Dope


Adapted by Trina Robbins from the novel by Sax Rohmer (It’s Alive/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-957-8

The 1980s were a hugely fertile time for American comics-creators. An entire new industry started with the birth of the Direct Sales market and – as dedicated specialist retail outlets sprung up all over the country (operated by fans for fans) – new companies experimented with formats and content whilst eager readers celebrated the happy coincidence that everybody seemed to have a bit of extra cash to play with.

Most importantly, much of the “kid’s stuff” stigma finally dissipated. America was catching up to the rest of the world in acknowledging that sequential narrative might just be a for-real actual art-form able to handle sophisticated themes and notions…

Consequently, many new publishers were soon competing for the attention and cash of punters who had grown resigned to getting their on-going picture stories from DC, Marvel, Archie and/or Harvey Comics. European and Japanese material had been creeping in and by 1983 a host of young companies such as WaRP Graphics, Pacific, Capital, Now, Comico, Vortex, First, Dark Horse and many others had established themselves and were making impressive inroads.

New talent, established stars and fresh ideas all found a thriving forum to try something a little different both in terms of content and format. Even smaller companies had a fair shot at the big time and a lot of great material came – and too often, as quickly went – without getting the attention or success it warranted.

At the forefront of the revolution – and a perfect example – was publisher Eclipse Comics who entered the arena at the start in 1981 with a black-&-white anthology magazine, quickly followed up by a terrific line of genre titles crafted by the industry’s top talents and emerging superstars.

Although the fledglings were gone a decade later, their influence lives on, as does much of the material they originally released, picked up, reprinted and expanded upon by more fortunate successors…

The latest long-overdue returnee is a decades-anticipated and awaited (by me at the very least) cartoon compilation of a scarce-remembered book adaptation. The inspirational tome was a scandalous classic of crime and debauchery from a semi-mythical era penned by Sax Rohmer who is mostly remembered for inventing the ultimate personification of stranger-danger Fu Manchu.

Starting its serialised run in oversized monochrome anthology Eclipse (The) Magazine and concluding in the pages of full-colour indie anthology Eclipse Monthly, Sax Rohmer’s Dope was deftly adapted by pioneering cartoonist Trina Robbins, beginning in the second issue (July 1981) and featuring all the rest until the 8th and final one (January 1983). Uncompleted, the saga continued and climaxed over the first three issues of Eclipse Monthly (August – October 1983) before promptly vanishing from view despite its magazine stablemates such as Ms. Tree, I Am Coyote, Ragamuffins, Masked Man and others all going on to greater success – and collected editions…

Here then at last is Trina Robbins’ lost masterpiece: a moody interpretation of a rather infamous and groundbreaking book – sensationally based on the first recorded celebrity death due to drugs abuse and available as a sturdy monochrome hardback or digital edition…

The stark shenanigans are preceded by an effusive Foreword from artist and publisher C. Spike Trotman, and a revelatory, reminiscing Introduction by Robbins herself, disclosing the origins of her adaptation whilst confronting head-on the dreadful truth: Dope was a book of its time, unashamedly racist, as was its author.

Trina then makes a rock solid and potently valid case for why we elevated 21st centurians should read it anyway…

The astounding black-&-white shocker opens in ‘London, 1919’ as sound fellow Quentin Gray meets up with fellow swells Mrs. Irvin and her raffish companion Sir Lucien Pyne before being introduced to the seductive and tantalising half-world of the High Society drugs scene as disseminated through the machinations of ostensible perfume trader Sheikh El Kazmah

It’s the same old story: flighty Rita Irvin has succumbed to addiction but has no more money. Yet still she baulks when the seedy dealer suggests another manner of payment…

‘Chapter Two: The Fatal Cigarette’ opens a little later when Quentin greets formidable government official Commissioner Seton (recently returned from the east where he earned the title “Pasha” for his services to the Empire). The wise authoritarian has come to view the recently expired corpse of Pyne: stabbed to death soon after Gray left him and now lying in Kazmah’s apartments. Of Rita there is no sign…

On later meeting Rita’s physician Dr. Margaret Halley, Quentin’s disquiet grows. The boldly modern young woman even demands he throw away the cigarettes Pyne gave him before she speaks further. Of course, he had no idea until she warned him that they were laced with opium…

‘Chapter Three: A Star is Born – and Falls’ relates the sad tale of rising theatrical sensation Rita Dresden and how the nightly pressures of performing were temporarily assuaged by the scheming Pyne who offered her comfort and calming chemical gifts: comforts that she soon could not do without…

Rita’s fall retroactively continues in ‘Chapter Four: Pipe Dreams’ as she is introduced into a dope ring of well-heeled degenerates: attending the “poppy parties” of Mr. Cyrus Kilfane and encountering the striking and sinister Lola Sin

Fleeing that debauched debacle, Rita literally ran into well-meaning Monte Irvin and was almost saved.

Almost…

Chapter Five: Limehouse Blues’ relates how the triply-addicted (veronal, cocaine and opium) Rita decides to marry Monte but cannot shake the corrupting influence of Pyne, his circle of privileged peers and the implacable beast her addiction has become…

Even her marriage proves no bulwark and ‘Chapter Six: To the Brink’ sees the new bride drawn into a cycle of abuse and exploitation as Madame Sin and her enigmatic husband fleece the newlywed and seek to use her to expand their clientele…

Events rush towards a sordid yet inevitable conclusion in ‘Chapter Seven: Mollie Gets Amorous’ as Gray, Seton and formidable Police Chief Inspector Kerry close in on the poppy club and the nefarious dealers; leading to a daring Limehouse raid in Chapter Eight: A Visit to Sin’ with shocking disclosures in Chapter Nine: Above and Below’ and the exposing of even darker secrets and an intoxicating conclusion in Chapter Ten: The Song of Sin Sin Wa’

Following an in insightful Afterword from groundbreaking cartoonist Colleen Doran, Jon B. Cooke offers a wealth of background and historical context in ‘Sax, Drugs, and the Yellow Peril’: describing the nativity of Rohmer’s novel and the very real scandal of London actress and Society ingenue Billie Carleton whose death from a cocaine overdose rocked the Empire and beyond in 1918.

The photo-filled feature section also offers “Background Dope” sidebars on Rohmer’s ‘The Red Kerry Mysteries’, ‘Her Other Drugs of Choice’, ‘Slumming in the East End’ and ‘The Devil Doctor in Comics’ as well as a captivating ‘Trina Robbins Biographical Sketch’ and other contributors.

Potent, innovative, powerful and – in comicbook terms at least – a damned fine read, Dope is a sheer delight no lover of the graphic medium should miss and this hard-hitting stylish hardback may be the best thing you’ll buy this year.
Dope © 1981-2017 Trina Robbins. Foreword © 2017 C. Spike Trotman. “Sax, Drugs, and the Yellow Peril”, Trina Robbins bio © 2017 Jon B. Cooke. Afterword © 2017 Colleen Doran. All Rights Reserved.