Friday, February 10, 2017

Hazy Cosmic Jive: Bowie and the Starmen, Part Three

OK, this is where things get a little strange. A little more synchy.

In part one we looked at the established history of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (more or less) and Bowie's superhero-oriented project that directly anticipated it. We also looked at the influences that fed into Bowie's seminal creation, not the least of which was Bowie's lifelong obsession with UFOs and extraterrestrials. 

We dug a little deeper in part two, unearthing a heretofore unacknowledged precedent for the Ziggy character-- stories about an interdimensional space savior who is channeled through an aspiring rock star named Jones  (I mean, come on)-- that appeared in several seminal comic books, all released at the very same time that David Bowie was struggling to find the right hook to achieve the mainstream success that had eluded him so since the mid-60s.

And timing, as they say, is everything.

I also think that, given the nature of the Captain Marvel storyline, Bowie could be forgiven if he saw it all as a message expressly intended for him, sent from some unknown, possibly extraterrestrial, source. 

And in light of the superhuman output that followed that revelation, who are we to argue?

Remember too that Bowie himself later appeared as a thinly-veiled character in a strangely similar narrative, namely Philip K Dick's VALIS.

But first a word about the unlikely source of this potential epiphany, since people may be wondering.

The crossover between comics and pop music is so common today we take it for granted (My Chemical Romance's Gerard Way is now an editor at DC Comics) but was a bit less so in the 1970s. 

Even so, Bowie's Glam rivals KISS and Alice Cooper both starred in their own Marvel comics, as did Bowie's idols The Beatles. And as we saw Bowie's then-wife Angela- a self-admitted Marvel Comics fan- was having meetings with Stan Lee to develop Marvel properties, as well as a Ziggy Stardust cartoon. 

So we have a very well-attested and direct connection here. This is not just wild Internet speculation.

And Bowie himself listed three comic books in his well-publicized Top 100 books list so he was obviously a fan too. And I think that fandom had a powerful effect- at least a unconscious one- on him until the day he died.

Now, Captain Marvel defined the trippy "Cosmic" era of 70s comics, an post-hippie update on both the Golden Age Captain Marvel and Superman, an alien savior whose adventures reflected the hallucinogenic adventures of his writers and artists (one creator told me he and his fellow artists used to drop acid and wander the streets of Manhattan at night on vision quests).

But Captain Marvel is noteworthy for another reason: he died.

Of cancer.

With interest in cosmic characters waning and management looking for an attention-grabbing hook to launch its graphic novel series, Marvel had writer/artist Jim Starlin revisit the character in 1982 for a death narrative, which were becoming all the rage for the publisher (the deaths of the X-Men's Phoenix/Jean Grey and of Elektra in Daredevil were huge sellers).

The story went that Captain Marvel contracted cancer while exposed to a deadly nerve gas (back in Captain Marvel #34). As the end nears the major heroes of the Marvel Universe travel to his outer space sanctuary to be at his side. It's a bit more involved than that but you get the idea.*

For the occasion, Starlin swiped from Michelangelo's take on the Pietà for the vaguely sacrilegious cover art.

And apropos of absolutely nothing, Bowie posed himself in post-postmodern rendering of the Pietà for his 1999 album '...hours.'

And as we saw last year the artwork for this album was rife with eerie foreshadowings of Bowie's own death by cancer (liver cancer, in this case; note the dead Bowie's hand is over his liver).  

Is there a connection?

Try this: David Bowie died on January 10th. Captain Marvel "died" January 12th, when The Death of Captain Marvel was released.

A collected version of the space hero's 1982 Death story, along with related adventures, was published in trade paperback in 2002, the same year Bowie released Heathen. 

Is that significant for any reason? Synchronistically, yes: Bowie covered a "song" by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy on it, the outsider artist from whence he lifted Ziggy's surname.

One more sync: Heathen also featured the enigmatic lyric, "Down in space, it's always 1982." 

But look again: what do you see emblazoned on the book cover behind the reimagining of the Pietà?

A black star.

Which brings us back to Bowie's final testament and second-to-last video. What do you see emblazoned on the cover of the Bible-like book Bowie waves around throughout the clip?

A black star.  

Interesting coincidence, particularly given the biblical connections to both. (Incidentally, the black star cancer connection is to breast cancer, which obviously doesn't apply to either of these cases).

This is interesting, too: in the song (and video) Bowie first drops the term 'Blackstar' after the bridge, when the song veers from a jittery skip to a jazzy stroll. The lyrics go something like this:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar**

As fate would have it "somebody else" took Captain Marvel's place after he died as well. And what pictogram do we happen to see emblazoned on her tunic there? 

Well, well; wouldn't you know it? A black star. 

How do those lyrics go again, now?

Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar

Yeah, that's one hell of a coincidence there.º Is all this intentional or conscious? It doesn't have to be. 

In fact, it's one hell of a lot more interesting to me if it's not.

In that light, note that Bowie is wearing a eye-mask in the "Blackstar" video. It doesn't look like Captain Marvel's mask, but still; He's wearing an eye-mask in the video.

"Blackstar" also features a dead NASA astronaut who was stranded on a primitive alien planet orbiting what looks to be a black sun. For many this is seen as a symbol of Major Tom, the protagonist of "Space Oddity" and "Ashes to Ashes." That could certainly be true, but the symbolism goes quite a bit deeper:
The association between Saturn and the Black Sun as an alchemical and occult symbol is traditional. In alchemy, the Black Sun represents the nigredo stage of the alchemical operation, the stage of calcination or blackening of the first matter by burning. 
As Bowie certainly knew the identification of the color black with Saturn is almost universal throughout occult and esoteric teaching:
Saturn: Put on black clothes, namely the cloth used to wrap a corpse and a black cape in the mode of a doctor and black shoes. --Picatrix, Book III, Chapter  7 
Note that a woman- with a prehensile tail- carries the skull of what to her is an alien astronaut like a icon. This too ties us directly to Saturn iconography:
In Vedic texts, Saturn is described as riding a crow and carrying a skull. Finally, another of the epithets of Saturn in ancient astrology is "Great Lord Dark Sun" and "Son of the Sun." In these symbols, the Black Sun is conflated with Saturn himself.
Well, that's all terrific and all, but how does any of this tie into our overall narrative?

In his 1967 origin story, Captain Marvel was depicted as an alien astronaut stranded on a primitive planet (ours, to be specific). He took on a secret identity as a rocket scientist and had several encounters with NASA.

And his original jumpsuit was emblazoned with a giant ringed planet, a pictogram most commonly identified with Saturn.

NOTE: In an interesting sync, Captain Marvel was doomed to drift in space (anti-matter space, in this instance) in a comic released the very same month Bowie recorded "Space Oddity," which had Major Tom doomed to float aimlessly in space when his capsule's instruments malfunction. Surely a "coincidence", but one the mystical Bowie may well have seen as a portent.

Bowie's final video ("Lazarus"), released three days before his death, had him wearing the eye-mask again, while hovering over a hospital bed (look carefully). On closer inspection, the mask reminds of a kid's improvised superhero mask, something he might make by poking two holes in a random strip of fabric. 

Or more accurately it reminds me of an artsy take on a kid's improvised superhero mask.

And coincidence or no, it really reminded me of the splash page in which Captain Marvel lies on his death bed. I wonder if it did for Bowie as well. 


So you wanna know what I really think? 

I think those Captain Marvel comics (which Angie may well have turned hin onto) burrowed deep into that man's subconscious. Very, very deep, indeed. I think this process actually started back in the 50s when the Golden Age Captain Marvel reincarnated in Britain as Marvelman. 

How could those stories not effect a young suburban boy, lost in a deep world of fantasy with his schizophrenic half-brother, whose stated primary ambition was to become superhuman (or "a mortal with the potential of a superman?").

How could this flying saucer-spotter not believe those alien savior stories were some kind of message for him, when their co-star was a young singer-songwriter named Jones?

I admit these connections might seem completely out of left field-- if not flat-out straight out of the stadium-- to many fans and critics. Believe me, I'm a bit stunned myself. 

This entire series started, like so many others here, by a strange connection that caught my attention; that Bowie's first Glam project- the admittedly superhero-inspired Hype- inspired the singer to dye his hair silver. 

For some reason something bugged me about that. Or maybe something was implanted about that.

Sometimes the tiniest details can unravel mysteries you never knew existed in the first place. Several themes gestated in my unconscious- superheroes, aliens, rock 'n' roll, channeling- until a few accidental discoveries made it clear to me that Bowie, who at the time was at the risk of falling into the commercial black hole of One-Hit-Wonderdom, found inspiration in the humblest of sources and used it to reinvent both himself and pop music.

History shows that far greater inspiration has come from far stranger places. 

UPDATE: Just in case you're having trouble with this entire concept, you should know that Elvis Presley idolized Captain Marvel, Jr, going so far as to base his look and attitude on the character.

In Elvis and Gladys Elaine Dundy highlights Elvis' interest in the comic book hero, Capt. Marvel Jr., and demonstrates the interesting similarity in Elvis' haircut compared to that of the comic book character and that his TCB logo (with a Marvel-esque lightning bolt insignia) also shows inspiration from Captain Marvel Jr. In addition, some of Elvis' stage outfits (with a half-cape similar to those worn by the Marvels). 
Elvis Presley was a big fan of Captain Marvel Jr. and his collection of Captain Marvel Jr. comic books still sits in the attic of Graceland. Captain Marvel Jr. is a fictional character, a superhero derived from the Fawcett Comics character Captain Marvel, later purchased by DC Comics. 
Elvis was Bowie's idol, role model and labelmate on RCA Records.

And also sang a song called "Black Star."

UPDATE II: Where might have Bowie's iconic thunderbolt logo come from? We know Elvis' thunderbolt was a tribute to Captain Marvel Jr. Well, during the recording of Aladdin Sane the first issue of Shazam was released, featuring the original Captain Marvel.

Note Bowie's thunderbolt uses the Marvel Captain's red and blue color scheme. Stealing some of Elvis's thunder, perhaps.

POSTSCRIPT A: "Memory of a Free Festival"

Bowie actually wrote of an alien "Captain" shortly after Captain Marvel #17 was released in July 1969. 

The song in question was his pivotal "Memory of a Free Festival" (released in the US on Space Oddity).

We scanned the skies with rainbow eyes and saw machines of every shape and size/ We talked with tall Venusians passing through/ And Peter tried to climb aboard but the Captain shook his head...
From the Wiki: 
Biographer David Buckley described "Memory of a Free Festival" as "a sort of trippy retake of the Stones' 'Sympathy for the Devil' but with a smiley lyric". The track was written as a homage to the Free Festival, organised by the Beckenham Arts Lab, which was held at Croydon Road Recreation Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969. 
The festival was a month after the release of Captain Marvel #17, so it's entirely possible the Captain in question here could be our Captain. He started off his career at Marvel as a UFO pilot, after all.

What's more the Kree- the race from which Captain Marvel sprang- bear a strong resemblance to the Venusians of classic Contactee lore.

Bowie was almost certainly gobbling up a whole host of influences, but don't forget he was also married to serious Marvel Comics fan at the time.

"Memory" is the first Bowie track to feature future Spiders from Mars Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey, so we also have a strong Synchronistic connection to Ziggy here as well.

The rainbow connection-- Bowie's silver-haired superhero in The Hype was called "Rainbow Man" according to some reports, even though he was garbed entirely in silver-- leads us to another Captain Marvel connection, if not a somewhat oblique one. 

As his adventures grew increasingly trippy and psychedelic, the silver-haired Captain encountered a rainbow wall (Captain Marvel, vol 1 #15), shortly before encountering aspiring rock star Rick Jones.  

Not entirely direct evidence there, but perhaps evidence of a kind of an overall unconscious gestalt on Bowie's part.


Bowie claimed that his original inspiration for Ziggy Stardust came from a rock star-turned- acid casualty who believed himself to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Strangely enough, Captain Marvel has returned to the Marvel Universe in reincarnated form on a number of occasions, and has been presented as a distinctly Jesus Christ-like figure.

Like he actually defeats Death. That kind of Jesus figure. From an alternate-reality time series, Universe X (2000)
With the death of Death, Mar-Vell used the remaining items he collected to create a new realm called Paradise. This realm was for those in the Realm of the Dead that admitted that they were truly dead. Those admitted to this realm would be given a portion of the Cosmic Cube to consume, and they were granted with the power to create a reality that was for each person their ideal paradise. 
For those of you who might not grasp the significance of this, defeating Death is a power the Bible reserves for Jesus Christ alone: 
And which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. -- 2 Timothy 1:10

Captain Marvel returned again in 2007 (well, kind of) and a messianic cult was formed around him, the Hala Brotherhood. Then in 2011 he was resurrected once again for the Secret Avengers series:
Some time later, Kree mystics resurrect Mar-Vell using a piece of the M'Kraan Crystal and a portion of the Phoenix Force. Controlling his mind, they use Captain Marvel against the Avengers. The Vision frees Mar-Vell, who sacrifices himself to save the Kree from the Phoenix Force, which threatens Hala when it seeks to reclaim its missing energy. 


In 2012, Marvel introduced yet another new Captain Marvel. This version was longtime Captain Marvel co-star Carol Danvers (formerly known as Ms. Marvel) given a somewhat more androgynous makeover (more so now than then). Note that her costume is a loose adaptation of the red/blue/gold Captain Marvel's outfit.

Not long afterwards, David Bowie reemerged from a nine year retirement with The Next Day, one of the singles for which was "Stars."

Coincidentally, the Bowie rock star part (complete with heterochromic eyes) is played by a young, blonde, somewhat androgynous woman. Note mock-turtle collars on both.

† Also included is Transcendental Magic, Its Doctine and Ritual by Eliphas Lévi

* After some time apart Captain Marvel and Rick Jones- who by now can exist independently- catch up atop a New York City apartment building. Sadly it's not a happy reunion since the Captain has come to tell Rick he's dying of cancer.

Bowie lived in a penthouse- which is to say the top of an apartment building- on Lafayette St ("Fayette Factor" alert) in New York City when he learned he was dying of cancer.  

º Black women are important to the Captain Marvel saga. Just as a black woman took Mar-Vell's place for a time, Rick Jones met his new singing partner Dandy in the very same issue in which Captain Marvel (vol 1, #34) was retconned to contract cancer. 

There were strong hints that Rick and Dandy were also romantically linked, but the relationship may have been a bit too daring for 70s comics.

** This character self-identifying as a "Blackstar" rules out the theories that the song is about cancer. At least for me.