Sax Rohmer’s Dope
What a luscious cocktail of naughtiness! In the early 1980s, Trina Robbins adapted and serialized a terrible pulp novel from 1919 by Sax Rohmer (who created Fu Manchu, and whose ridiculous ideas about foreigners corrupting the English are similarly on display here). This collected edition of Sax Rohmer’s Dope is the first reprint of the work.
It’s the story of a young actress who becomes addicted to drugs provided by a racist Asian caricature and his wife, Mrs. Sin, a jealous “Cuban Jewess”. Rita began taking drugs to combat stage fright. Cocaine and sleeping pills lead to opium for “novel experience” among the dissolute upper class.
In search for more thrills, she visits the worst part of town, jeopardizing her engagement to a rich, powerful man and winding up in debt. The story is full of random bits of exoticism to titillate the reader, who most likely knew nothing real about any of this.
Robbins’ precise art style and the heavy chunks of dialogue reinforce the period setting of the four- to six-page chapters. I thought it would make everything more remote, but it sucked me in quickly, particularly with the clothing detail. There are some odd bits I really liked, as when a lady doctor tells her cousin he’s unwittingly smoking a cigarette laced with opium, or the vicious Pekingese that appears later on to track the villain.
There’s a foreword by C. Spike Trotman, an introduction by Robbins where she explains the genesis of the project, an afterword by Colleen Doran, and a 14-page essay by Jon B. Cooke to fill out the 50-some comic pages into a bigger book. As Trotman writes in her piece,
You won’t find a better porthole into early 20th century anxieties. Wanton women, foreign menaces, junk-sick housewives, the theater. And, of course, murder.
Cooke’s essay tells us of the drug-fueled death of 22-year-old ingénue Billie Carleton in London in 1918, an event that reportedly inspired this quickly written novel, as well as expounding on brief histories of the various drugs mentioned, the Limehouse slum setting, and a history of the “yellow peril” and stereotypes about “Chinamen”. It really fleshes out the story.
There are preview pages (and more information on the project’s history) available at the Kickstarter campaign page for the project. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)