Coffee, Coca, and Government Favors
If you hate the War on Drugs, Ricardo Cortés should be one of your favorite illustrators. Though his most well-known work is probably the art for last year’s viral children’s book Go the Fuck to Sleep, he’s been working to convince people that our counterproductive prohibitions on certain substances need to end since at least 2005, when his book for kids about marijuana, It’s Just a Plant, sparked a lot of less-than-level-headed debate. He also published a pamphlet on jury nullification, which is the idea that juries can choose to declare defendants not guilty if the law seems unjust to them—his idea, shared by other anti-Drug War folks like The Wire’s writing staff, is that this controversial power should be used to acquit everyone charged with a non-violent drug offense regardless of evidence. (I interviewed Ricardo about this a year ago.)
This week, Akashic Books published what’s probably Ricardo’s most ambitious picture book: A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola, which he has been working on for six years. During the research process, he found a bunch of letters between Harry J. Anslinger, America’s first drug czar—who held the post for 42 years and is responsible for many of the US’s anti-marijuana, anti-narcotic policies—and Ralph Hayes, a Coca-Cola executive. Their friendly correspondence, which, as the book documents, went on for decades and ended in the 60s, helped the soda company secure the exclusive rights to import and process coca leaves, which are otherwise illegal to possess in the US. (The New York Times uncovered Coke’s use of coca back in 1988, but the company has yet to acknowledge their use of the plant.) Ricardo’s book isn’t limited to a critique of this favoritism—there’s also a history of past attempts to criminalize coffee, and interesting stuff about the US government growing coca in experimental farms in Hawaii. I called Ricardo up and talked to him about the book, which, by the way, would make a nice holiday gift for Drug War doves of all ages. (You can buy it here.)
VICE: Hey Ricardo, thanks for talking to me. I heard from the press materials that this project started out as an idea for a kid’s book, like It’s Just a Plant.
Ricardo Cortés: When I did It’s Just a Plant, I got a lot of criticism about, “We shouldn’t be teaching kids about marijuana.” The book wasn’t about teaching kids how to smoke, of course. But I got a lot of people that were like, “Well, why don’t you do a kid’s book about cocaine?” and they kind of gave me a challenge to think about that, and to think about if that would be relevant to kid’s lives. And I wasn’t really interested in doing a children’s book about cocaine, but I did think, Well, the coca leaf is highly relevant to children’s lives in the Americas. Maybe not to children in the US, but in South America, kids actually pick coca leaves and families subsist on it, and it’s been part of the culture for thousands of years. So, yeah, the book started out that way, and that’s why it sort of looks like a children’s book. Originally I was thinking it would be talking about the coca plant, and as I got deeper into the history of cocaine and Coca-Cola, which even though it takes up a huge part of the book, was kind of a secondary aspect of it. It evolved into the adult book it is.
I kind of see the book as two things. There’s a first part of it, which is kind of a meta-conversation about the evolution of cultural and legal taboos against intoxicants. And that’s why it starts out with the image of tomatoes and potatoes, because these things have been banned at one point or looked at askew, just like coffee. I kind of see all these plants as things that through these cultural evolutions where people scapegoat them and ban them. Like when some in this country thought that apples were the fruit of the devil and got people drunk back when people were fermenting apples. Then, decades later, we’ve got the expression, “As American as apple pie.” So I saw coffee and coca as these two plants that grew on the same mountainside, were picked by the same people for thousands of years, and are both really benign stimulants. Both have been transformed into global commodities, but coffee is totally legal and accepted culturally around the world, and coca is this super-illicit, super-illegal, Drug War-starting plant. The conceit of the book was to introduce coffee, then talk about coca and show how these plants have developed over time and established these relationships with people. So, really, I think the story of Coca-Cola is a vehicle for telling the bigger story which is largely about drugs in general, but I really got into the nitty-gritty of the research.
It’s really remarkable to read the letters between Hayes and Anslinger in your book. They’re really upfront about saying, “We’re want to use this plant you want to make illegal for our legal product.”
Some of that stuff is on my website, where you can actually see the actual documents. But my favorite part was just how chummy they got. You kind of get a sense of their different styles. Like Ralph Hayes was just a total kiss-ass, but really professional about it, a real professional, diplomatic guy who would constantly say to Harry, “Oh, you’re the best at what you do, and your department is like a beacon to the world.” And Anslinger just ate it up.
RIP Spain Rodriguez
“It is with great sadness that I inform you of the passing this morning of Spain Rodriguez. He passed at home with his daughter and wife at his bedside at about 7 this morning. He fought cancer for a long time. He was a wonderful father, husband, and friend. His art challenged, changed, enlightened, and entertained us for over five decades. His passing coincided with the penumbra eclipse of the moon, like Spain’s shadow from the outer edge of the art world’s face. Services are pending, please give the family some time. “
Janelle Hessig from Last Gasp Publishing sent that e-mail yesterday evening to me and Sean Aaberg from Pork Magazine. It arrived right after someone on Facebook told me that Spain had died and I yelled “WHAT!?” aloud at my computer in shock and anger. Janelle then sent me a link to this video that Spain’s wife made about him.
In this 15 minute documentary, R. Crumb describes Spain pretty well. “When I met him, he struck me as an archetypal character. Somewhere between a crazy artist crossed with a left wing radical, crossed with a working class Latino hood.”
Spain was a for real greaser who belonged to the Road Vultures MC. Many of his comics revolved around his motorcycle gang days. His people usually looked a little monstrous and odd to me, but his cars and motor vehicles were always perfect representations. His work took the super slickness of Wally Wood and Jack Kirby into a weird and beautiful place.
I put together a giant gallery of images that Spain made, which you can click through at the top of this page. You can also see a few of these pictures below. If you dig Spain’s art and want to check out some of his printed work, I suggest either Last Gasp’s new book SPAIN: Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels & Revolutions or Fantagraphics’s Cruisin’ with the Hound.
The Poet by Paul Maliszewski
The poet and his wife were young, and they were just married.
They had an apartment near a grocery store and a post office. The poet walked most everywhere. The first floor of their building was brown-painted wood. The second floor was like imitation stucco. Rent on a second-floor apartment was $100 more per month on account of it being less noisy.
You know, the woman from the rental office told them, nobody living above you and that sort of thing.
They took a place on the first floor. They didn’t have much money then.
The poet was, at the time, a promising writer. Several established poets had told him his work displayed a certain promise. He had entered his poems in a national contest, and while he didn’t win one of the prizes, the judges included his name on a list of poets to watch. He had also published a poem in a literary magazine, and an editor at another magazine read and passed on six of his new poems, but wrote a note at the bottom of his form rejection: pls try again. The poet’s wife had a good job, in a nice office that paid health-insurance benefits for their entire family. The poet had a job too, besides the poetry, stocking shelves at an office-supply outlet. It was fairly menial and mindless and didn’t pay well and offered no benefits save a slight discount on office supplies.
When the baby came, the poet stayed at home with him. Daycare for the baby, when they looked into it, proved too expensive, many multiples more than what the poet earned from his job and his poetry. The choice was plain.
Raising the baby was hard work. The poet told friends of theirs it was the hardest job he’d ever held, but also the best, far and away the best. That was his pat answer. When anybody asked how it was going, staying at home, he’d just deliver his sound bite. He didn’t even need to think.
But like so many of the things he repeated, it seemed less true the more he said it. The poet had a friend with a young child and, like him, she stayed at home, caring for the boy. The poet’s friend lived far away, but they wrote back and forth when time permitted and sometimes talked on the phone. The poet felt close to her, though he hadn’t seen her for years. The poet simply could be more honest with her, especially if he took the time. Her child was older than his by a couple of years, so he listened keenly to her stories. She came from his future. She brought back detailed reports of life there. So when the poet’s friend asked him how it was going, being at home, he didn’t give her the usual sound bite. He would never. The poet’s answer, when it came, was halting, however, and confused. It’s weird, how time feels now, he told his friend. The baby affects everything. I mean, even my sense of time. Whole days can fly by, he said, but in another, maybe bigger scheme, everything seems longer somehow. Does that make sense? The poet knew it didn’t make any sense. He only ever asked if he was making sense when he knew full well he wasn’t. I’m afraid I can’t explain it, he said.
A few days later, or maybe it was a few weeks, who could tell anymore, the poet talked to his friend again. His baby was napping, or was supposed to be, anyway. Her child was at preschool. I’ve been thinking, the poet said, about what I was saying before, about time. His friend said she remembered. Sometimes, the poet said, I don’t know what I do with a day or a week. I can’t tell you what I did yesterday. And if I tell my wife a story about something the baby did, I often try to say, This was yesterday or whatever, but I often can’t remember what day it was. I’ll say I don’t remember and apologize, but I’ll also say it doesn’t matter. Because when I think back to how much time has passed, the poet told his friend, it feels like a great deal of time. He paused, listening back over what he has just said. I’m not sure that’s any clearer, he told her.
The poet’s friend understood, though. I have a friend, she said. She once perfectly captured what you are trying to say. She had asked me how I was doing at home, as I asked you. Like you, I sort of stuttered out a response, not really making my point. Anyway, my friend nodded her head and said, The days are long, but the months are short.
The poet thought about that for a few seconds. It was like trying on a new shirt. You had to look at yourself in the mirror first, maybe turn a bit. The poet decided he liked it, he liked it quite a lot. What his friend’s friend said was true. It was, in fact, perfect. The poet repeated it to himself, listening to the words. That’s it exactly, he told his friend. The days are long. And the months are so short. The poet was impressed by people who could boil something down with no appreciable loss of complexity. There was real beauty in it. Epigrams—the poet thought that was the right word, though he often confused it with epigraphs—could be like sculptures. He wanted to walk around them, admiring them from every conceivable angle.
Whores I Have Loved - New fiction by Clancy Martin
“Being a Mexican hooker wasn’t the plan I had in mind,” she said from above me, her hair enveloping us both like mosquito netting or a dark silk blanket we had drawn over our heads. Her breath smelled like beer, cocaine, and copper. “But I’ve been working in Mexico for about three years. I was hitchhiking back from Argentina. I guess you could say I was dancing up the coast.” She laughed.
She was from Georgia, and her accent alone made you want to fuck her. A shame, it was lost on her Mexican clientele. We were 50 miles east of Puerto Vallarta in a town that consisted wholly of the whorehouse, three bars, and a nearby maquiladora that made high-end furniture. There were “contemporary Scandinavian” tables and chairs in the bars, and the main dancing hall of the whorehouse, where the women performed their striptease before taking a client, looked like an IKEA but with unmortared white stone walls, dim lighting in red, blue, and green, and five low-hanging disco balls. It was nearly as large as an IKEA, too, and there must have been 300 drunken men in there: a Saturday night. I did not see any other Americans or Europeans. I’d had to tip two bouncers $100 each to acquire this woman before the crowd of clients waving bills in the air and waiting for her after her brief dance onstage. She was one of their best sellers.
“You never say anything,” she said. She liked to talk while having sex, which is unusual in a prostitute. “You just ask questions.”
There are prostitutes who like to joke during sex, which is a bad thing: You haven’t known each another long enough for that.
I came back to see her six nights in a row, and every night I stayed the whole night, which was $300, at the time: cheap by American standards but outrageous in a Mexican brothel that was not for tourists. With beers and blow I left almost $2,500 at that whorehouse. After the second night I didn’t have to tip the bouncers. She asked me to come late, so that she could turn some regular business before I arrived, but I arrived early and I watched her. I had never before—and have never since—observed a woman I am going to sleep with take men—multiple men—to have sex with her before me. It doesn’t have the erotic sparkle you might imagine. Though I am a jealous lover, it did not provoke jealousy. But I did want to kill the sleepy-eyed men as they returned from upstairs and crept or sauntered out the front door or returned to their friends at the table. All but three women in my life have had sex with other men before they had sex with me: Why should it matter that it took place before my eyes, and all in one night? Their friends would laugh, but these men did not join in the laughter like men returning from other women. I understood their tranquillity and satiety; I knew, as their friends did not, that they did not want to be touched by anyone else—not even a happy, drunken slap on the back—for an hour or two. I could not comprehend how the men who left went back to their wives for the night. It wasn’t that you felt soiled. I once listened to a friend scrub himself in a blistering shower for 15 minutes after visiting Peppermint in Bangkok: His red hide as he emerged in his white towel from the steaming bathroom, like Meryl Streep’s back after they scrub her with steel brushes in Silkwood, still makes me rub my eyebrows. The sex was very good, as you would expect, but conventional. It wasn’t the sex, or her body: though her breasts did not quite fit in your hands, and her areolae were more than two inches in diameter, pink as tulips, and her nipples were dimpled. She was widely curved and slender and liked you to hold her ass from beneath with both of your hands. She was not shaven. It surprised me that she didn’t enjoy, and wouldn’t permit, anything rough. She had the curvaceous body of an American peasant.
When I confessed several of my sins to her, lying in bed together, talking and watching the big spiders hunting or hiding in the corners and interstices between the stones, she told me: “The last perfect man I heard of died hangin’ on a cross.”
Each week I sift through all of the comments left on this site and try to make great art out of the dumb crap people write below articles. People love to hate comment culture, but there’s something great about people having an idea, and within seconds of getting a feeling being able to express and share it with the world. I translate things that you spend seconds of your time doing into things that take me more seconds to draw.
Blowing Covers with Françoise Mouly, Art Editor of the New Yorker
It isn’t every day you get to interview Robert Crumb–but back in October, I spoke with the legendary comic artist for VICE about his gay marriage New Yorker cover, which was pulled before print. Crumb said New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly and top editor David Remnick didn’t give him a clear reason as to why.
In response, Crumb created a manifesto-type bookmark that was inserted into the Danish Pavilion catalogue (the theme of the show was censorship), at the Venice Biennale, where I found it. When I asked him about this, he said he’d never work for the New Yorker again if they weren’t going to spell out the criteria for why they accept or reject art.
A few months after the article came out, Mouly announced that she would be publishing a book called Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See.
Right. Mouly’s book came out on Monday. While there have been some good New Yorker covers, to me, the book is basically a guide to where the be-all, end-all magazine pussied out on controversial, crazy, funny, and over-the top (their words: “ahead of their time”) artwork, now gathered together for purchase. Oh yeah, there’s a website too.
Mouly took some time out of her day at the New Yorker office to talk about R. Crumb, why his gay marriage cover was outdated, and why working with artists is like being a kindergarten teacher.
VICE: My name is Nadja, I write for VICE and I have the same name as your daughter.
Françoise Mouly: Yes! At one point she was going over my emails and said it’s so seldom she sees the name of other Nadja’s. Do you have any reason why you were named Nadja?
I changed my name to Nadja (from Nadia) after reading the book Nadja by Andre Breton.
I have read the book. I didn’t love the book but I loved the name. I thought, “If I ever have a kid and I have a daughter… that’s a good name.”
Something about the cover of Nadja by Andre Breton–I judged the book by its cover, and to me, the cover sells the book. And now you’re doing a book called Blown Covers.
You are the cover editor and the art director of the New Yorker? Just to get it right…
You’ll never get it right because the New Yorker just doesn’t do things the way everybody else does. I’m the art editor meaning I am in charge of the artists who provide content. It’s the cover, and it can also be comic strips or single pictures inside. The New Yorker, at the core, especially when it was created in 1925, was a humor magazine, bringing together artists and writers. We don’t call our artists illustrators—they are artists and I am the art editor.
Is it true that inside the cover editor’s office, you notice that the walls are covered with rejected New Yorker covers?
[Laughs] Like everything, it has a core of truth. My walls are covered with the sketches that the artists send me. Some will never see the light of day, just make me laugh, and others will be the building block of the right cover at the right time as things shift and move. We have an infrastructure of evergreen covers, a few images that deal with spring, weddings, that deal with the calendar. We are ready at the drop of the hat for political or newsy and it’s an unpredictable pattern. Some are not so much rejected as, “We haven’t found the right thing yet.”