Review: Cannabis: An American History (SelfMadeHero)

Acclaimed cartoonist’s Box Brown’s latest, Cannabis: An American History looks at the back story for the drug’s use in the US, as well as a round the world. But rather than be a simple glorification of the ‘demon weed’ it is more of a cultural history, looking at the drugs use as a basis for religious worship in India, a trading commodity in the New World and also political weapon in modern America.

Publisher: SelfMadeHero
Writer: Box Brown
Artist: Box Brown
Price: £14.99 from SelfMadeHero

Box’s meticulous and highly articulate approach to Cannabis: An American History, makes for a fascinating read. While written with a pro-Cannabis bias, the tone of the book is very straight, relying on facts and statements to get his point across rather than polemical rants or attempts at stoner chic.

The book starts off with a look at the use of cannabis by the followers of Shiva in India, and recounts it’s divine roots as a source of spiritual enlightenment and also how the white colonists of the 18th century began to attempt to control it. The story then leaps to the New World and back to the 16th century and follows how hemp seeds from India made their way to South America and how the American version was bred for use in creating hemp sails for ships as well as becoming part of Mexican culture. This would ultimately begin to permeate into North America becoming part of the jazz scene in the 1930s. The third part of the story then looks at the drugs crossover into White American culture and it’s subsequent vilification along with more dangerous drugs like heroin. In this part, Box focuses on the racist agenda of legislators who vilify Mexican immigrants and black jazz musicians for spreading the drug into site society and he looks at how politicians like FDA head Harry J Anslinger use misinformation, anecdotal evidence and even fake news to help justify their case and make the drug illegal throughout North America and ultimately the world. The story then concludes with a look at how campaigners attempt to get it decriminalised, mainly through it’s use as a medical treatment.

As with Box’s previous books, like Andre the Giant or Tetris, Cannabis: An American History balances a detailed narrative with his own immaculately conceived drawings. The characterisation is simplistic, but highly stylised and very effective. With the story touching on on everything from ancient Indian gods and colonial explorers, to 20th century jazz stars and contemporary politics, it does a fantastic job of showcasing Box’s range and makes even the most mundane of scenes into a very slick and cool visual. From the opening pages which see a seed growing in the ground and blossoming, he  converts a variety of subject into his iconic and simple style, which he does without using any colour throughout, just greyscale shading. Although this can make some of the pages feel a little dry at times, it does a great job of not distracting too far from the always fascinating narrative.

While the subject matter may prove divisive, depending on your view on cannabis, it shouldn’t. It is much more than a piece of pro-pot propaganda, however it can feel quite one-sided and a bit long winded in places, thanks to Box’s meticulous approach. It is still a fascinating look, not only at drug culture around the world, but at the way Government had attempted to control it’s use and the people who use it for their own political needs. In a way it reminds us that control of substance or cultures is no new thing. That governments have been doing this for centuries under different ideological drives and that the way an administration can manipulate facts to get it’s point across is still prevalent today.

Whether it is wrestlers, video games or psychoactive plants, Box Brown is a master of his craft and Cannabis: An American History is another wondrous and insightful work from one of America’s most important and thought provoking cartoonists.