Add to the list of things about which I’m a self-avowed geek, Comic Books, which I read as a kid, of course, but started reading again as an adult about thirty years ago when I was living in North Carolina. I was one of the music buyers for a chain of record stores headquartered there called Record Bar (now defunct) and as a result got virtually every new release LP (remember albums?). After I listened to them, the ones I didn’t keep or give to co-workers I traded in at a local used book store to feed my reading habit. The store also carried comic books, which were just coming back into vogue with independent publishers that produced more mature and adult-themed story lines, and it reignited my passion for graphic storytelling. I still read a few titles today, and there are some wonderful writers that every bit the equal of print, such as Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Scott McCloud and Terry Moore, to name just a few.
Of course, some comic books, especially those in the 1960s and 70s, just plain sucked — bad writing, hokey plots, bad drawing and even worse publishing on cheap newsprint quality paper. There was a whole genre at that time (perhaps there still is) of comics books with “messages” for young people trying to use a child’s medium to teach them life lessons. I guess the idea was that they would want to read a comic book no matter what its content or quality and would fall for getting it’s message, be it stay off drugs, STDs or other “health” issues. Many used fake superheroes made up just for the message comic. There’s a great archive of these in Canada called Comics With Problems. Some of them are just hilarious, and they all remind me of Reefer Madness-style propaganda in comic form. But one stood out, and that was the exploits of Captain Al Cohol. Capt. Al Cohol, or “Al” to his friends, was produced in 1973 by the Canadian government of the Northwest Territories and targeted the Inuit (or Eskimo) people to teach them the dangers of alcoholism. It’s typical of genre, and unintentionally hilarious in places where it’s not supposed to be. Whether or not it was effective it doubtful, in my opinion.
That’s not to make light of the very serious alcoholism that was common with Native Americans since we invaded their shores and our ancestors committed genocide. There’s actually a recent theory to explain why alcoholism percentages are higher among Native Americans, and it has to do with evolution and when man began to settle down in the fertile crescent. Alcohol — a crude form of unhopped beer — was more than likely the initial reason that civilization sprang up and man began cultivating grains. As it was often safer than the water, people who could tolerate larger amounts of beer tended to survive to pass their genes along. Simply put, you and I are here because our distant relatives could tolerate alcohol. But some archeologists believe that Native Americans did not have the same line of ancestry and therefore did not build up a tolerance for alcohol that the descendants of Europe and the Middle East did. And it’s thought that it’s for that reason that many Native Americans have had difficulties over the centuries with alcohol.
Captain Al Cohol is a being from another world who crashed on Earth and was frozen in ice for one million years, until some Inuit peoples from Fish Fiord [sic] defrosted him. He’s so strong he makes people “shiver in their Kamiks.” After being subdued, a doctor gives him so medicinal rum and it turns out that alcohol is his Kryptonite.
One sip and Capt. Al Cohol goes stumbling around the Arctic until frozen again, he’s captured by the leather-skinned Billy Vermin, the “diabolically cruel, rum-running, fur snatching enemy of the people of Fish Fiord.” The comic portrays a single glass of rum as having the power to enslave a person while even their own rhetoric explains that alcoholism “creeps up on its victims and grows slowly but surely worse.” But is has that Reefer Madness vibe of danger from just one sip that’s common to all this type of propagandist literature.
A second story, “The Tale of the Fiery Tomb” then has Capt. Al recount his origin story. He’s from the planet of Barkela, millions of light years away. Their society was nearly Utopian with no wars … “but try as [they] might — [their] civilization could never learn to control the use of alcohol!” Gadzooks! Al ashamedly continues how “after dark one day [he] returned home drunk to find [his] wife and children …” — it’s too terrible to tell, I can hardly re-type it, oh the humanity — they were “already in bed!” So Al decided he needed another drink and headed out to the “space van” — where else would stash your booze? — but on the way accidentally blew up his house, killing everyone inside. Wracked with guilt, he volunteered for a 10-year space exploration mission that crash-landed him in the Arctic. But then then the evil Ravenmen (bird men looking suspiciously like the Hawkmen in DC Comics) appeared as he was having his tea.
Apparently more issues were planned, but I can’t tell if they were ever published. Anybody have an idea what the symbol on Capt. Al’s costume is meant to be? I’m stumped. It appears to be a yellow chevron with a line at the bottom, but it doesn’t really look like anything alcohol-related.
Again, I’m not intentionally making fun of alcoholism, it is a terrible problem for many people (and one I’m intimately familiar with in my own life), but I’m pretty sure the transformation depicted here is not really how it works. I know their hearts were in the right place and were only trying to help, but propaganda this naked is too obvious to do any good, at least in my opinion. When you exaggerate the problems and effects of something to further an agenda or make a case, you damage that message. This is what neo-prohibitionists have done and continue to do in their efforts to convince the public that the worst case scenario is the average, ordinary result of alcohol consumption. It rarely is, of course, but you can’t scare people with the realities of moderate consumption by showing that problem drinkers constitute only a small minority of all people who consume alcohol. The vast majority drink responsibly but you never hear their stories. Moderation isn’t destroying our society, so neo-prohibitionists have to invent and embellish for effect and create imaginative fictions like Captain Al Cohol.