Challenging the User Paradigm: Comic Book Characters, 1937-1954

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.

Screenshot 2019-03-19 at 8.39.15 AMWho is Weedy Smudgeon? He makes a quick appearance in Ghost Rider #8 (August 1952) trying to kill Rex Fury. We don’t learn much about him except that he robs graves for the local undertaker, and he uses “loco weeds.” It’s probably true that a character actually named Weedy Smudgeon needs no back story, but what about a character named Jeff Dean?

In a prior post, I’ve examined popular culture (jazz), as a unique perspective on the potential motives of marijuana users through the mundane lyrical descriptions of users in jazz songs. I’ve suggested that Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man” represents a narrow but perhaps authentic representation of use in poor urban communities. Comic books are certainly different sources than jazz songs. Their creators are far less prominent than the characters they create and the audience for comic books (young boys and girls) are much less connected to the creation of the cultural form than audiences in jazz clubs, and, at least theoretically, to the environments and situations described in its pages.

However, the representations in the comic books do present a range of possibilities for users that go well beyond the addict or non-addict binary that was popular at the time. It also suggests that complex understandings about use pre-date the era of official tolerance of marijuana in the mid ’60s into the mid ’70s. It is also worth mentioning here that at least some official attention was paid to representations in comic books by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which looked into problematic representations of sex, violence, and, to some degree, drug use therein.

Starting from the binary of user v. non-user, the handful of comic book stories that I’ve been able to read make several distinctions between the two categories. Users are either natural users like Weedy Smudgeon (where use is their character) or unnatural users (where use intervenes and changes a character). The former group, in the sample I viewed, were almost exclusively ethnic others. The latter group were almost exclusively young (white) adult men and women, and their use results in (generally) two possible outcomes: a descent into addiction with dire consequences (jail or death), or redemption where a user corrects his/her behavior to either become a hero himself (if they are male), or a cautionary storyteller (if they are female).

“Non-user” is a much more slippery category, and indeed, the function of non-users in these stories becomes clear only as exceptions that prove the rule. One subcategory of non-users is “good guys” (title heroes, family members, and law enforcement), and the other is “bad guys” (the organized criminal rackets that import, distribute, and sell the drug). Good guys don’t use for obvious classic-era comic book reasons, but the rackets don’t use precisely because they know the dangers the plant poses, particularly the addiction (and thus profit) potential of marijuana, and after the mid 1940s, of marijuana-to-heroin.

But they were also well aware of the specific dangers of the drug that they deal in. This is demonstrated by two examples of the rackets specifically using the drug to get innocent victims to do their bidding. In 1941, The Dart’s sidekick Andy (figure 2) and Plastic Man (figure 3) are plied with marijuana in this fashion. The rackets themselves do not use. In fact, when a naïve drug runner wonders aloud what all the fuss was about, he was physically attacked by his boss (figure 4).

The innocent user characters’ distinctions are much more blurry and, while most characters have a clear bad or good persona, there is a blurring of distinctions. Several of these innocent victims lose their innocence and either end up dead or hopelessly addicted to marijuana or heroin. The fates of these tragic innocent victims are on display during the dramatic endings of Wallace Reagan (figure 5) in “Hopped up Killer” (1941) and Howard Martin (figure 6) in “Worse than Murder” (1952).

The redemption stories hold the most interest in the context of challenging binary assumptions about use. To be sure, redemption stories are fairly standard in the comic book genre, but within the larger context of portrayals of drug use, the notion that a user could reverse the downward descent from naïve marijuana use into heroin addiction to death is significant. Also relevant here is the assumption that men and women are redeemed in different ways, the former through rehabilitation and/or heroics, but the latter only through penance.

That’s what brings us to Jeff Dean. We are introduced to Jeff during the first few frames of “The Dart and Ace” (1941) as he’s attacking his teacher Miss Tilbury. By the end of the story, Dean foils the racket and saves the day. (Figures 7 & 8) Similar experiences befall a group of young kids duped into running marijuana for a local paragon, but who turn on Mr. Cratchett and are considered for acceptance into Mr. Universe’s athletes club (figure 9), or a young Jack Winters who murdered a police officer but will get off “lightly” due to the real blame being placed in the Mexican smuggler (figure 10).

Women had fewer options for redemption, but avenues to that end did exist for female characters in these stories. Rather than re-assigning blame or transitioning from hero to villain, however, women are limited to harsh penalties that encourage these women to “tell their stories” to other young women in the first-person. For women too, their initial innocence, which unlike an uncanny number of male characters introduced to marijuana by a peddler at a party because they left their pack of cigarettes in the car (and the peddler offered on of his), was tied directly to un-womanly ambition and romantic agency. Gloria Welsh’s desire to pursue a career in Hollywood ensnares her whole family (figure 11). Her younger brother Frankie, who was running shipments to clients, was killed when the delivery business introduced him to marijuana use and he descended into addiction. She “told her story” in “I was a Racket Girl” (1949).

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Other women spiral into the cycle of addiction through ill-advised relationships with men. Both Claire (“My Scandelous Affair,” 1954) and Louise (“I Was a Musician’s Girl,” 1954) get addicted to marijuana as a consequence of choosing the “wrong” of two men to pursue. By the end of both stories, the women had been reunited with the “correct” man and are miraculously fine (but still hope to prevent this in other young girls by telling their stories).

Given the limits of comic books as representational sources, the spectrum of use that appears in a selection of comic book stories collected between the 1930s and ’50s presents a subtle challenge of conventional descriptions of users circulated in law-making and law-enforcement circles during that time, all of whom tended to characterize users more like Mr. Smudgeon (at least, as conventional wisdom goes, until the 1960s) than like Jeff Dean or Gloria Welsh.

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Drug War Critique: What Critics Get Wrong About Marijuana Legalization

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY, and discusses the brown bag talk he gave at Utica College earlier this week. 

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a talk entitled, “Drug War Critique: What Critics Get Wrong About Marijuana Legalization.” The talk is part of a monthly brown bag speaker series sponsored by Utica College’s Center for Historical Research. In light of New York State’s recent efforts to push for the legalization of marijuana as part of Andrew Cuomo’s 2019 Justice Agenda, I decided to present Cuomo’s legalization proposal and respond to a series of critiques of Cuomo’s plan presented by public officials and parent groups last week, who cited a threat to public safety as a justification for their opposition.

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Points Roundtable, Part 4: Bob Beach on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the fourth installment of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. This post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up my copy of Alex Berenson’s new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence to review for Points. I was following the media coverage of the book’s release with some interest and had some idea of what I might encounter, having already written a bit (here and here) on this forum on Berenson’s propagandistic forebear, Harry Anslinger.

But as I trudged into Dunham Public Library in Whitesboro, NY, on a rainy Thursday morning to get my copy, the focus of my review here today became immediately clear. I’m an ABD adjunct and it’s January. That means I’m between appointments and, more importantly, between paychecks. I wasn’t going to count on the speed of the interlibrary loan at my college library, so I checked out the Mid-York Library System, a cooperative network of 45 public libraries in three counties in central New York.

Having had longstanding access to college/university libraries for most of my adult life, I had to renew my public library card to check out Berenson’s tome. Armed with my renewed card and the Dewey decimal call number (how quaint!), this well-heeled library user went directly to the stacks and couldn’t… find… the book. I scanned the shelves, thinking it may have been put back in the wrong place, and while doing so I took note of the library’s selection of other books on drugs, drug use and drug policy, few of which I was actually familiar with. I subsequently checked the Mid-York catalog and, sure enough, there was nothing from Points co-founder Trysh Travis, nothing from co-founder Joe Spillane. Nothing from the new team of editors of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

The library was clearly censoring historians.

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Andrew Cuomo’s Rooseveltian Moment

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. As one of Points’ resident New Yorkers, today Beach covers Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent announcement that the Empire State hopes to legalize recreational marijuana in 2019. 

On December 17, at a speech at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, speaking in front of members of the New York City Bar Association, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo previewed his 20-point “Justice Agenda” for the 2019 legislative session. The December event was merely a preview of a governor’s State of the State address (which took place this Tuesday), but both speeches outlined a bold progressive agenda centered on a number of issues related to social justice, many of interest to readers of this forum.

 

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Roosevelt House, Home of the New Deal, Home of Cuomo’s Social Justice Agenda

The references to a Rooseveltian moment for Cuomo during the December speech (though not in the State of the State Address) were hard to ignore. Institute director Harold Holzer reminded the audience that they were in the birthplace of the New Deal. As they approached the 90-year anniversary of FDR’s tenure as governor, Holzer invited the current Governor to the podium “to answer the question: What would FDR do today?” Cuomo himself then made several clear references to FDR’s influence throughout his speech.

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Authority in Storytelling: Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” Intoxication, and the Historian’s Craft

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. Today he examines Comedy Central’s popular program Drunk History, and explores the role non-authoritative, even inebriated, history can play in getting students to question accuracy, opinion, and historical perspective. 

The first episode of Drunk History aired on the web as a Funny or Die feature on August 6, 2007. The show’s narrator Mark Gagliardi, fresh off a bottle of scotch, told the story of the infamous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton to friend and show creator Derek Waters. A good deal of the episode takes place in Gagliardi’s apartment as he weaves his tale, but the funny comes from an amateurish documentary acted out by a cast of the creators’ close friends. After some initial background told by a clearly inebriated Gagliardi establishing Burr’s reputation as a shrewd opportunist, he launches haphazardly into the “scene” where Burr confronts Hamilton, boiling down the complexity of a nineteenth century “Affair of Honor” into a matter-of-fact declaration from Burr, lip-synching Gagliardi’s drunken mumble, “Hey you’re giving me shit, we gotta duel.”

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First episode cast image Left to Right: Michael Cera, Jake Johnson, Derek Waters, and Ashley Johnson

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Teaching Points: Teaching Marijuana Legalization in One Credit? An Educator’s (Incomplete) Guide

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY, and adds to our “Teaching Points” series, which shows how scholars are bringing alcohol and drug history into the classroom. 

For the second time in as many semesters I accepted an offer to teach a course at Utica College this term. It is a five-week, one-credit course that is part of the college’s effort to round out students’ schedules, often for financial aid purposes. The course runs during the last five weeks of the 15-week semester.  When it was offered to me in the spring, I had never taught a one-credit course before, and hadn’t considered how I might approach it. My major challenge, as instructors of these kinds of courses can probably attest, is getting students invested in brand new material just as their “regular” semester is winding up for final exams. This requires walking a fine line between maintaining the appropriate academic vigor and being overburdensome.

Luckily I didn’t have to work from scratch. I’ve been fortunate have had the opportunity to create and teach three sections of a survey-level course on the history of drugs and alcohol in American history in my time at Utica, and as a TA at University at Albany, SUNY. I’ve also discussed the challenges of teaching that class on this forum.  As I saw it, the first major decision was generating interest (to get it filled in a week or so) and the second was whether to create a summarized version of the full course, or to offer a five-week snippet of the first course. I chose the approach and format hastily, but not without some longer-term considerations. I have always been keen to critically assess my course evaluations (weaknesses and problems with that approach notwithstanding) to find out what students want with their classes.

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Beyond Legalization: Making the Case for Centering Pot in the 2018 Midterms

Editor’s Note: Ready to vote in next week’s midterm elections? Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, in which he explains the status of America’s shifting cannabis laws and shows what new state and federal initiatives might mean for 2018 and beyond.

In many ways 2018 was the Year of Pot. Sales of legal weed are booming in nine states and Washington, D.C. Pot sales are expected to flirt with $11 billion this year and could reach $25 billion annually by 2025, according to some estimates. Last month, on September 21, Governor Ralph Torres of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) signed the first legalization legislation in a US territory. Congressional reform proposals have become more frequent and publicized. Perhaps as many as 15 states were considering voter initiatives (the exclusive route to reform in the United State prior to the CNMI legislation) for 2018 to expand access to marijuana. Six states will vote on, or have voted on ballot measures in 2018, while the remainder failed to register the appropriate signatures. Five states will consider recreational legalization (Michigan; North Dakota) or medical legalization (Missouri and Utah; Oklahoma approved in June) while the sixth (Colorado) will consider redefinition of industrial hemp.

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Representatives from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands after signing legalization legislation in September 2018

Public support for legalization continues to grow (to 62% according to a recent poll) and support for medical marijuana has become overwhelming. But support for increasing access to pot will likely remain a very low priority for voters on election day. Especially this year, when the midterm elections appear to be a referendum on the Trump Administration, it seems a little indulgent for folks to continue to push a legalization agenda in this election season. However, the party that controls legalization will be able to shape the contours of reform, and those contours comprise some of the most important issues surrounding legalization according to activists.

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