Knowledge of the Hidden: The Occult and Superheroes

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In my town there is a small shop right at the end of Main Street called The Crystal Fox, whose contents really fit its charmingly ethereal name. In “The Fox” you can find all sorts of gems and stones meant for attuning different aspects of your personality, a full guide to chakras and meditation, incense for protection against vampires, books containing accounts of communing with spirits and the gods of old. I even once spied a man consulting his invisible fairy friends as to which type of channeling stone would be best for him! What is it that drives people to places like this? What does the theme of the occult offer to those that seek it out? What compels someone to be so in touch with their imagination, that realms not meant for us become accessible, even familiar?

When one peals back the layers of narratives we have surrounded ourselves with regarding death, god, the afterlife, the motive becomes clear: the appeal of occultism lies in its mystery, in its broaching of the impossible, in its journey to places we can never go. The word “occult” is Latin for “knowledge of the hidden”, and this is exactly what people seek when they delve into the occult. This desire for discovery, for fright, for strangeness is best served in the realm of comics, where anything that can be drawn on paper (or filmed for the screen) becomes possible. In a world where anything is possible, the occult pushes the limits of not only the physical, but of the spiritual, where true discomfort lies.

And it is by facing this discomfort that we gain some sense of control over it, the more fleshed out the narrative the more able we are to “understand” it. Death becomes heaven and hell, suffering becomes a hex or curse, even the weather becomes a portent of things to come. This sense of control is seductive and motivates the reader/watcher to place themselves deeper into the representations provided; this is why intellectual properties based around occult themes can have such rabid fan bases.

This becomes clear throughout the history of the occult in pop culture, from an exploitative thematic used to pump up the controversial nature of pulp fiction publishings to its highly commodified nature today. Even in the mid-1900s there was a burgeoning interest in the work of occultist luminaries such as Aleister Crowley or masters of occult fiction such as H.P. Lovecraft, both of whose works are responsible for greater ripples throughout popular culture that we see today, in a sense they even developed into full blown subcultures. These men provided answers (both in a fiction and nonfiction context) to some of the deep, troubling questions that are inherent to humanity; and their work as well as work like it set the stage for a modern obsession with magic, darkness, the afterlife, what have you.

However, as serious as those two representatives of the genre are, like with most developing thematics in the modern day the genre became much friendlier, much more approachable, in a sense: commodified. Horror became the go-to genre for a cheap thrill. Serious exultations on the nature of the afterlife became second in importance over time to the joy that the aping of such seriousness provided via films like Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. Lydia Deetz is no less an explorer of that other realm than a narrator out of a Lovecraftian story, however, the tonality had completely changed, it had become approachable, and the necessity for something more shocking took form not in the mystery of the unknown, but in the form of increasing gore. Commodification was not just thematic (the lightening of the genre simply allowed for such): the real result can be seen in Halloween stores and Hot Topics across America. This has reached a fevered pitch in recent history too, simply look at the entertainment juggernaut that is the Harry Potter series: not only in the form of seven books and eight movies, but by the fact that you can purchase in real life almost anything witnessed in the story, not to mention visit a physical representation of it in the form of a theme park!

These results make it clear that occultism has reached a peak level of cultural relevance, notably in recent pop culture, however, how has this manifested in the world of super heroes? A myriad of interesting ways actually, most notably with the induction of DCs (now passé) “New 52” reboot of their comic universe. One of my favorite properties (which I will discuss more roundly soon), Justice League Dark, appealed enough to readers for its first issue to be one of the top 100 best-selling comic books of 2011. For a completely new title (one that was designed to launch with “The New 52”) this is fantastic, and shows a clear interest in the subgenre in the medium of comic books. Even the big bad from the first storyline, Enchantress (a large figure of the occult in comics herself), gets a role in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie.

This trending towards that topic can be seen even more recently with their relaunch of the Doctor Fate book in 2015, also, the character’s extensive inclusion in animated properties, specifically Young Justice. This representation of the character truly touches on some of the darker thematics associated with him: a concentration on the possessive nature of the character, the embodiment of the unknown and unknowable in human form, even the sacrifice on most make while facing the dark energies of the occult. This is not some cookie cutter magician being portrayed; this is a genuine explorer of the dark and vast adventures outside of human experience.

This isn’t limited to static pages, however, as we will see our first big occult-based hero blockbuster later this year with Doctor Strange. Truly, a film showing the epic nature of occult powers hasn’t been properly do-able until recently with the technology and computer graphics afforded by modern filmmaking. Maybe we can see for the first time, the closest we can in pure physical reality at least, the grand nature of the world-bending (literally, in the case of the trailer) powers suggested by the subgenre! The focus of such a film will need to be wide-ranging, and it will be interesting to see how director Scott Derrickson handles that.

That would not be the first foray of film into the world of the comic book occult, however, lest we forget 2005’s Constantine, an uneven if enjoyable foray of this subgenre into moving pictures. The same character, however, might be having a much more pronounced impact recently thanks to what was considered a fantastic representation in the recently cancelled TV series Constantine. Matt Ryan’s portrayal of the character was much, much closer than Keanu Reeves’ in the film version and good enough that it has bagged him a spot as the voice of John Constantine in the upcoming DC animated feature Justice League Dark.

As much as Doctor Strange will be the big reveal of the occult to the larger audience of the world, the Justice League Dark animated feature serves as a sort of culmination of these occult themes for fans of the genre. The comic book itself set the stakes for how a comic book can be “dark” (just look in issue #1 of the comic, when to show signs of the world going mad, a reference to “cows giving birth to meat slicers” is made). This property is meant to appeal to adults, clearly, however it also is looking for the visceral horror of the mystery and shadowed darkness of humanity that occult themes offer. The Justice League Dark property even has enough thematic sway and darkness to lure in the interest of one of today’s best horror directors, Guillermo Del Toro, and while the rumors of him directing a DCEU movie for the supernatural squad seem to have fallen through, just the fact that a face of horror such as Del Toro is looking at this shows how thematically ripe it is.

While animated features don’t retain the following of much larger live action features, the world of Justice League Dark is one that deserves to be explored. Also, its production heralds a sort of concentration on the subgenre of the occult that fits so well into the world of comic books and superhero movies. The Walking Dead has been the best-selling comic for a while now, I think in no small part due to its approach to the darkness and mystery described above. However, this is not just a genre for realist dramas; the nature of superhuman interaction itself seems to be destined to brush with the supernatural, something that has already been accomplished successfully in the medium and, I hope, will be fleshed out with the varied occult titles to be released. In the end, what is more appealing to the base desires of humanity than the ideas of the unknown, the enigmatic, the shadowy, the strange? How deep can super heroes now delve into not only the nature of what it is to be human, but what it is to be superhuman or even supernatural? It remains to be seen, but to be sure, this is a theme that deserves exploration, and if the creators of these worlds want to breach the realm of the truly unexplainable and mesmerizing, this is where they have to begin. Maybe, in the end, they can find some of that knowledge of the hidden.