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Confessions of a College Kingpin
Courtesy of Seth Ferranti

Charting the hazy, dangerous journey of a 90s LSD kingpin

Seth Ferranti traces his life before prison in a new graphic novel – pushing thousands of LSD hits while evading the aggressive authorities and his own personal demons

It’s been two years since Seth Ferranti was released from prison, after serving the majority of a 25 year sentence for distributing LSD across the state of Virginia. At 22, he was selling hundreds of thousands of hits of acid, as well as weed, on the college scene and elsewhere as a drug kingpin. Before being captured, he faked his own suicide and became a fugitive, landing himself on the U.S Most Wanted List. And like many others, he was a victim of America's aggressive, money-fattened war on drugs: as a perpatrator of non-violent drug crime, he was given an inflated sentence as part of the DEA's attempts to crack down on drugs in the 90s. 

The last two decades in the United States saw a serious upturn in the narrative surrounding drugs. We're now at a stage where widespread marijuana legalisation is on the horizon, and the war on drugs has a serious opposition in both the political sphere and on the streets. Obama's recent announcement of clemency for over 100 inmates incarcerated for drug offences from the 90s – including Tim Tyler – signals another wind of change. Ferranti may have been on the tale end of this wave of attitude adjustments, but it's given him a unique perspective on a deadly, money-driven, misguided political agenda.

Now in his forties, he's obtained three college degrees, wrote a plethora of books and carved a journalism career from behind bars. He's now a publishing powerhouse, as well as a filmmaker in the midst of his new series Easter Bunny Assasin. The literary journey continues parallel with a life he's built for himself beyond incarceration, leaving behind faked I.Ds and brushes with drug gangs to write his autobiographical graphic novel, Confessions of a College Kingpin. The first issue, with panels shown here on Dazed, highlight his formative years as a middle class teen in the suburbs of Virginia, charting his spiral as a naive 16-year-old into a world of technicolour papers, smokey mushroom clouds of weed and a $30,000 salary-of-sorts. Here, we talk to Ferranti about his chaotic journey, fighting off his demons as well as the pursuing authorities, and life beyond bars.

When did your literary journey actually begin?

Seth Ferranti: I grew up playing in bands – I used to sing and I played guitar, mostly punk rock stuff and alternative, wrote poetry. I fancied myself Jim Morrison or Henry Rollins type of guy. I was already an artistic dude and then going into prison, I had time to educate myself: I read, did writing classes, did some journalism. The first thing I wrote that I’ve never put out is kinda like a comic book – trippy, surreal kind of stuff. Then I did Gangsters, everyone in there loved that kind of stuff. And were my peers, and I wanted to be recognised by them. But now I’ve got this new audience. The last two years that I've been out has been a transition into stuff like Confessions of a College Kingpin and I got the other short film series I'm doing Easter Bunny Assassin, I can experiment.

This is your first venture into graphic novels to tell your story. Why do your autobiography using this literary form?

Seth Ferranti: I grew up reading comics: X Men, Batman, the Joker, that was a big part of my early teenage years – I’d get like twenty, thirty comics in a month. I always wanted to do comics, except when I was in prison all the good artists are doing tattoos, because they get paid for it immediately. I never had the money. When I got out I had more access to what I needed. I also wanted that visual element because my story’s really LSD and marijuana-infused which really works with images.

The first depiction of the LSD trip is particularly arresting, falling into this splash of colours.

Seth Ferranti: I want to visually develop my story in different mediums like film too, but I think for right now doing it in a comic is really cool.

Did you find it at all challenging working with someone else to serialise your life?

Seth Ferranti: Yeah especially when it’s your story, and trying to cram three years of my life into something. K. Anthony Lawler really helped me with what would and wouldn’t work visually. I have all the material there because it's my life, it's just working with an artist really kind of helped me to hone the story. Way back I was just writing, answering and my wife would edit. I’ve done film stuff since coming out of prison but it’s so much more collaborative. It gives areas of my life I didn’t give much thought to before a different perspective. Something happens on some personal level emotionally, but could mean something totally different to other people. There might be a part of my story that I don't think is really that exciting or have any impact, but others find it fascinating.

How long has the process taken?

Seth Ferranti: I'd say about a year. I first met Kitty Anthony Lawler, the artist, in Kansas City in 2015. Writing didn't take that long because I had most of it already written. I had the whole graphic album basically written like a documentary, but it was easy to turn the script into panels. Everyone I’m working with is independent though, everyone has other jobs. We’re actually we're doing edits on issue two now. Lawler isn’t technically a comic book artist, he does a lot of fine art, but I like his watercolour style. It reminded me of Frank Miller was doing the Daredevil stuff in the 80s, and that Ralph Steadman type of vibe, because I love Hunter S. Thompson’s stuff. It’s new to both of us.

The comic opens with your character as a teenager in these middle class suburbs, contemplating life in an acid trip. Why start there?

Seth Ferranti: I wrote a documentary in prison – it had some interest from MTV in the 90s but that never materialised. I started that out with me faking my suicide and going on the run.  But I didn't want to glorify and romanticise the drug dealing lifestyle. I was a smart kid, and I kind of latched onto something and I became successful. But I wanted to do a cautionary tale.

In the next few issues I show my run to Kansas, where a Texan guy calls me for like a hundred pounds of weed when I was like 17, which was surreal. I appeared as this little confident mover and shaker because these guys would just trust me with this stuff. There was a big difference to how I appeared and how I felt on the inside.

You grow up in the suburbs and you’re expected to get good grades, play sports, go to college a typical route for an American kid to assimilate into society. Adding drugs, money and even power to a certain extent to the equation changes it. It’s this upper middle class American bubble on the east coast of Northern Virginia in the 80s. I tried to keep it real time specific. I had to even do some research into what was popular, what music was I listening to, what shows I watched, how people wore their hair to get it all. Capturing that suburban experience, where people don’t end up with a 25-year jail sentence.

You can see with the Metallica lyrics in the panels, it really grounds it in a specific culture. Drugs are inherently linked to music subcultures – some of those incarcerated for drug offences, like Tim Tyler, were Deadheads.

I have Metallica, Bad Brains, Stone Roses, music that kinda got big with people doing LSD and smoking marijuana and partying. I used to tour with the Grateful Dead, and it was real important to me. It really provides a snapshot of the culture that surrounded what I was up to.

And culture is so different now – with marijuana legalisation, I almost thought it justified my outlaw status, just a little bit. The world is going in a different direction now, but the war on drugs is still present.

And the war on drugs is very money-driven and aggressive in America, right? Your sentencing and so many others show that.

Seth Ferranti: The DEA is like a self-financing organisation. The government loves it because they don't have to give them that much money – basically any type of organism on a basic level is going to keep trying to feed themselves to keep themselves alive. You have to question their motives. Okay, I was distributing about 10,000 hits of acid to colleges a month, but I wasn't a super drug dealer. I was making about $20,000 a month – more than what some people make in a year, but the DEA blew my case up like I was this controlling the East Coast. It makes them look good. Issue 3 and 4 will show my contact with them, an almost evil organisation.

What point did you realise they made you into this poster boy for the war on drugs?

Seth Ferranti: In 1997, after I’d been locked up four years. Rolling Stone came and they interviewed me when I was at SCI Beckley. They said my case was messed up, and I had spent 5 years totally numb. Other people started paying attention and it got me thinking about sharing my story my way, so I’d have a chance to get out really. I didn’t mind that much being a poster boy. I mean I took off, I was a fugitive and stuff like that. I was never involved in violence, but I kept selling so I looked pretty unrepentant. Dudes like Tim Tyler had much more sympathetic cases.

That’s all part of it – demonising you to fit with the narrative?

Seth Ferranti: Yeah, I’ve included some real newspaper articles and photos of me in college to the graphic novel. Because man, they may write about you but they don't see the human side at all. That's what I've been really trying to do with the comics. I was fucked up and misguided and they'd want to paint me like I'm this drug kingpin. It was totally chaotic and unorganised and I just happened to be good at what I did for whatever reason. I was a good drug dealer, and just because I was a good drug dealer they made it seem like I was an evil person.

How were you coping emotionally during these years?

Seth Ferranti: You know that Jimi Hendrix song “Castles Made of Sand Slip into the Sea Eventually”? I built up my whole world with this little drug empire and based all my self worth off of that. So when I got indicted I felt like I had nothing. I tried to commit suicide twice, I had no self worth outside of the caricature that I made myself. I’m laying it out in the graphic novel like I never have in my other stuff. 25 years in prison, you can't show any type of weakness or be sensitive. Now I’m out I can be artistic and I can express myself differently and it helps.

Where do we see your character arc go in the next issues?

Seth Ferranti: Well the second issue's going to go more into my story, at the fugitive years. It will show me becoming the drug dealer that I was – going on tour, getting bigger with loads of pot, making connections, bringing in more LSD. Issue 3 will bring in more of the bigger issues, then issue 4 will show the consequences, plus when I got caught at 22. You’ll see how I got fake I.D, how I eluded the feds, how I was on the US Marshal's Most Wanted List for two years. It covers a very chaotic six year period of my life.

You can purchase Confessions of a College Kingpin here