Squeezing through hordes of passionate cosplayers and completists to navigate the crowded floors of the Javits Center over the years, it became obvious that New York Comic Con is a place where people can unapologetically express themselves and their interests without fear of judgment. So, I figured I wouldn’t have a hard time on my quest for cannabis content at this and last year’s New York Comic Con.
In fact, it’s never been easy to find anything relating to cannabis on the floors of the Javits Center during Comic Con. You might assume the reason is to maintain a more family-friendly environment, but I’ve seen porn stars at booths signing far from fully-clothed posters of themselves on the main floor of the event. Not to mention the nudity, violence, cursing, and other substance use that goes uncensored in many of the adult graphic novels and comic books displayed at the convention.
Despite the obvious lack of censorship at New York Comic Con, talking to certain illustrators and writers about cannabis still felt like a taboo. Even though we live during a time when more than half of the fifty states have legalized marijuana in some form and New Yorkers can now carry several ounces of weed without catching a criminal charge, cannabis content was still about as hard to find as the first issue of any classic comic at Comic Con.
Cannabis and Comics
Every once in a while, a pot-loving celebrity comes out with an overtly weed-themed comic book like Kevin Smith’s Bluntman & Chronic which was specifically made to coincide with the Jay and Silent Strike Back! movie or Ziggy Marley’s Marijuanaman. While they’re entertaining to a heavy consumer, their overt nature isn’t exactly normalizing the use of cannabis. To be honest, I can’t see anyone that doesn’t consider their cannabis use a personality trait purchasing an issue. And unfortunately, that doesn’t do enough to break the stigma surrounding weed.
Weed-themed comics are fun and I hope they continue to exist for people with a passion for the plant but I also yearn for more characters smoking a joint or rolling up in a comic panel without it being a huge deal. In my experience at Comic Con over the years, the only time cannabis is ever featured or mentioned in a comic is when it is the main subject of the story. Additionally, the cover is almost always decorated with pot leaves or some other in-your-face weed symbol. In fact, cannabis almost never has a subtle presence like it would be if a character was smoking a cigarette or having a drink at a bar.
For decades, authors have used comics to address social justice issues like inequality—and over time, people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community are finding themselves represented more in the world of comics. However, one social justice issue that has been completely left out of the discussion for a long time is the prohibition of cannabis.
At Comic Con this year, I got the chance to speak with a few writers and illustrators to see why weed is nearly nonexistent in these fantasy worlds that often reflect ours to hopefully inspire a change.
Cannabis at New York Comic Con
The closest thing I found to covert cannabis use was in the early panels of a comic I found displayed at Joseph Schmalke’s booth. In it, a father that was just woken up by his son on Christmas morning can be seen taking a toke out of his bowl before hopping out of bed to enjoy the holiday with his son.
We caught up with Schamelke, the writer and artist behind comics like The Infernal Pact, which in his own words, features “more hardcore drug use’ than pot smoking to gauge his thoughts on the absence of cannabis in comics.
HT: What examples of drug use are there in your work?
JM: This book [The Infernal Pact] is about methheads. Three methheads get hunted down by devil worshipping bikers. And in this one [Cherry Black Bird], she snorts coke and drinks ridiculous amounts of alcohol. It’s a Rockstar story.
In The Electric Black, we have characters that come and go who dabble in drugs like amphetamines.
HT: Have you ever seen cannabis in the comics you read?
JM: Yeah. Just an indy group in Massachusetts that puts out something called The Toking Dead.
HT: Why is cannabis so hard to find in comics, is it the publishers?
JM: I don’t believe so.
HT: So, why do authors not feature cannabis in more comics?
JM: For me, it comes down to this… Now that it’s legal, maybe I’ll draw something like that.
Judging by a response like this from a comic creator that feels they can showcases meth, cocaine and amphetamine use in their work without considering the laws prohibiting them, I assume the stigma surrounding cannabis is still playing a role in its absence in the world of comics.
One author who was far from shy on the pot topic was Brian Phillipson, the co-founder and president of Bliss on Tap publishing. I wasn’t surprised as his booth was one of the only places where I could find cannabis in comics at this and last year’s New York Comic Con. They publish Weed Magic, a comic book series which had its first issue released during the week of 4/20/17.
There have been two follow up issues since, both released on the weeks of 4/20 in the following years with every copy costing $4.20. And odes to the stoner holiday don’t end there. If you took a hit every time you saw those numbers in the first issue, you might find yourself in a kush coma before reaching the last panel.
Laced with humor from the first page to the last panel, Weed Magic features the tale of two friends that fail to get weed on 4/20 before the dispensaries in LA sold out. So, they decide to cop buds from a man in an alley while desperate to score some smoke for the holiday. He claimed it was magic but they didn’t take it seriously. It wasn’t until they smoked half of their supply and gained superpowers that they realized they were the caretakers of the last of this magical weed.
HT: Do you read many comics and graphic novels?
HT: Have you seen any other comics featuring pot?
BP: Not so much in comics that I’ve read. The stories aren’t matching how many people smoke weed.
HT: Did you have any concerns before releasing Weed Magic?
BP: Yes. Weed Magic was one of my earlier ideas. First off, it was mid-2000’s so I thought, “can you get away with it? Will a distributor put it in stores? Can I sell it for $4.20?”
And there were the nagging thoughts of “someone is going to do this, someone is going to do this,” and every year no one did it. But so many comic writers are stoners and so many stoners read comics. That’s when I thought, someone has got to do it and it’s going to be me.
So, I finally ask the distributor “are we allowed to put this out?” and they started cracking up which was the first good sign. So I followed up with “well you’re not going to let me sell them for $4.20, right? And they responded “THAT’S GENIUS!”
So I’m like, “how come no one is doing this?!”
HT: I guess you found the right distributor.
BP: Not even, it was Diamond, the same distributor of Marvel and DC comics.
HT: So there’s no conspiracy? Then why aren’t more people including cannabis in their comics? Are they just not passionate about it?
BP: I feel like people are self-censoring themselves… Or they’re scared. Or they don’t want to be outed as a consumer or advocate.
HT: But they’re not afraid to portray nudity, violence, cursing and other R rated content in their comics.
BP: That’s funny, I’ve actually been asked if I was worried about kids coming across it [Weed Magic] and I responded that they probably shouldn’t be reading it but they can also find a hot girl in a G string at the next booth that nobody is worried about.
HT: Is there something that sets Weed Magic apart from other attempts at a comic series that may have featured cannabis in some way?
BP: Well, to start, it’s meant to be read in a certain state of mind. We are also raising the bar higher, no pun intended. Alex Cormack brings higher quality illustrations to our pages than you’d expect from a stoner comic. And my co-writer Jordan Lichtman is a General Counsel who has always been up front about his cannabis use and never afraid to advocate for the cause. So far, it’s been well-received and now we’re even sponsored by our local dispensary in Los Angeles.
Bob Burden’s Jackpot
On my quest for cannabis at Comic Con, I was introduced to Bob Burden, the inventor of a satirical comic book hero from the 1980s with an eerie resemblance to a lit joint called The Flaming Carrot which also featured the first LGBTQ character in mainstream comics. I was excited to be introduced to his latest cannabis-themed hero and creation: “JackPot.”
The character was invented days before it was introduced at Dragon Con and Bob shared the synopsis with me:
A group of teens stumble upon an alien crash site on a weed farm. They try to run off with a bunch of the pot but an alien ship appears and takes everything except for one vial. It was left in the possession of a struggling single teenage mother working as a cam girl in the hood. She brings it back to the condemned building that she, her 1-year old daughter, 12 year old sister and crazy grandmother live in before discovering that interacting with the sentient plant turned her into a human-plant hybrid with superpowers.
After having a costume sent to her by one of her cam customers, she decided to go the route of super villain but doesn’t get far before government agents catch on and confront her in her home. Instead of arresting her, they give her the opportunity to use her powers for good. They tell her the government is interested in monetizing the industry and they need a positive role model.
However, she finds out other people that have interacted with this alien species of cannabis have lost their lives.
As much as I’d love to pick up issue number one, as of now, JackPot is only a character created by Bob Burden.
For nearly a decade, Nugglife has been the one booth at New York Comic Con that has always showcased and embraced cannabis culture. They started with collectible weed-themed figurines before expanding into apparel as well.
The founders, Zack Hirsch and Ian Ziobrowski, attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City at the same time. They met between classes when one of them had weed but no wrap and the other had a wrap but no weed. That’s when their friendship, and the blunt they rolled, was sparked.
The idea of a company came to be after Ian who was doing fine arts and struggling to break into the art world entered a competition to handcraft a birdhouse. Artists were given complete creative freedom so long as the theme was maintained. So, he decided to make a miniature grow room and called Zack to tell him about the project. Amazed by how dope the concept sounded, Zack told him to put it aside for him because he was buying it no matter what the cost. After putting eyes on it, he bought it and still has it in a custom acrylic case that he built for it at his house.
That moment of support was where the seed for Nugglife was originally planted.
Much like their first encounter in college, the two came together to create something special. And to this day at Nugglife, Ian hand constructs and paints custom collectible, cannabis-themed figurines while Zack has used his experience as a creative director to build out the brand and their apparel line.
HT: How long have you guys had a booth at Comic Con?
NL: About 8 or 9 years.
HT: Have you experienced the stigma against cannabis during that time?
NL: When we first started doing this, kids would come up to the booth to look at the toys and then their parents would come over, see it and scowl at us before dragging their kid away. We faced that for a few years.
Now, the number one people that walk up to the booth are older parents and they’re showing it to their children!
HT: Most of your figurines feature weed and its leaves, how come there aren’t any leafs or overt cannabis symbols on any of your clothes?
NL: We wanted to do something more creative. I told Ian, “we’re going to build this without ever showing a single pot leaf. It’s too expected.”
HT: You expanded from figurines to clothes successfully. What can we expect from Nugglife in the future?
NL: We’re working with Riot Seeds to create a Nugglife strain.
TDOG the Artist
Todd Pearl is a renowned Detroit and LA artist who started the TDOG brand to design art for breeders, growers, influencers and anybody in the cannabis industry in need of dope designs. His artwork can be found on rolling trays, papers, grinders, dab mats, lighters and all kinds of merchandise. TDOG’s designs are one of the only places I see comic-like illustrations and cannabis collide.
I got the chance to ask him his thoughts on the presence of cannabis in comics.
HT: How long have you been including cannabis in your illustrations?
TDOG: Since I first experienced effects of Mother Earth’s finest herb. Around 15-16 years old, I started drawing the ‘leaf’ and incorporating cannabis into my cartoon drawings of the day. So… the answer is, a very long time… since the mid 70s. I can send you a still of an early image.
HT: Are you into comics and have seen cannabis culture and comics collide?
TDOG: Does the Pope wear a funny hat? Aw hell yes, I appreciate the comic world. As a yout, I read them a lot more, as a busy mad artist and entrepreneur… it’s difficult to find the time… nonetheless, since the Fabulous Freak Brothers in my teenage years, to Tank Girl in my younger adult years, cannabis has been in the mix, but still on the fringe. With normalization and legalization, I see tremendous opportunity to include cannabis and its culture in the mix of the storyline of comics. And besides… the sublime chill nation has its place in our culture to flourish and expand.
HT: A lot of your illustrations are weed-centric. Has the stigma of laws surrounding cannabis impacted your work as an artist?
TDOG: Adding to comment already given, I’m concerned with censorship of art with the emerging legal medicine/product. Many regulations are being enacted to prohibit “comic” art on cannabis products. I can understand that regulation for candy and dessert-like edibles, so that children aren’t enticed to ingest. However, to have that censorship cross over into the area of ‘adult’ products that are smoked for consumption, shouldn’t have that regulation. Look at all the Craft beer and wine companies with their irreverent and
Fun art. My mission is to make people smile with my art. And what better place to do it, but in the chill nation of conscious functional cannabis consumers. Aw hell yea.
One other writer and illustrator that didn’t get shy when I brought up the topic of cannabis was Craig Johnson, who is working on the follow up to the well-received start of his The Legend of Pinky series, which takes place in the 1920’s world of Harlem Jazz. When I asked where the cannabis was at the event, he told me I could find it in the new comic he was there to promote. In the upcoming self-published volume two of The Legend of Pinky, Johnson says one of his main characters experiences a “reefer dream.”
When asked he or his peers consumed cannabis he replied, “yeah, a lot of us do.”
But he also acknowledged that aside from the obvious examples like Bluntman & Chronic, the Ex-Machina series was one of the only places he saw cannabis use portrayed in the comic world.
The Absence of Cannabis in Comics
After speaking to a number of authors, the absence of cannabis in comics appears to be more of a self-imposed censorship. A few writers claimed their reason for not including cannabis was because it was not a large part of their life. Other authors were trying to tailor their content to younger audiences.
I was surprised that there wasn’t any cannabis-themed merch or really any hint of cannabis at the Southpark booth. Despite Tegridy Farms and cannabis playing a large role in the latest season, the only cannabis-related thing I saw at their Comic Con booth was a red-eyed Towlie T-shirt that you probably could have found anywhere selling Southpark merch even a decade ago.
Based on my experience at Comic Con, we’ve still got a ways to go before cannabis use in comics starts to reflect the number of people actually using it but things are definitely making a turn for the better. In fact, during one of the live panels at NYCC, the popular DC comic illustrator behind Batman, Greg Capullo, was overheard saying “… we advocate for marijuana, in case anyone was wondering.”
It seems like the cannabis conversation is just getting started in mainstream comic series.
Marijuana Legalization is Happening in the Marvel Universe
In fact, the latest issue of Daredevil (2019) comics that came out this month introduces the legalization of marijuana and the issues surrounding it to the Marvel universe for the first time. There’s even a second “The Amazing Mary Jane Variant” cover that you can find for issue #12 of Daredevil (2019).
I ran into Marco Chechetto, the artist behind both covers at NYCC, but unfortunately, English was not his native language. So, I couldn’t gauge his thoughts on this historic comic book issue, but I did make sure to get him to sign a copy for me.
Without spoiling too much, issue #12 features Wilson Fisk AKA Kingpin, who has become the mayor of New York City. He’s pushing for the legalization of marijuana but not because he thinks we should be free to consume cannabis without government interference but because he plans to control the licensing department’s rules for selling approval so that they fall in his favor. Much like legal cannabis in the real world, mom and pop businesses are facing similar threats of monopolization from large corporations with more resources, influence and power.
With Marvel’s embrace of the reality of marijuana legalization, I expect to see cannabis appear in more mainstream comics at the next New York Comic Con.