In his latest book, Aleister & Adolf, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Life, Inc.: How the World Became A Corporation and How To Take It Back) weaves a mind-bending tale of iconography and mysticism.
During the Second World War, the legendary occultist Aleister Crowley develops a powerful and dangerous new weapon in the conflict against the Axis powers. But this unconventional new form of warfare could cast the world into Armageddon.
Douglas and his collaborator, artist Michael Avon Oeming (Powers, The Victories, Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye), took some to discuss Crowley, the genesis of the book and their current pop culture obsessions.
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FOG!: For those unfamiliar with him, who is Aleister Crowley?
Douglas Rushkoff: Aleister Crowley was the quintessential English adventurer and mage—an occultist deeply involved in ceremonial magic, mysticism, tarot, astrology, secret societies, and sigils. He wrote poetry, took drugs, engaged in sex rituals, and traveled through alternate realities. He was the very center of the occult scene of the twentieth century.
Many considered him to be the evilest man in the world, in part for the supreme moral code he promoted: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” He is the occultist who inspired everyone from Jimmy Page and Timothy Leary to Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard. He had temples and followers and masks and robes and sex and drugs and poetry and propaganda.
What was the genesis of Aleister & Adolf?
D.R.: I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and it was inspired simultaneously from several different places. I think it started when I was writing Testament, a Vertigo title that reenacts the Bible in a near-future dystopia. And I remember someone at DC telling me that there was a company rule that stated you weren’t allowed to put Jesus and a superhero in the same panel. That idea stuck with me, and I started to imagine ultimate X vs. Y books.
Meanwhile, I was very interested in doing something on how the image and branding sensibilities of the Nazis have trickled down to us in the form of advertising today. In essence, as I’ve written in some of my nonfiction books, like Life Inc, the fascists won the war. We have a fascism of false choice in America (McDonald’s or Burger King? Coke or Pepsi? Apple or Android?), where we have lots of decisions we get to make but they all involve getting money from the same places and giving it to the same shareholders.
And—since engaging with Leary and William Burroughs and playing with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, I’ve been aware that corporate logos are an extension of sigil magic—these are “charged” symbols that spread through culture and amplify the perceived power of the corporations they represent. And all that came originally from Aleister Crowley’s magical techniques. So how did Crowleyan magic end up the go-to methodology for American corporations? And what did this have to do with World War II and the Nazis?
So I decided to put Aleister and Adolf into the same book, as a way of exploring how their two sensibilities merged into what we’re living today. Plus, I really wanted to write something that had crazy magic, orgies, distorting reality, and other cool stuff. I wanted to have a book that was like a portal into another world.
How did Mike get involved with the project?
D.R.:I saw Mike’s pages and knew instantly he was fated to do this thing.
There’re other artists who can do over-the-top magical realms, but not many who can keep the participants human throughout. These characters are having really complex emotions, and he’s just so able to depict them with a minimum of lines. Mike’s also fantastic in black and white, which was critical to me. WWII happened in black and white.
Michael Avon Oeming: I’ve always been interested in the strange and fringe, ever since I was a kid watching In Search Of… with my mother. I remember the “satanic panic” of the eighties—talk show hosts going on about occult images on Proctor & Gamble products and running over to my sink to look at the labels. So I love this stuff. I wrote about a lot of the ground we covered in my other Dark Horse creator-owned book, The Victories, including Crowley. I’m so fascinated by this stuff, the occult, UFOs, ancient lost civilizations in the works of Graham Hancock. His is the most grounded. The rest isn’t something I believe or not—I find it a sort of existential thought exercise. Maybe that is why I’ve never had any big personal experience in this fringe stuff—maybe I’m too objective to be affected by the psychology of it, which I think is a big factor in these subjects. I don’t mean that in a negative way.
Mike, were you familiar with Douglas’s work and Crowley in general?
M.A.O: With Crowley, I was only aware of the wider things—that he wanted to be seen as the evilest man on earth, even if he was only trolling society. I knew of his attachments to L. Ron Hubbard (whom he never met), Jack Parsons, the JPL, and NASA, but I was totally unaware about the spy stuff with Ian Fleming and Knight. So as much as I knew about him, I learned tons more working with Douglas. I had already been exposed to Douglas’s work, but I never tied together that some of his films, like Winnebago Man, and his PBS Frontline documentaries were one and the same guy. Now I’m a big fan of not just the work, but the man himself.
The book is based in some capacity on real life. Why do you think the occult was such a focus for both Crowley and Hitler?
D.R.: It’s based almost entirely on real life. This stuff happened. Crowley used magic against Hitler in WWII. He invented Winston Churchill’s “V is for Victory” hand gesture as a countersign to the Nazi swastika.
And the go-between was none other than Ian Fleming. That’s not a conspiracy theory. He delivered falsified star charts to Hitler’s astrologer to try to get Hitler—who was basing his military decisions on star charts—to make bad moves.
Hitler was obsessed with magic but took it way more literally than Crowley. Crowley understood—I believe, anyway—that a whole lot of magic is the psych-out. It’s what people believe. Almost like hypnosis. Propaganda.
You utilize a slightly different style than in your previous work, using lots of negative space. Was the book always intended to be in black and white? Were there any visual influences in particular for this project?
M.A.O.: Wow, drawing this was such a blessing. I’ve wanted to work in black and white again for years, but finding the right project to do it is difficult. This was perfect. It not only allowed me to play more with negative space but to use Zipatone (those dot patterns in the modern sections) and wash tones for the magic stuff. I really got to spread my wings. My influences are worn on my sleeve: Alex Toth, Bruce Timm, and Mike Mignola. I’m still trying to simplify my work, but it is shockingly hard. I still use too much detail for my own taste.
What kind of research did you do for this book? Was there anything that you came across that surprised you?
D.R.: It was over a year of research for me. What surprised me was that the story was true. I had initially based it on a “what if,” but then learned that Crowley had been enlisted in an effort to beat Hitler through occult means. What we’ll never really know is if the British intelligence agencies believed in magic, or simply believed that Hitler could be spooked and disempowered by stealing back the Sword of Destiny, messing with his star charts, and other mischief.
I was surprised to learn that Crowley interrogated Rudolf Hess in the Tower of London after the Nazi deputy führer flew to Scotland on a peace mission. They had fooled him into coming to the UK; he thought he was going to meet Churchill and arrange a compromise. But they grabbed him, gave him psychedelics, and tried to get him to share Nazi secrets.
M.A.O.: The research was tough for me. Real tough. We cover some of the worst, some of the strangest atrocities committed by the Nazis. I thought I was pretty well educated on this, but good lord, the things they did. We are sadly used to—or at least prepared for—certain images, piles of bodies, piles of shoes, living skeletons…but it was the more specific stuff that sent me into a dark spiral while doing research. The medical experiments, like attempts at swapping out body parts for amputee soldiers. Photos of women missing a leg next to vats of legs awaiting transplant, animal parts, and worse—but I did get to enjoy some really fun art stuff. Researching the buildings and fashions of the time was very enjoyable, and I always like reading about symbols and what they mean, their origins, and how they are used today.
What are your upcoming projects?
D.R.: I’d love to do a sequel to this book. Show how the magical memes continued through the human-potential movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and how the self-interested advertising culture happened. Then, a final book looking at the way sigil magic has migrated online into algorithms. Algorithms are the contemporary form of sigil magic.
I’ve also just started a podcast (Has everyone?) called Team Human which is looking to promote human agency in an increasingly digital and corporatized age.
M.A.O.: I’m currently still working on Powers and I’m drawing Cave Carson for DC Comics. You can keep up with all my projects at MichaelAvonOeming.com.
What are you currently geeking out over?
D.R.: Not a heck of a lot. There’s something that flipped in me, that makes me see all this stuff as the same. I stopped watching The Walking Dead, which was a big turning point for me. Just not wanting to fill myself with that hopelessness. So I am watching Black Mirror, which is awfully good. Maybe not masterpieces, but effective enough. I watch Mr. Robot, though I fear they got a bit lost at the end of season 1. I’m watching Westworld, but more as a fellow creator seeing how they move through the material than as a fan. But sometimes I’m sucked in a bit.
My problem is with series that are based on spoilers and withheld plot points rather than truly deep ideas. Shakespeare and Shaw didn’t need spoilers to keep audiences interested. It feels to me as if spoilers are a consequence of a very IP-driven entertainment landscape. Yes, it’s nice to be surprised. Or fooled. But it’s not the most communicative or highly dimensionalized form of fiction.
I’m watching a lot of Deepak Chopra right now. Watching the YouTube videos where the mean scientists reveal his lack of understanding, his misuse of quantum terminology. He’s playing off the same supernatural memes as the magicians of the last century, but refusing to acknowledge them as metaphorical, like Crowley did. I enjoy seeing people unmasked, and at the same time, I feel for them—because we are all faking it to some degree. That’s part of the fascination with Trump. We are all scrambling like that in so many conversations.
I’m reading Julian Barbour, and other good physicists, on the nature of time. And Merlin Donald and Karl Pribram on the human mind. So I guess I’m geeking out most on true geekery about the nature of consciousness.
M.A.O: I’m with Douglas on a lot of what he said about entertainment. I guess I’m at the age where I’ve seen so much material that most of what I see is recycled or expected ideas. Not that I can always do better; being a creator and being a consumer are very different things. I wish I could only have original ideas, but I don’t, so I do the best I can with them, which seems to hold up. But as a consumer, I’ll watch a show, and maybe it feels like a good network show. Then I realize, wow, I’ve either seen too much or I’m jaded. Also, the lack of time is a problem for a comic artist. Like, I love The Knick or The Killing and Hannibal but I feel like I’m ingesting negativity while watching those…feeding my soul with the wrong stuff. I’ve been watching a lot of British comedy—Chewing Gum is so fun and I can rewatch Peep Show any day.
I just read The Fix by Steve Lieber and Nick Spencer and loved it. Of course, Bitch Planet and Sex Criminals are always at the top of the list. Lastly, I listen to a lot of podcasts, and Fade to Black with Jimmy Church is my favorite show about the strange and the fringe. YouTube always keeps me busy, usually watching Time Team, which is so nerdy to draw comics to it isn’t even funny.
Aleister & Adolf is available now