Yes, I know it’s Christmas and I’m running a review of the first comic biography (to my knowledge) of Aleister Crowley. I asked Rich Johnston his opinion on this timing, and he said, “What is the most iconic Christmas story aside from the stuff in the Bible?”. I said, “A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens”. “Right”, he said, “Christmas is all about the occult. The ghost of Christmas Future talks to Scrooge straight out of the mouth of HELL! Of HELL!”. So, with that vote of confidence, I’ll continue.
I had the pleasure of meeting the creators of Aleister Crowley: Wandering the Waste at Thought Bubble this year in the UK, Martin Hayes and RH Stewart. They were present at the Markosia Press table for a signing and even chatted about the book a little with me. It was most definitely a challenge to create such a graphic novel, but the challenge was part of the appeal, and they had the kind support and enthusiasm of Richard Kaczynski, the author of the massive and authoritative biography of Crowley, Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley. He wrote the foreword to the graphic novel and says the creators did a “masterful job” of using source material like photos from Crowley’s life that survive. I’ve actually read Perdurabo, making the overlap between prose biographies of Crowley and this new venture even more interesting to me.
For those who might not know, Aleister Crowley was a notorious figure in the history of occult thought who lived from 1875 to 1947, for many a pioneer, and certainly an architect of ceremonial magic in a way that has continued to influence magical societies long after his death. He also considered himself a novelist, poet, and artist. Imagine, trying to create a kind of biography in comics format of a man who was prolific in his own writings, voluminous in his letters, and even one to make striking or even wild claims about his own achievements, and fit that all into one volume without becoming so discursive as to lose the reader along the way.
Hayes and Stewart already have my respect for the attempt. Their choices were wise in framing the story. They open with Crowley’s last days, suffering from illness, and have him encounter a young writer who wants to hear his life story. He begins to relate it, and the reader follows this narrative, but then illness cuts off Crowley’s accounts and we “witness” a new form of biographical presentation as if the man is falling through his own displaced and chaotic shards of memory, forming strange correspondences from many points in time. Then, finally, we witness Crowley’s last hours as he tries to make sense of the ups and downs of his life, and even weighs the degree of faith he has in his own accomplishments.
The book is nothing if not emotive, and it also toes a fine line between celebrating Crowley’s audaciousness and giving weight to the power of one’s own beliefs to overcome the downturns one might experience in life. The books speaks in an odd way to the power of the human spirit, pursuing its own lights to the bitter end. It speaks for the redeeming qualities of good intentions while being, at times, quite open about historical details that might cast a pall over an assessment of Crowley as a man. That must have required a great degree of thought and discernment on the part of writer Martin Hayes in deciding what fragments of history to include as essential to strike the tone he was hoping to produce.
The first few chapters of the graphic novel convey quite a lot of information about Crowley’s childhood and upbringing, and though there are some bold strokes used to give an impression of the strict Plymouth Brethren upbringing that must have fueled this rebel in his daring later in life, it’s a fair condensation of elements to introduce you to the man. The style R.H. Stewart has chosen for the artwork is evocative, at times blurred and sketched in, making the “real” world seem a little thin and unremarkable in contrast to the possible claims of this central figure. Where both writer and artist seem to come into their own is in the second movement of the book when things get decidedly fractured, associative, and downright strange. It’s an excellent choice to present snapshot moments and facts from Crowley’s life and claims in this freefall manner, but very difficult to manage to convey in the comics format successfully.
I am beyond impressed by how skillfully the creators handle it and, in truth, this sequence is one of the most ambitious and well-balanced experiments in comics I’ve seen this year. Many panels and pages take an almost collage-like format, often contrasting Crowley’s descriptions and memories with things he might not be saying, suggesting doubt about his methods and regarding the undermining powers of his own substance addictions. At times beautiful, at times grotesque, this is one artful way of giving a sensory biography of Crowley that moves beyond facts, claims, or formal narrative. RH Stewart even goes further, in the third movement of the book, in displaying confidence when handling the subject matter. He seems to become more emboldened as an artist the more abstract the narrative becomes in presenting magical elements as Crowley wanders further into occult realities toward the end of his life.
The book even contains a substantial set of prose notes in paragraph format that correspond to sections of the graphic novel, forming a mini-biography of their own for the curious-minded and talking about specific locations that appear in the story. I hope I’ve conveyed by now why this starts out as an ambitious book and becomes a surprising one. For those who have an appreciation for the difficulty behind creating graphic novels, whether from the perspective of writing or art, they are bound to read this book with eyes keyed toward the choices the creators made to handle challenging material and the grace notes they strike along the way.
Aleister Crowley: Wandering the Wastes is published by Markosia Press, and you can find out more about it here and note that it is also available in digital format.