SORCERORS, SWAMP THINGS, SANDMEN, AND SOPHIE
Chapter 1: Seeing Is Believing
By "John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL"
Contact the author at email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Or check out his other insane ramblings at www.angelfire.com/ny3/docnebula/index.html
It's probably a worthwhile introduction to this article to simply talk (okay, type) for a bit about the struggle to find a title to the damn thing. Although I have a clear idea what I want to say here, and even how to say it, a good, solid, workable title has yet to occur to me. Various unsatisfactory precursors to whatever is up there now, as you read this, were KEEPIN' IT REAL, (pithy, but not cogent) OF GODS AND MAGIC, (way too pretentious in a Chris Claremont fashion) THE MIND IS QUICKER THAN THE EYE, (which sounds good but what does it mean?), STRANGE TALES, (which would be a natural for an overview of Dr. Strange's career, but here, we're only going to touch on one particular area of that seminal sorcerous superhero's history, and then pass on to other titles and characters), and, well, who knows how many others before I get done with this and turn it in. What's up there as I type right this second is A STRANGE THING, MYSTIFYING, which, while clumsy and a tiny bit pretentious, but probably better than all the vague Beatles lyrics I've got running through my head right now, so we'll just leave it there and see if anything else pops out of my subconscious at me while I meander through this thing.
(Now, a day later after I began this, I've just made another change, and what's up there at the moment is TALES OF THE UNKNOWN, which I like, but may eventually pull down and replace, because unfortunately, it conjures up images of Gardner Fox/Carmine Infantino "Space Museum" and "Adam Strange" stories... which there's absolutely nothing wrong with, except that they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, occult superhero comics.)
(And, a bit later, what I very much assume will be the final title is now affixed firmly in place: "SORCERORS, SWAMP THINGS, SANDMEN, AND SOPHIE". It's clumsy, but, hey, reality sucks sometimes.)
Of course, I'm only talking about the snappy primary line of the title. (Which is now not so snappy, but honestly, do I criticize YOUR little exaggerations? Stop badgering me, I'm in a delicate place right now.) Anyone who's read any of my work as "John Jones" prior to this has to be aware of how enraptured I am with the scholastic tradition of two tiered titles, and in this case, I've gone just plain nuts with it and created a three tiered title, just to really work the theme into the ground. In this case, it's the second and third tiers that are really important:
"The Stream of Consciousness Running Through Four Occult Superhero Comics
Chapter 1: Seeing Is Believing"
So what the hell does THAT mean? Well, it's like this:
Some time ago, as I'm wont to do, I wrote a long, meandering, hopefully at least intermittently entertaining and a little bit insightful, article for this site. The one I'm specifically referring to now was called "THESE GO TO ELEVEN: Why America's Best Comics Is No Idle Boast", and while that title was a shameless attempt to show my potential audience how cool I am because I've seen THIS IS SPINAL TAP (like, 137 times) I'd like to think the article itself was well written and worth reading, at least, to those who care about the generally splendiferous contemporary comic book musings of British superhero scripter and ubermensch guru Alan Moore. Whether it was or not, within that article, I make passing mention to the fact that Moore's current comic, PROMETHEA, strikes me as being the modern day heir apparent to an occult tradition begun by Silver Age writing phenomenon Steve Englehart in DR. STRANGE, continued by Moore himself in his brilliant early 80s work on DC's SWAMP THING, and expanded further by the astonishing and unparalleled genius of Neil Gaiman in his astonishing and unparalleled SANDMAN.
In that article, I didn't explore this statement at any great length, or, really, at all, for a couple of good and simple reasons: first, the article was about Moore's work overall, his work on America's Best Comics in a less vague way, and at that particular section, on PROMETHEA specifically, so there was no reason to expand on the point; and second, because I honestly didn't have the vaguest frickin idea what the hell I was talking about.
Which is to say, I knew the connection was there, however, being nearly 40, borderline senile, and having had way too much caffeine that night and way too little, you know, what's that stuff called where you stop being conscious for a while, um, sleep, yeah, I just couldn't quite grasp it. I knew there were threads in common, that Englehart's astonishingly enlightened adventures of Stephen Strange, Sorceror Supreme, somehow lived in the same world and struggled with the same issues and demons as Moore's unnamed earth elemental who had thought, at one time, he was a transformed human named Alec Holland, and that Moore's Swamp Thing had fought the same good fight and dealt with the same philosophical, life and death themes as Gaiman's Dream of the Endless, and that now, those exact same issues and problems and battles were being waged between the often bewildered Sophie Bangs and the avaricious, remorseless hordes of ancient entities inextricably opposed to her crusade to liberate sentience from the chains of its own mortality. What I didn't know, though, was exactly in what way they were related, or how to clearly articulate those common themes.
I knew they were all 'occult' comics, and in the Moore article, I took a stab at defining the difference between 'occult' comics, and more normal superhero comics, as being largely defined by the fact that the heroes of 'occult' comics are proactive, while most normal superheroes are in fact, rather passive and conservative. However, it occurred to me later that this is actually untrue, or at least, not true of the four comics I had somehow linked together in my mind. (Yes. I Was Wrong. And, unlike many people I have known, and I'm not specifically saying the name of any old college buddies whose initials are K.B., or any recent webzine editors whose initials are D.L., I can quite cheerfully admit it, too. In print, even. So there. I Was Wrong. Someone organize a parade. ) Marvel's Dr. Strange spends most of his time, like any other superhero, defending the status quo from otherdimensional or mystic threats that want to eat it. Swamp Thing does a bit of that, and he does, also, get proactive on other occasions, as when he nearly destroys Gotham City with a riotous floral attack in order to get his human consort released from prison, but for the most part, he winds up being punted around by circumstance, pissing and moaning about the state of his existence, and rarely taking much of an active stance about anything. SANDMAN's Morpheus is perhaps the ultimate celestial slacker, and while an occasional correspondent's casual dismissal of the entire series as "Gaiman's whine fest" is both unfair and absurd, it's also, if one simply focuses on Morpheus himself, extraordinarily accurate. Of all these four titles, only the central character of Promethea is really proactive, in that she has an agenda and a goal which, if she succeeds in enacting and achieving them, will substantially transform reality and the way sentient beings experience it. The rest of our heroes either defend the status quo, or do nothing to change it, or, even worse, just lay around bitching about it instead of actually changing it.
So, if the heroes of occult comics aren't all proactive, then what is it that sets an 'occult' comic off from a more normal, conventional superhero comic?
It didn't occur to me until very recently, and then it burst on me like a cartoon light bulb going off over my head:
It's all about the difference between subjective and objective reality. (It's also about self actualization, but we'll get to that in Chapter Two, honey, now be quiet and let Daddy type.)
Okay, many of my hypothetical audience will now be wondering, exactly what the hell does 'the difference between subjective and objective reality' mean? (On the other hand, those few of you who have read Robert Anton Wilson's THE NEW INQUISITION are already way out there ahead of the curve, but hey, try to show some patience for the rest of the class.)
To put it as simply as possible: 'Objective' reality, if any such thing exists, or even can exist, is, basically, the world as it actually is. 'Subjective' reality is the world as we perceive it.
Yeah, buddy. You got it. It's like in THE MATRIX. The standard world seen by Neo, the one we all seem to actually inhabit, the one he'd have been immersed in forever if he'd just taken that damned blue pill... that's 'subjective' reality. It's what we perceive, but it's not actually the truth. Objective reality, at least, in THE MATRIX, is a much more gruesome and horrible world in which... well... you've all seen the movie, so I don't need to explicate.
The idea that the world may actually be very different from how we believe it to be is not a new one. The ancient... somebody or others, I think the Greeks, but honestly, do I know?... called this concept 'solipsism', which they defined as the philosophical hypothesis that the entire world was nothing more than a dream or a fantasy thought up by one person, or mind, or soul, which was the only 'real' thing in existence. The ancient Chinese had similar thoughts and encapsulated them with the parable of the mandarin who awakens from a dream in which he was a butterfly, and wonders if he might actually be a butterfly dreaming he is a man. (If you're now thinking that ouzo and opium, respectively, probably had a great deal to do with these philosophical breakthroughs, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL will not argue with you.) In the modern day, the wiley Republican political machine invokes this subtle metaphysical concept whenever they attempt to convince the American populace that some hapless, charismatic buffoon like a Ronald Reagan or a George W. Bush is actually a world class leader, and the Democrats do it whenever they conduct an opinion poll and then advise their candidate he needs to wear blue jeans more often and stop claiming, even ironically, that he invented the Internet.
Objectively, you have one thing; subjectively, quite another. The world is what you believe it is, or, as the spin doctors and advertising execs would cynically put it, "Perception IS reality".
And there are elements of subjective reality in nearly all superhero comics, in the form of that time honored melodramatic device, The Secret Identity. In a very valid way, the Secret Identity is all about subjective and objective reality. The various inhabitants of DC-Earth believe that the big, broad shouldered guy in the blue suit with the little round glasses is meek, mild mannered reporter Clark Kent, a bluff Kansas farmer's son turned big city journalist. But that's merely subjective reality, which is to say, it's what Lois, Jimmy, Perry, and evil genius Lex Luthor believe to be true. In actual fact... which is to say, in objective reality... that fellow is really Kal El, Last Son of Doomed Krypton, child of Jor El and Lara, possessed of powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and if you think you're going to build a squadron of giant killer robots and menace Metropolis, buddy, then you'll see just how meek and mild that guy actually is when he kicks your scrofulous, cackling ass into parabolic orbit. Try not to bang your head on the sputniks.
And we, the reader, know all this, because, like gods, we look into the DC-Earth from afar, and see through all the deceit and all the lies, mostly because we are privileged to actually read the thoughts of the inhabitants of that world, and decipher their innermost desires and motivations through the simple technique of having them exposited to us neatly in the little yellow caption boxes.
See? Again... subjective reality, and objective reality. 20th Century New York City, and horrible post Apocalypse nightmare planet where everyone is in a life support pod having their very essence drained by a massive alien computer. Mild mannered reporter who wouldn't say boo to a passing Prankster, and mighty Man of Steel putting the Kryptonian smackdown on super powered whacked out escapees from some nebulous prison dimension.
In other words, what you see is not necessarily what you get. Appearances are deceiving, and while the advertising professors and political spin doctors may be quite correct when they claim that perception IS reality, all they're really saying is, what YOU perceive is YOUR reality... the truth can be something entirely different (and, in both advertising and politics, nearly always is).
Now, what the hell does this have to do with 'occult' comic books, and how is it a defining link between Englehart's DR. STRANGE, Moore's SWAMP THING, Gaiman's SANDMAN, and Moore's PROMETHEA?
Thanks for asking. Let's take a look.
Prior to relative rookie writer, former Viet Nam grunt, and full blown flower child Steve Englehart getting hold of the character in late 1971, Marvel's Dr. Strange was in most ways a pretty straightforward superhero. This is not meant to in any way disparage the seminal work on the character by Lee and Ditko, which was exciting and innovative, but is simply a statement of fact. Dr. Strange fought evil like nearly any other superhero, by flying around and blasting it with cool colored lights coming out of his palms. He fought it mystically, in otherworldly dimensions, he chanted things while he did it, and his bad guys invariably looked pretty darned weird (except for Baron Mordo, who was just kinda homely), but still, he was fighting for the good and the right, against the encroachments of evil, and the only real mention of a difference between the world as we perceived it, and the world as it was, came when occasionally Strange would ponder on how terrified the average person would be if they knew about all the terrible creatures and denizens of other dimensions that were always ready to invade the Earthly realm and chow down on the entire human race like a big vat of chicken wings at the Sizzler Superbar. Nonetheless, where Spider-Man and Daredevil and the Avengers fought super villains and monsters, Stephen Strange fought... well... villainous sorcerors, demons, evil deities, and monsters.
I'm not saying it was bad. Hey, I love superhero comics considerably more than I loved my last girlfriend. (It's not her fault. I just have intimacy issues. Leave me alone. I'm fine.) I'm just saying, it takes a little bit more than the difference in spelling between Dr. Doom and Dormammu to make an actual occult comic book.
To grasp the sweeping philosophical changes Englehart brought to Strange's adventures (being published at the time in MARVEL PREMIERE), you have only to look at his very first issue, the wrap up to a longish, continued story arc begun under Roy Thomas, in which Strange fought some horrible extradimensional entity known as Shuma-Gorath, which bore more than a passing resemblance to the various inimical elder gods created by H.P. Lovecraft. Under Thomas, the stories had been fairly straightforward (if well written, atmospheric, and exciting) tales concerning the Sorceror Supreme's ongoing battles against whacked out, serpentman type-cultists, weird messiah figures (The Living Buddha, a big fat golden skinned evil and ugly turd who, fortunately for posterity, Englehart promptly crushed into guano with a well aimed earthquake) and the ancient, evil entity itself. Roy's style, like that of other Strange writers before him (which I think, but am not entirely certain, was at that time limited to Lee himself, Gardner Fox, and Arnold Drake) was pretty straightforward; Strange confronted the bad guys, got kicked around for a while, then came up with a cool sounding spell that vanquished them and saved the day.
Under Englehart, this immediately changed. With Stainless Steve in charge, Strange quickly came to accept that there was no way he could beat Shuma-Gorath in a head on fight. However, Shuma-Gorath had forged a link to our material reality by corrupting and possessing Strange's mentor, the Ancient One; in order to defeat it, Strange would have to break that link... thus destroying his beloved teacher. (Yes, we've all since seen this plot many times, in 1971, I don't think we'd even seen it once.) Strange shrinks himself down and enters the Ancient One's psyche, seeks out the last, uncorrupted essence of the Ancient One's self awareness...and blows it up real good, thus sundering Shuma-Gorath's link with our dimension and Saving The World. He also, of course, kills the Ancient One... or so he believes. As it turns out, while he did actually kill the Ancient One, for someone as enlightened as that master sage and iconic Old Guru Dude was, death is not final, nor is it even the same as death for a less spiritually advanced mortal without such a cool white chin goatee would be. Therefore, instead of heading up into the Big White Light and, presumably, hanging out for the rest of eternity with Elvis, Nixon, and Julius Caesar, the Ancient One had transcended mortal flesh and individual existence, and become One With The Universe.
Such was a fairly daring and innovative departure for a rookie's first script on a well established character, and if more than 12 or 13 people had been buying MARVEL PREMIERE at the time, Englehart might not have been allowed to get away with it. However, as it was, Marvel most likely figured he couldn't possibly hurt the series, and either actively or passively allowed him free reign. And with this very first issue, in which Stephen Strange, and we, the readers, discover that death, and reality itself, are very different things than we have always believed they are... Englehart injected the first trace elements of the subjective/objective perceptual dichotomy that would come to dominate his work on this character.
From here, Englehart quickly picked up speed. A throwaway issue about a gypsy girl and a living gargoyle was quickly followed by an impressive two issue cosmic epic which has since been undeservedly forgotten by most comics scholars, in which Dr. Strange, along with perpetual rival, enemy, and sniveling asshole Baron Mordo, end up accompanying a sorceror from the future named Sise-Neg on a journey through history to the dawn of Creation itself. Sise-Neg's purpose is nothing more nor less than to simply become God Himself, by traveling back through the ages and absorbing unto himself all the finite mystical energy in existence, until he finally has it all, and becomes all powerful. Mordo, upon hearing this plan, determines to follow Sise-Neg and suck up to him relentlessly, in hopes he can get the nascent Alpha-Omega to grant him one boon and recreate the 20th Century with himself, not Strange, as Sorcerer Supreme. Strange, naturally, follows along to hopefully convince Sise-Neg that that, like crossing the streams, would be BAD.
This is, perhaps, the simplest and most fundamental application of the idea of objective versus subjective reality, when a story purports to reveal to us the Real Truth (objective reality) behind the commonly accepted lies (Subjective Reality) of folklore, mythology, or recorded and conventionally accepted history. In this case, as we tour the past with Strange, Mordo, and Sise-Neg, we see the truth behind the legends, as in various vignettes, Sise-Neg stops off in the France of Robespierre, Arthurian Camelot, Sodom and Gomorrah, and, finally, the site of Eden, where he foils Shuma-Gorath (who is busy eating a small tribe of young protohumans) and sets up an idyllic Garden as a safe haven for the two surviving, male and female, protohumans. (Similar adventures in the other time periods had also shown us similar objective events occurring behind the subjective mythology we had all otherwise learned.) However, at the time, this sort of re-telling of history was not the established comic book storytelling convention it would later become in the hands of retroactive continuity obsessives like Roy Thomas and, later, Alan Moore, and honestly, this was one of the most innovative story ideas I'd ever seen.
Englehart plunged deeper into the waters of subjective, perceptual reality with his next extended story arc, which took place in the newly awarded DR. STRANGE, SORCEROR SUPREME title. Apparently killed by a sneak attack from the interestingly twisted Silver Dagger, Strange projected his consciousness into the Orb of Agomotto. Here he found himself immersed in an entirely hallucinatory, yet completely convincing, world populated with various imaginary characters, as well as Strange's own weirdly twisted perceptions of people he himself had actually met in the past. The story was basically Englehart's way of teaching Strange some hard truths about the nature of reality, and how hard it can be to tell perception from truth... a lesson the good Doctor was going to need badly, as Englehart's next extended story arc wound up with Strange and Clea trapped in Hell by Satan himself.
In the end, Strange, remembering what he'd learned inside the Orb, simply 'disbelieved' in Hell, freeing himself and Clea from it, since, as he noted, while Hell is a very real place, it only exists in our hearts and minds. With that statement, Englehart seemed to be somewhat blending the lines between objective and subjective reality, in that he was saying that a subjective, perceptual realm can be just as 'real', just as valid, and just as dangerous, as the actual, physical world we all inhabit... and yet, in the end, is only as real as we believe it is, making perceptual reality, no matter how convincing, still less valid and 'real' than objective, material reality.
Probably the trippiest exploration of subjective vs. objective reality came, however, when Strange encountered Eternity and, after a long gauntlet of mental illusions and head games, actually witnessed Eternity destroying the whole damn planet Earth. Not a hoax, not a dream, not an Imaginary Story... Eternity actually blew up the entire planet and everything on it. Obviously, the Marvel Universe is still around, so good ol' Doc Strange must have done something, right? Traveled back in time to undo the events that led to the cataclysm, maybe? Sure, sure, that sounds good, and what the hell, the X-Men do it about five times a year, so we can deal with it. Yeah. Tell us that that's what happened, O Manhunter.
Unfortunately, this is not what Dr. Strange did. No, Dr. Strange did something with far weirder and more far reaching implications, and with a much greater consequence for the whole concept of subjective vs. objective reality.
He talked Eternity into recreating the Earth... and everything on it. Just the way it had been, before it got blown up.
Englehart did not allow his audience to flinch from the inevitable logical and metaphysical ramifications of this. In the issue where Eternity blew up the planet, Englehart specifically wrote captions specifically addressed to the reader of the comic, saying, basically, "Yes, you just got blown up. You and everyone else on Earth. Ha ha. Deal with it." It wasn't until the next issue that we saw Strange persuading Eternity to undo his actions, and even then, Eternity didn't have the power to actually go back and NOT blow up the Earth. All he could do was what he finally did... re-create the Earth, exactly as it had been, complete with every single specific object and living being that had been on the planet at the time.
In other words, everyone in the Marvel Universe... well, everyone on Earth in the Marvel Universe, anyway... except Dr. Strange... got blown up real good sometime back in the early 70s. Along with the Earth itself. All your favorite characters wandering around in the current titles of Marvel's comics? The X-Men? The Avengers? Spider-Man? The New Warriors? They're duplicates. Perfect duplicates, re-created exactly as they were at the moment of Earth's destruction... but copies. Clones, if you like. None of them know it. None of them have the slightest clue. Only Stephen Strange, Sorceror Supreme, and a couple of other people he wanted to really freak out, know about it. To the rest of the folks in our favorite alternate reality, it never happened... but we know it did.
No, there's no escape. Marvel has never had a Crisis on Infinite Earths, and as far as I know, this particular story has never been ret-conned out of existence. It. Really. Happened. All your favorite heroes, and your entire favorite planet, got blown to tiny little pieces. All your favorite heroes on Marvel Earth, except for Dr. Strange... are copies. Duplicates. Clones.
They just don't know it.
Kind of messes with your head, doesn't it?
It's the ultimate exploration of the difference between subjective and objective reality. Objectively, we, the readers, know it happened, and Dr. Strange knows it happened, however much it may make us want to flip our lips and go wubba-wubba.
Now, I see a few of you in the back who haven't gone several shades paler yet, whose lower lips aren't trembling, who aren't murmuring under your breaths 'no no no no', whose eyes haven't glazed over in shock and denial. If you weren't comics fans you wouldn't be reading this, so obviously, I haven't made this clear to you yet. Let me try again:
That valiant, daring foursome who went up in an experimental rocket ship, got accidentally irradiated by cosmic rays, and became a fabulous family adventuring team? Dead.
That scrappy young kid who got bitten by a radioactive spider and learned the hard way that with great power comes great responsibility? Deceased.
Living Legend of World War II? Blown the hell up. One True Sub Mariner and Avenging Son of Atlantis? History. Brilliant munitions manufacturer Tony Stark? A goner. Brooding giant Hank Pym and his winsome, flirty partner the Wasp? Dust. Robert Bruce Banner, clobbered by gamma rays? Ashes. Students of Charles Xavier, children of the atom, MUTANTS - hated and feared by the world they are sworn to protect? Corpses. Matt Murdock, Man Without Fear? Scattered in space from here to Venus.
To paraphrase John Cleese, they have rung down the curtain and gone to join the choir invisible. As Leonard McCoy, M.D., would put it, "They're DEAD, Jim."
All those guys who are running around in their costumes, living their lives, fighting their enemies, right this very second? Copies. Duplicates. Doppelgangers. Clones. They think they remember all those adventures they went on in the 60s and early 70s. They're sure they clearly recall their origin sequences, their first battles with costumed super criminals, that first sweet kiss with their mandatory Romantic Interest... but they don't. It didn't happen to them. They're just living Xeroxes with the memories of the original guys stapled onto their otherwise blank consciousnesses like a soundtrack pressed into a CD.
Still don't get it? Try this. The Captain America who just led the Avengers to triumph over Count Nefaria? He's not the Captain America who got chipped out of the ice in AVENGERS #4. He THINKS he is, but that Captain America got blown up by Eternity... along with the rest of the people living on the Marvel Earth at that time... sometime in the early 70s, or whatever that equivalent date in constantly collapsing Marvel Time would be right now.
Okay. I can now see the spittle starting to bead up on everyone's chins quite satisfactorily, so, let's move on.
Clearly, then, we can see how there is now a distinct schism in the entire Marvel Universe between objective reality (what we, the reader, along with Dr. Strange, know is true) and subjective reality (what everyone else in the Marvel Universe believes to be true). Objectively, everyone on Marvel Earth born before 1974 or thereabouts (or whatever the equivalent year would now be considered to be) died in a cataclysmic explosion many years ago. Subjectively, as far as the entire human race (and other resident aliens) besides one particular Sorceror Supreme is concerned, this never happened. They don't remember it happening, and therefore, to them, it did not happen. That's their perceived reality... but it's not true.
The truth... is freaky.
And, as I said, to the best of my knowledge, this brilliant, fundamentally disturbing story still stands as a valid part of Marvel continuity. I do not believe there have been, or at least, I am not aware of, any efforts to ret-con this story out of existence. It's an absolute, if virtually unknown and, to all practical purposes, moot, fact: most of the characters in existence on Marvel Earth right now are not who and what they think they are. Their memories of most of their past lives are false. They are perfect duplicates of the people who once existed, and who all died, on Marvel Earth in a Steve Englehart DR. STRANGE story published in the early 1970s.
I'm going to leave you with that thought and move on to Alan Moore's SWAMP THING. (Not that Englehart didn't write some good stories on DR. STRANGE after the Eternity thing; in fact, his whole 'Historical Illuminatus' adventure was just amazing. But it has little to do with subjective vs. objective reality, other than in its similarities to the Sise-Neg story, where Englehart lets us see the 'real' history behind what we read about in the textbooks.) However, before we leave, I'll note as a final comment on Englehart's explorations of subjective vs. objective reality that, in the end, he comes down pretty clearly as stating that there actually is one, valid objective reality, and everything else is just illusion. Illusion can be dangerous if you believe in it too much, but hey, it's not like anyone who grew up or even lived through the 1970s hasn't had that particular sermon ground into their psyches yet. Suffice to say that, according to Englehart on DR. STRANGE, there is a clear difference between fantasy and reality, which is to say, between subjective and objective reality... and that, of the two, only objective reality is actually 'true', while subjective reality, however delightful and seductive it may be, is ultimately false, and a domain fit only for the weak and the insane.
Now hold that thought, because we'll be coming back to it anon.
If my thesis that exploring the difference between perception and reality is a fundamental theme to all occult superhero comics (or at least these four I'm trying to articulate a discernable commonality between) is true, then you'd expect that theme to crop up fairly early in my next link in this daisy-chain: Alan Moore's deservedly celebrated run on SWAMP THING in the early to mid 80s.
So, let's see: in our very first issue under Moore, Swampie discovers that he's not actually Alec Holland, transformed by science run amok into a shambling muck-encrusted mockery of humanity, as he has always assumed and believed. No, he's just a big clump of strangely animated goop who thinks he's Alec Holland... and that's all he's ever been.
Nope, nope, can't see it... clearly, there is no exploration of objective versus subjective reality here. No SIR.
In point of fact, this sudden plunge from long standing subjectivism into the cold, blinking, halogen like clarity of objective reality sets the tone for Moore's entire run on the series. Where under previous writers like the far more stolid Len Wein, who originated the character and title, SWAMP THING was a pretty straightforward monster series, under Moore, the book suddenly focused on far more esoteric metaphysical issues. While the difference between subjective and objective reality wasn't a constant theme in Moore's SWAMP THING, it had a tendency to recur often. For example, early in the run, Matt Cable's strange powers to manipulate reality often made it difficult to tell perception from actual truth (other than the way in which Matt's perceptions were usually completely nuts) and a bit later, an escaped demon made subjective reality all too real for a group of disturbed children by bringing their distorted, nightmarish terrors to palpable, deadly life.
When the Swamp Thing had to travel to Hell in order to retrieve the lost soul of Abigail Cable, the entire adventure was an extended metaphor in subjective fantasy versus objective truth. Through the voice of The Demon, Moore explained that Hell was not a place that had been created by God, but was, rather, something brought into being by the masochistic desires and beliefs of every human who had ever died suffused with guilt for the way they had lived and convinced that they deserved eternal punishment. Hell, according to Moore, is a place where people go voluntarily, although most don't allow themselves to be aware of that, and where anyone can leave any time they like.
In other words, Moore pretty much agrees with Englehart... Hell is a state of mind, and it only has power over us if we allow it to. It's a subjective reality, if a powerful and dangerous one shared by millions. Last but not least, while it is an eternal reality that many choose to experience, the fact that people cannot so choose while they are alive again, reinforces the analysis that to both Moore and Englehart, there is a difference between objective and subjective reality, and that for Moore, at least, the objective world is one primarily related to material, fleshly existence. Life after death, it seems, is largely shaped by perception and personal choice, but material existence is what it is.
Much later in his run on the book, Moore gave us another brilliantly concise exploration of perceptual reality, and how it can differ from objective fact, when Swamp Thing visited Adam Strange on Rann and we learned that Adam's adventures, as told in upbeat, optimistic stories by Fox and Infantino back in the 1960s, had apparently been presented from Adam's point of view.... a point of view that had been deliberately manipulated. In actual fact, Adam had been deliberately brought to Rann to revitalize their all but depleted gene pool by breeding with one of the few native women remaining who was fertile, his 'adventures' had mostly been staged by his scheming father in law to keep him busy and happy, and the populace of Rann, while pretending to respect and admire their 'hero' and 'champion of champions', in reality despised him as a primitive barbarian. Adam, of course, was cheerfully clueless as to the true state of affairs.
(As an entirely personal and off the subject aside, I feel that, in addition to be an astonishingly insightful study of subjective versus objective reality, this particular two issue tale also has the distinction of probably being the only example of ret-conning an optimistic, futuristic scientific utopia into something much seamier and more 'realistic' that I actually felt worked well. For a time this sort of thing was rampant at DC, with nearly all of their future characters undergoing some sort of horribly sleazy, or terribly depressing, revisionism meant to make them more credible to an audience that found idealism corny, and demanded dark, cynical, anti-Utopias instead. The Legion suffered through it several times in steadily worsening post Crisis reboots by Keith Giffen, Thanagar got hit with the ugly stick by Tim Truman in HAWKWORLD, Kamandi got some incomprehensibly bad reinterpretation in KAMANDI AT WORLD'S END, the DC science fiction heroes from the 1950s became sleazy sex fiends in Chaykin's TWILIGHT, and even long dead Krypton got a grungy hyper-reality makeover under Moore himself in a well written, but poorly conceived, Superman Annual. However, this one story in SWAMP THING actually showed that the technique could be employed well, if, apparently, only once.)
As we've seen already seen, Moore established the same basic take on subjective vs. objective reality as Englehart did: There is a discrete, concrete, discernable objective world out there somewhere, if one can only, somehow, become enlightened enough to perceive it. Swamp Thing's steadily increasing understanding of his true nature and role, the already analyzed revelation about the nature of Hell , and his later encounter with Alec Holland's actual shade in the fields of the Afterlife, make this fairly clear. Swamp Thing's awakening to his true nature tells us that, in Moore's view, his identity has an objective reality very different from, and greater than, his subjective beliefs regarding it. And, just as Englehart tells us that Hell is a subjective reality that only exists if we believe in it, so too does Moore establish that Hell is a vast shared delusion, not part of God's proper creation, where everyone within is a voluntary prisoner.
Which is to say, reality and fantasy are two different things, and it's dangerous to get them mixed up: again, not a particularly unique or innovative viewpoint, however brilliantly, engagingly, and articulately presented. Still, although Moore's viewpoint seems basically the same as Englehart's 'material world good, fantasy world bad' generalization, Moore also seems to take things a bit further than this, in that he explicitly shows that consciousness continues to exist beyond the death of the material, living body, and the 'reality' that it experiences at that point... or at any point when outside the material living body, as is seen by Swamp Thing's voluntary journey to Hell... is, while very subjective, still very 'real' and 'valid'. Thus, where Englehart's version of the afterlife, in the one case where we see it (after the Ancient One's death) is all about consciousness being bound up in the material realm in some strange, new, mystic oneness, which thus again validates his implication that material reality is truthful, while subjective reality is a mere mirage, Moore's is all about a non-material realm that can only be fully experienced by a sentient being after we are free from the shackles of mortality and materialism. It's as if Moore is saying, while not loudly, that there are two different realities, a material one for our life in the body, and a non-material, more idealized and subjective one, for our life outside it, as beings of pure mental energy. Moore's implication is subtle but still clearly discernable: Englehart is right, and material reality is more true and valid than fantasy... for living, material beings. But there is another, more subjective level of reality as well, that we can only fully inhabit and appreciate when outside our bodies.
But then came SANDMAN. As Englehart, and, to a nearly equal extent, Steve Gerber, informed the 1970s superhero comics media with a completely unique creative and philosophical vision, and as Moore had similarly electrified and enlivened, and enlightened superhero comics in the otherwise creatively ironbound 1980s, Gaiman's SANDMAN very nearly singlehandedly saved the 1990s from being a completely dismal, utterly worthless decade (at least, creatively) for the entire genre, medium, and industry. In a period when it seemed very nearly everything was a badly written copy of something created decades previously, dumbed down and bloodied up to appeal to an increasingly gore-thirsty, steadily less mature target audience, SANDMAN wasn't just a breath of fresh air, it was very nearly a one-title atmosphere project. Marvel's best books were simply spinning their wheels in an increasingly sterile, repetitive manner, DC was wandering cluelessly through their post Crisis haze wondering exactly what big, crossover, universe wide ret-con to put on this year, and Image was plunging the entire superhero comics medium into an abyss of marketing gimmicks, grimngritty graphic violence, and piss poor scripting the likes of which no comics fan had ever previously seen, even during the worst excesses of the mid 70s DC Explosion.
However, someone at DC had had the... interesting, if not good... idea of spinning off all their horror titles into a more Mature Readers oriented, separate publishing imprint called Vertigo, where they could throw in a few swear words, use sexual situations, and show a great deal more graphic violence, than they could really get away with in their mainstream comics. Perhaps they just wanted to find a way to cash in on the Image-fed frenzy for blood and guts without getting an increasingly paranoid, parent-pandering media on their backs. Whatever the case, Vertigo wound up looking for some adult oriented comics ideas that could still somehow tie in with DC's mainstream continuity, and Neil Gaiman was right there, suggesting yet another variation on the name "Sandman" to them.
Naturally, it's simply insane to believe that Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN could have had anything to do with exploring the differences between subjective and objective reality. After all, what could the ongoing adventures of an immortal, eternal entity known alternatively as Morpheus, the Sandman, or Dream of the Endless, have to do with the metaphysical dichotomy between fantasy and actuality?
Gaiman's SANDMAN was all about perception, and the difference between what we think is going on, and what actually is. Yet Gaiman's take on it was a little bit skewed from Englehart's and Moore's. Where both his predecessors in this particular consciousness stream had been careful to make a clear philosophical delineation between the subjective and the objective, Gaiman gave us no such easy path to a hard edged, readily grasped, easily discernable Truth. Reality, even the material, 'Real World' reality that most of Gaiman's supporting characters plurally perceived, was entirely relative. (Given that DC's continuity and underlying metaphysical reality was, at that time, and still remains, as flexible and mutable as Silly Putty and completely subject to periodic fits of rewriting whenever a new comprehensive crossover project was enacted, this was certainly an understandable point of view for Gaiman to present.)
Gaiman established fairly early that the world of Dreams was just as 'real', in every measurable or valid way, as the material realm inhabited by freaks and cast offs from DC's mainstream continuity, like Element Girl, Hector and Lyta Hall, Prez, and Brother Power, the Geek. It was, in truth, a world that we, the so called 'real' people, inhabited fairly often... nearly every time we went to sleep, in fact, and a lot of times when we were awake, but daydreaming. Gaiman's realm of so-called unreality was densely populated with characters and concepts both delightful and terrifying, like Lucien's Library of Dreams, where every book ever conceived of by sentient minds, but never actually written, or started but never finished, actually exists (and they have a large section of stuff by Your Humble Author, by the way, and I wish I could get Lucien to make photocopies of the lot and Fed Ex them to me, too, along with color Xeroxes of all those unwritten Englehart AVENGERS and Gerber DEFENDERS comics, as well), the utterly ickie Corinthian, the characters in the very first story, Cain, Abel, and Eve (exactly where Adam is Gaiman never tells us, but he doesn't seem to be around anywhere in the Dreaming), Jack Pumpkinhead, the Fashion Thing, a chatty, occasionally ambulatory land called Fiddler's Green, and a whole bunch more. More than us interacting with the Dreaming on a nightly basis, though, we also discovered that it could interact with us, when it really wanted to, and that most of the mythical creatures and concepts mankind has ever believed might have existed, actually do, there... and they can come here, if we're lucky enough, or foolish enough, to invite them. (Or sometimes, even if we aren't.)
One might say that this was a necessary next step in the evolution of storytelling that concerns perception vs. objective reality. Where both Englehart and Moore had, for all their skill and talent, wound up giving us back basically the straight, materialistic party line as we've always had it fed to us, Gaiman told us something entirely different. Perception IS reality; if you believe it's real, then it IS real, although the converse... if you believe it's not real, it isn't... isn't necessarily true. Just because you don't believe in unicorns doesn't mean they're not out there somewhere... all it means is, you'll never actually see them. (Which actually adds another layer to the whole 'objective/subjective' thing, but... we'll get to that.)
Gaiman actually articulated this idea clearly in a SANDMAN inspired mini-series called THE BOOKS OF MAGIC. A starry eyed Tim Hunter is touring the occult world to see what might lie in store for him if he chooses to embrace his destiny as a future master mage. He encounters vintage DC character Dr. 13, a ghostbuster from the good old days of the 1960s, when Science was King, and every 'supernatural' event could inevitably be debunked as a sham put on by counterfeiters to keep people from investigating the 'haunted' mill where they had their printing press set up. Dr. 13 explains to Tim that, in fact, there is no magic, the supernatural is all bunk, and, as some idiot Vulcan might one day explicate, no unreal thing exists. Tim is pretty puzzled by this, because up to that point he's seen some pretty frickin' bizarre shit, dude, but he's a good kid, so he doesn't argue with the nice, but clearly deranged, fellow. Afterwards, though, whoever is guiding him around at that point... I think it might be John Constantine, but honestly, I can't remember right now... tells him that Dr. 13 will never encounter true magic, because Dr. 13 has chosen to live in a reality without it. His world excludes the supernatural. With that one single explanation, Gaiman has basically told us that there is no actual, objective reality. We choose the world we live in, it's all subjective and perceptual, and the Dreaming is just as real as the waking world we spend most of our lives in.
And yet, once we choose our subjective reality, it becomes, to all intents and purposes, objective... well, sometimes, anyway.
Detailing the various story elements throughout SANDMAN that clearly establish that there is, really, no objective reality beyond whatever we most firmly believe in would take years and cost millions of lives, since the mingling of 'mundane' reality with the fantastic, esoteric, and frankly impossible was not only a frequent theme in SANDMAN, it was pretty much the whole damn point. However, a handful of examples that immediately occur are: Hob Gadling, the medieval peasant who becomes immortal simply by deciding not to die; Richard whatshisname, the arrogant, conscience-free writer who captures one of the immortal Muses and keeps her imprisoned in his attic; the young, rather flaky blond girl from New York City who becomes a princess in a strange, fantasy dimension; the former superheroine who loses her mind and finds the power to wreak her vengeance in the apparently real world of her delusory vengeance fantasies; and, the way that in the end, an immortal, eternal aspect of reality finally dies, because he refuses to alter his own perceptions of how reality is supposed to work in order to save himself... even though he, above all other beings in existence, understands that reality itself is entirely subjective. Even the end of SANDMAN, with the death of its main character, is no real end, because reality is, indeed, entirely subjective, and the newly deceased hero is immediately replaced by another version of Dream, whom we have been told is merely something like another facet of the Endless crystal... or, to put it a different way, the same guy who just died, but perceived from another universal point of view.
Emerging from this morass of utterly relative reality in which anything and everything is possible and nothing is ever adequately defined, we come into the relative clarity of PROMETHEA... a character who brings the occult superhero comics tradition, and all its' bizarre metaphysical themes, squarely into the 21st Century.
Just as Gaiman took the objective/subjective reality dichotomy to a new and weirder level in SANDMAN, so too has Alan Moore kicked it up yet another notch with this latest entry in the occult superhero comics legacy, published under the America's Best Comics imprint, which is a Wildstorm Publication, which, as is increasingly typical in the increasingly more closely intertwined corporate world of comics publishing, is actually being put out by DC. Sort of.
Whoever publishes it, PROMETHA is nothing less than probably the most amazingly erudite and astonishingly well researched occult superhero comic to come down the pike yet. Sometimes, in fact, the title seems to become scholarly to a point of somewhat objectionable excess, as minor, trivial matters like plot and story and, you know, something actually frickin HAPPENING, get kicked to the curb in favor of long meandering metaphysical tracts on tantric sexuality and the meanings of the Tarot and I don't know what all. However, Moore has distilled all this perceptual, subjective relativism presented in Gaiman's SANDMAN back into a coherent paradigm again, as he explains that not only are subjective and objective reality equally valid and truthful, but, in fact, subjective reality is actually a higher, more advanced, and more valid plane for sentient life to inhabit than objective, material reality. It is, in fact, the goal of Promethea, a strange entity who is more or less defined as a mythological being inhabiting any one of a succession of material human hosts, to help usher mankind into the next era of evolutionary progress, in which our mental essence will transcend our mortal, material shells and come to fully inhabit that realm of the imagination we now only visit in dreams, unconscious or volitional.
This is, in and of itself, a remarkable advancement in the concept of subjective vs. objective reality. Englehart had told us that only the objective was real or valid, while subjective reality was pretty much always a trap, a lure, or a delusory escape for the weak. Moore took this a step further in SWAMP THING, telling us that this statement was true while we were alive, but that the reverse was true once we died and our non-physical essence left our material corpus behind. Gaiman came along and said, basically, that there was no fantasy; everything was real, or nothing was, but whichever way we looked at it, every way of looking at things was just as valid as every other way of looking at things, and therefore, subjective and objective realities were pretty much interchangeable and indistinguishable. And now, Moore comes along again and tells us that although subjective and objective reality frequently intermingle, and can be often be all but impossible to discern from one another to any pragmatic extent, nonetheless, the realm of the Imagination is actually a higher, more evolved, and superior realm for sentient life to dwell in than the material realm. Where standard cultural morality teaches us that fantasy is to be held in suspicion and disdained, Promethea tells us that the subjective realm is the proper sphere for sentient beings to exist in... that, in fact, wanting to dwell entirely in worlds of our own imagination is not childish, terrible, bad, self-indulgent, weak, or crazy, but that in fact, it is a desirable, acceptable, and fully justifiable way to live. That the material realm is the one we should disdain and be attempting to leave behind.
Pretty heady stuff, for those of us whose imaginations have always been far more powerful than our physiques.
The objective/subjective dichotomy is not only the thematic foundation of PROMETHEA, but it permeates the entire fabric of the book, emerging in nearly every detail of characterization, plot, and backstory as each issue unfolds. Sophie's relationship with every other character in the strip are entirely colored, as are real relationships in our own real world, by hers and their subjective perceptions. Her enemies near-universally employ magically cast illusions to disguise their true natures from her, and one of Promethea's most subtly effective abilities is the capacity to see through such things effortlessly to the underlying truth. Sophie's best friend Stacia clearly has feelings for Sophie that she's hiding even from herself. Even minor, background characters that pop in and out of the book like Sonny Baskerville, schizophrenic Mayor of New York, 'celebrity omnipath' the Painted Doll, and New York's famous superhero team The Five Swell Guys, are keeping a lot of secrets buried under their outward facades. And certainly, it's no coincidence that nearly every menace Promethea battles is amorphous, indefinite, protean, and apparently possessed of near infinite capacities for shifting their shapes from one form to another... or that Promethea's vast arsenal of useful techniques in vanquishing her foes nearly always boils down to somehow imposing order on the seething chaos that they represent.
In PROMETHEA, as in all its predecessors in this occult superhero tradition, nothing is ever what it seems.
Naturally, I'd be idiotic indeed to try to convince anyone that a thoughtful exploration of the difference between perception and actual reality is all that it takes to create an occult superhero comic. If that were true, then Englehart's Silver Age work on CAPTAIN AMERICA would also qualify, as Cap experienced what it was like to be on the receiving end of an evil ad man's skillful manipulations of the public's perception of him, and, for that matter, Moore's WATCHMEN, which centers mostly around one character's attempts to construct and impose a massive subjective reality on the perceptions of everyone else on Earth, would similarly fall within those boundaries. Over the past three decades, in fact, the exploration of perceptual vs. objective reality has become more and more of a popular theme in not just comics, but in all entertainment mediums, and if that was all it took to be 'occult', then Star Trek would be every time its characters step onto a holodeck, and DALLAS would have become 'occult' when it dismissed an entire season's worth of continuity as 'a dream'.
Nor does simply the presence of 'magic', however we want to define that, create an 'occult superhero comic', since, as I've already stated, Dr. Strange, prior to Englehart's taking over and introducing truly metaphysical themes to the series, was not really an 'occult' comic book.
What else do you need to be, truly, an 'occult' superhero comic? (Other than, you know, the more or less standard superheroic elements of a somewhat iconic superhuman central character who employs his or her superhuman powers in the service of some general good?) Well, we'll explore another common 'occult' thread to all four of our 'occult superhero' titles in our next chapter, 'The Rising And Advancing Of The Spirit'. (No, it does not put forward the premise that Denny Colt was an occult hero.) As they say in the flicks, be here or be square.
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John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, is a really cool name, and I'm pleased I made it up. Darren Madigan is also a cool name, and while I did not make it up, I'm reasonably pleased with it anyway. Kurt Busiek is, I've always thought, kind of a dopey name, but, you know, maybe that's just me, and I have to admit, it's a better name than George W. Bush, so what the hell. My various email addresses are somewhere around here if you've got anything cogent to say. To me, I mean.