What? You thought I was joking?

Cocaine Comix #1-2 (of 4)

How could I possibly blow an opportunity to discuss these delightful artifacts of the late underground period and beyond?! No, I proudly marched up to the counter at my shop and handed over these lovely puppies, and the girl at the register only sort of looked at me funny. Maybe she was used to it; for some reason, these books were pretty heavily ordered at my shop. Maybe there’s a strong underground/cocaine fanbase in my area that I’ve been heretofore unaware of?

These books appear on our local stands courtesy of the venerable Last Gasp, though I hesitate to call them ‘reprints.’ For one thing, there’s no mention in the legal indicia of exactly which printing we’re looking at. But more tellingly, Last Gasp has seen fit to affix stickers to each cover, obscuring the original price with an updated $2.95 fee. What’s the deal? Did they come into possession of a huge stack of unsold copies from back in the day? It’s very curious. What’s even more curious is how Last Gasp’s online catalog seems to think that S. Clay Wilson has participated in these books, when he quite plainly hasn’t. Actually, Robert Williams is only in issue #2, not issue #1. Very sloppy.

But matters of printing and advertising aside, these books make for a fitfully entertaining time capsule, a brief tour of the lower tiers of the late underground period. Issue #1 was released in 1975, basically a solo book for writer (and prominent underground distributor) George 'Yes, I’m Leo’s Dad' DiCaprio and artist Rich Chidlaw. DiCaprio had also contributed to the two-issue Forbidden Knowledge anthology series the same year, and would at some point edit the Pure Joy sex book, but I expect that Cocaine Comix will provide the most punchy title in his bibliography. I know little of Chidlaw, other than that he worked in some other minor undergrounds around the same time, but he appears to be the creator of the hero of this book, a shaggy-haired post-hippy called Wildroot, who lives for cocaine and kicks, man. William Stout’s cover depicts Wildroot bursting out from the book’s innards, yowling “Lemme out of Hollywood! Lemme outa this comic book!!” One is left to presume that the tales within will provide some dirt of the nasty happenings of ’70s Tinseltown.

Ah, but DiCaprio has a slightly more mellow stance than the cover would suggest. Wildroot basically wanders from place to place in the Red Light District, checking out the porno shops and scoring his shit. Through sheer happenstance he finds himself invited to a big party in an ominous castle, hosted by a strange being obviously modeled after Divine, star of several John Waters classics. An awful lot of the story is then taken up with random conversations between perverts and guests, as Wildroot makes his way around the place, a Family Circus-style dotted line occasionally marking his path. Eventually he befriends a Cocaine Falcon (a somewhat magical bird that’s trained to sweep away his master’s stash in the event of a police raid), inherits Divine’s secret supply, and stumbles into a strangely detailed plot to explode a group of thrill-seekers into a secret sex dimension by transforming their bodies into a Mobius band of erogenous zones. Or something. Also, I ought to mention that Wildroot becomes strong like Popeye when he snorts really good shit (“My strength is as the strength of ten ’cause my coke is pure!!”). Eventually, Divine and his/her friends break through to the sex dimension and Wildroot is actually kind of happy for them. There’s an obvious sense of affection for deviancy and strange sex about the piece, and Hollywood Sin is largely accepted with a smile, a winking eye. There’s little satire in the book, save for the occasional piece of chicken fat, like a withered, farting Lucille Ball shining her star on the Walk of Fame. But it mostly all kicks, man. All kicks.

DiCaprio’s name isn’t on the rest of the short stories, so I guess they’re Chidlaw solo bits. Foremost among them is have the extremely self-explanatory Godzilla vs. The Cocaine Monster, in which the Big G tussles with a giant anteater thing that’s developed a taste for all the world’s blow, pissing off rock stars and corporate executives the world over. Chidlaw’s art is pretty solid throughout the book, nicely mixing ultra-cartoon type characters with slightly more realistic caricatures. He’s got a Will Elder brand of storytelling, with background jokes sometimes threatening to overwhelm the main action. And while his perspectives needed some work, judging from this story, he does draw some nice giant monsters. Although the funniest part appears at the bottom of the last page: “Thanx to Toho Productions for loaning us Godzilla…” Ah. Of course.

Three more Wildroot stories, two of them one-pagers, wrap up the main part of the book. There’s also a really nice back-up story by Brent Boates, who’d later work in visual effects and art direction for films as diverse as Masters of the Universe, Die Hard, and Batman Returns. He’s also active in production illustration, having most recently worked on the upcoming Fantastic Four film. Here, he offers up a strange, amusing three-page story about an artist looking to do some life drawing in class. A melodramatic eruption of murder occurs in front of him, but he’s really only interested in getting it all drawn out. Nothing to do with cocaine, by the way.

The next issue of Cocaine Comix wouldn’t be out until 1980; after that, two more issues would be released in as many years. Issue #4 contributor Scott Shaw! reviews that final edition here, and you’ll note that the book now appears to be an anthology. That format change was in place with the book’s rebirth after its half-decade hiatus; issue #2 features a diverse crew of assorted post-underground talents, plugging away at the drugs and laffs just as companies like Fantagraphics were beginning to gain a bit of steam for their own original offerings. DiCaprio is listed as editor on Last Gasp’s site and in Shaw!’s column (for issue #4), so I’ll presume that he actually is an editor here, though no editor is credited in the book itself. DiCaprio and Chidlaw also return for a Wildroot short, in which he bumbles into a spiritual scheme by a vampire to steal the cocaine of Hollywood’s dumbest. But the fanciful cover by Rogelio (visible at the catalog link above), indicates a somewhat more unhinged focus for the book.

You’ll recognize some of the contributors: future Image founder Jim Valentino handles the art on a Bruce Sweeny story about assorted underground characters (Trashman, God Nose, etc.) playing cards and (unsurprisingly) tooting a few lines. As I mentioned above, Robert Williams offers a two-page piece on the glory of the female ass; it has nothing to do with cocaine, and frankly feels like it was sent in from the discard drawer just so the book could boast a ‘big’ underground name in its line-up. But the best stories are from Warren Greenwood and Pete von Sholly, who contribute a nice two-pager about engineering dorks who build a shrinking ray to allow them to frolic through their stash like it’s a mountain, and from Chris Statler and Palle Jensen, who present the comparatively lengthy (12 page) The Spawn of Cokethulhu about a hapless dope head (“Shit! I shoulda never come to England to sell dope to rich rock stars and start a heavy metal band with William S. Burroughs…”) who winds up teleported (via cocaine, natch) to a dimension outside of time, where famous drug-using characters and personalities from across history (Sherlock Holmes, Raoul Duke, Sigmund Freud, etc.) gather to confront the titular Cokethulhu, a shambling mass of tentacles, spoons, and coca leaves. Good fun.

I’d say that ‘good fun’ applies to both of these books on the whole, though they’re obviously benefiting from the march of time. Becoming ‘dated’ is only a negative way of saying that books like this reflect their times, and these books in particular offer a glimpse into a very uncertain time in comics, with the old underground giving way to a new breed of independent works, with trendy old nose candy the focus of the transformation. Apparently, the book became progressively harder on cocaine abuse as it went along, with the delightful fantasy fun giving way to a slightly more realistic view of things. This seems natural, given the tenor of the day in both a social and sequential sense. There one story in issue #2 here, by the aforementioned Bruce Sweeny and Gary Whitney, in which they pay homage to an olf Freak Brothers routine in which the cat eats their last bit of dope. Except with cocaine instead of pot.

It’s not quite the same. And it never quite would be again.