The art of John Thompson

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Weekend links 307

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Demon (2014) from the Witch Series by Camille Chew.

• Released next month, Machines Of Desire is the first album of new music by Peter Baumann since Strangers In The Night in 1983. Baumann’s first two solo albums, Romance 76 (1976) and Trans Harmonic Nights (1979), are exceptional works of analogue electronica that frequently outmatch his former colleagues in Tangerine Dream. Both albums have been unavailable for over 20 years so it’s good to know that Cherry Red are reissuing them at the end of May (see here and here).

• RIP Jenny Diski whose death from cancer wasn’t a surprise when she’d been writing about her condition for many months. Linked here in 2013 was this pre-diagnosis meditation on death that takes in Nabokov, Beckett and Francis Bacon (philosopher, not artist). “Jenny offered a living example of how, sometimes, compassion can be born of misanthropy,” says Justin EH Smith. The LRB’s archive of Diski writings is currently free to all.

Murder by Remote Control, a graphic novel by artist Paul Kirchner and writer Janwillem van de Wetering that “resembles a Raymond Chandler-esque noir ‘whodunnit,’ viewed through the psychotropic lens of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky”.

Inspired by Gore Vidal’s 1968 satirical novel, Myra Breckinridge which was denounced as obscene by conservatives, [Boyd] McDonald embarked on a radically, offensive publication, one that avoided the sexless influence of middle class gay mores that sought to whitewash the homosexual experience in order to present a more palatable image of assimilated gays to the general society. This political strategy was successful in achieving gay marriage and more tolerance, but, in the opinion of McDonald, came at a cost. Straight to Hell was in fact the first queer zine. Utilizing erotic photos, interviews and news, McDonald saw it as a “newsletter for us,” the small group of deviates who were its earliest subscribers.

Walter Holland reviewing True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell by William E. Jones

• “HP Lovecraft’s…fascination with all things tentacular and aquatic is unmistakably imprinted on Evolution“, a new film by Lucile Hadzihalilovic. Watch the trailer.

• At Dangerous Minds: Broken, the notorious Nine Inch Nails video collection with “snuff movie” interludes by Peter Christopherson, is available online (again).

BEAK> (Geoff Barrow & Billy Fuller) make “claustrophobic, hypnotic music, drawing…on krautrock, post-punk and Interstellar-Overdrive psychedelia”.

• Mixes of the week: Bacchus Beltane 3 : The Age of Abrasax by The Ephemeral Man, and Secret Thirteen Mix 183 by December.

Tease by Jan Rattia, photographs of male strippers on display at ClampArt, NYC.

Wu Zei (2010), a sea-monster sculpture by Huang Yong Ping.

• “I was born weird,” says Robert Crumb.

Sacred Revelation by Susanna

Broken Head (1978) by Eno, Moebius & Roedelius | Broken Horse (1984) by Rain Parade | Broken Harbours (Part 1) (2001) by Stars Of The Lid

Weekend links 248

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The Dreamers (2013) by Kate Baylay, from Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen.

• RIP composer and musique-concrète pioneer Tod Dockstader. “I didn’t have the money for electronic sounds…I had to have things like bottles, or anything that would make a noise. It didn’t matter what it was; if it sounded interesting, or I could make it interesting, I’d go for it.” Geeta Dayal talked to Dockstader for Wired in 2012. Dockstader’s film credits included Fellini’s Satyricon and Tom and Jerry cartoons. He also wrote the story for one of the latter, Mouse into Space, in 1962. Ubuweb has some early Dockstader recordings.

• “…anyone who has ever sat in a cafe, or in the bath, with a paperback owes a debt to Aldus and the small, cleanly designed editions of the secular classics he called libelli portatiles, or portable little books.” Jennifer Schuessler on Aldus Manutius, and the roots of the paperback.

• “At Chernobyl, we made ‘the world’s first radioactive nature preserve.’ We made black rain. We made the Red Forest, which was green when the day began, and is dead.” Mary Margaret Alvarado reviews The Long Shadow Of Chernobyl by Gerd Ludwig.

Prison was often the fate of those caught circulating samizdat in the Soviet Union—not only the “high” samizdat such as Solzhenitsyn, but the crude and lowly joke books as well. The official rationale for the prohibition was in context no less reasonable than the rationale given more recently for condemning Charlie Hebdo or R. Crumb. There is always a perception that the very serious project of perfecting society is being undermined. But society will not be perfected, and it is a last resort of desperate perfecters to go after the subtle-minded satirists who understand this.

Justin EH Smith on why satire matters

• “You have to do your research, and you’ll find treasures that you couldn’t even have begun to sit down and draw until you saw them in front of your eyes,” says Annie Atkins, graphic designer behind The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Tales of Hoffmann: exclusive materials from the making of Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece. The film will be released on Blu-ray by the BFI later this month.

• The illustrated score for Irma, the opera offshoot of Tom Phillips’ A Humument, is now available from Lulu.

Mellifluous Ichor From Sunless Regions, a free album of Hauntological electronica by The Wyrding Module.

Kraftwerk at the controls: what the group’s live instrument setup looks like today.

• Booze, Blood and Noise: The Violent Roots of Manchester Punk by Frank Owen.

• Mix of the week: 14th February 2015 by The Séance.

Vintage logo designs

Transmission (1979) by Joy Division | Radioactivity (William Orbit mix, 1991) by Kraftwerk | Bellstomp/Pond Dance (Mordant Music remix, 2012) by Tod Dockstader

Weekend links 95

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Seven Songs (1982) by 23 Skidoo. Sleeve by Neville Brody.

The first volume of The Graphic Canon will be published in May by Seven Stories Press, a collection of comic strip adaptations and illustrations edited by Russ Kick. The anthology has already picked up some attention at the GuardianWestern canon to be rewritten as three-volume graphic novel—and Publishers’ WeeklyGraphic Canon: Comics Meet the Classics. I know someone who’ll bristle at the lazy use of “graphic novel”. The Graphic Canon isn’t anything of the sort, it’s a three-volume voyage through world literature presented in graphic form with a list of contributors including Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Molly Crabapple, Rick Geary, and Roberta Gregory. My contribution is a very condensed adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray that will appear in volume 2. More about that closer to the publication date.

• LTM Records announces a vinyl reissue for Seven Songs (1982) by 23 Skidoo, an album produced by Ken Thomas, Genesis P Orridge & Peter Christopherson that still sounds like nothing else. Related: an extract from Tranquilizer (1984) by Richard Heslop, cut-up Super-8 film/video with audio collage by 23 Skidoo.

• New exhibitions: Another Air: The Czech–Slovak Surrealist Group, 1991–2011 at the Old Town City Hall, Prague (details in English here), and Ed Sanders – Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts 1962–1965 at Boo-Hooray, NYC.

• “…we have a situation where the banks seem to be an untouchable monarchy beyond the reach of governmental restraint…” Alan Moore writes for the BBC about V for Vendetta and the rise of Anonymous.

Announcing Arc: “a new magazine about the future from the makers of New Scientist“. Digital-only for the time being, as they explain here. Their Tumblr has tasters of the contents.

• From another world: Acid Mothers Temple interviewed. Also at The Quietus: Jajouka or Joujouka? The conflicted legacy of the Master Musicians.

• More from Susan Cain on introverts versus extroverts. Related: Groupthink: The brainstorming myth by Jonah Lehrer.

Ten Thousand Waves, an installation by Isaac Julien.

Afterlife: mouldscapes photographed by Heikki Leis.

• The book covers of Ralph Steadman. And more.

• “James Joyce children’s book sparks feud

Arkitypo: the final alphabet.

Book Aesthete

Kundalini (1982) by 23 Skidoo | Vegas El Bandito (1982) by 23 Skidoo | IY (1982) by 23 Skidoo

Kafkaesque

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Another book design of mine (interiors only) which I completed last September for Tachyon and about which I had this to say at the time:

Kafkaesque [is] edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly. It’s a collection of short stories either inspired by Franz Kafka, or with a Kafka-like atmosphere, and features a high calibre of contributions from writers including JG Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, Carol Emshwiller, Jeffrey Ford, Jonathan Lethem and Philip Roth, and also the comic strip adaptation of The Hunger Artist by Robert Crumb.

The book gained a positive review at SF Site recently, reminding me that I hadn’t written anything about the design. As with some of my other Tachyon work the interiors take their cue from a pre-determined cover by another designer, in this case Josh Beatman. I followed Josh’s type choices (Senator for the titles and headings) and also extended his use of an insect as a recurrent motif. Before I saw the contents I was fairly determined to avoid any further insect imagery but it became apparent that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a repeated reference in many of the stories.

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As for the recurrent “K”, that seemed inevitable given Kafka’s own use of the letter as well as its presence not only in Kafka’s own name but in the names of the editors. The frames were an idea borrowed from (and referring to) Steven Berkoff’s stage adaptation of The Trial in which portable frames serve on the stage as doorways, windows, corridors, picture frames and so on. I was hoping to do more with this idea but (as is often the case) ran out of time to develop it further.

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And while we’re on the subject of Tachyon designs, I don’t seem to have mentioned my interiors for a Joe R Lansdale collection, Crucified Dreams, which also appeared last year. This is a hard-boiled anthology of Lansdale’s favourite stories for which I supplied suitably rough-and-tough graphics comprising scanned scalpel blades and lettering assembled from torn newspaper pages. I’m due to start on some new work for Tachyon this week. More about that at a later date.

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