Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #161 by Drew Barth
History in graphic novels is always interesting to behold. We’re given that midway point of intimacy between written accounts and documentaries—the interplay between visuals and words that comics does so well gives us that time and space other mediums can lack. And this is proven even more so with works like Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs, & the CIA by Stewart Kenneth Moore. This fictionalized history of Project MK-Ultra dives into the era of the project in all its psychedelic horror with the unflinching eye of a journalist digging up the most putrid dirt.
Seymour Phillips is a writer for the San Francisco Examiner in the early 1970s—a struggling journalist trying to find the story that could finally make his career, which he thinks he has in the drug trafficking arrest of Ronald Stark. Stark, caught with a kilogram of LSD (equivalent to about ten million doses), has been arrested before, but was bailed out by someone with tenuous connections to the CIA. From there, Phillips’ life takes a drastic dip as he’s falsely caught with enough pot to send him to prison and enough time away to make him a pariah in most circles. But an unnamed man leaving him clues propels him back to the story that nearly ruined his life. As Seymour learns more about the classified Project MK-Ultra, we see more of the project’s history and the nonchalant misery enacted by the men at its helm.
But then we don’t know how much in this history is true or false. MK-Ultra has long been the realm of the conspiracy theorist, even when it was acknowledged as a real project the 70s. Due to the destruction of many of the project’s documents, not much is known outside of rumor, conjecture, and the scant surviving files that brought to light the CIA’s efforts to develop their own methods of mind control. This, however, is what comics can do best. By observing what may have occurred—the bits and pieces we can glean from the people who had lived through it—we can start to understand the magnitude of its scale and how people were affected. And while we can never know everything that happened as a result of the project, we can get a glimpse of the possibilities and the horrors of it.
Unflinching in its intentions, Project MK-Ultra is the kind of graphic novel that brings what we know about a shady past to the forefront, but gives it to us wrapped in a story and a protagonist we want to follow as the horrors unfold.
Get excited. Get dosed.