Graphic Content; LSD, the CIA and 2000AD. Stewart Kenneth Moore on his new graphic novel PROJECT MK-ULTRA and his love of comics
PROJECT MK-ULTRA, Stewart Kenneth Moore’s new graphic history of a particular moment in the history of the CIA is one of those stranger-than-fiction stories that is hard to believe. It takes in LSD, the counter-culture and some very strange Black Ops. Based on a film script by Brandon Beckner and Scott Sampila, the result is a mad, kaleidoscopic vision of visionaries and villains that speaks to the conspiracy theorist in all of us.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Scotland, Moore has worked for 2000AD and is also a painter and an actor. Here he talks about the darker side of the 1960s, Shakespeare and the subversive power of comics.
LSD, hippies, San Francisco, the CIA – What’s the story behind PROJECT MK-ULTRA?
In the 1950s the CIA tried to develop an all-purpose mind control drug. They bought the entire global stock of LSD from Sandoz labs in Switzerland and set up a number of illegal mind-control projects to secretly test on the general public. MKUltra had numerous directives or “sub-projects”, such as seeking a truth serum or the creation of the perfect assassin, or “Manchurian Candidate”. A person who could carry out an order, such as an assassination, but later have no memory of it.
They secretly tested the general public, students, hospital patients and prisoners. Some people, such as Jerry Garcia and Ken Kesey, found it inspirational.
Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) retreated to his cabin, a changed man after he was reportedly subjected to tests. Ken Kesey was also affected and what followed was a massive countercultural revolution in the early 1960s California.
How much of the story should we take as gospel?
The truth in this story is stranger than the fiction we use to tell it.
A Nazi doctor, Kurt Plotner, who was involved in human experimentation in the death camps of World War Two was on the CIA payroll.
Our focus is “Operation Midnight Climax”. In this case the CIA set up a brothel in San Francisco and hired prostitutes to drug clients while agents filmed them behind two-way mirrors. The aim was to test these people for suggestibility, compromise them and perfect methods of information gathering.
Anyone interested in the history can download the 1977 US senate report into “human behavioural modification”. It’s mind-blowing reading.
Why did you want to turn it into a graphic novel?
It’s a hilarious script, with larger-than life-villains and it was all based on a surreal US Cold-War history that nobody seems to know anything about. It also spans two eras of American life, two Americas: the 1950s and the late 1960s. In drawing it, I could explore both and show how one American mindset became the other. In fact, it many ways it was the attempt to weaponise LSD that lit the torch-paper of the countercultural revolution in California in the 1960s. Two sides of the American mind that runs from control to mind-expansion. What’s not to like?
Two friends of mine, Brandon Beckner and Scott Sampila, wrote the original film script, under this title. I could see immediately it would be a great basis for a graphic novel. It was a spy story, but a really strange and insidious one. It would allow me to run rampant with surreal images. I could immediately see what I could do with the scenes depicting psychosis. The subject matter lends itself to the medium of comics, I think. The unbridled visual possibilities of various mind control experiments were exciting. But so was the era, it’s various players and characters in San Francisco in the mid-1950s and late 1960s.
What kind of research did you have to do?
I researched everything from underground publications, to spycraft, burlesque history, the history of San Francisco, the underground comic scene, the music scene. I dropped in significant figures and places into my panels. I looked at everything that I could. I discovered many interesting things about San Francisco that many residents wouldn’t know. When I learned something new, I’d go back and add it. I learned about “Friday of the Purple Hand”, an early gay-rights protest in which the Hearst office building was vandalised. I have a prominent drawing of the facade of that building that shows up early in the story, so I went back and painted the graffiti on the walls. Little hand-prints.
I learned about the Native American takeover of Alcatraz, so I drew a group of native people heading out to the island like Washington crossing the Delaware.
I learned about the Zodiac killer who terrorised the city in that era. So, I tried to hint at the fear and paranoia that descended on the city. I studied what was on TV at that time, so I could have reasonably accurate broadcasts running in the background.
How easy is it to draw an LSD trip?
I’ve never taken psychoactive drugs, but in 1968 in Los Angeles, at birth, I had a complete blood-transfusion — maybe there was something in the blood that triggered something, because I’m never stuck for visual effects ideas. I spoke to many people who had experienced LSD, in one case someone who took acid synthesised by Owsley Stanley, the famous hippy chemist. It seems there can be a massive disruption of perception, but it’s not always the case.
The experience is very personalised, so who is to say what anyone might see or feel?
I watched a film of a woman describing the effect of LSD as she experienced it and what she said seemed to chime with one of my drawings.
The tests involved other powerful psychoactive drugs too like DMT. So, I don’t mind that my “trips” might be wilder than the real thing since they just as easily could be the effect of unknown cocktails.
What was the weirdest thing you find yourself drawing?
Τhere are a couple of pages in which I try and convey the point of view of the victim in which their body parts are the outside of the frame, and their observational field of view is the centre, like a hole in a big field of “you”. The inverse of what we know to be reality, but also, sort of like the edges of our actual vision. The edges of the eye sockets, the nose, the way our arms noodle out from the sides of our vision, we screen these things out. If we never had mirrors, or others to compare ourselves to, we could convince ourselves that we are like donuts, rings of matter with a consciousness at the centre where the hole is.
Drawing the soft contours of a woman’s face, making it work with hard edged blocks was probably the strangest thing. In one scene we see the face of the actress Sharon Tate. But her face is made of a vast field of cubes and blocks. It took about two weeks before I knew it was working. I wasn’t sure for 14 days or so if I was wasting my time.
What visual influences fed into the book?
I leaned toward E C Comics “Weird Science” stylings with the opening laboratory scene when Dr Albert Hoffman accidentally ingests a new compound and discovers LSD. That style quickly evolves into everything from Picasso to American underground comics styles. Overall, I aimed for a comics style that felt both mainstream and underground 1960s.
How did you start working in comics?
With great difficulty! I did a comic strip for the English language paper The Prague Post, they were looking for a cartoon and I pitched them MORRIS MULE: Taxidermist. I wrote and illustrated it for two years while working on much slower painting commissions. I then started working for The Wall Street Journal doing editorial illustration, my cartoons got picked up by Esquire at that time. Much later David Lloyd, co-creator of V for Vendetta, published me in Aces Weekly. Pat Mills thought the horror style of the Aces piece might work for Defoe, Pat Mills’s 17th-century zombie-hunter set in an alternative London.
My London is a fusion of the streets of Glasgow and Prague. One scene calls for Defoe to charge out of London’s Aldgate. I looked up old drawings and found the city gateway looked similar to parts of Glasgow city chambers. Glasgow Necropolis and the graveyard on Rutherglen Main Street doubled for the graveyards at Bedlam. But I found “The Palace of Lunatics” looked strikingly similar to a chateau in Prague. So, my vision of old clock-punk London is a melding of post-industrial Glasgow and Baroque-era Prague.
I do cover art for 2000AD these days.
You’ve also collaborated with someone called William Shakespeare?
Hah. That’s right. The Tragedie of Macbeth. In 2016 I created a very stark black-and-white graphic novel based on my friends at The Prague Shakespeare Company. They do a very sinister version of Macbeth, and I drew them as though they were not on stage but in places I half-remembered and half-imagined from my years growing up in Scotland. The beaches at Balmedie and Nairn. The rocky outcrops at Bennachie. My book came out in 2016 and I strove for a very original take. The new Coen film has some striking similarities to my work.
Clover Press will be releasing a new version of my Macbeth later this year, in a different format with new pages of art by me.
And when you’re not making comics you do a bit of acting.
Yes, most recently in season two of Wheel of Time. The film industry is getting back on its feet now. It was liberating after all this covid isolation. The isolation never bothered me, I like my own company and I always have a backlog of drawings to do. But to be away in the wilds on horseback again and in the middle of the night, was like one of those dreams of flying.
This is the first volume of Project MKUltra. What are your future plans?
Volume two is the darker second half and concludes the story. It will be published this summer from Clover Press. I have two new dust jackets to design for the indiegogo campaigns. You can buy MKULTRA from any bookstore but only the special edition comes with the limited-edition dust jacket. Each dust jacket will have a unique optical effect.
What makes comics a great medium for storytelling?
Well, for example it aids understanding with Shakespeare’s English. Who would know what a “bodkin” is in this day and age? We miss a lot because the language is old English, and it is often spoken rather quickly on stage. So, you can very easily lose your grasp on the meaning of a scene. But in my comics, I can isolate text in a panel and If I draw a bodkin in the same panel in which the text mentions the bodkin my readers will instantly associate the image and word and have complete understanding of what a bodkin is. The comic strip allows direction like a film, but unlike a film, you can stop and re-read the page to better understand meaning.
Who are your heroes in the field?
I have so many it’s not even funny. One very great example to me was the Orcadian artist Jim Baikie, not only a great artist and teacher, father and husband and friend, to me, but a great example of a man.
Otherwise among artists my heroes in my teens were Jean Giraud aka Moebius and the horror artist Bernie Wrightson. Richard Corben, Tanino Liberatore, R Crumb, Jack Davis, Al Feldstein, Johnny Craig, Gilbert Shelton, Wallace Wood, Brian Bolland, Carlos Ezquerra, Mick McMahon, Dave Gibbons, Davis Lloyd, Paul Kirchner, Daniel Clowes…and on and on…
Among writers, Alan Moore, Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Frank Miller etc etc.
I love comics. Most comics are spandex comics, a genre that supports the industry, but also eclipses a lot of the breadth of storytelling this medium can bring. 2000AD has done a good job of largely avoiding superheroes.
I really think sequential art is one of the great subversive arts. Pictures and words are terribly dangerous and all you need is a pen, paper and maybe a photocopier to convey at a glance any idea.
PROJECT MK-ULTRA: Sex, Drugs and the CIA is published by Clover Press. For more details visit indiegogo.com