Tales from the Sphinx: An Interview with John Thompson

DEADBIRDSONG- John Thompson, 1969

Some time ago Nth Mind published a series of articles about Robert Anton Wilson, the final on of which, Keeping the Cosmic Trigger Happy Part 3: RAW and the Comix Underground (click on the title to read it) discussed the work of John Thompson, artist for Cosmic Trigger and co-founder of the comix anthology The Yellow Dog. In the time since publishing that article I have been able to contact Thompson who had some very kind words about the original article. Moreover, John was good enough to agree to an interview as a follow-up to that article, the final version of which is presented below. I hope this interview encourages readers to follow the links included within, find out more about John’s (and his wife Judy’s) extraordinary art and contribute, as always, to keeping the cosmic trigger happy.

So settle down, get comfortable, and we’ll begin.

NTH MIND: When did your interest in art begin?

JOHN THOMPSON: As a small child I was drawn to some forms of Gnostic Christianity and a few schools of Buddhism, and can recall past lives where I illustrated and copied manuscripts. So as a little boy I tried to draw and write like I once did, and was frustrated that my abilities had not yet matured to do this. Then in Fifth Grade my books full of strange words and detailed drawings evolved, thanks to my teacher Mr. Sciara (Greek). Past life memories always have me in a loving family, in cultures without currency or fame or even signing pages, cultures involving Luang Prabang circa 1830, Languedoc/Provence 1200s, and rural hills of Western Sichuan . In these places my happy childhood involved copying books and illustrating them. Also ancient Miwoks of the Central Sierras, S E England’s Six Celtic Clans, and Greco-Alexandrian culture.

NTH MIND: Who were/are your artistic influences?

JOHN THOMPSON: Seeing Blake’s works was one of my happiest childhood memories.

NTH MIND: In Art in Time you list astrological symbolism of the Hellenist Greeks, Pythagorean Revival ideas mixed with celtic lore and Jewish mysticism, Swedenborg, Walt Whitman and Nyingma Buddhism as influences on your work. Also you wrote to me that, “In Edinburgh 1970 I researched my ancestral home, and in London studied Dr Dee & The Golden Dawn etc, so I’m a big fan of British esoteric lit & art.” When did you first become interested/initiated into esoteric ideas?

JOHN THOMPSON: Behavioral Psychologists agree that most children develop cognitive patterns the first six years of life, so I’ve been “thinking” like this since being born here in Carmel in 1945, surrounded by natural beauty of this coast. Such thoughts may seem esoteric to those who think differently, but not to like-minded people.

NTH MIND: At what point did you start including these ideas in your art?

JOHN THOMPSON: As soon as my hand held a pencil and my mouth could form words.

NTH MIND: How did you become involved in the underground comix movement and co-found the anthology The Yellow Dog?

JOHN THOMPSON: 1965 saw my first one man art show at 19, then later that year I began printing my books on a 200-year-old intaglio press, pages of etchings. Then I did panel art in exotic or lost languages. I also did political cartoons for the University of California paper and lit mags. Then the fist underground papers. The Print Mint published some of my prints and distributed on multi lingual book, so in 1968 Crumb, Joel Beck and I suggested the print a paper of just cartoons.

NTH MIND: Were you a reader of comics before that?

JOHN THOMPSON: As a dyslexic child my retinas could only read five or ten minutes, so I like them as “Objects d’arte”; held them & imagined what the comic “Space Cadets” might say. I’m shown wearing my Space Cadet shirt in my first grade class photo, and have lived up to that ever since.

NTH MIND: What are your memories of that time and your peers and collaborators?

JOHN THOMPSON: There is my chapter in The Life & Times Of Robert Crumb (1999) that recall just 1968 and my artist friends. On line is my short book YELLOW DOG and now Eternal Tales, both on kindle.

Eternal Comics, 1973

NTH MIND: Did you feel any affinity between your work and the work of other underground cartoonists who dealt more graphically or explicitly in sex and violence?

JOHN THOMPSON: No.

NTH MIND: Looking back from this point in time it seems that confluence of minds that gathered in Berkley around the late 1960s, early 70s must have been an exciting time. Is that rose-tinted nostalgia? What are your views on the world’s current social-psychological-spiritual well-being?

JOHN THOMPSONBeing mentioned in “The History of The Haight Ashbury” and in Oxford Univ Press “Berkeley In the Sixties” was a honour for one so young then. Between 1965 and 1967 those places were wonderful for hyper creative and High IQ teens, but in 1968 “sex-drugs-rock n roll migrants came there to drink and party and my friends all headed for the hills, like I did. As for the world today we sure pray my precocious 18 year old daughter finds a place in it that’s as magical as when I was 18 here with Baez, Dylan and the “Teen Boheme Scene” of 1963-64.

NTH MIND: You wrote to me that RAW discovered and was intrigued by your comic books after moving with his family to Berkley and that you met through a mutual friend who was going to publish Cosmic Trigger. What were your first impressions of RAW?JOHN THOMPSON: Mr Wilson & his lovely family were in Chicago in the 60s. He came to Berkeley where he met my friend, a publisher, Sebastian, part of the lysergic intelligentsia. We found Wilson very imaginative, highly curious, with a clever & articulately sardonic wit.

NTH MIND: Did you know RAW socially, or remain in contact with him after the publication of Cosmic Trigger?

JOHN THOMPSON: Occasionally. We enjoyed our chats. He admitted he wasn’t a “very spiritual” or “devotional” person, though. My friends greatly adored the Higher Power and one another. He liked Leary & Crowley and others we disliked, while he had little interest in Sutras, Gospels or Taoist manuscripts. But we liked James Joyce “Finnegan’s Wake” and some other writers.

NTH MIND: You have said in 1975 of your work that “I played with trying to avoid the usual cartesian rational linear sequential modes of cognition” and of reactions to your work that “Your reaction to them is relative to your frame of mind. This is obvious“. This seems very close to RAW’s philosophy, especially the idea of ‘reality tunnels’ and quantum psychology. Was this a meeting of like-minds?

JOHN THOMPSON: Our minds were quite different. What he called “Quantum Psychology” was just his spin or some areas of Cognitive Linguistics that some friends and I studied back then. Rennes Descartes would have been puzzled by our use of syntax rules non-linearly. My style of being loquacious was “shaped” more spherically than linearly, and unlike Descartes’ opinion on what is and isn’t “rational”. His criteria for differentiating between those cognitive styles was, “like so subjective, dude.”

NTH MIND: The illustrations in Cosmic Trigger are wonderful. What was the process that went into creating them? Did RAW suggest ideas? Did you read the book in manuscript form and work from there?

JOHN THOMPSON: My retinas could only read parts of it a few minutes at a time, due to dyslexia. Sebastian gave me six ideas for pages and I came up with the others.

NTH MIND: The Cosmic Trigger drawings, though recognizably yours, seem somewhat different in as much as the symbolism used appears much more universal, or archetypal, than the very personal cosmology you seem to create in your comics. I wonder if that seems a fair assessment and how you would describe the relationship between the two?

JOHN THOMPSON: “Fair !” Bob had invited customers into his State Fair of a book, so I wanted to please those paying customers.

Eternal Comics (1973)

NTH MIND: Although continuing to produce comics in the 70s you also turned your attention towards teaching and activism. I wonder if you can tell me a little about how your relationship with the underground comics scene played out?

JOHN THOMPSON: I left that comix scene in 1973, to spend my time helping others with their problems. I worked with those in hospitals, or hospice, home care programs, and special ed school programs. Counseling was sometimes hard work, but mostly enjoying these people and what their families disclosed to me. After my MA in 1970 I did post-graduate work, earning some credentials and licenses. My favourite “therapy lines” are from Cognitive Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology, which are based more and more on neuroscience.

NTH MIND: What forms of activism have you been involved in?

JOHN THOMPSON: After being in many antiwar, civil rights and ecology groups in the ‘60s:

Educational reform ( a founder of an Episcopal school in 1980; President of a progressive Carmel preschool; 1997, a founder of our local International School ); founding staff member of our Hospice in patient facility 1981; our County’s AIDS Education director 1989; taught college; local Green candidate 1993 & on County Council; President, Concerned Citizens For Environmental Health in the 80s; member of our local gnostic group 35 years, the Occupy Movement. etc.

NTH MIND: Do you keep up with the comics scene today?

JOHN THOMPSON: No. Though between 2006 and 2010, I collected comics & went to Comic Cons.

NTH MIND: Or have any plans to release any new work in that format?

JOHN THOMPSON: No. Yet writing and illustrating very eccentric manuscripts is part of my daily life for many decades. My artist wife judyhurley.com reads them, but no other family members (including my son Quinn 35 and daughter Elana 18) or any others. These are far more advanced than my early work, and involved a few hundred projects.

NTH MIND: You recently published a book titled The Secret History of Carmel, about your home town. What were your motivations for writing it?

JOHN THOMPSON: To help preserve the legacy of what was a retreat for artists, writers and eccentric visionaries, but today only the wealthy can afford homes here. You can read my first chapter of SECRET LIFE OF CARMEL, a 240 page book about my “native culture” on-line for free through Amazon/Barnes & Noble

NTH MIND: Finally, for any fans of yours, or indeed RAW’s work, are there any other writers or artists you would recommend? Do you have a favourite of your own or RAW’s work?

JOHN THOMPSON: Naturally I recommend my wife Judy’s writing and art. She was part of the earliest Haight Ashbury Scene when creative efforts by “chicks” wasn’t taken seriously. We also recommend our dear friend winstonsmith.com and his ingenious collages from North Beach San Francisco

Postscript:

Shortly after this e-mail interview I received another e-mail from John elaborating on certain topics. I considered editing it into the main interview but felt it stands best on its own. What is clear is that John differs from RAW (and other notables such as Leary and Crowley) in his spiritual approach, including the use and abuse of psychedelics. As he says in the interview above of his occasional and enjoyable chats with RAW:

He admitted he wasn’t a “very spiritual” or “devotional” person, though. My friends greatly adored the Higher Power and one another. He liked Leary & Crowley and others we disliked, while he had little interest in Sutras, Gospels or Taoist manuscripts.

While for writers like Leary and Wilson higher states of consciousness were effectively an engineering issue, for Thompson it remains a matter of devotion and deep personal and spiritual exploration. With this is mind I am happy to present John’s words on this matter in full. It is both a fascinating snapshot of the time and also an articulate corrective to the view that psychedelic drugs in and of themselves are to be embraced (a view that even this blog might be accused of expressing on occasion).

JOHN THOMPSON: In my interview I briefly mentioned that Wilson and I disagreed on views of Crowley and Leary. These two men recommended psychedelic drugs should be “legal.” They used these drugs too often, and urged others to use them. My lysergic insights back then were contrary to Leary and Crowley’s experiences with them. From using them I learned that these substances should only be used in a “proper set and setting” under the supervision of someone very experienced in their sacred use; someone licensed by the state to skilfully monitor the psychosocial and spiritual issues that arise.

Personally, I see problems with psychedelics being used recreationally. The alterations in the thought processes and mood patterns in many people using them can have problematic effects, such as “poor judgement”. Users can “believe” ideas, but just because one believes something doesn’t make it true. Delusions are neuro-dysfunctions that block possible spiritual realizations. They are cognitive errors and can be studied as “embedded pathology” in linguistic disclosures (see the work of Dr Philip Rubin, Yale Professor of Brain Surgery. He continues to collect Crumb’s work and mine, and work by some underground cartoonists. As an artist, he is a gifted photographer and pioneer in the use of computer systems conducting Lexigraphic Analysis, decoding a person’s use of syntax rules, shapes of grammatical constructions, functions of key verb phrases etc) ). How a person communicates on psychedelics, with multi tonal spoken language, facial language, saccadic eye patterns, hand gestures and body language is very revealing. Rubin can professionally “decode” all this, and “measure” aspects of what is being disclosed.

When Wilson, Leary and Crowley used psychedelic drugs what they revealed about how they thought sometimes, reflected bias and personal problems, and  what they felt were spiritual insights on “the world” did not seem profound to me or many of my Buddhist and Gnostic friends. Their theological and ontological ruminations often were too different from what Christ actually said in the Gospels, or Buddha in the Sutras, or Lao Tze in the Taoist Canon. However many, many people can be seen as philo-sophia, “lovers of wisdom”, but what Wilson, Leary and Crowley saw as “wisdom” I often saw as their per-sona, subjective opinions that changed from decade to decade.

In the interview I didn’t expand on this topic, but you may be interested in it. In the Sixties I knew Allen Ginsberg, who was very kind to me, but his frequent use of psychedelic drugs effected his language talents, sometimes in troubling ways. But in 1974 and 1975 when we were at Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado, he adhered more closely to Buddhist precepts and avoided drugs, and sounded wiser to my friends.

In my old well-worn copy of Dr. David Solomon’s 1964 “LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug” I am still impressed with Dr. Alan Watts chapter (page 119) “A Psychedelic Experience: Fact or Fantasy.” It begins ” Since at least 1500 BC men have, from time to time, held the view that our normal vision of the world is a hallucination- a dream, a figment of mind…The implication is that, if this is so, life need not be taken so seriously. It is a fantasy, a play, a drama to be enjoyed…one day (perhaps in the moment of death) the illusion will dissolve, and each one of us will awaken to discover that he himself is what there is and all that there is – the very root and ground of the universe…’

 

I listened in awe as Alan Watts spoke on campus at the University Of California at Berkeley, or at the Human Be-in in SF Golden Gate Park or in the offices of the San Francisco Oracle on Haight Street. My experienced led me to agree with him most of the time, and not Wilson, Leary or Crowley.

Thanks again to John for his kindness and his time.

John’s facebook page is here

You can see more of John’s artwork over at Comixjoint here and here and here (plus plenty more)

Judy’s artwork can be found at judyhurley.com

The Secret Life of Carmel is available at satyadesigns@yahoo.com

(you can read the first chapter for free on amazon.com or Barnes & Noble)

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About Scott Jeffery

Hello humans. I am Dr. Scott Jeffery. I do the following things (in no particular order): Research into Post/Humanism and Transhumanism and superheroes (seriously, I’ve got a PhD and everything) Stand-up comedy Compulsive rumination I blog about these things (plus occultism and all kinds of other lovely, strange topics) at NthMind. I also write regular short film reviews at Filmdribble. I can be contacted via twitter (@sjzenarchy) or at sjzenarchy@gmail.com. View all posts by Scott Jeffery

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