Idea Delivery Through Comics and Tarot -1

It’s somewhat hard to return to a project that was quiet for a few months. To get to it again, and start to think of things that might be interesting to put up here. To again devote some time to write them up and present them to the Tarot community at large. But then, we felt the project deserved more than just join the ever-growing limbo of dead blogs that simply exist on the web, it’s creators to lazy to continue them or too lazy to take them out of the web and put them out of their misery. And so, they linger… Half-dead and half-alive, in a suspended animation state while its creators go on to do other stuff. It happened to us. We went on to do other stuff. And all of us left at the same time. But we also didn’t forget about this blog. And so, we’re back.

 

As some of you might know, I recently presented a talk at the U.K. TarotCon last September. It’s subject was one that was very dear to me: Tarot and Comics. Two of my favourite subjects. Now that that presentation is over, I thought it would be a nice idea if I wrote here about some of the things that I talked over there, and probably expand upon it. Since this is supposed to be a pretty long post, I’ve divided it in three parts, of which this is part 1. The remaining parts shall be posted in the next few days. If you happened to attend that conference, think of this as a sort of companion piece; if not, just sit back and enjoy the post.

 

When mentioning tarot and comics, most people will probably think of Promethea. The Alan Moore comic book that started with a Wonder Woman type hero but immediately evolved into an exploration of the Golden Dawn Magickal System. A sort of crash course on tarot and magick. There were 32 issues published and collected in 5 volumes, that you can find here).

Promethea #1. By Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III
Promethea #1. By Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III

What was interesting to the series, is that each issue was based either on a Sephiroth (issues #1-10) or a Major Arcana tarot card (issues #11-32). Of special interest to tarot readers is issue #12, which presents a journey through the Major Arcana tarot cards in 4 different levels. There’s the actual tarot card, created specifically for that issue, as well as a description of the tarot card, how it relates to world history events. But there’s also a word or expression written in Scrabble tiles which is always an anagram for Promethea. And there’s a little anecdote as told by Aleister Crowley divided in 22 parts, with each part attributed to each of the Major Arcana cards. Each page drawn in such a way that when you put them all side by side, you get a giant panel depicting Promethea’s journey through the Major Arcana.

First four Major Arcana cards as depicted in Promethea #12
First four Major Arcana cards as depicted in Promethea #12

But the book doesn’t end here. In issues #5 through #8 (collected in the first and second volumes of the series), you’ll get a brief exploration of the elements and then, of course, you can browse through all the remaining issues and try to figure out how each Major Arcana helped shape that particular issue. In all, it’s an interesting reading and one that might offer a new perspective to your understanding of the cards.

But comic books have more to offer than Promethea. With this in mind, this presentation started with a comic book published in 1978 called Doorway to Nightmare by DC Comics.

Doorway to Nightmare #1, published by DC Comics
Doorway to Nightmare #1, published by DC Comics

What was interesting in this comic book was the presence of a character, Madame Xanadu, who was a tarot reader. In each issue, someone would stumble into her parlour and have their cards read. According to Jack C. Harris, editor of the series, the tarot cards were such an important part of the series, “they were at the very heart of the idea from the beginning”.

The first issue of Doorway to Nightmare is also worth mentioning because of  a text that was published there about the origins of the tarot cards, which is reproduced below. Bill Kunkel, the author, traced the origins of the tarot deck to the fourteenth century and to elements present in Dante’s Divine Comedy. He then goes on to explain how the cards might have evolved and even present a way of reading the Celtic Cross. Now this text does present inaccuracies, and some even blatant, but even so, it is clear that its author tried to present the tarot in a positive light and not as a game to be played at parties for the amusement of guests. Which holds even more value, when one considers that this is a comic book, and as such meant to be read by children and teenagers. Who probably never heard of tarot and, again, probably would forget about it half an hour later after finishing the book.

 

Tarot text that appeared on the first issue of Doorway to Nightmare
Tarot text that appeared on the first issue of Doorway to Nightmare

A few years later, in 1981, a new series starring Madame Xanadu appeared, written by Steve Englehart. Once again, someone comes to Madame Xanadu in search of advice.

Madame Xanadu (1981) 01 - 07 Madame Xanadu (1981) 01 - 08 Madame Xanadu (1981) 01 - 09

It is unfortunate that the first card is wrongly attributed to the Queen of Cups, when in fact, it’s the Princess of Cups. Even so, it is an inspired reading, while it is also interesting to see how the artist, Marshal Rogers framed the sequence, using cards as actual comic book panels and easily leads us through the reading.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, 1978 saw the release of Marvel Team-Up #76, a comic book which also relies in tarot cards as a story device and does present a Celtic Cross reading. However, it is the cover that is of interest to us, as it features the first time superheroes were depicted as Major Arcanas, with Spider-Man as The Fool, Dr. Strange and his apprentice Clea as The Magician and The High Priestess and Ms. Marvel as The Star. The villain, a sorcerer by the name of Silver Dagger, was represented as Death.

Marvel Team-Up #76
Marvel Team-Up #76

It took almost 30 years, but the first decks featuring characters from comic books were finally here. In 1995, Lo Scarabeo publishes a limited edition Majors-only deck featuring some of Marvel’s superheroes, while at DC, Rachel Pollack and artist Dave McKean put out the Vertigo Tarot, featuring such popular characters as Dream and Death, from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; John Constantine from Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Black Orchid, among others.

Marvel Tarot Deck, published by Lo Scarabeo
Marvel Tarot Deck, published by Lo Scarabeo

Nowadays, it’s not so difficult to consider superheroes as archetypes. We have a long history of stories featuring gods and goddesses. For a long time, we used these stories to educate ourselves; to teach us the ways of the world and how to behave in it. As our religious believes changed, so did the stories we told each other. The myths of yesterday started to loose its strength and new stories appeared to substitute them. Stories about extraordinary characters. And stories about people put in extraordinary situations. In 1938, Superman appeared for the very first time. And ever since, kids and teenagers throughout the whole world have once again embraced the idea of super-human power.

Superman can be represent all that’s best in humanity. A being with the powers of god, that only wished to live as a human. A being capable of great deads, that came to our world from another planet. An immigrant, who fought and found its place on Earth whilst never deviating from its moral set of values and believes. Who got its powers from our yellow sun. (For an interesting view on Superman and all that he represents, do check this book). If we were to assign a tarot card to Superman, it would probably be Atu XIX – The Sun.

Looking at the stories behind other popular superheroes, it’s not difficult to find cards that can correspond to them.

With Spiderman, we have a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider. Instead of using his powers for good, he choose to use them for personal gain as a professional wrestler. One day, he could have stopped a burglar, but he choose not to. The same burglar who would murder his Uncle Ben just a few hours later, and teach Spiderman his most valuable lesson:

From Amazing Fantasy #15, featuring the origin and first appearance of Spiderman. Story by Stan Lee; art by Steve Ditko.
From Amazing Fantasy #15, featuring the origin and first appearance of Spiderman. Story by Stan Lee; art by Steve Ditko.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Even today, more than 50 years after his first appearance, writers milk this motto to put Spiderman in situations where he must choose between doing the right thing or doing what he wants. His tarot card? The Hanged Man.

With Green Lantern, we get the story of Hal Jordan, a pilot who is presented with a ring capable of transforming his wishes into reality. Imagination becomes Will and Will becomes Form. Or the Magician.

Green Lantern's Origin.
Green Lantern’s Origin. Published by DC Comics

The Hulk is just another variation of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. A man that harbors within itself a monster that symbolizes the primitive mind. Or The Strength.

The Incredible Hulk #1. Published by Marvel Comics
The Incredible Hulk #1. Published by Marvel Comics

With Batman, we have a man who, as a kid saw his parents murdered, his innocence destroyed. That kid vowed to punish evil wherever it might be and grew so obsessed with it that he devoted every single moment henceforth and every single resource at his disposal to acquire the means to actually fulfil his promise. Or The Devil.

The Legend Of The Batman: Who He Is And How He Came To Be. Published by DC Comics.
The Legend Of The Batman: Who He Is And How He Came To Be. Published by DC Comics.

And the list goes on… Pick a superhero. Any superhero. Look at his personal history and you can easily find a tarot card that corresponds to him.

 

But comics can give us much more than just a new take on tarot archetypes. Join us tomorrow, for part two, where we look at the Hero’s Journey, the Minor Arcana, and how can comics make us see the cards in a different manner. In the meanwhile, feel free to browse the archives.

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8 thoughts on “Idea Delivery Through Comics and Tarot -1

  1. I’m in heaven reading your three articles and wishing I had been there to see you present this at a conference.

    I’ve got Promethea in the five-volume trade paperback version. One of the great series’ as is The Sandman. I’ve often referred to them on my card blog, usually in relation to art or something in a card reminding me of specific art. I’ve also used Moore’s Watchmen as a tie-in.

    I laugh frequently when I see people deriding a deck because the artwork looks like a comic or “cartoon-y.” How delightful if it DOES. I have the Fradella Adventure Tarot and Mike Indovina’s Silenus Tarot, both of which are comic art.Phantasmagoric Theater Tarot!! A lot of the Lo Scarabeo artists look a bit comic-like, although more accurately described as illustrations I suppose.

    So much the better for me. I grew up reading Marvel, DC, Dell, and the old Classics Illustrated comics. While I don’t have the Vertigo Tarot, I do have Dave McKean’s wonderful book Cages. I prefer his artwork in that rather than the collages in The Sandman of the Vertigo deck.

    1. Hi JJ I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the posts. I’ve been meaning to do something like that for some time, and well… Here it is. As you might realize, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
      I did make a conscious decision to stay clear of Promethea, The Invisibles, Sandman and other works card readers might be more familiar on purpose. I wanted to present other voices, some of which have been around for more than 40 years, and to show how much is there for the taking, both in terms of concepts, but also in terms of structure and sequential narrative.
      I grew up reading mostly 70s Marvel and DC comics, and there was so much there, even today I can still find new things.
      People like Kirby, Ditko, Gerber, Englehart, and others. Their comics were filled with ideas and concepts so wild and magical, you just had to be attentive for them to rub on. I’ve learned a lot from comics, and still do, up on agreeing with people like Eisner and Mack, when they say that comic books is one of the best idea delivery systems there is. Guess that is why I can’t stray from comic book for too long.

      As for decks, I wonder if you’ve seen the Sakki Sakki tarot deck. It also has a wonderful cartoonish feel that should be right up your alley. I do have the Phantasmagoric Theater Tarot, and I use it quite a lot. Wonderful, wonderful deck. The McKean Vertigo tarot, not so much. While I do like McKean’s work (btw, have you seen the post about McKean’s story “The Tower and the King”), and the artwork he made for the Vertigo Tarot, the first printing came off a bit to dark and I personally find it too hard to use.

      1. I’ll go look up the post about McKean’s story, thanks.

        I remember when the Sakki-Sakki came out it was hard to get in Canada so I gave it a miss. One of the ones that got away.

        I hadn’t read comics for years and never thought I’d be able to afford The Sandman set but when I lost my job I got a settlement from work and thus bought it along with a few other graphic novels.

        I love Eric Shanower’s Trojan War series “Age of Bronze” and many of the mythology decks have reference to Troy so it ties in well with cards.

      2. You can get the Sakki Sakki deck directly from her site.

        Shanower’s Age of Bronze is lovely. You can see that the author really did its research and truly cared about the story. You might also want to check the comic book series Testament, by Douglas Rushkoff and Liam Sharp, that was published by Vertigo, where he basically picks some stories from the Bible and shows us how they not only remain current, but that they still happen today.

      3. Eric Shanower was supposed to finish the seven volumes earlier, but he seems to have been caught up in a newer project about the Wizard of Oz, and now Little Nemo, so it’s taken years to get the collected books out. Still waiting for volume 4 and it doesn’t look like it’s forthcoming.

        Oh, I notice he’s going to try and do an Oz Tarot deck from his comics–interesting. I have the old Tarot of Oz by David Sexton which is very comic-y as well.

        I noticed the Sakki-Sakki on her site. Not really in my budget. Good that she still has some copies.

        The Testament series looks very interesting, it’s almost OOP, I’ll see if I can find it on the secondary market or order it in from the library. Thanks!

      4. I’ve heard of the project you’re talking about. It was funded through Kickstarter and Shanower really is collaborating on it. I can understand the tardiness with Age of Bronze. Both the Oz and Little Nemo gigs were paying ones, besides being interesting projects on their own, so it’s normal that something was left behind. I still believe he will finish his Troyan account, though. The series started in ’98, so if he was tired, he would long have put an end to it.

      5. Oh I see, so the Age of Bronze is more like a project without an immediate regular income? It’s so GOOD but I can see why, apart from the heavy research he does, that it might take longer.

      6. Well it’s his personal project, so it probably does not have an immediate regular income. You’d do well in contacting the author and ask him that, though 🙂

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