Exhibit / April 30, 2020
Object Name: The Gods from Outer Space
Maker and Year: Magnet/Methuen, 1978-1982
Object Type: Comic Books
Image Source: Komiksy Online, exhibit author’s copies
Description: (Richard McKenna)
In the summer of 1980, a 9-year-old child was made privy to startling revelations regarding the origins of the human race. Namely, that in the distant past, a scientific expedition had ventured from its homeworld of Delos to what was then known as the Blue Planet for the purpose of making genetic changes to the genomes of one species of that planet’s inhabitants in order to speed up the development of intelligent life—and that this spurring on of intelligence was a galaxy-wide tradition that had been going on for millennia, as advanced species tinkered with the biology of less-evolved species in an ongoing chain of giving each other a leg up the evolutionary ladder. The child also learned that the figure of Satan was actually a memory distorted by its passage down through the generations of a rogue Delosian named Satham who, along with his helper Azazel, had rebelled against the edicts of the mission, and that the cherubim with flaming sword set to make sure Adam and Eve didn’t try and sneak back into the garden of Eden was actually a Delosian spacecraft known as a “sonde” firing its thrusters.
The medium through which these awesome facts were divulged was not some august tome but four slim volumes of remaindered comic books retailing at the low, low price of 80 pence for the lot, the site of their communication no solemn temple but a cash&carry outside Doncaster, and that 9-year-old child was—surprise!—me.
Its Polish title also containing the accuracy-improving addendum of “According to von Däniken,” The Gods from Outer Space, as it was called in Britain, was an eight-part (though only the four I bought that day were available in the UK, the eighth volume published many years later) comic that took as its point of departure Erich von Däniken’s silly “theories”—read “pervy racist fiction”—about extraterrestrials having influenced humanity’s development in the distant past, the basis of which Carl Sagan identified as being “that our ancestors were dummies.” In 1977, with von Däniken mania still thriving, Alfred Górny of Polish publishing house Sport i Turystyka—Sport and Tourism—made an agreement with Econ Verlag, the publishers of the German edition of Chariots of the Gods?, to create a series of comics based around von Däniken’s crackpot concepts. Polish journalist and Auschwitz survivor Arnold Mostowicz was brought in as writer, and when Grzegorz Rosiński, the artist originally intended to realize the comic, was snaffled by French comic Tintin, he suggested his fellow pupil at art school and Polish comics veteran Bogusław Polch as the man for the job. Górny, Mostowicz, and Polch spent the next four years detailing the adventures of the expedition to the Blue Planet.
The leader of the expedition and the protagonist of the series is the only Delosian woman we meet, but confusingly—despite the sexism implicit in having literally only one speaking female character (though she is later joined by a clone of herself)—Ais (as she is called in the British version) is pretty much the equal of all the male characters put together: quick-witted, bold, intelligent, beautiful, not above laser-blasting a few bad guys and dedicated to the values of the mission but ready to rebel when necessary against the eugenicist dictates of the “Great Brain,” the emotionlessly logical super-intellect that directs Delosian decisions.
From the moment they set up their first base in the Andes where they (natch) build the Nazca Lines as a landing strip, Ais’s expedition is plagued by setbacks, from rebellious Delosians and Robocop-ed reptiles to insectoid aliens who plan to strip Earth of its natural resources. The plot spans centuries and goes on to include Atlantis, the Pyramids, the Tower of Babel, Hindu gods, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the Nephilim, crystal skulls, the Book of Ezekiel, and the chariot of Yahweh, as well as the aforementioned Ur-Beelzebub—the dastardly Satham, and his army of mutants and robots. The story is an enjoyably confusing nonsense minestrone, but the story is entirely secondary to what makes The Gods from Outer Space so compelling: page after page of Polch’s lyrically beautiful artwork. His sure, clean line and mastery of shade and form create a credible and coherent visual world with its own technologies and aesthetics that in its way is as intense and visionary as the images generated by Jack Kirby’s infatuation with ancient astronauts. Polch died at the beginning of 2020, but the work he leaves behind him—which also includes the wonderful Funky Koval—ensure him a place in comic book history.
While still fairly dodgy, what with logic-driven technocrats imposing their “mission” on a bunch of unsuspecting primates, The Gods from Outer Space‘s interventionist ethics are perhaps closer to those of 2001: A Space Odyssey than to von Däniken’s reactionary gobbledegook. Despite its links to his deeply ambiguous schtick, though, The Gods from Outer Space was also a handy primer for young minds re: the idea that humanity’s myths and legends might in reality be nothing more than the misunderstandings and misrememberings of events or inventions long past, and that even the god we sang hymns to in school assembly every morning, even the idea of “good” and “evil” themselves as discrete and mysterious forces instead of the results of circumstance, history, and environment, might all just be a load of bollocks we’d made up over the millennia because it was easier than actually trying to understand things. Is it possible that, in its way, The Gods from Outer Space hinted at some burgeoning awareness that the historical narratives foisted on us by the establishment were perhaps not totally trustworthy? That the missing element was aliens meddling with our DNA might be pushing it a bit, but maybe there was a kernel of healthy skepticism in this particular take on von Däniken’s delirium—though as we’ve witnessed in recent years, skepticism without actual knowledge can easily metastasize into something as unhealthy and dangerous as unquestioning belief.
It might seem a stretch to accept now that there was a time when many adults believed—with varying degrees of conviction—in the cosmic theories of a Swiss hotelier with criminal convictions for fraud, as well as the Bermuda Triangle and Bigfoot. But this paranormalia was absolutely a part of the texture of everyday life. Though given that forty years later we are living in a world increasingly defined by the bellicose beliefs of reactionary fantasists willing to believe in anything that will provide them with the solipsistic buzz of victimhood, it’s not really so hard to credit the hold these strange ideas exerted over the collective imagination. In comparison, maybe The Gods from Outer Space‘s contention that our ancestors got made clever by aliens doesn’t seem so bad.