I mentioned this graphic biography of Aleister Crowley earlier in the year but pressure of work has meant it’s taken me all this time to finally read it. Aleister Crowley: Wandering The Waste is written by Martin Hayes and illustrated by RH Stewart. The title alludes to Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, a Shelley poem concerning an itinerant poet with whom Crowley often identified.
Crowley isn’t a stranger to the comics world but this book is the first I’ve encountered that devotes itself to the facts of the man’s life rather than using his notorious persona as a general purpose scare figure. Crowley’s life was nothing if not eventful: in addition to the numerous rituals and magickal exploits, he was also a serious mountaineer, and something of a globetrotter before his inheritance ran out; he wrote novels, memoirs, several volumes of poetry, even more volumes of occult philosophy, and was a world-class drug-taker and libertine in an age when sexual escapades of the mildest sort could provoke the deepest outrage.
Given all of this you’d expect somebody to have tried to film his life by now, but doing so presents a number of problems. Period biopics are by their nature very expensive which is why they tend to take the least controversial figures for their subjects. Crowley isn’t only controversial, his life’s work remains esoteric and difficult for a general audience; you’d have to work hard to dispel Devil Rides Out clichés for people who’ve never opened an occult book. There’s no life without the magick, however, so you’re unlikely to get either trying to follow the costume-drama route. In the past I’ve thought that a better solution would be to adopt the jigsaw approach used in François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993); significant moments could be dramatised as they are in the Gould film while other sections could be more graphical, abstract or theoretical.
Hayes and Stewart’s book goes for the traditional biopic approach (albeit with some deviations), there being no reason not to when you have an unlimited budget. It’s 1947, and Crowley in his Hastings nursing home remembers his life for a young visitor, delivering a narrative that ranges across seventy years, and which acknowledges the more scandalous moments whilst also repudiating some of the rumours. Hayes backs up his facts with copious endnotes, some of which offer more detail about disputed incidents. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell is the obvious progenitor here; both books show the strength of comics in being able to deliver historical material in a visual form without having to worry about the constraints of cinema.
Stewart’s artwork is from the sketchy, collaged Sienkiewicz/McKean school of comic art. In some scenes I would have preferred more visual detail but then having drawn historical comics myself I know how difficult it can be having to research the appearance of every last piece of clothing or furniture. (The lettering is also afflicted with a few typos.) Some of the scenes away from 1947 are delivered in a fragmented, hallucinatory style in which occult figures and symbols are confused with Crowley’s memories. The technique enables many years to be covered without padding the book to doorstop size while also keeping the magick as a continual background presence. It’s quite a change to have the aged Crowley as the focus for once, a dishevelled magus rather than the usual libidinous firebrand. After so much turmoil, there’s always a sombre atmosphere around the Great Beast’s less-than-beastly final days, although they were considerably more peaceful than those of some of his wives and associates. Whatever regrets or disappointments Crowley may have felt, his books are still in print, and we’re still talking about him.
The Atlantis Bookshop in London has been showing some of Stewart’s artwork throughout this month. I’ve always liked the way the Atlantis doubles as a mini-gallery, I saw some Austin Spare drawings there a few years ago; it’s a good venue, and the ideal place to view this work. The exhibition will run to December 24th.