The art of John Thompson

thompson01.jpg

Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati (And/Or Press, 1977).

John Thompson’s detailed, mystical and erotic illustrations gained prominence in the San Francisco comic scene in the late 1960s–early 1970s, appearing in a handful of titles drawn in their entirety by Thompson or done as collaborations with local artists including Robert Crumb. But it’s as an illustrator of Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger that Thompson is probably best known, something I was reminded of recently with the opening of Daisy Campbell’s play based on Wilson’s book. Wilson had seen Thompson’s comics work, and approached him as illustrator of his (ostensibly) non-fiction sequel to the very popular Illuminatus! trilogy, an encounter that Thompson elaborates on in this interview.

thompson02.jpg

Here in the UK the comics published by Last Gasp et al weren’t always easy to find (imported comics were still being seized by UK customs into the 1990s), so Cosmic Trigger was my first introduction to Thompson’s art via a sighting of the US edition in a London shop in 1978. The UK paperback was a disappointment when it appeared a year or so later: Thompson’s cover art had been replaced with something more generic but they did at least retain the interior illustrations, albeit shrunk to fit the smaller book size. Many of the drawings in Cosmic Trigger had appeared already in Thompson’s comics which may seem surprising when they don’t resemble typical comic pages, but Thompson’s comics are unusual even compared to the undergrounds of the time. The undergrounds were most obviously radical in the wildness and excess of their content, especially where sex and drugs were concerned. But there’s a smaller subset of underground strips whose approach to narrative is so far removed from typical comic storytelling as to verge on the abstract. Victor Moscoso’s comics exemplify this style but even an ostensible traditionalist like Robert Crumb could experiment with the form (see his Cubist Bee Bop Comics in XYZ, 1972). Thompson’s comics are of this type at all times, blending motifs from a variety of myths and religions with Tantric yoga, astrology, alchemy and pop culture. When speech balloons appear they often contain allusive, esoteric phrases along with untranslated Greek or Hebrew text. It’s a beguiling mix which shows the ability of the comic book to do more than simply ape the stories of film or television. As with many other things from the late 1960s it’s a direction that hasn’t been pursued very much since.

thompson03.jpg

The interview with Thompson explains why he seemed to vanish after the work for Cosmic Trigger: he says he quit comics and illustration to become a therapist although he still creates private work. The examples here are from The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You (1969), Kukawy [sic] Comics 1 (1969; “Kukawy” is actually a Greek word meaning Cyclops), Tales from the Sphinx 2 (1972) and Eternal Comics (1973).

thompson04.jpg

Continue reading “The art of John Thompson”

23 Skidoo

1: A slang phrase

skidoo1.jpg

Postcard via.

skidoo, v. N. Amer. slang. (ski’du:) Also skiddoo. [Orig. uncertain, perh. f. skedaddle v.]

2. In catch-phrases. a. Used as an exclamation of disrespect (for a person). Esp. in nonsense association with twenty-three. (temporary.)

1906 J. F. Kelly Man with Grip (ed. 2) 99 As for Belmont and Ryan and the rest of that bunch, Skidoo for that crowd when we pass. Ibid. 118 ‘I can see a reason for ‘skidoo’,’ said one, ‘and for ‘23’ also. Skidoo from skids and ‘23’ from 23rd Street that has ferries and depots for 80 per cent. of the railroads leaving New York.’ 1911 Maclean’s Mag. Oct. 348/1 Surrounded by this conglomerate procession as I went on my way, the urchins would yell ‘Skidoo,’ ‘23 for you!’

b. spec. as twenty-three skidoo: formerly, an exclamation of uncertain meaning; later used imp., go away, ‘scram’.

1926 C. T. Ryan in Amer. Speech II. 92/1, I really do not recall which appeared first in my vocabulary, the use of ‘some’ for emphasis or that effective but horrible ‘23-Skiddoo’—perhaps they were simultaneous. 1929 Amer. Speech IV. 430 Among the terms which the daily press credits Mr. Dorgan with inventing are:…twenty-three skiddoo (go away). 1957 W. Faulkner Town iii. 56 Almost any time now Father would walk in rubbing his hands and saying ‘oh you kid’ or ‘twenty-three skidoo’. 1978 D. Bagley Flyaway xi. 80 This elderly, profane woman…used an antique American slang… I expected her to come out with ‘twenty-three, skidoo’.

From the Oxford English Dictionary

2: An esoteric poem by Aleister Crowley

23

SKIDOO

What man is at ease in his Inn?
Get out.
Wide is the world and cold.
Get out.
Thou hast become an in-itiate.
Get out.
But thou canst not get out by the way thou camest in. The Way out is THE WAY.
Get out.
For OUT is Love and Wisdom and Power.
Get OUT.
If thou hast T already, first get UT.
Then get O.
And so at last get OUT.

From The Book of Lies (1912/13)

3: A film by Julian Biggs

biggs.jpg

23 Skidoo (1964).

If you erase the people of downtown America, the effect is bizarre, not to say disturbing. That is what this film does. It shows the familiar urban scene without a soul in sight: streets empty, buildings empty, yet everywhere there is evidence of recent life and activity. At the end of the film we learn what has happened.

4: 23 Skidoo Eristic Elite by William Burroughs

skidoo2.jpg

International Times, issue 18, Aug 31–Sept 13, 1967.

From Burroughs proceed to Illuminatus! (1975) by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and many subsequent derivations.

Continue reading “23 Skidoo”

The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, a film by Gerrit van Dijk

lastwords.jpg

Gerrit van Dijk’s combination of live-action sequences and rotoscoped animation is tangentially related to William Burroughs, it being Burroughs who popularised the deathbed ramblings of New York gangster Arthur “Dutch Schulz” Flegenheimer with a “fiction in the form of a film script” also entitled The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1970).

Flegenheimer was gunned down in the toilet of the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey, in October 1935. Three of his associates had also been shot but he survived, and he spent two days muttering in his hospital bed while a police stenographer took notes. Burroughs was fascinated by the dissociated stream-of-conscious nature of the transcript which revealed little about his assailants but drifted feverishly through memories and hallucinations. The shooting and the deathbed ramblings were further popularised in 1975 by the publication of the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in which some of Flegenheimer’s more surreal pronouncements—”A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim”—acquire occult significance. Flegenheimer and his last words also turn up in Exterminator! (1973), and Burroughs further fragmented the transcript in at least one of his own recordings where he reads out the equally strange phrases from transcripts of so-called electronic voice phenomena over an earlier reading of Flegenheimer’s words; the voices of the (supposed) dead wiping out the voice of the dying.

Burroughs’ Last Words of Dutch Schultz is nicely presented in its original form, the pages being laid out like a screenplay interposed with crime-scene photos from the period, Flegenheimer’s mug-shots and Art Deco graphics. The scene descriptions range through Flegenheimer’s life and mob history; whether they would make a good film or not would no doubt depend on the director. A film based on the script would be feature-length, and the narrative is a very fragmented one. Gerrit van Dijk’s film runs for 23 minutes and takes a similar approach, dramatising the shooting from different angles while juxtaposing the live action with animated sequences that are often anachronistic. Rutger Hauer supplies Flegenheimer’s dying voice. The anachronistic moments don’t contribute much unless we’re meant to regard Flegenheimer’s fever as being some kind of precognitive vision. Given the nature of the material—Depression-era gangsters, hallucinations, the Burroughs connection—I’m sure this won’t be the last film we see on the subject.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Burroughs at 100
Nova Express, a film by Andre Perkowski
Decoder, a film by Jürgen Muschalek
The Burroughs Century
Interzone: A William Burroughs Mix
Sine Fiction
The Ticket That Exploded: An Ongoing Opera
Burroughs: The Movie revisited
Zimbu Xolotl Time
Ah Pook Is Here
Jarek Piotrowski’s Soft Machine
Looking for the Wild Boys
Wroblewski covers Burroughs
Mugwump jism
Brion Gysin’s walk, 1966
Burroughs in Paris
William Burroughs interviews
Soft machines
Burroughs: The Movie
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

Design as virus 7: eyes and triangles

eye0.jpg

Continuing this occasional series. The above motif is the Golden Dawn‘s Wedjat or Eye of Horus emblem as reproduced in the hardback edition of The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, an “autohagiography”. Crowley was under discussion here a few days ago and the eye in a triangle symbol can also be seen on the sleeve of the single featured in that posting, forming a part of the seal of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the occult order which Crowley joined in 1910. Crowley’s use of the eye in a triangle caught the attention of writer Robert Anton Wilson and the first part of his Illuminatus! trilogy (written with Robert Shea) is titled The Eye in the Pyramid. That latter symbol appears on the reverse of the American dollar bill, of course, and some of the conspiracy theories surrounding that usage are explored in the novel. Wilson went on to make the eye in a triangle something of a personal symbol and his obsessive use of the motif caught my attention in turn when I began reading his books.

All of which leads us to Hawkwind and a person whose name keeps turning up on these pages, designer Barney Bubbles.

eye1.jpg

Hawklog cover (detail) by Barney Bubbles.

The booklet which BB designed for Hawkwind’s second album, In Search of Space (1971), featured a version of the dollar bill symbol on its cover. This is the only eye in a triangle design I’ve seen among Barney Bubbles’ work although he was so prolific there may well be others. When I began producing my own significantly inferior Hawkwind graphics in the late Seventies I incorporated eyes in triangles partly as a way of avoiding having to draw hawks all the time but mainly because of Robert Anton Wilson. BB had already established a precedent and it so happens that the eye in the Golden Dawn/Crowley version is the eye of a hawk-headed Egyptian god.

Continue reading “Design as virus 7: eyes and triangles”

Robert Anton Wilson, 1932–2007

raw.jpg

There are few people who really change your life but Robert Anton Wilson—who died earlier today—certainly changed mine. Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy (written with Robert Shea) was my cult book when I was at school in the 1970s, a rambling, science fiction-inflected conspiracy thriller that opened the doors in my teenaged brain to (among other things) psychedelic drugs, HP Lovecraft, James Joyce, William Burroughs and Aleister Crowley as well as being a crash-course in enlightened anarchism. I’ve had people criticise the books to me since for their ransacking of popular culture but this was partly the point, they were collage works, and they worked as a perfect introduction for a young audience to worlds outside the usual circumscribed genres.

The philosophical side of Wilson’s work was probably the most important at the time (and remains so now), his “transcendental agnosticism” made me start to question the adults around me who were trying to force my life to go in a direction I wasn’t interested in at all. I’m sure I would have resisted that kind of pressure anyway but the value of RAW’s writings in Illuminatus! and the later Cosmic Trigger came with being given an intelligent rationale for those decisions; I couldn’t necessarily articulate why I was “throwing my life away” by wanting to drop out of the whole education system but Wilson’s work had convinced me it was the right thing to do. I still mark the true beginning of my life as May 1979, the month I left school for good.

He wouldn’t want us to be maudlin, I’m sure. It’s typical for a writer who spent so much of his life writing about drugs and coincidences that he managed to die on Albert Hofmann’s birthday. So I’ll just say thank you Robert, for changing my life. And Hail Eris!

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Absolute Elsewhere