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Making Sense of Wonder
Phantasms & Magics:
Witchcraft and the Occult in Science Fiction Comics
by David Sivier

Long before the appearance of either comics or Science Fiction, the principle tales of wonder were the mythological sagas of gods, demons and magic with which humanity sought to understand the world. Although this enchanted 'weltanschauung' of a world controlled by numinous supernatural intelligences has been increasingly challenged by the rise of science, it still exerts a considerable fascination. The medieval romances, with their casts of knights, imperilled damsel, witches, ogres, demons and elves, are still read and taught in schools and universities, and the great works of Greek, Teutonic and Celtic mythology still hold massive scholarly and popular interest. The 'mind, body & spirit' sections of most bookshops will contain at least one book on world mythology. For those left unsatisfied by traditional mythologies, the great works of modern fantasists such as Tolkien, Eddings, Kay, Le Guin and Lord Dunsany boast new pantheons of postmodern gods. And despite Thomas Harris' comment that he wrote about serial killers, all-too solid human monsters, because the traditional phantasmagoria of horror fiction fails to frighten us, the supernatural thriller is still strong, even if its repertoire has been expanded to include alien creatures, mutants and mad scientists among its traditional staples of witches, sorcerers, zombies, ghouls and other undead revenants. The difficulty is, in an increasingly rationalistic society, how to reconcile these supernatural entities with the scientific environment in which they appear. It's a problem particularly felt in the comics industry, which draws on SF and fantasy and horror literature to produce its four colour essays in contemporary mythology.
   The problem is, however, a relatively recent one. It's only since the 17th century that there has been a clear distinction between science, and religion and magic. Doctor Dee, now known almost solely as the quintessential Elizabethan magus, was famed in his own day as a great scientist and mathematician, rather than occultist. Elizabethan scientists offered 'magnetic' cures for various ailments based on mummy flesh and soil from graveyards, ingredients which would now seem more fitting for the voodoo shops of New Orleans rather than the laboratories of respectable scientists. Even during the intellectual upheavals of the Enlightenment, attempts were made to include the paranormal within the nascent scientific paradigm. In the 18th and 19th centuries, occultists attempted to explain the supernatural phenomena they investigated and invoked using the burgeoning language of science. Ghosts were manifestations in the electrical fluid or odic force pervading the great chain of being from the Creator downwards, or else were etheric beings operating at a higher level of vibration, and so normally undetectable to mortals' gross, material eyes.
   Yet, not everyone however felt the need of explaining the supernatural in scientific terms. Popular belief in the existence of malignant witches responsible for blighting crops and livestock persisted in country districts like Somerset well into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, far past the time when most educated members of society had dismissed such things as primitive superstition. This dichotomy of approach to the supernatural - expressed in the one hand by attempts to provide a scientific explanation for its existence, and on the other by a straightforward exploration of the supernatural as such, also extended into contemporary literature. Charles Maturin, for example, whose most famous work, 'Melmoth the Wanderer', provided the disgraced and exiled Oscar Wilde with a suitable persona in Paris, finally revealed the villainous Albanian monk in his 'Fatal Revenge' as not a revenant returned from the grave seeking his pound of flesh from his persecutor's children, but a mortal human being who had nevertheless learned superhuman powers of endurance and legerdemain from Egyptian fakirs. Not a supernatural being, he learned to project him self as such to terrify and intimidate his victims. It's a scenario that would have fitted perfectly into the modern superhero strip as an origin for one of its gaudier villains. At least one Spiderman villain, for example, has used special effects and trickery to challenge the web-slinger's sanity and health. As one of the great masters of the Gothic, Maturin's works are superb studies of paranoia and flight, set amongst the picturesque decadence of ruined castles, families and crumbling vaults and catacombs, rather than concrete jungle of New York. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a freemason and no stranger to the occult and secret societies, was also careful to provide a scientific explanation for supernatural events in his stories. In The House And The Brain, the narrator eschews the supernatural as impossible, and explains the paranormal events witnessed in the house of the title as entirely within the laws of nature, though achieved through the manipulation of the mesmeric electrical fluid or odic force by a living magician. Bulwer-Lytton's own fictional refinement of this theory into the vril power of the 'Coming Race' was later to give not only Bovril its name, but also supplied various occult societies in pre-War Vienna with their raison d'etre, as groups like the Vril Society scoured occult texts for hints on its mastery. Bram Stoker, on the other hand, simply didn't bother with rational explanations. Dracula and his other vampires are truly supernatural beings, and no attempt is made to supply a rational explanation for them. This is not to say, however, that Dracula is not a technological book. The trappings of late Victorian science permeate its pages. Van Helsing is a medical doctor, who uses the then new-fangled medical procedure of blood transfusion to save the count's victims. The heroine, Mina, is a modern Victorian lady who has mastered yet another Victorian invention, the typewriter. Earlier Gothic works may have been set in the decaying splendour of medieval ruins, but Stoker also brought the supernatural into the heart of a modern technological metropolis, to stalk the gas-lit London streets. Although a book of supernatural horror, Dracula is in no way an exercise in technophobia.
   Similarly, the distinction between science fiction and the supernatural in comics is rarely clear, and the science in much SF performs essentially the same the function as magic did in earlier ages. While the werewolves and skin-walkers of European and Amerindian legend believed that wearing the skins of their totemic animals would grant them their powers, the modern heroes of SF comics gain theirs through wearing super-powered exo-skeletons, like Iron Man, or from a bite from a handily radioactive spider. The quality of the science doesn't actually matter in the stories. Science itself is a source of almost supernatural wonder to many people, who find the actual working of many technological artefacts as arcane and occult as those of a medieval magus. The result is a tendency to refer to science, and scientific explanations in a manner in which the term 'black magic' could also be inserted with no discernible change of meaning. As Terry Pratchett once said, "'it's all geometry, isn't it?"
   This confusion between SF and the supernatural was early expressed in Ken Reid's 1938 'Fudge The Elf' strip for the local papers in Manchester. Although securely based in the world of children's fairy tales, Fudge ventured into science fiction by taking a journey to the Moon, at the same time the British Interplanetary Society were earnestly trying to convince UK authorities that such a thing was feasible. At a time when even a radically progressive scientist such as J.B.S. Haldane could dismiss such an event as not occurring within the next eight million years, to many the supernatural seemed just as valid a way of getting their characters to the Moon as it did to Kepler when he wrote his 'Somnium' back in the 16th century. Reid retained an interest in horror and the grotesque throughout his long career. It was his depraved imagination that spawned Faceache and many of the other staples of the Beano and Dandy. More than just a boy who pulled faces, Faceache achieved his bizarre transmogrifications through a complete control of his molecular structure, allowing him to expand and contract his body at will. Unfortunately, British comics never boasted a kindly Dr Charles Xavier, so instead of donning a brightly coloured uniform to help defend the world against evil, Faceache had to defend his own rear end from the beatings of his father and irate teachers, annoyed at having their lessons disrupted by yet another bout of spontaneous scrunging.
   The treatment of telepathy, yet another mutant talent frequently explored in SF comics, is another example of the scientific rationalisation of a once supernatural phenomenon. The founding members of the Society for Psychical Research were acutely interested in telepathy because it seemed to suggest that there was indeed a non-material aspect to the human mind. Their own psychological researches convinced them that the disparate elements of the human brain were only able to act as an integrated, concerted system through a supernatural mechanism like telepathy. Following the theories of the 19th century physicist and spiritualist William Crookes, telepathy ceased to be considered a purely supernatural phenomenon by parapsychologists, and instead of being viewed as a supernatural aspect, which united the natural brain, it began to be seen as an entirely natural, though poorly understood faculty of the brain itself. The pulps completed this process by treating it entirely as a natural, but mutant, talent. Thus, at the end of the 'Dark Phoenix' episode of The X-Men, Jean Grey was due to be psychically lobotomised by alien neuro-surgery to deprive her of her awesome powers, and return her and Cyclops' relationship back to square one. In the end, this storyline was squashed by then editor Jim Shooter, who had her executed, instead, to the sorrow and ire of fandom assembled. Despite this, occult elements continued to appear in The X-Men strip. During her transcendent journey deep into the malfunctioning heart of the great M'kran crystal, cosmic power source for an alien empire, Phoenix saw herself as the Cabalistic tree of life, uniting creation with the divine. Later in the strip, comicdom's most famous mutant heroes were to travel to Hades as well as other, more scientifically respectable extraterrestrial worlds in their campaign to right universal wrongs.
   Claremont's endlessly fertile mind even fed on the Cthulhu mythos to produce frighteningly transcendent villains for them to battle. Great Cthulhu and the dark, or worse, indifferent gods of H.P. Lovecraft are as much alien beings as truly supernatural entities. These gods were banished from the Earth by elder beings, though they still lurk on the periphery, biding their time until 'the stars are right.' On Earth, their alien servitors are summoned by spells and incantations, haunting backwoods areas marked with prehistoric cairns and circles. An early X-Men story by Claremont pitted them against similar extradimensional gods, the N'kai, creatures of absolute evil released from their cairn after it was disturbed by Storm during a flight. Naturally, the N'kai were also eager to reassert their dominance over the Earth. Lovecraft was as much an SF writer as horror, though the supernatural elements in his tales give them the same visionary intensity as William Hope Hodgson, another author blending the supernatural with science. The monstrous spiritual predator of the Hog is a creature of the aether, and Hodgson's narrator and hero, Carnacki, explains it and the other psychic monstrosities of the outer circle in terms of the aether and electricity, and battles them with suitably hi-tech occult paraphernalia: vacuum tubes and electric pentangles. Back in the world of comics, the Scarlet Witch is similarly euhemerised. This mutant heroine had, despite her moniker, no supernatural powers at all. She was able to achieve poltergeist-like 'hex' effects through altering probabilities, so that the wildly unlikely occurred around her. Interestingly, one member of the Society for Psychical Research has speculated that if telepathy and telekinesis really exist, it is not because they act like Crooke's mental radio to control the environment and implant suggestions directly, but by manipulating probabilities so that the same thought occurs to the other person, or desired event takes place, in much the same way as reality is manipulated by the Scarlet Witch.
The Scarlet Witch © Marvel Comics
The Scarlet Witch and Dr Strange
Characters and their images © Marvel Comics, Inc. TM
All rights reserved.
Dr Strange © Marvel Comics
British comics also boasted their fair share of Lovecraftian horrors. Extradimensional tentacled demons appeared in both the 'Zenith' and the 'Finn' strips, aided by human agents operating in secret societies, whether neo-Nazi (Zenith) or quasi-masonic (Finn). Much the same function was performed by the Cythrons in the Slaine strip, though these were alien exiles from the stars to the prehistoric Earth. The Slaine strip especially blended mythology with pseudoscience to explain the mystical powers wielded by the various characters. Based on Celtic mythology and New Age occultism, Slaine presented the Earth goddess as the intelligent animating soul of the planet, whose energies were utilised by the lost Atlantean civilization and ancient Celts as an early national grid, directed through ley lines and henge monuments, to bring fertility to the 'Land of the Young'. Furthermore, the Earth's powers, refined and redirected through lodestones, allowed ships to levitate. Even certain privileged humans, like Slaine himself, were able to harness this power, to warp into grotesque killing monsters when possessed of the same pathological fury which possessed truly mythological heroes such as Cu Chulainn - which the Romans so feared. The various supernatural entities featured in the strip - Dark and Light Els, the Celtic gods themselves, and dwarfs such as Slaine's lewd and thieving companion, Ukko, were extra-dimensionals, hailing from the worlds hidden within the Earth, though at right angles to our own. The Els were also described as microbes - macrocosmic equivalents of the microbes, which brought disease on Earth, though they followed cosmic, mystical laws affecting the balance of good and evil in the cosmos, in which an altruistic, unselfish act was rewarded by a similar boon. The dictates of the cosmic balance however meant that eventually all good things came to an end, and evil would have to win a triumph in its turn. It was possible, however, to negate the effects of these brief victories by the forces of Darkness by becoming immune to them.
   While the scientific explanations in the strip were hardly authentic - the Anglo-Saxon word 'El' has nothing whatsoever to do with the name of the letter 'L', and there is clearly a contradiction between the mystical explanations for the Celtic universe, involving the direct intervention of supernatural entities such as the gods and the existence of wider cosmic forces such as evolution and galactic beings, such as the Cythrons, there is some scientific evidence for a direct link between piezo-electrical fields and mystical experience. Piezo-electricity is produced deep in the Earth's crust by rocks under intense pressure. While the various rocking stones at several megalithic monuments do not produce nearly so much pressure to generate such energies, as considered by various fringe scientists like the late chronicler of the 'Warminster Thing', Arthur Shuttlewood, piezo-electricity may bring on hallucinations and altered states of consciousness when generated by the immense forces brought to bear during earthquakes. Dr Michael Persinger at Toronto University has shown that trans-human experiences, including that of alien abduction, can be brought on by subjecting the human brain to strong magnetic fields. Earthquake lights and other luminous objects seen in the sky seem to indicate that these piezo-electrical fields can indeed ionise the air to produce something like the glowing discs of the classic UFO mythology, and possibly the various divine chariots known in the world's religions. Furthermore, some researchers, such as Paul Devereaux and the meteorologist Dr Terence Meaden, have speculated that the henge monuments were set up to mark and venerate spots where the geomagnetic fields repeatedly brought on mystical experiences. Thus, while not exactly following modern scientific speculation on the origin and use of prehistoric megaliths, the scientific explanations in Slaine for certain mystical experiences do have some basis in respected scientific theory.
   Other aspects of the Slaine strip remain definitely pseudoscience, however. The occult theories of pre-human evolution on which the writer, Pat Mills, based creatures such as the Diluvials have been rejected by the Theosophical Society, which first developed them. It's also true to say that the psycho-sphere of the Slaine strip, in which past and future events are recorded, bears a considerable resemblance to the Akashic records of parapsychological and occult speculation. While it is indeed a fascinating theory, it is just that, without any proof which would satisfy a hard-headed sceptic.
   Mills based the Slaine strip very much on the research he had done for the Nemesis and Warlock sword and sorcery strip. Though set in a far future Dark Age in which science had fallen and aliens were persecuted as demons, rather than in Slaine's prehistoric northern European past, the two strips did share certain features. One was that various demonic entities conjured up by various magic-wielding characters such as Aelfric in Slaine, and Nemesis were really thoughtforms, like Tibetan Tulpas, produced by the paranormal talents of the human or alien mind, and lacking any real independent existence. Like William Hope Hodgson's Hog, the Monad, one of the chief quasi-supernatural villains in the Nemesis and ABC Warriors strip was a nebulous, intelligent electrical field, a true 'Outer Monstrosity', though hailing from the end of time rather than outer space. The Monad had originally been part of a posthuman organic sentient slick, which floated on the surface of the future Earth. This had been mined as fuel in giant power stations by the Terminators, the strip's human villains. Shorn of their bodies in the rigs' furnaces, the Monad represented pure malevolence and evil, travelling backwards in time to wreak revenge.
   There were, however, important differences. Slaine, for all his thuggishness and brutality, was essentially a force for good. Nemesis, however, was a true product of Kaos magic, anarchic and essentially amoral. The Warlock battled Torquemada not from any desire to eradicate evil and protect the innocent and defenceless, but simply as a diversion. There were deeper motives: he was also concerned to maintain the cause of Kaos in the cosmic balance, and avenge his family after Termite's Grand Master had them assassinated. Apart from this, however, he acted purely out of a desire to avoid boredom. It's an attitude in line with much modern Kaos magic, which views the occult as an essentially amoral instrument and stresses the occultist's own personal gaols and individuality against that of the constraints of society or the interests of the wider community. Set against him, Torquemada represented the stifling autocratic forces of order. Neither side acted for the forces of good, though Torquemada, like every totalitarian dictator, certainly believed he did so. Mills, the strip's creator, was early influenced in his craft by the style, though not necessarily the content, of American comics. Similar mystical ideas of a cosmic battle between the forces of Chaos and Order permeated much of the Marvel mythos. One of the old adversaries of Marvel's own resident occultist, Dr Strange, the Dread Dormammu, whose home dimension defied the normal laws of physics, also championed Chaos in the cosmic struggle. Every year he played out a game of chess against Odin, representing Order. The game's prize was the cosmos itself. Needless to say, in the interests of cosmic balance, the game always ended in a stalemate.
   Despite the association of chaos with evil, within the confines of the mighty Marvel universe it, along with its opposite, represented the forces of life. Pitched against the two was Thanos, a true lover of death, who had augmented his own natural superpowers with cybernetics and mysticism. Jim Starlin, who wrote and illustrated the Adam Warlock strip in which the motif of a cosmic struggle between Chaos and Order was a recurring element, based it on the central idea behind Moorcock's 'Eternal Champion', who, in the guise of Elric, Corum, Count Brass and a thousand others, battles evil to restore the cosmic balance. Both Starlin and Moorcock view the battle as an amoral, if not actively immoral process. In Warlock, the champion of life to whom the forces of Chaos and Order whispered their dark secrets was the Magus, Warlock's future self, who by any rational standard was a wholly corrupt being. Surrounded by lobotomised servants and an order of super-powered Dark Knights, the Magus was worshipped as a living god by the adherents of his Universal Church of Truth. Only slightly less racist than the Terminators, the church's zealots wiped out any alien race, which did not share the humanoid shape of their god. Warlock's powers originally arose purely from his own biological heritage as the perfect human being, though augmented by possession of occult objects such as the Soul Gem, a 'jewelled succubus' he wore on his forehead, which stole his enemies' souls. These strips - Nemesis and Warlock - derived much of their power from their potent mix of SF, mysticism and violence, as well as a bleak weltanschauung, ultimately derived from Moorcock, of an amoral, hostile cosmos. Bitterly scathing in his views on religion, Moorcock makes clear in his books that the gods are an unnecessary encumbrance to mankind, even when acting apparently benevolently. In the Corum cycle of stories, first the gods of Chaos and Order, and then Corum himself are slain by various agencies in order to set the mortal universe free from their tyranny.
   Like Moorcock, Marvel and DC also fitted the worlds in which their characters fought evil into a multiverse of parallel worlds. The locus in which these worlds intersected was especially blessed with paranormal qualities. In the epics of the Eternal Champion this was the mystical city of Tanelorn. In Marvel and DC, however, it was the Florida Everglades, whose guardians, the Swamp Thing and Man-Thing, although products of human biological experimentation, gained mystic powers as a genuine, cosmic genius loci. One of the early creators of the Swamp Thing strip, Bernie Wrightson, was a horror enthusiast who honed his story telling skills "in a darkened room... watching Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff" according to the strip's promoters. It was no accident that the strips bore than a passing affinity to the Spanish Moss Monster of the famed, or infamous, Kolchak TV horror series. Man-Thing too is permeated with a dark mysticism, set off with satirical edge by the strip's writers. In a weltanschauung as bleak and bitter as Moorcock, the two most potent powers at the centre of the multiverse in their bitter imagination were a pair of bickering dogs - god written backwards.
   Away from the cynicism of these strips were the unalloyed heroics of Dr Strange. Strange was a genuine magician, a former surgeon who had found enlightenment and mystical powers under the tutelage of the Ancient One in Tibet. While Christian fundamentalists may well take exception to a sorcerer as hero of a children's comic, as some bigots are doing to 'Harry Potter' at the moment, Strange was a throwback to a more innocent time. Stan Lee, Strange's creator, based him on a radio series featuring a similar crime-fighting magician he'd listened to in his youth. Despite Lee's protestations that he has never read Lovecraft, much of Strange's early adventures took place in an extra-dimensional 'Dreamland' very close to that of Providence's dark and baroque prince, and the name of the god Hoggoth, by whom Strange swore when under particular duress, lacked only an 'S' to begin his name to take on the moniker of one of Lovecraft's servitor races.
   Although Strange's chief protagonists were fictional, the magic in the strip was truly supernatural, devoid of any rational explanation. Indeed, despite the fictional nature of much of the mysticism, Strange and his acolyte Thea practised Tantric exercises together, though these were shorn of the overtly erotic character of the original mystical exercises. Real sorcery was also used by Brother Voodoo, a crime-fighting super-powered voodoo boukor, and by Agatha Harkness, a friend of the Fantastic Four and refugee from Salem. Nemesis the Warlock may describe his powers as diabolic, and projected a decidedly satanic persona, but he derived his powers from the fictional Kaos, rather than Old Nick. Christian demonology on the other hand did make the occasional appearance in the strips. Minor demons have appeared in both the Marvel and D.C. strips, and even Satan himself has put in the odd appearance. Some of the characters, like Merlin, were even descended from the Devil himself, like the Son of Satan and the Defender's Hellcat.
   Despite this, explicitly Christian religious elements were largely absent from the world of SF comics until the development of an adult comic milieu from the 1980s onwards. When it did appear, it was largely done with a tasteful deference to religious sentiments in order to avoid accusations of blasphemy. During the 1980s, however, comic writers became increasingly willing to challenge conventional religion explicitly in their stories. Satan, angels, heaven and hell have all appeared in Gaiman's Sandman strips, and in Hellblazer and Preacher. Gaiman limited the Devil's exploits to putting hell up for sale, taking a holiday in Australia, and a few snide comments about God. Though many fans did see this as daringly satirical of Christianity, it isn't that far removed from the insouciant, fashionable Satan of Goethe's Faust and some traditional folk songs and ballads. More explicitly provocative material, harshly critical of established society and religion, is reserved for Hellblazer and Preacher. The villains of these latter strips are drawn explicitly from the ranks of the church and aristocracy, mirroring the bitter cynicism pervading parts of post-Reaganite Western society. Although lacking these strips' bitter hostility for conventional religion, Spawn too is nevertheless a product of the same literary trends. The character may be shielded by an exoskeleton, but it consists of hardened ectoplasm rather than plastic or steel. Furthermore, while he may be the strip's hero, he owes his powers and undead existence to the forces of hell, which have unleashed him on Earth to wreak his revenge among the prostitutes and cocaine-snorting yuppies of post-industrial America.
   These latter strips are dark fantasies, rather than science fiction, though the supernatural elements in Spawn mimic technology. It's a curious inversion of Arthur C. Clarke's old dictum that high technology will resemble magic: this is magic made to resemble high technology. It's a natural progression. As a contemporary heroic mythos, the superhero comic genre naturally drew on religion and mythology to stock its pantheon of heroes as well as the square-jawed rationalist scientists of the earlier pulp edisonades. As Western society became more sceptical about the benefits of science, it was inevitable that comics would also reflect the move towards explicit magic and the occult. Comics are part and parcel of youth culture, after all. Man-Thing and Swamp Thing were products of the vogue for horror films in the 1970s, as were Dracula and a number of horror strips. The goth and hard rock milieus draw especially heavily on the counterculture of cult horror films and literature, and have in turn influenced the comic literature with their own interests in occultism and the paranormal. Death of the Sandman strip is a goth punkette, rather than scythe-wielding grim reaper, mirroring Gaiman's own fascination with the female members of that music subculture. There are dangers in this attitude, however. After the boom years of the 1980s, many people did stop buying and reading comics because of their increasingly adult content, including the real occultism permeating some of the strips. It was fears over the allegedly immoral and socially corrupting content of comics in general, and horror comics in particular, that led to the virtual decimation of the industry in the 1950s and early 1960s. Something similar happened three decades later, though the reason was more likely to be that the adult material simply didn't appeal to comics' traditional pre-teen audience rather than any moral concerns. In the meantime, the cynicism of much modern supernatural SF literature can make you nostalgic for the simple innocence of the Rom the Spaceknight strip. Although a cynical commercial tie-in - the strip's hero was based on a range of toys - the strip did have some good writing, in which the occult villainy of the Dire Wraiths was firmly based on literary fantasy, rather than the tenets of real magic, with the whole strip more Science Fictional than magical. Whatever the future may bring, however, one thing remains true: EC may be dead and gone, destroyed by the moral majority, but it's legacy in Hellblazer, Preacher and their like lives on. And in the bitter cynicism and irreligiosity of the latter strips, is having its revenge.

Related pages:
tZ  Mutants Season: mutants in SF and Comics
tZ  Silver Metal Lovers: Sexuality, Romance and Relationships in SF Comics
tZ  H.P. Lovecraft: Dark and Baroque Prince essay by David Sivier - published in The ZONE #6
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