SORCERORS, SWAMP THINGS, SANDMEN, AND SOPHIE (part II)
Chapter 2: The Rising and Advancing Of The Spirit
Contact the author at martianmanhunter2(at sign)juno.com, or docnebula(at sign)gmail.com
Or check out his other insane ramblings at www.angelfire.com/ny3/docnebula/index.html
I was working at my keyboard, under the gun from a strict deadline imposed on me by Lord Humungus, the Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah, who had threatened me with a long, excruciating, and grisly death if I didn't get my detailed and in depth study of Timeless Masked Villains And Their Faithful Toadies done on schedule. (Working title: TOO UGLY TO LIVE, TOO MEAN TO DIE.) I was trying to work, tap tap tapping my way through a longish section detailing how Oliver Stone said he'd taken the inspiration for his "Richard Nixon" character from Victor Von Doom, but it was hard to concentrate on it, because in the background Fox was rerunning the episode of X-FILES where Scully and Seven of Nine have the long lesbian kissing scene, and naturally, I only had about three minutes of blank videotape left, (isn't that always the way?) so I had to keep turning around to look at the screen and make sure I wasn't going to miss taping it, and THAT was distracting.
And then this English bobby came up and tapped me imperatively on the shoulder with his whacking stick thingie and said "So, what's all this then?"
Then I woke up.
I always wake up from that dream before the long lesbian kissing scene. It's a bummer.
Still, the bobby asked an excellent question, even if he was wearing a profoundly stupid looking hat. "So, what's all this, then?" he'd said, in that deep, walrusy voice that geeks of my generation, at least, can't help but associate with John Cleese.
Well, let's see. What, indeed, is all this, then?
Last time around, I had the temerity to try to tell everyone that Steve Englehart's DR. STRANGE, Alan Moore's SWAMP THING, Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN, and Alan Moore's PROMETHEA, were all occult superhero comics that were, in some strange, difficult to articulate way, all about the same thing.
Now, I have a feeling I either overexplained or underexplained my thesis in this article's first part, and whichever one it was I did, I'm pretty sure I did not make clear exactly what point I'm trying to make about these four somewhat related, widely scattered in time, comics series. So let's look at that for a moment, and see if I can't find a way to articulate this with at least slightly greater clarity.
I suppose what I'm saying is that, at least to my deranged perceptions, it very much seems that Englehart's work on DR. STRANGE in the early 1970s, Moore's work on SWAMP THING in the early to late 1980s, Gaiman's work on SANDMAN in the very late 80s through the mid 1990s, and Moore's currently (and thankfully) continuing work on PROMETHEA, are all concerned with similar themes... except, to me, it's more than that. Two of these comics - the central two, SWAMP THING and SANDMAN - are clearly linked, in that, not only were they published by the same company, and set in the same shared metareality, but to my mind, they partake of the same very specific occult sub-continuity, the conceptual seeds of which were planted by, and fleshed out somewhat, by Alan Moore in SWAMP THING, and later vastly expanded on and explored in greater detail by Neil Gaiman in SANDMAN.
I don't think that's too controversial a statement, and I suspect that nearly anyone who has read both sustained pieces of creative work would agree with me when I say that both are, essentially, the same story, begun by Moore, and continued by Gaiman. The main character changed in the story when Moore stopped writing SWAMP THING, but Gaiman picked up the continuity and the backdrop of that book itself quite deftly in SANDMAN and continued writing about that world and that continuity quite matter of factly, simply with a different 'main' character... and Swamp Thing wandered off and did entirely different stuff under various other writers, so it didn't much matter.
I suppose that it's even not too much of a stretch to then suggest that the continuity created by Moore, for SWAMP THING, and continued/expanded on by Gaiman, in SANDMAN, is now being further advanced and detailed, by Moore again (a more mature Moore, to be sure), in PROMETHEA. Oh, we could quibble and get all snarky about how Promethea herself does not dwell in the DC mainstream continuity, or even the DC Vertigo weird sort of sub-continuity, but it hardly matters, as to me, what's important is the imaginary realm that Promethea is partially an inhabitant of, and that interacts closely with the material realm that she is also an inhabitant of. That material realm may not be DC's Earth-Zero, but the imaginary realm is, to all intents and purposes, Gaiman & Moore's The Dreaming, albeit from a somewhat different perspective. And to my mind, regardless of what we call it, if this strange, almost entirely mental, hypothetical realm is a constant between Moore's SWAMP THING, Gaiman's SANDMAN, and Moore's PROMETHEA, then I'm justified in saying that those titles, and those characters, all, in some strange, somewhat insubstantial, and yet, clearly discernable manner, share a continuity and are all components of some vast, overarching, still developing 'story'.
Now, by including PROMETHEA, however tangentially (but, to my mind, solidly) in the strange, mythical, occult sub-continuity already inarguably held in common between Moore's SWAMP THING and Gaiman's SANDMAN, I've already entered controversial terrain. Do I really have to make it worse by insisting on going back a step, to the decade prior to Moore's taking over SWAMP THING, and trying to forge a link between these three comics and Englehart's apparently completely unrelated work on Marvel Comics' DR. STRANGE character?
Well, yes, I do. Emotionally, I feel the linkage is valid. Yes, these four comics are published by three different companies (kind of... PROMETHEA is actually, sort of, tangentially, published by DC, but is, nonetheless, set in universe and continuity quite distinct from DC's mainstream reality, or its Vertigo, occult, sub-reality) but, nonetheless, I still not only feel that all four of these comics are specific examples of a very specific subset of superhero comics I myself am labeling "occult superhero comics", but that they are the ONLY four comics I can think of that are part of this particular subset I have so labeled.
(I'm also deliriously pleased to announce that in a recent, brief but pleasant email, Stainless Steve Englehart himself confirms that "I, too, have been struck by the way Alan is doing for today's audience what I did with DOC. He is definitely Alan Moore and I am definitely Steve Englehart, so our embellishments are different, but it appears that we share an interest in a lot of the same things". So THERE. Nah nah na boo boo.)
Do I really think that Stephen Strange, Swamp Thing, Morpheus, and Promethea are part of the same 'continuity'? That any or all of these four characters could, fairly casually, run into each other, without the sophistry of a distinct 'crossover' event, or an Elsewhere title, or a licensed, one of a kind, out of continuity, 'just for fun' publisher's gimmick?
Well, actually, yes, I do, but that's not the point I'm trying to make. Do I think that the various strange mystic dimensions Dr. Strange traverses more or less at will (and which, I'll note in passing, contain a realm ruled by a mystical entity known as Nightmare, who is, supposedly, some sort of Lord of Dreams) could, or, actually, at least in my mind, DO, overlap the realm known (again, in my mind) alternatively as The Dreaming and The Immateria? Well... sure, I do. Do I think that Stephen Strange, Swamp Thing, Morpheus, and Promethea most likely have met each other, in non-essential ways never actually recorded in any comic book, over the decades they've all existed? Honestly, I do, or at least, I have no difficulty entertaining the possibility. But... although I really have no difficulty imagining all four characters fairly casually interacting with each other (all of them, after all, have demonstrated some capacity for dimensional travel, and I'll wryly note that Marvel's Nightmare even looks a bit like DC's Morpheus)... that's not what all this is about.
What all this is about is simply me saying "There is this thing in superhero comics that seems, so far, as far as I know, to recur about every ten years. I call it, for lack of a better title, an occult superhero comic. As far as I know, the first one was Englehart's DR. STRANGE, and a few years after that title ended, it began again in Moore's SWAMP THING, continued after that title ended in Gaiman's SANDMAN, and now, in the very early 21st Century, that tradition is carrying on again, once more, in Moore's PROMETHEA."
It seems a singular phenomenon to me, made all the more remarkable by the fact that, as far as I can see, there is only ever one of these 'occult superhero comics' being published at any one time. And, I wonder, now, if I were to do some research into a past I myself don't remember very well, if I'd find something similar to these four comics, being published in the 1960s, and then, another, separate, similar title, being published in the 50s. Or the 40s. How far back does this 'occult superhero comic' tradition extend? Perhaps it really did start in the early 1970s, with Englehart's DR. STRANGE. Anyway, that's the first one I remember, so that's where I'm going to begin.
The point of all this is, now that I've stated my mainly emotional perception of a commonality between these four titles... that all are, basically, (to steal an image from Gaiman) separate facets of the same conceptual jewel... I now have to try to examine, analyze, and articulate exactly what it is about these four titles I find to be similar.
In other words, I've made the statement. Now I have to back it up.
So. Last chapter was about the way occult superhero comics often dwell on the difference between reality as it actually is, and reality as we perceive it to be, or, to put it another way, the objective/subjective dichotomy. This chapter will be about the other major theme I've found in all four of these comics: self actualization.
Now, the concept of self actualization, as with the objective/subjective reality dichotomy, is present, in a relatively minor way, in virtually all superheroic fiction. With the subjective/objective thingie, it's present in the form of the near ubiquitous Secret Identity, in which the central character creates an illusory perceptual reality that he or she is actually two entirely different people. With self actualization, it's present in whatever capacity it is that the hero/ine of the series has either reached or exceeded their normal human potential.
Self actualization is, basically, a big word for that phrase most of us got clobbered with at one time or another while we were growing up, by parents, teachers, and guidance counselors... 'living up to your potential'. One of the really appealing things about the adolescent power fantasy we label as 'superhero comics' is the fact that superheroes generally get a free ride to 'living up to their potential', and we enjoy reading about that and fantasizing that we could get such an easy bootstrapping into amazing power and superhuman abilities, as well. Whether it's via electrified chemicals, radioactive insect bites, super soldier serums, dying aliens passing out power rings, or, in perhaps the ultimate 'just hand me the damn powers and shut up about it' secret origin, simply being BORN with the chops, the superhero's ability to do things far beyond the abilities of mortal men... or, at least, far beyond the abilities of us, and everyone we personally know... is one of the things we like so much about the whole weird sub-mythos. And, in a very cheap, easy, handed to them on a silver platter way, this is a process of self actualization.
Even the characters who self-actualize in a somewhat more realistic manner, like Batman or Doc Savage, do it all in a five or six panel flashback sequence, and while we may intellectually understand that these characters have knocked themselves out since they were toddlers undergoing insane regimens of physical exercise and studying their wee little asses off, it doesn't matter. Emotionally we can't grasp that. The long years of arduous training aren't real to us; our focus is on the fact that right now, as the story starts, they are massively muscled mesormophic masters of the martial arts, brilliant at every conceivable useful skill, unparalleled as tacticians and strategists in the never ending war on crime, and they just generally kick serious butt. They have lived up to their potential. They are self actualized, dammit. And they did it in a six panel flashback sequence, too. Coooooool.
Rare to the point of non-existence is the mainstream superhero who ever noticeably improves in their crimefighting prowess after their first appearance, or, at least, after their first several appearances. Occasionally (so rarely as to be instantly memorable when it occurs) a superhero may have to master some new skill in order to defeat a particular menace (as when Spider-Woman took six months off in the middle of an issue one time, under appallingly bad writer Chris Claremont, to go master an obscure martial arts discipline, so she could put the smackdown on a wretched supervillain called The Flying Tiger), but, for the most part, once that six panel origin sequence is completed, the hero is now similarly a finished work of art, and will evolve very little, if at all, over the remainder of their adventuring career, however extended or brief it may turn out to be.
However, one of the things that seems to distinguish occult superheroes... if I can use a term like that to describe Dr. Strange, Swamp Thing, Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, and Promethea... is that they do not instantly become everything they will ever be the picosecond their origin sequence is concluded. In fact, for the most part, the end of their first issue is the beginning of a long journey of maturation, of enlightenment, of personal growth... of, in short, self actualization... that can only end with that hero's death, or, in the case of those owned by corporations who view them as marketing properties rather than real people, with the advent of another editor and another writer who, in every single recorded instance so far (which means, with Dr. Strange and Swamp Thing) has not been concerned with such things, and has, therefore, not written an 'occult superhero comic', as I am striving to define it. (That this seems a great deal like that hero's death, especially when someone as comparatively unskilled as Marv Wolfman takes over their adventures in the middle of a plot being brilliantly laid out by Steve Englehart, is not of great importance to the corporations who own the copyrights and scrutinize the sales figures.)
Before we go any further down the trail of self actualization, though, let's take a closer look at the second word in this phrase I am constantly throwing around in this here thingummie: 'occult superhero comics'. Obviously, when I talk about such stuff as perceptual reality vs. actual reality, and an ongoing process of self actualization, I am working on the 'occult' portion of the phrase... or maybe that's not obvious, in which case, I will state explicitly at this point, that's what I'm doing, trying to show all and sundry exactly why it is that, although I'm talking about the 'occult', I'm not including in that ranking all the various 'dark' and 'supernatural' titles that, oh, the idiots who got certain Magic cards banned from Wal-Mart because they had 'Satanic' symbols on them, would instantly think I should lump into that definition. There are none of those weird, really violent, Marvel Midnight Sons titles in my definition of 'occult', nor are there any other Vertigo titles other than SANDMAN, nor any other Englehart titles from the 1970s other than DR. STRANGE, nor any of Marvel's other monster titles from that era, nor any of DC's other monster or suspense titles from any era. What I'm trying to demonstrate with this multi-part treatise is that just because you're a vampire, or a werewolf, or a demonic stunt cyclist, or the Son of Satan, or a mindless heap of muck who inhabits a swamp that is a nexus point between dimensions, or a guy who lives in a house full of secrets and mysteries... that does not make you 'occult'. What makes a title 'occult'... well... that's the point of all this. But... let's leave that aside for a paragraph or two, and examine whether or not I should actually be calling these four titles 'superhero' comics, of any sort.
What is a superhero, specifically? Well, jeez. As with any question that calls for a definition of something basic to our assumptions about a vital piece of our own ongoing consciousnesses... that's a hard one to answer. The opposite of a supervillain? Well, I suppose, in the same way a Republican is... not a Democrat... but a glib definition like that is not particularly responsive. So, then, what IS a superhero? Well...to give us a place to put our feet, let's look at the four main characters of the 'occult superhero comics' I'm talking about here, and see if any of them qualify.
First, the easy ones: Dr. Strange, at one end of the chain, and Promethea, at the other end. While perhaps stretching the inarticulate, emotional concept of 'superhero' we all instinctively carry in our hearts a bit, still, I think we can agree that in all the basics, both of these two qualify. They both have superhuman abilities. They both defend the status quo from disruptive intrusions. They even both have distinctive costumery and melodramatic names, and Promethea even has a secret identity, although that last is not strictly necessary to being a superhero, and, for that matter, Dr. Strange's whole superhero career (as Sorceror Supreme and Mystic Guardian of Humanity) is pretty much a secret. So, yes, I think we can fairly certainly state, without getting into too much of an argument, that these two are superheroes. They may not be good candidates for membership in The Avengers, but, nonetheless, they're superheroes. More or less. I mean, if the damn Norse God of Thunder can be a superhero, I think the Sorceror Supreme and the Goddess of the Imagination can be superheroes, too.
But... Swamp Thing? And, for God's sake, Dream of the Endless? Superheroes? Oh, come on now, John, you've gone round the bend. Swamp Thing is just a big ugly heap of yuck that wanders around the bayou whining about his lousy life, and Dream... well, he's neither big nor ugly, and he doesn't hang out habitually in a bayou, but other than that, the description fits. SUPER heroes? Please.
Okay. I grant you, neither of them wear tights or capes, they don't have particularly melodramatic names, and they don't fight crime. However. They are, both of them, possessed of superhuman capacities, and they do, both of them, fight to preserve a status quo from disruptive intrusions. Now, I don't think Swamp Thing was a superhero before Moore started writing him; then he was just a monster, a brooding, tragic figure used as a catalyst for horror stories. However, after Moore took away his delusion of former humanity and had him gradually come to realize he was actually an Earth Elemental, with a specific part to play in the cosmic scheme of things, then he became... well, yes, he became a superhero. No, he wasn't defending little old ladies from muggers or battling Blastaar or trying to keep the Composite Superman from blowing up a stadium full of innocent Boy Scouts. He was, however, charged with defending 'The Green' from various mystic and unnatural threats and problems, and at the urging of John Constantine, he did act as a champion of Good and Right to save Heaven from the incursion of Evil. So, yes, he was a superhero.
Well... maybe... I hear you say, dubiously. But Lord Morpheus, the Shaper of Dreams? Come on, now. Next you'll be drawing parallels between the Endless and the X-Men.
Well, as I said above, Morpheus is, for all his whining and sniveling and sitting around on his throne being all pretentious and pontificating solemnly on a whole bunch o' stupid crap, is, still, someone who defends a status quo against disruptive incursions. He DOES. You might not like it, but, well, tough. He maintains the Dreaming, and its inhabitants, against any and all threats to it, and while he rarely (well, okay, never) does it by jumping off a wall and giving some lout in spandex a damned good flying kick to the side of the head, he still does it. And he employs superhuman powers when he does it, so, dammit, he's a superhero. Yes, he often putters around pursuing his own various weird and whiney and all but incomprehensible personal agendas, as well, but we've seen him do battle with those who would screw around with his sphere of influence often enough to call him a superhero, so... I say he's a superhero, and I say, to hell with it.
Now, on the self actualization thing:
Just as a large part of the 'occult', which is to say, the unknown, lies in metaphysical and philosophical examinations and analyses of the very nature of reality itself, and basic questions such as whether or not it's even remotely possible for a sentient being to ever accurately observe the objective truth, so too must also a large part of it deal quite simply with the ongoing quest for knowledge, and knowledge's hopefully concomitant consequences, wisdom and enlightenment. After all, if 'occult' simply means 'unknown', then when we study 'the occult' we do so to, in fact, reduce the 'occult' or unknown sphere of knowledge. We are attempting, as seems to be our birthright and special gift from divinity (if you believe in that sort of thing) to learn more about the very basic nature of the world we inhabit, and as we improve, or even simply strive to improve, our knowledge of that world, to make ourselves more enlightened, to come to a better understanding of our own nature, and our role within the world we inhabit, if any. Thus, the two are inextricably linked: when we seek enlightenment and wisdom regarding the reality around us, we cannot help but seek enlightenment and wisdom regarding ourselves. To study the world is to, inevitably, ponder the difference between what we perceive and what actually is; and in the process of such extro- and introspection, we have no choice but to, in some way, begin to explore and expand our own intrinsic human potential. In short, the 'occult' comic book, superheroic or not, is intrinsically concerned with a knowing, self aware exploration of the actual nature of reality, and with the ongoing process of self actualization.
Now, anyone who has read any serious run of the adventures of Marvel's Master of the Mystic Arts and Sorceror Supreme, Dr. Stephen Strange, will pretty clearly see that he's a textbook case of everything I've just described above. Prior to Englehart's arrival on the book, as I established last chapter in my examination of the objective/subjective reality dichotomy, Strange was, for the most part, nothing more than a somewhat eccentric superhero. He fought mystic menaces rather than more conventional or high tech enemies, but what self actualization he had accomplished... his Mastery of the Mystic Arts... was done in his origin story, and after that, and for the rest of his adventures up through Englehart's taking over, he advanced no further in his mastery of his chosen field. Oh, he went through various strange phases, such as the one under Roy Thomas and Gene Colan where he started wearing a stupid looking mask to preserve his 'secret identity' (as if the Master of the Mystic Arts couldn't do this better and more comfortably with a simple illusion spell, anyway), but still and all, he didn't change much, advance in his abilities, or become noticeably more enlightened during his pre-Englehart career.
However, in the unfortunately too brief period that Englehart was on the book, he underwent enormous personal advancement. Englehart was the first writer to make Strange's ongoing study of what realistically should be an unending sub-strata of human and inhuman learning into a regular plot element, and he was the first to steadily move Strange up the ladder of enlightenment as well, promoting him, first, from Master of the Mystic Arts to Sorceror Supreme (with the death of the Ancient One, an event that, in and of itself, was also an exercise in self actualization, as the Ancient One himself stepped up from Chief Old Guru Dude to being One With The Universe) and then, through various ongoing and apparently unending trials (which is, really, as good a definition of Life as any), having Strange gain various powerful attributes, like unaging immortality (when he defeated Death itself in a mystic duel) and his own peculiar version of Captain Marvel's 'cosmic awareness'.
Many of Strange's adventures under Englehart (or at least, a few of them) were initially motivated simply by a desire to learn more about something, or to teach his disciple/lover Clea more about some particular aspect of the mystic arts (Clea's self actualization being another important element under Englehart that had been largely downplayed under previous writers). Even Wong managed to bestow a little enlightenment around the neighborhood, as when he was accosted by local Asians for the 'bad image' he was creating by being a servant to a white doctor, and he informed them rather snootily that in his culture, to be of service to a man of wisdom was considered a high station indeed, and if they had a problem with it, too darned bad.
Had Englehart stayed on the book, he had eventually planned to have Strange's journey to enlightenment lead him into aloof isolation from humanity for a time, which would eventually be resolved by a development in his relationship with Clea - either having her leave him, or having the two of them plan to get married, Englehart himself wasn't sure which. However, the mere mention of marriage prompts me to note that marriage is one of the few rites of passage, which is to say, advancement from one state to another, or, self actualization, that comics recognizes and occasionally incorporates, so having Strange and Clea get married wouldn't have been at all out of place in Englehart's rendition of the Sorceror Supreme.
With Steve E. off the good doctor, the 1970s experiment with an occult superhero comic seemed to be concluded, and we'd have to wait until the early 1980s for our next one to come along... namely, Alan Moore's work on DC's up to that point somewhat aimless SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING.
Now, I want to take the time to give some props right here and now to an old, brilliant, widely read, and deeply, deeply weird, acquaintance of mine named Richard Pero. Dick is no one you ever want to introduce to your girlfriend or your kids, as not only is he perfectly capable of creating weapons of mass destruction from the average contents of your medicine cabinet or the bottles under your kitchen sink, he also views what he refers to as 'the inevitable and imminent destruction of civilization through a synergistic concatenation of its own suicidal lack of foresight regarding the logical consequences of its unbridled technological excess' with an emotion I can only describe as black, ghoulish glee. And, trust me, if you ever feel a need for just that one more push over the abyss into absolute suicidal despair, Dick is the man to go and talk to about it, as a mere five minutes with him as he iterates, with absolute relish, the seemingly endless list of misfortunes, calamities, and cosmic disasters, all of which are completely beyond mankind's ability to control, foresee, prevent, or even ameliorate, that could, would, and, to Dick's way of thinking, by the laws of statistics, inevitably will (and darned soon at that) wipe the human race entirely out of existence, would be enough to make Mother Theresa jump off a bridge in anguish and despair. (In amongst this lovingly detailed recitation of anti-biotic resistant bacteria, the inevitable global outbreaks of Ebola and Ebola variants, the rupture of inadequate storage vessels allowing radioactive and chemical toxins to reach major continental water tables, the steady northward migrations of killer bees, the inward spiraling tumble of planet killing comets and asteroids, the celestial dust clouds, the extraordinary genocidal implications of recent, successful experimentation with the manufacture of artificial positrons, and the imminent escalation of international terrorist organizations into the bio-chemical and/or nuclear arenas, Dick always finds the time to note, with enormous glee dancing in his eyes, the fact that a sudden supernova anywhere within, oh, a hundred light years of our solar system would eventually overwhelm our ecosystem with a deadly radiation storm we'd have no conceivable defense from... and such a supernova could have occurred, oh, 99 years ago, and we wouldn't have the slightest idea, as by the time the light of the event reaches our telescopes, we'll already be cooked. Dick's a lot of fun to talk to.)
Nonetheless, regardless of all this, Dick Pero is one of the most widely read people I know, and if you can manage to get him involved in a conversation on a subject other than the impending, grisly doom of the evolutionary mistake laughingly known as humanity (his phrasing, not mine), you can have a pretty fascinating conversation with him, on nearly any subject. And I mention this simply by way of stating that, back in the very early 80s, Dick Pero was the very first person I know of to mention the name of "Alan Moore", in connection with some obscure comic strip called "Marvelman" in some obscure British periodical called WARRIOR. Being as I was, at that time, young, snotty, and utterly dismissive of everything outside my immediate line of sight (as opposed to now, when I'm middle aged or at least getting there fast, snotty, and utterly dismissive of everything outside my immediate line of sight and many things within it), I ignored Dick's plaintive maunderings about how 'interesting' this unknown English fop's work was, and resolutely refused to pay any attention when Dick talked about assassins with sapphires for teeth, and secret intelligence agencies called the Spook Show, and inquiries as to how someone would turn into Marvelman without the energies released in the transformation pulverizing a sweet, innocent baby that had just been thrust into one's arms. I admit, it did sound intriguing, but for God's sake, I was far too busy reading X-MEN and watching free movies and skipping classes and trying hard (and unsuccessfully, dammit) to seduce Kurt Busiek's future wife Annie and/or to re-seduce my ex-girl friend Laurie (with equal lack of success, dammit more) to be bothered with foreign comic strips laboring under ludicrous names like Marvelman or WARRIOR. Oh PLEASE.
So I have to give credit to Dick: he got there first, out of everyone I know. Two or three years down the road everyone would be climbing onto the Alan Moore bandwagon. In fact, the aforementioned Kurt Busiek, whom we've all heard of, I'm sure, and who was living in New York City at that time pursuing his Big Break, sent me a package containing a copy of one of Moore's early issues of SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING, along with a copy of BLUE DEVIL #1, with a little note tucked inside saying that Swamp Thing was definitely worth reading (believe it or not) and Blue Devil really wasn't, but he thought I might like it anyway. So I read SWAMP THING, which up until then had pretty much been a joke among my small college clique of comics fans (although the Late, Great Jeff Webb bought it, and had kind of liked the story about the vampire kids who hid inside the pinball machines), and I was impressed very much by the story, and I even recognized the name of the writer, Alan Moore, as being that guy Dick Pero kept talking about a while back, with the Spook Show thing and the exploding baby and all that.
(As a further note on Dick's erudition, when I saw him after that and mentioned that that guy he'd told me about was now writing SWAMP THING and doing a good job, he mentioned back to me that yes, he was, and that a large plot element from that very issue of SWAMP THING Kurt had sent to me had actually been borrowed from a Russian fantasy novel about the Devil. Dick was always pointing things like that out. He simply reads everything.)
So, anyway, I, like nearly every other comics fan then alive in America (apparently) started buying SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING. (About this time, Mr. Busiek's few, sporadic letters started mentioning some weird proposal he'd heard about from this Moore guy, which featured characters like Ozymandias, who had become the richest superhero in the world by marketing action figures of himself and his enemies, and Rorschach, who hadn't slept in six years and who had been driven crazy by it, with the typically glib Kurt-comment attached to it that he 'wouldn't want to trust anything like that to anyone but Alan Moore, but then, I don't have to'. Ah, it was a different, different world back then.) And although I sure wasn't particularly analytical at that date, I noticed, even at that time, and commented on it, to various people like the Late, Great Jeff Webb, and another fellow comics fan and clique-mate named Rob Morrison, and to Kurt's future wife Annie (who, at that time, was just, you know, another clique-mate I kept trying to get somewhere with and who kept putting me off by telling me she loved me like the big brother she'd never had, and, if she had anything to say about it, would never have THAT way, either), how these stories reminded me of the Englehart stuff on DR. STRANGE. (Jeff said "Yeah, I can see that, they both wear the same sort of cape." Rob said "Totally cool. Is there any pizza left?" Annie said "I keep telling you, no tongue." But dammit, I knew I was right. A prophet is always without honor in his own country, by God.)
But now, you see, I can stand up here and ringingly declare (well, actually, I'm sitting and typing, but leave me my own little melodramas and exaggerations, please) that in point of fact, the Englehart DR. STRANGE and the Moore SWAMP THING did have many common thematic threads, and one of them is, undoubtedly and unequivocally, the ongoing self actualization of the main character.
Let's face it: before Moore came along, Swamp Thing was boring. He was a big pile of crud who lived in a swamp. He was a little less potentially boring than Marvel's... er... homage character, the Man-Thing, in that he still retained the human intelligence and personality of former scientist Alec Holland, whereas the Man-Thing just kind of shambled around mindlessly causing trouble. However, other than being nearly indestructible, and very strong, he couldn't do much, and as he spent most of his time in the bayou, his range of adventures was severely limited. Under Len Wein, he fought monsters, and later, when his strip was revived under Marty Pasko as SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING, he fought somewhat more interesting monsters. And... that was about it.
Until Alan Moore came along, and suddenly, everything got freaky on us.
Remember the weird little parenthetical aside I did with the long ago Kurt Busiek commentary on that strange plot that eventually became WATCHMEN, and how I mentioned that it was a different world back then? Well, I did that for a reason, and the reason was, that it WAS a different world back then. (I'm a simple man.) Neither Alan Moore, nor WATCHMEN, nor, for that matter, Marvel/Miracleman, nor the vast bulk of Moore's work on SWAMP THING, nor anything that came after all that, like SANDMAN or, Grant Morrison, or hell, even Vertigo, were a part of the fundamental fabric of mainstream superhero comics at that point. Impossible to imagine now, I know, even for those of us who lived in those days, much less the hordes of young adults now buying comics who were either not yet born, or less than ten years old, back in that long ago era before WATCHMEN.
So it is that I want to try to convey to my hypothetical audience, some of whom won't remember at all, and some of whom will have pretty much forgotten, just how engaging, startling, revealing, and truly enjoyable Moore's first year of so of stories on SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING were. Many can't even easily imagine a time when comics wasn't full to the brim and slopping over with characters, concepts, and putatively clever creators writing in the broad traditions established by Alan Moore, but back then... back then, it was different. SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING was something the likes of which many comics fans had simply never seen before; an erudite, intelligent, philosophical comic book whose plots traveled unconventional paths, whose characters did unprecedented things, and whose every lettered word and sound effect inspired, not just an emotional sense of profound awe, but an intellectual hunger and sense of wonder at the astonishing, thought provoking ideas that were being tossed out to us like scraps of meat to a den of barely housebroken Dobermans, as well. Comics hadn't seen anything like this since... well... since Steve Englehart had stopped writing titles like CAPTAIN AMERICA and AVENGERS and DETECTIVE and, especially, DR. STRANGE, and since Steve Gerber had stopped writing MAN-THING and DEFENDERS and HOWARD THE DUCK.
It's hard to recall the sense of sheer incredulous joy we'd greet each of those early issues of Moore's run on the title with, in these days when comics is overwhelmed with a surfeit of Moore's imitators like Jamie Delano, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Kurt Busiek, and James Robinson; where the grounded, mundane, immersed in a relevant, hyper-realistic social context super-concept has sprouted up everywhere, and where the plot elements of stories like WATCHMEN and Marvelman's "A Dream Of Flying" and Swamp Thing's "Anatomy Lesson" have become, in the public perception, as much a part of the iconic fundamental superhero conceptual foundation as a hero seeking vengeance over the murder of a loved one, or a villain hiding a hideously scarred visage beneath a mask. Yet that sense of wonder we'd get reading Moore's early issues of SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING was a very real experience. And while I wasn't aware of it at the time, much of that sense of wonder came from what was a very nearly unprecedented story element... the self actualization of the central character.
Nowadays, just as we take for granted the idea of a hero or villain who is not what they think they are because they have somehow been given false memories, we also take for granted that the Swamp Thing is a nature elemental, possessed of vast and mostly undefined powers within that broad context, and charged with the protection of Earth's delicate ecosphere. We understand that he can travel through space, across dimensions, and even through time, and he can be interfertile, if he wants to be, with nearly any natural species. Few remember or care that Swamp Thing, back in the 70s, was just an animated moss colony whose only superhuman powers were near indestructibility and vast strength, and if the average Vertigo fan were to come across one of those old issues, he or she would laugh themselves silly over it.
But for Moore's first year on the book, no one knew any of that except for Moore himself, and each new issue delivered a new revelation with the subtle grace of a right-left-right combination by Muhammed Ali, and the devastating power of an uppercut from Mike Tyson. The first inkling of Swamp Thing's true nature came during his trip to hell when a supernatural entity referred to him as 'an earth elemental', remarking that he'd thought they were all gone. We were tantalized and intrigued by that, and so was Swamp Thing, and as revelation followed revelation, we were fascinated, dazzled, astonished, and, ultimately, utterly satisfied by Moore's entirely original resolutions. (Which is another of Moore's nearly inimitable triumphs in the comic book field. When was the last time you can remember the answer to a question or the resolution of a mystery being every bit as cool as you'd imagined it would be?) When Moore slyly linked Swamp Thing's origin with that of a similar monster character from the 1950s known as the Heap, even those of us who only knew of the critter from reading Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty Is Five" were charmed. When a smart ass Sting look-alike in a trenchcoat who seemed to know virtually everything about the occult in the DC Universe showed up and started enigmatically leading Swamp Thing from one adventure to another, we were hooked. (It's equally difficult for a modern fan to realize that, in his first appearances, John Constantine was slick, suave, admirable, intelligent, coherent, and above all else, competent at... whatever it was... that he did; a far cry from the shabby, desperate, fringe-dwelling bungler he instantly became when awarded his own title, apparently because Vertigo editors simply don't know how to handle a competent character, or most Vertigo writers don't know how to script one, anyway.)
This early period was basically the extended origin of the new, revised Swamp Thing, a story of, as Englehart had put it a decade before with another character, 'the rising and advancing of the spirit', as a creature who had long thought he was one thing, found out that he was actually, and always had been, something else entirely... something that was far more than he had ever thought he was, or could be. This was the core and the heart of what was to become an unforgettable, classic, and groundbreaking comic series, as seminal and important to every superhero comic done from that point on as the work of Lee and Kirby had been twenty years earlier for the entire field that followed them. The self actualization of the Swamp Thing would become a legend, spawn a vast, dark, supernatural sub-genre, and inspire an entire generation of creators... most of whom would never measure up to the standards it set.
And if that's not a slick segue into SANDMAN on a silver salver, I don't know what is.
One of the few of those who would write in the literary tradition of Moore, and who would match up to the standards set by Moore and, at least in terms of those established on SWAMP THING, excel them... in fact, perhaps the only writer I can think of in comics who has, to date, managed that particularly difficult feat of matching or even surpassing the standards set by Alan Moore... is Neil Gaiman.
Gaiman freaked a lot of people out with his first assignment at DC, the truly bizarre BLACK ORCHID miniseries, which established what were to become his constant trademarks: remarkable erudition, a gently brilliant and elegant narrative style, cogent, insightful, and often surprisingly wise dialogue, and an absolute willingness to give work to artists I myself would not want to see drawing the "Nancy" comic strip, much less anything so well written I absolutely had to buy and voraciously devour it every month regardless of how difficult it was to decipher what was actually meant to be going on from one panel to the next, and whether the people doing it were actually humans or not, and whether what they were doing was being done with their hands or their feet or simply through some arcane ability to manipulate unrecognizeable objects through the powers of their minds. It is, perhaps, the most eloquent testimony imaginable to Neil Gaiman's powers as a writer that I bought, and enjoyed, work drawn by so called 'artists' such as Kelly Jones, Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, and Jill Thompson, simply because Gaiman wrote it so damned well.
(I am about to have mailbags full of death threats, letter bombs, and toxic vapor-filled cigar boxes sent to me by the Legions Of Male Jill Thompson Admirers, who somehow believe that because they have met Jill -- and I have not -- and they therefore know that she is beautiful, and witty, and charming, and self depreciating, and sweet, and they all want to boink her in the worst way, that this, in some way, actually means she can frickin' draw. I have not met Jill, but I do not have the slightest reason to doubt, nor do I really in any way fail to believe, that she is an attractive and admirable female human being whom is probably a delight to spend any amount of time with doing nearly anything, up to and including boinking in any way whatsoever. However, I simply do not like her art, I do not think it is very good, and although I would much rather see her illustrating some comic I'm planning to buy anyway than, say, Kelly Jones or Denys Cowan or Bill Sinkiewicz doing so, I can say the same thing about Irv Novick, Dick Dillin, Don Perlin, or even Jose Delbo, and half of those guys are dead. Jill is doubtless utterly adorable, and I do not like her art, and I cannot apologize, because she accepted the assignment, drew the assignment badly, submitted said badly drawn assignment for publication, and I would assume cashed both up front page rate and later royalty checks for said badly drawn assignment, and that means, her artwork is perfectly fair game for critical appraisal. I sincerely regret it if Jill Thompson ever reads this article and has her feelings hurt by anything I have said, but again, that is not an apology, since in the first place, if she's going to be a professional artist she's going to have to grow a thicker skin, in the second place, one should never apologize for telling the truth, and in the third place, why in the name of God should she care about my opinion of her professional abilities anyway? Is someone paying ME?)
Now, I must make a sad, somewhat shamefaced confession: when SANDMAN first debuted, I would not buy it or read it. Gaiman was not the first of the British Moore imitators, nor was SANDMAN the first of the Vertigo titles, and I'd sampled the other stuff put out by that point. Stuff like Morrison's DOOM PATROL and Delano's HELLBLAZER. And those two titles were more than adequate to set my teeth against any further weird, dark, trendy, supernatural titles about characters who sat around delivering long winded pretentious word balloons printed in eccentric fonts about the essential bleakness of reality and the general absurdity of the human race and, for God's sake, people named Death and Dream who fed the damned pigeons in the park while they did it. I had no use for it. I didn't want it. I would not be part of it. I was sure it pretty much sucked.
And, in my defense, I must say that that bloody goddam awful art by Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III, which was really all you could see if you happened to open any one particular issue, certainly did nothing to dispel any suspicions I might have had that here was yet another successful exercise in wanking into the typewriter while staring rapturously at pages of original John Totleben art from somewhere in the middle of "American Gothic".
It is, perhaps, a measure of my essential smallness as a human being that I do not easily pick up work by new creators. I have a lot of inertia that way. My favorite writers tend to remain my favorite writers for a long, long time, and it's difficult for someone I don't know to get my attention. And, again, in my own defense, I have to say that I am aware of this propensity, and there have been many times I have struggled to overcome it, and been vastly disappointed, and every time that happens... every time I over come my initial reluctance to read something I just instinctively think I won't like, like James Robinson's STARMAN, and I turn out to be entirely correct, and it's awful, well, that just truly hurts nearly everyone else whose work I do not specifically know anything about's chances. It's this reluctance to engage with stuff I kind of intuitively feel I will not like that keeps me from reading anything more by Jamie Delano, or anything at all by Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis. (And, again, in my own defense, I overcame this reluctance recently, even though it was an informed reluctance, and picked up the first three issues of MARVEL BOY, and after a promising beginning, they became Typical Morrison Sludge, which, again, just hurt the chances of all these other people for ever getting a reading from me.) Overcoming this reluctance to try anything new, that for some reason I have already conceived a perhaps irrational, or at least, unfounded, dislike for, usually requires intelligent, articulate recommendations, sometimes oft repeated, by people whose taste I trust.
The person... or, rather, people... who more or less combined to put me onto Moore's work on SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING were Dick Pero and Kurt Busiek. Dick's recommendation, as I said, I resisted, but then, it would have been hard to actually find and buy WARRIOR at the time; I think Dick somehow had a subscription. Kurt, on the other hand, was, at that time, a major influence on me, and our tastes were very similar (and, oddly, had been long before we met each other, as we both shared, and obviously from his work and mine, still share, a huge near obsessive admiration for Steve Englehart's 70s superhero work, as well as Steve Gerber's work from that period, and the Goodwin-Simonson MANHUNTER stuff, and we did back when we were both in high school and had never met). So when he told me to read a certain comic, I was inclined to do so, and, well, he'd also been smart enough to send me a copy for free, which, let me tell you, if any of the various well meaning big mouths over the years who have tried to get me to read TRANSMETROPOLITAN and THE AUTHORITY and BONE and DESERT PEACH and STRANGERS IN PARADISE and STARMAN had been bright enough to do, well, I'd at the very least have an informed opinion about those books, rather than simply being instinctively resistant to starting to buy them, as I am.
However, getting me to buy SANDMAN was a job that fell to the Late, Great Jeff Webb.
Now, Jeff and I did not always agree about comics. Among Jeff's several eccentric areas of brilliance was an astonishing talent (which he shares with Dick Pero) for retelling a truly terrible comic book plot (or, really, any storyline at all) in such a way that it sounds just frickin amazing. And Jeff, unfortunately, had some low tastes in comics, which is to say, he purchased, read, and apparently enjoyed nearly everything Mark Gruenwald ever wrote, including about a decade of the absolute worst CAPTAIN AMERICA stories that have ever seen print in the modern day. Jeff liked them, and to hear Jeff describe them, they were astonishing stuff, but I, wise in the ways of the Force, knew that Jeff could, if he wanted to, make John Galt's central 200 page lecture on the morality of selfishness in ATLAS SHRUGGED seem exciting and powerful, too, and thus, I did not buy them, and am, therefore, still unburdened with specific memories of stories in which Captain America became a werewolf and at some point gained his own 800 number and one of Team America's leftover motorcycles and the 1950s Bucky came out of hibernation and put on a really dopey looking Nomad costume, and... ::shudder:: D-Man.
However, Jeff, being even smarter than Kurt Busiek, did not send me a copy of SANDMAN when he tried to get me to read it, he actually brought me one, with his own two hands, handed it to me, and sat there on my couch, apparently unwilling to move ever again, until I read it.
The issue he brought me was, apparently, everyone's favorite early issue, that really dopey one where Dream and Death sit around in the park feeding the pigeons while he snivels and she nags. It is not one of MY favorite issues of the series, because, honestly, I think it's cutesy to the point of being revolting, and Dream comes off as a big whiney guy, and Death seems like she needs a couple of slaps, too. However, I did read it, and I had to admit that, although the art was dreadful and I couldn't understand why Death had no tits (a problem all the women in Dream's family have except Despair, which makes me wonder just exactly what issues Mike Dringenberg has with large breasted women)it wasn't badly written. Not much happened in the plot at all, which is a thing about most modern comics I despise, but still, there was a nice feel to the dialogue, and the grinding, bloody, demeaning, dehumanizing darkness I'd come to associate with Vertigo at that point did not seem to be present in the book. Which was a nice surprise.
I still did not start buying SANDMAN. I didn't start buying it until a few months later, when one of the comics shop guys I knew and more or less trusted happened to mention that the latest issue of SANDMAN was pretty amazing, even for that particular comic book. Remembering the issue that Jeff made me read, I realized that, well, maybe I should give the thing one more chance, so I bought the issue this guy was raving about. That was the "Collectors" issue, based on the truly bizarre but somehow credible (with Gaiman writing it, anyway) conceit of a convention of serial killers. This is, still, one of my favorite SANDMAN stories, and it got me to start buying the book.
All of which is to say that, not only was SANDMAN itself a book concerned, as the other three occult comic books I'm talking about here seem to be, with self actualization, but that, the very process by which I came around to picking up the book regularly was also one of self actualization. I grew. I became more than I was before. I learned that just because something was a Vertigo book, it did not have to be mind bogglingly awful and make me want to kill myself in despair and horror over the entire human condition as reported by Jamie Delano and/or Grant Morrison. Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, comic shop guy. Thank you, Mr. Gaiman.
That SANDMAN itself is largely concerned with the themes of self actualization is as profoundly obvious as was its concern/obsession with objective/subjective reality. Nearly everyone in SANDMAN gets to self actualize, although some of them do it in primordially bizarre ways, such as Fiddler Green's transformation from tract of desirable real estate to rotund, cheerfully volubous man with round glasses, Rose's weird journey from vortex of the Dreaming to mourner at Dream's funeral, Destruction's eventual abandonment of his realm, Delight's metamorphosis into Delirium, the Corinthian's destruction and, eventually, recreation/redemption, Matthew the Crow's odd process of maturation, and, of course (and leaving aside many, many others)the ongoing, extraordinarily subtle and yet, manifestly profound, evolution of the emotions and fundamental, essential character of Gaiman's protagonist figure, Morpheus.
Morpheus is, himself, not merely resistant to change, but is in fact, fanatically determined NOT to change. So much is he determined not to change, ever, that not only does he deny in outrage any and all statements that he may have changed (such as are made to him by his brother, Destruction, and Hob Gadling, among others), but, when he finally is forced to face the fact that he HAS changed, and will have to change still more if he is to survive a current crisis himself, and keep the other entities in his care alive through it, as well... he chooses, rather, to die, and let his place be taken by a newer version of Dream of the Endless, who will be better adapted to do all the things that he, himself, could not, or did not want to.
Still, the fact that Dream did change, and change profoundly, through the course of SANDMAN can't be denied; in fact, Gaiman spun many single issue stories, and a couple of extended story arcs, around that premise. Dream's horrified, outraged response to Hob Gadling's suggestion that the two of them are 'friends' becomes, centuries later, his matter of fact acceptance of that relationship, just as Dream nearly destroys himself journeying to Hell to undo a particularly unpleasant act he had committed thousands of years earlier, by damning an ex girlfriend to perpetual torture there simply because she broke up with him. (Now THERE'S a super power, by God. Keep your X-ray vision, your super speed, your power rings, and your mystic helmets of Nabu; I just want to be able to damn ex lovers and other treacherous former friends to Hell for all eternity, eternity commencing immediately if not sooner. The non-stop express to the Lake of Fire is now boarding, baby.)
Dream's very choice to sacrifice himself and accept Death can, and really, in fact, must, be seen as his most painful, and arguably, successful, attempt at self actualization; confronted by a situation where he could not adapt successfully of his own volition, and yet, found that inability endangering everything he felt most responsible for, he embraced Death it/herself, knowing that aspects of the Endless cannot truly die, and, at least from the perspective of everyone else who needed him, his 'death' would simply be a transformation into another, more evolved version of Dream better able to fulfill his duties and responsibilities. It's Death as the ultimate act of self-evolution; suicide as a positive spiritual step. Kids, don't try this at home.
Besides Dream's central spiritual journey, it's also worthwhile to note some of the more whimsical attempts at self actualization Gaiman portrays in SANDMAN, such as the former Destruction's apparently endless quest to express his creative impulses in taking up various art forms (which he is inevitably awful at), nude dancer Tiffany's regrettable evolution into PTL Club role model and witness for the Lord, and, perhaps most movingly, Lucifer's decision to stop being Ruler of Hell and, quite literally, go out and Get A Life, whimsically underscored by his female demon companion's apparent inability to embrace a similar effort, as she remains reluctantly at his side through everything he chooses to undertake, although, really, she'd honestly rather still be back in The Pit torturing people. And then, there's the truly bizarre life-journey of the infant Daniel...
Still, I think our point is safely made. As much as it is about the difference (if there is any) between fantasy and reality, so too, is SANDMAN about the spiritual journey from one state of being to another, hopefully, more advanced one. And, having established that, we can now pass on, with mass huzzahs and a generally concerted joyous uproar, to... PROMETHEA.
PROMETHEA is just all about self actualization. You can't rationally deny it. Which is to say, if you're remotely perceptive and even close to conventionally sane, you have to realize that one of the central and most powerful themes of PROMETHEA is Sophie Bang's steady process of maturation and evolution into her new role as harbinger of and champion for the next great transformative stage in the evolution of sentient life on Earth. (Wow. I just love it when sentences like that roll virtually unbidden from my brain through my fingertips to the screen to your eyeballs. Writing may pay for shit but it's lots better than working on an assembly line or designing air conditioner filters.) From issue #1, where we are introduced to Sophie as just this slender, waif-like naif doing research on this weird, recurring literary and pop culture figure named "Promethea", through the latest issue, a plotless, event-free snooze-fest in which Sophie/Promethea receives a crash course in the history of magic and its runic symbology from the talking snakes on her caduceus, the whole thing is about the slow process of growth, maturation, ongoing enlightment, and learning that, apparently, each succeeding member of the Promethea mythic pantheon must undergo, as they define their role in both the material realm and The Immateria.
That this is true of Promethea's central character is obvious and undeniable, but as we look around the world Sophie lives in and check out its other inhabitants, we see that in fact, self actualization is all the rage throughout the title. Sophie's best friend Stacia is obviously undergoing her own difficult process of self discovery and maturation underneath her brash, shallow façade. Local celebrity superhero team The Five Swell Guys are still rocking on the swells of the tsunamic emotional upheaval initiated by Roger's recent sex change operation, a fundamental act of personal self actualization that seems to be forcing the rest of the team to undergo their own spiritual evolutions as well, whether they much want to or not. Schizophrenic Mayor Sonny Baskerville has just undergone his own rather astonishing transformation, which bodes no good at all for Promethea's New York City, at the very least. Sophie's predecessor as Promethea has just died and, unlike the other antecedent members of that literary tradition, decided not to hang around The Immateria as a celestial cheerleader for Sophie, but has, instead, chosen to go on into the Great Beyond to be reunited with her previously deceased husband Steve (drawing a direct parallel with Gaiman's distinction between The Dreaming and whatever land, place, or destination one travels to after Death), in what may well be, as we already noted with Gaiman's Morpheus, the ultimate act of self actualization.
From Sorceror Supreme to Swamp Thing to Sandman to Sophie Banks, we can look at each of these characters, and the other characters surrounding them in their respective stories, and we can clearly see that the twin themes of self actualization and the philosophical exploration of the difference, if any, between subjective and objective truth, have been major common threads running through each and uniting all of them into a single, coherent stream of consciousness.
* * * * * * Author's note: The following several paragraphs should, in the best of all possible worlds, be spun off into their own separate chapter. However, it would be a really short chapter, so I'm just tossing them in here, as an Afterword or Epilogue or, well, simply as some conclusory thoughts. Think of them as a Free Bonus, except, you know, none of you PAY me for this stuff, anyway. * * * * * * *
And yet, are these two themes, in and of themselves, all that is necessary to make a superhero comic book 'occult', by the definition I am struggling so tediously to articulate?
In other words, am I frickin FINISHED with this yet?
Alas, the answer clearly must be no. If a study of the difference between subjective and objective reality, combined with a journey of enlightenment and personal growth on the part of the strip's main character, were all that were necessary to make a story 'occult', then nearly every comic written by Steve Englehart or Steve Gerber in the 1970s would qualify, as would, for that matter, Roger Zelazney's brilliant science fantasy novel, LORD OF LIGHT. There is still one final element that an 'occult' comic book or adventure story in any medium needs to set it off from more mainstream superhero or science fiction stories... and that element, put simply, is:
Zelazney's LORD OF LIGHT isn't an 'occult' adventure, despite the fact that it centers around its main character's quest for enlightenment and the dichotomy between the perceptions of divinity and the reality behind those perceptions, because Zelazney, and more impressively, Yama Dharma, 'God' of Death, makes it clear that no one in the book, be they God, Demon, or maharasha, has any powers that are truly 'supernatural'. Englehart's CAPTAIN AMERICA and MASTER OF KUNG FU are all about spiritual growth and the ways our realities can change depending on how people perceive us and we perceive ourselves, yet both are firmly grounded in a very non-mystic, technological, mainstream environment. Even Steve Gerber's various works for Marvel in the 1970s, like DEFENDERS, HOWARD THE DUCK, and most especially, MAN-THING, while they contain mystic components and even often mention 'magic' and the supernatural, are still far too immersed in their own mainstream milieu to really be 'occult' comics... in reality, what Gerber is doing is social satire, and while he is commenting on modern culture and society, he is not, as Englehart, Moore, and Gaiman specifically are, commenting on and exploring the very basic nature of reality itself, our perceptions of it, and our identities and roles within it.
Okay, so we need 'magic', and 'magic' needs to be more than the occasional useful spell thrown by the occasional useful sorceror like Dhakim, Chondu, or even, in Gerber's DEFENDERS, Dr. Strange himself. What, then, specifically is 'magic', as I'm defining it for purposes of being part of an 'occult' comic, and how is it different from that 'magic' that is rather matter of factly considered to be a part of, say, Marvel's Midnight Sons supernatural-horror titles, or nearly every other version of Dr. Strange besides Englehart's?
Well, first, it has to be more than a super-power, by which I mean, it has to be more than a useful paranormal tool in conflict resolution between sets of people in tight spandex possessing conflicting moral and philosophical idealogies. If the 'magic' in a story is just a beam of light coming out of someone's palm, forehead, or eyes to knock someone else across the room, blast a barrier to smithereens, open a portal so that the heroes or villains can get to the fight scene, or otherwise subdue an enemy, well, it's not 'magic' in the way that I mean it.
According to Thomas Moore, (whom I don't believe is any relation to Alan, but what the hell do I know?) in his mostly bewildering Arthurian pastiche ARTHUR REX, magic is 'that to which reason cannot apply'. I don't know what that means; in fact, I'm pretty sure that no one not in the throes of hallucination could possibly know what it means, but it sure sounds cool. Robert Anton Wilson and Colin Wilson both note that 'magical thinking', which is prevalent among primitive tribes but is certainly not unknown amongst modern day sports fans, or, for that matter, married people who actually believe in lifelong monogamy among semi-self aware primate mating pairs, consists of the fundamental belief that the laws of nature can be altered simply by individual or collective belief, if that belief is fervent enough. To an extent, I suppose that this 'magical thinking' fits fairly well with the concept of something 'to which reason cannot apply', since reason would tell any rational person that all the sheer, raw, desperate, fanatical belief in the world will not make it rain, or keep your husband from sleeping around while he's in Atlanta at that convention, or get the forchrissake Baltimore Ravens into the Super Bowl. And yet...
To my mind, then, a good working definition of 'magic' is a generally pervasive attitude or belief that reality is, for the most part, what we will it to be, provided, of course, that one's will is backed up with enlightened, canny, and truthful perceptions as to how the world itself actually works. Magic, then, is the application of the enlightened, knowledgeable will to the alteration of reality, without any intervening fulcrum of artifact, tool, or technology. Beyond that, a 'magical' comic book, or an 'occult' comic book, is one that takes place in a reality where one can alter that fundamental reality with a focused effort of will, assuming one knows how. And, certainly, all four of the superheroic stories I've discussed in this article are set in such a reality, while, just as certainly, I can't think of any others that are similarly set, or that, if they are, similarly explore the fundamental questions of evolving identity and the very nature of reality itself, the way these four do.
So, there we have it: four distinct pieces of occult superhero comic book literature, dissected to find their various common thematic threads, which I have now pretty much decided, and, hopefully, articulately argued, are (a) philosophical, self aware examination of the nature of reality itself, (b) the process of self actualization on the part of at least the main character, and (c) the setting being that of a 'magical' reality, rather than a more objective, 'technological' one built on the implicit belief that the supernatural doesn't exist and there is a reasonable, scientific explanation for everything, if you only look hard enough.
I could also mention that all four of them have a lot of sex in them (although in both SWAMP THING and SANDMAN, the sex gets pretty weird) but I'm not sure that's a necessary ingredient in the occult superhero mix, so I'll just note that as a bonus.
I will, however, conclude by noting that, over the course of writing this article, I've had to modify a previous belief, which is that, basically, superhero comics are generally for kids, and should be, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, I've gone to great lengths previous to this to show that every time a writer (like Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, or even Alan Moore) tries to create a 'superhero' for grown ups, he inevitably takes all the FUN out of it.
However, I believe I have discovered the one, single area where superheroes CAN, and not only CAN, but SHOULD, be written for adults, and it's this one here, the occult superhero sub-genre. After all, figuring out the very nature of reality, and our evolving role within it... well... that's pretty grown up stuff.
Plus, you know, there's never been a Sorceror Supreme, Swamp Thing, Lord of Dreams, or imaginary demi-goddess who was allowed to wear their underwear on the outside of their trousers, either.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL, and besides, he's really some geek named Darren Madigan, anyway, who has never even BEEN in Illinois, something that he cannot in any way regret, sorry. It is his avowed intention that, despite the recent unwelcome revelation that occult superheroes ARE superheroes for adults, he will, nonetheless, write his next article about how superheroes are intended for kids, and how when you try to take the average mainstream superhero comic and write it for adults, you DO take all the damn fun out of it. The working title for this article will be "HEY, KIDS, COMICS!", with some dopey descriptive second tier title underneath. Or maybe I'll just write that thing about Timeless Masked Villains And Their Toadies, instead. Or I could just take a nap in hopes of finally seeing that long lesbian kissing scene. You never know.