“In a way being caricatured in a comic can be more brutal than even a hit piece article because by nature you’re being mocked and you kind of just have to grin and bear it.”
This article was published with permission from Talking Joints Memo. Read more of their cannabis coverage at talkingjointsmemo.com
The best comics enlighten and educate in addition to making you laugh, and Brian “Box” Brown’s Legalization Nation hits all of those critical buttons. A “strip aiming to educate the population about what exactly is happening right under their noses,” it “covers legalization from a ground level perspective, not shying away from black market discussion, patients’ rights, corporate advantage and more.”
As Brown, a medical patient in Pennsylvania whose debut non-fiction work was the 2019 graphic novel Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, puts it, “People want to legalize weed very much, but don’t quite understand what this looks like in practice because it’s happening so lightning fast.”
Laws and regulations around legal weed can be confusing, and his illustrations and cheeky analysis can help.
Brown showed up on my radar due to a recent strip of his that poked fun at the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission for bungling a FOIA request by journalists Grant Smith Ellis and Eric Casey. I was impressed with how the artist communicated the complex topic (along with others) in just a few frames, and asked all about his angle, approach, and upcoming projects.
Since you are well known for your cannabis comics, I just wanted to ask if you had a particular wheelhouse before going in that direction. Did you used to draw superheroes or something else entirely?
No. I have been making non-fiction comics for about a decade. I made a comic biography of Andre the Giant, the wrestler which was a New York Times best seller. And I have been steadily producing non-fiction and fiction books since then. Legalization Nation is my weekly strip dedicated to creating space for adult conversations about the legalization of cannabis. And, a way for me to process the shit show that I am witnessing.
You also have a book coming out about “How American toymakers sold you your childhood.” Not to get too far off of the weed topic, but can you just tell us about it quickly? It’s something I have always been fascinated by; I was born in 1979, but thankfully I was rescued by an HBO special called “Buy Me That” which showed how advertisers lied to kids.
Yes, so this is my next non-fiction book. The He-Man Effect. It’s about how in the early 1980s we kind of took all limiters off of how we advertised to children and the consequences. The original title of the book was We Drilled He-Man into Their Pea Brains. I remember the show Buy Me That and I loved it. I’ll never forget how they showed the way they photograph cheeseburgers.
You are a medical cannabis patient in Pennsylvania. I’m sure you have told your story a million times, but can you tell us where you started on that journey, where you are today as far as finding strains and regimens that work for you, and how much recreational use outside of that you’ve enjoyed through the years.
Well, yeah I’ve been a user since high school. I was arrested in 1996 for possession as a teenager and saw a little bit of the legal system. And I’ve been an enthusiast forever. Obviously enjoyed a lot of recreational cannabis over the years. But, in the last five to 10 years I’ve been using it mostly to help me focus on my work throughout the day. I have ADHD and can lose focus very quickly and cannabis helps me to work efficiently throughout the day and de-stress.
A lot of creatives consume cannabis without creating art about it. What inspired you to take the plunge and specifically what made you interested enough in the history of cannabis prohibition to publish a whole book about it?
I just operate this way. All of my books are really just documentation of me teaching myself about a subject I have decided to hyperfocus on. Making comics about this stuff helps me process information and I just love to draw. So, in many ways the cannabis thing is just another in a series of obsessions for me.
But, the Legalization Nation comic strip has become more than that. There is so much going on in the cannabis space, much corruption. The media has extreme difficulty properly covering the issue. So, I was here in PA and the only legal weed is MSO weed, the McDonald’s of weed and it’s not cheap. We can’t home-grow and I just got so tired of not hearing a consumer voice and seeing mainstream outlets cover the process so poorly. I just have a lot to say about the issue and it became this comic strip.
As far as that book, you have explained, “I stopped short of covering the legalization process because it’s too fast moving and complex. By the time a book about legalization was released it would be horribly outdated.” Are your comics a way of following up with that more granular lens?
Yes 100%. There’s no way to cover this in comic form without the book being out of date upon release. So this is my way of witnessing what is happening in something pretty close to realtime. I hope to eventually collect the strips into a book that will be a document of a time period, rather than breaking news.
Your latest strip, like others you have done, pokes fun at clumsy and potentially disingenuous regulators in Mass among other states. How do you describe your angle and approach? As someone who writes about this stuff and knows that your average consumer is often reluctant to care about the business and regulation side of things, I was wondering if there’s a bit of a sugar to make the medicine go down element to this work.
I think the work being comics really helps. Most of this stuff, you’re right, would be extremely dry in other media. You have to strike a really weird balance between informing people who know nothing about the subject but are eager to learn and not boring people who actually already know this stuff but are very interested in cannabis. It involves a lot of constant re-defining industry jargon in every strip. I have to make it accessible to people who aren’t in the industry but are still interested. Most of my work is like this. I break down complex material into easy to digest pieces because that helps *me* to understand what is happening, but others find it helpful as well. I also think that in a way being caricatured in a comic can be more brutal than even a hit piece article because by nature you’re being mocked and you kind of just have to grin and bear it.
Any other thoughts on weed, comics, and bureaucratically ineptitude that you’d like to share with our readers?
Regulators end up playing a huge role in cannabis users’ lives, unnecessarily so. Users’ concerns are often dismissed because of the stigma around cannabis. When you have ineptitude on the regulatory board, the people who are supposed to listen to users and take their gripes seriously, who do you go to? These comics basically came from that feeling of being powerless to change what is going on. I can’t go in and change the laws, I can’t lobby, I have no money to make change. Making comics is the one thing I really know how to do and Legalization Nation is my way of contributing to change.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.