the corporate and government plan to victimize the engineer himself, part of the project of letting the corporation and government off the hook, is foiled. Some of the strongest drawings of the book capture perfectly the public and corporate officials lying through their teeth, protecting the rich against the public.
It is doubtful that the recent crimes of capitalism have yet been depicted so brilliantly. That the work appeared first in a French edition may help us to understand the levels of Canadian creativity as multi-lingual, multi-cultural. This, at last, may be our consolation.