Comics are Magic Part 8: Warren Ellis, Language as Code and Technology as Magic

Planetary Issue 7

It is little surprise that this Comics are Magic series has regularly returned to the works of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, both being prominent and vocal practitioners of magic. In this installment and the next I want to focus on two other members of the “British Invasion“, Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis, whose work often touches upon the subject of magic but without either creator claiming any explicitly magical intent. At first glance Warren Ellis might seem an odd choice for this series. His work most often displays a science-fiction bent, as in his epic Transmetropolitan, and even his superhero work is marked by hard sci-fi tendencies. Magic is not a prominent theme in his work, but nor, as we shall see, is it entirely absent either. One particularly interesting example is the short graphic novel Frankenstein’s Womb, in which Mary Shelley encounters her own creation (or her creation’s creation?) prior to her actually having written the book. This story presents an elegaic meditation on time , memory, art, science and magic that is arguably as close as Ellis has come to occupying a similar magic territory to Moore or Morrison, who generally allow their magic to “BE” magic. As a rule though, Ellis makes a point of repeatedly inverting Clarke’s Third Law, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. In Ellis’s work, instead, magic is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology.

A similar modus operandi plays out in Ellis’s superhero comics. His run on Ultimate Fantastic Four accepts the “magic” of that universe (the skewed physics and impossible biology) but goes further than most writers in explaining how the science of superheroes plays out within that framework. Pages are dedicated to examining how exactly The Thing, Human Torch, Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Women are capable of what they do; an anatomically accurate morphology of the superhuman body.

As Julian Darius  persuasively argues  over at the excellent Sequart, Ellis’s treatment of superhero science of the Fantastic Four at various times demonstrates a growing acceptance of the ‘magic’ of superheroes that is reconciled with science (though I should note that Darius’s argument goes much further than this and is worth reading in its own right). Ellis’ first encounter with the Fantastic Four was in the mini-series Ruins. Written as a grim counterpart to  Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels, which, as Darius points out, “offered an unapologetic celebration of Marvel super-hero history“, Ruins, “rejected that history in half the space, presenting a parallel, more logical Earth in which radioactive spider bites didn’t lead to super-powers without side effects.” In this universe, instead of becoming the  Human Torch Johnny Storm catches fire at a cellular level -” burned from the bones outward“. Sue Storm gets invisibility, but because all of her body reflects light, including her eyes, she instantly becomes blind, and stumbles into the burning corpse of her brother. Other Marvel heroes meet similarly grisly fates. As can be seen below, Bruce Banner’s exposure to the gamma bomb singularly fails to turn him into the Incredible Hulk:

By the time of Ultimate Fantastic Four however, Ellis has found a way to reconcile science and the “magic” of superheroes by following Clarke’s Third Law; the magic of superpowers is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology.  Ellis has the characters engage in discussions of how exactly their powers work  and Ellis provides workable explanations for them. Elsewhere in the run, as Julian Darius points out, Ellis, “reimagined the Negative Zone, which had been little more than a contrivance in the original stories, as a quasi-scientific space. Instead of simply popping into it, journey there was arduous, involving a retooled space shuttle”. Later, Ellis would also reconceptualise the Fantastic Four antagonist Galactus through this scientific lens. While the original Galactus was a gigantic, planet-devouring, demi-god in purple pants,  “Ellis recast Galactus as a swarm of interplanetary machines that operated with a hive consciousness…In a brilliant move, Ellis used the swarm — termed Gah Lak Tus — as an explanation for the Fermi paradox, the real scientific debate over why we can’t observe evidence of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, despite our best mathematical guesses telling us that we should be able to.”

Galactus: Superhero magic

Gah Lak Tus: Superhero science

We can now move on to consider how Ellis applies this same technique to the concept of magic proper. In an interesting, if frustratingly brief 2006 message board exchange where Ellis was asked if he practiced any form of magic(k) Ellis replied, “I don’t, no. I’m interested in too many other things to give my life over to magic, which is really what it requires. Of Moore and Morrison, Ellis says that they, “make their magic their work, which is how they answer the demands of the form. That’s not for me.” And finally, here is Ellis on the ‘reality’of magickal practices:

“I don’t think anyone’s actually working with the ancestors, no. I think that’s all deep consciousness work with an accretion of smoke and mirrors. I conceive of it as a piece with any invocation, which all happens in the head. (Which makes it no less important or wonderful.). Sigilisation, I find harder to write off.”

A couple of points are of interest here. firstly, Ellis doesn’t dismiss the idea of magical practice, simply noting that it’s too demanding given his own restless intellect and interests. Secondly, he acknowledges the centrality of magic to Moore and Morrison’s work, but doesn’t patronise it. Thirdly, he finds sigils harder to write off. There is more on sigils here, but the short version is that a sigil is an idea, put into words and condensed into a witchy looking symbol that the magician then “charges.” There are obviously several explanations but the underlying theory is that the sigil/symbol somehow lodges in the unconscious, to become made conscious later. In this respect sigil magic is analogous to programming a computer. Sigils are programmes, running quietly in the background on the biological computers in our skulls. As we will see, Ellis frequently returns to this conceptualization of magic as a question of how language, or information, affects consciousness, or reality (questions about the relationship between these two are beyond the remit of this particular post).

This approach is well represented in issue 5 of Global FrequencyIn this story, entitled Big Sky, a team of specialists is assembled in a Norwegian town whose inhabitants have all gone insane after a seemingly magical event: the sight and sound of an angel that filled the sky. Among the specialists is the magician Alan Crowe. Crowe explains magic this way:

Don’t look at me like that…Like I’m going to shoot lightning from my fingers or raise the devil. or worse, that I think I can. Magic is a psychological discipline…magic is about effecting physical change through perceptual change.”

He goes on to tell a story about Aleister Crowley to illustrate his point:

Once, in San Francisco, Crowley told a friend he could prove his powers by making a man across the street fall over. He began walking behind the man, and matched his footsteps to the man’s, audibly. he became the man’s walk. After a few moments, Crowley scuffed his feet. And the man fell over. Magic. When magicians talk about invoking gods and demons and the like, what they’re really discussing is a process. A mental process that allows one to enter into conversation with the secret recesses of the human brain. That’s where gods and devils live. they are aspects of our own subconscious, loaded with information we don’t ordinarily have access to, possessed of sub-personalities we never hear. 

Right there, in one paragraph (or two pages as it plays out in the comic) is as good and clear a definition of magic as it’s possible to get. In some respects it is a paraphrase of Crowley’s own words from Liber O:

In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.

Crowley, of course, was fond of describing magic as a science,exhorting his students to use “the method of science; the aim of religion” and describing magic asthe Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will“. Ellis is well-placed to understand this. As a writer he is obviously an artist himself who understands the placement of words and images in such a way as to cause changes in the consciousness of the reader (as Moore would say, all art is magic). Moreover, while Moore and Morrison are no strangers to using concepts from hard science in their work, Ellis is arguably more hard sci-fi; his futurism more carefully extrapolated. In other words, while Moore and Morrison tend to use science and technology as vehicles for magic, the non-practicing Ellis uses magic as a vehicle for science and technology. When a character tells Alan Crowe that he makes magic sound like a science, Ellis has Crowe reply that, “It IS science. In many cultures science has historically been the preserve of the priesthood. And so was magic. One and the same“.

Elsewhere, in issue 21 of Planetary (Death Machine Telemetry) the Dr Strange analogue Melanctha asks Elijah Snow, “what is it you call me? When people ask I mean.” Snow replies, “I say I’m visiting a magician.“, but like Global Frequency’s Alan Crowe, Melanctha is keen to clarify this label: “You have to understand that I am not a  magician as it is commonly perceived. Nor am I a shaman or oracle. I am a scientist.” What follows is an astonishingly illustrated journey through both the  quantum realm known to physics and the DMT realm known to shamanism as the drugs in Snow’s tea begin to take effect. Melanctha’s narration empahsises the links between these two apparently separate realms:

Fifty years ago, Mr. Snow, the physicist Richard Feynman gave a lecture entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”. His thesis was that, in a period concerned with megaengineering and macroscale physics– we were not directing the correct attention to the microscale. We contain universes. There are vastnesses in every grain of sand.

Here, Melanctha echoes the words of Mystic and poet William Blake (To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour), but moves beyond simple mysticism. As ever, Ellis’s version of magic acknowledges Clarke’s Third Law by staying one step ahead of it. If magic is sufficiently advanced science, then what does this science look like in practice? Taking a similar approach to that which he took to the science of superheroes, where he repeatedly grounds superhero tropes with scientific concepts,  Planetary #21 grounds magic in the same way. Melanctha’s monologue accompanies Snow’s visions and describes how Feynman influenced K. Eric Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology, before moving even further down the microscale: “Picotechnology and femtotechnology- the art of assembling atoms themselves. This is not fiction. Already, physicists are achieving femtotechnological change with thousand dollar lasers. Imagine remodeling individual atoms with light. And down: into chromotechnology. the manipulation of quarks and the creation of strange, exotic forms of matter. And beyond quarks, and strangelets, and chromometers and attometers…what might lay there? Beyond the limits of this universes construction. If, above us, there is the bleed and your glorious ultra-scale arrangement of universes…what lies below?”

The whole issue is well worth reading yourself so suffice it to say that Ellis/Melanctha’s monologue proceeds to take in the nature of the psychedelic experience and shamanism and outlines a scientific conception of the mechanisms by which these plants and substance allowed the shaman to talk with the dead. One Planetary annotation site cites a quote (actually a quote of a quote) from Terence McKenna, whose work popularised interest in DMT:

“This was dimethyltryptamine, DMT, and I smoked it and I saw… a swirling, floral mandorla form behind my closed eyelids, and as I moved toward this mandorla, I realised I was going to penetrate beyond it, and I burst through into a kind of other-dimensional superspace… what happened was there was an encounter with what can only be described as an elf hive, a colony of self-transforming, hyperdimensional machine creatures that came bounding forward with joyful squeaks to dribble themselves like self-transforming jewelled basketballs on the floor in front of me, and I was dumbstruck with amazement.”

Snow’s psychedelic experience shares many visual similarities with the DMT experience as described by McKenna, as a superspace inhabited by bouncing machinelike creatures. As the anonymous annotator points out Ellis and Cassday have these “pneuma-exhaling DMT machine elves from the microverse” include the visual addition of “writing on one of them in close up…the quartet of letters ACGT are repeated over and over in different combinations. ”

The addition of the programming language of the DNA code to McKenna’s DMT machine elves draws our attention to a recurring theme in Ellis’s approach to magic as science; the idea that magic might be a programming language. As the scientist-shaman Melanctha tells Elijah Snow that “Everything is information“. Language is one such way of organising information.  Indeed, Elijah Snow runs through several different information systems during his trip to the underworld when attempting to describe what he is seeing: “Something like the Japanese Kanji for life…and a shape that reminds me of the transhumanist symbol, suggesting growth and emergence…DNA code…and the death tarot card, which symbolizes change…“.  Elsewhere in Planetary the character of The Drummer is a technopath, able to read and manipulate information without a conventional computer interface and to channel information from surrounding sources like radio waves, electronic signals, hard drives, etc. allowing him to control technology that operates by these signals. These are superpowers, to be sure, but not presented as magical as such. Within the narrative universe of Planetary many characters have developed posthuman abilities. However, in Issue 7’s story To Be in England, in the Summertime, The Drummer is also able to read magical information the same way, stating that, “magic is the cheat code for the world. Sending a signal to reality’s operating system, see?”

There is some philosophical and occult precedent for this view of language as the code for reality’s operating system. Chaos Magic, for instance, often draws upon concepts taken from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). The short version of this approach is that reality is largely, perhaps entirely, a matter of perception, which is to say, of consciousness. Since consciousness is taken to be structured by language and behavioral patterns learned through experience and repetition (which is to say that they are ‘programmed’) it ought to be possible to alter these neuro-linguistic patterns, resulting in new behaviors and new perceptions. This obviously echoes Global Frequency’s Alan Crowe when he argues that magic is a psychological discipline that causes physical effects through perceptual changes. Not for nothing did the founders of NLP call their first book The Structure of Magic : A Book About Language and Therapy.

However, while Alan Crowe and The Drummer are able to positively manipulate these codes there are darker approaches throughout Ellis’s work somewhat closer to William S. Burroughs terrifying notion that, “language is a virus from outer space” (see also the neat indie-horror Pontypool, in which a language virus infects certain words, turning those that speak them into zombies). In the 2004 JLA: Classifed story New Maps of Hell, Ellis has the Justice League of America investigate a mysterious ancient text “which when decoded activates a memetic machine“. Memetic comes from meme theory, which, briefly, hypothesizes that ideas can be contagious, functioning like a virus of the mind. The ancient text in New Maps of Hell is an “idea-technology” which “was suspected to be a system that brought back the devil“, and causes those who have attempted to translate it to commit suicide

Ellis uses a similar notion in the story Invasive, published a year before New Maps of Hell in Global Frequency #3.   A street loses all power and the residents first begin attacking each other and then the police sent in to calm them: “three cops died. one stayed and joined the pack“. The residents bleed from the eyes and speak an unrecognizable language. These residents are victims of a “memetic attack“. As Global Frequency agent Lana Kennedy –  an expert who has been “been studying memetics and neuroporgramming since I was fourteen” –  explains, “Alien life forms do not have to be little gray boys who like looking up butts“. After all, a virus is also a life form, while “a meme is an idea that acts like a virus“. The virus was also initially transmitted by sight, causing Global Frequency head Miranda Zero to suggest that, “we don’t look at anything weird“. So you, dear reader, might want to avert your gaze from Steve Dillon’s depiction of the infected below.

If you are reading this you have just been infected with a dangerous memetic virus. Seek help immediately.

With the infected residents compulsively attempting to assemble a way to beam the infection out over radio waves instead, Lana realises that the memetic code works by describing “an alien society so perfectly that it co-opts any untrained mind experiencing the message“.  Lana observes of that the humans infected with the memetic virus “They’ve probably got a whole new operating system. Same brain, different way of using it.” We are not a million miles away from the ideas of Robert Anton Wilson here. As Wilson writes in the indispensable Prometheus Rising:

In speaking of the human brain as an electro-colloidal bio-computer, we all know where the hardware is: it is inside the human skull. The software, however, seems to be anywhere and everywhere. For instance, the software “in” my brain also exists outside my brain in such forms as, say, a book I read twenty years ago, which was an English translation of various signals transmitted by Plato 2400 years ago. Other parts of my software are made up of the software of Confucius, James Joyce, my second-grade teacher, the Three Stooges, Beethoven, my mother and father, Richard Nixon, my various dogs and cats, Dr. Carl Sagan, and anybody and (to some extent) any-thing that has ever impacted upon my brain. This may sound strange, but that’s the way software (or information) functions.

Eyes beginning to bleed, Lana works desperately to construct an anti-virus; to replace one operating system with another, overwriting the alien code by defining what it means to be human instead (in a similar register, Global Frequency’s Alan Crowe describes exorcism as, “merely a code to allow the personality to reassert itself.”) Finally succeeding in finding “a way to describe human relationships in neuroporgramming code”, Lana cures the infected. However, since her definition is based on her own relationship she sheepishly admits to one problem: “You may find that…well, they may all be bisexual now“. Lana’s new code is able to rewrite the neurological pathways and subsequent behaviors that have come to define their sexuality. Same brain, different way of using it. In effect, Lana has cast a spell, or rather, a counter-spell. And once again in Ellis’s fiction, magic is indistinguishable from a sufficiently advanced technology.

Well, that was a deep dive into some strange ideas, and there will be more to come in the next installment on Neil Gaiman.  So to end, seeing as we have just discussed Ellis on comic book magic, let’s unwind with Ellis on a comic book magician in this entertaining clip in which he describes being on the phone to Alan Moore.


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 View all posts by Scott Jeffery

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