Comic Book History Links Creators, Industry Artists To Occult
When I was a kid in the 1970s disappearing into my bedroom to read through stacks of comic books and adventure novels, I had no idea I was delving into the minds of artists and writers fascinated with secret societies, the occult, and the mysteries of ancient Egyptian deities. They were just stories and imaginary heroes to me. Or were they? I read comics like “Spiderman,” “Sgt. Rock,” “Fighting Army,” “Hot Stuff, The Little Devil,” even adventurous Edgar Rice Burroughs novels from the “Tarzan” and “John Carter of Mars” series. As a kid, maybe such heroes fulfilled the same role in my life as demigods did of old: something to believe in beyond a local ghetto and young street gangs.
My youth-filled hero-worship days were not as complex as comic book-inspired hero worship today, where kids and adults read Spiderman, Batman, X-Men, see related movies and attend conventions where the people don’t just read comics off shelves: they live out their fantasies. Such fan fanatics act out their hero-worship at leading comic book conventions and comic book movie premieres. Creating fan films are even a favorite pastime for some comic book fans (Read related Batman fan film article).
A new form of god-hero worship rivaling ancient ways in Rome or Cairo? Perhaps our post-terrorized 9/11 society has had the time to take American comic book fans into a new spin, where even a resurrected Captain America is not just read, but worshipped by a new generation of idolators (Read related Captain America article).
As Christopher Knowles points out in his new book published by Weiser Books, “Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History Of Comic Book Heroes,” comic books, related movies and TV shows aren’t always as simple as they seem. They have complex roots in superheroes that today fill the divine roles in our modern culture that gods and demigods provided to ancient societies.
Knowles' peek into the secret history of comic books is a page-turner linking the occult, Victorian England, Egyptian, Greek and Roman deities, early detective novels, pulp fiction, Houdini and a host of writers interested in, or members themselves, of secret and spiritualist societies. It’s a historical view of comic books that will lead readers to believe that today’s demigods aren’t only found in religious tomes, dark séance rooms or Freemason gatherings, but in comic books, which have a long history evolved through cultures that worshipped demigods all the way through dime store fiction, adventure novels and creators who delved into secret sects and the strange religiosity of occult practices.
Today’s demigods don’t just line the halls of Comicon with posters, books and people in gaudy costumes. And their hero dress-up playtime isn’t just for or about Halloween anymore. They are in mass-produced books and movies found on the shelves of everyday homes filled with god-like imaginary heroes as colorful as any modern day spandex suit.
In an interview with ABC23's Nick Belardes, Knowles said the apocalyptic graphic novel series “Kingdom Come” (1996) by Alex Ross and Mark Waid was his primary inspiration in writing his new book. “It seemed to be such an apocalyptic tract, something you might see written in First Century Alexandria. The way the artist depicted Superman, Wonder Woman and Hawkman seemed to be drawing very heavily on the Egyptian trinity of Osiris, Isis and Horus. In many ways ‘Kingdom Come’ changed superhero stories forever.”
A belief that the combination of Judeo-Christian morality and esoteric symbolism, combined with the realistic, almost reverent art has been increasingly influential on not just Knowles, but popular culture. “It's exactly what is making superhero fiction so popular these days,” Knowles said.
Comic books in America’s post-terrorized society have evolved to the point where hero worship is really people taking part in a gargantuan business through movies, books, film and conventions like Comicon. And, yes, as Knowles keeps pointing out in his book, all have ties to a history of the occult that people might not realize.
But is the occult such a bad word nowadays? Not necessarily. The occult is everywhere, according to Knowles. He said his interest in writing comic book history with ties to the occult in part was because of pop cultural influences around him.
“My main interest is in how what we call the occult has influenced the course of history and particularly the popular arts. This material is everywhere today. Watch the Disney Channel for a few hours and you'll be bombarded with it,” said Knowles. “Take a look around,” Knowles said. “The topics I cover in ‘Our Gods Wear Spandex’ are everywhere in the media today, not just in comics. Movies like ‘National Treasure’ and ‘Harry Potter,’ books like ‘The Last Templar’ and ‘The DaVinci Code,’ cult TV shows like ‘Heroes’, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, and ‘Charmed,’ not to mention a whole host of cartoons and kid shows. But comic books were there first.”
As Knowles indicates, adventure writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950), well-known for inventing Tarzan and influencing the development of a comic book heyday during the Great Depression and World War II, depicted his beast-man hero with ties to the occult. Not only was there an episode where the character went through an occult initiation, but Tarzan himself was a god-like man based on early mythical founders of Rome.
Burroughs characters helped shape modern-day comic book heroes.
Knowles dives further into the mystery and says adventure novelist Burroughs’ character John Carter of Mars was a psychic superman with occult-influenced telepathic powers.
Speaking of supermen, Knowles says in his book that Superman himself originated as Doctor Occult and has become one of the modern-day superhero messiahs along with Captain Marvel, Captain America and Hawkman.
Knowles says comic book innovators like Jack Kirby have everything to do with bringing the occult into popular culture through comic book development based on interest and possible participation in the occult. It was bringing such innovation in storytelling and superhero development into comic books that Knowles says is where George Lucas first encountered ideas for “Star Wars” based on cosmic struggles, not Joseph Campbell the religious philosopher as popular believed.
Knowles argues that some of Lucas’ main characters are far too similar to the Fantastic Four for coincidence and that Lucas must have read Kirby’s comic series “The New Gods” (1971) and “The Fourth World” comics, also in the early 1970s, to get ideas for the Force in Star Wars.
There’s no question about the impact of Star Wars across the globe, with hordes of fans dressed up for film premieres, and with religious hero-worship sects like Jediism and Temple of the Jedi Order that have branched off from the films.
The word “occult” isn’t even such a bad word anymore, according to Knowles. “The term occult is an anachronism,” he says. “It goes back to the Renaissance era, when ancient texts on science, magic, history and alchemy were all forbidden, and therefore had to be studied in secret. Nothing is really 'occult' anymore. You can read about these topics in any well-stocked bookstore in America.”
Comic books have always been a great pop culture gauge for social angst and anxiety. Just tear open the pages of Batman in the 1980s, preferably the heyday of “The Dark Night Returns.” You’ll see a vision of society that kids in poor urban America grafted to: the need for a savior from social ills.
Though superheroes are often portrayed as cosmic harbingers of the good in society, they’re not usually talked about in whispers of secrecy and conspiracy like in “Our Gods Wear Spandex.” And though there’s a separation of church and state in America, and often a chasm between religion and science, according to Knowles there never was any separation between comic books, spiritualism, secret societies and the occult. It’s their blending with the real world through popular culture that’s really transformed society with a new means of hero worship that’s far different from fallen professional and Olympic sports figures, religious heads, and politicians.
Asked whether Knowles thought current top political candidates should take advantage of hero worship popularity found in today’s comics, he says, “I hope politicians leave superheroes alone. We've got some bad examples of politicians taking on the mantle of Superman in the past century. Keep all of that in the realm of fantasy.”
According to Knowles, after 9/11 the comic book industry picked up steam, surpassing where it had been in the 1980s. More readers than ever before who felt isolated in the poorer urban areas became attracted to superheroes.
Comic books, while filled with strange occult-themed deities, thus became tools of hero worship that help youths adjust to their dangerous urban worlds. And while superheroes transformed as part of a changing world, they’ve became more god-like in comic books with more realist-influenced artwork. Such modern-day deities appeal to youth who have feelings of dislocation and who are surrounded by drugs like crack and ecstasy while murder rates skyrocket in urban areas like Philadelphia.
According to Knowles, superheroes are constantly evolving to fit the times. He claims in “Our Gods Wear Spandex” that the past and future are always with us and that it’s funny how it all seems so similar to ancient myths while visionary creators keep comic book development fashionable. “Characters like Rambo and the Terminator were 80s version of the archetype, and now we see shows like ‘Smallville’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘The 4400’ reinventing them for today,” Knowles says. “We don't know where technology is going to lead our development; maybe our grandchildren will become superhuman themselves.”
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