Friday, April 2, 2010
"Show Me the Magic": Pop Culture and Occulture
What is creativity? Where do ideas come from? What separates good art from great art? What makes art magical and how can we tell the difference, given how little we understand about consciousness, never mind creativity? Why is so much great - and magical art - so obscure and inaccessible? What is the difference between a child's dream, a shaman's vision and a great storyteller's work?
This is the core of so much of my work- how art can take those ineffable, transitory experiences from the other side and bring them into this world to be shared and stored.
I spent a lot of time trapped inside my head when I was young- vivid dreams, feverish hallucinations, a whole litany of enhancements- and comics were always close at hand. That led me to pursue image making and storytelling as a career, and certainly led to my writing and blogging.
This piece is a edited version of an article I wrote for a long-lost comics fanzine and played a major role in the development of Our Gods Wear Spandex. I'd go so far as to say this was its starting point. Some of the references are a bit dated and the writing is a bit strident, but it still speaks to what I've been chasing all of these years and continue to do on these blogs, as longtime readers will certainly recognize.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Alan Moore lately. Not least because I recently received the gala Alan Moore issue of CBA-- also because there is a veritable deluge of material out there dedicated to the Bard from Northamptonshire, released in anticipation of his “retirement” from comics. I first became familiar with Mr. Moore 20 years ago, since I was one of the 34 or so souls who was a regular reader of Saga of the Swamp Thing. Alan replaced Marty Pasko and, of course, took the title on a rocket ride into the ether. I was along for the ride for a couple years, eventually losing interest around the time of the menstruating werewolves story.
I kept hearing about the Watchmen series, but since I was spending my time--- morning noon and night--- reading and re-reading Frank Miller’s Batman, Daredevil and Elektra work, the book didn’t make much of an impression on me. The missus liked it and I picked up the series for her, and read them when she was done. But in comparison to the zeigeist-seizing work of Frank Miller, it was weak tea to my palette. I had no involvement with fandom at that time, and wouldn’t until I went online in the early 90’s. The next work from Mr. Moore to catch my eye was of course The Killing Joke, a book deserving its classic status (more about that book later). But after that both Moore and I seemed to drift away from the Comics mainstream, and I didn’t catch up with him until much later.
I’ll lay out my prejudice on the table-- I lean much more heavily towards the gut-bruising emotionalism of Miller’s 80’s work than towards the dry, intellectual nihilism of Moore’s work from the same time. I’m not a terribly intellectual character, and my left brain is surely vestigial at this point. But the searing power of “Swamped” and “Another Green World” was tattooed into my memory, even if their followups were so less important to me. It wasn’t until the dawn of America’s Best Comics that I truly fell under Mr. Moore’s spell. Tom Strong, Promethea and Tomorrow Stories hit the spot for me. The nihilism and preachiness of Moore’s 80’s work was joyfully absent and in their place was fun, humor, wonder and joy, qualities that were altogether absent in 1990’s comics.
My favorite title was Promethea, since that was the book where Moore seemed most likely to take the gloves off and really bring the reader on a trip somewhere else. He did both those things, but where he took us was to a multi-issue meditation on the Tarot and the Kabbalah, which I found to be as entertaining as a marathon teach-in at a Thelemic Order of the Golden Dawn summer camp. Promethea was no longer a comic, it was a lecture. Promethea was reduced from a fascinating spin on Wonder Woman to a wide-eyed naif lost in Crowley Land. As Moore’s energies focused on this journey, the other ABC titles lost steam and now we are nearing the end of the line.
Now, this is not to bash Mr. Moore, a man whom I have tremendous admiration for. But as brilliant a technician and craftsmen as he is, he is a human being just like you or I. And like you or I, he feels the need the follow his passions wherever they may take him. And where they are taking him is out of comics. Mr. Moore feels that “magick” is far more important and meaningful to him than comics.
Although Mr. Moore would have us believe he woke up one morning a few years back and decided to become a magician, I believe this process was a long time in coming. Certainly there were hints of it in Swamp Thing. But the title of his most famous Batman graphic novel shows just how early on this process began to manifest it self. I don’t think he called that book the "Killing Joke" on a whim. I think it demonstrated a powerful influence on his personal evolution.
Killing Joke is the name of a British post-punk band who emerged onto the scene in 1980. Led by Jaz Coleman, classical composer and serious lunatic, Killing Joke were one of the bands who picked up where Led Zeppelin left off, bringing Anglo-Celtic mysticism and Crowleyean Occultism into their music. Killing Joke’s music and philosophy was far more dark and brutal than the Mighty Zep’s ever was, however. Killing Joke also can be blamed for pretty much the last 15 years of revisionist metal (eg., stripping out the guitar solos and operatic vocals and concentrating on a bludgeoning backbeat and perussive guitar riffs). Coleman brought a lot of Crowleyite flibbity-floo into his lyrics, but that wasn’t what makes Killing Joke’s music magical.
And there may be a lesson here for comics fans and creators.
What makes Killing Joke's music so distinctive from its countless army of imitators is the guitar playing of one Gregory Walker, aka Geordie. If the some band of religious fundamentalists ever did take power here, Killing Joke is the only band in the world whose records would be burned for the guitar playing alone. Playing insane, jazz-derived chords on a detuned guitar through an wall of electronic effects, Geordie’s guitar speaks to you in terrible ways. His guitar leaves you with the same feeling a good Lovecraft story does: profoundly disturbed, but somehow energized and hungry for more.
A master of minimalism, he can say more with a fragment of a chord than most guitarists will ever say with their endless 64th note solos. Sort of the same way Mike Mignola can say more with a handful of lines and a chunk of black than most artists will ever say with all their dazzling detail. In fact, Geordie’s guitar playing is pretty much the musical equivalent of Mignola’s drawing.
Now there is a lot of loose talk about magic about these days. We’ve seen the popularity of films like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, as well as shows like Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Magic is a wonderful dramatic device, and entertainments with magical themes can not only be wonderfully entertaining, but instructive and wish-fulfilling as well. Traditional religionists are horrified with all this, and with no small degree of justification. Interest in magic and the Occult usurps the monopoly of religion on supernatural experience, and democratizes paranormal in a very Promethean sense. After 2000 years of the unchallenged supremacy of the Abrahamic religions in the Western World, we are seeing what may well be a return to the natural order- a polyglot of mutating beliefs and practices that overlap and often, clash.
Now this is all very -to use another word I despise - empowering. For feminists and gay folk, the goddess-centered Wicca religion helps to celebrate the Sacred Feminine archetype so degraded and repressed by Middle Eastern monotheism. For young, insecure kids, a belief that they might have latent magical powers can help them negotiate the horrors of adolescence. And whole new communities are forming on the Internet centered around philosophies and gods the World had hitherto forgotten. But Magic....magic.
Magic is humanity’s perpetual problem child. It is something we all wish to experience, but something that is at the same time so elusive, and often-- disappointing. We all have experienced moments of some strange kind of grace, where out perceptions or our physical limitations themselves are momentarily taken out of everyday reality and into a place or state where dreams come true, wishes are granted, laws of physics are broken, and we get a peak under the dress of big 'R' Reality. And although we cloak this concept in Sci-Fi drag more often than not, it is exactly the longing for these moments that all Superhero comics are based upon.
Now magic exists, we all know it. We just call it by different names. Christians call the kind they like the work of the Holy Spirit, and the kind they don’t like the work of the Devil. Jews and Muslims have slightly different terminology, but its roughly the same thing. Scientists even acknowledge its existence by giving it a hoity-toity name- anomalous phenomena. Miracles, Grace, Sorcery, Necromancy, Spells, Prayers, Invocations, delusion, witchcraft, hallucination, the Paranormal, Fortean Phenomena-- there are any number of terms with any number of shades of meaning that all, ultimately, boil down to one thing: magic.
Superheroes and mutants and all the rest of the miraculous creatures parading through the funny pages have no basis in science or ordinary reality: they are all magic. If you were bitten by a radioactive spider, chances are good that’s you’d get a horrible rash, go into toxic shock and die, not wake up the next morning buff and ripped. Mutations usually are not pretty, nor powerful, nor very long-lived.
However you come down on the evolution debate, one thing is clear: we haven’t seen too many contemporary mutations, and certainly never anything remotely like the X-Men. The X-Men are fantasy, not science fiction, per se.
But there are a lot of folks in Comics giving lip service to magic lately. Which is right and good. People who write and draw comics should be thinking about magic, it’s their job. But it gets problematic when you make the leap from Kirbyean Magic to Crowleyean Magic. Aleister Crowley seems to be the well-spring for most of today’s interest in magic, particularly that of the “ceremonial” variety chatted up by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.
Now, this is not altogether wholesome, considering that Crowley spent most of his time taking drugs and f**king and f**king with people’s heads to the point that he drove many around him to their various destructions. And ultimately Crowley’s magical prowess did little to save him from dying broke, despised and addicted. I’ve read some of his writings, and found them to be distinctly of the navel gazing variety. I’m not even sure how seriously he took any of it either, nor am I convinced that he wrote all of it himself. I think his “magic” was drugs and f**king, and the rest of it was just for the rubes.
And there is the problem with all this magic talk. Anyone can say anything, regardless of the facts, make up any old prattle, call it magic and end the discussion there. Certainly Moore is not guilty of this, if anything he errs on the side of fidelity to received tradition. Promethea’s journey from Kether to Malkuth was actually Moore’s personal journey. Fascinating and valuable as a document of discovery, just not terribly entertaining as a comic book.
Which brings me to the central tenet of this essay. I don’t want to read comics about magic (I’d rather watch spaghetti boil) I want to read comics that are magic.
I’m not talking the soapy, sentimental “magic” of our idealized memories of comics gone by, I am talking about comics that do what magic is supposed to do- take you out of the everyday world and put you somewhere else. Comics that offer what life supplied to us when we were young-- new experience. Rejuvenation. A sense of real wonder.
Too many comics suffer from what every other pop culture media is presently suffering from. Too much emphasis on technique, too many gee-whiz digital pyrotechnics, too much sweat, too many committee-driven decisions, too little magic. And I’m here to tell you that comics is the last citadel for magic. There’s too much money at stake with every other form of mass entertainment for magic to thrive.
And the kind of magic I believe comics needs is not the charts-and-graphs magic of Alan Moore, nor the make-it-up-as-you-go-along magic of Grant Morrison, it needs a more primal magic. The magic of the shaman, of the seer. The magic of the prophet, of the holy man. This is the magic that I bank on. This is the magic that you can do more than read about.
It is the magic of an inspired creator, who throws him or herself into the primordial ooze of the imagination. Who ventures forth into those places in the Collective Unconscious where the gods dwell, speaks to them and then brings back their secrets to us. It is a true form of magic to make a bunch of random squiggles and symbols coalesce on a page and give the reader a true, immersive experience. Not just a momentary diversion, not simply a riveting entertainment but the kind of experience that pulls one out of their everyday experience and then takes them somewhere so radically new that the journey changes the reader forever.
Posted by Christopher Loring Knowles at 7:30 PM