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.
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.
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).