4/20 Special: A Complete History Of ‘Fastlane,’ Marvel’s Amazing Anti-Marijuana Comic
If you were reading Marvel Comics in 1999, you read Fastlane. For four solid months, it was absolutely unavoidable, an eight-page anti-marijuana insert that would pop up right in the middle of every single Marvel Comic to let you know about the dangers of weed, a drug that was glorified in the media and would lead users to a dangerous world of addiction and deadly hallucinations that was so over the top even the producers of Dragnet thought that maybe they should tone it down a little. And if you're a certain kind of person who was reading Marvel Comics in the '90s, you actually kind of love it.
I mean, I do. And that's why, with 4/20 and all its attendant celebrations coming up this weekend, it's time for a look back on what might actually be the highest circulating (and most bizarre) Marvel Comic of all time with a Complete Oral History of Fastlane, from artist Gregg Schigiel, Editor Steve Behling, Head of Marvel Creative Services Mike Thomas, and Senior Vice President for Strategic Promotions and Advertising John Fraser.
The weird thing about Fastlane -- well, let's be honest here, one of the many weird things about Fastlane, but probably the one everyone remembers -- is that it was absolutely everywhere. For four months, you couldn't avoid it. It was inserted into every single Marvel comic (and other places, which we'll get to in a second), and if you weren't paying attention, it was easy to miss that you'd suddenly sidestepped into a version of the Marvel Universe built on warning kids of the dangers of marijuana. Gregg Schigiel's art style wasn't far at all from the standard Marvel book of the time, and I have distinct memories of encountering Fastlane for the first (and second) time and thinking it was just a scene transition into a weird guest appearance by Spider-Man and some kids.
That, I think, is what earned Fastlane its reputation as something the fans, particularly adult fans, hated: it interrupted the story to give them life advice that they didn't really feel they needed. It wasn't uncommon for people, even people who normally kept their comics in pristine condition, to just tear the eight pages of Fastlane out of each one -- even, on occasion, the creators. Hilariously, I'm almost certain that it even interrupted the Daredevil run by celebrity pothead Kevin Smith.
But the other thing about Fastlane is that it's just so darn weird, and it hit at such a strange time for Marvel and for me as a comics reader, that it's impossible for me to not have more than a little nostalgia for it. I mean, just by its very nature, it's a propaganda comic that's trying to teach kids to watch out for hidden propaganda in media, and I'm pretty sure that particular irony was not lost on the creators. More than that, though, the actual events of the comic are just so strange that it's become one of those things I've obsessed over for 15 years. I even had conversations with occasional CA contributor David Wolkin about plans to get custom-bound copies of Fastlane made.
Turns out, I didn't need to bother. Last year, Marvel did it themselves in a truly bizare paperback called Spider-Man Fights Substance Abuse, a title that makes it sound like Spider-Man himself is, well, fighting his own problem with substance abuse. It collects all the anti-drug PSA comics that their flagship web-slinger has been involved with over the years. It's a weird, weird book, to, for reasons that include the following appearing on the table of contents:
I only just now realized that this is a note explaining that the creators of the actual anti-smoking comic called "Spider-Man, Storm and Power Man (Battle Smokescreen)" are unknown, but for a while I thought they were actually saying they didn't know who created those three characters.
Fastlane, though, remains the centerpiece of the book. I met Gregg Schiegiel, now the host of the Stuff Said podcast and artist of Spongebob Comics, last year, and when he mentioned that he had been the artist of Fastlane, I lost my mind and begged him to tell me everything there was to know about the project. He did, including providing commentary from other people involved in the project.
How It Came Together
Gregg Schigiel: I was an assistant editor at Marvel at the time, and I'd drawn some issues of What If? and maybe by then an issue of Generation X, and was looking for more opportunities to draw. I met the gang in Marvel Creative Services, which was the department that handled licensed products, style guide art, custom comics and things of that nature. We got along, they liked my work, and there was work there; not comics, per se, but drawing superheroes, for sure. I think one of the first things I did with them was a piece for the Spider-Man Monopoly game…or possibly a milk ad. At some point they offered me this Spider-Man story, an anti-drug story in conjunction with the White House ONDCP (Office of National Drug Control Policy), which was a big deal project spearheaded by John Fraser (then Senior VP for Strategic Promotions and Advertising), and Steve Behling, the original editor on it (he then left to work at Disney Adventures magazine) (they also developed the overall story).
They explained the job involved drawing a poster image and four 8-page chapters, and that this thing was going to appear EVERYWHERE. And not just in every single Marvel Comic (every other month for four months), but in Boy's Life, Girl's Life, National Geographic World, a magazine called Muse… and I'm sure other places I can't remember (in the magazine versions they're on slick magazine paper, which was cool). Basically the circulation was going to be massive, the estimate being around 11 million, which if I'm not mistaken is more than the monster circulations of Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man #1 and Chris Claremont and Jim Lee's X-Men #1.
John Fraser: [Fastlane] was commissioned by the White House Office of Drug Control Policy as part of a media campaign to educate youth about becoming media literate and understand and manage the messages in the market that might negatively influence their choices (specifically with drugs). It was the only comic ever to be published (serially in 4 parts in this case) in multiple kid-oriented magazines (Marvel Comics, Boys Life, Scholastic, Sports Illustrated for Kids and several other leading boy/girl kids publications) reaching a combined circulation in the multimillions (unheard of today).
Gregg Schigiel: And on top of that, because it wasn't Marvel editorial and had its own budget, the page rate was MUCH better and I got to pick my inker. I asked them to ask Richard Case -- who had inked Mike Wieringo (who I admired a great deal) for years and I worked with Rich as an assistant -- and Rich was on board. Rounding out the team were Glenn Herdling, who wrote the script based on the story developed in-house, Paul Mounts was the colorist, and Chris Dickey lettered it. I worked closely with Mike Thomas, who was the head of Creative Services at the time, as well (he wasn't credited as the editor, but for all intents and purposes he kinda was).
Steve Behling: Glenn [Herdling] was hired to do the script for this story. I was working with John [Fraser] on getting the story approved both by the ad agency (blanking on the guy's name...Bill something?) and the ONDCP. We were close, and then I left Marvel early April of 1999, and Michael Stewart came on board and finished editing the book.
I remember John and I having to fly to Boston on a Friday night to attend a media conference that encompassed the specific approach we were supposed to take, the types of messages we were meant to "expose" when we produced the comic. (It was a very long day.)
John Fraser: The story was developed by Steve Behling along with an unnamed/uncredited secret ghost writer (a superhero in a suit and a Marvel silk tie) named John Fraser who helped balance the communication of a required message for the White House with the absolute need to protect the brands (Spidey, Fantastic Four, Mysterio?) and deliver a good story for readers. Of course, that secret co-writer was instead illustrated into the comic itself as a character with an unusually large cranium which Chris Dickey and Mike Thomas claim I have. They mistook my intellect for my hat size.
The Drug Stuff
Gregg Schigiel: I'd never done any drugs… still haven't, so really, the drug stuff was quite foreign to me. I wasn't so sheltered to not be aware of it… I grew up seeing Cheech & Chong movies… knew stoners, certainly (I went to college), but my direct personal experience wasn't much more than "What's that smell?". My ignorance was such that I consulted with others for reference (this was in the days before simple internet image searches). I distinctly remember asking one of the guys in the Marvel bullpen to describe what a bowl might look like and worked up some sketches as he pointed out what looked right or wrong, and almost like a police sketch artist I worked up the bowl that Sam Exmore is so very attached to in the story.
There were very specific notations on the scripts that we couldn't show Sam, or anyone, actually smoking. Smoke, pot leaves, holding the bowl, those were all fine, but no visual representations of actual smoking/inhaling. So you'll notice there's plenty of smoke, but no smoking (there are also zero punches thrown in the whole story as well - more on that later).
Gregg Schigiel: The big hallucination panel in part 3 is ridiculous and I'm pretty sure at the time I knew it. None of us working on this comic were unaware of what we were doing. We knew it was a propaganda comic and we knew the (sometimes annoying and absurd) parameters. At the same time, I think we all worked to make a good comic within those parameters. But yeah, the panel description in the script (which I dug up) reads:
The stoned teenager swerves the Daily Bugle press van throughout the streets of Manhattan. The giant billboard images of Zane Whelan we saw at the beginning of the story are seen again, but seen to loom even larger (echoing the giant Mysterio that Spider-Man faced). The ads somehow seem to mock Sam, and in his drugged stupor it looks as though Zane Whelan is laughing at him from the billboard.
So the implication of a hallucination is there…I clearly took it beyond that into LSD territory (or what I imagine based on outside media, having never done that, either). But it's totally overblown, made-up, bogey man style "dangers of drugs" stuff; no question. Smokers seem to love all of it in it's overblown silliness.
John Fraser: I believe the comic is featured on ReeferMadnessMuseum.org as a testimony to the fear we struck into the hearts and hazy minds of this fine pro-pot organization.
Doing The Job
John Fraser: I think this one made Steve Behling melt down and dump his whole desktop on the floor because I walked in the room and told him to drop everything for an asset we needed to deliver for this comic.
Steve Behling: To John's point about my "meltdown," here's what happened: I was sitting at my desk early evening with a stack of overdue manuscripts from Byron Preiss (who were publishing the Marvel novels at the time), when John and Mike appeared at my office door, when John said what he said. With one arm, I swept everything off my desk and said, "Put it here, you have my full attention." I'm not sure if I kept a straight face for very long. Doubtful.
Gregg Schigiel: It was a great gig. I mean, there were some weird bits, like the word coming down that we couldn't show punches… that took some creative thinking for the fight scenes, particularly in part 3, where Spidey does a flip over Mysterio and the webs his feet to trip him up rather than just knock him out from the start. But I was drawing Spider-Man fighting Mysterio… and come part 4, Iron Man, Thor, She-Hulk, Captain America, Wolverine and the FF… and it did not bother me at all that it wasn't "the real Spider-Man" comic. It's part of what I liked about doing the Creative Services work, it was in a lot of ways very stripped down to hero/villain/superhero stuff (and in this case healthy doses of "Say No to Drugs"). I can still look at it and I'm pleased with the work I did… I think there's good drawing in there -- and when there wasn't Rich helped make it better -- and some pages I still think have really strong and dynamic layouts. I'm not ashamed or embarrassed by it in the least. I can still remember a lot about that time just looking at it (and maybe the non-drug use has helped in the memory department).
Steve Behling: As John [Fraser] mentioned, it was just a constant battle (let's be polite and call it "differences of opinion") to make sure that the Marvel characters stayed intact, acted the way they were supposed to, and still get the ONDCP's message across.
Mike Thomas: My only memory is that the White House office was SO politically correct that we had to change dialog where a truck driver was yelling out his window. They said we were stereotyping truck drivers.
Steve Behling: The "song" that appears in the second story? I wrote those "lyrics". I put that in quotes because of their awfulness. And yet, I'm proud of that. Irony!
Gregg Schigiel: Someone, I can't remember who, described it, I think during the second month, as the new Hostess Fruit Pie ad in how it was just everywhere and totally unavoidable. And it was unavoidable. Tom Brevoort and I were putting together the Avengers #1 1/2 issue (Roger Stern & Bruce Timm) at the time and we realized it was coming out during a "Fast Lane" month. Now, this was a comic that was supposed to look like it came out between Avengers #1 and #2 in the '60s -- a modern anti-drug comic would not fit that aesthetic. I went down to our manufacturing department and spoke to the people who dealt with such things and asked specifically that it not appear in that comic…I made it clear that I was the guy who drew it and even I didn't want it in there. I got the verbal "Okay, taken care of" and then, boom, there it was in the middle of that book. It was the only time seeing it in a comic upset me. I tore it out of my copy, for what that's worth.
Steve Behling: I also remember fan reaction at the time being… pretty much one would expect! I think everyone was a little unhappy about having all their comics for four months straight being invaded by our magnum opus.
Gregg Schigiel: Overall people didn't like seeing it. They complained that it interrupted the comic, that it was stupid, that they sometimes couldn't tell it wasn't the same story and got really confused… This was early in the growth of internet chat rooms and message board and people just hated that this thing was there… and I don't think it helped that it was every other month, so there'd be a month where it wasn't there and then, voilà, there it was again.
As a response to how annoyed people were, Chris Giarrusso (G-Man) - who was then working in the bullpen and doing his Bullpen Bits strips for the Bullpen Bulletins page - and I concocted a scheme to have the Fast Lane story interrupt Bullpen Bits, too, resulting in (attached) this comic referencing the Earth-X series out at the time and the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow drug storyline… a comic strip so steeped in references it surely doesn't hold up and, as a result and for good reason, doesn't get included in collections of Chris Giarrusso's Bullpen Bits/Mini Marvels work.
Gregg Schigiel: But in the years since it's been a pretty great credit, particularly if they were reading comics at that time, at the end of 1999/beginning of 2000 and they often admit to being annoyed by it… but always say it looked great, which is very nice to hear.
Though an argument could also be made that that I've not drawn mainstream superhero comics work since then… so maybe that's why I never got a call to work on Power Pack when that got reworked in the 2000s (my fandom of Power Pack was no secret during my time at Marvel)…
John Fraser: It was a fantastic team effort that I am still proud of today. We all did a tough job within tight constraints. The collective talent was impressive and I will pull out that old story and the poster that we did for it and show my 12 year old son tonight. My favorite part of telling the story was describing the climatic scene on the Brooklyn Bridge with Spidey hanging on to the van with an impossibly thin strand of webbing with all of his might.
Gregg Schigiel: The paperback collection Marvel put out, sadly, reprints the "saga" from scans of the printed comics, which is why pages look muddy and grainy. Apparently they couldn't find the original files or film. I'd like to think if someone had asked, say, me, I might've been able to pull that stuff together from folks who worked on it and kept good archives (if nothing else, I have the cleaner magazine editions which would have scanned so much better.
I was able to find in my files a newspaper article about the project, from the Wall Street Journal, no less!
Annotations by Gregg Schigiel
- - The girl with Zane Whelan was drawn and then I was asked to push her more toward the "heroin chic", run down and sickly look, hence the dark circles under the eyes (clearer in part 2) and stringy hair, etc.
- I still really like page 2, that four panel fight with giant Mysterio.
- - Page 4, panel 2, Jonah's first word balloon is there to cover a fist (another arm with a fist was removed entirely - scan attached)…the ONDCP felt it was too threatening (no punches!)
- Yes, that IS Chewbacca's bandolier attached to Peter Parker's messenger bag.
- In the background of panel 3 are Paul Tutrone and Brian Smith, who were fellow assistant editors at the time, and Tom Brevoort, to whom I was his assistant.
- Toni Harris, Daily Bugle intern, had different hair originally, straightened and pulled back in a ponytail (see same attached scan of the pencils). I was asked to change it to the pigtail puffs.
- The sticky notes on the computer have my brothers' names on them.
- Jonah had a cigar throughout which was also removed (and replaced with spittle).
- Page 6, Panel 3, in the background that's a bit of Clark Kent off to get Superman-y and Buffy and Giles looking at a computer monitor.
- - Page 2, Bob Lefferts, Zane Whelan's manager, is based on John Fraser, who put this whole project together on the business side. There was much fun had and made over how large I drew his head, especially in that first panel.
- Page 7, panel 3, the blue rectangle on the wall there originally was an "abstract" image of the pattern on Darth Maul's face (at the time I had put a Star Wars reference in every comic I'd drawn). Concern over it causing trouble legally got it nixed, though you can see a bit of it on page 8. It's particularly relevant now, what with Marvel and Star Wars now both owned by Disney.
- Speaking of Disney, I was drawing this around the time Disney's TARZAN came out, and that Spidey pose in panel 2 of page 8 was me trying to Tarzan it up a bit.
- - Page 5, the guy driving the truck (on the cell phone) is modeled - by request of someone in Creative Services - after B.J. McKay from the TV show B.J. & the Bear, about a trucker and his pet monkey.
- Page 7, that gargoyle in panel 1 does indeed have Greedo's head (covered in panel 3 to not overdo it or cause legal trouble).
- In Panel four, yeah, the Human Torch is way too large.
- Page 8, panel 1, that pose of Spider-Man dropping is based on my memory of a shot I remember from reruns of 1960's Spider-Man cartoon:
- Page 2, I'm gonna toot my own horn and say I still think this is a totally rad page and I'm pleased to say I drew it.
- Pages 4-5, the ad on the cab was my father's company at the time. Just above that, there's a Spider-Man type girl who's saving a kid…that was a version of Spider-Girl that Marvel's Creative Services was working on at the time, that if memory serves, I helped design. I'm not sure what the endgame there was (clearly something licensing-related), but I only ever drew here here and as a kind of paper doll cut-out type thing, which I think was meant for presentation purposes. In perfect late '90s fashion she has a bare midriff and capri pants. Surprisingly, no one in the crowd is based on anyone as far as I can recall/recognized.
Special thanks to John Fraser, Steve Behling, Mike Thomas and especially Gregg Schigiel for their cooperation with this extensive article.