Where Do They Come From? What Do They Want? : The Strange Case of Gold Key’s “UFO Flying Saucer” Comics

UFO 1

I love flying saucers, especially the ones that appeared in the skies for the first three decades following Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting of nine objects over Mount Rainier in Washington state. The saucers spotted in the skies in those days were not always saucers; they were just as likely to be cigars, triangles, glowing orbs, bat-winged monstrosities, spinning tops. But when they were saucers they were spectacular saucers: smooth, shiny, aluminum things that twinkled with lights, their pilots peeking from portholes that ringed their sides. The entities spied through the portholes or seen disembarking the craft were equally diverse; there were tall Nordics with peaceful philosophies, stinking lobster-clawed horrors, miniature men wearing antennaed space helmets; they were goblin-like, ape-like, angel-like. It was as if the Earth was being visited by craft from hundreds of planets, as if we were a key stop on some intergalactic highway, a tourist attraction for the stars.

In time, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET: The Extraterrestrial, thanks to Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story, thanks to The X-Files, the craft and their occupants became standardized.  The Roswell crash rose to prominence alongside the abduction narrative, each in its own way serving to stifle creativity, shaping the UFO storyline into a monolithic narrative that was foreign to it in the early days.  Bug-eyed, big-headed, long-fingered Grays drove out the little green-men, the little barking women with silver hair, the robots with death-ray eyes. I start to lose interest when the encounters only happen in dark bedrooms or on military bases, when repressed memories call up terrors from the past, when government conspiracies become more important than the wonder of the unknown, when abductions replace chance encounters in the dark woods. But, even then, if a tale is wild enough, bizarre enough, weird enough, unbelievable enough I am still entranced, still captured by the power of the alien.

Of course, flying saucers aren’t what they used to be. Things have been pretty quiet for a long time now, the skies remarkably free of saucers and cigars. In the 90’s Roswell was front and center; in the 80’s it was abduction reports. Before that, in the long heyday of saucers that stretched from the late 40’s to the mid 70’s, it seemed that flying saucers were everywhere. UFO flaps swept the nation, from Washington state to Washington, D.C.  Flying saucers and their alien pilots became a vibrant part of popular culture. They shimmered on drive-in movie screens and on living room television sets. They were on children’s lunchboxes and Saturday morning cartoon shows. They were in comic books.

When flying saucers first came on the scene in the late 40’s, the Golden Age of comic books was waning and the superheroes who had defined that era were on the way out. Flying saucers flew their way into the new comic books that struggled into prominence in the 50’s, especially those devoted to horror and science fiction. It wasn’t long, however, before costumed do-gooders returned with a vengeance. First came the rejuvenation of DC heroes like Green Lantern and the Flash in the late 50’s, then the birth of the Lee/Kirby revolution at Marvel in the early 60’s. Flying saucers flew in the skies along with these new heroes. The new Green Lantern was even granted his powers following an encounter with a crashed spaceship and its alien pilot. By the end of the 60’s a new age of superheroes had dawned and the comic book world would never look back.

UFO 2

Alongside the powerhouses that were DC and Marvel, a few smaller companies managed to stay alive by publishing non-superhero books. None was better at this than Gold Key Comics, an imprint of Western Publishing. Gold Key licensed Disney characters. They published comic book versions of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. They published original science fiction like Space Family Robinson, which preceded the Lost in Space television program, and Russ Manning’s amazing Magnus, Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. And, when flying saucers made one of many comebacks in the late 60’s, they published UFO Flying Saucers.

UFO 3

Despite what one may think, UFO Flying Saucers comics are, for the most part, not science fiction. They are instead graphic representations of supposedly true stories of UFO sightings and contacts with extraterrestrials. UFO Flying Saucers was not the first book in this unusual genre of “true” UFO stories. That distinction probably belongs to Al Feldstein’s Weird Science-Fantasy #26, from December 1954, which illustrated the UFO mystery with the help of best-selling saucer researcher Donald Keyhoe. Dell published four issues of Flying Saucer Comics in 1967. Neither of these earlier entries can match Gold Key’s version, however.

UFO 4

Not that UFO Flying Saucers was a runaway commercial success. Gold Key only published twenty-five issues over the course of the series, from 1968 to 1978. Half-way through the series, the title was changed to UFO Outer Space. Many of the later issues were reprints. It is also true that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, these comics were not very good, especially by today’s standards. The stories are short, hurried, and undeveloped.  It is clear that they were meant to catch the eye of a kid caught up in the UFO craze and provide just enough entertainment to warrant the 15 cents expense (25 cents for the oversized first issue!). The lack of commercial and artistic success is not the end of the story, however, because even with that in mind there is still something special about these books, especially for fans of both comic books and flying saucers. (I refuse to believe that I’m the only one!)

UFO 5

First of all there are the painted covers. Gold Key produced some of the best covers in the history of comic books, presumably in an attempt to make their product stand-out from all of the other products on the newsstand, many of which featured more popular characters and titles. Their strategy certainly worked on me when I was a kid. I have been known to pass up Action Comics for an issue of Magnus: Robot Fighter or The Phantom on the strength of the cover alone.Sometimes those painted covers just couldn’t be resisted. They were works of art. I don’t remember ever seeing UFO Flying Saucers at the newsstand and I think my memory serves me well on this; clearly, if I had seen one, I would have bought it.

UFO 6

The covers represent some of the very best examples of UFO-related art produced during the flying saucer age, making it an exceptional shame that most of the creators of these comics are not credited for their work. Most commonly, as in the fabulous cover for the first issue, the UFOs are bright red saucers with glowing yellow lights, domed tops, and portholes. They fire beams at fleeing humans; they rise menacingly from the depths of the ocean; they raid high-voltage power lines to recharge their energy supplies. But the alien craft are not always saucers. They are rocket ships; they are bat-things; they are living jelly-fish from outer space! And, on nearly every cover, humans are in jeopardy, often shown running from the saucers or from the strange creatures that have descended from them.

And what creatures they are! Tiny green ogres force their human captives aboard their ship; a robot with glowing eyes terrorizes a boy and his dog; skull-headed creatures in red uniforms fire ray guns at their victims; big-browed technicians have a human victim in the cross-hairs of their evil rays; a scarecrow-like creature with webbed fingers rises from the cornfield to terrorize its victim. The aliens depicted here are a diverse lot. There are no black-eyed Grays in this crowd. Every depiction is of a different species.

The stories themselves are primarily based on classic stories that have been told and re-told in countless books and television programs through the years. They include the story of the 1897 Kansas cow-napping, the story of Kenneth Arnold’s flight that gave birth to the flying saucer craze, the story of the lights seen over Lubbock, Texas. Thomas Mantell’s crash is depicted in the story “The Pilot who Chased a UFO”. The 1948 Montgomery, Alabama sighting is here as well in “Incident over Alabama”. Likewise the 1952 Washington, DC sighting: “The Day they Buzzed Washington” and Lonnie Zamora’s Socorro, New Mexico sighting: “The Scare at Socorro”. The stories that I grew up reading, the ones that used to scare me to death, that still scare me if I think about them deeply, they are all here: the Incident at Exeter, the Maury Island Mystery, the Flatwoods Monster, the Men in Black, the Contact at Pascagoula. There is even a cautionary and prescient story devoted to the cult of Him and Her, later renamed Bo and Peep, who would lead their followers to suicide in the Heaven’s Gate tragedy of 1997. These stories are a match for the covers in terms of their depictions of the aliens and their craft. There are small aliens and giants among this crowd; robots and hairy beasts; purple-skinned, gold-skinned, green-skinned things. There are benign explorers here as well as terrible threats; friends of humanity stand alongside monstrous evils.

These books, these UFO Flying Saucers comics, are among the best re-tellings of the classic stories, stories that followers of flying saucers have read and re-read. There is something about the comic book format, limited though the art form is in most of the cases represented here, that gives life to the sightings in a way that words or the cheap television and movie special effects of the day never could. They are stories meant for comic books, four-colored in their essence.

I’m glad that I found these books. They make be believe in flying saucers again, even if I only discovered them many years after my childhood credulity and wonder had given way to boring old academic curiosity. They leave me amazed at the creativity of the human brain, at our ability to create new fantasies, to dream up both new threats and new opportunities. It is a thrill to see these stories that I know so well depicted here, a thrill to see the diversity of the saucers and the suacerians that was a hallmark of those early days, those days when space travel was new and exciting, when the cold war kept us watching the skies for dangers from above, when the threats seemed insurmountable but the possibilities seemed as limitless as the stars.

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This article was featured at PopMatters.com.

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief. He writes about comic books for PopMatters.com.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

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Makin’ Out: Learning about Sex from Al Feldstein’s Mad Magazine

Al Feldstein died last month. Feldstein was editor of Mad Magazine from 1956 until 1985. Before that, he had written, drawn and edited many of the great books published by EC Comics. When he took over Mad from Harvey Kurtzman, he transitioned the comic book (“Humor in a Jugular Vein”) into the black-and-white magazine that I read as a kid (“40¢ – Cheap”). Depending on who you ask, he either ruined the publication or turned it into the huge success that it was in the 1970’s. In those days I read every page of Mad, even the table of contents, usually multiple times. You never knew where you would find a joke. So, even then, I knew who Al Feldstein was. His name came right after the publisher: William M. Gaines.

While Feldstein’s Mad lacked the zany creativity of Kurtzman’s (which I read in the late 1970’s when Mad published reproductions of some early issues as inserts in their Mad Specials), he did manage to oversee a stable of creative artists and writers who would forever put a mark on a generation’s sense of humor: “the usual gang of idiots”. Don Martin put his jug-headed and hinged-footed monstrosities in bizarre, yet recognizable, situations. Dave Berg exposed the “Lighter Side” of mid-70’s social woes, from the energy crisis to the youth movement. Al Jaffee introduced crazy inventions and the corny, yet transcendent, fold-ins. Mort Drucker parodied all of the great, and not-so great, movies and television shows. To tell the truth, without Mad’s movie parodies I would have missed out on much of the popular culture in my growing-up years. I didn’t see Jaws until adulthood, but I knew most of the characters and story beats from the Mad satire.

Mad’s Specials and Super Specials were particularly wonderful. They reprinted older materials (“the usual garbage from past issues”) along with a few new items. (I’m sure that I learned about the Watergate scandal five years after the fact by reading reprints in the Super Specials.) Sometimes, they included a bonus insert, like the reprints of the old Mad comic books. Sometimes, you got stickers, like the wonderful Don Martin sound effect stickers that came in Mad Special #23 (“POIT!”).

Don Martin stickers

Sometimes, you got posters, like the “Mad Collectable Connectables” from #29 that for a while adorned my bedroom wall. Sometimes, you got 45 rpm records.

Mad SS 29

Mad Super Special #26 is my all-time favorite. It included a 45 rpm recording of the song “Makin’ Out”. The music on the record was written, arranged and produced by Norm Blagman, and featured “SMYLE” with vocal assists by Jane Gennaro and Alfrieda Norwood. The lyrics to “Makin’ Out” were written by Frank Jacobs, a regular contributor to Mad Magazine from 1957 on and someone whose name I recognized for his many song and poetry parodies that were featured in the magazine. What I didn’t know at the time was that Jacobs is most famous as the writer of parody song lyrics that Mad published as a 20-page booklet inserted into the 1961 best-of issue. The booklet was titled “Sing Along with Mad” and was clearly a parody of the “Sing Along with Mitch” television program. The songs included the insurance industry spoof “Blue Cross”, to be sung to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”.

When a very high
Fever I ran,
They told me I
Took the wrong plan!

Berlin sued Mad and the rest is history. The courts ruled that Mad’s parody of the songs was legally permissible fair use. The decision has served as a standard protecting humorists ever since.

The cover of Mad Super Special #26, which was what had drawn me to the magazine in the drug store, was by Mort Drucker. At the center is a 45 rpm record emblazoned with the likeness of Alfred E. Neuman. It is surrounded by caricatures of many of the important characters from my childhood, engaged in what the record refers to as “makin’ out.” I’ll never forget taking the book home and carefully removing the surprisingly square 45 from the center of the magazine and playing it on the portable record player that I kept in my bedroom. Would a square record even play? How could that be possible?

Mad SS 26

I was shocked by what I heard. Shocked. And changed forever.

After the first play, I was careful to make sure that my parents were out of the house before I played it again. My biggest thrill was taking it, and my record player, when I went to spend the night, along with my cousin Barry, at my grandparents’ house. My grandparents both slept without their hearing aids, so we were usually free to make all the noise we wanted. I played the record for Barry. We snickered at the lyrics printed on the inside of the magazine. We ogled the front cover illustrations. Then we played the record again. We were eleven.

Set to a catchy disco beat, the song doesn’t seem all that scandalous to me today.

I wanna break out loose and swing.
Have myself a crazy fling,
Till those bells ring ding-a-ling loud as can be –
But I never hear them chime,
‘Cause I chicken out each time,
And I know the only ding-a-ling is me!

Then the chorus,

Makin’ out! Makin’ out!
I tell myself I could be, should be makin’ out!
But all I’m makin’ out from all this makin’ out
Is that ev’ryone’s makin’ out but me!

These lyrics clearly represent the genius of Mad Magazine in the ‘70’s. They are mostly innocuous, but just naughty enough to make eleven-year-olds feel as if they are getting away with something, as if they are reading something, listening to something that their parents would object to. I don’t know if this was an intentional strategy on Feldstein’s part or just a product of the fact that he was using the same writers that had been on staff since the 1950’s. Material that might have suited young adults in the earlier era, was pretty juvenile by the standards of the mid ‘70’s. The age of Mad readers kept decreasing until they hit the sweet spot of eleven-year-olds in 1978. In any case, Jacobs’ lyrics were just right to my young ears. They exposed me to something that I was just beginning to think about, but then let me identify with the singer who, like me, wasn’t getting in on the action.

The song is full of references to mid-70’s popular culture, including the Ford Maverick (my grandparents’ drove one), the Oakland Raiders, Ralph Nader, Jacques Cousteau, pet rocks, and Archie Bunker. Most significantly for me, however, was the way that it referenced figures important in my kid-world. The lyrics, combined with Drucker’s cover illustrations, blew my mind. Suddenly characters important to me were sexualized in a way that I had never seen them before.

In “Star Wars,” you know Darth Vader’s makin’ out!

And, on the cover, Princess Leia really seems to be into him! This was prior to the big reveal about Darth Vader’s identity, but it was shocking enough even before I thought of Leia as Vader’s daughter.

I’ve even seen a Muppet that is makin’ out –

Except that, on the cover, Miss Piggy is makin’ out, not with Kermit, but with Cookie Monster!

Superman, without his cape, is makin’ out!
King Kong, when he is goin’ ape, is makin’ out!
Makin’ out!
Now Frankenstein, though still in shock, is makin’ out!
I’ve even heard that Mister Spock is makin’ out!
Makin’ out!
Ev’ryone’s makin’ out!

Granted, I had seen hints of sex on television and the big screen, but Drucker’s illustrations somehow put it over the top: the Frankenstein monster’s lewd expression; Dracula’s victim’s randy smile; Archie and Edith Bunker’s knowing grins. The Fonz? Sure. But, Charlie Brown and Lucy? Dear God, do you see the way that dolphin is looking at Jacques Cousteau?

Maybe I was a late bloomer, but this was pretty startling stuff to me in 1978. I’m not sure if I’ve recovered to this day.

So, thank you Al Feldstein, for your great work at EC Comics. Thank you for the cover of Weird Science #12, an image that I later chose as the cover for one of my books. But mostly, thank you for Mad Magazine, especially that Super Special from 1978 which introduced me to the movie The Exorcist (“The Ecchorcist”), pointed out the lighter side of the energy crisis, made fun of the Bible (“Bible Rave Magazine”), exposed my parents’ faults (“Parental Non-Sequiturs”), and provided me with “a handy guide to recycling garbage”. Thank you for Mort Drucker, for Dave Berg, for Frank Jacobs, for Al Jaffee, for Sergio Aragones, and for Don Martin. Thank you, especially, for Frank Jacobs and Norm Blagman and the members of SMYLE. Thank you for the square 45 rpm record and that great Drucker cover. Thank you for giving me a kick in the pants, for making me open my eyes to what I was missing, for pointing out the obvious that I had somehow overlooked, for revealing the truth that every young person has to learn on the way to becoming an adult: ev’ryone’s making out but me!

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This article was featured at PopMatters.com.

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief. He writes about comic books for PopMatters.com.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

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Confessions of a “Christian” “Atheist”

holy-communion

I don’t go to church and I don’t believe in God.

One might think that it should be pretty obvious where I stand in regards to the culture war currently raging between Richard Dawkins and the “New Atheists” and fans of the movie “God’s Not Dead.”

Trust me. It isn’t.

On some days, when I’m in just the right mood, I’ll defend my status as a Christian. I might even argue that I am a more consistent, honest and devoted Christian than the most dedicated churchgoer or orthodox theologian.

On other days, when I’m in just the right company, I’ll accept the title of “atheist”. If you back me into a corner, I will quote Wittgenstein and argue for a more nuanced non-theist position, but the implications are pretty much the same: I don’t believe in a personal God; I don’t believe in a creative force or moral law at the heart of the universe.

On still other days, days like this one, I will defend my right to both titles, Christian and Atheist, though I’m more comfortable if both terms are placed in quotation marks.

I am a “Christian” “Atheist”.

There. I said it. Now to prepare to receive slings and arrows from both sides.

I suppose that what bothers me the most about the arguments put forward in the current debate, arguments made by both Christians and atheists, is the failure to understand how Christianity and atheism are so intimately intertwined in Western thought. One can see this in the way Marx’s atheism derived from Hegel’s Christian idealism, in the way Dawkin’s blind watchmaker derived from Paley’s sighted one. One can see this in my life. I came to atheism because of my Christianity, not as a refutation of what I formerly believed, but as a fulfillment of it.

I came to my atheism in Divinity School.

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) was a Lutheran theologian who studied under the master G.W.F. Hegel, whose idealist philosophy dominated the intellectual world of Europe in the first half of the 19th century. Feuerbach, along with others in what came to be known as the Young Hegelian School, broke with Hegel in a way that helped to usher in the powerful humanistic materialism that dominated late-19th and early-20th century Europe. Without Feuerbach, there would most certainly have been no Marx, perhaps no Freud.

Ludwig_feuerbach

I first encountered Feuerbach at the Vanderbilt Divinity School in a wonderful, transformative class on 19th Century Protestant Theology. Feuerbach’s thought caught me at the right time, following my obsession with Bultmann and preceeding my introduction to Pragmatism and Wittgensteinian philosophy. (When I graduated college and made plans to go to Vanderbilt, I was told by the pastor of my Southern Baptist church that if I went to seminary at Vanderbilit I could never minister in that denomination again. He was right. )

Feuerbach’s interpretation of Christianity is far too sophisticated for a thorough analysis here. (For that, I recommend Todd Gooch’s excellent introduction at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) It should be enough to say that Feuerbach saw within Christianity a hidden meaning, rooted primarily in the doctrine of the incarnation and the sacraments. This hidden meaning, according to Feuerbach, was humanist and materialist.

As Feuerbach wrote in his classic The Essence of Christianity: “The true sense of Theology is Anthropology.” In the doctrine of the incarnation, Christianity teaches that God became human. It is this human aspect of God that brings about our salvation. It is the birth of God as a human child that is celebrated on Christmas morn. It is the very human death of God that is commemorated on Good Friday. In this, Feuerbach argues, we find the essence of Christianity. Christianity makes God human, and makes humanity divine.

Likewise, in the Christian doctrine of the sacraments: baptism with water provides salvation. The secret of this is in plain sight, Feuerbach suggested. When Christians celebrate baptism, they are celebrating water itself. He wrote: “(W)e give a true significance to Baptism, only by regarding it as a symbol of the value of water itself.”

His interpretation of the Eucharist I find even more compelling. “Eating and drinking is the mystery of the Lord’s Supper; – eating and drinking is in fact itself a religious act; at least ought to be so. Think, therefore, with every morsel of bread which relieves thee from the pain of hunger, with every draught of wine which cheers thy heart, of the God, who confers these beneficent gifts upon thee, – think of Man! But in thy gratitude towards man forget not gratitude towards holy Nature! Forget not that wine is the blood of plants, flour the flesh of plants, which are sacrificed for thy well-being. . . Therefore let bread be sacred for us, let wine be sacred, and water be sacred! Amen.”

I remember being struck by how Feuerbach’s insights seemed so obvious. To truly believe in the incarnation, to truly celebrate that incarnation in the Eucharist, was to embrace the humanity of Christ, the materiality of the elements. God is human; the body and blood are bread and wine; theology is anthropology. The essence of Christianity is humanism. It is materialism. It is atheism.

Now, I don’t want to insist that Feuerbach’s interpretation of Christianity is the one true interpretation. I remain unconvinced by the whole of his post-Hegelianism and by his projection-theory of religion. But, on some days, I am sure that he is right when he says that Christianity contains its own dissolution within itself, when he says that there is an important humanistic and materialist message at the heart of Christianity.

I do know that Feuerbach’s interpretation of Christianity helped to pave the way for the humanistic and materialistic thought that followed, both in western culture and in my own journey of faith. Once having read Feuerbach, I could never go back. I could never contemplate the incarnation, could never share the sacraments, without being pushed to his conclusions. My reaction may have been more emotional than rational, but it was my reaction, is my reaction, nevertheless.

So I suppose that I am an “atheist”. I am certainly a humanist and a materialist. (I’ll refrain from imposing quotation marks on these terms. One has to stop this nonsense somewhere.) But my atheism does not stand in contrast to Christianity. It is because I am a “Christian” that I am an “atheist.” The one led me to the other. As a minister, every time bread was broken the point came home to me, every time the cup was passed.

When I left the church, it was for a myriad of reasons, some political, some cultural. But it was also a matter of faith. When I stopped believing in God, there were many causes, some philosophical, some personal. But it was also a matter of faith.

To be a true Christian, I had to leave the church behind. To be a true Christian, I had to put God in the grave. These are not easy things to do. Such is the cost of discipleship.

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief. He writes about comic books for PopMatters.com.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

 

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Mourning the Death of Gwen Stacy

I was five years old the night Gwen Stacy died. I didn’t hear the news.

It was three years later that I first picked up a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man, carefully selecting it from a spinning rack of Marvel and DC comics that stood near the magazine display in my local pharmacy, probably choosing it over a copy of Brave and the Bold because it featured an attack on Spider-Man by a dune buggy Spider-Mobile. (Amazing Spider-Man # 160/September 1976. Cover by Gil Kane) In my unsystematic collecting of the book over the next several issues, I followed Peter in his off-again/on-again relationship with Mary Jane Watson. Gwen was sometimes mentioned in Peter’s conversations with MJ. I could tell something bad had happened. I just didn’t know what.

spider buggy

What I learned about Gwen I picked up from two older issues of the magazine. (#103 and 104/Dec 1971 and January 1972. Cover by Gil Kane). I don’t know when or where I acquired them. I had no source for comic books in those days other than the rack at the drug store, and they didn’t sell back issues. Perhaps my father passed them on to me when he saw that I had taken an interest in the character. He had been an avid comics reader in his day, though by the time I came around he seemed to have mostly given them up.

This story remains among my favorite Spider-Man tales and cemented my love for Gwen Stacy. In it, Peter, Gwen and J. Jonah Jameson journey to the Savage Land to photograph a mysterious creature: Gog – He Who Walks the Savage Land!

 Gog 2

The story, by worthy Stan Lee successor Roy Thomas, has everything.

It has a fight between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a giant creature from outer space.

dino fight

It has jungle lord, and Tarzan knock-off, Ka-Zar and his magnificent sabre-tooth tiger, Zabu!

Kazar

It has Peter Parker brandishing a pistol! Blam!

Peter Gun

It has Kraven the Hunter giving great bad-guy speeches!

Kraven

It has the marvelous art of Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia.  (Check out that rendition of Kraven and this one of Peter . . .)

Peter

And most importantly, it has Gwen Stacy. First, sweet and loving.

Gwen 1

Then, fearless and liberated.

Gwen 2

Then, in a bikini!

Gwen 3

I may have only been nine years old, but I understood why Peter loved Gwen. Heck, I loved her too!

In one issue of Marvel Comics or another, I must have run across an ad for an LP record called Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Superhero. I’m sure I ordered it by mail. I can’t imagine where I would have gotten it, otherwise.  The album, released in 1975, had a great cover by John Romita that remains one of my favorite Spider-Man images of all time.

Spider-Man-Rock-Front

The back cover contained pictures of the band: Power Man on bass, Silver Surfer on keyboards, Conan and the Barbarians on strings, Captain America on percussion, Black Panther on electric guitar, the Mighty Thor on trumpet, the Hulk on drums, handclapping by the Falcon, and background vocals by the Fantastic Four! I must have played the album a million times on the console stereo in my parents’ living room, belting out the songs and pretending that I was Spider-Man, superhero and rock star! I was, and still am, totally hooked.

rockreflectionsback

It was from the album that I first learned the fate of Gwen Stacy. It is why I mourn her death to this day.

The comic book rock opera was narrated by Stan Lee and told the story of everybody’s favorite wall-crawler in a series of rock-and-roll songs, including “Gwendolyn”, a 50’s do-wop-style anthem to Peter’s love.

Gwendolyn, may I come closer, and hold your hand?

You are the answer to all my dreams.

Gwendolyn, please.

I love you so.

(Marty Nelson)

Then, in “Count on Me”, Peter sings one of the most hilarious choruses in rock music history. (It makes me laugh every time that I hear it, now. This was not the case in 1976. Then, it seemed like a profound declaration of love.)

You can count on me,

To help you see,

That every side has another,

Every hero has a lover,

Every land has a sky above her,

And, if you want, you have me.

(William Kirkland)

Halfway through the album things take a dark turn, beginning with Peter’s fevered dream about Doctor Octopus and his plans to take over the world. (This is a certifiably crazy song. Doc Ock sings to an adoring crowd of supporters who shout back at him: Hey La! Doctor Octo, Doctor Octo, Doctor Ocotopus!) (John Palumbo)

Then, without warning, the voice of Stan Lee breaks the news:

Terrifying as that dream is, it is only a whisper to the harsh voice of reality that Peter Parker is about to hear. His pulse is pounding. The Green Goblin suddenly appears without warning! Tingling with anticipation, Spider-Man would be more reluctant to fight the emerald fiend if he could foresee Gwen Stacy’s body falling, as it will, out of his spider reach. Play with the fear! Roll it around on your tongue! Savor the fateful, fascinating flavor! Spider-Man’s mind is in motion. The stage is set! The cards have been dealt! He is now no more than a puppet in the shadow of his own destiny. The battle that took place high atop the bridge was destined to be the most fateful one of all. As the Green Goblin flies away, battered and weakened, a bruised and exhausted Spider-Man raises himself up to find that the only victim proved to be a girl named Gwendolyn. His hopes and dreams of love are gone. He kneels beside her lifeless body. Ignoring the approaching police sirens, Peter Parker whispers gently in her ear as the echoes of his words carry him to her, reaching for her, trying to bring her back to share life with him again.

Then, a gentle acoustic guitar segues into the next song: “A Solider Starts to Bleed.”

Dear lady, hold this sleep.

My dreams are yours to keep.

I fall behind this mask of insufficient tears.

A solider lost to fears.

(Terence P. Minogue and John Palumbo)

Then, back to Stan: “He’s a hero if you will, a hero whose dreams have turned to nightmares, who walks in step with tragedy and death. But still he perseveres. For such is the haunting fate of Spider-Man!”

This is how I learned of Gwen Stacy’s death. This is how I came to understand the veiled references to her in then-current issues of Amazing Spider-Man. I couldn’t believe it. This was too much to bear. The Gwen Stacy who had traveled fearlessly to the Savage Land sporting a red bikini died as a result of Spider-Man’s battle with the Green Goblin. Peter, who had touched me when singing about his love for Gwen, broke my heart, still breaks it, when he sang about her death. And Stan Lee, Mr. Excelsior!, delivered the news. (Stan’s voice, to this day, brings a tingle to the back of my neck. When I hear it, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and listen. He hasn’t delivered any news like this again, but I am always waiting for him to break it to me.)

Okay. I know that the album is melodramatic. I know that this should not make me want to cry. But it does. It did when I was nine years old and it does today. This was the first time that I had experienced the death of a comic book character. Such deaths have happened with too much regularity over the years, so that the deaths have been cheapened, become gimmicks to sell magazines. Gwen’s death has always seemed different to me. It is the only one that I have ever really cared about. The only one that ever made me cry.

Rumor has it that Gwen’s character will die in Sony’s new “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ film. I suppose that she will. That is what the story demands. If it happens as expected, I may even shed a tear. It won’t be for Emma Stone’s Gwen, however. It will be for Gil Kane’s and Roy Thomas’ Gwen. It will be for Stan Lee’s Gwen.  It will be for Peter Parker, rock and roll singer, who recorded an album with his friends to express his grief and loss and who sang to his lovely Gwendolyn:

Every side has another,

Every hero has a lover,

Every land has a sky above her,

And, if you want, you have me.

Gwen

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This article was featured at PopMatters.com.

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief. He writes about comic books for PopMatters.com.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

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The Shaver Mystery: Everything You Need to Know about the Underground Forces that Control our Lives!

Amazing Stories All Shaver

There was a time (before black-and-white television images were streamed into every living room in America via invisible rays that transformed the masses into mindless zombies) when pulp magazines were an important source of entertainment for millions of Americans. Cheap pulp paper was the vehicle for delivering exciting and quickly produced tales to the public: tales of the old west, tales of true romance, tales of crime and mystery and, most exciting of all, tales of science fiction set on far off planets, in the distant future and in the ancient past. (George Lucas was not the first sci-fi creator to set his stories “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”)

The garish and wonderful covers of these magazines, none more colorful and exciting than the ones which adorned Amazing Stories, were filled with space adventurers, scantily clad women, streamlined spaceships, and bug-eyed monsters. They also contained, at least between 1945 and 1948, illustrations for stories by a now mostly forgotten writer: Richard Shaver.

Amazing Earth Slaves

Shaver, along with Amazing Stories’ editor Ray Palmer, produced a series of popular stories about space travelers and subterranean civilizations. They also, to the shock and dismay of many in sci-fi fandom, claimed that the stories were based in reality. Shaver, a sometime resident of mental hospitals, insisted that he regularly received transmissions from caverns under the earth where the evil dero and the kindly tero fought for the soul of humanity. He also insisted that he had visited the cavern world and observed the operation of the powerful technology (“mech” in Shaver’s terms) that was responsible for much of the good and bad that happens on the surface of our planet. The Shaver Mystery, as it came to be called, sold magazines. It also caused a scandal in the sci-fi world that ended the Palmer/Shaver era at Amazing. In June of 1947, an entire issue of Amazing Stories was dedicated to the Shaver Mystery and to Shaver’s “true-to-life” fiction; by 1948, both Shaver and Palmer were gone from the magazine. Palmer went on to play a central role in the development of the flying saucer craze. Shaver carried on, out of the spot-light, with less overt fiction and more direct descriptions of life within the caverns, both now and in the distant past, and of the hidden danger posed to those on the surface.

Shaver - Gods of Venus

I confess that I find everything about Richard Shaver and the Shaver Mystery utterly fascinating. Shaver’s fiction, like much pulp fiction of the era, is now sometimes difficult to read and enjoy; it is obvious that it was written quickly and according to a strict formula. Some of his more obscure non-fiction, especially when he describes the operations of underground technology, is also painfully obtuse and, to be honest, irrational. There is something about his writing, however, that makes it worth the effort. I think it is because Shaver was an utterly original voice. There is, within both his fiction and his subterranean theorizing, a hint of genius. Perhaps that genius was hampered by his mental illness; perhaps it was accentuated by it. It is there, nevertheless. Shaver makes me shudder at the fear he finds at the heart of existence; he makes me wonder at the crazed creativity of human thought.

Self Shaver

Richard Shaver – Self Portrait

Richard Toronto’s recent book, War over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer and the Strangest Chapter of 1940’s Science Fiction is a masterful accounting of the lives and careers of Palmer and Shaver. Toronto, a lifelong fan of the Shaver Mystery and friend to Richard Shaver, is the perfect person to tell the story of the Shaver Mystery. Indeed, his Shavertron fanzine (and later website) probably did more than anything else to keep the Shaver Mystery from disappearing completely from popular consciousness.  Toronto’s book is not be missed by anyone interested in the history of science fiction, in the flying saucer craze, or in the development of mid-twentieth century science fiction-influenced religious movements. (My review can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

War Over Lemuria Cover

I was not surprised to find that Toronto was not able to include everything he wanted in War over Lemuria. This is a problem faced by anyone with space limitations and editorial concerns to consider; it is especially true when dealing with material as voluminous and odd as that associated with the Shaver Mystery. I was surprised, and delighted, however, to learn that Toronto has published a second volume under his own Shavertron Press imprint. Behold Shaverology: The Shaver Mystery Home Companion! Containing personal accounts of visits with Shaver and Palmer written by long-time Shaver Mystery follower, Richard Horton; hard-to-find editorials by Ray Palmer himself; details (and seemingly whole chapters) cut from War over Lemuria; correspondence and poetry written by Richard Shaver; excerpts from Shaver fanzines; a moving account of the journey by Shaver’s daughter to discover her unknown father; countless illustrations; and detailed analyses of Shaver technology, this book is an answer to the prayers of Shaver Mystery fans or anyone intrigued by the subterranean streams that feed popular culture and popular religion. When read along with Toronto’s War over Lemuria, this book is an indispensable introduction to Richard Shaver and to the remarkable confluence of fiction, hype, madness and religion that was the Shaver Mystery.

Shaverology Cover

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

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“Who Will Roll Away the Stone?” On Jesus, Sisyphus, and Me

Sisyphus

Sisyphys (1548–49) by Titian

As Easter approaches I am reminded, once again and forever, of Sisyphyus.

Sisyphus, king of Ephyra. Sisphyus, King of trickery and deceit, condemned eternally to roll an enormous stone to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back again.

I am reminded of Sisyphus with each approach of Easter. I am reminded precisely because of that damned stone: nearly immovable on the way up, completely unstoppable on the way back down.

In the Gospel stories moving the Easter stone is easy; it takes no effort at all and even less faith. The Marys (or the disciples, depending on which version you pick) simply show up at Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning. They worry about who will move the stone for them, only to find that the work has already been done. (Either by young men or angels. Again, take your pick.) We know the scene: a beautiful garden tomb, the heavy stone rolled away from the door, everything bathed in a soft light, the young man or the angel grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary. The stone is no problem at all.

Except that it is. It always is. For me.

I grew up, like many religious people do, living in two worlds. At church, I heard sermons about creation and miracles. On PBS, I watched Carl Sagan explain the Big Bang and Darwin’s theory. I read the Bible and I excelled in high school biology. The two worldviews seemed, somehow, unrelated.

Then, in college at Alabama’s Samford University, a Baptist college where I was a religion major preparing for a career in the ministry, I read Rudolf Bultmann’s New Testament & Mythology and my life was changed forever (Fortress Press, 1989). The great German theologian wrote more clearly and honestly than anyone I had ever read before. He described the mythical world picture of the New Testament, a world picture where heaven was above and hell was underneath, where angels and devils intervened in human life, where god-men not only die, but also live again. Then, without hesitation, he said what I must have already been thinking because it was thereafter something that I could never overcome. He said: the citizen of the modern world, if intellectually honest and true, cannot believe in such things.

He was right.

For Bultmann, of course, this did not mean the end of the Christian Gospel; it meant, rather, that theology must demythologize Christianity, peel away the ancient mythological world view in order to expose an eternal, existential truth. The challenge for a Christian, Bultmann believed, was to find a way to be faithful and honest. He made no bones about it. While there was no intellectual problem in believing in Jesus of Nazareth as a Jewish rabbi who taught the coming of the Kingdom of God and who was killed by the Roman Empire, the resurrection was another matter entirely.

Bultmann argued that the Easter story had meaning and importance for Christians, even though it was clearly not an historical event. There may have been an historical Jesus. He may have died on a cross. He did not rise from the dead.

But what is important, Bultmann argued, is not the historicity of the event but its existential meaning. It is the role of the preacher, the task of the theologian, to make this meaning clear, without succumbing to treating the myth as historically true, without getting caught in the mythological world view.

This made sense to me, for a while.

As a pastor in the local church, as a theologian, it was now my duty to roll away the stone. And, because the Earth orbits the sun and is tilted on its axis, this was something that had to be done eternally. Every spring there was work to do, mental gymnastics to perform, intellecutal sacrifices to be made. With all my effort, putting my back into it, the stone would move. Jesus would stumble out of the tomb, blinking sleepily in the morning light.

Then, without exception, it would all happen again. God would be born into the world on Christmas morn, he would die on Good Friday, and the stone would be right back in its place. Every time I turned around, that damned stone would be  back in front of the door and God would be back among the dead.

This is the curse of Sisyphus and it is the curse of the honest Christian thinker, of the man or woman not willing to sacrifice their intellect for the sake of comfort or calm.

In Culture and Value, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “The honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it is possible to walk on it.” (University of Chicago, 1984)

I don’t know if this is true or not. I know that is not true for me. I can’t walk on water and I can’t walk on air.

So, not surprisingly, I left my first career, the ministry I had been preparing for since I was 15. There were other issues, to be sure: conflicts with parishioners, a church that no longer valued the liberal theology in which I had been trained, and, most importantly, vast differences with church leadership over politics and social issues. But at its heart it was a matter of honesty. I left because it was what I had to do. It was the only way that I could be saved.

So this Easter I’ll decorate eggs with my wife and children, I’ll anticipate a visit by Peter Cottontail, I’ll rejoice in the coming of spring which arrives through no effort of my own.

But I don’t want anything to do with that damned stone.

Let Sisyphus roll  it away. I’ll not do it. I’m no longer cursed. I’ve been saved. I’m free.

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

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Captain America v. SCOTUS: Madbomb and McCutcheon

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier premiered this weekend. This third appearance of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (fourth if you count Loki’s transformation into the character in Thor: The Dark World) is the most satisfying yet. It is also, arguably, Marvel’s most serious film to date, taking on the Bush/Obama surveillance state and transforming Captain America, Black Widow, The Falcon, and Nick Fury into comic book versions of Edward Snowden.

For those who have followed Captain America in the pages of Marvel Comics through the years, this political slant will come as no big surprise. Cap has often confronted highly charged political issues. Indeed, creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby showed Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw in the hero’s very first appearance in Captain America Comics no. 1, a full year before the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war and at a time when political attitudes toward America’s role in the war were still in flux.

Captain America 1

Likewise, in the early 1970’s, Captain America briefly surrendered his costume and name because of his disillusionment over the Marvel Universe version of the Watergate scandal. Creators Steve Engelhart and Sal Buscema had Cap take the name “Nomad,” signifying his status as a man without a country.

Nomad

The transformation was short-lived however. In just a few issues, Captain America was back with a new understanding that he could represent the best ideals of his country without having to support the worst actions of its government. In 2006-2007, in the cross-over series Civil War, Captain America led the resistance movement against the Superhuman Registration Act, something many readers have seen as representing real-world America’s Patriot Act.

My favorite run of Captain America stories also comes with a strong political theme, and even though it was published in the mid-1970’s, I believe that it is particularly pertinent in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. When Jack Kirby returned to Marvel following his brilliant run at DC Comics, it was just in time for the American bicentennial. His assignment to Captain America, a character that he helped to create 35 years before, was a perfect fit. Kirby was at the top of his game, even if this fact wasn’t universally recognized at the time, and Captain America was THE American superhero. (My apologies to Superman.) Kirby’s art leaps off the page. His figures are never static, always moving, a seeming impossibility considering the weight, mass, and solidity Kirby endows them with. The art forces the story along, making the convoluted plots and stiff dialogue work, making them a central part of Kirby’s overall mesmerizing effect.

Right off the bat Kirby tackled political issues, particularly in the first multi-part story of his run. Beginning with issue 193 and running through the magazine’s own landmark 200th issue, Kirby told the tale of “Madbomb,” perhaps not the best story in this series, but a riveting one, nevertheless, characterized by all that makes Kirby’s 70’s work bizarre, challenging, and ultimately transcendent. (I give the honor of best story in the run to the “Night People” saga, beginning in issue no. 201, or, perhaps, “The Swine”, beginning with no. 206, which introduced the bizarre Arnim Zola, a character who makes a memorable appearance in Captain America: The Winter Solider.)

Zola

In issue 193, titled, in true Kirby fashion, “The Madbomb: Screamer in the Brain,” Captain America and the Falcon find that a friendly arm-wrestling match at the kitchen table is suddenly turned into an all-out brawl.

Cap

Falcon

Once they calm themselves down, the heroes realize that their entire neighborhood has erupted into violence, the result of a bomb, a Madbomb, that causes all within range to break into violent rage. The bomb is only stopped when Cap smashes it with his shield. After teaming up with S.H.I.E.L.D. and, get this, Henry Kissinger (who tells them “You can call me Henny, if you like”), Captain America and the Falcon learn that the Madbomb that had disrupted their friendly sport was only a miniature version of something much more dangerous: a Madbomb nicknamed “Big Daddy”.

Big Daddy

In the next issue, readers learn that Big Daddy is the creation of a secret organization known as the “Elite” who plan to remake America into an oligarchy. The detonation of the Madbomb will transform the masses into mindless, if potentially violent, servants of the Elite. With Kirby’s typical lack of subtlety, the wealthly leader of this organization is named William Taurey. Taurey’s second-in-command, General Heshin (I know, I know), declares that “The declaration of independence did away with the elite! But, we shall change all that once again.” Heshin confesses that he is motivated by the desire to accumulate even more wealth. Taurey, on the other hand, declares, “We Taurey’s have no need for money! We were born rich! We were born to power!” An army of soldiers work for the Elite, hoping to share in the wealth and power. One proclaims his hopes for a post-Madbomb future: “200 million flunkies, to fetch and carry for us and the elite!! We’ll live like kings, pal!”

In Kirby’s hands, the story unfolds in utterly bizarre but typically Kirby fashion. Infiltrating the headquarters of the Royalist Forces of America in an attempt to find and destroy Big Daddy, Cap and Falcon are forced to battle for Cap’s shield in a Kill Derby, a violent roller derby fought to the death and intended to provide entertainment for the Elite’s already enslaved masses.

Kill derby

Former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are transformed into weak-minded brutes who will slave on behalf of the rich and powerful. The enslaved masses adulate before an Orwellian “Big Brother” who proclaims “WE MUST BEWARE OF THE FREEDOM FREAKS!” And, in my favorite chapter of the story, “Captain America’s Love Story,” Kirby revisits his past as creator of romance comics during the superhero drought of the 1950’s in a touching tale of Cap’s encounter with the beautiful, but ailing, daughter of the scientist who designed the dangerous Madbomb (Issue no. 198).

Throughout the story, Falcon serves as Kirby’s, and Cap’s, moral center. His experience as an African- American man living in 1970’s America is a counterpoint to the diabolical plans of the Elite. He understands, in ways that Cap cannot, their true evil. The Falcon knows first-hand the power of the Elite to keep the masses in check, and to centralize power in the hands of the few. Fittingly, in the story’s final installment, issue no. 200, it is the Falcon (despite the cover blurb) who risks life and limb (and wing) to destroy the Madbomb.

Cap 200
If it isn’t clear from the title of this piece (which I think sounds a bit like a 1970’s buddy cop drama starring Lee Majors as “Madbomb” and Dennis Weaver as “McCutcheon”), I think that Kirby’s Madbomb story tells us a little something about where Captain America, or at least Jack Kirby, would stand in regards to the recent Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. For those who don’t follow such things too closely, this decision removes limits on financial contributions to political campaigns that had been put in place by congress and signed into law by the president, all in the name of free speech. What this means in reality is that mythical “self-made” billionaires as well as aristocratic heirs to family fortunes are now free to buy the votes of politicians with even greater impunity. Instead of making speech freer, this decision in essence makes it even more costly and out of reach for most Americans.

I think that Kirby’s Madbomb tale is, in addition to being a great escapist read, a warning against this sort of frivolous selling of political power to the highest bidder, against allowing the elite to take control of democracy. By ruling as they did in McCutcheon v. FEC, the US Supreme Court has, in a sense, allowed the Madbomb to detonate. Not wanting to read Kirby’s text as some prophetic allegory for our times, I will resist the temptation to interpret the Madbomb’s control of the masses as some parable about Fox News’ spreading of irrationality and madness to an increasingly uninformed public. I will also refrain from using Kirby’s story as a way to insist that his politics were identical to my own. I respect him too much for that. However, I do think Kirby’s tale reveals a crucial truth about democracy that was perhaps a bit more appreciated in the post-Watergate era, when many of the campaign finance laws were developed, than in today’s political environment. I also think that the democratic values Captain America and the Falcon fought for way back when are still pretty important today. Perhaps it  does a disservice to Kirby’s work to  identify the Elite against which Captain America fought with the Koch brothers. It does a greater disservice to it if we fail to heed the warning of the Sentinel of Liberty, and his creator, about the necessity of vigilantly defending democracy against those who would rule from above.

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

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