I am not that interested in speculation on whether aliens have ever visited the Earth. What I am excited about, however, are all the ways we have imagined them, from the earliest grainy photos of saucer shapes in the sky to the orchestral-minded, big-eyed aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the 1950s and 1960s, UFOs became ubiquitous in the pulp magazines and cheap popular paperbacks. With their lurid cover and claims that "Flying Saucers Have Landed," these publications would set the popular consciousness afire. They also opened up theories of ever sort as to the origins of UFOs and what role the government might play in covering them up. From the hollow Earth, to Mars, to other dimensions, the UFO myth could contain almost any form of conjecture. Jews? Maybe. Men in black? Most certainly. Spiritual avatars leading us to a new age? Let's hope so.
"Flying Saucers Are Real" by Jack Womack collects the science fiction author's personal collection of UFO-related ephemera, and reveals what William Gibson describes in the book's introduction as the "source code" of the UFO idea that has been programmed into all of us. Womack introduces the popular UFO myth as starting with what is known as the Shaver mystery, the strange tales of Richard Shaver who claimed to have visited the great civilization that lives in the hollows of the earth. Their brethren fled our planet on spaceships, but those left behind—the Dero—seek to kidnap and enslave human beings for the own (usually sexual) means. The editor Ray Palmer published these in "Amazing Stories" in the 1940s, and he would soon go on to make a career of publishing the most garish stories about flying saucers and invading aliens. His magazine "Fate" and books like "The Coming of the Saucers" lead the way for decades to come.
Womack's collection is startling in its variety: "The White Sands Incident" by Dr. Daniel Fry in which the authors claims to have been inside flying saucers; "Men From the Moon in America" by W.V. Grant explains that the devil lives on the moon and the space race with the Russians is a race to the power of evil; and "Ceto's New Friends" by Leah Hadley that teaches children not to be afraid if they are ever abducted. Womack's collection contains book covers with all manner of saucer-shaped craft, amateur drawings of aliens, and those ubiquitous grainy photos. If the images weren't enough to recommend this book, Womack's discussion and examination is a smart and funny travelogue through the forest of this wonderful material.
Flying Saucers Are Real
by Jack Womack
2016, 288 pages, 11.0 x 8.5 x 1.0 inches, Paperback
My own initiation into Freemasonry was one of the highlights of my adult life. The marvelous rituals and the delightful imparting of "secrets" are sublime, but they are threaded with a hint of anachronistic camp. In the moment you give over to it completely. This is the true power of theater and pomp. Much of Freemasonry's ability to elicit this good-natured suspension of disbelief is its varied use of symbol and parable, most of which is part of the very architecture and decor of the lodge.
Like Freemasonry itself, the art and other artifacts that are both standard and unique to each lodge waver between high and low, masterful and kitsch. As Above, So Below by Lynne Adele and Bruce Lee Webb, and lovingly presented by University of Texas Press, collects all the various kinds of fraternal arts, including banners, aprons, paintings, and even magic lantern slides and quilts. The book is not limited to Freemasonry, and offers examples from Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias, among others.
What is made most apparent is how deeply these societies are entangled with folk elements. Images of death and resurrection abound, as do beehives, goats, and of course the all-seeing eye. There is esoteric lore and mystery layered with mystery. As David Byrne says in his foreword to the book, "The obscuring layers are the content." And yet, the humble often outsider nature of the examples in this book reveal the most startling truth about Freemasons and others secret societies: these are the homegrown fellowships of our ancestors, people looking for fraternity and the warmth of a lodge, often during our country's most difficult times. These were simple men and women, not the secret rulers of the universe.
As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society
As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930
Lots of myths have been used as fodder for science fiction and fantasy, and some of the more interesting ones turn the gods into cosmic entities, or extensions of our own humanity. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, for example, imagines a group of posthuman astronauts who take on the personas of the Hindu pantheon. Then there are comics, such as Jack Kirby’s Asgard, a techno-mystical dimension, where magic and technology are indistinguishable (to butcher Asimov’s famous dictum). One story that has not garnered much favor by writers and artists is the biblical creation story. But they are missing out on a vastly strange and cosmic tale, and when combined with Kabbalistic ideas of how the world was created, you have one of the most far-out psychedelic-inflected tales that, if used right, could do wonders for a science fiction/fantasy story.
The problem is, it would take a pretty weird imagination to know what to do with it. The solution is Jesse Moynihan. Moynihan’s day job is as a writer and storyboard artist for Adventure Time, one of the greatest cartoons ever produced (sorry for the hyperbole, but it’s true). In Adventure Time, mythology and pop culture – including some brilliant shout outs to Dungeons & Dragons – are combined into something that is both whimsical and profound. After a few episodes, however, you can begin to see the self-imposed limitations. It is a kid’s show after all. In Moynihans’s own work as a comic writer and artist, his vision is let loose.
Forming, published by Nobrow in the UK, is currently in two volumes, with a third on its way. The comic is essentially the biblical creation story, with any number of other creation mythologies thrown in, told as space opera. It’s then filtered through contemporary colloquialisms, slang, and an imagination so thoroughly steeped in pop culture and psychedelic lunacy, it’s a thing both sublime and profane. On the one hand, Moynihan is trying to get at something essential here, asking real questions about consciousness, the idea of the soul, mysticism, and even colonialism and subjugation of native peoples. On the other, he fires on all cylinders with puerile humor and comic-book violence. The result is a deeply affecting, funny, and human story.
All of this is built on the groundwork of delightful, hyperactive, explosive artwork. Simple, but expressive human (and alien) figures give way to psychedelia, with panel after panel dotted with some form of symbolism. Along the way, Moynihan is able to figure in some of the most esoteric ideas alongside things like Garbage Pail Kids. But these asides never distract from what feels like something very personal. This is not a comic that merely grabs from multiple sources to be clever. There appears to be something at stake here, and sometimes it feels as if we are reading Moynihan’s own spiritual hopes and confusions.
They had me at Aurora. Nothing so perfectly captures the secret origin of my imagination than the Aurora line of snap-tite models from the 1970s, especially the Prehistoric Scenes and monster models, with optional glow in dark parts. It was the lurid Monster Scene sets, however, that pried open my weird third eye (along with Creature Double Feature on my local UHF station and Famous Monsters of Filmland). These delightfully ghastly models included: Dr. Deadly, the igor-esque mad scientist; The Victim, a busty young woman whose only purpose is to be abducted and experimented on; Frankenstein, the misnamed monster to do Dr. Deadly's bidding; Vampirella, the might-as-well-be-naked vampire whose role in all this is ambiguous; Gruesome Goodies, a laboratory of Tesla-like machinery, workbench, lab equipment and the requisite skull; The Pain Parlor, which includes an operating table, a skeleton, and inscrutable "pain" machine; The Pendulum, for slicing the Victim in half; and The Hanging Cage, a room of torture that even has hot coals and a tiny pincer. Later sets would include Dracula and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.
I was too young to recognize anything here that might have been exploitive or inappropriate for a kid's model set. Looking back, it's hard to believe they were ever allowed on the shelves of a toy store. It's no surprise then that the development of the toys was one part "Let's do the craziest things we can think of…" and one part "but let's not get parents upset." To this end, Aurora worked out a smart business arrangement with James Warren of Warren Publishing who was an expert on how to market monsters to young people while staying away from controversy. Nevertheless, negative press, parent groups, and an unhappy parent company (Nabisco) led the quick shuttering of the line.
The book Aurora Monster Scenes is a loving and candid history of Aurora, the impetus and creative burst that went into designing these models, and the sad controversy that ensued. The book is lavishly illustrated with a remarkable collection of original design sketches, advertisements, photographs, and of course, images of the models themselves. The creatives at Aurora had nothing but the spirit of fun and a wink-and-nod to the burgeoning monster-craze that surrounded them at the time, but try as they might, there was very little they could do that would assuage parents' fears of their kids putting the helpless female victim in the hanging cage and pretending to burn her with hot coals in preparation for the dissection in the Pain Parlor. But boy oh boy, did I love those tiny plastic test tubes.
Aurora Monster Scenes: The Most Controversial Toys of a Generation
by Dennis L. Prince and Andrew P. Yanchus
2014, 256 pages, 8.4 x 10.9 x 0.5 inches (paperback)
This year Netflix will debut two new shows based on comic book characters—both properties of Marvel comics and part of what is called the Marvel Universe — Daredevil and Jessica Jones. These are not two of Marvel's most recognized characters, and in fact Jessica Jones is likely only known by devoted fans, what Marvel once called "true believers." Daredevil (blind lawyer Matt Murdock) fights organized crime in Hell's Kitchen and Jessica Jones is a retired superhero turned private detective, often called to investigate the sordid side of masked vigilantes. Netflix has confidence in their original series given the success of Orange is the New Black and House of Cards (although this year's Marco Polo has failed to garner the same kind of critical praise). To take a risk on superheroes that are not household names, even during a time when comic characters are extremely popular, seems counterintuitive to what works. And yet, I am hopeful, not because I particularly trust in Netflix's vision, but because I trust the characters.
Disclaimer: I am a true believer.
The first comic book I fell in love with started an affair that has never faltered: The Avengers #57. The issue is a continuation of a two-part story. The diabolical robot Ultron has built his own android — The Vision — to defeat the Avengers, a team of heavy hitters that includes Thor, Captain American, and Iron Man. Because The Vision is programmed with the "brain patterns" of another Avenger named Wonder Man, his conscience takes hold and he helps the heroes defeat his creator. In this particular issue, the Vision asks to join the Avengers, and after a series of tests, is offered membership. After accepting, the Vision — a supposedly cold unfeeling machine — excuses himself from the room. As he walks out, Iron Man comments how unearthly his voice is. In the final full-page drawing, the Vision is shown with a hand to his face, a long tear streaming down. Off panel, Captain America says, continued from the previous page, "And if you saw his eyes right now, I'm sure you'd learn that… even and android can cry." (The Vision would later go on to marry the mutant known as Scarlet Witch in Giant Size Avengers #4. She was my first crush.)
Here were super powered people that suffered doubt, who fell in love, and whose lives had worldly consequence. I was eight, and while I knew my own life did not matter in that way, I too felt anxious and uncertain. My father had lost his business to a fire and soon after was stricken with debilitating arthritis. My grandfather died. My sister eloped with a boy my parents did not like. I knew doubt, and fear, and reading about god-like people with similar feelings offered a kind of balm. I could lose myself in their stories, but still feel like I had one foot in the real world.
More than a decade earlier, the creator of these characters, Stan Lee, wanted heroes that were not merely steroids in spandex in made-up cities like Gotham and Metropolis. Together with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, they created superheroes that lived in recognizable places with recognizable problems. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) was a bullied high school geek who struggles with use his uncanny powers responsibly. Ben Grimm (The Thing of the Fantastic Four) is turned into a hideous creature by cosmic rays. He jokes while throwing superhuman punches to mask his own suffering.
Nevertheless, these characters populated a universe with a deep, mythic history — filled with cosmic entities like Infinity and Galactus — placing Earth in the center of a vast drama. Despite years of continuity, retroactive meddling and reboots, the Marvel Universe has remained fairly consistent, particularly regarding the essential elements of each of the characters. No matter how many times their stories have been told, how many costume changes, death and reversals of those deaths, the characters withstand. Unlike other literary figures, comic book characters can sustain multiple re-imaginings without being reduced to ironic fluff like a zombie Mr. Darcy or a vampire hunting Abraham Lincoln.
It is not always successful, of course. Yet when a superhero comic fails, and many have, critics never put blame on the source material, but on the interpretation and the execution. For the forty years I have been reading comics, I have been witness to that element that makes them comparable to myths; they stand up to repeated tellings, even as they change slightly over time. There is also something comforting, cozy even, about being able to return these characters again and again. No matter how much life changes, they remain steadfast.
As my family found a new life in Florida after my father's setbacks, I discovered other comics that resonated in new ways. The Legion of Super-Heroes published by DC Comics offered a vision of teenage problems underscored by intergalactic politics. Each of the heroes had one unique power, often a consequence of their home planet; shape-shifting, telekinesis, super-intelligence (it was also the comic that introduced the oft-mocked Matter Eater Lad.) When we moved again, I was a teenager. I packed my comics and my adolescent unease. In our new home I became enamored of The Silver Surfer, one of the most powerful entities in the Marvel universe, and a brooding melancholy poet.
In the mid-1980s, comic books writers were attempting to tread new ground, and reshaped the possibilities for storytelling. Writer and artist Walter Simonson took on duties for Thor, digging deeper into Norse mythology and crafting one of the most perfect runs of a comic book. As I matured, the comic book did too, and it was all too easy to project whatever course my life was taking onto the colorful newsprint. When things turned dark in my late teens and early 20s, I lost myself in the murkier morality that writers were then introducing. Some of those stories remain iconic today, including Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum, both Batman stories, a character already over forty years old. But there were and still are tales to tell.
At mid-life and still reading, it's a golden age for comic book fans. There is considerable talent in the superhero comic industry, with writers like Scott Snyder, Matt Fraction, Ales Kot, Mark Waid, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Jason Aaron writing smart sophisticated stories with characters strong enough to inhabit a variety of narratives. Daredevil, currently being written by Waid, has gone through considerable changes since his first appearance in 1964. In 1979, Frank Miller took over writing the blind red-costumed crime-fighter and brought the once smiling B-lister to the depths of New York City where he came up against organized crime. His girlfriend became a junkie. In 2001, Marvel handed the reigns to Brian Michael Bendis, and with artist Alex Maleev, wrote Daredevil as crime noir and stripped him of almost all superhero pretension. Since 2011, Waid has injected levity back into the comic, but retained the edge and drama that keeps it from being lighthearted pulp.
Then there are superhero films and television shows attracting fans that might never have read a comic book. Current trends in filmmaking technology – with writers like Joss Whedon and actors like Robert Downy Jr – make blockbusters like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy possible. My generation had to grin and bear the Saturday morning Shazam!/Isis Hour and The Incredible Hulk with Bill Bixby. Today offers the CW's Flash, and Arrow, two of the most watchable series on network television. Since 2010 there have been 14 movies based on Marvel characters alone, and this year will see five more, including the next Avengers film, Age of Ultron, and on television, the series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter. Netflix has even more superhero shows in production. But despite my faith in the eternal quality of superheroes, it might be their narratives are simply better told panel by panel, sequentially, month by month.
The lexis of comics (Marvel in particular) versus the language of film is often incompatible. Comic book characters have labyrinthine histories. Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, along with her brother Pietro (also known as the lightning fast Quicksilver) grew up as gypsies, were raised on Mount Wundagore by a Dr. Moreau-like creature named Bova, a saintly cow woman, created by the High Evolutionary. Wanda and Pietro would later discover their father is the mutant anti-hero, Magneto. And so it goes. The compressed storytelling necessary in film and television makes these rich origins almost impossible. As comics and other media entangle the companies who are banking heavily on the films and television shows, the comics books themselves will become more like those media vehicles, and risk lose their integrity.
In 2011, DC Comics re-launched their entire series calling it the New 52, a fresh start to bring in new readers while trying to retain the core mythos of the characters. All the characters were rebooted, and many of their age-old details were erased or revamped (Clark Kent, for example, is not in love with Lois Lane, and she doesn't work for the Daily Planet.) This April, in an attempt to clean up continuity issues and bring cohesion to what is called the Multiverse, DC will publish the mini-series Convergence. Over at Marvel, May of this year will see Secret Wars, a massive event that will weave various "alternate" universes together.
I am admittedly getting a little overwhelmed. All I really want is a comic book version of the Iliad with a complex but reliable history, translated anew for each generation. The website Den of Geek is mildly bemused and even a little frustrated at the constant tinkering that goes on to assuage "true believers." Mike Cecchini recently wrote: "But maybe the real best case scenario is that fans will stop demanding that the impossible minutiae of comic book continuity, especially when it involves intellectual property that's at least a half century old, make any kind of sense." No one, Cecchini is suggesting, cares much anymore about Bova the cow creature. The important thing is just to tell good stories, be them in the pages of comics, or IMAX in 3D.
Maybe it is time to let go. My own son will see every superhero movie with me, but no matter how I strategically litter the house with comics, he won't pick one up. He sees them as impenetrable, something that adults like, flavored with nostalgia he can't identify with. It's not unlike what I felt walking through the house while my parents listened to jazz, catching a rhythm here or there, but still heading straight into my room to listen to Minor Threat. Maybe comics need to catch up with movies and TV's condensed story-telling, only relying on internal continuity for as long as the show is renewed each season. As such, creators can begin again, not beholden to any previous interpretation — except those fundamental to the story that make them worth retelling: orphan from a dead planet, magic hammer, radioactive spider, gamma rays, mutant genes, emotive android.
During my weekly visits to the Compleat Strategist in Hollywood, Florida around 1978/1979 I would inspect the wargames, but was always a little intimidated by them. Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls were my games. The store carried all the small-press supplements and campaigns to keep me busy browsing all afternoon. But I still spent much of my time walking around and reading the backs of the wargame boxes; PanzerBlitz, Starship Troopers, Squad Leader. I also had no one to play with. Wrangling up other kids to play D&D was hard enough.
The owner of the store must have sensed my curious frustration and introduced me to the microgame, small bagged games with fairly simple rules, a fold out map, and a few sheets of die cut pieces, often suitable for solitaire play. And there were many of them with fantasy themes, with standouts such as: Swordquest, Valkenburg Castle, Lords of the Underneath, not to mention the Fantasy Trip line that included the classic games Melee and Wizard. There was freedom in them as well, and game designers could be as historically accurate (eg. Rommel's Panzers) or as far out as they wanted (eg. Awful Green Things from Outer Space). The microgame that I recall fondly (and have since found a copy of) is the mostly impenetrable and seemingly unplayable oddity Demons from SPI, in which players are magicians who battle each other by way of conjured demons. Much of the game is inspired by an actual magical grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon (or the Lemegeton), a medieval text that purports to contain the formula for calling forth infernal entities. The rules contain a nice "Historical Notes" section and even offers players a text of the actual conjuration if they send a SASE to the game company. While it refreshing to see the current popularity of boardgames, the DIY flavor is mostly gone, and with it that little bit of luridness that made buying a game like Demons feel almost iconoclastic. What's left, at least for me personally, is the nostalgia for those days, and spending too much money trying to recapture something that seems all but lost.
Every so often, however, something from deep in the underground rises just slightly to the surface, emitting an odor of sulfur, and opening my gaming third-eye. It's a spiritual feeling, really, encountering something that so perfectly captures that cultural moment when the fringe of roleplaying and wargames was knocking on the gates of the mainstream, taking advantage of the late 1970s/ early 1980s cultural locus of horror movies, hobbits, and Heavy Metal magazine. It's been a long time since I have seen anything quite as batshit gonzo as the game Cave Evil, in which Necromancers battle for domination in a labyrinthian cave that slowly expands, revealing more powers and threats, all framed within a darkly humorous world. Imagine a realm where Gary Gygax had been possessed by Abdul Alhazred, the fabled author of the Necronomicon. This makes more sense than to believe it was crafted by a bunch of game geeks in their basement.
The creators of Cave Evil – Nate Hayden, Jochen Hartmann and Mat Brinkman – are all driven by a love of the role-playing and wargames they grew up playing, as well as a deep frustration with the current domination of Euro games. Underpinning this is a desire to test the waters of board game culture to see how much weirdness it can tolerate. Their various backgrounds in design, filmmaking, comics, and technology have given birth to a terrifically strange game that seems perfectly suited to a particular generation of weirdos, but has much to offer the budding game designer as to how to create something that can stand out in an industry fast becoming saturated by Settlers of Catan clones.
Setting up Cave Evil can be a bit daunting, but the rulebook provides a clear path through the essentials, offering additional and more complex rules along the way. Part of what makes it difficult is wanting to stop to inspect the horribly wonderful art and the names of the spells (obscene romance, neon mind control), creatures (larvampyr, shoddy abomination), and artifacts (velvet necro slippers, blinding prism), and the terrible fiends that await you at as the in-game timer winds down, such as the Evil Black Old Goat. A few of the design choices – while perfectly suited to the demonic black-light poster sensibility of the overall aesthetic – sometimes make playability a little difficult. The use of muted colors on black backgrounds means certain game cards are almost unreadable, but for the most part the stark white and black of the game is functional. The game itself is fairly straightforward: gather resources, create armies of diabolical monsters and learn spells; strategize where and when to unleash them on your opponent, and deal with wandering monsters as you attempt to destroy the other player before the time runs out and the greater evil — greater than your characters at least — makes itself known.
During a Skype conversation with Hayden and Hartmann, Hayden made it clear their intention for Cave Evil was playability above all things. While the weirdness is what gives it flavor, Hayden and company designed what he calls "a tactical combat game," driven by a dark fantasy narrative. They see Euro games as little more than chess pretending to be narrative games; they center so much on the mechanics, that whatever story there is functions as surface dressing. Cave Evil's rules are dependent on the Goetic magic of the necromancers. The monsters, spells, and items have very specific personalities, and their powers and weaknesses make them more like entries in a role-playing bestiary than just variables in the game play.
Working on Cave Evil was something akin to a necromantic rite, as the friends hunkered down for two weeks for the final push, working at what felt like 24 hour shifts. The almost overwhelming number of creatures and spells alone must have required selling some part of their souls, but in so doing are reviving that aspect of game culture that was once akin to underground music, fanzines, and small-press publishing. There is an argument to be made that there is, in fact, no more underground. But the truth is, there are dozens of small music labels, publishers, artists and musicians that might be using web technology to send out news to fans and post samples of their work, but are still working with the standard tools to experiment and remain visionary. https://youtu.be/V5cMKlpOTD8
When Hayden worked in the film industry, he was frustrated with the binary way it's run. Projects and ideas are either on or off, yes or no. Board game design was something he could do out of his own house, and gave him the platform to tell stories that sometimes even stymies video game development. This is also part of why the group intends to stay independent. They worry about getting too big too quickly, and so have stayed mostly under the radar. Hayden started Blast City Games in 2007, which has produced other limited edition games, including the hand-made (and now out of print) Mayan Sun, Aztec Destiny, and the quite wonderful Mushroom Eaters, a cosmic shamanic journey played on a 3-D game-board (3-D glasses included). His new imprint, Emperors of Eternal Evil, publishes Cave Evil and the horror game Psycho Raiders. There is little that is slick about their website, their games, or even the teaser trailer for Cave Evil ( one of the greatest advertisement for a game you will ever see), but this also is where their unabashed freedom lies. It's a vision of not only game design, but of how to run a small company that is not just a labor of love, but a lover letter to DIY culture when it was at its peak.
The devil is a sly one. Old Scratch realized that if you want to control the hearts and mind of men and women use the hypnotic force of the spectacle of pop music. Not everyone, of course, is aware of how deep the influence goes. Some believe the devil is merely a prop, used by an even more nefarious—and secretive—group known as the Illuminati, who are believed to be, depending on what side of the political or religious spectrum you fall, Freemasons, Jews, Communists, the Rockefellers, The Council on Foreign Relations, and every corner and facet of the United States government. But despite their reach, there is still no better vehicle for total domination than the Super Bowl halftime show.
Here is a snapshot of my room in 1979: A box of Warren horror magazines, with assorted outliers such as Psycho and Scream; a stack of Dungeons & Dragons books, including some of the earlier supplements such as Eldritch Wizardry; a shelf displaying various Aurora monster models; a bookshelf holding any number of supernatural and horror short story anthologies; and my beloved but completely dog-eared copy of A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford.
There has long been a tension between the witch of legend and the modern day practitioner. The former has its origins mainly in polemical Christian ideas and folktales, where the witch is a consort of the devil, brewing wicked and foul smelling potions in a cast-iron pot, and eating children.
My punk coming of age happened in the early 1980s, and by then the music had morphed into hardcore, with its shaved heads, flannel shirts tied around waists, and a sometimes disheartening snot-nosed machismo.
At a recent gallery show of his artwork, Roger Dean — best known for his lush and fantastical album covers for Yes in the 1970s — was enjoying the crowd when a man approached him and held out his hand to shake. "Mr. Dean, your work has changed my life," he said, "I have gleaned so many amazing, mystical secrets from looking at your album covers, can you tell me sort of what you meant by it." Dean, ever polite, tried to let the man down easily. "I didn't mean anything at all. It was just a good — looking album cover." His superfan, disillusioned, and possibly embarrassed, now turned nemesis, "Well, what do you know?" he angrily spat, "You're just the artist!" Despite his protestations, Dean might have taken some responsibility for contributing to casting a wide mystical net over an entire subgenre of music, known sometimes derogatorily as progressive rock. You are unlikely to find a prog-rocker who refers to their own music in those terms, but the term serves as a way to describe a movement in rock, one steering a massive ship away from the siren call of blues-based rock that had so long dominated popular music, toward a more English tradition of what Greg Lake of the supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) described as "troubadour, medieval storytelling." Rock would inherit this mantle proudly, looking toward the mythology of the past — often heavily informed by occult images — to construct the sound of the future.
It's impossible to review the Dark Horse Comics collections of Creepy and Eerie without a few fond recollections. In the '60s and '70s, my father owned a men's tailored clothing shop on Moody Street in Waltham, Massachusetts. It was a fine place to hang around as a kid. My dad knew all the other business people in the area and I would spend part of the day visiting nearby stores. It was in Mr. Big's toy store where I first discovered Aurora models. Their "snap-tite" collection was perfect for the budding model builder, but it was the types of sets that really set my imagination on fire — dinosaurs, Universal Film monsters, and most importantly, the bizarre and sadistic sets that were part of their Monster Scenes line. There was Dr. Deadly and his lab, The Pendulum, and The Hanging Cage. Then there was Vampirella, a fairly X-rated kit, that was really special, because she had her own magazine, Vampirella, which was part of the Warren publications that also included Creepy and Eerie. These magazines became the foundation of my childhood love of fantasy and horror, but somewhere along the way my collection was lost. Rediscovering these magazines in the Dark Horse collections reminds me not only of the ghastly fun these stories were, but just how weird the 1970s really were.
Now up to volume 19 for Creepy (collecting up to issue #93) and volume 16 for Eerie (collecting up to issue #80), Dark Horse has done an outstanding job with these collections, capturing all that was vibrant and exciting of these magazines. Each volume contains five issues and includes reprints of the letter pages and some of the advertisements, which, to be honest, was a huge part of what made them so fun. At first dedicated to mostly horror, later issues showcased fantasy and science fiction. Eerie also offered serialized stories like the "The Mummy Walks" by Jaime Brocal and Steve Skeates, and in later issues "The Rook" by Bill DuBay.
Avoiding the heavy hand of the Comics Code, Creepy and Eerie enjoyed the freedom and there is fun "wink-wink" sensibility with all the nudity, gore, and occult scares. But these stories were not just meant to shock. Some of the stories are dated and their twisted versions of O Henry-like endings don't chill like they used to, but their cleverness is never lost. It's the artwork, however, that makes these volumes worth owning, both for the wonderful cover art by people like Frank Frazetta, and for the interiors, which feature some of the best in the day, including Berni Wrightson and Richard Corben. Unlike some the unwieldy comic omnibus editions, the Dark Horse collections are read comfortably, but contain enough great content to keep you poring over them wide-eyed, much like I did when I was kid.
Dungeons & Dragons, first released in 1974, was the product of a perfect storm of a burgeoning interest in wargaming, a resurgence of pulp sword and sorcery literature, and the overall weird pop-culture leanings of the 1970s fueled by Conan comic books, Saturday morning TV monster movies, and the debris left over from the psychedelic sixties. It would all come to head when in 1977 the game company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) released what would become an unforeseen cultural force: The Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set and the three-volume hardcover Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (made up of the now ubiquitous Dungeon Masters Guide, Player's Handbook, and Monster Manual), which would set the standard for tabletop role-playing games for all subsequent generation of players.
Now, forty years later, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is releasing over the course of the next few months a new edition of D&D. In the intervening decades there have been four other editions, each one intending to streamline the rules, but in so doing stripped away some of the essential role-playing elements, instead focusing on character stats and combat. The 4th edition was largely dependent on miniatures and battle grids. D&D is more than just a set of rules for fantasy roleplaying, however.
Over time, the rules governing classic role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons changed and took on a weight of their own. Role-playing elements sank into a mire of charts and tables and special abilities. This rules-heavy play really took hold when, in the late 1990s, publisher TSR was suffering financially. Wizards of the Coast, coasting on the sales of card game Magic: The Gathering, bought them out.
Not surprisingly, D&D—the way it was packaged and the way it was played—started to look a lot like Magic. The emphasis was heavy on combat, skills, and special feats. For many people D&D became more about creating quasi-Medieval superheroes than adventurers looking for the simple things like treasure, or a little boost in their archery ability. (more…)
The Internet Archive is one of the great treasures of the internet, housing content in every media; texts, video, audio. It's also the home of the Wayback Machine, an archive of the Internet from 1996. I thought I had explored the site pretty thoroughly—at least according to my own interests—but recently came across runs of some of the great gaming magazines of the 1970s and 80s; The Space Gamer, Ares, Polyhedron, The General, and—temporarily—Dragon Magazine. These magazines represent not only the golden age of gaming, but expose the thrill and excitement of gaming when it was still new, still on the margins. It was a time when gaming still felt a little, dare I say, punk. (more…)
Some of the best music 2012 sounded a lot like the 1970s, replete with analog synths, occult pretensions, powery pop, ambient landscapes, and heavy guitars. 2012 felt like a dark time, and some of the music here reflects that. Yet in all my favorites of the year there is spring of hope, an urging towards creative extremes that insist no matter the shadows, the human capacity for making glorious noise will prevail.
Like a forgotten nugget from 1979, this pop gem with slight garage and psychedelic undertones offers heartbreak you can dance to. Lush, memorable songs are tightened with smart lyrics. Jangly and whimsical in all the right places, it’s music for people who miss the time when pop on the radio actually rocked.
The guitarist from Fresh and Onlys also released a full length this year — Under the Pale Moon — a fine achievement, but this four song EP is like a hermetic secret finally revealed, a beautifully crafted pop ritual. Miles has tapped into the occult consciousness that has grabbed hold of lot of recent underground and experimental rock, but there is something personal here, something that only Miles knows, but that he willing to open the door just a crack. It’s pretty great stuff.
This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. — Mark
The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald
A few days before the news of W.G. Sebald’s sudden death in a car accident in 2000, I had decided I was going to send him a letter. I have written about two letters to authors in my life, and I would do it more often if I thought there was way to go about it that didn’t by design come across as fannish and gushing. But the work of Sebald, particularly his 20th century masterpiece The Emigrants, had such a profound affect on me, I felt compelled to let him know.
Word of his death was a blow. Sebald was just starting to get the wider recognition he deserved with the publication of Austerlitz, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. I felt as though something important had been taken from the world, something that was essential to helping us understand what it means to be human beings agents of history, and how history works on us. This is what Sebald’s work is about: None of our lives exist within a vacuum, that we are all part and parcel of historical forces that shape us, batter us about, and in our attempts to fight against them, we often lose.
I had discovered the novel The Emigrants by chance. It was weekday afternoon, browsing the literature section of the bookstore. I often scan by logos on the spines, looking for independent publishers in the hopes of discovering authors or books I have never heard of. I spied the New Directions mark on a book, pulled it from the shelf and read the back. I had never heard of Sebald, but thought it looked interesting enough. I bought it and took it home.
I was not quite prepared for what happened next. Almost like a state of self-hypnosis, I could feel some part of my reader’s consciousness shift. I read books as if I understand books, as if I know about genre and time-periods, know what to expect from science fiction, from crime noir, from Kafka, from Vonnegut, from Roth. Of course I’m surprised at times by language, plot, and a character that comes alive in a way I never thought possible. But I am rarely thrown off course by a book, never have I had to renegotiate the very act of reading. That is, until I read The Emigrants.
This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. — Mark
Village of the Giants (1965), by Peter Bebergal
[Video Link] My parents were pretty good about indulging my obsession with monster movies. My father would pick me up Famous Monsters Of Filmland when he saw it at the drugstore. Across the street from his clothing shop in Waltham was Mr. Big's, a toy store that stocked all the Aurora models. Being a business neighbor my father got to know "Mr. Big" pretty well, and a few times he sold us the window display version of one of the models, a perfectly painted and glued version given to him by the distributor. Monsters movies were my life. Every Sunday morning I woke early, got the newspaper from the front stoop, opened it up to the middle and dug through the flyers and other loose inserts to where the television guide was nestled. Then I flipped to end to see what the following Saturday's Creature Feature would run. The mid to late 70s was a golden age when the rights to old monster movies must have been dirt-cheap. In the span of a year or so I saw every great Universal, Toho, and Hammer film. But every so often there was a movie that didn't appear in the index of my movie books, whose stills never showed up in the pages of Famous Monsters.
One of these was Village of the Giants, released in 1965 from the weird imagination of director/producer Bert I. Gordon, and starring a very young Beau Bridges. Gordon had an obsession with normal sized things becoming unnaturally large: The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, Earth vs. the Spider, and the weird and creepy Food of the Gods. (To be fair, he did have one movie about normal sized things becoming unnaturally small, Attack of the Puppet People.)
"My function is to raise the possibility, 'Hey, you know, some of this stuff might be bullshit.'" — Robert Anton Wilson
I like to think of myself as a believing skeptic, someone who relishes in the ideas, the imagery, the arguments, the theories, and the literature of the occult and the paranormal, but accepts little of it as valid in a phenomenal sense. I love that small publishers such as Ouroboros Press and Fulgar Limited put out beautiful magical texts and that many current underground and avant garde musicians incorporate occult ideas into their work. But beyond its power as a method for art and imaging, I recognize much of the occult as woo. On the other hand, I accept that the human imagination is something magical, and very powerful and that we know little about human consciousness except how malleable it really is. It's a precarious position, however, and I often need to remind myself of smarter, more articulate thinkers who shared these views.
So it is with great respect and admiration that I celebrate the life of Robert Anton Wilson during this memorial week by remembering that he was the great believing skeptic, someone for whom the collection and curating of all that is weird was his life's work, who reminded us always to question everything, while recognizing that we should never stop exploring. I sure wish RAW was alive today, especially at a time when there is something like a real Occult Revival going on, from the psychedelic explorers who see 2012 as a great trans formative event, to the huge increase in the membership of organization like the O.T.O. and Freemasonry, and by extension a whole load of conspiracy theories. RAW warned against any idea, group, or person that claims knowledge of the "Real" Universe, echoing Umberto Eco who wrote in Foucault's Pendulum we should be mindful of turning metaphysics in mechanics.