Friday , February 23 2024
The true story of how the C.I.A. stopped worrying and learned to love LSD, illustrated in gloriously gory psychotronic comic art.

Graphic Novel Review: The Sinister Truth: MK-Ultra by Jason Ciaccia And Aaron Norhanian

The stories have been around for decades. Government Black-Ops, assassinations, and mind control, all fully sanctioned and approved by the highest levels of the United States Government, and carried out by the shadowy spies and spooks who operate within the cloak-and-dagger world of our own Central Intelligence Agency.

That much is pretty much common knowledge. But what of some of the wilder stories making the rounds among the conspiracy theorists and the other fruit baskets out there?

That the C.I.A. conducted horrific medical experiments on unsuspecting operatives and civilians alike — using LSD, brain implants, and worse — in an apparent attempt to transform their test subjects into brain-dead, yet obedient walking zombies?

As it turns out, the conspiracy nuts may have got that one right after all. Fortunately for those of us inquiring minds who want to know, but haven't the time or inclination to sift through the 18,000 or so documents about such things as Project MK-Ultra declassified through the Freedom Of Information Act, writer Jason Ciaccia and illustrator Aaron Norhanian have provided us with the next best thing: They've turned it into a comic book.

Using the Graphic Novel medium, The Sinister Truth: Project MK-Ultra tells the entire story of the C.I.A.'s infamous mind control project, in both an easy-to-follow narrative as well as with striking, often graphic images that are a cross between the wigged-out psychedelic art of someone like R. Crumb, and the pornier cartoons you'll find in the back pages of Playboy. Given the subject matter, it makes for a potent and appropriate mix.

Conspiracy fodder aside, the story itself is wilder and further out there than anything you'll read in an Ian Flemming novel — the James Bond author was sought out for advice about the "Cuba problem" by none other than JFK, by the way.

There's a colorful cast of characters including a Mad Doctor, "The Beard," and your usual garden variety of government spooks. Yet bits of it are backed by government documents verifying the story, many of which are annotated at the bottom of the pages, while others are reproduced in the back of the book.

The story begins at the height of the Cold War, and with America's newly inherited "Cuba problem," in the form of one communist Fidel Castro parked just ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Needless to say, this has Uncle Sam understandably concerned, and the C.I.A. is dispatched to handle "the Beard."

Which they attempt to do exactly 638 times, in a series of comically failed assassination plots, each of which seems to be more ridiculous than the last. The plots to kill Castro include Operation Groucho (exploding cigar), Operation Stuffed Mushroom (Death by fungus infected scuba gear), and Operation Conch Shell (exploding Conch Shell).

Honestly, you couldn't make this stuff up if you were writing episodes of Get Smart. What gives the humor here its darker edges, though, is the fact that it's all true.

Enter Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a mad scientist straight out of Frankenstein territory if ever there was one, and as head of the C.I.A.'s chemical division, the man responsible for MK-Ultra (or the agency's mind control project). In his efforts to create the perfect obedient assassin, Gottlieb goes to pretty much any extreme necessary to turn the human mind into his personal petri dish — including brain implants, radiation, and mind-bending drugs like LSD. Lots and lots of LSD.

As part of a new plot (Operation Goodtimes) to discredit Castro by dosing him with LSD before a speech to his country, Gottlieb dispatches "Bob," a particularly brain-damaged operative to do the dirty work. As it turns out though, Bob's brain has become so completely turned to jelly by Gottlieb's diabolical handiwork, that he ends up doing things like beheading a hotel maid. All of which are depicted in the gloriously gory black and white images here.

The Sinister Truth: MK-Ultra is not for the timid or the squeamish. But it does its job of condensing one of the darker and under-reported chapters of U.S. intelligence history into an entertaining, easily digested narrative with the sort of psychotronic comic art that fits the subject like a black glove. The book can be ordered by going to the Sinister Truth website.

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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