Monday, February 06, 2017

Hazy Cosmic Jive: Bowie and the Starmen, Part Two

"I always had a repulsive sort of need to be something more than human. I felt very very puny as a human. I thought. 'Fuck that. I want to be a Superman.'" -- David Bowie
In part one we looked at David Bowie's seminal creation Ziggy Stardust and the history behind it. Or at least the history as it's known. 

We saw how Ziggy- and indeed, Glam itself- traced directly back to a short-lived project called The Hype, which featured Bowie and Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, as well as Bowie producer Tony Visconti on bass.

The Hype's conceit was that they were superheroes-turned-rock stars, and each musician took on a separate identity. 

Bowie appeared all in silver, going so far as to dye his hair silver. That's an important clue in parsing out the mysteries behind Ziggy and in many important ways, behind Bowie's later career and his esoteric ambitions as well.

We also saw how Bowie credited 50s rock star-turned-acid casualty Vince Taylor as inspiration for Ziggy, largely due to his rather LSD-typical messianic delusions. Bowie would embroider Taylor's story over different interviews, adding bits about UFOs and Atlantis, but never with much enthusiasm. So I think we can leave Taylor's influence at "rock star turned messiah turned burn-out."

But there are several missing pieces to the Ziggy puzzle, pieces which Bowie never bothered to fill in, preferring to maintain an air of mystery around his creation.

Or is it that he didn't quite want to own up to exactly where he was really was pilfering his ideas from in the self-serious 70s? He had an reputation to maintain, after all. Being a rock star was louche enough in the circles he longed to travel in.

So let's read Bowie's explanation of the Ziggy concept, relayed to William S. Burroughs in Rolling Stone, again:

Ziggy is advised in a dream by the Infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes "Starman," which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the Infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. 
Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don't have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is traveling from universe to universe. 
Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world. 
What does that all sound like to you? I'll tell you what it sounds like to me: a Silver Age Marvel Comic ("the Infinites?"). It sounds one hell of a lot like a Silver Age Marvel Comic. Oh, like something written by Roy Thomas, say.

Like a Marvel Comic about an extraterrestrial savior who travels through an anti-matter dimension and merges with an aspiring folk-rocker in order to save the world from destruction, granting that singer amazing alien powers in the bargain. 

But do such comics actually exist? And did they exist prior to the creation of Ziggy Stardust?

Oh yes, they did indeed.

And one of them depicted a starman (as identified by the giant star on his chest) literally waiting in the sky…

A brief bit of background. Well, as brief as I can make it.

Superman had one major rival in the so-called Golden Age of Comics (the joke in fandom goes that the real "golden age of comics" is 11): Fawcett Publishing's Captain Marvel. 

Whereas Superman was an alien, Captain Marvel gained his powers from a pantheon of ancient gods and heroes, Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. 

Hence the magickal incantation, "Shazam!"

DC Comics, or National Comics as they were known then, didn't appreciate the competition and took Fawcett to court. The basis for their suit was that Captain Marvel's powers and appearance were too similar to Superman's. But it was falling sales that did Captain Marvel in. Fawcett cut their losses and dumped the Captain and his cohort in the early 50s. 

However, Captain Marvel was so popular in Britain that his UK publisher created a new character, gave him a red, blue and gold jumpsuit and called "Marvelman." He began life in 1953 and continued his adventures until 1963. In other words, the period between David Bowie's sixth and sixteen birthdays. 

Which is to say, Bowie's Golden Age of Comics. 

In any event the name fell out of copyright and in steps Marvel Comics, who snap up the copyright and create their own Captain Marvel. The first incarnation of the character was a dud, but he got a makeover with issue #17 (released July 1969) and became a definitive character of the Bronze Age of Comics.

Starman, waiting in the sky

And with his slim frame and form-fitting red, blue and gold jumpsuit with yellow accents, the new-model Captain Marvel couldn't help but conjure up comparisons to Marvelman, even if Green Lantern seemed to be the obvious visual model for the new costume.

Marvel's Captain Marvel was an alien, part of a race known as the Kree (connected to Jack Kirby's pre-Chariots of the Gods ancient astronaut cosmology) and had been exiled to the Negative Zone, the anti-matter universe introduced in Fantastic Four #51 (1966). 

Through a convoluted sequence of events he becomes linked to Rick Jones, Marvel's all-purpose sidekick (he was formerly teamed with the Hulk and then Captain America) and whenever peril draws near, the two change places in the Negative Zone via the Nega-bands, which are essentially magical gold bracelets.

Note Captain Marvel's mask shape and Marvelman's gold disc

And what's more, an epic storyline ("The Kree-Skrull War") featuring Captain Marvel and Rick Jones and a host of superbeings and aliens-- one of Marvel's most important multi-story arcs and the biggest event in comics fandom at the time-- wrapped itself up in a comic that hit the stands in December 1971, just as David and Angela Bowie were rolling into Manhattan for an extended stopover to promote the newly-released Hunky Dory. 

And, oh yeah, from 1967 to 1973, Captain Marvel had silver hair. 

Now, let's take a look at "Starman." The one and only single off Ziggy Stardust during its initial release, Bowie's first hit in three years, written and recorded late in the process (early '72). The turning point in Bowie's career when he performed it on his star-making turn on Top of the Pops. 

In a red, blue and gold jumpsuit.

With gold bracelets.

Let's look at those lyrics again for a moment:

Then the loud sound did seem to fade
/Came back like a slow voice on a wave of phase
/That weren't no D.J. that was hazy cosmic jive/There's a starman waiting in the sky
/He'd like to come and meet us
/But he thinks he'd blow our minds

And let's look at Captain Marvel #17…

In this story Rick Jones is lured into a cave filled with alien artifacts by the "Supreme Intelligence" of the alien Kree. The lure is an image of his friend Captain America, who then does a "fade-out" on Rick. 

And what appears, literally on a wave of phase?

The starman, Captain Marvel, who apparently doesn't want to blow anyone's mind. The starman who Rick Jones then channels in our plane by slamming the Nega-bands together (yeah, I know).

What message does Bowie's Starman bring?

He told me/Let the children lose it/Let the children use it/Let all the children boogie...
What does Rick Jones decide to do immediately after channeling (see issue #18) this alien starman? 

Become an aspiring rock star (or "boogie"). 

Yeah, I think we'd better dig into Bowie's Ziggy rap to William S. Burroughs again.

"Ziggy is advised in a dream by the Infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes "Starman," which is the first news of hope that the people have heard."
We saw how in Captain Marvel #17 how Rick Jones is lured through hallucinations (rather than a dream) instilled by the "Supreme Intelligence" to channel the alien Captain Marvel. Immediately after, he decides to become a rock star.
"So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the Infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth."
Captain Marvel is trying to come save the earth but is trapped in the Negative Zone.

And here's where we get our smoking gun. 

 "They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village." 
From Captain Marvel #20, released March 1970 (the same month as The Hype's debut): Here we see Rick Jones, playing his music where? 

Greenwich Village. 


"They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is traveling from universe to universe." 

After Rick's gig he is contacted by Captain Marvel, who is trapped in another universe and wants to come to ours.  Next?

"Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples."

Rick Jones, musical novice, takes his disciples to incredible spiritual heights, apparently with the cosmic power still remaining in his body. Moving on...

"When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world."

And since he is trapped in the anti-matter based Negative Zone, Captain Marvel needs to take the young rock singer's atoms to exist in our world.

Do I need to remind you Bowie's real surname was Jones?

Oh, I know what you're thinking. This is all crazytalk. 

I mean, why would a comic book about a young rock singer channeling the power of a alien superman possibly appeal to David Bowie, right? Especially a young rock singer surnamed Jones? I mean, it's preposterous!

And anyway there's no possible connection between Bowie and Captain Marvel or else someone would have discovered it already. This is all blue-sky conjecture. 

I mean, where's the connection between David Bowie and comic book superheroes, anyway? 

Oh. Wait. 

In 1975, the then-wife of rockstar David Bowie, Angela, got the television rights for Black Widow and Daredevil from Stan Lee in hopes of using it as a star-vehicle for Angela’s own on-screen ambitions. Angela Bowie enlisted actor Ben Carruthers (The Dirty Dozen, Shadows) to play Daredevil, and the duo did several black-and-white stills dressed up in their parts.  
Bowie enlisted her husband’s Ziggy Stardust era costume designer Natasha Kornikoff to design the outfits, adding face paint to Daredevil’s ensemble but leaving Black Widow’s look relatively untouched. 
Oh. That connection. 

Angela, in her own words:

“I’ve always been a Marvel fan. As a kid I would pick up a two-foot stack of comics and read them in the back of my dad’s car on long journeys across the States. That’s how I used to make friends – I’d meet up with other kids and we’d swap comics. 
I loved the outrageous costumes but I also loved the stories. What adults don’t always understand is that to a kid, a comic book is like a movie. My Marvel comics took my imagination to other places – other galaxies."
Other galaxies. You don't say. 

One thing people may not realize is how influential Angela was in Bowie's glam phase, and how involved she was in the design and concept of his Ziggy-era stage presentations. 

"David and I both thought that rock music was boring, so we started talking about how we could make it more interesting. We said, ‘Look, you don’t have to wear denims and a beer-stained T-shirt and just bang out your hit singles. If you’ve got good music, let’s make it look good, too. Let’s give it colour and light – let’s make it theatrical.’ So that’s what we did, and people called it glam rock."

It's worth noting that he moved away from the cartoonish of Glam at the same time he and Angie drifted apart as a couple, and would favor much starker and more austere outfits and stage shows as the 70s wore on. But during the Glam years, Angie had big plans for the Ziggy character. 
"Then I found myself back in the US promoting David’s live show. I was having a meeting about doing a cartoon version of Ziggy Stardust and I got invited to lunch with Marvel comics legend Stan Lee – the guy who helped create all those great characters like Spider-Man and Iron Man. 
“We got talking about one of the female Marvel characters, Black Widow. Everybody round the table started getting really excited about it, and suddenly there I was paying Stan Lee one dollar for the movie rights.Back in London I set to work with Natasha Korniloff, who designed some of the costumes for Ziggy Stardust, and the photographer Terry O’Neill. 
With Terry’s help, I pushed and pushed the project, but what I didn’t realise in all my youthful enthusiasm was that the special-effects business wasn’t quite advanced enough to make the film that I wanted to make….But I’m still a Marvel fan and I’ve seen all the films. "

Not such a crazy theory after all, don't you think?

But hold on tight, because the story is about to get a lot weirder.


Sync Log:  This story went up 45 mins before I posted here.


  1. For a reach, how about the name "Bucky," (another Captain America side-kick) being included in a novel title released last year by David "I Want To Believe" Duchovny "Bucky F*cking Dent: A Novel"

    1. Oh, that's a sore spot for this old Red Sox fan...

  2. Excellent series, can't wait for the third...

  3. Bowie stealthily basing his legendary theatrical persona on a Marvel comic book? I totally believe it. And it probably won't be the last time a starman-type does this, just think of all the accessible storyboarded material out there, decades of it, everything from Devil Dinosaur to Millie the Model just waiting to be re-discovered, co-opted and altered ever-so-slightly to pass as 'fresh' material.

    1. Well, not just any comic but one about an alien savior who psychically communes with a rock star named Jones. How could he possibly resist?

  4. Dude, brilliant. Really loving this. Looking forward to the next one.

  5. Angela 'black widow'. "Wow" I mutter under my breath, as Anita 'black queen' coos pretty, pretty. Scarlett LARPs in the background.

    1. Angela rocked the look better IMO. She's an unsung hero in RnR history.

  6. Chris, you deserve your own comic book character: "The Noticer" I'm constantly amazed at your ability to reach in and tie the threads into a tapestry. I'm thinking your characters origin would be where Magnus Robot Fighter and Zatanna had a child and then sent him to the Phantom Stranger for tutoring.

    1. Well, a lot of people have compared me to the Laney character in William Gibson's Bridge Trilogy. Not very super, of course, but probably more accurate.

    2. I hope your cardboard box is more upscale than his. I think I can see the comparison, otherwise. Curious though, considering the origin of Laney's abilities, do you feel that your struggle with debilitating allergies and high fevers in your youth gave you similar conditions that encouraged the development of your own abilities for pattern recognition and prediction as you grew into an adult?

    3. It's entirely possible. Unfortunately, they left me with a lot of problems that plague me to this day.

  7. Amazing stuff, I had no idea about any of these connections before. Comic book alchemy.

    Considering Marvel's impact on the 60s counterculture & by extension pop culture though (Trips Festivals being dedicated to Dr. Strange as just one small example) it shouldn't be all that surprising that it continued thru later years & in surprising ways. Makes me wonder how it will continue to do so, after all, the new show Legion starts on FX tomm, its being called "The X-Men meets A Clockwork Orange." & the beat goes on...

    1. Yeah, Marvel Comics were all the rage with the heads back in the day. But I think the Marvelman connection is worth exploring- I'd be very surprised if Bowie didn't read that as a lad.

  8. But where did Marvel get it? ;)

    I get the feeling that several of the 'greats' of modern musical entertainment have tapped into - or been introduced to - some quite unusual things. I still wonder what exactly Mr. Mercury and Mr. Knopfler were trying to tell us at the very height of their fame.

    Which begs the question: what was Mr. Bowie up to with the Labyrinth?

    1. These are questions we should revisit in the next chapter, to be sure.

  9. Announcing the acrotheosis of Christopher K.N.O.W.L.E.D.G.E
    -- That's an acronym, sorta, for K.nowles is N.O.W on the L.E.D.G.E --
    At dizzying heights, sustained by a disciplined readership
    Watching the rocket-ship of state in his crosshairs and commenting
    "Hey! Who shot what at that?",
    Collapsing wave functions at the Bow, i.e.,
    Pitching high and low and
    Rolling hard to starboard, capitally
    At this we marvel, how there was nothing new really
    Under the (formerly-) secret sun on David Jones' brow.

    1. It's amazing in hindsight how incurious Bowieologists were about Ziggy's history, especially given that rather florid backstory of his. I've never heard the term acrotheosis before but the term acrothosis? Uh...

    2. Vagchandra; I am currently in the middle of perpetuating that chain letter where the person puts up a one word description that describes your initial meeting. I never participate in those things. I bent the format a bit and said I would respond as a reply to there word in my post if they didn't want to post the whole thing on their own timeline. Then I noticed that it was a great format for producing an Acrostically generated sentence. I will put up the reply where i announce and display the work in Progress.:- So far our Acrostic Secret Sentence Reads : "Gnostic Infants Comrade. gnostic Secret Flirt. Anthropology; Alchemy. Sydney Solar Sistah ..." . Then I came back here to an article I had already perused; in order to read the comments and Bang! You smacked me up the Side of the Head with Acrostic Synchronistic Expee Alla ;-)

  10. Hey Chris,

    These posts are full of insight and numinosity. You’re really attuned here, my friend. This post makes me wonder if Bowie gave any passing attention to Jack Parson’s in this context. Jack’s birth-name was Marvel. But also, let’s not forget what Bowie says in Blackstar: “You’re the flash in the pan (I’m not a marvelstar). I’m the great I am (I’m a Blackstar).” A Blackstar could definitely be considered a black hole, or black hole jumpers formed of antimatter. I’d say we can find intimations of this later in the song where Bowie sings: “We were born upside-down (I'm a starstar). Born the wrong way 'round (I'm not a white star, I'm a blackstar).” The upside-down also brings to mind the Negative Zone of Stranger Things, incidentally. But I think Bowie is evoking, among other things, the alignment of two worlds or stars, as with the sideways figure eight infinity symbol, or perhaps even more centrally the Vesica Piscis – the intersection of two worlds, much like Rick swapping atoms with Captain Marvel. Also implicit in all this is the vast mystery of a Secret Sun, or a Midnight Sun. This is especially evoked in Rick’s lyrics onstage to his disciples: shadows, divine golden light in the hair of a loved one, lost loves equated with lost suns, etc. I’m sure much of this has already occurred to you, Chris, but it seemed worth mentioning. I think such threads connect us all, and that Bowie had some real sense of that, and of the mutability of so-called reality. I believe the curiously popular myth of Bowie’s heterochromia iridum, when he was apparently suffering from anisocoria instead, is a hidden keystone (or its Effect in stereo imaging) in recognising the strange forces at work through and around Bowie, both the man himself and his legend in popular consciousness. Underwoods and double-crosses and Smiths of Gold. I have some very bizarre personal experiences that tangentially touch on this subject of heterochromia and anisocoria with regards to Bowie. I think Bowie himself was well aware of much of this lateral, symbolic communiqué – the living intertextuality of fiction and the real – and often struggled with which parts of it to share, encode, allude to or keep private. Far, far more here than meets the eye, let’s say. This is excellent, enlivening work, bro. Waiting patiently for more.


    1. Well, we're going to get to Blackstar in the next chapter, Raj. And good call on the lyrics- I hadn't really been processing those at all. Bowie was a lot weirder and more esoteric than anyone -especially in the mainstream- would necessarily care to acknowledge. And it seems he understood the occult and esoteric implications of this superhero better than its own creators. Which ties all the way back to what I talked about in Our Gods Wear Spandex- that unconscious thread weaving throughout these stories that people don't even perceive.