Christopher Knowles & the Esoteric Myths of Comics // 10 Years Later


This coming November marks the 10th anniversary of a landmark book that illuminates the crossover of mythology, the occult and secret societies into the popular culture medium of comic books. Our Gods Wear Spandex is a powerful and concise encyclopedic timeline tracking the development of the comic book superhero archetype through the lens of critical influences of the mythic universes of gods, angels and demons from across space and time.

The correspondences and historical accounts were so fascinating and tantalizing for me that I blasted through my first reading in under a week. Nearly every page of my copy is marked with underlines as is my compulsive tendency to do. As a lifelong comic book fan, I have to admit of being largely ignorant of the mythological lore that underpins so many of the origin stories of the industries biggest characters. 


The title of the book rings true - the gods that I worshipped as a kid that subliminally taught me ethics, morals and values, were in fact spandex clad supermen and sometimes superwomen. Where there was an absent presence of a strong father figure, I had Conan, Batman and the Punisher. Let's just say that the inner-rage and desire to avenge injustice struck a chord with me that still reverberates. 

Once I started diving deeper into the occult and folklore, the connections are dead obvious. Even so, it took being exposed to the unique and potent insights that Chris draws from to bring these relationships to life in a vivid and provocative fashion that leaves no mistake. 

I have to believe that his book played a big role in sparking a whole genre of esoteric pop media analysis that has become so prevalent today. Having gotten to Chris' work after passing through some of the other unmentionable websites that claim to provide similar insights, the depth and perspective that Chris brings to the game relegates almost everything else into the minor leagues. 

So, without further ado I present a reflection on his seminal work, looking back on some of the key themes – 10 years later. 

Christopher Knowles
Was mythology something you were formally introduced to in an academic setting or did you discover it through the wellspring of religion or entertainment media?
Both, actually. Myth got its hooks in me from a very early age, as early as I can remember. I was drowning in it with comic books and other media and really tuned into it when we studied it in school. It was taught in eighth grade at a private school I attended for a year, as part of the literature and languages curriculum. 
But at the same time I was very much aware of myth through comics, which in Jack Kirby's wake were more myth-conscious than they'd ever been. One of my favorite comics was a Thor Treasury Edition which basically retold the entire Journey to the Underworld narrative, only with Hercules and Thor. Comics didn't concern themselves much with textual accuracy.
Was there a foundational text in your young life that laid the groundwork for your broad knowledge of mythological history?
I don't know if I have a broad knowledge of mythology. It's actually pretty narrow and concerns itself with those myths that interlock with occult and secret society traditions. I actually think you get better results by narrowing your focus in this regard because you can find a myth to bolster any argument or theory you care to make. It's one of the reasons I believe monotheism took hold in the ancient world, because syncretism had made religion- and bear in mind we're talking about religion in this context- as easy to follow as the DC Universe in the mid-80s. I mean, by the time of say Third-Century Rome you just had a thousand gods to keep track of and then times as many correspondences and rites and myths to sort out. You can almost see monotheism as an ancient Crisis on Infinite Earths, an attempt to reboot the continuity. But in answer to your question, Edith Hamilton's Mythology was the one. The classic hardcover with the Steele Savage artwork. 
Crisis on Infinite Earths 

What was it about the 1970’s that the pop culture ended up so jammed packed with occult symbolism and mythic correspondence?
That's easy: hippies. Plus, drugs. They opened all kinds of strange doors that had been left closed since the Victorian Era. Ultimately, the occult and myth and UFOs and the rest of it made your trips more interesting by feeding your head with symbol and sigil and all the rest of the neuro-activators. 
The hippies that came into comics had a few years of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll under their belts and dragged in all the weird crap that hippies of the time were into with them when they went to work in comics. 
There was an express train that took off from the head shops and occult bookshops of Greenwich Village and went straight to the editorial offices of the big publishers. 
What was the process like for researching and writing Our Gods Wear Spandex and how long did you spend with it start to finish?
Oh jeez. It actually grew out of a much larger work that kind of encompassed all of geek culture. That ended up being about 500 pages so I split it into two and rewrote it from the ground up. This was all about a two-year period. Our Gods Wear Spandex was originally a chapter title.
Do you have any weird memories about writing the book – interesting synchs or profound transmissions that came unexpectedly?
Well, it coincided with these heavy power walks I'd take through this really weird cemetery complex down the street from me. I was fixated on Killing Joke's Hosannas from the Basements of Hell album and would take that album on these outings. The energies of the place and the energies of the music seemed to open me up to a signal from somewhere else. It was a pretty profound period filled with all kinds of heavy synchronicities. I miss it, actually.
You note the strong resurgence of ancient pagan symbolism in the 19th century through archeology and occult orders and philosophies like the Golden Dawn and Theosophy. Do you think something more than human intellect was responsible for the reintroduction of those deities into our modern age?
Pagan symbolism has always been with us. Contrary to popular misconception it didn't vanish into the ether while all of Europe descended into some kind of totalitarian theocracy. It was remarkably resilient in the countrysides (hence the term "pagan") ironically the same way Christianity is resilient in "Flyover Country" today. There's so much pagan symbolism in Catholicism because Rome finally decided if they couldn't beat them, appropriate them. Ovid and Plato were widely read in monasteries and the old gods burst from whatever chains kept them during the Renaissance. 
What happened in the 19th Century is that pagan symbolism was supercharged by the Industrial Revolution and by Imperialism. The old gods took on new prominence then. The facade of Grand Central Station is perhaps the apogee of this phenomenon. Or one of them, at least. 
Glory of Commerce, a sculptural group by Jules-Félix Coutan featuring HerculesMinerva and Mercury, sits atop the terminal

Of all the comic creators that have drawn from the occult or archetypal mythology, who do you think did so the most profoundly or literately?
Well, that's a tough one. Jack Kirby didn't always do so consciously but certainly had the greatest impact on the overall culture. He was essentially a channel for ancient energies and wasn't entirely aware of what he was doing. But by the same token, Kirby wasn't always able to distinguish between a frontline idea and an idea that might be best saved for a supporting character or backup feature.  
Alan Moore is certainly the most conscious- some would say self-conscious vehicle for occult concepts to wind their way into comics. Sometimes it blows your brains out and other times it feels like you're stuck in occult summer school. But pound for pound, he's probably not only the most important storyteller the medium has produced by also its most important popularizer of magick and occultism.
Your love of Jack Kirby is well documented in your writings. His fame has been built on his creation of many of comics most beloved characters and his era defining illustration style. Setting that aside, what is it about Kirby that really goes far beyond those surface aspects that should define his legacy in your mind?
It's funny, I'm not all that big a fan of those Kirby surface aspects- the 70s work when everybody looked like they were carved from titanium by Rodin on an absinthe bender. My favorite period for his art was the late 50s and early 60s, when he was at the height of his powers as a draftsman. Something seemed to shift, rather tectonically, around 1966 or so. His work took on the identifying characteristics of shamanic art for some reason and evolved to a point that it was nearly Cubist. 
But it was that archetypal Kirby that first hit me when I was a kid. Kids tend to like art they could imagine themselves drawing which is why highly stylized art was popular when mostly kids read comics and very illustrative art is popular now that superhero comics are read mostly by adults. 
Jack Kirby 
But since I was an incredibly fucked-up kid who spent a lot of time either hallucinating or having crazy nightmares, I have to say I saw a reflection of the infinity of inner space in his work, and I think that's a huge secret to his success. 
He was tapped into another network entirely, one that his imitators never accessed. He was tuned into a completely different station than the rest of us. Which is ironic since he did a lot of stories about weirdo outcasts who tuned into alien transmissions and so on. I think he realized he wasn't like his peers. There's also a tremendous will-to-power in his art, a kind of unambiguously masculine energy that turns a lot of people off but zaps right into the neurotransmitters of the adolescent male.  Frank Frazetta had the same kind of thing going on, a kind of premodern hyperphallicism, but his art was more superficially erotic than Kirby's.
Our Gods… introduces connections to folklore and myths across the global spectrum from Greece, to Egypt, to the Norse and beyond. Was there always a deliberate borrowing of themes or did they show up synchronisticly even when the creators didn’t intend to?
That's not for me to say. I don't really know how the creators created and you can't always take their word for it from interviews which are given long after the fact. It's all out there in the ether, floating around and waiting to infect the creator who can give it shape and contour.
To what do you attribute the apocalyptic nature of so many mythos and religions? Is there an inherent aspect to human thought that needs stories to have a three-act structure (with a big time finale) or are they perhaps right in believing in our inevitable doom?
Well, we all die. Everyone we know and love and care about ends up dying so it's only natural that people with a more animistic view of reality will assume that the gods and the world itself will eventually die. 
I don't believe apocalypticism popped out of the sky around the First Century in the Levant or thereabouts. I don't think the three act structure is much on the minds of anyone but playwrights and Internet movie critics. I just think it's the inevitable byproduct of beings who are non-negotiably finite.
Of all the ancient mythic universes, which do you find has the most post-modern correspondence in terms of morality or metaphysics?
I'm rather taken with the Sumero-Babylonian Universe, so to speak. I'm fascinated how a mythos could essentially survive multiple invasions and ethnic cleansings. Why some junta of bandits from southern Arabia or western Syria would become such devotees of a religious system that was impossibly ancient before history ever heard of their people. With only minor allowances to the favorite gods of whatever foreign tribe had taken over at the time, the Sumerian religion essentially ruled Mesopotamia from around 4000 BC to around 700 AD.
Sumerian gods

You make a really clear case that the antecedents for comic books came from the supernatural and pulp fiction of the 19th century that coincided with that centuries occult explosion. Did the resurgence of magical practice come before the pulp stories or did the stories fuel a new engagement with the magic?
Yeah, the pulps were feeding off urban legends kicked up by Theosophy and the occult renaissance. Plus a lot of pulp writers were themselves involved in the occult, such as Sax Rohmer and Talbot Mundy.
In the book you say that most superhero figures are based on a handful of archetypal categories drawn from the ancient mysteries. Do you think this was done for lack of bettering the ancient molds or because there’s no getting around archetypes because they that fundamental?
Well, it really boils down to the fact that the Messiah is the idealized version of a father figure, the Amazon of a mother, the Golem is kind of how we tend to see ourselves, and the Brotherhood how we'd like to see our friends. All superheroes can all be categorized into those archetypes, more or less. At least those superheroes from what I call the Canonical Period, which is Pre-Watchmen, Pre-Dark Knight.
You wrote a chapter dedicated to the archetype of the Golem and mention some of comics most loved characters that fit the Golem profile. Could you give a synopsis for those unfamiliar with this Jewish myth?
It's basically a story about a Rabbi in Medieval Prague who built a superman out of clay to protect his congregation from pogroms. The Golem is animated by Kabbalistic magic but ultimately becomes a threat to the people he was meant to protect and has to be de-animated by Kabbalistic magic. Will Eisner thought all superheroes were Golems but I think he was disregarding, or unaware of, some of the ethical complexities of the Golem. The story is essentially a parable about the human cost of violence, even when it's morally justified.
Prauge reproduction of a Golem

In terms of popularity, there seems to be an equal love of both the pure, Messiah superhero and the blood-thirsty, Golem antihero. What does that say to you about human psychology and aspiration?
It's essentially a myth of the wounded comic nerd who needs some kind of artificial strength to overcome his weakness and fight back against his enemies. 
He's a character motivated by rage and revenge, which I think were major motivating factors in the rise of the superhero. It's the victim becoming the aggressor. 
In another chapter you get into the classic superhero teams that are so popular today like the X-Men and The Avengers. In one sense they bring to mind something like a team of Golden Dawn magicians or fraternal Freemasons, but the super-team actually draws on another specific archetype. Could you elaborate on that?
Yes, medieval knighthoods. In fact, many of the early super-team stories drew on this archetype very consciously. In a way they hark back to the Arthurian and Grail Romances, which I believe were themselves elaborations on the myths of the Knights Templar. This all ties back to the Troubadours and ultimately to the Cathar heresy. But of course the idea of a Brotherhood of superheroes banding together for a collective mission is at least as old as Jason and the Golden Fleece.
Knights of the Round Table

In one of my favorite quotes you write, “…our bloodless secular culture has no room in it for wonder. It should not surprise us, then, when Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The X-Men step in to fill the void.”  What is it about post-modernism that generally scoffs at spirituality and the miraculous while at the same time craving stories about the supernatural and displays of god-like powers?
Because there's no getting away from the supernatural. You can drive it underground but you only end up magnifying its power.  As to your first question, Postmodernism is a very adolescent, sophomoric philosophy and adolescents like to piss all over the things that helped raise them. That it's so widespread shows how dominant adolescent thinking has become in Western society. 
There’s an interesting contrast between the aristocratic, dapper Doctor Strange and the ragged, chain-smoking John Constantine. Is this a creative reaction born out of the differences inherent between the Victorian and post-punk eras of the occult?
Alan Moore based Constantine on the occultists he knew personally, who were all a bunch of fast-talking grifters and scruffbags.  He wanted that vibe to carry over into the character as opposed to Doctor Strange, who's basically a Gilded Age stage magician who just happens to have real powers.
Towards the end of the book you bring up the notion of the rise of AI and transhumanism. What has transpired in the last 10 years that reinforce or alter your views about that whole agenda?
Oh, I think Transhumanism is nonsense. I've read a zillion stories about it and ten years later the movement is absolutely nowhere. It's all basically a movement based on Ray Kurzweil's pathological terror of death. Every headline you see screaming that Transhumanism or the Singularity is imminent is inevitably chased by a dozen walk-backs buried in the body copy. 
How did writing Our Gods change you life both personally and professionally?
Well, it gave me quite a ride insofar as media attention and the like were concerned. The book put me on the map and is still selling so I'm very, very grateful for that. But the publishing and bookselling worlds are very different places than they were ten years ago. I've grown accustomed to blogging over the past several years, partly for the freedom but also because I've been very gunshy about getting back on the treadmill. Most writers have other jobs to pay the bills, you might have noticed. It's a lot of work for not a lot of money. 
In the last 10 years, what trends have you been documenting broadly concerning the use of myths and the esoteric in pop culture? Are they more ubiquitous? More sophisticated, less sophisticated? Highs and lows in usage?
Well, I suppose the big story is the junk occultism, the ersatz Crowleyism you saw in music videos and the like. You know, the kind of stuff the people who run Vigilant Citizen got rich stoking outrage over. Or got rich virally promoting, depending on your point of view. 
More recently, we're seeing Satanism rear its head again, which is going to leave a trail of dead in its wake once it filters down from the hipster galleries to the trailer parks. Like it always does when it rears its head.  
Our Gods was published by Weiser Books. Did you ever meet Don Weiser and do you have any thoughts to share about him after his recent passing?
No, I never met him, unfortunately. Sorry to hear he passed away.
Any predictions on the direction of our culture and media looking at the next 10 years? What do you hope for or hope to avoid?
Yeah, it's going to become excessively politicized and polarized, as is the rest of society. So in that my prediction is also my 'hope to avoid', but I think it's probably too late for that now.
Most of your writing in recent years has been focused on your blog, the Secret Sun. Any full-length publications in the works we should be looking out for?

Well, I just finished the first draft of the novel I've been wrestling with the past couple years. Or periodically wrestling with while simultaneously keeping locked away in a drawer. I ended up throwing out about 70% of the material I'd previously written, which wasn't easy since I wrote it all out longhand. It's kind of a reconstruction of the occult detective genre, an attempt to work that vein without lapsing into cliche. Harder than it sounds, believe me. 
Depending on my work schedule I hope to have that out late summer, early fall. That will probably be done through CreateSpace. Probably. I also have to work up a pitch for a semi-sequel to Our Gods Wear Spandex that I've been mulling over. I've also been buried in 6000 years worth of research for another book, which may end up morphing into a novel. 
The zeitgeist seems to have shifted in ways I can't quite quantify or catalog, so the idea of writing fiction- which I've been doing since high school- seems very appealing to me right now. 
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If you haven't already done so, grab a copy of Our Gods... immediately. 

I don't have to tell most of you to read Chris' mandatory blog, The Secret Sun.

If you're still hungry for more conversation about Our Gods... be sure to check out this great podcast from another mandatory source, the Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio Podcast – 


4 comments:

  1. Excellent. Chris's work was a godsend for me, and I am forever in his debt for that.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent. Chris's work was a godsend for me, and I am forever in his debt for that.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Same can be said on my end as well Raj!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Every part of the comic book needs to be looked at to assess the total grade. The following are the major areas of a comic book that should be looked at before assigning a grade. Gotham archives

    ReplyDelete

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