It’s the final quarter of 2018, and everything’s coming up Spider-Man.
We’ve seen so many reboots and incarnations of Spider-Man, it’s impossible to not be familiar with at least one version of the web-slinger comic giant. We’ve also been introduced to enough of Spider-Man’s universe—from Fox Kids’ 90’s animated television show to the numerous film reboots that have surfaced in last two decades—to familiarize us with his multiple rivals.
Venom, Vulture, Mysterio, Scorpion, Rhino, Shocker … there are handfuls of badies that Spider-Man has fought through his comic books, shows, movies, and video games. But, a lesser-known Spider-Man villain (and probably the worst of all) seemed to be an herb we called “marijuana.”
The White House, Radioactive Spiders, and Cannabis
If you were an avid comic book reader between 1999 and 2000, you may remember Marvel Comics’ Fastlane, a four-part story arc that involved Peter Parker warding off the influence of cannabis from a Daily Bugle intern named Sam Exmore—while also warning its audience of the dangers of smoking weed.
This four-part arc was placed in multiple Marvel Comics titles every other month, contributing eight pages in the dead center of over 60 ongoing comics. In addition to Marvel’s own comics, according to artist Gregg Schigiel, magazines such as Boy’s Life, Girl’s Life, National Geographic World, Schoolastic, Sports Illustrated For Kids, and more also published the comic arc.
The estimated circulation for the series was roughly 11 million.
The White House had commissioned Marvel for an anti-weed story arc as part of a media campaign to educate youth.
This comic book arc was funded by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy as a part of an anti-drug campaign specifically targeting cannabis. Fastlane followed a movie star named Zane Whelan, who promoted the use of cannabis in the form of a “cool guy” idolized by children—but mostly Daily Bugle intern Sam Exmore. The story follows Spider-Man and Peter Parker exposing the harms of toking up to teach Sam that his idol is basically a loser who partakes in a dangerous habit.
Sound familiar? Saved By The Bell did a similar story arc in the 1991 episode “No Hope With Dope.”
Fastlane was split into four parts: “Media Blitz!,” “Feel the Rush!,” “On the Edge” and “Back on Target.” Gregg Schigiel worked on the comic book as an artist, while Steve Behling worked as its editor. John Fraser, Senior Vice President for Strategic Promotions and Advertising for Marvel, was in charge of putting the entire thing together. In a detailed interview with Comics Alliance, Schigiel recalled being approached by editor Steve Behling and told of a project spearheaded by John Fraser, explaining that the White House had commissioned Marvel for an anti-weed story arc as part of a media campaign to educate youth and understand how marketing can negatively influence choices.
Hard Rules and … Smoking Without Smoking?
Glenn Herdling was hired to craft the story’s script, working alongside the White House ONDCP (Office of National Drug Control Policy), complying to the office’s every need and request. Behling and Fraser were flown to Boston to attend a conference in which they were explained the story essentials they needed to convey and produce.
“I distinctly remember asking one of the guys in the Marvel bullpen to describe what a bowl might look like and worked up some sketches as he pointed out what looked right or wrong, and almost like a police sketch artist, I worked up the bowl that Sam Exmore is so very attached to in the story.
There were very specific notations on the scripts that we couldn’t show Sam, or anyone, actually smoking. Smoke, pot leaves, holding the bowl, those were all fine, but no visual representations of actual smoking/inhaling. So you’ll notice there’s plenty of smoke, but no smoking.”
Illustrating smoke but “not smoking” was just one of the few nonsensical rules the White House gave Marvel concerning Spider-Man: Fastlane. Other rules included no punches (literally, no violence at all, despite Spider-Man having a showdown with Mysterio) and no signature cigar smoking for Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson. Mike Thomas, Head of Marvel Creative Services at the time, revealed that the White House was so politically correct, that dialog had to be changed concerning a truck driver who was yelling out of his window in one panel, to prevent the stereotyping of truck drivers.
Anything that could be deemed as scantly offensive was avoided for the sake of a clean, safe anti-marijuana PSA.
Of course, these rules aided in forming Fastlane’s terrible story. The comic follows Peter Parker and two new interns at the Daily Bugle, Toni Harris and Sam Exmore, as we watch Exmore track down his hero Zane Whelan for an interview, simply because he’s such a cool guy. Whelan is depicted as a Hollywood hot-shot who always wears a t-shirt with a cannabis leaf.
Hollywood’s Inconsistent Stoners and the “Cool Guy” Effect
Exmore’s character is a stoner teen who smokes pot only because Zane Whelan makes it look cool. However, Whelan’s pot smoking isn’t really depicted on any pages at all, and aside from his t-shirt, we’re not even led to believe Whelan smokes regularly.
Furthermore, adding to the story’s bizarre, loosely consistent beats, Mysterio seems to be the main bad guy in Fastlane, and his entire purpose in the comic is to eliminate those “who flaunt the image of Zane Whelan,” and Whelan himself.
In one scene, Mysterio grabs a Daily Bugle van with a crane, as the van shows Zane Whelan’s face displaying an advertisement for his new film Fastlane. The crane dangles the van in the air, and Peter Parker, Sam Exmore, and Toni Harris are within, terrified.
Readers are led to believe that smoking weed caused this over-the-top act.
Exmore almost falls to his death before Peter Parker manages to shoot some web fluid to catch him (without anyone seeing), but Exmore isn’t concerned with dying. He’s actually more concerned about losing his pipe—a pipe that looks more related to a crack pipe than a glass cannabis/tobacco pipe.
Later, when Exmore finally meets Whelan, Exmore is let down by the actor’s facade. Sam is upset that during Whelan’s music video shoot (the entire comic leads you to believe Whelan is a movie star, only to lead up to him shooting a music video for Fastlane, not an actual movie titled Fastlane) Whelan isn’t doing his own stunt work. This angers Exmore, who now believes his Hollywood hero is a fake.
Exmore tells off Whelan for being a phony who is just promoting an image for money.
Living On The Edge After the Exhale
Exmore then runs off the set and into the Daily Bugle van to smoke a ton of weed. “I can get that far out on the edge—even if the real Zane can’t!,” Exmore exclaims, hallucinating (seriously) from how much he’s smoked. He drives to the Brooklyn Bridge, gets out of the van, and begins walking along the edge of the bridge to “live dangerously.”
Readers are led to believe that smoking weed caused this over-the-top act. Almost immediately, Exmore gets back into the van and is hit by a truck that explodes, causing Sam to almost fall to his death before Spidey, and—comically—most of the Marvel Universe’s heroes, saves the day.
Of course, this type of ridiculous government propaganda doesn’t really exist in 2018, but Spider-Man: Fastlane serves as an interesting scope of anti-cannabis PSAs from a not-too-distant past. The comic seems to be forgotten (mostly) by time, aside from Chris Sims’ oral history on the arc.