Trina Robbins started serializing her comic, “Dope,” in the pages of “Eclipse Magazine” in 1981. She had adapted it from an old pulp novel by British writer, Sax Rohmer — a man most famous for creating Fu Manchu, the evil and racist Asian super villain. (You’ll probably recognize the mustache.) The novel Dope was written in 1919 and based on the story of Billie Carlson, a British actress who died of a cocaine overdose at 22. Rohmer took liberties with the story, setting it in the London Chinatown, embellishing it with weird trips, a conspiracy with the international drug trade, and finally peppering it with his bizarre perception of foreign people. Robbins happened to stumble upon it in a box of discounted books.
“Back in 1970 or 1971, there was this science fiction bookstore in San Francisco that was closing down,” Robbins told me over the phone. “So they had a sale where every book was one dollar. How could I resist? I was looking through the boxes when it jumped out at me. Dope! Just that big title. Now, Sax Rohmer was this wonderfully pulpy early 20th century writer and I had read some of his other work, so I decided to give it a chance.”
It wasn’t until many years that Robbins finally made it to the novel. “If you’re like me and tend to read a lot, you tend to have a large pile of books. I generally read the one on top then donate it to the library or somewhere before I move on to the next one.”
Around the same time, Dean Mullaney and Catherine Yronwode at Eclipse Comics approached Robbins, asking if there was anything she wanted to contribute to an upcoming black-and-white anthology they were putting together, called, appropriately, “Eclipse Magazine.” Robbins had been searching for material for them and with “Dope,” she thought she finally found the perfect project.
“Dean and Cat, they were very nice people, and very inclusive,” Robbins said. “They invited me in. Not everyone invited me into their books in those days. The underground was not too fond of me, but Eclipse was more middle ground. They weren’t mainstream, nor were they all wacky sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. They did real stories.”
“Dope” is definitely a doozy of a book. It tells the story of a young actress who gets deeply involved in the opium underworld and the schemes of an international drug dealer and his deadly assistant, Mrs. Sin. Robbins clearly had a blast delivering this story with crazy plot twists and over-the-top emotions; there are more than a few wild and unpredictable sequences rendered under her pen.
Originally from Queens, New York, Trina Robbins moved to the Bay Area, where she discovered the underground comix scene. This was the time R. Crumb was deep into his “Zap Comix.” However, though she was persistent and remained one of the few female cartoonists working in the scene because of her gender, Robbins was unable to find much work or success there. She eventually discovered the feminist newspaper, It Ain’t Me Babe, and began creating comics for its pages. In 1970, she joined Barbara Mendes and they created the first all-women comic book, “It Ain’t Me Babe Comix.” It was only a single issue, but featured a wide breadth of talent — Lisa Lyons, Meredith Kurtzman, Nancy Kalis — and was allowed to be a pure expression of their attitudes. Robbins never cared if their art was totally perfect, as long as they told something important to them.
A couple years after it was released, she was approached by the publisher asking for more. She started to work on what would become “Wimmen’s Comix,” although it wouldn’t have that title until nearly the very end of its run. This anthology lasted from 1972 to 1992 and through 17 issues.
“Dope” was created in the middle of that. “It was sheer pulp and serialization,” Robbins told me about the original novel. “I wanted to do it because I’m a lover of old movies, old books, and pulps. Total fan of the old stuff. Vintage clothing and all that. This was my chance to do something toward that.Continued below
“And it wasn’t that much a challenge to do serialized because the book was already divided into its chapters.”
“Dope” ran in “Eclipse Magazine” #2-8 and “Eclipse Monthly” #1-3.
One of the things that Robbins decided to keep when she created the comic was Sax Rohmer’s racist attitudes, especially toward Chinese people. Rohmer was very much part of the “Yellow Peril”, a 19th century xenophobic panic and justification of colonialism that essentially claimed Asian people were a danger to the Western world. Robbins elected to keep this intact, for one, because it was honest to the original material and gave context to the horrible way people behaved at the time; that panic was part of why the story existed in the first place. She also maintained these uncomfortable elements because, she told me, “The whole story is based on that! You can’t have a story without the Sins or Kazman. I couldn’t do it without them. That’s what the book is!
“But it still has to be talked about. I’m writing an introduction for the collection where I’m talking about it. Really, talking about the racism of the time.”
Robbins also feels that readers will be able to separate the material from its source or its creator, that they will be able to see it as a relic of a bygone era and maybe appreciate the lengths society has grown.
“To start with, there’s nothing relevant to now, which is why it’s fun,” she said. “It’s not a look at what things were really like in 1919, but what some people may have believed they were like. These kind of stories were never based off of what they saw, but what they read in the pulps. It would be terrible to live in a time of stereotypical Chinese people or evil vamp women. No one is actually stupid enough to write or say this kind of stuff now. Not even Donald Trump would be stupid enough to say this. So I think people can enjoy it as a horrific nightmare fantasy.
“When I did ‘Dope’ for Eclipse, I was always hoping they would collect it. But they never did and never could,” Robbins said.
Eclipse Comics unfortunately had to close its doors following a string of bad luck, including a flood in 1986 that wiped out a significant portion of its back issues, Yronwode and Mullaney’s divorce, the collapse of the direct market distribution system in the early ’90s, and a “problematic deal” with HarperCollins that fell apart. They were forced to cease operations in 1994 before finally filing for bankruptcy in 1995. And “Dope,” like so many of the other great independent and underground comics of the time, fell off the face of the map, with most completed copies of it disappearing into Robbin’s archives.
“And then, Drew Ford, an editor at Dover contacted me. They were reprinting older comics and thought it would be perfect for what they were doing.”
Drew Ford may be best known as the creator of “Caliber,” but he has also worked as a publisher, editor, writer, and
illustrator for dozens of different comics and collections. In 2016 Ford launched his new imprint, It’s Alive!, in partnership with IDW. It’s Alive!’s continual goal has been to publish great comics that have been out of print for some time. “Dope” was one of the projects he brought along with him. It should be the second title released through the imprint.
“A few years ago, I was looking through old issues of ‘Eclipse Monthly’ for a little known story by Marshall Rogers when I came across these episodes of ‘Dope’ by Trina Robbins,” Ford told me. “I remembered seeing these a few years after they had first come out, and how different it was from everything else I was looking at. I was determined, at that point, to someday collect it.
“It worked itself out from there.”
In order to help the book see the light, Ford turned to Kickstarter. “It’s just a necessary step to raise the funds to make these books a reality.” Nothing, however, has been on this scale for Ford.
“It’s tricky because to do something like this, you first have to see if the creator even controls the rights. Luckily, all the stories in Eclipse Monthly were creator owned, but next you have to check with the creator to see if they’re even interested in collecting the work. Again, I was lucky because Trina was excited by the idea of collecting ‘Dope,’” Ford said. “I was lucky about that. But then, you have to figure out how you will reproduce the work, either from the original art or the original comics. Since Trina no longer had all the original artwork, we had to reproduce it from the comics. But we had a small hurdle to jump:Continued below
“‘Dope’ was first serialized in ‘Eclipse Magazine,’ followed by its continued serialization in ‘Eclipse Monthly.’ The thing is, ‘Eclipse Magazine’ was a black-and-white magazine-sized anthology, while ‘Eclipse Monthly’ was a full color comic book-sized anthology. Therefore, after deciding we wanted it presented in the original black-and-white magazine-sized format for the collection, we had to figure out how to drop out the color and totally resize those pages from ‘Eclipse Monthly.’
“I’m still working on this part right now. It’s going to look great!”
For Robbins, the prospect of seeing “Dope” all put together is beyond exciting, and, like she mentioned, something she had been looking forward to since she started working on it. “I haven’t seen it all finished and collected together, but I know I will love it,” she said. “I did go through it again to get it ready for this collection, but I can’t wait to see it complete.”
The collection will also feature a forward from Iron Circus Comics’s C. Scott Trotman and an afterward by Colleen Duran.
I asked Robbins what it was like revisiting the story now and what she thought of it as she was getting it all set and ready to go.
“It holds up,” she replied. “I can’t wait till people see it again.”
Both Trina Robbins and Drew Ford have been deeply invested in getting this project funded and brought to life. Although they haven’t even been able to share many stories (side note: it’s always worth searching for Trina Robbins stories; she has tons of them and they’re all fascinating), Ford told me, “I hope once we have successfully funded the Kickstarter, and can relax a bit, Trina and I will chat more about our love of comics and related experiences.”
For the Kickstarter rewards, Ford has arranged to sell some of the original artwork. “It’s been awesome to make a few of those original pages of art from 1981 of ‘Dope’ available to Trina’s fans,” he said.
Robbins admits to feeling “very low” about having to pass it on. “It might be the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “I really perfected my art in the ’80s and I think I adapted the whole thing very successfully. Put real visuals to the characters. But it’s the realities now of getting something like this put out.”
In recent years, Robbins has retired from drawing, focusing her attention instead on writing and editing other books. Fantagraphics recently released “The Complete Wimmen’s Comix” and Robbins makes her rounds on the convention circuit, delivering talks about forgotten, under-appreciated, and influential female cartoonists like Nell Brinkley and Tarpé Mills. She has this enormous legacy and profound influence; seeing a work from the mid-point of her career brought back to life is a treat.