Lives of the Great Occultists
By Kevin Jackson and Hunt Emerson
Review by Peter Duncan
The history of the mixture of practices and beliefs which we refer to as “the occult” is, in many ways, a story of individual practitioners, rather than any contiguous and consistent story. Those men and women who, over time, wrote and studied magical tomes, inspired, and betrayed each other and practiced strange rituals while living lives of colour and excess are the story. These mystics, a mixture of seekers after truth, liars, users and the used, foolish, and fooled are the subject of the latest book by writer Kevin Jackson, aided and abetted by cartoonist Hunt Emerson.
Hunt Emerson has been a leading figure in UK comics since the 1970s, starting in the world of underground comics and creating characters like Calculus Cat, a fitting tribute to George Herriman’s classic Krazy Kat newspaper strip; and the wildly inventive Hot Jazz stories that somehow managed to capture the spirit of the Jazz music around which they are based.
He’s also produced adaptations of great works of literature, adding his unique style and humour to versions of Dante’s Inferno, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, bringing new life and audiences to these classics.
Until recently, he was working regularly for both Beano and the adult magazine, Fiesta, a strange pairing only broken up by the closure of the latter (to the dismay of fans of his “Firkin” strip). But it is Fortean Times, the magazine of the strange and uncanny, which has been Hunt’s longest-standing gig. He started contributing to the title in 1974, creating the headings for the magazine’s regular columns and providing covers, as opposed to strips. The “Phenomenomix” strip has been running monthly since 1979 and, Lives of the Great Occultists is a collection from that strip of a themed collaboration, created with writer Kevin Jackson.
In Kevin Jackson, Hunt has found a remarkable collaborator. The author of more that 30 books on subjects as diverse as The Great Pyramid, Elizabethan Maritime history and the Vampire in film, folklore and literature, Jackson has worked as a writer and director of radio documentaries and as an arts journalist. He was also a founding member of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics, an organisation that promotes the fascinating “philosophy of science” invented by the French writer, Alfred Jarry that was a major influence on the Surrealist and Dada movements.
Together, their collaboration provides an excellent primer to the story of western occultism,’ through a series of short strips outlining the lives of a some of the most interesting, bizarre and, at times, mischievous people ever to walk the earth.
Their enthusiasm shines through on every page, as they cram as much into each short strip as they can. This means smaller panels and more text than many comics readers will be used to. “Phenomenomix” is the only comic strip in Fortean Times, and is not written for comic fans, but for the particular audience of a magazine that deals with UFOs, Ghosts, and other strange happenings. The fact that the strips hang together so well, especially the multipage entries on several of the occultists, is a tribute to the skills of both writer and artist.
Lives of the Great Occultists is heavy with text, with the sparse scattering of speech balloons reserved, mainly, for comments by the characters on what Kevin and Hunt have said about them. But this isn’t in any way an issue. The purpose of the strips is to both entertain and inform and in that they succeed beautifully.
The art is, as is to be expected, charming in a wonderfully grotesque way and the jokes, both visual and textual are all memorable and very funny. Hunt does not merely illustrate Kevin’s text, but adds to it, emphasising the ludicrousness of some of the mystics or the strange images hidden in their purple prose. That is particularly true of one description of a dream by Jung, which can only be described as, Freudian.
There are some delightful easter eggs hidden in the artwork. Beano fans should look out for the brief appearance of some old friends and there is an almost totally gratuitous appearance from a particular group of comedic, military, TV stars.
Running to over 100 pages of strips, Lives of the Great Occultists is features more than 40 fascinating, eccentric, possibly insane, people who were not content with the here and now and wanted to see what lay beyond our reality. From scientists, like Dr Dee and Isaac Newton, to artists and writers like WD Yates, Kenneth Anger and Charles Williams, friend of Tolkien and CS Lewis, many of these people have had a profound influence on our lives.
One figure, however, emerges as the most influential of all, reappearing in story after story is, Aleister Crowley, The Great Beast or, The Wickedest Man in the World. A master of self-promotion, Crowley’s presence, and influence, links generations of dabblers, from WB Yeats to David Bowie – and I did always wonder if he was the model for Leo Baxendale’s creation, Grimly Fiendish, from the Wham! and Smash! comics of the 1960s.
(Sadly, this isn’t the case, although it would have been fun if it was. In A Very Funny Business, Leo Baxendale says ‘Grimly’ was inspired by Alex Guinness in The Ladykillers but he wasn’t satisfied until he fattened him up and he reminded him of Uncle Fester from The Addams Family – Ed).
Lives of the Great Occultists is not only a primer on the fascinating history of western occultism. It’s not just a very funny and entertaining comic, it’s also a perfect introduction to the work of a great British cartoonist and an intriguing and absorbing writer.
This review took longer to produce than most. Once started, I found myself re-reading Hunt Emerson’s wonderful Calculus Cat and Hot Jazz books – and then listened to the audio of Kevin Jackson’s, Bite: A Vampire Handbook. I’m even mid-way through a book on the birth of modernism, a subject I never thought would be so fascinating. But then in Life of the Great Occultists, we have a book by two men who are very, very good at what they do.
• Lives Of The Great Occultists is available from Hunt Emerson’s “Large Cow” site here | It’s also available from all good bookshops, and AmazonUK here, except you don’t get a free demon*
• Hunt Emerson is online at largecow.com | Lakes International Comic Art Festival Comics Clock Tower
* A lie. Sorry.
With thanks to Rory Milne for extra information on Hunt’s work for Fortean Times; and Wyfan for steering us right on the origins of Grimly Feendish, even though it isn’t as much fun as Peter’s idea!