Sax Rohmer’s Dope by Trina Robbins
Publisher: It’s Alive!
Writer: Sax Rohmer and Trina Robbins
Artist: Trina Robbins
Review by PeteR
From the introduction of Dope, by its adapter and artist, Trina Robbins “And now a word about the elephant in the room: Sax Rohmer was racist; his novel Dope is racist. His villains are an inscrutable Chinese and a vampish dragon lady described as a “Cuban Jewess.” But there’ll be no chicken soup with matzo balls from Mrs. Sin. Was a Jewish girl from Cuba the most exotic thing that Rohmer could come up with? (Asks the Jewish girl from New York who is not particularly exotic.)”. It’s important to me use this disclaimer because I am going to rave about how good the graphic novel, Dope is but, that does NOT mean I agree or condone with the stereotypes used by Sax Rohmer. Trina Robbins correctly represents Sax Rohmer’s writings, warts and all.
For those who came in late, Sax Rohmer, (the nom de plume for Arthur Henry, Ward) was the author of more than thirty books before his death in 1959. He is most famously known for his character, Dr. Fu Manchu. There is a very detailed essay, in the back of the Dope graphic novel by comic historian Jon B, Cooke on the impact of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu in the comic world. Briefly, the cover of the very first issue of Detective Comics has a Fu Manchu like character depicted on it. Detective Comics issues #17 through 28, reprints of 1930 Fu Manchu comic strip. In 1953 Wally Wood illustrated a one-shot comic of Fu Manchu for Avon publishing (recently reprinted in Vanguard Publishing’s Wally Wood: Eerie Tales of Crime & Horror). I first came across Fu Manchu in the 1970’s in Marvel’s Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. As a side note, Marvel also published stories of one of Sax Rohmer’s other infamous “yellow peril” characters in 1956, the Yellow Claw, (recently reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Atlas Era, Black Knight/Yellow Claw).
Trina Robbins is the author of various books including Women and the Comics, A Century of Women Cartoonists (Kitchen Sink, 1993) and The Great Women Superheroes (Kitchen Sink, 1997). I, personally am hoping she releases an updated version of The Great Women Superheroes so she can include the crop of female characters and series that have come out since then. Robbins was awarded an Inkpot Award in 1977 and in 2013 was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame.
The first chapter of Trina Robbins adaptation of Sax Rohmer’s Dope was published in the first issue of Eclipse Magazine, dated May of 1981. Eclipse magazine was competing with other comic magazines like, Heavy Metal and Marvel’s Epic Illustrated that were trying to reach an older audience than the standard cape and cowl crowd. Unlike its two competitors, Eclipse Magazine was published in black and white and lasted a total of eight issues. Dope debuted in issue #2.
In August of 1983, Eclipse began publishing a full color comic book, aptly titled, Eclipse Monthly. It contained continuations of some of the stories from Eclipse Magazine Including Trina’s Robbins ongoing adaptation of Dope, which reached its conclusion in issue #3. Eclipse Monthly lasted ten issues. As a side note, both Eclipse Magazine and Eclipse Monthly contained some really terrific stories by Doug Wiley, Jim Starlin and Marshall Rogers. You might want to check the back issue bins at your local comic store to see if they have any of them.
Dope is set in 1918 London and is the story of actress Rita Irvin. Irwin (then Rita Dresden) first is exposed to drugs on the opening night of a play she had the starring role in. Plagued by stage fright, prior to the performance she is provided with methyl benzoyl ecgonine (cocaine) by stage producer and suitor, Sir Lucien Pyne. Rita, now a regular user of cocaine finds she is unable to sleep at night. She eventually finds herself in the deepest regions of the Limehouse District. While at a party, Rita meets Mrs. Sin who introduces her to opium.
Dope is a cautionary tale about the evil of drugs, long before the movie Reefer Madness or Nancy Regan’s “Say No to Drugs” campaign. It charts Rita’s decent from the top rungs of society to its lowest. It is also a look into the mindset and motivations of those who would co-enable her.
Trina Robbins art in Dope is evocative of Chuck Mazoujian’s work on the early Lady Luck feature in the Spirit sections that were circulated by various newspapers. A couple of the panels made me think of some of Howard Nostrand’s non-horror work. There is a sparseness to the art work that reflects the settings and mood of the story.
Sax Rohmer’s Dope by Trina Robbins was originally funded by a Kickstarter project. For those who missed out on that campaign, the book will be published by IDW later this year. This new rendition in graphic novel format was edited by Drew Ford. “It’s Alive! Is the brainchild of Eisner-nominee Drew Ford, publishing out of print comics, English translations of foreign material, original projects and other unique collectibles.”
Why you should buy this book? Sax Rohmer’s Dope by Trina Robbins is intricate in its storytelling and bold in its art. It is a fascinating look at the mores of London around World War One. The textual articles at the end of the book are intriguing and add further context to the work. When I was a child, the comic series Classics Illustrated was held up as an example for the potential of introducing great works of literature to children. Sax Rohmer’s Dope by Trina Robbins is what Classics Illustrated could have achieved if they had displayed the courage to create comics for adults.
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