Jack Parsons, The Rocket Magician



Back in 2000 Alan Moore, one of the most celebrated comic authors of all time, was writing an anthology book for DC comics called Tomorrow Tales. Tomorrow Tales was homage to the old pulp comics. One of the characters in the book was Cobweb, a femme fatal who fought crime in as sexy a way as possible. One of Moore’s stories for Cobweb was blocked by DC due to subject matter, adding to Moore’s dissatisfaction with DC and ultimate departure from mainstream publishers all together.The subject matter of the story is what fascinated me when I learned of it. It was based on real events and had Cobweb meeting L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons. Now I of course had heard of Hubbard before, but Parsons was new to me. It turns out that his was a fascinating story, and I can see why Moore wanted to tell it.

John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons, was born Marvel Whiteside Parsons in 1914, and I think we can guess why he may have wanted to change his name when he got the chance.

There are two very compelling and yet very different aspects to Jack Parsons life that make him worth learning about. To our sensibilities they would even seem at odds, though the fact that they weren’t to him adds to his mystique.

Parsons was born rich, but was abandoned by his father as a teenager. He attended college but did not get a degree. However I suspect that he gave up on college because it bored him. You see Parsons was a scientific genius. Despite having no degree he still managed to join the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology.  The man was literally a self-made rocket scientist.  He conducted some of the earliest rocket research in the U.S. and pioneered solid fuel which led directly to the invention of JATO.  In 1936 he was one of the co-founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and his research is credited with making modern rocketry possible.  There are many who feel that Parsons should be credited as the father of modern rocketry.

But that was and still is unlikely due to the other interesting side of Parsons. Not only was he one of the leading scientists of his time, he was also one of America’s leading occultists.

Parsons had become involved in the Ordo Templi Orienties or OTO and thus a follower of Thelema, the religion founded by Aleister Crowley.  Parsons eventually rose to lead the major American Branch of the O.T.O. known as the Agape Lodge. Parsons saw no difference between his work as a scientist and his practices as a ceremonial magician. In fact he was known to invoke the god Pan prior to rocket tests.

Parsons was also interested in science fiction, so would seek out writers as well as other artist. He ran a boarding house nicknamed “The Parsonage” that had artists, writers, and scientists as lodgers.

One of these writers was L. Ron Hubbard.

And here is where things get very interesting.

But first just a little more background.

Parsons had been married to Helen Northrup. Helen’s half-sister Sarah Northrup came to live with them which led to her having an affair with Parsons.  This did not go over well with Helen and she eventually left Parsons. While they never married Parsons and Sara continued their relationship.

Now back to Hubbard.

Hubbard and Parsons got on well and began practicing magic together. They agreed to attempt a major magical ritual, known as the Babalon Working. Now while I am familiar with some practices of the OTO I certainly do not know any of the specifics of this working and I honestly do not trust accounts I have found as I suspect there is a lot of sensationalism in them. What I do know is that the purpose of the Babalon Working was to produce a Moonchild, a being that will usher in a new age for mankind. Part of the working was intended to find a third member of the working, known as the Scarlet Woman. They eventually found Marjorie Cameron, who did join them in the ritual. Not much is known of what happened of course, but Parsons declared it a success.

This event is what Alan Moore was interested in depicting. Knowing Moore he either wanted to cast Cobweb as the Scarlet Woman, or I suspect more likely claim she was the Moonchild. Either way it was the fact that the story involved Hubbard that made DC get cold feet and pull the story.

After the Babalon Working Parson, Hubbard, and Sarah Northrup formed a business partnership to run a boat company, with Parsons putting up the majority of the money to get it started. This of course is where things went south.  Earlier Aleister Crowley had warned Parsons that he considered Hubbard a con man and that he would find a way to make off with Parsons’ money and Sarah. This is basically what happened. Hubbard and Sarah went off to buy the first boat, but instead of bringing it back, made off with it and the rest of the company’s funds.

Parsons, borrowing a page from the Tempest, claims to have summoned a storm that forced them back to port. Then he went the more mundane route of suing to get his money back. He recovered much of the money, but Hubbard got to keep the boat.

Hubbard ended up marrying Northrup and Parsons married Cameron.

Parsons did manage to bounce back from all this. He continued working as both a scientist and magician. He also wrote several essays on magical practices and philosophy. His writings were collected in a book called Freedom is a Two-Edged sword.

In 1952 Parsons died in an explosion in his home laboratory. There are people who will claim it was a suicide, or a magical ritual gone wrong, but honestly it was in all likelihood exactly what it looked like, an accident during a scientific experiment.

Parsons would continue to be an influence well beyond his death. Werner Von Braun was quoted as saying the Parsons was the true father of American rocketry.

The same can be said of his work as an occultist. His writings and philosophies still influence practitioners today

Writers have found him endlessly fascinating. Moore actually did use him in an issue of Promethea. Other authors would also use him because of his mixing of science and magic.

I think if Parsons Life shows anything it is that it is possible to have these very diverse sides and still make it all work. And if that doesn’t speak to us geeks, I don’t know what will.



The history of the replacement superhero


Once again we find ourselves in a place where a classic superhero has been replaced. In this case if you haven’t been following the comic book news, Peter Parker is no longer Spider-Man.  A new Spider-Man has taken his place. According to Marvel this is a permanent change and will be the status quo going forward.

The general consensus amongst fans is that this status quo will last about a year before Parker is returned to his role as the Wall Crawler.

But why do we just assume that this is a temporary situation. Let’s take a look at the history of major characters being replaced in superhero comics.

First I suppose we need to establish that we are talking about characters from the silver age. There was of course the update of most of DC Comic’s characters in the 60s. That was treated as a new launch and not meant to be old characters being replaced.

The first question is why replace the character at all. The answer is naturally to open up new story possibilities. When a character has been in place for so long several of their characteristics are set in stone. If a writer wants to go beyond those a good way is to have someone new in the role.  There is also the idea of character growth.

One of the most successful replacements of a character ever was the Flash. In 1986 during Crisis on Infinite Earths, Barry Allen gave his life to save the universe. At the end of the series his nephew and sidekick Wally West, Kid Flash adopted the Flash identity. Over the next 25 years Wally West was the Flash. The series often examined Wally attempting to live up to the legacy of Barry, and how other heroes and villains who knew Barry reacted to him in the role. Wally went from overcompensating, to insecure, to finally stepping up to the role of one of the leading heroes in the DC universe.  Wally ultimately stood as a member of the Justice League alongside many of other major heroes. Most media projects of the time used the Wally West version of the Flash; most notably the Justice League animated series.  There is an entire generation of comic fans for whom Wally is and has always been the Flash. But the tale of Wally West does ultimately lend itself to why we fans are cynical about the permanency of a replacement hero.

In the 2008 series Final Crisis Barry Allen returned from the dead. The following year saw the release of the Flash Reborn where Barry officially stepped into the role of the Flash again. Wally was still around at this time, but he no longer had his own book, and after a while just faded from the title. With the New 52 relaunch Wally is now not only missing from any title, but is one of the characters that writers are forbidden to use. Again he is the Flash that a lot of fans are familiar with, but since the powers that be at DC want Barry to be unique Wally has been wiped from the universe.

Another example was one we touched on last year when we talked about the old speculation boom and how it went bust, the Death of Superman storyline and specifically the Reign of the Supermen. Here you had the very publicly touted death of comics’ most iconic character.  It was certainly a headline grabber. For all the grief it gets as a sales ploy and the storyline that started the implosion of the speculator market and subsequent shrinking of the industry, it was a well written story. It was broken into four acts, the death, the aftermath, the rise of the replacement supermen, and the return of Superman. Clearly the whole story was planned from the beginning, and savoy comic fans knew this. At shops and comic shows everyone speculated how each stage would be handled. No one expected any of the replacements to permanently take over. Well no one who actually followed the books. As discussed before, speculators assumed this was a permanent change. Just look at the previous article for more on that. The replacements did of course continue on as characters in their own right and Steel and Superboy went on to be important parts of the DCU.

Around the same time you had the Batman books doing a similar idea with Knightfall. Again a new character was brought in as the replacement Batman. This one had less impact on the DCU, with only the new villain Bane having any impact going forward.

In both those cases the fact that new characters were introduced as the replacements was a big clue that it these were only storylines and not lasting changes.

More recently Marvel and DC did some very similar stories that went another route on the replacement angle. Like the Flash these were stories where the former sidekick took over for their fallen mentor.

At Marvel it was Captain America’s sidekick Bucky taking over the role went Cap was killed at the end of the Civil War Story. At DC it was Dick Grayson taking on the role of Batman following Bruce Wayne’s death at the end of Final Crisis.

In both cases some very good writing came out of these stories. Ed Brubaker wrote Captain America at this time and you had a slightly darker Cap with Bucky under the mask and espionage was a bigger part of the story. At DC you had Grant Morrison writing Batman and Robin and knocking it out of the park with a more light-hearted Batman and a darker Robin, who was Bruce’s son Damian.

In both cases about two years later both Steve and Bruce were proven to be alive, their deaths faked by means of time travel. Upon their return both Steve and Bruce left their successors in their roles and the pursued other goals. Eventually both heroes returned to their roles and the sidekicks resumed their previous identities.

When these storylines started fans were already cynical enough about main heroes being replaced that there were betting pools on how soon the originals would return.

These are hardly the only cases I could site on this subject, but the trajectory is basically the same. Eventually the old superhero resumes his role.

As of this writing I can only think of one exception to this, Marvel comics’ cosmic hero Captain Marvel. Marvel’s death occurred in the first ever Marvel graphic novel. Over the years his death has stuck. The problem has been keeping a consistent successor.

Originally the new Captain Marvel was an unrelated heroine with unrelated powers who took up the name. Next up was Marvel’s son taking up his father’s role. Most recently we have the heroine Ms. Marvel, who was connected to the original, taking on the title of Captain. This last is being well received so we will see how it goes.

Which brings us back to Spider-man.

This is actually the second time that Peter has been replaced. In the 90s you had the first attempt to have an unmarried Spider-man thanks to the clone saga, where it was revealed that Peter was just a clone of the original Spidey and the person we thought was the clone, Ben Reilly, was really the original. Peter decided to retire, and Ben took over as Spider-Man.

Fans hated this twist and it was quickly dropped and revealed to all be a plot by the Green Goblin and Peter was the original after all.

Now thanks to a body swap we have Doctor Octopus inhabiting Peter’s body. Doc’s body with
Peter in it has died, so Doc as Peter is the new Spider-Man.

I won’t get into the details, but the first issue of the new Superior Spider-Man on the last page already has the seed of how the original Peter will return. So the question is, how long will it take.

Anyone want to set up a pool.




X-Factor Review


During The Holidays one of my favorite comic writers Peter David suffered a stroke. I was already planning on taking a look at his title X-Factor, and so I am now moving that up to the top of my list.

I of course wish Peter a speedy and full recovery and am glad that he is getting good care. More on that later.

In the last couple of years I have not been very happy with Marvel comics. I know it seems that I complain more about DC these days, but that is because I have been following more of their books. At one point I reduced my Marvel comics to one title. Why this is I will go over at another time. As for the one title I kept, well it of course is Peter David’s X-Factor.

Before we get into the current run however let’s take a look at the history of this title.

As should be obvious from the X in the title, this is technical a book in the X-Men franchise. In fact when the title was originally launched in 1986 the team line up was the original five X-Men: Cyclops, Angel, Iceman, Beast, and Jean Grey. The theme of the book was that the original X-Men were posing as a group of mutant-hunters that people could hire to deal with perceived mutant threats. In reality they were rescuing said mutants to secretly help and train theme. So basically they were pretending to be the mutant equivalent of the Ghostbusters.

This line-up lasted for five years. After a shakeup of the X-Books the team was given a new roster and recast as a government sanctioned mutant team. This was also the first time that Peter David took on the writing chores and the book was known for its more lighthearted tone compared to the rest of the mutant titles. David only stayed on the book for two years. The series kept going, keeping the government team angle until it was canceled in 1998.

The series languished for a few years, with just a four issue miniseries of no real note being produced.

In 2005 Peter David brought the series back, spinning it out of a mini-series he wrote featuring Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man as a private Detective. The New X-Factor was a private investigation firm specializing in cases involving super humans. The cast was drawn largely from David’s 90s run on the title giving him characters he was familiar with and also allowing him to build on plotlines he had started back then.

So what is it about this title that has kept my attention when I had basically dropped the rest of the company’s line?  Let’s take a look.

First off as should be no surprise is David’s writing. His specialty is characterization. The book has the same lighthearted tone that he established in the 90s and has become the books trademark. This is not to say it doesn’t get serious at times, or deal with heavy issue, but it is not weighted down with unnecessary angst like so many x-books, or really Marvel books in general. In the end like all good fiction you care about the characters and thus get engaged in their stories.

And there is the next point, the cast of characters. The unlikely lead of the series is the previously mentioned Jamie Madrox. Jamie was never really a main character before. His superpower is to make duplicates of himself. Other than being able to create an over whelming force or be the ultimate multitasker writers didn’t have much use for him. But then David did something great, he thought like a fanboy and asked what the other angles of self-duplication are.  He hit on the idea of Jamie sending dupes out into the world to learn a variety of skills. Once a dupe mastered a new skill he would come back and be absorbed back into Jamie prime. This meant Jamie was able to master multiple skills in a relatively short amount of time. David followed that up by asking what the downside was. The answer there was that as people grow they change. Each dupe grew in different, sometimes conflicting ways. The result was a Jamie that was himself not sure who he was, and new dupes having varying personalities upon creation.

That is the kind of thinking that goes into this book.

Another great thing about the case is its diversity. They include a gay couple, one of whom is a genetically engineered warrior from another dimension, and the other a mutant who had, until very recently, lost his powers. You also have an ex-girlfriend of Jamie’s who can shatter walls with her voice, a powerful mutant named M, who is Muslim, but really they periodically have to remind us of this as it is not her defining characteristic, an alien troll, and a large super strong mutant whose hero name is Strong Guy, because he doesn’t feel like being pretentious. And best of all is Layla Miller, a young girl whose power was first presented as “I know stuff.” This meant she knew what was going to happened before it did and could take small actions to affect the outcome. Her code name is butterfly. It later turned out that the knowledge was implanted via time travel and her real power was to bring the dead back to life, but that she needed to conceal that power for a long time. A trip to the future led to her coming back as an adult and ultimately marrying Madrox.

Yeah, that story does get a bit soap operaish, but the dialog is usually more witty than melodramatic.

A really big factor for me liking this book is that while it clearly is in the Marvel Universe it is telling its own story. As such none of the big crossover events that Marvel constantly throws at us really have much effect on the book or the ongoing story. So as someone who doesn’t follow those events I do not feel like I am missing important parts of the story.

Well usually.

When Rictor, the depowered mutant, got his powers back it actually happened in a crossover. It was the one time I did fell that Marvel editorial had done wrong by Peter David. However Peter did manage to write the follow-up to that event in a way that covered the gap and was highly entertaining.

When they do interact with the Marvel Universe it often feels correct as they are usually being hired to investigate something, such as when the children of Reed and Sue Richards hired them to find their mother.

There is one other detail that I have always enjoyed on the book. The first page of every issue has a listing of the team’s roster, a recap of the recent story line, and then a quick update about Peter David and his family. Yes, the writer will keep us updated about his family in the text of the comic. Try and tell me that is not cool.

Obviously the future of the book is currently up in the air due to Peter David’s health. Of course my hope is that he is able to recover and continue writing, or at the very least advise on the plot. A recent post from his wife on his website indicates that he is still working on the book from his hospital bed, and that it is helping keep his spirits up. No other announcement has been made about the future of the book yet.

One other note is that the David family, while having medical insurance, is facing some big medical co-pays. As such they are asking fans for help.  For more information on this please go here to visit their web site.

As a final recap X-Factor is my favorite Marvel title and Peter David my favorite writer working for them.

I gave the X-Factor Series a solid A grade.