Content warning: this post is illustrated with appallingly racist and bizarre images of comic book covers from the so-called Golden Age of comics (1938-1956)
When I turned back to writing about comics, I couldn’t stop thinking of magic, religion, and race, three interconnected topics I just can’t seem to get away from. It’s all so very fraught, but it is interesting, too. I have spent the past few years tracking down every Voodoo-themed plot in every Voodoo-themed comic that I can get my hands on. Why? I continue to deconstruct the myths, and it means going after comics. They include multiple genres – crime stories, detective comics, romances, westerns, jungle adventure, weird comics, fantasy, horror, and even AfroFuturist superhero comics like Black Panther, god help me. Most of these comics seem to have trafficked in a little bit of Graphic Voodoo from time to time, sometimes even more than a little. The further back one goes into the twentieth century, the more outrageously and un-self consciously racist they are. Especially when it comes to depictions of black religion and Africana spiritual traditions. And I don’t mean the kind of racism that makes you want to laugh at how stupid and contrived it all is. I refer to the hateful trifecta of white supremacist stereotype, malignant caricature, and denigrating racist imagery that even gives hardened ethnographers pause. Illustrations that are so repulsive that they even run the risk of offending their own creators and constituents. But I keep returning, fascinated, you know, like Professor Shrewsbury in pursuit of the atrocity Cthulhu, because it is too horrible to not know more. I have come to the conclusion that whiteness is endemic to the comics form, and race, like religion, was metabolized out of the same fetid, primordial ooze that constituted the same ontological features of thought in the modern West. Comics, as much as I love them as a fan and as a consumer, can be really fucked up in their telling of stories that we readers want to enjoy. But I am not ready to give up yet.
I have been inspired by Jeffrey Kripal’s book MUTANTS AND MYSTICS, in which he argues that comics function as a kind of mythic template for world-creating that one can actively engage for oneself. Comics, he suggests, are scripted, and they are scripts. They are meant to be read, experienced visually, and performed as a kind of enactment of the self. And when accessing these stories of the fantastic and the impossible, we experience time as non-linear and unitary. In fact, Kripal might say that comics can project the reader beyond his or her present-time constructed reality into the fertile realm of the imagination, the inner world of dreams, the astral zone, the portal of visionary initiations, illumination, and inner self realization. He provides examples of the ways that comics have catalyzed spiritual experiences for readers and creators by allowing them to tap the dynamic structures of consciousness by providing access to a deeper, more meaningful lived reality (Or, as any psychic worth a damn knows, they can also bring you face to face with spectacular nightmares and madness, but that is another topic).
Now, some of us are impressed with celebrity comics creators like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, who are practitioners of ceremonial occult traditions and chaos magic, respectively – but that’s not the kind of magic I am thinking about today. Nope. I want to talk about stage performers in the comics, grown white men with ridiculous-sounding names like Merzah, Sargah, Yarko, Kardak, Zanzibar, and Zatara. Stylishly flamboyant, these cool, tuxedo, cape-wearing (and sometimes turbaned) showmen used their prestidigitation skills as superpowers in the service of fighting crime and solving mysteries. Like all good superheroes, they were hell bent on bringing justice to defeat the bad guys and crooks. And that is why it is supremely ironic that with such cosmopolitan affect, we find some of the most xenophobic storylines ever published in these Golden Age oldies. And yet, there was one comic book that took it to a whole ‘nother level: The Super Magician. I was nervous about whether rare racist graphica such as this would be censored and locked away from public viewing, so I snagged a few issues at auction and I was surprised to find that this title had once been a popular genre comic. The superhero magician. He was typically a professional ghost-busting stage performer, different from the usual mystical characters and adepts that were initiated into the esoteric and spiritual arts of occultism. Heroes like Doctor Strange and Brother-turned-Doctor Voodoo, whose stories we still enjoy today, as we should, while magician superheroes like Super Magician fester on the comics history dungheap, where they belong. Although I have to say I quite enjoy the depiction of magic and sorcery in these narratives, which always begin with a smug asshole psychologist or secular scientist who gains special abilities after being transformed by some extraordinary trial or tragedy, thereafter emerging out of the ordeal with newfound powers. This is the classic Hero’s Journey trope, on top of the shaman as trickster archetype. He is a being who learns to efface material reality and bridge the physical and spiritual realms, bringing forth a palpable otherworldliness to the grimy and profane spaces that most of us inhabit in our waking lives. It is this kind of psychedelic escapism that makes comics magic so much fun – and a bit uncanny – perhaps because of the “realness” of the experience that is implied. Magician comics of the Golden Age were highly skeptical of this sort of psychism, by the way, viewing it as illicit, since the power of the stage magician lies in his ability to show and tell the secrets of legerdemain with a trick and a wink and a bow for the spectator, who agrees to suspend disbelief, even just for a little bit. Here the line between legitimate spiritual adept and religious faker is constantly drawn and policed by the upstanding white magician superhero. Comic book magicians were seriously self-righteous about which side they were on, possessing an unquestioned devotion to conservative American values and patriotic allegiance that sometimes bordered on the fanatical. After all, so many of these comics were riding the wave of the World War II publishing boom, brief as it was, before television came along and ruined everything. So while it was a period of intense global conflict, and it was also a time of resurgence that called for vigilance in defending the good fight both at home and abroad. And that brings me back to Super Magician. I wanted to look at this lesser-known comics character (who happened to be based on a rather ambitious real-life stage artist named Harry Blackstone, stage name: The Great Blackstone) to see what all the fighting over magic was about, from another angle.
The Great Blackstone only later became Super Magician, after originating as Super Magic Comics, with the somewhat puffy and aggrandizing sidebar, THE WORLD’S GREATEST LIVING MAGICIAN, which, having read the thing more than a few times already, I know is not true. Comics like these, by the way, help me to better understand how religion and magic came to be distinguished as opposites in western culture, since they both depict imaginary enemies and foes at odds with each other, placing the superior technological traditions and weapons of rationality in the hands of the heroes, against the antagonists, who wield dumbness and superstition, and worst of all, foreignness, which makes them out to be the most perverse and immoral villains of all. Because the worst magical criminals in these comics are the cynical ones, the frauds who do not believe in anything anyway. They include sinister, Soul-stealing charlatans who seem to always end up as High Priests or Gurus in the religions they purport to represent. You know the type, loathsome and deceptive con artists who perpetually defraud their beguiled and superstitious followers into giving them attention, money, or power. Here, Super Magician stands apart as a classic icon of justice against these kinds of warring dualisms between true and false gods, only here the battle is between magic as skill and intelligence, against all of the non-Christian non-western sacred traditions in the world, which are deceptive, un-American in every respect, rendered here as sort of a rogues gallery of comparative religions. This is where I get some clues about how this obscure Golden Age comic that was based very loosely on the activities of Blackstone, “the only living comic book character,” came to provide a window on the inner world of Christian whiteness and racial anxiety that gripped America in the 1940 and 50s. As with so many of these four-color treasures at the time, the comic book covers are sublime for their pulpy, ham-fisted surrealism, even as their nauseating illustrations match the sub-par writing on the inside. But what really gets me is the perspective they provide on the tenuous relationship between rationality and mysticism, which sits at the nexus of showmanship and trickery that the sincere magician, Blackstone, enacts against his foes and nemeses in the world. And what a world it is! Super Magician is a one-man wrecking ball, the Punisher of bad religions. Judging by the sheer variety of these covers, he traveled the globe each month in search of new and exotic forms of Religion crimes to hate on, battling intransigent spiritual reprobates, idol worshippers, Communists, cannibals, Buddhists, and of course, Voodoo priests. Interesting thing about these comics of the Golden Age, they seem to be utilized as graphic cudgels for white supremacy and Christian nationalism, even when they don’t have to. Just take a look. Here Super Magician fights evil Hindus, who are drawn, true to form, as crude, enrobed simian pandits who live only to lust and grab after any skimpily attired white woman who comes their way. So why even use this cliché if the religions themselves are already awful? In another episode, he thwarts the nasty acts of scrawny Aztec warriors in a stunning takedown of their golden snake deity who basks, terrifying and ravenous, in their lost hidden city, inside their lost hidden Temple of DOOM. But Super Magician comes as a colonizer does, from the outside in, spontaneously and without prompting, a missionary who ransacks faraway places that are probably best left alone. Interestingly, Super Magician seems particularly focused on indigenous people and their sacred traditions, and since their primitive tribal deficiencies and their stunning ritual exotica make for thrilling comics fantasy source material, readers probably didn’t care.
And so these adventures are amply illustrated with disfigured Asians, blackface minstrel Hoodoos, grotesque Americans Indians, swarthy Oriental Muhammadans, and we are even treated to an epic staging of magical warfare against the imposing yet misshapen figure of the god Baal himself – the human-eating Canaanite monster mentioned no less than ninety times in the Old Testament, which means he is extra evil. Even as a powerful vanquisher of degenerate religions, Super Magician is always accompanied by his pink flower lady assistant, who consistently finds herself shirtless and in perilous situations at the wrong time and place, thereby adding to the transgressive hints of sexual menace and miscegenation. Check out the cover at the top of the page with the white woman, cooly resting in the cannibal pot, with ashy black cannibals scurrying around her. The message is clear that there is no need to fear since Blackstone is on the job! With Arab Marabouts, Buddhist Devils, Hindu Spooks, so much more this colorful comic is a veritable orgy of pagan depravity and then some. The stunning ugliness with which racial phenotype is caricatured is probably the worst aspect of these comics, which were published in a series of fifty-five issues, from 1941 to 1947. So isn’t this just a different kind of Graphic Voodoo? My point is that the comics don’t have to have primitive black magic witch doctors or blood sacrificing Africans; Super Magician comics pulled no punches with its equal-opportunity brand of visual troping and blatant racist caricature of the spiritual Other. And since this comic treats all non-Christian religions the same way, with its unapologetic take-no-prisoners style of graphic insult, no faith is left unscathed, even the hooded white Klansman ends up at odds with bikini girl on the cover of issue number forty one. And to that I say, more, please. We want comic book fans to interrogate whiteness in all of its implicit and explicit expressions, including its vilest, most pathological projections. Then, perhaps one day the racist religion comic will collapse under the weight of its own burdens of representation, and someone else besides me can talk about them.