As I wrote in part 2 (part 1 here) Robert Anton Wilson’s brand of ‘scientific-shamanism’ is linked to a vision of the posthuman I call the Cosmic Body, a postuman form not uncommon in superhero comics. One of the questions I was asked when I delivered my paper on this (available here) was how much the depictions of cosmic superheroes in the 60s/70s constituted a way of ‘piggy-backing’ on the subversive cachet of the comix underground, which of course prided itself on its open depictions of drug use, sex and violence in a way that the Comics Code would never allow for superhero comics.
Having briefly considered what seems to be a largely implicit influence of RAW on the work of Moore and Morrison, it occurred to me that Wilson’s cultural milieu might align him with the comix underground in some way. As I said in Part 2 underground comix are not my speciality but curiosity led me to investigate te idea a bit further. So what follows is a brief investigation into the topic by someone who is not an expert. Still, I think I’ve unearthed some interesting tit-bits and hope that if anyone has any further information they get in touch.
Synchronicity played a part in this. I recently received a copy of Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980 which featured a piece by John Thompson. The artwork was familiar from the pages of RAW’s Cosmic trigger but though I’d pored over those intricate illustrations in the past I’d never sought out their creator. Art in Time’s bio of Thompson says he was born in Carmel, California and majored in art history before earning a master’s degree in art technology in 1970. Not a comics reader himself, and with no ambition to become a comic book artist himself, Thompson was drawn into the medium as part of the Bay Area culture of the time. Co-founder of undergound comics anthology The Yellow Dog, Thompson’s work also included a three-issue series called Tales from the Sphinx (covers below). Art in Time claims that, “no one else on the undergound scene achieved achieved his kind of aesthetic delicacy” and that rather than say the ‘cartooned roughness’ of Robert Crumb, Thompson’s work, “seems more related to the ecstatically detailed work of his beloved William Blake”.
urther research took me to Mark James Estren’s History of Underground Comics. Estren points out that although underground cartoonists favoured depictions of sex and violence and rock and roll; and while drugs themselves were a common feature, they were not very often presented in a mystical sense. Closer to the mark seems to be the sort of depictions of the psychedelic experience found in Robert Crumb’s work:
Life-changing, certainly, but not mystical exactly. It would be fair to say, at the very least, that Crumb’s work is ‘earthy’. Similarly, the depiction of drugs in a title like Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers seems more interested in knockabout comedy than spiritual transcendence. (Although I should say again that my knowledge of underground comix is fairly limited so feel free to correct this in the comments-or message me directly).
Estren writes in history of underground comix that, “actually, mysticism is not one of te major concerns of the underground cartoonists” although John Thompson himself also points out in the same book that, “a sizeable segment of the hip community is interested in mysticism, poetry and the occult“. Wilson certainly was anyway. In Art in Time Thompson lists the astrological symbolism of the Hellenist Greeks, Pythagorean Revival ideas mixed with Celtic lore and Jewish mysticism, Swedenborg, Walt Whitman and Nyingma Buddism (which he practiced) as infuences on his work.
Unlike many other alternative cartoonists, Thompson and other creators of what Estren calls ‘mystical comics’ were largely apolitical, “they generally reproduce scenes from within their creators minds: they do not try to put across a special message”. Never the less there arguably remains an implicit politics, albeit of a psychedelic kind. To describe the LSD experience as Thompson does-“die on acid am reborn”- suggests a philosophy that believes, at least, in possibility of change, of human development. Thompson lays out his philosophy here:
All men are brothers and no one is more or less intelligent than anyone else. No one is more or less creative than anyone else. It’s just that some brother’s energies are so scattered out that they at times feel confused and believe themselves uncreative. Each man is God. Each man is an artist in what he does.
This fits comfortably with RAW’s philosophy. ‘Each man is God’ might as well be one of Wilson’s favoured Crowley quotes- ‘Every Man and Woman is a Star’ .While describing each man as an artist who believes themselves uncreative could be equivalent to the following lines from Prometheus Rising:
Nietzsche once said, “We are all greater artists than we realize.” It is a function of t he above record ( and this book as a whole) to make that obscure joke totally clear to every reader (210)
Lest that still seem an obscure joke here is what RAW writes a little later:
Rationalism—a phlosophy for which we have great sympathy, as for a backward relative—wants to take UFO “observers” by the collar, shake them vigorous ly and shout in their ears, “Look you so and so. It never happened!—you got it, buddy?” Well, maybe it didn’t—and then again maybe it did. In either case, UFO-observers are all better artists than they realize. It should also be obvious that the Rationalist is a better artist than he realizes. Amid millions of people who have or create such experiences every day in every city on the planet, the Rationalist has created a separate reality in which such things never happen—to him (213)
If it still seems an obscure joke then you are on your own. At any rate, Wilson’s ideas and Thompson’s philosphy clearly have similarities. As Thompson says of his kingdom of heaven is within you comix:
I played with trying to avoid the usual cartesian rational linear sequential modes of cognition
And of the wide variety of both positive and negative reactions to his work he says:
Your reaction to them is relative to your frame of mind. This is obvious.
We are, I suggest, in the realm of Wilson’s ‘quantum psychology’ and of ‘reality tunnels‘. But here is the dead end. Clearly they shared a philosophical, even ontological position but I have no idea of what relationship, if any, Wilson and Thompson might have had. Biographical material seems low on the ground with this one. Art in Time says that Thompson was drawn into the Bay Area undergound comix scene in the late 60s/early 70s which situates him close to Wilson geographically and temporally so its entirely possible they actually knew one another. As ever, any ideas are welcome.
What we do know is that John Thompson was the creator of Cyclops and The Book of Raziel (1969). And that his artwork there is just as extraordinary as it is in Cosmic Trigger.
Thompson is also a writer himself. Thompson has authored a book, The Secret History of Carmel, exploring his hometown of Carmel, California. This piece of apparent psychogeography (would have to read it to be certain about that mind you) is described in one review as picking up
right where Robert Anton Wilson left off. The first 5000 words will explode off your ebook device and reprogram your entire intellectual capacity regarding the Carmel Mission. The star-shaped window of the mission, says Thompson, might be connected to Masonic lore, the summer solstice, Gnostic wisdom and a plethora of native astronomical interpretations.
Three pages later, after brilliantly hysterical digressions through Johannes Kepler, the Knights of Malta and the Cult of the Black Virgin, our author, Saint John of Thompson, arrives, of course, at the Merovingian dynasty of France including Godfrey de Bouillon—the medieval crusader and fixture of every bloodline-of-Jesus conspiracy known to man.
The rest of what I was able to find can be taken from the biographical conclusion from Art in Time:
John Thompson continued to make comics into the early 1970s. When the underground comics market faltered, Thompson maintained his work in schools and his sociopolitical activism, and pursued an active, if private, drawing practice.
Update! have found Mr. Thompson’s myspace page. Plenty of artwork there, although nothing from Cosmic Trigger that I could see. This discovery does make it possible to contact him however, so will attempt to gather more information at a later date. Meanwhile, here is a sample page from Cyclops:
More of Thompson’s art available at his MySpace page here.
And here are some of Thompson’s extraordinary pages from Cosmic Trigger for you to ponder and fall into at your leisure. More scans available here. Although you could also just buy the book of course.
For those who are interested and have some cash to spare, editions of Thompson’s comics are available here.
Wilson does not seem to have been directly involved with comics in any other way, although on a related note, a publication called Neurocomics, apparently co-written by Timothy Leary, lays out in sequential form the 8-circuit model of consciousness that Wilson did so much to expand upon (see Part 1). Again, the creators involved aren’t familiar to me (yet!) so this may be expanded upon in the future, but here are a couple of sample images anyway:
Leary’s Neurocomics available to download here. if anyone has any more details on this then do tell.
It’s difficult to say as yet whether Wilson had a hand in the one explicit attempt (rather than homaging of Morrison and Moore)to adapt his work for comic books. An uncompleted adaptation of the Illuminatus! trilogy apparently debuted in 1987. From Wikipedia:
An attempt was made to adapt the trilogy in comic book form beginning in the 1980s, by “Eye N Apple Productions” headed by Icarus!-23. Icarus! met with Wilson in 1984 and subsequently obtained permission from Wilson’s agent to adapt the trilogy. Illuminatus! #1 was issued in July 1987, then reissued in substantially revised form later that year by Rip Off Press (who had published the original 4th edition of the Principia Discordia in 1970).
A second issue followed in 1990, and a third in March 1991, after which the venture stalled (although several ashcans of the as yet unpublished Fourth Trip were distributed at comic book conventions in the Detroit and Chicago areas between 1991 and 2006).
Each comic covered one “trip” from the original trilogy, so had further issues followed this pattern, there would have been ten issues in total. The “new first issue” contained a letter from Bob Shea, who had seen the first issue and the materials for the next two. He wrote in part, “I’m delighted. I think it is very faithful to the novel and does a wonderful job of translating the spirit of the novel into a visual medium.”
The artist appears to be one P. Eric Piccione and the writer is named Icarus!23. Other than that I have been unable to find real details. Although Icarus!23 does have a myspace page with some artwork from the books. A few enticing samples follow:
More art here at the myspace page of Icarus 23, the writer of the adaptation. May try and make contact to see what further information can be gleaned. In the meantime Rip Off Press still appear to have back issues available.
So now then, that’s part 3 done. Some intriguing leads I hope you agree. Or at least a wee, neglected corner of countercultural history. Time to leave RAW for a while and, you know, do some of the work I’m supposed to do to get paid. In the meantime, thanks for reading and there are plenty of interesting pieces still to be read from RAW Week over at BoingBoing.
Keep the cosmic trigger happy.
Keeping the Cosmic Trigger Happy Part 1: Thoughts on Robert Anton Wilson
Keeping the Cosmic Trigger happy Part 2: Ontological Anarchy