Time travel is always a tricky one. Either it’s done over simplistically and betrays too many logical inconsistencies or it tries to tackle the inherent complexity and paradoxes of the subject matter and often ends up collapsing under its own density.
BOOM! Studios and Archaia’s Interesting Drug is actually a little bit of both. In some ways it is very ambitious and, as the story progresses, its increasingly complex layers become increasingly difficult to decipher. In other ways it is too simple, leaving more questions unanswered than answered.
This promising but ultimately disappointing graphic novel is another case of great idea but not-so-great execution. It’s certainly got a lot going for it. Its take on the old time travel theme is unique and fascinating, for one thing.
Usually in sci-fi material, the methods for time travel are somehow oriented around advanced technology/machinery, a portal or wormhole of some sort, magic, paranormal powers or even self-hypnosis as in Somewhere in Time. Sometimes it’s a combination of these factors.
Interesting Drug (a reference to the 1989 song by Morrissey) employs the less commonly used device of, well, an interesting drug as the method for time travel. Other than an old B-movie from the 80s called Trancers, I’m not personally aware of any other time travel work of fiction that posits a drug as the time travel method. It’s a cool, Philip K. Dickian approach and if this had been a movie or novel, perhaps there could have been more space to throw in some more entertaining pseudo-science about the neurochemistry of the drug and exactly how its effects on the brain enable time travel. But being a single volume graphic novel, there just isn’t enough room for elaboration. I read an interview with writer Shaun Manning in which he briefly alludes to some of the theoretical basis that he was working from, but the script itself just glosses over it. Now I’m personally okay with that but the book has other, more significant problems that I’ll be getting to in a second.
Another thing this title has going for it is the interesting art by Anna Wieszczyk, which at times reminds me of some of the work of animator and illustrator Takeshi Koike or perhaps of Peter Chung in his Aeon Flux on MTV days: long, lanky bodies, elongated limbs and fingers, sharp, aquiline features. The way she draws people is not really my personal cup of tea but I can appreciate the style nonetheless. Wieszczyk also employs a neat technique in which she juxtaposes her characters against hazy, photo-realistic backgrounds that look like pictures from the 60s and 70s in my parents’ old photo albums. I don’t know the precise method she used to render these backgrounds but I found the effect to be dreamy and mesmerizing.
Interesting Drug starts out strong and dives straight into the action. Andrew, a once brilliant college dropout now working at Best Buy is accosted by a mysterious stranger named Tristram who claims to be from the future and states that Andrew will soon create a drug called Chro-Noz that will enable time travel and take the world by storm.
The mechanics of time travel in this graphic novel have some interesting idiosyncrasies. First, you can only travel backwards in time. Next, you can only travel within your personal timeline. In other words, if you were born in the 70s you can’t travel back to see what the 60s were like. Next, when you take Chro-Noz and travel back your present consciousness enters the body of the past-you. So you could be a little kid again, for instance, but with the consciousness and memory of your present-you. Finally, no matter what you do in the past, it doesn’t change the present at all. It’s extremely vivid and feels absolutely “real” but nothing you do affects anything. All this serves two storytelling functions: (1) it bypasses the troublesome space-time paradoxes that plague most time travel stories and (2) it provides vicarious wish fulfillment for the reader since we’ve all wanted to go back and re-experience certain points in our past with our present awareness.
While on one hand the fact that you can’t change present reality may strike readers as a disadvantaged form of time travel, in some ways it can actually be the ultimate fantasy. In the story users of Chro-Noz go back and do certain questionable things—go back to yesterday and allow yourself to commit road rage at that guy who cut you off, for instance—without having to worry about their present being affected in any deleterious way.
There’s also an intriguing plot element in which a character is mysteriously able to time travel in his original present-day body rather than inhabit his past-body. How is this possible when Chro-Noz only allows one to inhabit one’s past-body? The ultimate answer is too trite for my tastes and despite there being the foundation here for a really great story, I found Interesting Drug to fall short overall on numerous other accounts as well.
One of the biggest ways lies in the fact that a drug like Chro-Noz, were it to exist, would have staggering—yea, earth-shaking—social implications. Even if it were not biochemically addictive (and the one in the story isn’t) people would become psychologically and hopelessly addicted by the millions. Yet we don’t see any of that in this comic, only the briefest of mentions given indirectly by way of a televised news report. We don’t even at all get to see how this drug is manufactured and distributed. Instead panels are spent in constant bickering between characters in their apartments. I’m not saying this needs to be like Breaking Bad or anything, but if we have little sense of what’s actually going on in the world outside of these characters’ apartments, then it’s hard to get a feel for the world this book is trying to create. I do get that Manning wants to make this a chamber drama and keep the action at an intimate and personal level, but frankly a time-travel drug isn’t the best subject matter for that kind of storytelling. Such a topic begs for an epic backdrop and more details.
Another problem is the character themselves. I didn’t find any of them particularly interesting or even believable in the case of our hero Andrew. He creates this remarkable drug but such a substance by its very nature would require its creator to be one of genius intellect and unmatchable ambition. This isn’t to say that a college dropout working at Best Buy can’t be brilliant, but Andrew doesn’t even come across as being particularly intelligent or willing to do the work it would take to create something like this. He just comes across as an average joe who has somehow created this incredible drug.
Finally, the last third becomes too convoluted. To some degree this is unavoidable for any time travel story that seeks to address the philosophical paradoxes but some stories make it more complicated than others by trying to slip in all kinds of twists and turns that serve to further confuse the reader.
One slim volume really isn’t enough for a book like this. To be what it’s capable of being, Interesting Drug needed to have either been a much longer volume or an ongoing monthly series that comes to an end after all the elements have been fully explored and played out.
I’ve made this review longer than most on this site only because Interesting Drug does have a lot of promise and I wanted to acknowledge its strengths as well as its weaknesses. I’ve only very recently returned to comics as a regular thing and since I can only manage about one of these books every couple of weeks or so, I’m super picky about which one I decide to pick up. The premise of this title alone made me go for it. And for the first third of it or so I was quite absorbed. But as its flaws gradually became more pronounced I eventually found myself reading simply to get to the end.
As one character in Interesting Drug points out, the nifty thing about time travel is that you can do it over and over again. Unfortunately, in this case, going back and reading this graphic novel a second time did not change my final evaluation of it which is that this drug provides a pretty fun high for a short while but the comedown is kind of a drag.