Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Morning After Magicians

My good friends and regular D&D partners celebrated a birthday with a trip to an Indian reservation and a 12-hour peyote trip, which led to a mystical experience involving aliens, telepathy, and "rolling" states of altered consciousness which I cannot help but -- in at least a small way -- envy. For while I study and read and write about magic and magicians, and no doubt will continue to do so till the end of my life, I will never perform a magical working for the simple fact that I'm too square to do drugs. When I left home, and my Dad packed up all my belongings and drove me to my college in another state, he had only one piece of advice for me, and it was "Stay away from drugs." So I have. I'm that kind of guy.

But M's wonderfully artistic description of the event and L's later elaboration between rounds of initiative prompted me to say "You need to read the Invisibles" so often that I felt like a goddamn idiot. But it's true. And what I need to do is respect the magic that took place in that smoky chamber by taking a few minutes to write about magic in comics, specifically comics written by practicing magicians. Because it seems like it would be a real shame for this lovely, intelligent, outrageously funny couple to waste a perfectly good initiation experience by not following up on the pointers which arcane forces beyond our understanding have so graciously provided by means of a dozen peyote buttons.

There are three practicing magician comic creators that I know of, but I can only write effectively about two of them. Steve Moore, whose wikipedia entry is here, can justly brag about teaching Alan Moore how to write comics and is Alan's long time friend. Although he has written many stories for Britain's long-running magazine 2000AD, as well as books for Marvel UK, what is most interesting to me is that he was an editor for Fortean Times and Fortean Studies (its academic counterpart, 2994-2001), which is a topic I find endlessly fascinating. Lately he has more or less retired from comics, but considering how much of his work is in other forms, I don't think we should take that as anything less than a re-direction of his efforts and current interests. Besides, Alan has been taking nothing but curmudgeonly pot-shots at the comics industry for the last five years, and Steve has got to be tired of hearing it. So best to just let it go.

But the other two creators, and the ones I can talk about, are Alan himself and Grant Morrison. Since we've already mentioned Alan, let's go right to him.

Alan Moore's decision to become a practicing magician is a direct result of one of his most hard-to-read and literate comics, From Hell. In that book, William Gull, who is the serial killer and transformative mystic known to us now as Jack the Ripper, notes to his carriage driver that there's only one place we know that gods certainly exist, and that is in our minds. Moore was 40 years old at the time, and he decided that line out of From Hell was an inarguable truth. It was true, and if he was going to continue living an honest life he had better adjust to that truth. He started to think about the next step in his life and he decided he could either have a nervous breakdown or become a magician and he picked Door #2. At first he used psychedelic drugs but these days, I have it from a reliable source, Alan just relies on high quality Amsterdam hash. We shouldn't laugh, because magic has always involved drug use, and there's plenty of peyote-drinking medicine men over the centuries who could tell us more about that, I imagine. Anyway, Alan proceeded to try to answer the question, "Where do ideas come from?", which is a question we all laugh at but which Alan decided, after some thought, is the only question really worth asking. And all this led to his idea that things we imagine are just as real as things which tax us, kiss us, and hit us in the street. And, when you think about it, he has kind of a point. After all, the Big Red S is instantly recognized around the world. People tattoo it on their bodies, they mark their clothes with it, and they try to live up to it. That symbol influences people, and not just to buy comics. In fact, very few of them buy comics. As a merchandising tool, it's a failure. But as a force of nature, it's a goddamn hurricane. Moore gets into this more in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen when Prospero outlines the whole argument at the end of Vol2, but basically if, when you were growing up, you thought "I want to be like Captain Kirk or Sherlock Holmes or Spider-Man," then it's actually pretty bloody ungrateful to later decide those ideas aren't real when you have, by your own admission, allowed them to be your role models in your formative years.

Alan practices what he preaches, too, because his magic involves worship to Glycon, a Roman snake god, which everyone including Alan admits was a complete hoax at the time, basically a puppet snake which some Roman conman used to get drachma out of the rubes. But because Moore's philosophy insists that imaginary beings are still real, then Glycon, although a "Fake God" does exist. As an idea. And that idea has helped Alan write pretty much everything he has written for the last ten years.

No single book better illuminates Moore's attitude towards magic and creativity than Promethea, which went for precisely 32 issues from 1999-2005, because it just so happened that Alan's rising and inevitable disgust with comics collided with the fact that 32 is the Kaballah answer to the question, "How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man." Promethea was later collected in five paperback volumes. Now I have written about Promethea elsewhere, and I won't go into a serious plot summary here or anything, I'll just say that by the end of the first 12 issues the character of Promethea -- who is a living story, and whose tagline is "If she didn't exist, we would have had to invent her" -- goes on a tour of the mystical cosmos during which she walks the 32 paths of the Kabbalah on the way to becoming a magus. She learns tantric sex and she has a number of guides along the way (my favorite being a homage to Jaime Hernandez' brilliantly real Love & Rockets character, Maggie). Now, the book by this point had reached a point where most people had simply stopped reading, and I can't blame them, because it's not for ordinary joes any more. It is a book about magic; not wand and dragon magic, but real, honest to god, practicing magic in our real world, narrated by actual magicians famous and in-. Crowley makes an appearance, and in fact it is from one of these appearances that I got the name for my dissertation. Most of the meat of the magic chapters are, essentially, the main character asking questions and getting answers. It's a Socratic dialogue, if Socrates was drawn and colored by artists who, I am convinced, flew down from Heaven on pixie-dust and Xena DVDs.

Alan Moore is the most literate and high brow of comic writers. I suppose there might be a short list of people you could nominate for "The Shakespeare of Comics," but he sure fits the bill for me. (It can't be Eisner; he looked down on comics and always seemed to be slumming when he wrote one, and it can't be Kirby, who read Shakespeare and loved him but who had little interest in subtlety.) Until he and Steve Moore finish the Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, which is supposed to be a grimoire in comics format, this is the closest we are probably going to get to a how-to. It's not for the rubes. It's challenging and it's experimental. But it's calling.

Now if Alan Moore is the Shakespeare of comics, Grant Morrison is more like Kit Marlowe, if Marlowe had come after Shakespeare and not before. Like Marlowe, he's perpetually young, more handsome, and somehow far more hip than Shakespeare. He's sexier, not just in person but also in his language and his plots. Just as Shakespeare could never, ever, have written Edward II, so Alan Moore could never, ever, have written The Invisibles.

The Invisibles is a three-volume epic (it's packaged as 7 books, which is why Amazon says volumes 1-7, but it's really a three parter) which is widely considered Morrison's magnum opus, though I expect Grant himself is trying to break that conception with his current work on Batman, a character he has long identified with and wanted to write. It is a story of an occult conspiracy powered by drugs, guns, and rock and roll. Its characters undergo mystic initiations which allow them to see the truth of the world in a way impossible for the rest of us. Sometimes these initiations involve heavy quotation from King Lear and stepping off buildings. But other times they involve getting stoned on mountain tops or gray aliens who carry the Holy Grail. Morrison's conviction on things like the meta-textuality of the cosmos and his own certainty that he has been abducted by aliens, shown the true nature of the universe, and that this nature is, basically, "play and have fun," is unwavering, dizzying, and hypnotic.

Morrison also practices magic in his personal and daily life; he is, in many ways, a ten-year-younger version of Moore who hasn't alienated himself from the comics industry and who is responsible for far fewer movies that suck. He used magic to communicate with the evil entities he believes were responsible for his own near-fatal illness while writing the Invisibles, and he bargained for his own health and recovery by promising them that, if they would let him live, he would immortalize them forever in comics as the Baddest Shit Ever. And he did. You can see them for yourself. He used magic to cure Jill Thompson's cat of cancer. He used magic to save his own comic book from cancellation. (The Wankathon, as this magical act is known, is simply too awesome to share space with any other topic, and must wait for another time.) Needless to say, he did all of this while on some serious shit, and he has fully admitted that for parts of the Invisibles he was just taking pills and writing pages as fast as he could write them, basically letting whatever he was doing in his life dictate what went onto the page. Sort of like how Kevin Smith writes comics except, you know, not in a way that makes you want to stab your eyes out.

For a person who is, shall we say, "magic-curious," The Invisibles is perhaps a better place to go than Promethea because it is, frankly, a more exciting story. It's longer, and confusing as hell. Fortunately there are annotations to help us through; I recommend Anarchy for the Masses: The Disinformation Guide to the Invisibles. And the first volume is kind of shaky, too. The main story, the initiation, is quite good. And that's why it remains a great start for someone who might, say, have taken a 12-hour high and been rewarded with telepathy and who might want to know, "Hey, what's next?" But the subplots kind of wander and stumble around until Volume 2, when it becomes insanely good, and I'm not just saying that because King Mob throws his pistol into a lake in a pure-as-gold Arthurian moment. The later volumes of Invisibles get a lot more into how magic works as Morrison swaps out his kung fu me-characters for magical ones, and Morrison's own interviews in Anarchy for the Masses help here too. Magic, it turns out, is really a pretty simple idea of doing something to generate power, and then directing that power through effort. The trick is knowing what to ask for, and Grant will tell you through hard experience that we should always ask for what we NEED, not what we WANT. Because, let's face it, we're stupid men and we want things that are really very, very, bad for us.

If I were an aspiring magician -- and I never will be, thanks Dad -- I would read The Invisibles and Promethea, and see what I think of what their authors are saying. If nothing else, I'd be in for some of the best comics ever written, I shit you not. But they might also be on to something, something about creativity and human existence, about how we treat each other and what happens next, about things which are just out of earshot, and just beyond the corner of my eye.


  1. Enjoyed reading your piece on magician-penned comics. Not sure I agree Edward II could not have been written by Shakespeare (there's some evidence to suggest he collaborated on it, maybe), but this was enlightening stuff. And I hadn't known about Kevin Smith's BATMAN comics before -- reading the Chris Sims article to which you linked was ... enlightening. Yikes.

  2. Great post Jason. You might enjoy reaching alternate states without doing drugs through meditation and breath work, chanting and drumming. This is the page of a friend from CSUF who has practiced Euro shamanism, hope you enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/user/ThunderWizarddotcom
    James Elmore, Stage Adaptation, Riverside