For the first time, since it’s original publication as a chapter by chapter feature in the back of Eclipse magazine in the 1980’s, Trina Robbins’ adaptation of the Sax Rohmer novel Dope is now available collected in a single hardcover book from IDW Publishing. It really is amazing that this work from one of the groundbreaking founders of the 1970’s underground comics movement and the first woman to draw Wonder Woman for DC has been left to be forgotten for so long.
First, there is something we need to get out-of-the-way. Sax Rohmer was a raging racist and sexist. He was writing in England in the late 1910’s and 20’s when London was becoming the first transnational city in the world. It was a place that was attractive to people from all over the British Empire and across Europe.
They came to the capital and formed their own small ghettos in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. And while London always had a high crime rate, these new populations were an easy target. Sax Rohmer placed the blame of the newly visible drug problem, initially caused by the British in Asia, on the foreigners. And many British people were willing to go along with him.
It seems strange that 60 years later, an American feminist comic book artist would choose to adapt a book that blames women and hedonists for succumbing to the ills of the Far East.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Rohmer’s novel, Dope, is as relevant in modern America as it was when it was first written.It focuses on the problems of addiction, international illegal drug smuggling, celebrity overdoses and fame seekers. While he places much of the blame for these ills on foreigners (the leaders of the murderous drug ring are a Jewish-Cuban woman and her Chinese husband) and women seeking to rise above the social station to which they were born.
While it is tempting to say that we have advanced so much in the century since the book was initially published, you can see many of the same issues in the news today. We have politicians and regular people who find it easier to demonize drugs and blame the existence of crime on the poor and immigrant communities in America than to look for the real root causes of the problems and dealing with the issues.
For all his faults, Rohmer knew how to put an adventure novel together. This story zips along with all the melodrama that a person can stand, There is drug addiction, murder, blackmail, betrayal and deception enough to fill two novels. Robbins shows a clear and steady understanding of how to adapt this material to the comic book environment without excusing the problems of the work.
Robbins artwork is the highlight of the work. She has said in the past said that it was probably among the best work she has done. The black and white art is as deceptively simple as the characters in the story. It highlights and lifts the story above its pulpy roots.
This book is worth the attention of all comic book readers, not just people interested in the counterculture comix of the 70s and 80s. I fear that this is a book that may be lost in the shuffle of new works and trades. That would be the real crime.
Writer: Sax Rohmer
Adapted and Illustrated: Trina Robbins
Lettering: Tom Orzchowski
Publisher: IDW Publishing