Aleister Crowley: Wandering The Waste

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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.

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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.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Brush of Baphomet by Kenneth Anger
Rex Ingram’s The Magician
The Mysteries of Myra
Aleister Crowley on vinyl

Design as virus 14: Curse of the Dead

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Curse of the Dead (1966).

Continuing an occasional series. This photograph, reproduced in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), intrigued me for years. Gifford’s book is a very good collection of stills from horror films of all kinds, ranging from the earliest days of cinema to the 1970s. The pictures are mostly black-and-white, and are often far more stimulating than the films they would have been promoting. The text generally refers to the films depicted but in the case of this picture there’s only a single credit, Curse of the Dead (1966), a film I’d never heard of. These kinds of mysteries have been banished for good now we have resources like IMDB where you can learn immediately that Curse of the Dead is a Mario Bava film whose original Italian title was Operazione Paura. (It’s also known, with the usual hyperbole, as Kill, Baby…Kill!) “An 18th century European village is haunted by the ghost of a murderous little girl” says the summary. Bava’s films were always visually impressive so it’s really no surprise to find it was one of his.

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The first repeat usage I know of is this cover from the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult series published by Sphere books from 1974–77. Sphere used Wheatley’s name to sell a lot of reprints but the series was substantial and featured a number of titles that would have been appearing in paperback for the first time. Unfortunately the best thing about the covers was the uniform design of the horoscope circle against a coloured background. The quality of the illustrations was very uneven so it’s probably for the best that the artists and photographers went uncredited.

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Then there’s one of Dave McKean’s title pages for Arkham Asylum (1989), the heavily symbolic Batman book he created with Grant Morrison. There’s only a portion of the picture but I’d say it’s a good guess he used the Gifford book since at least one of the panels in his earlier Violent Cases was based on another of the Gifford photos.

This isn’t all, I’m sure I’ve seen the Gifford picture used on a record sleeve but there’s little way of discovering which one unless somebody recognises the photo. If anyone knows, please leave a comment. And despite all of this I still haven’t seen Bava’s film even though I’m told it had a strong influence on Twin Peaks. This account at The Horror Digest is slightly disappointing when a colour equivalent of the Gifford still lacks the particulated creepiness of the black-and-white version. More surprising is finding yet another film featuring the arms-out-of-the-walls motif. This obviously requires further investigation.

Update: Thanks to Irv in the comments for finding the following singles so quickly. The Decorators sleeve was the one I remembered. (See it larger here.) Kicks were an Australian band. Odd that these were both released in the same year.

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Twilight View (1980) by The Decorators. Design by Malcolm Garrett.

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The Secret (1980) by Kicks.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Design as virus 13: Tsunehisa Kimura
Design as virus 12: Barney’s faces
Design as virus 11: Burne Hogarth
Design as virus 10: Victor Moscoso
Design as virus 9: Mondrian fashions
Design as virus 8: Keep Calm and Carry On
Design as virus 7: eyes and triangles
Design as virus 6: Cassandre
Design as virus 5: Gideon Glaser
Design as virus 4: Metamorphoses
Design as virus 3: the sincerest form of flattery
Design as virus 2: album covers
Design as virus 1: Victorian borders