The Gods of the Funny Books
A version of this interview originally appeared in Gnosis, Summer 1994

Messy, brash and thoroughly unsuited for the reflective sophistication of mystical philosophy, popular culture nonetheless keeps the spiritual world alive. Historically, magic and divination were the link between the sage and the serf, and the arcane hierarchies of daemons rode the back of everyday desires for good crops, cures, and the lass down the lane. These days, fragments of esoteric lore are scattered throughout popular culture: angels grace Time magazine, ravers celebrate Neopagan holidays with goofy hats and electronic beats, Sting talks about tantra on MTV, and role-playing video games resurrect the sorcerers, spells and elemental sprites of traditional magic.

For the most part, esotericists dismiss or even denigrate the eroticism, emotional vitality, and fecund imagery that is popular culture's gift to the spirit world. But the gods don't care. They know that magic is just as likely to appear in a Thelemite lodge as a bedroom where pubescent girls uncork spirits with a Ouija board. They feel quite at home popping up in teenage rituals, B movies, bad television, and comic books. Especially comic books.

With their animal and elemental powers, parallel worlds and surreal cosmogonies, superhero comic books are clearly the mythology of the twentieth century. But some comics are more than urban Robin Hood tales. You'll find as much "real stuff" in the magical structure of Jack Kirby's early Marvel universe as you would in the Illuminatus! series or Dungeons & Dragons, two other unconventional but extraordinarily rich pop culture vehicles for esoteric lore. Besides containing lots of tales and techniques, comics have long served to supercharge the imaginative faculties of their readers, stoking the mind with dense and animated imagery.

From Little Nemo in Slumberland to EC Comics to Moebius, the frames that enclose comics panels have served as doorways to dreams and other worlds. With his Sandman series, the flagship book of DC's excellent Vertigo imprint of mature comics, the British writer Neil Gaiman has opened one of the most potent paths in decades. Neither a superhero book or an underground comic, Sandman stars Morpheus, the lord of the dreamworld, and his Hesiod-like passel of siblings: Death, Desire, Delirium, etc. These beings weave their way through time and space, from the Lower East Side to pagan Greece to Hell, dabbling in human and daemonic affairs.

Gaiman is a remarkably intelligent story-teller, and his bardic powers, wit and mature themes of desire and mourning, insure that Sandman soars over the clichéd swamp that usually chokes fantasy fiction. Gaiman has an extensive knowledge of mythological and religious arcana, and he's put it to good use, not only in Sandman, but in Books of Magic, Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament, and the apocalyptic novel Good Omens, which he co-authored with Terry Pratchett. Gaiman's one of those rare souls who can scrounge up an apocryphal account of Adam's three wives, and then make that tale come alive.

Narrowly conceived, comics are only a century old, but if you tweak your definition a bit, a whole world of visionary precursors arises: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan stellae, alchemical diagrams, stain-glass windows. These modes of imagery not only share a narrative logic and a somewhat allegorical feel, but like most comic art consists of dense, well-articulated and very clearly delineated bodies. Similarly, William Blake's brightly colored, dynamic human forms brought his writing to life with a visceral combination of word and image—all that his Book of Urizen lacks are word-balloons. And while many have suggested that the Tarot is not a deck of cards but a kind of book, perhaps it's more accurate to say that it's a kind of comic book.

Though Gareth Knight would probably be shocked by that notion, Rachel Pollack would not. As the creator of The Sacred Woman Tarot, as well as the author of Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom—one of the richest and most psychologically nuanced books on Tarot—Pollack insists on the cards' remarkable ability to balance occult sophistication and hands-on, visceral power. Pollack also writes comics. A fiction writer for years, she recently took over the Vertigo comic Doom Patrol, one of the most rag-tag group of superheros at DC. After an uneven start, Pollack has just started to hit her stride, and Doom Patrol now shares the vision that animates her Tarot deck and her fine SF novel The Unquenchable Fire: a raw and somewhat disturbing breakthrough of archaic and fragmentary mythic forces into our contemporary milieu.

I could imagine no two comic writers better suited to address the connection between esoteric material and popular media. It turned out that Gaiman and Pollack were not only friends but were coming to New York City to begin designing a Tarot deck based on the characters from the Vertigo line, which also includes Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Hellblazer and the mad Shade, the Changing Man. A noisy Italian cafe made the stage.

***

DAVIS: Both of you work on comics, both of you deal with esoterica, yet you both have very different relationships to their connection.

GAIMAN: Rachel is a creature of esoterica and I am a dabbler and a voyeur of esoterica. When I first met Rachel, we were comparing notes on the Jewish Judgment Day and what happens after the Messiah returns. In Judaism, as everybody knows, they will kill the behemoth and kill the leviathan and make a huge skin of the leviathan's hide under which everybody will have a party. And they will eat the behemoth and everyone will have a great time. Except the women, who as I understand it are in the back preparing food, washing up and having babies.

POLLACK: I'm not even sure they're preparing food. Of all the rabbis who talked about this great dinner party, only one of them ever mentioned women. Every seven days the women give birth to sons and then become instant virgins again, so the husbands can have a virgin next time once again next time around.

GAIMAN: I kind of assumed the other six days they were cooking and washing up.

POLLACK: Could be.

GAIMAN: Rachel's knowledge is much more intimate and much more exact than mine. In fact I wound up calling on Rachel's help originally on a tarot thing when I did Books of Magic. I had a tarot card reader in there, Madame Xanadu, and I wanted her to do a reading that was going to apply to the story. And I thought, well, who do I know in the field of the tarot? So I got together with Rachel in London, and we went into a tarot shop and I got to see her treated like royalty. Somebody said "you're Rachel Pollack," and the next thing I know she's signing things, people are lining up to say how much she means to them and I'm wandering around feeling like you've gone to chat with a street musician and he plays you something and you realize it's Elvis Costello.

DAVIS: While there's esoterica in the work both of you do, neither of you have a commitment to any particular tradition or truth. You keep one foot in the noise and brashness and fragments of popular culture.

GAIMAN: I'm someone who tends to think that esoterica is or ought to be part of popular culture anyway. That's one of the things that Good Omens was about. Good Omens was a funny book about the Book of Revelations.

POLLACK: The word postmodernist that's waved about now really fits with what we're doing. We're taking high esoteric lore and just playing with it, throwing it around and mixing it with popular culture. In Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, my first tarot book, I bring in the Joker and Batman. I take sort of a gnostic approach to the Joker, you know, the way the devil is a hero. With Batman being so straight and rigid, the Joker becomes a hero. I think it probably shocked some people.

Esoterica take itself too seriously. I'm going to do a long story in Doom Patrol where some guy takes a little plastic card and puts it into an ATM—an Automatic Tarot Machine. The machine lights up and says Alchemical Bank, please put in your identification number. He puts in "2201" and it says "Welcome Magus" and he's transformed in this blinding flash of light into the Magician. Then there's this Supremes act in gold lame dresses called the Four Aces, and they have the power of the elements.

GAIMAN: I have a question for you, Rachel. I was reading a review of your book on fortune telling, and it said that you talk about divination through cheese. Fromagomancy or something. I want to know Rachel, how do you tell the future through cheese?

POLLACK: I don't know exactly. I've never done it. It was part of this wonderful list I found. My favorite was reading the forms of the shit from the sacred chicken in Rome.

GAIMAN: I've always been interested in the way that fortune telling techniques evolve. For instance, the English magpie ballad that kids would chant as they counted birds on the walk to school: "one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy." When the kids lived in town or were traveling to school by bus, they would add up the numbers on their bus tickets and do that same rhyme.

I once saw 13 magpies in one day and that was the day my hard disc crashed. I figured that was why the song never went up that high, because they hadn't invented the technology yet.

DAVIS: Rachel, you have a real commitment to the efficacy of this material. What are you bringing forth from the occult world by putting it into this postmodern, pop culture milieu?

POLLACK: Well, I tend to think more in archetypal or shamanic terms than strictly occult terms. If you see the archetypes as real, and the spirit-world and the land of the dead as real places—or at least as having some validity—then you're going to look at the direction of how we connect to them. One of my favorite esoteric books of all time is The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams, in which the Platonic archetypes as animals invade the physical world. Its a total mess. People are terrified. A lot of my writing in SF and comic books asks what it be like to really encounter those worlds. It would be very unpleasant and frightening as well as very challenging and beautiful and ecstatic.

In my books there's always moments when the world in front of us breaks down and this other world smashes through and overwhelms the characters. That's how I began my run at Doom Patrol, with Dorothy [an ape-faced pubescent girl whose fantasies come to life] conjuring up her imaginary friend, and at the same time opening up a gate for imaginary friends who she doesn't want, these African and Greek archetypes. Then she's terrified and doesn't know what to do.

DAVIS: In a way, by not insisting on a hard distinction between pop culture and these archetypal realms, you're showing more directly how they can become a part of daily life.

GAIMAN: It's a response to the general marginalization of dreams. Today, anything that does not correspond exactly with—not even with what people actually see and experience—but with some odd New York Times consensus reality, is shunted off to the side. We are not permitted miracles.

One of the fascinating things about studying history is that if you read a contemporary account, they take all the gods out. But if you go back, you'll be in the middle of the account of some Roman battle and it'll mention this messenger who all of a sudden runs into the god Pan on his way back from the battle. Pan tells him to build a temple on that spot and then the guy carries on and delivers his message. As far as the people were concerned, there were gods around. That was still part of the mainstream. Bicameral brain explanations are even sillier than taking the gods out.

POLLACK: If you think of religions like Vodoun in Haiti, it's very popular, it's in the marketplace and the processions and the everyday experiences. I was just at a two week festival for the goddess Aphrodite in France, and there was a lot of discussion about things like pornography and Haitian rituals for Erzulie Freda. It wasn't a question of the library or the academy. It was very much a question of life.

People ask me sometimes "Do you believe in all this?" and I just look at them blankly. What does belief have to do with it? It's a matter of what gives you experience, or what creates soul, as James Hillman says. And comic books make soul. They come directly out of shamanism. All these people with animal powers traveling to mysterious other worlds. That's straight shamanism.

DAVIS: As one develops an archetypal eye, you can then look at a lot of the detritus of our culture and recognize these powerful shapes, though most people don't recognize them consciously. Rachel, most people who read your comic books have no idea that you're an authority on the tarot, and vice versa. Do you ever feel like you're slipping stuff between worlds?

POLLACK: It's part of the game. I just introduced this character who has the power to dissolve things on the one hand and coagulate them on the other hand. She's called Coagula. I got a pile of letters and happily, a few people wrote "Oh, I get it, solve et coagula." They put in their own alchemical jokes, and they also get other levels of where she's coming from that are more postmodernist—that she's a street hustler and had sex with a former Doom Patrol member [Rebis] who was an alchemical hermaphrodite. It's nice to put things out there, and yes, most people will miss it. But even if they don't get that the ladies with the dead pigs and snakes for hair are from the Greek ritual of thesmophoria from 4000 years ago, they'll get something.

GAIMAN: The same goes for [the Sandman series] "A Game of You," where I did the sequence with [a millennia-old Thessalonian witch] Thessaly nailing that fellow's face to the wall. I genuinely didn't expect one in five hundred or one in a 1000 readers to know where the rituals were coming from. What I did want was for people to go: this looks like something that has some basis in fact and some basis in ritual, and it looks like something very old. And I also wanted to send a little shiver down the spine of those New Age witches who are convinced that all witchhood is like: there's us, there's the mother goddess, let's bop out skyclad for a bit, let's call down the moon. I mean, do you really want to call down the moon?

So you get that line Hazel [a contemporary mortal] says in the story, a very sweet line that in context is one of the most pathetic things in the entire book. She says to Thessaly something like "Oh yes, we called down the moon once. It felt very empowering."

DAVIS: You're both willing to go into the darkness, the terror and the confusion and the blood and the sex.

GAIMAN: If you're going to walk a road, you've got to walk it all the way. You can't pick and choose the little bits of it that you'd like to see on the way.

DAVIS: So what's the road?

GAIMAN: If you going to write about real things, or real things that many people don't believe to be real, you have to write about all of it. Just picking the sweet bit and the gentle bits is always untrue to the source material. Any mythos that is genuine and real, any system of belief that is genuine and real and not some artsy-fartsy little construct, has depths. They go down a long way and there are things moving in those depths, and very often you walk down to the depths before you can get back. That's one of the deals. Otherwise, you wind up with the late Victorian attitude to faeries: flitter-flutter things that come in and go "Are you misewable, Wachel? Now you will be happy." But the further you go back in faerie lore, the stranger and the darker—and very occasionally, the brighter—they get. You have to take both.

POLLACK: In The Unquenchable Fire, God appears in the form of a chocolate-chip cookie salesman on seventh avenue, and the heroine has an argument with him. He tells her that the only things that exist in the universe are ecstasy and suffering, and that human beings choose suffering because it's less frightening than ecstasy. She says, love exists, and he says, love is a form of suffering. And the she decides that God is insane, because God is not mortal, and not being mortal cannot understand human experience.

So whenever I see these ads for shamanic weekends, I'm always suspicious. Because shamanic ecstasy is terrifying.

GAIMAN: Would you be suspicious if they mentioned that you had to sign a disclaimer because you only had a five out of eight chance of getting back?

POLLACK: The thing that's exciting about shamanism, in terms of art and story-telling, is that it's so literal. My assumptions is that for the most part, the people in these weekends have guided journeys. They may be in a kind of trance state, but they're also very aware that it's a guided journey. With shamanism you're sitting there poking a fire in your yurt and the door bursts open and these three animal-headed creatures come in and chop you up into little bits and pull the skin off you and boil you alive and put you back together again with great magical powers. But you still experience being chopped to pieces. What always struck me about shamanism so powerfully was the gut-wrenching solid reality of it.

It's like Mircae Eliade, who always has these intellectualized explanations for everything. He never seems to get that the shaman tying himself to the stick is an experience happening to the guy, that he's not doing it to make a symbolic point. There's this wonderful passage in Paula Gunn Allen's book The Sacred Hoop, where she writes about the interpretation of the peace pipe. She says that anthropologists and philosophers will give you this wonderful symbolic interpretation of the peace pipe. And they will say that the peace pipe is smoked because this symbolizes the earth and that symbolizes the sky. But Allen says, that's not the reason we smoke the peace pipe. We smoke a peace pipe because White Buffalo Woman came and told us to. So she's bringing it back into the experience, which I think comic books are able to do so well because they are picturing raw reality, that as Neil says has a tremendous visceral power that other media don't have.

There's been this whole thing in comic books the last ten years or so of sneering at super-heroes. I've always loved superheros, and I'm really glad the comic book I'm doing is a superhero teen comic book. To me it's exactly the inheritor of the shamanic tradition of art: a forceful, naive style that's very sophisticated as art, but the basic form is raw. I'm always pointing out to people that shazam, the word that Captain Marvel uses to change from Billy Batson to Captain Marvel has only one letter different than shaman. And "Holy Moly", his famous statement, is a plant in the Odyssey, which Hermes gives Odysseus to protect him from being turned into an animal. There is that tradition.

DAVIS: As an artist, you have a kind of force with comics that you don't with prose or with static art.

GAIMAN: You have an immediacy and a control, and you have things that can go in on a real gut, solar plexus, knee-to-the-groin level. If you're doing it right, you can do things in people's heads at the same time you do them with an image and the combination of the two can completely turn them around.

POLLACK: I would say that the power of all art is in rhythm. In prose, it's not just what you're describing, it's the rhythm of the sentences, the sound of the words. Whereas in comics, the rhythm is in the movement of pictures, and that has a tremendous immediacy. So you frequently have a splash page on the last page, a powerful and beautiful image which will just totally knock your socks off cause you've been building up to it all issue. Suddenly you don't need any words.

DAVIS: Like comics, the tarot has figures and scenes that are very coherently outlined and defined images. But both images nonetheless embody things that are not purely visual, things like archetypal meanings or correspondences on the one hand, or a narrative arch or a personality or word balloons on the other.

POLLACK: I remember when I first looked at a book on tarot. Here were these wonderful pictures, and next to theme there were these descriptions. The description was often just a recap of what was in the picture, and yet somehow it gave an extra dimension.

One of the ways I first began to do with the Rider deck was to make up stories about the pictures. Like the 10 of Pentacles, which I suddenly saw as the moment when Odysseus comes home and only his dog recognizes him. And I connected it not just by the picture, but by Waite's description, where he talks about security on the one side, and taking risks and adventure on the other. That's Odysseus, and then here's this old guy in disguise. That clicked for me. To me, that concept of words and pictures and story-telling is what's exciting about comics, just as in tarot.

DAVIS: One of the main stumbling blocks in working with esoteric material like the tarot is that people do far too much interpreting and far too little imaginative story-telling.

POLLACK: I see this when I teach a lot. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't give themselves that liberty. I've almost given up trying to ask people to make up stories with the cards because they almost never do. No matter how many times you say: don't interpret it, just look at the picture and use that as a basis for a story.

The tarot deck I made is not a system. I didn't have any plan, I just let the pictures come. The pictures I chose I would hope would induce a kind of sacred experience as people worked through them. So they don't just look to the book and say, this means I'm going on a trip, and this means I'll meet a tall dark stranger, but they will get a sense of their own connection to primeval imagery.

DAVIS:What do you get by telling a story out of this material rather than just analyzing specific meanings?

GAIMAN: For me it's the delight in communicating this stuff. It's the joy of fumbling my way through some odd book on some weird esoteric practice, and then something goes, there's a story in that, and everybody should know about it and they should think it was interesting. Mad Hettie, the old woman from Death: the High Cost of Living, is amongst other things a haruspex. She sends these three rather nasty London punk girls out to find her a white dove and she divines from its entrails. I doubt one in a hundred readers knows what a haruspex is, but a number of them will be bothered to look it up and learn something.

Sandman's been running for five years, and I get letters now from people who say, I'm now in my third year in my course in mythology or classics and I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't read Sandman and gotten really interested in this stuff. Every now and then they manage to really impress their teachers as well.

DAVIS: By putting Western esoterica back into raw experience, at least on an imaginative level, you restore some of its original shamanic aspects, many of which have been denigrated by the folks who kept these secrets throughout the centuries. For you Rachel, that adds a feminist as well as a shamanic element.

POLLACK: It's funny, with the tarot, the people who are into the high esoteric, intellectualized occultism have all been men, and the people who've been reading have all been women. There are a lot of men as well, obviously, but traditionally women are the readers. They get down with the pictures and do stuff with them. I think there has to be a combination of the two. The popular has to be as strong as the esoteric.

GAIMAN:A fan recently sent me a bunch of voodoo stuff she'd discovered, and one of them was a bottle of voodoo soul cleanser and floor polish. That says it all. It's the esoterica and the practical side of things. Everything should have that cheerful utilitarian function, and also work on an infinite level of higher and lower planes.

POLLACK: I've been interested in tribal religion and shamanism and prehistoric religion for a long time. But I'd see books about aboriginal people set in the Australian outback written by somebody who lived in L.A., who not only had never been to Australia but had no contact of any kind with aboriginal people.

So for Unquenchable Fire, I thought, what would happen if that stuff was on the streets of Poughkeepsie, and nothing else changed? America was totally into shamanism and story-telling, but was still America. So I had tremendous fun transplanting bizarre rituals from all over the world onto mainstreet. And I would say, how would these people act that if they were total literalists, if they believed everything was real? So none of it is intellectualized.

DAVIS: With comics you get this kind of imaginative literalism that makes this material very concrete and very magical at the same time.

GAIMAN: An example from Sandman would be the one where Ishtar works as a stripper. You have a goddess of love, of sacred prostitution and of sex, who is working in a strip joint because there is still a kind of power that money paid for love has.

DAVIS: They liked that issue a lot in Green Egg, the preeminent American pagan magazine. Which is appropriate, since the Church of All Worlds—which puts out the magazine—began in the early sixties when its founding fathers acted out a ritual from Robert Heinlein's SF book Stranger in a Strange Land, and found that it had a life of its own.

GAIMAN: With Sandman, I never set out to create a new mythology, but I seem to have done so to some extent. I wanted to create a family of gods, although they aren't gods. "Anthropomorphic personifications" as Death once described them. This pantheon would have some level of resonance with things that people experience, be it despair, death, delirium, desire. These are strange and important things, and by embodying them I could talk about these primal forces that move people while telling interesting stories.

It's a very strange feeling to know that somebody who came out of your head is walking down the streets these days, that someone who came out of your head is believed in by more people than believe in you, and believed in at a very primal and strange gut level. In some ways, that's very odd and some ways it's liberating, and mostly it's quite delightful. I got a letter recently from a young woman who was 19 or 20 and felt it was time to get a religion. She decided either she was going to be a Buddhist, or she was going to believe in the Endless. She hadn't made up her mind. I wish her luck.

DAVIS: Do you disagree with the way esotericists use this stuff? Most people who write and read Gnosis might say, well, yes there are shards and fragments here and there, but unless you really get the whole thing, or study within one tradition for years and years, it's not worth that much.

GAIMAN: I have a problem with is that one tradition thing. I like the fact that we live in a world right now in which everything is up for grabs. And the field of esoterica is a delightful playground for me. There are areas of fiction that people have stripmined, but the field of esoterica as it applies to fiction is very unexplored. The flowers underneath the trees haven't been tramped down, and nobody's dropped any cigarette packets. So what I'm doing is going in there, tramping down the flowers and dropping the cigarette packets.

I remember a sharp letter I received when Sandman 1 came out, saying I'd used one of the secret names—Ararita. "It's only revealed to high level initiates, how could you get away with using it?" Most practitioners and initiates believe their esoterica is secret, and they believe their esoterica is secret because they haven't gone out to look for it anywhere else. Very few of them know you can pop down to the British Museum reading room and find out stuff that would get their jaws to drop. Its not a matter of climbing up a mountain or going to some shop in Greenwich village after midnight and knocking four times at the door and pushing the cat entrails through the letter box before they will let you in.

POLLACK: I actually would have no quarrel with what those people are saying. For what they want to do, they're probably right. I'm interested more in art than in esoteric knowledge. When I was looking into kabbalah for my first tarot book, I had no interest in learning kabbalah. I was interested in finding good stories in there, to make the Fool come alive. Now the official kabbalah approach to that is Fool equals aleph equals this angel, that demon, that color, that musical tone, that I Ching hexagram, and on and on and on, until you have a list that's a yard long on your wall in small print. And I would never criticize people who want to memorize that as part of their path. If you want to work in a tradition, you have to go all the way and learn the details. Or you have to get possessed, and cut to pieces by demons and be reassembled with quartz crystal instead of bones in your skeleton. Either way.

GAIMAN: I have nothing but infinite respect for anyone who chooses and goes through a single path to enlightenment in the same way that I have nothing but infinite respect for an archaeologist who goes off and translates some long-forgotten thing that I can then ransack for stories. But for me the joy of it all is the stories.

DAVIS: I want to read both of you some of what Blake wrote about visionary art in his "Descriptive Catalogue". It think it's very relevant to the kind of visceral density in comics and tarot that we've been talking about:

"The Prophets describe what they saw in Vision as real and existing men whom they saw with their imaginative and immortal organs; the Apostles the same; the clearer the organ the more distinct the object. A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapor or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce. He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing eye can see does not imagine at all...

"The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art...Leave out this line and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again, and the line of the almighty must be drawn out upon it before man or beast can exist." [p.541, 550, Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David Erdman, Anchor NY 1982]

GAIMAN:Can I get a copy of that?

POLLACK: An amazing thing about Blake is that while he'd tell people that his work was dictated to him by angels, he was a conscious artist working an reworking his material. People who don't understand how that's possible don't understand what art is about. I was reading an interview once in one of those Soldier of Fortune magazines with one of these guys that writes those series books, like Exterminator 28. The guy was saying that he didn't feel like it's him writing, but that something writes thought him. And I thought, bloody hell, it's a universal experience. Here's this hack churning our incredibly trite work, who has that same experience of a spirit writing his story for him. It has nothing to do with it being high art or low art or popular art or esoteric art.

GAIMAN: People forget there are muses for the Exterminator novels. She's working just as hard as the muses for poetry or comic books.

POLLACK:That'd be a great idea for a story.