2015 February

Comic Book Contactees

By | Contactees, Movies, Science Fiction | No Comments

Comic books have been, typically, something like the Contactees of literature: mocked, belittled, and generally sneered at.  But if Hollywood box office is any indication, those “nerds” that read comics are vindicated.  Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, the Avengers…the list of successful comic book superhero movies is long and is getting longer all the time.

With some exceptions, the superheroes we see today came about during what is referred to as the Silver Age of comics, from the mid-50s to the early 70s.  It’s worth noting that this is almost the identical time frame as the classical Contactee era (shifted about five years later).  Is this a coincidence or is there a common cause?

In Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, comic book writer Grant Morrison describes the mid 1950s thusly:

Fifties America was a land of edginess and prowling paranoia hovering as it did on the verge of thermonuclear annihilation.  Alone at night, in the midst of unprecedented luxury after a successfully won world war, Americans were more frightened than ever before; there was fear of the Bomb, the Communist, the Homo, the Negro, the Teenager, the Id, the Flying Saucers, the Existential Void.

The fifties, despite the sunny sheen we get from the TV shows and movies of the era, were a time when Americans were dealing with a whole host of new fears that simply didn’t exist before.  In light of the fact that they were just coming off the high of being the greatest superpower in the world, these fears were particularly unsettling.  What they did in reaction was telling.  Morrison continues:

And as America turned its gaze inward in search of solutions to its sunlit terrors, it found the Shadow, and the multiheaded thing in the cellar emerged blinking in the light: Survival cultists, split personalities, UFO contactees like George Adamski were all admitted to the discourse, and people were willing to listen.

I think he hits the nail on the head there.  People of 1950s America were casting about for a solution to the fears that consumed them.  Though there are still people calling themselves Contactees today, most notably Billy Meier, who carries the torch of 1950s style Contacteeism.  But modern Contactees are generally less well-known than their alien abduction counterparts like Travis Walton or Whitley Strieber.  The fact is, Contactees likely wouldn’t get the traction today that they did in the 1950s, for all the reasons that Morrison outlines.

It stands to reason that with a common causal environment, comic books and Contactees would intersect.  Morrison ironically doesn’t mention this, but this article does, in discussing the Silver Age reboot of Green Lantern for DC Comics.  

During the Golden Age of comics (30s and 40s), Green Lantern was a modern retelling of Aladdin and the Lamp.  But in the Silver Age, flying saucers were all the rage, Aladdin less so.  The writers logically capitalized on that, and wrote a new origin story in which test pilot Hal Jordan comes upon a crashed spaceship and meets the friendly (but dying) alien being inside, who bestows upon him the power of the Green Lantern.  Jordan is thrust into a world of intergalactic intrigue, dealing with beings from all colors, shapes, and sizes, from worlds flung around the universe.

The similarities with typical Contactees end there, of course, and Hal’s contact wasn’t a beautiful blond being, but a bemuscled, purple humanoid.  Adamski et al didn’t go around in tights punching people, but the basic idea is very similar.  The important takeaway from this is the idea of beings from outer space making contact with humans as a way to spread a message and to maintain peace in Earth’s greater “neighborhood” of the universe.  Jordan is chosen for this because of some quality of his inner self; he is brave and has a good heart, and is somehow greater than other humans.  In being chosen, he is singled out and given this very important task.

But there is another comic book/Contactee connection, one that neither Morrison nor the article above mention:  Superman.  He is not a Contactee, of course, as he is the alien himself.  But consider: he is beautiful and human-looking, a perfect specimen of humanity taken to its highest point.  As such, he is possessed of powers that the rest of us lack…he can’t read minds like Orthon, but he’s exceptionally strong and can fly.  He tries to save humanity from its destructive tendencies, in order to save his foster planet from the fate of his home, Krypton. (Which exploded, not unlike the planet Maldek in Contactee lore.)  Consider the film version of Superman as well, with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  In that film, Superman destroys the world’s reserves of nuclear weapons.

Sounds kind of familiar.  Superheroes are men and women and aliens of action, while Contactees are merely activists.  But tell me you can’t see George Van Tassel suited up in a cape and throwing nukes into the sun if he could have.

This gives me an idea for a comic book.

On ETs and Human Insignificance

By | Ramblings | No Comments

Twenty five years ago, astronomer Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn the Voyager I spacecraft around to take a picture of the Earth from a vantage point of 3.7 million miles away.  The result was the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph, which, when accompanied by Sagan’s eloquence, has the kind of poetic power to bring tears to one’s eyes.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

Carl Sagan fits uniquely into the Pantheon of Scientists.  In some ways, he was far more open than many other scientists to the notion of extraterrestrial life–and, more to the point–that it had visited us.  But in the end, he rejected that notion, as indicated in the above quote with the line “There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”  Sagan had a particular dislike for Contactee tales, likening them to religious fantasies, and I wonder if he had them specifically in mind when he wrote that line.

Pale Blue Dot was full of pathos and made its message explicit: humanity has only itself to rely upon, and we must learn to treat this planet with respect, or else we could lose the only home we’ve ever known.  Ironically, Sagan was essentially saying the exact same thing as the same Contactees he despised.

But Pale Blue Dot was also an entry in a trend I’ve seen growing in the last few years amidst the resurgence of science in the mainstream: a relentless attempt to show us how incredibly insignificant we are.

While I can’t argue with the factual truth that the Earth is, realistically, less than a mote of dust in the solar system, let alone in the universe, to suggest that size alone indicates significance seems to me like a bit of a mean-spirited nihilism.  Many have used words like “humdrum” and “backwater” to describe our home. Stephen Hawking once said in an interview that we are “just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”

However, many of the Contactees were making the exact opposite argument and said that humans are incredibly significant.  So significant, in fact, that highly evolved beings from elsewhere in the universe were coming here to make us aware of that fact to keep us from destroying ourselves with nuclear weapons.  In their view, humanity was so wrapped up in its own affairs it had become suicidal, and the Space Brothers were coming here to tell us how much we meant to them.

Because human value, according to the Contactees, is not in our physical scope or the size of our weaponry, but in the depth of our compassion for one another.  Our art, our music, our literature, our interpersonal relationships, our familial bonds–these are the true things of value.

Adamski claimed that the solar system was a finely tuned system, and if we upset that system by blowing up the earth, the whole system would be damaged.  George King of the Aetherius Society held the view that the key to human significance is the law of karma, and that some of the most effective ways of growing spiritually through karma were by manifesting in this relatively meek earthly plane.  Van Tassel’s contacts, having created humanity in the first place by genetically combining with native primates, seemed to feel guilty about the mess they’d made and sought to clean it up.

The Contactees were, theoretically (though practice didn’t always bear this out), all about reducing conflict in human interaction.  One of Adamski’s main goals was to separate the mythological aspects of religion from the practical aspects, leaving only the common core that existed between all the major teachings.

There are many philosophical similarities between Contactees and concerned scientists like Carl Sagan.  But their methods were almost diametrically opposed, and for that reason, there is little regard in scientific circles for anyone claiming ET contact.  And many armchair scientists have further conflated the method for the message, which has led to what I see as an increasingly common pessimism regarding humanity’s importance.  But listen to Sagan’s perspective, again from Pale Blue Dot:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

By using our human insignificance as a way to bring us all together, he shows that we are all dependent on one another, and therefore worthy of saving.  I can’t imagine that most of the Contactees would disagree with that basic notion.

Branding the Contactees

By | Filmmaking, Ramblings | 4 Comments

The classic Contactees from the 50s and 60s have a bit of a branding problem.  When someone sees a picture like this:

Alice K. Wells’s drawing of Orthon

There’s just not a lot of interest.  It’s just a guy in a puffy suit.  There’s not a lot to go on.  But when people see something like this:

…it makes the rounds on Tumblr and other blogs.  In addition to it being a frame capture from a very popular TV show (South Park), it is popular because it’s iconic.  The simplified cartoon image of an alien gray is like a kind of cognitive shorthand that brings up a whole range of ideas that extend beyond the image itself.  First, you know that these guys aren’t from around here.  Second, they probably got here in a flying saucer of some kind, and third, they’re probably going to perform some unpleasant medical procedures on you.  This iconic shorthand was popularized by the Schwa.

Not to be confused with the typographical schwa, ə.

The Schwa was created by artist William Barker in the early ’90s.  His intention, as he outlines in this article, was to show a corporate takeover of the earth through branding and marketing.  Sort of like an alien invasion, if you will.

He did this extremely well.  The Schwa is such an elegant distillation of the iconic image from the cover of Whitley Strieber’s Communion that I think it helped to spread the idea of alien abduction and invasion in the pop culture in a way that actual narratives cannot.  Budd Hopkins’s work about missing time and alien probes remained on the fringe, but Barker’s artwork is inviting and fun to look at.  It’s also so well designed that you could remove even the head and still get a distinctly alien feeling from it.

Still makes me shudder a bit.

I can’t help but think the Schwa played a role in how the Grays became stereotypical aliens in the eyes of popular culture, rather than the benevolent humans that the Contactees claimed to have met. Or even the Reptilian, the Michelin Man, or the Hopkinsville Goblin.  There’s something so simple and primal about the image of a Gray that it makes for an icon that wouldn’t look out of place on an iPhone.

The Contactees were already a relic of a bygone era by the time the Schwa came around.  But I wonder if it’s because they never had that kind of simple, easy to grasp brand.  Sure, they had their own typical sorts of encounters–beautiful blonde haired humans in tight jumpsuits, messages of peace and love, etc. etc.  But they never had that one image, that one icon that took their message to the masses.

Thus, sixty years later, I propose an icon for the Contactees:

It’s not quite as elegant, I suppose, nor as evocative as the Schwa.  But at least it’s a step.  I invite anyone  reading this blog to submit their own designs, and I will post them up here.  Even rough sketches.  I think it’s high time the Contactees had an iPhone-friendly icon of their own.