A tantalizing drop of rainbow-colored liquid hangs over the lolling tongue of a balloon on the cover of Brian Blomerth’s Bicycle Day, the Brooklyn-based comic artist’s debut graphic novel. The cheeky cover sets the tone for the publication, which recounts the events of April 19, 1943 (a.k.a. Bicycle Day), when Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann set off on the world’s first acid trip after he ingested an experimental dose of a new compound called lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
Blomerth’s decision to explore Bicycle Day for his most ambitious project to date will come as no surprise to anyone who has leafed through his other psychedelic comics, which frequently star human-dog hybrids caught mid-sex or smoking a blunt.
At 4:20 p.m. on April 19, Hofmann dosed himself with 250 micrograms of LSD. Later, while recording the experiment in his journal, Hofmann notes that his trip peaked between 6 and 8 p.m., while he was riding home on a bicycle (thankfully, escorted by his assistant)—hence the moniker, Bicycle Day.
“I wanted to work on a biography of a historical character, and to imagine it in a style as true to myself as possible,” says Blomerth. “I was watching a documentary on LSD and it started with Hofmann stating, ‘The first LSD trip was a horrible, terrible experience for me!’ That obviously really piqued my interest. And for my first graphic novel, I needed a story that was simple enough to condense, but still enough of a story to make a book out of. Hofmann’s actual report on the events of Bicycle Day is only a couple of paragraphs, so it checked all of the boxes, perfectly.”
In his unfailingly witty and technicolor illustrative style, Blomerth follows a half-human, half-dog named Hofmann through laboratories, forests, and picturesque Swiss towns bordered by ice-capped mountains. “I have always enjoyed the ‘funny animal’ genre. For me, that is the peak of comics formalism, but in the oddest way,” he says.
From a very young age, Blomerth was obsessed with creating imagined worlds. When his father, a ship captain, would bring home maps as large as the kitchen floor, he would fill them up with drawings, scheming huge battle scenes. “I like how comics provide a scope to build an entire world. You are compelled to create an environment for these weird doodles to live in. That’s an aspect of the comics world that I really enjoy and find completely insane.”
Such hawk-eyed detailing demands impeccable research. During the months of pre-production, Blomerth delved into the pages of Hofmann’s LSD: My Problem Child and Mystic Chemist by Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller, which form the backbone of the story. But the research didn’t stop there—multiple re-readings of Uncle Fester’s guidebook, Practical LSD Manufacture, lectures by psychoactive drug pharmacology specialist David E. Nichols; and the writings of both Dennis and Terrance McKenna influenced the book tremendously.
“The chemistry—oh lord, the chemistry,” sighs Blomerth. “I know nothing about chemistry, but tried hard to get the basic concepts and tools right. The editor at the book’s publishing house, Anthology, sent an earlier draft to one of the biggest experts in the field, and his response was simply, ‘The chemistry is somewhat wrong.’ For me, ‘somewhat,’ in this instance, was a triumph. That is akin to having an Olympic runner see you run around the block and say, ‘That’s fine.’”
As an interpretation of the matter-of-fact nature of Hofmann’s book, Blomerth uses text sparingly throughout his graphic novel, relying only on punchy, short dialogue. Hofmann’s reports of biographical details are precise, but he describes nature in a reverent way. “I wanted to focus on the feeling of the book and leave a lot of room to let Hofmann’s character really shine,” says Blomerth. For a month-and-a-half, he soldiered on through 18-hour work days. “It was beyond fun, but I was no longer a normal person. I had a mental breakdown when I turned it in, which was also weirdly fun.”
So is this “experimental children’s book on acid” simply an exploration of the first time someone ‘tuned in, turned on, and dropped out’? Turns out, one of the underlying themes that fueled the creative process was Hofmann’s approach to the mind-altering drug that he stumbled upon. “What struck me about Hofmann, as opposed to Timothy Leary, was that he prescribed more to the school of thought that mystical experiences are something of a necessity for people—an inexplicable experience that can give your life focus. Hofmann thought that psychedelics could be a chemical access point to that. Not really a ‘drop out’ kind of sentiment.
“It was beyond fun, but I was no longer a normal person. I had a mental breakdown when I turned it in, which was also weirdly fun.”
“Leary and Hofmann’s meeting in the 1970s is hilarious. Leary immediately wanted to see the bicycle Hofmann rode; Hofmann’s response was, ‘I threw that hunk of junk away!’ Simply perfect.”