Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Storming Heaven

Storming Heaven, by Gordon Rennie, Frazer Irving, and others
January 2007, Rebellion Books

Another one of those fortuitous web discoveries -- I was Googling something like "psychedelic superheroes" and came up with this slick trade paperback, which collects a host of stories drawn by fab artist Frazer Irving for the UK comic 2000AD. In particular the book features the Storming Heaven story arc, written by Gordon Rennie. It's about as "psychedelic superhero" as you can get and well worth the price of the paperback (which you can actually find for pretty cheap, even though it's currently out of print in the US).

From what I've discovered online, at the time Storming Heaven was being published in 2000AD, the current editor had a policy that all stories had to be fast-moving with lots of razzle dazzle. So then, most character and plot development was jettisoned in favor of action, action, action. This appears to have mortally damaged Storming Heaven, as this was a storyline which certainly needed some time to properly play out. Instead we have a 30-or-so page storyline in which characters are introduced in dialog, killed off in dialog, or glimpsed for half a panel. We really don't get to know any of the characters or even get a good look at this psychedelic world they've created, and it's all over before we know it.

Despite all that, it's still pretty cool, not just for the concept alone but also for Irving's slick art. Each panel is like a psychedelic painting in miniature. And the concept is one I've had in mind for years. It's little discussed today, but there was a brief time in which comic books (particularly Marvel characters) were embraced by the late '60s/early '70s counterculture. (The Hulk even appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone -- back when the magazine was cool!) Hippie leaders like Ken Kesey often said that psychedelics could turn one into a turned-on superhero (indeed, Kesey's comment served as inspiration for this story), so I've often wondered why no comic creators capitalized on this. But Rennie and Irving have and, though compromised by editorial constraints, the story they've delivered is a good one.

It's San Francisco, summer of 1967 -- the Summer of Love. Professor Adam Laar, a Timothy Leary-type proclaimer of the virtues of LSD, takes a heroic dose of acid to prove his colleagues wrong. He is reborn as Dr. Trips, the first turned-on superhero. Irving gives him a super-cool design, with a flowing Day-Glo beard and blazing third eye:

A new dawn of man springs forth in Trips' image, a world of psychedelic superheroes who conglomerate in the Haight-Ashbury district. Here Trips proclaims his brave new world and urges people to overcome their "stupid monkey" brains and become "true humans." But evil threatens the idyllic world Trips proclaims -- evil in the form of Thomas Caliban (basically, Charles Manson). After a few sex magick rites Caliban becomes a sort of demon and assembles an army of zombielike followers. They assault Haight-Ashbury and a battle for the soul of mankind ensues.

It just all happens too fast. Rennie and Irving hurl several novel concepts at us: Trips enters the "psychedeliverse," a kaleidoscopic zone from which he gains his powers; lurking there is the cosmic fetus of his unborn child, which when born will be the first fully turned-on human being. The psychedelic heroes of the Haight band together in groups with colorful names, but unfortunately we don't see any of them. And it's obvious from the beginning that Rennie is developing an Isis-Osiris-Horus theme, but due to the editorial-mandated rush we have little chance to fully appreciate it.

Researching the book I also discovered an interview with with Irving in which he discusses Storming Heaven; you can find it here. As for the trade paperback, it features several other stories Irving provided the art for, most of them only a few pages in length. I haven't read them. I will however read Storming Heaven again -- it's unfortunate the story wasn't allowed to reach its full potential. Here's hoping Gordon Rennie does the proper thing and expands it into a full-blown novel.

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