Mutants, Supermen, New Soviet Men, and Homo Superior: Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John

Odd John

Odd John by Olaf Stapledon is a fascinating science-fictional artifact. Written in 1936, it anticipates much later science fiction and comics developments. The story traces the life of “Odd” John Wainwright, a genetically superior human specimen, a homo superior (Stapledon coined this term). We witness his growing pains as he develops his superhuman intellect and abilities. We also follow his journey worldwide as he tries to find others like him, and eventually, his demise, on a remote island where he sets up a utopian community. This post is not a full review of the book, but I want to note some interesting things.

Odd John. Cover art by Richard Powers

Archaeopteryx

“They do their simple jobs with more style than man shows in his complicated job. Watch a gannet in flight, or a curlew probing the mud for food. Man, I suppose, is about as clever along his own line as the earliest birds were at flight. He’s a sort of archaeopteryx of the spirit.

Odd John (p.33)

Birds have evolved to be birds with style and maturity. Man has only begun on his evolutionary journey. “Odd” John is aware of his evolutionary superiority and already sees ordinary humans as living fossils. While John ordinarily is a kind and peace-loving being, he also contains a Nietzschean core. Maybe he does not quite live up to being an apex predator—a majestic raptor in flight-ready to devour its prey—but walks the tightrope between animal and superman.

Future Shock

“The have-nots with very good reason exercise their hate upon the haves, who have made the mess and can’t clean it up. The haves fear and therefore zestfully hate the have-nots. What people can’t realize is that if there were no deep-rooted need to hate in almost every mind, the social problem would be at least intelligently faced, perhaps solved. Then there’s the third factor, namely, the growing sense that there’s something all wrong with modern solely-scientific culture. I don’t mean that people are intellectually doubtful about science. It’s much deeper than that. They are simply finding that modern culture isn’t enough to live by. It just doesn’t work in practice. It has got a screw loose somewhere. Or some vital bit of it is dead. Now this horror against modern culture, against science and mechanization and standardization, is only just beginning to be a serious factor. It’s newer than Bolshevism. The Bolshies, and all socially left-wing people, are still content with modern culture. Or rather, they put all its faults down to capitalism, dear innocent theorists. But the essence of it they still accept. They are rationalistic, scientific, mechanistic, brass-tack-istic. But another crowd, scattered about all over the place, are having the hell of a deep revulsion against all this. They don’t know what’s the matter with it, but they are sure it’s not enough.”

Odd John (p.77)

The above quote is an interesting analysis of modern civilization. Communism is generally seen as the rational solution to Capitalism. In John’s view, Communism sits at the apex of the mechanized cultural movement. In other words, it is the logical end game of modern civilization. But, Stapledon (via John) detects a more profound revulsion against contemporary society. He doesn’t expound on this further, but one can leap to various similar diagnoses posited by thinkers like Marshall McLuhan or Alin Toffler. He identifies a civilizational shift that McLuhan would probably identify as a movement from a flat literary/visual culture (through electrified technology) back to an immersive oral/tactile culture.

As oral/tactile communication becomes dominant, the culture built on visual/literary communication becomes flat and inadequate. The people living in such a transitional phase become alienated. They instinctively seek new ways of being out of step with established norms. This transitional phase leads to Tofflers Future Schock, a period of social upheaval. Under this model, Communism and Capitalism are both civilizational technologies of the past. They were developed and brought into being under a literary/visual culture, which begins to feel strange and alienating to people immersed in aural/tactile film, radio, telephone, consumerism, etc. Political and cultural norms become unstable, outmoded, and inherently alienating.

The powers of “Odd” John are a kind of internalization of this new civilization’s technical capabilities. For example, he can communicate remotely (radio/telephone), he has prodigious memory (print/library), superior technical ability (modern science/technology), and can split the atom with his mind to power vehicles (electricity/fossil fuels). John’s abilities allow him to participate in the new alienating civilization as if it was natural. For John, modern society is almost as natural as a tropical forest to an apex predator. Eventually, John and his like will create the perfect superior un-alienated Communism.

Homo Superior

“As I was saying, it’s much harder to get in touch with people one doesn’t know, and at first, I didn’t know any of the people I was looking for. On the other hand, I found that people of my sort [i.e., homo superior] make, so to speak, a much bigger ‘noise’ telepathically than the rest. At least they do when they want to, or when they don’t care. But when they want not to, they can shut themselves off completely. Well, at last I managed to single out from the general buzz of telepathic ‘noise,’ made by the normal species, a few outstanding streaks or themes that seemed to have about them something or other of the special quality that I was looking for.”

Odd John (p.107-108)
The Cerebro device. Art by Jack Kirby

Just a quick note that John’s ability to find others like him also describes X-Men’s Cerebro device. Professor X uses the Cerebro to enhance his mental abilities to detect other mutants worldwide. 

Shadow King

“Meanwhile, he continued to improve his supernormal powers, and would sometimes use them to practice psycho-therapy upon his fellow-proletarians. But his chief interest was exploration of the past. At this time, the knowledge of Ancient Egypt was extremely scanty, and Adlan’s passion was to gain direct experience of the great race long ago.”

Odd John (p.131)

There are so many similarities between the homo superior of Odd John and Marvel’s mutants (frequently referred to as homo superior) that it can’t be a coincidence. For example, one of the first mutants Professor X meets is Amahl Farouk (The Shadow King), a powerful Egyptian mutant similar to Adlan in Odd John. They both hide their true abilities by posing as a crime lord (Farouk) and a ferryman (Adlan). Has there ever been anything written on this similarity? Has any of the many X-Men creators talked about reading Odd John?

Amahl Farouk vs. Professor X. Art by John Byrne

New Men

“Indeed one of his favourite occupations, as he plied his oars, was to expound to John with prophetic enthusiasm the kind of world that “John’s New Men” would make, and how much more vital and more happy it would be than the world of Homo Sapiens.” p.133

Odd John (p.133)
New (X) Men. Art by Frank Quitely

Another X-Men similarity! John’s ragtag team is called “New Men.” The words form a kind of mirror palindrome. When Grant Morrison took over X-Men in (2001), he explicitly renamed the team “New X Men” and expressly visualized the palindromic nature of New/Men in the new logo. 

Kill the Unfit

“For to-day the chief lesson which your species has to learn is that it is far better to die, far better to sacrifice even the loftiest of all ‘sapient’ purposes, than to kill beings of one’s own mental order. But, just as you kill wolves and tigers so that the far brighter spirits of men may flourish, so we killed those unfortunate creatures that we had rescued. Innocent as they were, they were dangerous. Unwittingly they threatened the noblest practical venture that has yet occurred on this planet. Think! If you, and Bertha had found yourselves in a world of great apes, clever in their own way, lovable too, but blind, brutish, and violent, would you have refused to kill? Would you have sacrificed the founding of a human world? To refuse would be cowardly, not physically, but spiritually. Well, if we could wipe out your whole species, frankly, we would. For if your species discovers us, and realizes at all what we are, it will certainly destroy us. And we know, you must remember, that Homo sapiens has little more to contribute to the music of this planet, nothing in fact but vain repetition. It is time for finer instruments to take up the theme.”

Odd John (p.147-8)

You can detect shades of so many things to come—the conflicts of the Planet of the Apes, the human-mutant conflict, etc. Of course, Stapledon is playing with ideas already present in his time: Darwinian evolution, survival of the fittest, genetic ideas about race, advanced technology, etc. The way Odd John embodies these often contradictory ideas will prove very influential. John is Professor X (hero) and Magneto (villain) in one. It makes sense that as a species, homo superior (which internalized all the powers of the civilized world) would feel no moral obligation to the inferior homo sapiens. John represents the highest ideals and abilities of technological civilization, and at the same time, he contains all the unspoken terrifying consequences. 

Island

“After many weeks of cruising, a suitable though minute island was discovered somewhere in the angle between the routes from New Zealand to Panama and New Zealand to Cape Horn, and well away from both courses.”

Odd John (p.150)
Map from the Marvel Atlas

Yet another parallel with X-Men. A faction of separatist mutants, led by Magneto, found Genosha, an island where they can live apart from regular humans. The specter of the fundamental incompatibility between the two species haunts Odd John and Marvel’s mutants. 

Individualistic Communism

“Comrades, you have the wrong approach. Like you, we are Communists, but we are other things also. For you, Communism is the goal, but for us it is the beginning. For you the group is sacred, but for us it is only the pattern made up of individuals. Though we are Communists, we have reached beyond Communism to a new individualism. Our Communism is individualistic.”

Odd John (p.183)

Interestingly, when he finally creates his perfect community, John calls it Communist. There are some correspondences between John and the Communist ideal man, also often called a “new man” or “Soviet Man.” The Communist man will be a “new man” with a better consciousness (not false consciousness). This new man can finally experience Communism as liberation (as opposed to oppression) and become a new kind of Communist individual. The idea that Communism can’t be realized with ordinary (read regressive or reactionary) humans is implicit. In Odd John and real-world Communist societies, this fundamental incompatibility ended in tragedy. 

Marx/Nietzsche Complex

As I read Odd John, I started Čeika’s How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle. It’s an interesting book that attempts to find common ground between Marx and Nietzsche—two thinkers usually seen as incompatible. Without going too deep into it, Čeika finds a lot of similarities between the two. Finding the Nietzschean superman inside Marx’s Communism is perhaps not a work of theory but one of archaeology. With Odd John in the mix, I had a kind of synesthetic experience. The two books rhymed with each other across time and space. Together they were dark mirror reflections of each other. By trying to incept Nietsche into Marx (and vice versa), we might be exhuming the undead mummified corpse of Soviet Man. I will try to illustrate this more in a future post.


5 Favorite Books of 2018

hav jan morris

I read a lot of books and I like to think about the books I read. But, I never do enough of either. That will change this year as I plan to engage more with what I read and think about. What better way to start than with a list. Here’s are five of my favorite books from 2018 that had a big impact on me last year. They were not necessarily published in 2018, although one of them was.

Hav by Jan Morris

hav jan morris

It’s no secret that I’m a connoisseur of architectural things. Rooms, buildings, structures, cities; urban areas in general. Hav is a fictional trading city located somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s old. It has been around for centuries, if not millennia. It’s rumored to be on the site of ancient Greek Troy. It is ostensibly European, but has been conquered by Arabs, Turks, Russians, Venetians, British, and others. Each administration has left an indelible stamp on the city through buildings, urban planning, and population resulting in a labyrinthine conurbation with many distinct parts. It’s also a trading port. It’s most famous export is Hav salt, valued for its aphrodisiac qualities. Like other commercial hubs, it is populated by a varied mix of people that first arrive to do business, but end up staying, settling, and creating enclaves that add to the exotic richness of the place. The Hav Chinese built the most impressive structure, the tower of the Chinese Master, that boasts young Sigmund Freud as a one-time resident. Languidly paced, but hard to put down, Jan Morris’ Hav is a place I wish I could visit again.

atta future kobek

The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek

This is a prequel to I hate the Internet, which I loved. Set mostly in 80’s New York, against the backdrop of its waning hedonistic club scene, with short detours to Midwest and California, we get to see the origin and evolution of the friendship between Baby & Adeline. As someone who lived in New York for a few years, it was an easy novel to like. Revisiting old haunts and places I wish were still around was a nostalgic treat.

ATTA by Jarett Kobek

This is a short and incredible book. It’s the fictionalized life of Mohamed Atta, the mastermind of 9/11. I resisted this book for a long time. Having lived in New York during 9/11, it’s hard for me to revisit that moment. It’s probably some kind of generalized PTSD, although I was never near the worst of the action. ATTA is revelatory. His life unfolded like a dark version of my own. I grew up in Poland, he grew up in Egypt, both were outside the western prosperity sphere at the time. We emigrated, and arrived in the west in Hamburg, Germany. We both studied architecture and urban planning. Then our path crossed again in New York, 9/11. A haunting mirror of our world.

1491 charles c mann

1491 by Charles C. Mann

I was aware of 1491 since its release. I read the first 100 pages or so, a couple of years ago at my sister’s wedding. A copy was available at the Airbnb I was staying at. I didn’t want to leaved it, and contemplated stealing the copy. I finally finished it this year when I finally got a copy of my own. This book is incredible on so many levels. From the deep history of the Andean and Mesoamerican societies, through the plagues that wiped out a mind-boggling percentages of Native American populations, to the astonishing ecological impacts of the native populations, this book was filled with incredible history, much of which was completely unknown to me. I say this as someone who’s read fairly extensively on all these topics, and yet 1491 surprised me again and again.

Unamerica by Momus

unAmerica momus

I’m a big fan of Momus; not just Momus the musician, or Momus the writer, or Momus the blogger, or Momus the YouTube lecturer. I’m a fan of ALL of those incarnations of Momus. I’ve listened to his music since the late 90’s, read his Click Opera blog in Oughts, I watch his YouTube channel now, and I read his books when they come out. I devoured and loved The Book of Scotlands and the Book of Jokes.

Parallel World

For some reason it took me a few years to get to Unamerica. Momus can really turn a phrase: The Book of Scotlands’ ‘motto’ is “Every Lie Creates a Parallel World, a world in which it is true.” The back cover of Unamerica announces that, “God doesn’t love America. Quite the reverse.” The book begins with a revelation. God speaks unto Brad, and asks him to go a voyage of discovery, but in reverse. God says: “Brad, Americans have become the opposite of everything I intended humans, especially Christians, to become. If I still could, I’d smash this nation to potsherds, or flood the entire continental basin from sea to shining sea. […] America has to become undiscovered. […] Now it’s the rest of the world that needs to become the shining example, the Tir na nOg, the Shangri-La, the Golden Fleece. You Brad, and your twelve hand-picked companions must learn-and teach the world-how to become as unAmerican as possible.”

Meander

Eventually, Brad embarks on this voyage, but he takes a lot detours and meanderings. Momus is not afraid of language, he frequently makes use of vocabulary that is difficult, and willfully obscure. He relishes it in fact. It’s a slim volume, as are all of Momus’ books, but it’s densely packed with invention, adventure, absurdity, and fun. It feels like a much larger book. It doesn’t play by any narrative rules (that I’m aware of).

Utopia

Above all, Momus’ work revolves around the concept of Utopia. He himself has moved from Britain to France to America to Germany to Japan, and back. It has made him a keen observer of social norms, how they are constructed, and how they differ from place to place. We’re often told of the impossibility of Utopia, or of the impossibility of changing the society we live in for the better. But we only have to step outside of our borders to see that even small changes can produce big results. Humans have been creating different ways of living for millennia, it’s just something we do. It’s nice to have Momus remind us of this ability.

I hope you enjoyed this short list of my five favorite books of 2018. I will have more to say about some of these books in the future. Stay tuned!

AWP is here!

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference is in Minneapolis this weekend, and I’ll be there along with Uncivilized Books. Find us at Booth #839.

Also, I will be on a panel discussing Graphic Novels in translation. It’s today (Thursday) at 10:30 AM, Room 205 A&B, Level 2. Here’s the description.

R141. The Voyage of Graphic Literary Forms. (Mercedes Gilliom,  Erica Mena,  Tomasz Kaczynski,  Brian Evenson,  Diana Arterian) Four panelists who work at the intersection of graphic literature and translation discuss the challenges and benefits of transporting graphic literary forms from one language and culture to another. These writers, artists, and translators with backgrounds in comics creation, translation, editing, and publishing come together to share their experiences in reaching new audiences and markets for this expanding element in the creative writing landscape.

Stop by and say hello!

Critical Cartoons, Carl Barks’ Weird Panel, Comics Continuum and More

carl barks' duck

In last week’s post I mentioned I’d write more about Carl Barks’ Duck by Peter Schilling Jr. (out now from Uncivilized Books). Well, I ended up writing about the Critical Cartoons series as a whole.

Spectrum

When I conceptualized the Critical Cartoons series for Uncivilized Books, I wanted to demonstrate the breadth of subjects that could be discussed in the series. The first two books should exemplify the opposite ends of a spectrum…

the comics continuum v1

Yummy Fur

The first book (Ed vs. Yummy Fur: Or, What Happens When A Serial Comic Becomes a Graphic Novel  by Brian Evenson) took on a key (and under appreciated) work from the comics underground: Yummy Fur by Chester Brown. Yummy Fur is scatological, sacrilegious and challenging. It was a way for Chester Brown to break down not only his inhibitions and beliefs, but also his approach to making comics. To date, Yummy Fur has not been reprinted.

The only part of Yummy Fur still in print is the collected (and heavily edited) Ed The Happy Clown. In other words, this a relatively obscure work that for all it’s influence, has been partially forgotten, and difficult to track down. Yummy Fur and comics like it represent one side of the spectrum of the comics continuum. The lost and forgotten self-published work, the minor masterpieces, hidden gems, significant early work (or ‘unusual’ late work) of great cartoonists… published by obscure small presses. I would be very happy if the Critical Cartoon series manages to bring some of them out into the light.

Duck Man

The second book, Carl Barks’ Duck, looks at Carl Barks’ Donald Duck stories. Barks’ Donald Duck could not be more different from Chester’s work. First, it’s a corporate product. Second, all the characters and situations are owned wholesale by the Disney corporation. Finally, it was a way for Disney to maintain copyright on Donald when his primary medium, the cartoon, had waned in popularity. And yet Barks’ created an amazing array of stories and characters within that system. His contribution to comics is difficult to measure. He is one of the greats. His work has been almost continuously published around the globe and has influenced comics and cartooning everywhere (for example, Osamu Tezuka was hugely influenced by Barks’ work).

Barks’ work represents the other side of the comics continuum: the corporate mainstream. Some, like Barks’ comics, are well documented, examined and easily available. Others were very popular in their time, but have become lost, or—if they are still currently published—changed beyond recognition (for example Captain Marvel / Shazam). Or, there are the occasional moments in time (1985-1987) where artistic experimentation, audience expectations, and corporate willingness to take chances, results in a deluge of interesting work in the mainstream.

Some of this work (Dark Knight or Watchmen) goes on to influence and create whole new movements. Other comics (The Shadow or The Question) languish in relative obscurity. This is where many comics readers start. When I was younger (I grew up in Europe), I immersed myself in Marvel and DC universes, or the fantasy / science-fictional worlds of Thorgal, Valerian and Funky Koval… Or, in the humor of Lucky Luke, Asterix and Kajko i Kokosz. Eventually I went on to discover (and create) comics closer to Yummy Fur in their sensibility. But this is where I started. There is a lot of interesting work at this end of the spectrum.

Barks Overload

For some reason I never got into the Disney comics, and consequently I didn’t encounter the work of Carl Barks until I was much older. Eventually, I became aware of his work, but it was always difficult to know where to start. Barks is such a ubiquitous cartoonist – so beloved and so prolific – that it’s difficult to know where to start… especially for new readers. Should I read the best works? What are the best works? Are they really the best works? Should I try to read from the beginning? I approached Peter Schilling Jr. about writing something for Critical Cartoons, I was selfishly delighted when he chose Barks’ Donald Duck comics. Peter went on to write the perfect introduction to the work… and with Fantagraphics’ recent push to reprint all of Barks’ Duck comics, now is a perfect time to examine his work again.

New Voices

Another goal for Critical Cartoons is to bring new voices to comics criticism. Both of the authors (Evenson & Schilling Jr.) are big fans of comics, but in their careers have never had the opportunity to write about them. If given an opportunity, something interesting might emerge.

Starting with tiny detail — a dash placed between ‘graphic’ and ‘novel’ to form ‘graphic-novel’ (read this excerpt on TCJ) which subtitled the recent Ed the Happy Clown re-issue, — Brian’s close reading of minutiae in Brown’s work was revelatory. More importantly, his unapologetic placement of Brown’s work in the continuum of sacrilegious and scatological works that goes back centuries, points to ways of reading comics that engage with broader culture.

Weird Panel

Peter’s comparison of Bark’s Donald Duck to the classic Hollywood system was revealing. Hollywood Stars, for example Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, took on a variety of roles, but often remained distinct recognizable characters themselves. Donald fits that bill too (sorry)! Finally, look at this flabbergasting ‘weird’ panel (see below) from Lost in the Andes. It’s such an usual angle and I certainly haven’t seen Barks use it again elsewhere (at least in my limited familiarity with his work). Did he try it out, decide it wasn’t working, and never used that angle again? Barks scholars… any insights?

barks-weird-panel

Critical Cartoons

Now that the two inaugural volumes of Critical Cartoons are out, it’s time to look forward to next volumes. There are a few new Critical Cartoons project bubbling up. I’ll keep you posted as they develop. Thanks for reading!

Twitter

Finally, I have a new Twitter account: @BetaTestingTomK . Uncivilized Books started as a way to publish my own work. Until now I’ve conflated both identities… I was Uncivilized Books and vice versa. But the publishing house has evolved into something quite different and much larger than me. I don’t want to keep cluttering up the Uncivilized Books ( @unciv ) feed with weird thoughts, random ramblings, architectural drawings or strange theories (though you’ll probably get a bunch of that anyway). It’s time to have a new place for that stuff. Interested in the weird stuff? Follow @BetaTestingTomK or sign up for weekly updates on my new site (or both!)

Next week: Eel Mansions!

Soon: Progress report on Trans Terra: Towards a Cartoon Philosophy!

sig-v01

I Am Cult

Maybe I’m not cult, but one of my comics, ‘Vague Cities,’ was selected to be part of the Mammoth Book of Cult Comics, edited by Ilya. The book is a pretty interesting collection of comics. I haven’t had a chance to read it all yet, but I’m excited to see pieces by Gregory Benton, Jeff Nicholson, Amir Idrizovic, Chris Hogg, and many more! I was especially excited to see Simon Gane’s ‘Les Peintres Maudits’ which I tried and failed to find in my unruly mini comics collection a while ago. Amazon says the book will be available in early December. You can pre-order it from them, or from Powells or Barnes and Noble… or better yet request it from your local indie book or comic-book store!

DERNIERS TESTS AVANT L’APOCALYPSE at SPX

I’ll be manning the Uncivilized Books table (table i8) at SPX all weekend! I’ll be there with Kevin Huizenga, Dan Zettwoch, Zak Sally & Peter Wartman. Stop by to say hi!

Meanwhile, look what I got in the mail!

The French version of Beta Testing the Apocalypse is a reality! The book is in stores in France now!

The French book is a bit larger than the Fantagraphics version.

It wouldn’t be French without French flaps! I had to extend the cover drawing by more than 50%! More on that in a future post!

The table of contents.

French title card.

Sample pages in French. Thanks to Dalton Webb for creating a great font from my hand writing!

The French edition has an afterword written by novelist & journalist Christophe Tison. I’ll have a translation of it in a future post.

The back cover! I’ll have copies in both languages at SPX. See you there!

Brooklyn Book Festival

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be a guest at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 22nd. I’ll be on the The Real: Comics Nonfiction panel. Here’s a description:

3:00 P.M. The Real: Comics Nonfiction. Three artists represent the diverse spectrum of topics taken on by nonfiction comics-Ed Piskor’sHip-Hop Family Tree offers an encyclopedic comics history of the formative years of hip hop; Lucy Knisley’sRelish: My Life in the Kitchen is a loving memoir of growing up gourmet and Tom Kaczynski‘s Trans-Terra: Towards a Cartoon Philosophy is a mutant memoir that melds comics, politics, and philosophy. Moderated by ProfessorJonathan W. Gray, John Jay College. Featuring screen projection. [ at BROOKLYN HISTORICAL SOCIETY AUDITORIUM (128 Pierrepont Street) ]

Check out the rest of the comics programming. It’s looking great!

I’ll also be running the Uncivilized Books table all day. Stop by and say hello!

Beta Testing Cover Process Part 6

So, I’m continuing the cover process for the Beta Testing the Apocalypse cover. Previous parts: 123, 4, 5. In the last post, I was showing the evolution of the color. This time I’m focusing on the type design.

This was the first iteration. I wanted to typographically mirror the ‘beta testing’ concept by having some kind of wireframe version of the type present… it was a little too much.

I still wanted they type to be somehow active… but not quite as hyperactive as here.

This is pretty close to what I settled on. The drawing had so much going on in it, that I decided the type needed to be more subtle and clean… so the two elements won’t compete with each other.