Saturday, November 26, 2011

Eros, Esotericism and Esteban Maroto

In many ways, Our Gods Wear Spandex was about being a young and impressionable fanboy at a time when esotericism was common as crummy printing and cheesy advertising in comics. My local newstand Valles News (pronounced "Valis") was no less than a literal shrine to me, a place of discovery and mystery that haunts my dreams to this very day. It's probably significant that it physically straddled the Braintree-Weymouth border.

It was my Internet before there was such a thing, a window onto the wider world tucked away in a nondescript storefront next door to a hardcore alkie bar ("Helen's") whose patrons would often be passed out in their own puke or shit in the alleyway we took to get our various sugar and newsprint fixes. I lived anything but a sheltered life in my younger days.

Weymouth Landing, grim as ever, more so since Valles left

Valles was downright exoteric in comparison to Hennessy's News in South Braintree Square (across the street from the site of the Sacco-Vanzetti shootings), which carried the forbidden (literally- most places in the area wouldn't stock them) black and white horror and sci-fi magazines, particularly those published by Warren.

I couldn't usually afford the Warren titles (particularly Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella) and I'd have to smuggle them into the house if I could, but they made an enormous impression on my young psyche all the same.

A lot of that had to do with the art, mostly created by a Spanish studio of genius draftsmen, whose drawing chops were only equalled by their flaming libidos. Artists like Jose "Pepe" Gonzalez, Aureleon, Sanjulian and Gonzalo Mayo were less interested in the niceties of storytelling than in the endless celebration of the idealized female form. The mixture of heavy sex and light horror was the trademark of England's Hammer Studios, another touchstone in my early esoteric education.

There were other imported artists in the mix (particularly the great Filipino wave who were terrifying tired Yankee journeymen with their lush brushwork and tireless work ethic) and a couple of token Americans like the artgod Richard Corben (more on him later), but the artist who seemed to be the most arcane of them all was Esteban Maroto, who threw in occultomythic themes, Art Deco flourishes, surrealist and pop art weirdness and chiaroscuro flair into the mix, along with the usual testosterone-fueled fury.

Maroto's neoclassical portrayal of Perseus

When Warren bit the dust in the early 80s most of the Spanish artists seemed to move on (the Filipinos moved into animation en masse as their styles fell out of favor with editors) except Maroto, who stuck around and did some work for DC and Marvel. It was all gorgeous but by necessity it all lacked that erotic fire that made his Warren work so addictive.

Dejah Thoris, from Edgar Rice Burrough's
theosophy-tinged Warlord of Mars novels

Or maybe it was the times- Spain had chafed under Franco's fascist government for most of these artist's lives and the beginning of General's decline coincided with their ascent as Jim Warren's go-to men for his then-struggling comics line. The erotic energy and feeling of liberation they put into their work was infectious.

It was a marriage made in heaven- Warren wanted to adult comics up but was saddled with a stable of green and/or burned-out talent who made everything look like a crummy fanzine. When Maroto and the crew came in it all changed overnight.

Maroto's Faerie queens

Looking back on the line the art was by far the best thing about the Warren books, since Warren favored young and often sophomoric writing talent who had roughly the same mindset as their audience.

Although writers like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison like to sell themselves as pioneers in the use of esoteric tropes in comics, they are actually revivalists. We like to forget where things come from in order to heap praise what we have, but there was no shortage of high weirdness in 70s comics- they were all just very matter-of-fact about it. It was all about trying to amuse a jaded audience with new kicks learned in the then-active occult underground.

Check out Esteban Maroto's website here.


  1. Another excellent homage. I was learning to draw by copying Mort Drucker's caricatures for MAD, thinking I was outre. Ha! I had no idea. "Braintree." Hmmm.

  2. BTW--what's your take on Jack Parsons and JPL? Have you already covered that? Certainly one of the oddest convergences in recent American history is the Parsons-Crowley-Hubbard nexus. Stranger than fiction indeed. Like a Pynchon plot line, it hangs over the 20th century mindscape like a
    cloud of potassium perchlorate.

    That preternatural voice whispering in Gravity's Rainbow, regarding naturally-occuring chemical compounds: "they can be changed...."

  3. Hi Chris,

    Have you heard of an artist called Jose Ortiz? I used to read a comic called the Eagle when I was a kid (UK) and his B&W illustrations were fantastic. The stories I remember he worked on would definitely entrance Secret Sun readers.

    There was The Tower King (a satellite causes a huge EMP turning England into a medieval anarchic state), The House of Daemon (A surreal paranormal haunting story) and the Fifth Horseman (rich playboy having Indiana Jones-style adventure).

    Cool stuff. Maybe some UK readers remember this and can dig up some better details? I'd love to find info about the Fifth Horseman series - if I recall it featured Atlantis and mad supercomputers.

  4. Loved the Warren comics. My older brother bought Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, and I read them all. Thanks for the memories. Definitely part of the Internet before the Internet.

  5. Chris,

    I could very much relate to your recollections about where you picked up comics. I had vivid memories as a child of picking up a ton of comics from this 7-Eleven near where I lived, in the 70s, Marin County. The whole layout of that area has changed since then.

  6. Interesting 'Valles' tie-in. No relation that I am aware of. We pronounce it 'Va-yes' (Catalun pronunciation, or so I'm told).
    But because of the English/American and even South American/Central American varient of that name pronunciation, (i.e. 'vallis', 'vales', 'val-eeze, 'va-jes', and even 'val-lay')
    I pretty much answer to any of those with a shrug and a sigh. And you thought 'Knowles' was hard...

  7. Chris,

    My comic life actually started(besides the Sunday papers) with me getting into Heavy Metal mag. There I met Den, Möbius, Muth, great European artists. Skip ahead 20 years, and I became a member of Kevin Eastmen's "Words and Pictures " Gallery and Museum of Sequential Art( Northampton, MA ). I even sponsored one of Corben's Den series painting that hung in the gallery there. You have to see his paintings, amazing, like when I saw my first Maxfield Parrish. Blues filled with such light...

    Any how I had a short email conversation RC. Hope to see more of his Den series.

    On another note, to films, I did a series last night, "Lifeforce, Prince of Darkness, and ended with " The Legend of Hell House" all the while thinking about what you have put down in your blog. The fact that Colin Wilson wrote Lifeforce, struck me. And in all the films was this ambient soundtrack that held the action together.

    If you have not seen this film yet, watch, "Le Jette". All done with voice over and still images...

    Be well