Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sync Log: Still Praying to the Aliens...

People are going to interpret this as a comment on celebrity culture, but it's clear that this is about alien visitations and MIBs. You see the classic MIB in the supermarket and their trademark archaic black sedan in the alley, and the lyrics about sexless figures watching us in "our primitive world" or menacing us while we sleep or lurking in the dark on the stairs pretty clearly spells it out. As does the photo of Bowie from The Man Who Fell to Earth on the cover of the fake tabloid. One of Bowie's studio players said that one of the tunes they were working was originally called "Born in a UFO"- I wonder if this is it.

The Sync? Read this.

PS: Yes, I realize "Praying to the Aliens" is a Gary Numan song.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Doctors, Dimensions and Doorways, Part 2

There's a running joke in comics fandom that Rohrshach from Alan Moore's Watchmen is not based on Steve Ditko's Charlton character The Question but on Ditko himself.
Rohrshach was less like Ditko's Question (reinvented as a proto-Synchro conspiracy theorist in the Justice League cartoons, voiced by Deep Space Nine star Jeffrey Combs) than Ditko's Mr. A, a character Ditko created for Wally Wood's ground-breaking creator-owned anthology Witzend.

Though the early stories showed Ditko at his artistic peak, Mr. A was less a "character" for "entertainment" than a vehicle for Ditko's version of primal scream therapy, the wounded cries of a bullied schoolboy. Like many bullied kids, Ditko took on the persona of the bully in his work, latching onto Objectivism, now so popular among the New Confederates.
The Question in his Charlton incarnation

A classic case of the dragon hunter becoming the dragon, but perhaps inevitable in the context of Ditko's career. Ditko was part of the first generation of early comic book fans who entered the business. His early work was derivative of comics legend Joe Kubert to the point of homage, but was small and meek where Kubert's was sweeping and macho.

Kubert was a man's man, a take-charge alpha male with a grip of iron who essentially died at his drawing table. After a career as a top artist at DC, he became group editor for DC's top selling war books. An Edgar Rice Burroughs fanatic from very early on, Kubert engineered DC's acquisition of the Tarzan license, then a hot seller for Gold Key Comics.

Raising a large family in Northern New Jersey, Kubert bought an old mansion in town and used it to open a school for cartoonists in 1976 that is still going strong (he later bought the local high school building for his school). His sons Adam and Andy are two of the top pencillers in comics today.

Kubert's stories were classic adventure- tough guys doing tough things on battlefields or in the wilderness. By contrast, Ditko's stories were often of lonely losers, drifting helplessly to small, ugly deaths on dark, empty streets. Ditko's world was constantly in contraction, threatening to disappear completely.

"The Terror of Tim Boo Baa" (Amazing Adult Fantasy #9) is in many ways the definitive Steve Ditko pre-Marvel story, encapsulating the deep and disturbing currents at work in Ditko's unconscious mind. It tells the litany of a monstrous tyrant, the most fearsome historical personage on an alien world. Using Ditko's trademark nine-panel grid (borrowed by Alan Moore for Watchmen, incidentally), it goes on telling you just how awful Tim Boo Baa is...

...until he is suddenly washed away and revealed to be some strange figure ruling over a plastic model of a planet. There are plenty more stories like this in Marvel's mystery and horror books- nightmare visions of a constantly contracting environment. For Ditko, alternate realities were not places to escape to, they were Hells even worse than the nightmare world all of his characters were already stuck in.

Constant and irreversible contraction would become a reality to Ditko, a reality he chose despite winning a jackpot that nearly every single working cartoonist can only dream of.

After struggling for years, working for bottom-drawer outfits like Charlton, Ditko hit the big time with Stan Lee and co-created Marvel's most iconic hero, the Amazing Spider-Man. He co-created and co-wrote Doctor Strange (which he soon turned into a kind of paranoid schizophrenic manifesto), designed Iron Man's iconic red and gold armor and pencilled the Hulk after Kirby handed it off.

But this was all too much for Ditko. For reasons never fully understood Ditko quit Marvel in 1966 (at the height of the new golden age of superheroes) and returned to Charlton, which was tailgating on the superhero wave under the guidance of the visionary editor, Dick Giordano. When Carmine Infantino rose to the top seat at DC he recruited Giordano, along with Charlton's top talent such as writers Denny O'Neil and Steve Skeates and artists such as future Batman superstar Jim Aparo (Giordano eventually became editor-in-chief at DC and engineered its astonishing 80s rebirth).
Trying to revisit old nightmares, from DC's sci-fi anthology Time Warp

Ditko joined the exodus, creating a Spider-Man/Joker synthesis called The Creeper and the ideological debating society superheroes, Hawk and Dove. Neither were the success DC was hoping for and Ditko returned to churning out instantly forgettable horror stories for Charlton.

Ditko returned to freelancing for DC when Charlton closed up shop, working on expansion titles such as Man-Bat and Stalker. He also worked for Atlas/Seaboard, former Marvel owner Martin Goodman's short-lived attempt to relight the old fire.

Before returning once again to Marvel, Ditko created a highly-touted sci-fi superhero called Shade the Changing Man for DC.  It was here that Ditko's delirium tremens vision was dusted off- perhaps reluctantly on his part- and given one last quixotic shot to appeal to an audience who comics publishers simply couldn't get a handle on. I'll let comics blogger David Thompson take over here since I couldn't say it all any better myself:
 A strange, erratic tale of inter-dimensional espionage and (literally) mind-warping underwear, Shade defies adequate summary or satisfactory explanation. It does, however, include some feverishly inventive visual ideas, thanks chiefly to the possibilities of Shade’s M-Vest, a piece of alien technology that induced fearsome hallucinations in those around him.

The series is also famed for the Freudian nightmare of its central relationship - Shade is pursued by his homicidal former girlfriend - and for a number of inexplicable jumps in narrative. Published at a time when DC seemed intent on conquering the market by sheer volume of titles (the so-called ‘DC explosion’), Shade may have slipped beneath the publisher’s editorial radar in the confusion.

The company abruptly pulled the plug on Shade after only eight issues, possibly when someone in DC’s management actually read an issue or two and came to the conclusion that Ditko had himself lost his mind.
There's an old saying; just because you're paranoid, that doesn't mean they're not out to get you. I have my own variation: just because you're insane that doesn't mean that things aren't slipping in unnoticed through dimensional gateways...


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Men in Black Invade the Satellite

Nick Redfern asked me to contribute a chapter to his upcoming book on the Men in Black. You can preview my piece on The Solar Satellite. Nick will be responding and commenting on it in the book itself. I'll keep everyone posted as to when the book will be out.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Revisiting the Temple: In Light of Recent Events...

Recent drama at the Vatican didn't happen in a vacuum. It's part of an ongoing struggle, a cold war that could shake the world to its foundations if it were to go hot. 

As Fate would have it, the resignation of the Pope was preceded- by nine days- by the strange death of one of America's foremost warriors, a man who identified himself as a Knight of the Temple, or Knight Templar. This is by no means a fluke; Erik Prince and his immensely powerful Blackwater/XE outfit are also cited as self-described Templars, as was the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Brevik.

Lost in the media jumble was this story- six days before the Pope's retirement- about the Knights of Malta, who are stepping out of the shadows. And there are whispers on the fringe about prophecies being fulfilled and strange players taking a role behind the scenes. There's even a powerful drug cartel in Mexico that call themselves Templars, and acted as self-appointed security for his visit there.

Two years back I wrote a multi-part alt.history of the Templars, one I find myself returning to in recent days. I recommend you do the same. Here are the links- enjoy the series at your convenience...


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Doctors, Doorways and Dimensions, Part One

About 11 months ago I posted on an obscure Doctor Strange story from the early 1960s that led to an avalanche of discovery and revelation. I hadn't intended it to. But there was another unintended repercussion from that post that in many ways changed the course of my life. Certainly the course of my blogging (and lack thereof).

One of the main tenets of my research is that our most resonant pop culture is a kind of lucid dreaming, in which the creator acts as a guide for a shared visionary experience with the audience. 99.9% of the crap out there is immune to this process and is produced for reasons that are entirely mundane or cynical. But the stuff that resonates does so because it captures something elusive, something that changes the course of cultures and societies.

Another long-held tenet of mine is that true creativity is like a mushroom- it flourishes in damp, dark corners that are usually unsuited to more ordinary endeavors.

Pop culture exists under a relentless Klieg light these days, and those mycological resonators often wilt under the glare. Creators such as Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft were able to flourish creatively because they had just enough of a readership to keep their work going but were also granted the luxury of relative obscurity.

And so it was with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Marvel (then called Atlas) was a spent force in the comics business in the mid 50s and paid some of the lowest rates in town. As great a packager and salesman of ideas Stan Lee was, he didn't have much to sell or package. And his boss Martin Goodman wanted it that way.

The artists didn't necessarily end up at Stan's door out of choice. Ditko was a young artist whose work was too ugly and weird for the big publishers and Kirby was a vet who had trouble getting work elsewhere, partly because he was seen as a has-been with an out of date style and partly because of conflicts with his editors.

Stan wisely gave Kirby and Ditko carte blanche and allowed their fertile imaginations to run riot. In return they gave him an army of characters to take straight to the bank.

It took a while for things to take off and it was that period from 1957 to 1961 that's the most revealing. Kirby and Ditko produced reams of throwaway stories for Stan's low-selling sci-fi and horror books that contained the germs of their later successes for Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and the rest.

In the 60s as Marvel took off, Kirby and Ditko both became famous for their proto-psychedelic freakouts, especially with the hippie crowd. But they weren't idle reveries on their part. They were based in a deeply personal response to stresses and anxieties in their lives and their relationship to the world around them. That in fact their responses were so different speaks to the profound differences between the two men. Which in turn speak to deeper schisms in the culture at large.

And though conservative minded comics fans poo-poo the influence of hallucinogens on their work, I'm not quite so sure myself. Kirby and Ditko's work was wildly imaginative before it took off for parts unknown, but something seems to set them apart from the creators around them. And both were not quite the strait-laced 50s men some fans would have you believe.

Jack Kirby was close friends with Frank Zappa and socialized with his young hippie and geek fans in the 60s. Ditko shared an office with his best friend and sometime collaborator Eric Stanton, whose bondage/femdom fetish artwork is as extreme and insane as anything else published at the time. As I wrote in "Wizards, Workings and Walk-Ins":

The psychedelic landscapes that the Doctor found himself in were a huge part of his appeal with the hippie generation, who automatically assumed that Ditko too was experienced. Comics historians have always scoffed at these claims, but I'm not so sure.

Ditko did become Mr. Objectivist in the late 60s, but before that he was no stranger to the demimonde, having shared a studio with legendary fetish artist Eric Stanton, who was himself addicted to painkillers and deeply connected to all sorts of underworld and Bohemian characters through his work for various pornographers. Exactly the kinds of people who would have been toying with psychedelics in the late 50s and early 60s.

Ditko didn't just share a studio with Stanton-- he collaborated with him on his fetish art as well, some of which retains its power to shock today.

Of course, there are all kinds of experience and Blake Bell's outstanding biography of Ditko shows an artist who was deeply invested in the unconscious and irrational realms his entire career, and often seemed to skirt the boundaries of schizophrenia in his work. But as we'll soon see, I think an old friend of ours might have had an outsized influence on Ditko's interdimensional escapades as well.

Kirby and Ditko both felt resentful that Stan Lee became the face of Marvel Comics and both accused him of taking credit for their work, claims which are the source of considerable controversy among fans and historians.

What is clear is that more often than not, Ditko and Kirby were plotting their own stories for Stan well before the so-called Marvel Method kicked in. And more importantly, both became obsessed with the idea of alternate dimensions, even before their work took on a more explicit psychedelic bent.

If you take a High Weirdness approach to creativity, you see strange entities lurking in corners behind the work of great artists (Max Ernst is a perfect example of this). This applies to the sciences as well as the arts, as inconvenient as it may be to the plodders and mediocrities that populate organized skepticism.

On some strange level, visionaries often hear the call of beings outside space and time. How they choose to respond to that call is another question. And you can find no better example of opposite reactions than those of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby...


SYNC LOG: This is pretty stunning- Four Color Shadows posts "The Sorcerer," Kirby's ultra-obscure proto-Strange yarn at the same time this post went up. For more on "The Sorcerer," click here.