Paint my van
Posted by Ron Edwards
September is Cosmic Zap month here at Doctor Xaos Comics Madness. “Cosmic Zap” was Steve Gerber’s term for the proliferation of mystic, space-SF, psychedelic stories throughout Marvel Comics and perhaps comics in general during the mid-70s, especially those written and illustrated by Jim Starlin. I’m posting about it through the month because it’s my birthday (the 4th).
Comics, wizards, dragons, acid-trips, the cosmos, surfing, babes – this wasn’t just Day-Glo flowers any more, nor was it confined to a minimal subculture or location. A funny thought hit me – since the early 80s, we comics readers have been whining about not being taken seriously or being included in the mainstream, and yet … am I not remembering casual non-advertising Marvel iconography all over the place? In 1976-77, we thought those vans were the coolest things on Earth. I designed them in my junior high notebooks, imagining the hi-fi and the oval windows and the black dragons twisting across the side. I think I remember I included a burnt-orange shag rug, although at the time I did not know about the Love Rug – if I had, you bet it’d have been in there. I bet it was in this one!
Did I mention my birthday? Oh lucky you, here’s some more “all about me” in addition to The beginning and Buddha on the road, Steve! Get’im!
1. My parents were born in 1926 and 1931. My stepfather was born in 1918. My three step-siblings were born to my stepfather and his first wife in the late 1940s and early 1950s. My two brothers were born in the 1950s. I’m not only the youngest, I’m the very youngest. Both of my mom’s husbands had the same last name.
2. My side of the family was military until the mid-60s with some bohemian and intellectual details, then split over issues best described as “America.” My mom became intensely involved in local community and national activism, my home became a crossroads for a lot of people’s lives, and my upbringing unlike my siblings’ was countercultural in addition to military. Yeah, communes to the left of me, military ID and rifle ranges to the right. My dad was the naval military historian in Saigon around 1970-72, as I mentioned in This one.
3. The step-side of the family had roots in the intellectual Old Left, and the siblings being a little older and more affluent, they were spending their trust funds being New Left radicals. Pretty seriously too – one was a Maoist and one was a Weatherman, for instance, which led to colorful insults during arguments. They might have been a little nuts but they weren’t dilettantes, and they treated me as a fellow adult even before I was 10.
Use those items as the context for how I encountered cosmic zap directly, strangely, and formatively (that it began in the mid-60s, with Ditko and Kirby is for another post). I didn’t merely receive it either as a long-gone archive or puzzle over it right off the stands.
- Steranko’s Nick Fury, Englehart’s Doctor Strange, Starlin’s Captain Marvel, Gerber’s Man-Thing, Lee & Buscema’s Silver Surfer, and probably a few other eligible references came to me the stack of comics bequeathed to me by my big brother sometime around 1971. At this point I was a crazy reader of Greek and Norse mythology and a fanatic for Star Trek.
- I became able to buy my own comics regularly sometime in 1974, when I began soaking up everything you can imagine about Planet of the Apes and had become an avid SF/fantasy reader, including The Lord of the Rings, various Harlan Ellison books, The Island of Doctor Moreau, the scattered array of Elric stories (not yet collected really), the original Cyborg in tandem with its TV version The Six Million Dollar Man, Battle Circle, Tarzan and John Carter, “The Women Men Don’t See,” and a wide array of non-SF literature that a 9-10 year old kid had no business even knowing about, like Max Shulman’s Anyone Got a Match? and John Gardner’s Grendel, not to mention Zap Comix and Snatch. This is Adam Warlock time. Deathlok time, Guardians of the Galaxy time, Killraven time, and tons of other material which was not weird to me, but occupied the very space in my skull, comics I bought for myself that continually integrated with the stuff I was reading all the time, and talking about it with the few adults who discovered I was doing this.
I had been fortunate enough to get the backstopping and the direct/active acquisition of Starlin’s hammer-blows all at once. This is the stuff that any younger Marvel-head impatiently tosses aside, wondering why the hell they were wasting time on these monster stories and trippy-apocalyptic SF, thinking that only run-ups to the ‘Verse of 1982 were worthy of notice. But to me, the 1970s Starlin’s Marvel was Marvel. Is Marvel.
In the very late 60s into the ear.y 70s, you could track it by specific creator, with Steranko’s Nick Fury, Thomas’ Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell), Lee and Buscema’s Silver Surfer, through Thomas and Kane’s The Power of Warlock 1972-1973. And of course Kirby’s New Gods work, showering over all like flung fistfuls of Owsley acid come again. But during that last part, the zap broke out into a shared/usable form, a common language and array of “stuff” rather than a given storyline: Dr. Strange developed by Englehart with Brunner and Colan; plenty of Englehart in various books, especially the Celestial Madonna; Gerber’s Man-Thing with Brunner and Sutton; other scattered material by Gerber. Don’t mistake this shared form for a plan, or even a structure. By the time I was buying, people just wrote this shit in in whatever title they felt like, no matter who’s on the cover, and who cares if it’s canceled, we can always visit the Avengers and we’re finishing it out in Marvel Two-in-One anyway!
It’s title sprawl, producing a messy and unplanned continuity simply because people kept writing in and continuing what they liked in whatever book they happened to be on now. It’s not a planned saga or a stepwise ladder at all; it’s more like the shifting about of intracellular structures and operations in early life, specifically because the later-considered hard categories (bacteria or not, or even cellular or not) were not actually operational boundaries at that time. In fact, exactly like that.
That’s how the Marvel-iconographic roots and intertwinings of more than Marvel titles worked too, in and throughout comix, SF, and rock iconography, and cosmic zap flowered from and in these things. It’s more than merely space-setting and lots of aliens; it’s the sword-and-sorcery pulp revival reaching way back into the 19th century and into mythology; it’s social science fiction at its most edgy yet also committed to the green-men genre tropes; in this, it draws directly on the original Star Trek which at this moment was at the height of its grassroots fandom, and it’s a full-blooded sibling of Zelazny’s Lord of Light. While Stan beavered away in Hollywood to secure licensed TV shows for Spider-Man and the Hulk, the Surfer and Warlock had escaped into the wild.
By 1976 and my twelfth birthday, five-plus years of this in place had created some sort of dodecahedron: the cosmic zap at Marvel, the still barely-alive politicizing of music and pop art, the no-fuck-around psych-out science fiction, the album covers gone wild, the extension of art to the personal item like the van, as it became culture rather than product.
And then there’s the music itself.
I didn’t have to discover the political and countercultural aspects of rock and roll; I imbibed them as part of experiencing it. Now, I was not an esoteric art-album aficionado at age 12, nor have I ever been. My comparatively pedestrian pop-musical identity is nicely summarized here, although I hope you understand that we did listen to albums back then, not just songs or collections of hits, and I never lost that habit.
But in the last few years, as part of my work on a project called Amerikkka, I’ve taken a deep dive into the music, past the bands I know all about and even past the ones I’ve heard about a lot but never really listened to. And what I’m finding is pretty cool, especially since it ties right into my own non-verbal, childhood, generalized memories.
A day’s listen instantly shows that the carefully-parsed genres of rock and roll are historically totally bullshit. 1967-1974, and especially 1969-1972, are a stew of experimentation that’s been completely disappeared from history or marginalized as specific to the overly-rarefied “prog,” as bands appeared, cut an album, disbanded, reformed with different people, cut an album under the same or different name, et cetera, so that just about everyone played with everyone else or listened to everyone else, all the time. A given album of this period, or a band’s trajectory through two or three albums, is incredibly diverse: sunshine pop, baroque rock, psychedelic/acid rock, heavy metal, heavy mithril, folk rock, art/progressive rock, hard rock, so-called krautrock, motown, rhythm & blues, blues rock … I think that musicologists are so hung up on how Huge Band X came together that they tend to think of the prior bands or songs as failures along the way or deviations from “the destiny,” and the same goes for what by 1978 were utterly separate and fixed genres – which is to say, designated target markets, as carefully delineated and turfed-out as the Sykes-Picot lines. What you call “music.” (whoops, old-man snarl appeared there; suppress)
Bands now very well known for “sound X” often began with a different or at least more varied sound and topic, then got a hit with a particular sound and switched almost entirely to that sound alone. Deep Purple is a great example; I had no idea that their first two albums were primarily the artiest, trippiest proggyness, singin’ about bards and hobbits and shit.
I’m astonished by just how much of this stuff there is, how many albums, how many songs, flooding into the culture daily. You can listen to two or three new albums a day, each one a mindblower, for years – I have.
Try to put aside the categories, or a carefully-constructed and diagrammed lineage of Black Sabbath or whoever, through time. Rather, feel the simultaneity as experienced by someone at that time. Instead of tracing a later-designated genre back into alleged origins as if it were an isolated seed mixed (by mistake) in with other genres’ seeds and sprouts, I’m talking about listening to an album like this one:
with all sorts of symphonic and metal and lyrical and God Knows What present among and sometimes within songs.
Plus those politics, mm-hmm. Heavy metal, for instance, found its sound while pop music was still socially activist, so that antiwar and protest were still the topics even as sounds later associated with AC/DC and KISS (to pick one good and one bad example, musically; the point is that neither was/is especially political) were solidly established. I mean sure, I knew Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen,” who doesn’t, but not that the other songs on that album spanned a much wider range, and were much more socially activist or hippified, with lyrics like “open your heart and let the sunshine in.” Imagine “Warpigs” not as a unique or possibly puzzling one-off in Black Sabbath’s repertoire, but as present and accepted as present by listeners as anything else now thought of as genre. See if you can feel how that was not discordant, that rage at war policy belonged with those sawing riffs, the headbanging bass, and the spacey solos. I’m thinking of Jim Starlin the Vietnam veteran who could not possibly have not known this song.
Some of you see where this is going. Who I’m talking about. Yes.
This is how I visualize stuff, it’s my mental space. You can add a sustained, variably distorting bass note to that if you like. People who know my games are blinking – yeah, they say, this is what this guy writes, how did I not see that? This really is my Marvel. I’m 51 tomorrow. This is my mind. I’m not caged”in here” with you. I am out there and now you are too. Safe, well sort of, with me.
Next: It was already happening
About Ron EdwardsGame author, publisher, consultant, teacher
Posted on September 3, 2015, in The 70s me and tagged Adam Warlock, Black Sabbath, cosmic zap, Hawkwind, heavy metal, heavy mithril, Jack Kirby, New Gods, progressive rock, Roy Thomas, Uriah Heep, Warpigs. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.
Those cosmic Warlock books were awesome. I wasn’t even sure what the fuck was going on some of the time, but it didn’t really matter. It was enough to make me stop caring about Superman and Batman. And I also had older siblings who were digging in to the music of the times, so through the shared forced-air registers (along with the incense) came drifting prog mainstays like Yes and Gentle Giant along with more out-there shit like The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and The Monks.
Yeah… The Star-Thief.
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Talking about authors joining into the Cosmic Zap, let’s not forget this guy, even if he was on the other side of the world…
Moebius even did “Le garage hermetique de Jerry Cornelius” that tie back to Moorcock, the “open character” Jerry Cornelius and the Final Programme (that sadly I did never read, even if I found citations everywhere: the Italian translation at the time was too difficult to find…)
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Absolutely. You’ll see a lot of Moorcock and Moebius in upcoming posts, although I can’t promise a dissertation level summary of cosmic zap in every particular.
Really looking forward to this series of posts. I think that if I knew and understood cosmic zap – what it was, that there was a lot of it, and etc. – I’d have read a lot more comics back in the day.
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