Friday, November 30, 2007

Dana Augustine

It's Friday night. If you're home, go treat yourself to the mind-blowing visions of Dana Augustine.

Remember the first time you saw Star Wars? Or that first issue of The Eternals? Or your first episode of The X-Files? His stuff is kind of like that. A rare quality these days.

How This All Works

Here is an interesting episode of This American Life that gives a compelling example of how mythology is still alive and well. An ex-gang banger talks about how he learned how to cope with his lifestyle by taking lessons from the movies; those mythic Mob elements like loyalty and family. The program balances it out with examples of how organized crime works in the real world. Those virtues are there, but the grim reality of bad karma is spelled out explicitly.

A compelling listen, and a great example of how highly-motivated people will live their lives based on our modern myths. It reminded me of an episode from high school. A friend of mine had a hassle going on with a school thug. A day of reckoning came when this friend and the thug would have to throw it down. My friend brought in X-Men # 140, and steeled himself by getting inspiration from Wolverine during the lunch break.

The thug disappeared from school for a while and by the time he came back the hassle just sort of evaporated. I was kind of disappointed, I think my buddy would have cleaned this guy's clock. He was pretty strong anyway, and Wolverine really seemed to be in his blood that day.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Podcasty Goodness!

I've been doing a lot of radio and podcasts for Our Gods Wear Spandex. Most of the radio has been little 10 minute segments on talk shows. But I've done some podcasts that go a bit more in-depth.

First up is Shadowdance, with Michelle Belanger and Chris Miller. This one was a lot of fun, Chris and Michelle come from a neopagan background but both know their stuff when it comes to comics. Go download from here.

There's also a podcast called Red Ice Creations, with Henrik Palmgren. Henrik has a great show and we had a great chat about the book and went further afield in the subscriber interview. Check the free podcast here.

Next is Tracy Twyman, former editor of Dagobert's Revenge. Tracy's done a lot of fascinating work over the years and it was a pleasure to finally speak with her. Check it out here.

I also did an NPR show called Sidetrack, though was having quite a bit of trouble with my asthma during it! I'm in the last segment and you can find that here.

There a couple others on the way, but I think this lot will give you a good idea. I must say I've gotten a lot of great feedback from these shows, even the local radio. With only a couple exceptions on a couple radio shows, everybody's read the book and had great things to say about it, so that's been very gratifying. There are a lot of comic fans out there, who aren't bogged down by some of the negative attitudes pervading too much of fandom these days. I hope the ideas in Spandex help to rejuvenate people's interest in the genre and from what I've heard from these people, it seems to be the case.

This is encouraging, because a recent visit to the Big Apple Con offered some disturbing portents. There were barely any fans under 30 in the dealer rooms or artist alley. Comics are doing fine and superheroes are doing fine, but superhero comics need a youth transfusion and need a bit sunshine. Compared to my pilgrimage to Dragon*Con, there seemed to be a startling lack of community at Big Apple, and most patrons seemed to be men in their mid-40's, dressed in gray or black clothing, mostly alone or in groups of two. This is a fairly large show in the backyard of Marvel and DC at a time of year when cons used to clean up. I got the feeling if two of the Heroes hotties hadn't been there, that show would have been dead. There's a lot of work to be done to broaden the appeal of the genre and a lot of fans out there don't seem to be too welcoming to new blood or new ideas. There are a lot of options out there, and fans should realize that they are ambassadors for the genre and the medium. I was struck by how open and warm and friendly most of the fans at Dragon*Con I met were, and think the reading end of the fan spectrum could use a bit of that now. I have high hopes for the digital initiatives in the offing, something I've been clamoring for for years. I have three kids and all of them spend most of their leisure time online. There's no going back. The stories, the attitudes, the flavor of the medium is going to change. That's incredibly exciting to me but, sadly, threatening to others.

Hercules/Superman redux

Part one of the Superman/Hercules presentation is up on Comic Book Resources.

I was hoping to hand this off and move on but that's the way it always goes. It's been fascinating watching some of the reaction on the message boards. It really reminds me of the old debates in the AOL religion section, particularly when it came to polarized topics like biblical inerrancy. It's all clarified things in my mind and helped solidify ideas I've been mulling over.

Part two should be up today.

Quote for the Day:

But the coming Superman is of the type of the Masters: They are Masters of Compassion; not only Masters of Knowledge, but of love and knowledge together, which make Wisdom, and it is Wisdom which shall be the characteristic of "the Coming Race". - Annie Besant, 1917

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Secret Societies and Superheroes? Say it ain't so...

The quasi-Masonic Orange Order is getting in the superhero business...

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's... well he doesn't have a name yet, but the Orange Order hopes to win a new generation of fans with their own superhero. The origins of the Orange Order may date from the 17th century battle for supremacy between Protestantism and Catholicism, but they have high hopes for this 21st century makeover.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Forever Jung

I know what some of you are thinking: "The occult? Gods and superheroes? Is this guy off of his rocker?" Well, maybe, but there is an established methodology I'm trying to follow in looking at these issues. A lot of you may be familiar with Joseph Campbell, but some of you may not realize that Campbell's research was in no way unique. He was actually a follower of the legendary Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung.

Appropriately enough, I first became aware of Jung when the Police released their album Synchronicity, named in honor of one of Jung's central teachings. Synchronicity as Jung taught was meaningful coincidence, which he saw as the unifying principle behind human experience; "the Hand of God" as he called it. Jung also saw our mythology as having a profound basis in human psychology and mirrored our real-life dramas by exaggerating and universalizing them. That is the framework in which I approached Our Gods Wear Spandex, and the framework in which I would like it to be read.

Jung enjoyed a vogue in the 90's with writers like James Hillman, Robert Bly, Thomas Moore and Deepak Chopra. I've read and appreciate a lot of their work, but Jungian philosophy is a lot deeper, more challenging and much more dangerous than the version some of these writers presented to us. Jung also introduced the language of Symbology into the popular lexicon which has burst into the forefront with films like The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure.

So what would I recommend as a good starting point for people to enter the mysteries of Jung's teachings? Interestingly enough, I'd recommend a comic book: Introducing Jung by Maggie Hyde and Michael McGuinness.

This book is by no means comprehensive (many of Jung's books are very tough to get through unless you're an academic), but will give you a good overview of Jung's life and work and help provide a framework for understanding what I am trying, in my own modest way, to accomplish in Our Gods Wear Spandex.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Occult is a Misnomer

From the still-raging CBR debate:

The occult itself is a misnomer- this kind of material is mainstream and has been since the days of the pulps. You can get material on the "occult" in every bookstore or library in the country, or on half the shows on the Disney Channel. What were once occult themes are in almost every comic book story out there, which I write about in the book.

The Day My Life Began...

It's a cliche to say that a movie changed your life, but everything changed for me the day I saw Jason and the Argonauts on channel 56...

P.S. - "A Hercules in Strength"

Saturday, November 24, 2007


It's a truism that superheroes are nothing new. Pulp superheroes like John Carter, the Shadow, Doc Savage and Tarzan predate Action #1, just as comic books like Ally Sloper's Half-Holiday long predate Famous Funnies. But the heroes of the pulps were arrogant toffs- leftover symbols of the Victorian Era. They traveled the world at will, gained their mystical powers from gurus in far-off colonial outposts, and slugged it out with the ethnic gangsters of the 20's and 30's. There was a distancing, aristocratic air about them, and they didn't speak to the feelings of alienation that all kids who read for pleasure have always felt, especially in America.

The superheroes we know now are something different. And in many important ways they are the inseparable byproduct of Depression-era Manhattan. Again, you had this synergy- almost a cosmic conspiracy of events that made the superheroes inevitable. You had the waves of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, including a lot of Jews fleeing the rise of fascism. You had the starving masses walking the streets cheek-by-jowl with the super-rich. You had corruption and crime everywhere, and gangsters ruled the streets. You had overcrowded tenements overshadowed by awe-inspiring skyscrapers that were just begging to be leapt over. And everywhere you looked you saw gods- the lingering effects of the Neoclassical movement.

Even today, you can't go anywhere in the moneyed environs of midtown Manhattan- Park Avenue, Murray Hill, Rockefeller Center- without being confronted by the images of Greco-Roman and Egyptian religion. Murals, reliefs, friezes, statues, and mosaics all feature the same pantheons of gods from pre-Christian times. How could a young, wide-eyed kid from the Lower East Side or Hell's Kitchen not be awestruck by this combination of wealth, power and pagan revanchism? I walked those very same streets for many years while working in Manhattan- it's amazing to me that most people are unconscious of this symbolism that they see everywhere.

That is why Hercules' lion-skin cloak became Superman's cape. That is why Captain America's costume borrows motifs from the Greco-Roman warrior-heroes. That is why Mercury leapt off the facade of Grand Central Station and into the pages of Flash Comics. That is why Horus flew from King Tut's tomb and reincarnated himself as Hawkman. That is why Captain Marvel called upon gods like Zeus and Atlas to gain his powers. Kids like Joe Siegel, Bob Kane, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Bill Parker and C.C. Beck may not have realized it, but they were giving birth to a new and powerful mythology. A mythology that worked a lot like the old ones, underneath all the face-masks and long underwear. And few people realize that this new mythology was mid-wifed by a host of Victorian occult groups like the Rosicrucians and the Golden Dawn, moneyed eccentrics who called up these old gods from their long slumber to face the challenges of the Industrial Age. And they probably didn't realize that the first comic superheroes- Mandrake and the Phantom Magician - both emerged from a hand-me-down version of the strange admixture of ceremonial and stage magic that these groups traded in.

I didn't consider all of this back in 1999. I wouldn't fully realize it until I set out to write Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. But now I know what I only intuited back then- that fans and creators of superheroes are the custodians of a deep and profound tradition. Of course, it was tough to imagine anything profound about superheroes or comics in 1994, but since then we've had a host of creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, J. Michael Straczynski, and Mike Mignola digging beneath the surface and uncovering the true magical and mythological roots of this genre. Alex Ross almost single-handedly destroyed the Chromium Age and all of its excesses with Kingdom Come, in its own strange way a deeply religious work of art. Now superheroes rule the box office and plain-clothes superheroes have made a huge splash on TV with shows like Heroes and Smallville.

I don't think a society can function without its mythology. It's not exactly like its religion- it's something more nebulous, but at the same time more pragmatic. Modern religions are about seeing God as a father figure who loves us unconditionally. Our myths are a bit more unforgiving- they deal with the reality of functioning in a world that doesn't give a damn about us- a cold world where only the strong survive. Our myths are parables, fables with specific object lessons featuring archetypal characters that reflect our own nature. The great monotheistic religions rose in power to counter the unrelenting realities of the world, where bad things happen to good people and bad people flourish, by offering a better deal in the next world. Superheroes, action films, video games are more concerned with developing coping strategies in this one.

A True Homage

From The CBR Debate:

"Swipe" is a ambiguous word. There's some of the egregious swipes we saw in 90's on one hand and exactly what describe what you describe on the other.

To tell you the truth, I think of it as an homage in the deepest and most honest sense of the word. I think this was Siegel's way of paying tribute to the figure that inspired him most by paying tribute to what may have been the most inspiring image of that figure to him. I've showed the other images that tie into the Hercules legend on my blog and that was just a cursory overview of some of the themes he traded in.

Some of you guys may think I'm being this little snitch, trying to spoil everyone's appreciation of this icon like some revisionist biographer. Not at all- as with Spandex, I'm trying to deepen and broaden people's appreciation and understanding by showing the roots of this genre and how powerful and compelling these icons are to fans and creators.

Hand Off

Here's my last offering on this topic. I think I've taken this as far as I can go. Comics is an extremely hierarchal culture and it's not my place to establish this in the minds of the community. I've put up my evidence and it's up to historians to determine the rest. I would offer this last diagram, showing that key points of both images line up and that the hydra and the rock constellations fall on the lower right hand corners of both images.

(open image in new window to see full-sized version)

I do have a full-time job (and then some!) and a book to promote. The important issue in my eyes is how the whole Greco-Roman Neo-Classical millieu that kids like Siegel and Shuster grew up in played such a crucial role in the development of the modern superheroes. And this image is in my eyes the most profound and primal expression of that. It's not just a question of influence, it's as if gods like Hercules are in the essential DNA of all of our superheroes today.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

All That is Hidden...

...shall be revealed.

“Never draw what you can copy; never copy what you can trace; and never trace what you can cut out and paste up.” -Wally Wood

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


First of all, let's establish the meaning of the term "swipe." I'm looking at this from the point of view of a graphic artist. "Reference" or "inspiration" often means "knocking off" in the trade. You take an image and futz around with it - change things, move things around- until you come up with something new. The action lines and placement details in this piece seem out of the realm of coincidence.

Well, rather than argue semantics let's go to the overlays:

This is how swipes usually work. You don't outright copy the pose, especially when you are drawing in a different style. But here are the basic facts in evidence:

• The characters are at an almost identical forward angle.
• The position of the legs is reversed but in very similar poses.
• Likewise with the right arms.
• Both are holding an oblong object which is at roughly the same angle.
• The orientation of the heads is essentially identical.
• The torsos meet up at the chest, but Shuster's left arm is anatomically incorrect. This would be expected if he were working from reference like that.

• The body and foremost head of the Hydra match up with rock in a way that makes coincidence unlikely.
• The tire hits at the same spot the segmented belly of the Hydra is located.
• The car is coming in at the rock at the same angle as Hercules approaching the Hydra.

Here is a simpler diagram of the Hydra and the rock:

I wonder if this was done on a dolly (opaque projector), which would allow Shuster to play with the sizing. The spatial relationships on that diagram directly above might argue in favor of that. That very clip-art looking car also argues in favor of a dolly. It's a bit too well drawn in contrast to the very awkward upper body of Superman.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is Action Comics #1 a Swipe? (Updated)

It is the single most iconic image in the history of comic books. But was it swiped?

"Liebowitz pressed Vin Sullivan to get the fourth comic book up and running…The title would now be Action Comics. There was no time to go soliciting material.

Independent wanted it on the racks in the spring of 1938, and the sales force was going to push it hard. The deadline was so tight that Sullivan would have to pull it together from inventory and stockpile pages. Only parts of it would be printed in color. He collected a decent set of adventure strips, but it lacked a strong lead feature. He wanted something with a catchy central character, something he could splash on the cover, but there was nothing at hand strong enough. So he asked his friend and former coworker Sheldon Mayer if Charles Gaines had anything knocking around that he hadn’t been able to set up with the McClure Syndicate.

Mayer found a rejected Superman comic strip, and then…Vin wrote his letter to Jerry [Siegel] and Joe [Shuster], telling them that their Superman samples were headed for Cleveland by parcel post and that if they could cut and paste them into thirteen comic book pages in a matter of days, he’d buy them." - Gerard Jones, in Amazing Heroes #96, June 1, 1986

As I write in Our Gods Wear Spandex, Jerry Siegel was one of those creators who seemed to have a fairly deep fascination with the occult and mythology. Siegel is on record as saying that his inspiration for Superman came from mythic characters like Samson and Hercules. And as I document in Spandex, Lex Luthor bears a strong resemblance to infamous British occultist, Aleister Crowley, both visually and biographically. And of course, Superman's immediate prototype was the occult detective Doctor Mystic, aka Doctor Occult...

The cover of Action #1 may well be a homage to one of Siegel's inspirations. The pose bears a strong resemblance to a classic image of Hercules- "Heracles and the Hydra" painted by Antonio Del Pollaiolo in 1475.

• Note, for instance, that the angle of Hercules' staff is identical to that of the running board of the car there. The position of the legs is changed but the effect is the same. And the forward foot looks swiped.

• Both heads are oriented downward. Shuster's anatomy on Superman's torso seems a bit awkward, as if he were trying to force the swipe into the pose, but as with the hand couldn't nail the anatomy.

• Note that Superman's hand seems to be a bit tentative, as if hastily redrawn.

• Early versions of Superman did not have a cape. Was Hercules' lion skin cloak the inspiration for that?

• The rock on Action is a near stand-in for the body of the hydra, following essentially the same contours.

• The hydra's neck forms a S, just like the snake-like S on Superman's chest.

• Note that the flying rock is in the same position and orientation as the hydra's head.

• Note that the hydra's belly seems to become the tire, an obvious choice since the scales are reminiscent of tire treads.

•The nebulous background on Action also is strongly reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. Perhaps a subconscious inspiration, but seeing that the pose of Batman from Detective #27 was taken straight from an Alex Raymond strip, perhaps not.

Siegel and Shuster were under the gun to get this book together, they certainly could well have drawn on one of their top influences to create an iconic image for their shot at the big time. It certainly wouldn't be the first time...

Swipe? Homage? Sheer coincidence? It's seems obvious to me to be a swipe, but I'd like to hear more opinions on this...

Action Comics, Superman ©2007 DC Comics, Inc.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Picture is Worth....

"All of a sudden it hits me; I conceive a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard of rolled into one.”- Jerry Siegel

Watch this space....

What I Mean by "Gods"

I've been doing a lot of radio interviews these past few weeks and I can tell that people are a bit thrown by the term "gods." I get the feeling some of these folks aren't exactly sure what I mean- do I think we should follow Homer Simpson's example and pray to Superman? Not exactly.

What I mean is this: superheroes have become the new mythology in much the same way that violent sports like football or UFC have become the new gladiator combat, or Burning Man has become the new Druidism, or heavy metal music has become the new Viking conquest.

Today's culture has this ingenious way of reaching back into history, discovering all of these compelling cultural details from our past and then updating them. And doing so in a way that the basic selling points of these practices are left intact, but all of the, um, excesses that clash with a post-Enlightenment sense of morality are not. So we can have all of the action and spectacle of violent sports, without putting the losing team to death. You can experience all of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll of the ancient mystery cults on the dance floor without some of the the, uh, excesses...

The way this is all evolving can be hard to explain to people unfamiliar with the immersive culture of fandom. You almost need to see it, and spend some time in it to figure out how it all works. The rise of role-playing games is playing a huge role in all of this, as is "cosplay" (costumed play), live action role playing, fan fiction and fan films. But as I write in the book, superhero films, TV shows and video games (both spandexed and plain-clothed) would not be so successful if this material was not striking a very deep chord in the society at large.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The New Counter Culture

There’s been a bit of a hullabaloo over that the fact that 2004 is the 70th anniversary of the modern American comic book. For most people, this is one of those nostalgic milestones that reminds us of our lost innocence. Hey, Lou remember the Funnies? Remember the Hit Parade? Remember egg creams? Gosh, those were the days. To Mr. and Mrs. America today, Comic books are either hopelessly quaint or vaguely disreputable. In this age of endless electronic diversion, where does something as hopelessly archaic as a comic book fit in?

I asked the manger of my local comics store what percentage of his non-Manga clientele is under 15 and he replied that it was maybe 3%. Then I asked him which percentage is 15-20 and he responded maybe 10%. I remarked that in the 80’s when I was managing New England Comics the 10-20 age bracket was probably 80% of the market. The over-30 bracket was limited to a few strange old birds who wandered in now and then. I would say the over 30’s are 60% of the market today.

Now, when I go to a comics store I generally have a hard time finding things to buy. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of things I want, it’s that the Bush economy has been murder on my finances and I just can’t stock up on all those Masterworks and monographs I eye wistfully every week. I see a lot of things on the racks that I admire or enjoy thumbing through, but when it comes to plonking down 3 bucks for a five minute read, I get super picky. Let me say this: anyone who puts out a comic book- never mind a series of them- instantly gets my respect and admiration, even if it’s often grudging. And let me also say this: the overall quality of comic books has never been higher and they just continue to improve. I can’t believe how many talented artists there are out there- it’s simply astounding. But again, I have kids and a mortgage and my 2003 tax return would inspire fits of laughter and derision if I divulged it here. So I have to be frugal. And I have noticed that there has been a waning level of excitement among fans since the glory days of the Bill and Joe show. But that’s to be expected. It will come around again.

So, in an age of Kazaa, Reality TV and Grand Theft Auto and MTV, why do Comics persist? Why hasn’t the medium just laid down and died like so many have predicted for the past 30 years?

Well, Comics persist and will continue to persist because it is not simply a format we are talking about here, like 8-tracks, Betamax or Big Little Books, or even a medium, it is a Counter-Culture. Comics, have for at least the past 20 years, behaved contrary to the whims of the Mainstream. Where Mainstream media has gotten stupider, glossier and emptier, Comics have become brainier, edgier and more subversive. The very fact that you have to actually sit down and read the damn things is itself a seditious act in a culture seemingly hellbent on eradicating literacy entirely.

There was such an uproar from all quarters over Janet Jackson’s breast exposure at the Super Bowl half-time show you can’t help wonder what true nerve was struck there. In many ways, that tit-flash was the apotheosis of American culture over the past decade. An talented but aging singer being reduced to what is essentially a form of prostitution to regain the attention of jaded Americans. Liberal sophisticates shrug their shoulders and ask what the big deal is. And the knee-jerk cultural conservatives wallow in it far after everyone else has moved on. After all, smut is only acceptable if you feel guilty about it.

But the real issue here is American culture is so atomized, and American’s entertainment dollars are so violently fought over that the bar is being constantly lowered on every conceivable front. I am not one of those people who thinks that sex and violence in entertainment leads to criminal behavior, in fact I think the opposite. I think it leads to docility.

After all, as entertainment has become ever more extreme over the past 10 years, crime rates have fallen, as have other negative social indicators like teen pregnancy and abortion rates. One look no further than Japan to see how extreme entertainment actually inoculates a society against transgression. If you get a nice, safe, easy fix of sin on your couch, you don’t to get a risky dose of it on the streets. But that’s just my current theory and the argument will go on forever.

But what to me is inarguable is that kids are not reading enough, especially boys. Video games are the primary source of diversion for young boys today, and it’s the neurological not the moral implications of this which trouble me. I see it in my own boys and my God, its nearly impossible to counteract. The repercussions of this are starting to manifest themselves in the academic under-performance of boys in relation to girls, girls being far more likely to read. This is the damage of Popular Culture in my eyes- illiteracy, docility and intellectual incuriosity, particularly regarding young boys. And what a “counter” culture is mean to do, is - duh - counter the prevailing trends of the dominant culture.

I ‘vie never been one of the fans who thinks that Comics need to appeal to the mainstream and lament the fact that Comics are no longer a mass medium. Because screw the Mainstream and screw Mass Media. To me, the mainstream is Babylon and the mass media is Samsara. These are things to resist, to fight against, to deride, to sneer at. All I see is greed, stupidity, and sleep induction when I turn on network television. The only movies I haven’t felt underwhelmed or ripped off by in the past few years were the Lord of the Rings pictures and Finding Nemo. In fact, I don’t even go to the movies anymore. All I usually see on the screen is the work of a committee of accountants. I hate the new corporate Rock with a flaming passion and can’t stand commercial radio. To me, even the dumbest comics are inherently smarter than the crap the Mass Media is force feeding us.

Fans, especially hardcore fans, love to moan about the state of the Industry. Things are always getting worse. Never mind that the market share for everything is going down as new diversions vie for an audience. And it’s true that a stigma still remains on Comics and there is a definite need for fresh blood. But the way to keep the medium vital is not to paint Comics as a failed, old mass medium, but as a red-hot, roiling counter-culture. Even if the Internet downloading hurts sales ( a phenomenon I just heard about ), it cant help but get new eyes looking at Comics. Smart kids are always going to want something to believe in and immerse themselves in, and you can see that in the diversity of the audience over the past 20 years. And even if most kids move on if the Manga fad fizzles, I am willing to bet that some will stay on and look over to see what the homegrown variety tastes like.

I will have a lot more to say on this in the future, whether here or on the Net. But I really believe its time for this community to get off its knees and raise its fist in the air. The only way for Comics to truly thrive is as a fork in the eye of the mainstream. The world isn’t dreaming anymore because the all encompassing reach of Mass Media has stolen those dreams from us. I don’t understand exactly what it is, but there is something special that Comics do to the imagination, which is exactly why we see so many comics fans getting rich in Hollywood. There is something alchemical about this medium that not even novels can touch. It’s that mixture of words and pictures that stimulates something in the deepest reaches of the brain, and people outside the Ghetto are starting to notice. Comics aren’t dead by a long shot. I say they’re are just now truly being born.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Layer Cake and the New Gangster Mythos

When most Americans think of England, they tend to think of tired, old cliches. In Yankee minds, England conjures up bucktoothed colonels, ruddy beefeaters, shrivelled aunties and raging queens prone to saying things like " Pip, pip", "cheerio" and "duckie." One thing England usually doesn't conjure up is organized crime. Of course, one could argue that the British Empire (still alive and well, kiddies, and don't you believe otherwise) is the most successful criminal operation in the world (next to the US gov't, of course). After all, England isn't exactly flush with natural resources, and it's only the inventiveness and cunning of the British mind that keeps the UK from being an impoverished European backwater like Portugal or Greece.

One thing the Brits excel at is spreading cultural memes that tend to infect and take over the world. The past few years have been a bonanza for British cultural contagions- Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and James Bond take up an inordinate amount of the the leisure time of the world's youth. Throw in the still churning (though less dominant) UK Pop machine and you've got even more attention focused on British ideas.

One thing the British seem to have cornered the market on is the arthouse gangster movie. Americans don't know how to make good ones anymore- the Mafia is a spent force and all the various new ethnic mobs are too exotic and frightening. The native charm of the accents and the attitude-familiar to Americans from pirate movies-goes a long way to helping all the violence and pillage go down easy. In addition, British gangster movies seem to be delightfully constructed puzzle pieces- crosses and double crosses, always leading to surprise endings. What's more, there's a good deal of humor thrown into the mix, which makes one think that it's all a jolly good show put on just for a laugh.

Layer Cake has introduced an actor whom people are calling the new Steve McQueen- Daniel Craig. He has the homely/handsome thing down pat, and has a virile masculinity that pretty boys like Jude Law and Hugh Grant seem to lack, much to their disadvantage at the box office. Layer Cake has a bunch of familiar faces- Michael Gambon, Colm Meaney, Steve Foreman, Jason Flemyng- and a serpentine plot similar in tone to Guy Ritchie's movies. But it isn't as cutesy-pie as Ritchie's films. (It also features Jude Law's jilted sweetie, Sienna Miller-who isn't naked enough for my taste, but easy on the eyes nonetheless).

Maybe the British gangster films share something in common with Mafia movies- that sense of the charming rogue. British gangsters seem less romantic than those in a Coppola or Scorcese film, but they also seem a lot less indiscriminately lethal. In comparison to recent American gangster movies- where everyone seems to be sprayed with bullets every five minutes or so- there is more of that intellectual engagement in British gangster movies, as we see the native intelligence at work that allowed a tiny, rainy island farther north than Siberia to conquer half the world .

Craig will soon end up in a bunch of shitty Hollywood films, but that's inevitable. The way things are going, there won't be any American actors left doing anything more challenging than The Wedding Crashers. Aussies, Irish, Anglos, Scots, Canadians and New Zealanders will taking all the lead roles- it's happening as we speak. The dumbing down of America is having noticeable consequences in Hollywood. One of the best films I've seen in ages- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - starred two Brits and a Canuck and was directed by a Frenchman. It took a Brit and a host of Commonwealth talent to revive the moribund Batman franchise, which Joel Schumacher had turned into a multi-million dollar Christopher Street Playhouse production.

Note: This was written in 2005, and since then Craig has gone on to super-stardom with the massive success of the James Bond revamp Casino Royale. It's probably no accident that Casino draws very heavily on the look and tone of the new British gangster movies. Action-wise, it also flows very much like a superhero movie.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Norman Conquests

History tells us some ragtag Scandinavian tribe came out of nowhere in the 10th Century and within a few decades conquered northern France, England, Sicily and Syria. Quite a feat. What history doesn't usually tell us is that four most powerful secret societies in the world would emerge from these Norman kingdoms. France produced the Knights Templar (originally composed largely of Normans), England produced the Freemasons, Sicily produced the Mafia and Syria produced the Assassins.

Quite a coincidence, don't you think?

At the Edge of 17

In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was killed on the 17th day of Athyr, the third month of the ancient calendar. Though not acknowledged, 17 seems to be a very meaningful number in the Mystery traditions, sort of equivalent to the Cross in Christianity. It symbolizes an unjust death and the promise of rebirth. Incidentally, Lazarus, whom many Biblical scholars believe was an adaptation of Osiris (Lazarus coming from El Ausur, Hebrew for "the god Osiris") was raised by Jesus in John 12:17. One of Lazarus’ sisters was named Marta, which means ‘mistress of the house’, the exact meaning of Nephthys.

The first officially acknowledged Masonic body, the Grand Lodge of England, was established on the Feast Day of John the Baptist in 1717. The most powerful Masonic body in the World, the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite has its headquarters on 1733 16th St. in Washington, DC. There are 33 degrees in Scottish Rite Masonry.

The last manned mission to the Moon was the Apollo 17 mission. The next is the Orion 17.

As Herodotus tells us, the Greeks identified Horus with Apollo: "Before these men, they said, the rulers of Egypt were gods, but none had been contemporary with the human priests. Of these gods one or another had in succession been supreme; the last of them to rule the country was Osiris' son Horus, whom the Greeks call Apollo; he deposed Typhon, and was the last divine king of Egypt. Osiris is, in the Greek language, Dionysus." -Herodotus, Book 2, Chapter 144

Orion was identified with Osiris
, who again died on the 17th day of the third month. "Month," of course, derives from the root word moon. So how many crescent moons do we see on the Orion 17 mission patch?

Additionally, the so-called “Sacagaewa” dollar (the actual woman on the coin is unnamed), which was minted in the year 2000, depicts a woman and a male infant on the obverse and an eagle surrounded by 17 stars on the reverse. The alleged “Sacagaewa” wears an earring depicting a point in a circle, which Freemasons associate with the seed of Osiris in Isis’ womb.

3/17 is also the date of a Masonically-created holiday, St. Patrick’s Day. The story has it that the holiday was established by high level Freemason, George Washington, allegedly to reward Irish soldiers in the Continental Army. But “St. Paddy’s” has traditionally been a very minor Saint’s day in Ireland. Considering that the day has become America’s defacto Bacchanal (which takes us back to Osiris) it’s worth noting some of the parallels of this day with Solar mythology.

• Osiris was believed to be the source of barley, which was used for brewing beer in Egypt.
• It’s customary to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day and Osiris was known as the “Green Man”
• St. Patrick’s Day is five days before the Spring Equinox, associated with the rebirth of Osiris.
• The root word of Patrick is pater, the Latin word meaning father. Osiris is the father in the Egyptian Trinity.

The 17th card of the Tarot is the Star Trump, which features the water-bearer, associated with the constellation of Aquarius.

Most astrologers believe that we are entering the Age of Aquarius, where the Sun will rise in the constellation of Aquarius for the nest 2,000 years or so. Hippies and New Agers celebrate the new age as one of peace, understanding and consciousness. Occultist Aleister Crowley named this new age "The Aeon of Horus." He wrote about this in several of his works, including his novel, Moonchild. His vision of the new age was one of war, cruelty and chaos.

On the right is the cover of Moonchild. On the left is the obverse of the Sacagaewa dollar.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Kenneth Anger, Jimmy Page and Lucifer Rising

This is my original pitch for the 2006 Classic Rock piece on Lucifer Rising. The story featured interviews with Jimmy Page, Kenneth Anger and Bobby Beausoleil. The piece was reprinted in Guitar World in December of 2006.

1969 was the year the utopian dreams of the 60’s Generation came crashing down to Earth. The false dawn of the Woodstock festival was book-ended by the horrific Manson Family Tate-LoBianco murders in Los Angeles and the Rolling Stones catastrophic free concert at the Altamount Speedway outside of San Francisco. And a new band called Led Zeppelin, sporting a harsh new sound and dark, occultic worldview crashed the Peace and Love party setting the stage for a parade of quasi-satanic imitators.

Like a demonic sprite summoned to chronicle his master’s handiwork upon the earth, underground film-maker Kenneth Anger released his landmark short film, Invocation of My Demon Brother, a work dedicated to his hero, British occultist Alexander “Aleister” Crowley. The piece used jump-cut editing, unleashing a montage of black magic ritual imagery along with footage of the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park, commemorating the death of Brian Jones, who died July 3 of that year. Anger had inserted himself into the Stones’ malign orbit, just as Mick Jagger’s ego had mushroomed to such mammoth proportions that he imagined himself as the earthly incarnation of Lucifer, the rebel angel of Christian mythology. Jagger was commisioned by Anger to create the soundtrack for Invocation and constructed a 12 minute suite of tape loops, primitive synthesizers, detuned accordions and driving drums and bass. The music is completely unlike anything the Stones or Jagger had ever performed. Even today, it sounds dangerously avant-garde.

The history of Invocation of My Demon Brother was nearly as malevolent as the film itself. The project started life in 1966 as “Lucifer Rising”, Anger’s paean to the spirit of Lucifer which he saw manifested in the social unrest and violence of the time. Anger cast Bobby Beausoleil, one-time guitarist with legendary LA Rock band Love, as Lucifer. A row would result in Beausoleil fleeing LA with the 1600 feet of film shot for the project and a curse put upon him by Anger would result in Beausoleil falling into the clutches of Charles Manson and his desert-dwelling family. Manson and Beausoleil would hold the film hostage, but destiny had other plans for them.

Following the success of Invocation, Anger set to work re-conceptualizing Lucifer rising. Ejected from the Stones’ orbit after Jagger renounced the devil and all his works in the wake of Altamount, Anger had the good fortune of meeting Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin at a auction of Crowley’s possesions. A three-year drama would follow with Page agreeing to compose the soundtrack to Lucifer Rising, only to have face Anger’s wrath after only 28 minutes of music had been recorded. Like Jagger’s work on Invocation, Page’s soundtrack sounded utterly unlike anything Led Zeppelin had recorded. Using his guitar run through and ARP synthesizer, Page composed a series of nightmarish dirges, portions of which were used for the intro of “In the Evening” from Led Zeppelin’s final album. Following a break with Page, Anger would reconcile with Beausoleil, who was now serving time for his role in the Manson killings. Beausoleil eventually composed the soundtrack for Lucifer Rising, from his prison cell, possibly an historic first.

"Symphony for the Devil" will explore the complex relationships and coincidences connecting the nightmares of the Love Generation, everything Charlie Manson to Altamount to John Lennon’s murder. The flirtation with the Dark Side that made the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin so controversial and the influence that Anger’s pioneering work had on Rock video and occult-inspired artists like Black Sabbath and David Bowie will be explored. The connection of Anger’s work to Jagger’s notorious film debut Performance will also be touched upon.

From the Amazon Blog

Spandex Forever!
9:36 PM PDT, November 2, 2007
Welcome back to the Our Gods Wear Spandex blog. I'd like to thank everyone who's picked up the book! As I've said this is just the beginning of what I hope to become a long cultural conversation, and I intend to use this blog to turn readers on to books and other cultural artifacts that I think will augment the experience of those of you interested in these topics. Now for all of you old school Marvel maniacs, I am going to present the news in a manner you may find strangely familiar...

ITEM!- I will be on Jason Croft's excellent weekly radio program Sidetracks on November 3rd, 5pm central time. The show streams live on WILL-AM 580's site and will be archived in a week or so. Jason is a true believer of the first order and our conversation will give the curious an excellent introduction to the premise of the book. I've done some other interviews that will be on-air or online soon and I will notify all and sundry as to dates, times and locales. You can check out Jason's show at

ITEM!- As promised, I've posted a recommended reading list. Check it out here. I may have a few more lists in store- scratch that, I will have a few more lists in store for readers of this blog that will give you guys a better idea of some of the issues I'm working through in Spandex.ITEM!- I do have a very hearty recommendation on tap tonight- the surprisingly great new Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme DVD. Be aware that I am highly biased (I mean, I even loved the cheeseball Doc Strange TV movie from the 70's) but this DVD is probably the best superhero animation since Batman: The Animated Series. The story is by no means canonical, but in many ways is a much more compelling version of the Doctor's origin (why exactly pre-accident Strange was so heartless is explored in-depth). The animation is top-rate, the voice acting is as well and there are some very cool new characters in the mix. The reworking of Dormammu may be jarring to some traditionalists, but the breathless pace of the third act will quiet any quibbling. Even if you aren't a Doctor Strange fan already, I think you'll really dig this new vision of the character. I'll be writing a full review of it soon and will repost it here.

ITEM!- Joe and I have worked up some exclusive content for Amazon that should be going up soon. Joe worked up a hilarious caricature of he and I and in a brand new essay, I explore the impact that new superhero revolution is having on the media at large. Which leads me to my next...

ITEM!- People have been asking me what I think of the new season of Heroes. I know ratings are down dramatically, and the planned Heroes:Origins mini-series has been put on hold. I don't think there's much of a mystery here- there are too many characters onscreen and too many storylines in play. To me, it's definitely a case of too much of a good thing. I would recommend that some of these new characters (heck, some of the old ones, too) are put on the back burner or dispensed with altogether. I think the writers are trying to avoid the problems with pacing that Lost was having, but I think they've gone too far in the other direction. It's one thing to have seven simultaneous storylines when you have a daily soap, but with a weekly show it becomes enervating. The good news is that I think what is wrong with Heroes is very easily fixed- simply trim the fat and focus on the interplay between the characters featured in the first season. We like those characters and we like those relationships- that's why we made the show a hit.

ITEM!- Fans of Heroes would do well to also check out The 4400, which in many ways is the unacknowledged inspiration for NBC's hit. The 4400 may not have the budget or the sex appeal of Heroes, but it has very compelling characters and a much more coherent approach to juggling their storylines. The 4400 just finished its fourth season and it was a bit of a mixed bag- the season started and ended strongly, but sagged a bit in the middle. Part of the problem is that it tried stealing back a bit of Heroes' thunder by emphasizing more explicit superpowers. There was also a troubling cheapness to the show's look, perhaps the result of budget cuts. But all's well that ends well and this season of The 4400 ended very well indeed. Anyone interested in comics and superheroes should be watching.

ITEM!- My comics recommendation this week is not superhero-oriented, but will very much appeal to fans of all stripes. It's Rick Veitch's Army@Love. This book is a scathing parody of our current military adventuring in the Middle East that is laugh-out-loud funny and sexy as hell. Think Chaykin's American Flagg transposed into our current reality (not much of a leap, actually). Veitch's imagineering is so endlessly inventive and frightfully credible he may find unwittingly himself drafted into service to re-remake the military for the 21st Century...

That's all for now, true believers. Please visit often for future updates. And oh yeah, buy my book! =)