YOU ARE BEING CONTROLLED by images, though you may not know it yet. After reading Douglas Rushkoff’s Aleister & Adolf, which influential and eccentric comics writer Grant Morrison calls an “apocalyptic struggle for the soul of humanity,” you may start to consider the ways in which iconic visuals drive us. Aleister & Adolf pits two influential figures of the mid-20th century — Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), a prominent occultist, poet, magician; and Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945 and architect of the Holocaust — against each other. Both of these men, powerful in their own ways, understood the importance of symbolic imagery. But Crowley used the unicursal hexagram and Hitler the Nazi swastika, symbols evoking very different visions of control.
This unique and thought-provoking story pairs author Douglas Rushkoff with illustrator Michael Avon Oeming. Rushkoff is an award-winning media theorist and documentarian whose work focuses on how technology and images impact human communication and media literacy. Oeming, a notable illustrator, has worked on titles such as Daredevil and Judge Dredd, and was nominated for an Eisner Award for his work on the series Powers with Brian Michael Bendis. With a career-long interest in mythology and conspiracies, Oeming is a perfect collaborator to bring Rushkoff’s challenging vision to the page.
Aleister & Adolf can be viewed as the creative companion piece to Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, in which he argues for the importance of understanding how messages are created, and his work on anxiety in the Digital Age, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. Present Shock, in particular, provides an excellent dossier on how the speed of communication has changed the makeup of our entire existence, as well as a useful reminder that humans do not operate on the same timetable as the technology we have created.
With the impact of real history and the possibility of what might have happened in mind, Rushkoff begins Aleister & Adolf by noting, “Most of the stuff in this story really happened. The rest may as well have.” The book’s narrative blends reality with fiction in a way that unfolds from this opening line. The history of World War II is mostly remembered for famous battles and the Nazis’ crimes against humanity. Rushkoff, however, views this period as a test case of how symbols can influence action. Both Crowley’s “magick” and Hitler’s Nazism depended heavily upon the power of icons to attract and control people.
Rushkoff’s story does not limit itself to Crowley’s hexagram and Hitler’s swastika, however. It also invokes many of the most iconic symbols of the 20th century, such as the Allies’ “V for Victory” sign. While World War II was a complex and multilayered international struggle, Rushkoff views it here as a conflict over propaganda. From this perspective, reality is of no consequence and all that matters is what people believe, the truth be damned. Aleister & Adolf suggests that the power of images is reinforced when people don’t know their origins: from mystery springs power.
The story begins when Hugh, a programmer trying to update a website for a client, notices the logos moving around on the screen before he can save them. Curious whether the files are corrupted, he meets with the company’s archivist, Mr. Stubbs. While searching through folders to find the right logo to rescan, Hugh stumbles upon some horrific imagery. (Think concentration camps.) Stubbs sends Hugh to meet a dying former employee named Roberts, who once learned how to control images.
Roberts, Hugh discovers, enlisted in the United States Army during the lead up to World War II and was given an assignment as a newspaper journalist. However, his position at Stars and Stripes was just a cover for his real job, finding an “eccentric old man” who “worked for our intel here in the Great War.” This man turns out to be Crowley, who joins the fight against Hitler. The chancellor is using the “S.S. Occult Bureau” to “exploit astrology, metaphysics, and the occult,” and Crowley employs his influence to steer the Germans into well-planned traps. In this passage, Rushkoff attributes the founding of the Ahnenerbe project (“Occult Bureau”) to Rudolf Hess, although in fact it was the work of Heinrich Himmler. Hess was also interested in the occult, though, and it could be that Rushkoff is taking creative liberties in his work of fiction to make some larger point.
In any case, a skeptical Roberts finds Crowley and is initiated into the occultist’s inner circle. There Roberts learns that symbols can be charged through ritual with enough power to exert incredible influence. Crowley, he discovers, seeks a sigil to counter the swastika, which was being regularly charged through the deaths of thousands of people. Crowley’s answer is the famous V for Victory icon, which he gives to Prime Minister Winston Churchill to launch his V campaign. Originated by Crowley,
The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the peoples continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.
In this way, Aleister & Adolf suggests that World War II was a battle of symbol versus symbol as much as soldier versus soldier. Symbols were either used for malevolent purposes, like Hitler’s swastika, or charged through ritual and used for the greater good, like Crowley’s V.
In a conversation with The A.V. Club about the genesis of Aleister & Adolf, Rushkoff suggests that an important theme of his graphic novel is our failure to understand the continuity between fascist symbols and those of the contemporary capitalist world. The “bigger idea” of his book, he contends,
is the corporate-cyber-universe as the progeny of fascist sigil magick. Swastikas and other sigil logos become the corporate logos of our world. And given that we’re living in a moment where those logos are migrating online where they can move on their own, it’s kind of important that we consider the origins and power of these icons.
The power of symbols to provoke action and reaction is readily apparent in the case of an image like the swastika. But if we look at the use of symbols in the branding of things ranging from products to politicians, we can see that the power of imagery remains strong. Daniel J. Boorstin’s prophetic 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America details the former Librarian of Congress’s concern over what he saw as the growing prominence of pseudo-events, or preplanned self-fulfilling prophecies. Boorstin offers as an example the act of calling a hotel a “distinguished institution” at an anniversary event in order to make it one. If we believe something to be true, Boorstin suggests, then it may well become so.
As a media theorist, Rushkoff teaches us how to be media literate. As a graphic novelist, he provokes us to rethink our perspective on imagery by means of an art form to which visuals are central. This critical angle is deeply rooted in some excellent comics of the last few decades. My upcoming class on the cultural history of the superhero, for instance, will be studying Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s incomparable mid-1980s revisionist superhero narrative Watchmen. More than any other graphic novel, Watchmen critiques the iconic superhero ideal by recreating the past as if it were influenced (and changed) by the presence of real superheroes. Similarly, Mark Millar and Dave Johnson’s 2003 series Superman: Red Son reimagines the Man of Steel from the starting point of his rocket crashing in the Soviet Union rather than Kansas, leading him to fight for the Soviet rather than the American way. These stories, like Aleister & Adolf, take an iconic image (the superhero) and estrange it, forcing us to reflect upon how it might function in a different context.
Oeming’s art draws readers into the narrative through stark black-and-white visuals. The chiaroscuro look of Aleister & Adolf forces our eyes to digest each panel with vigor rather than simply being seduced by the images’ power. If Marshall McLuhan were alive today, he might well identify this as an example of his notion that the medium is the message. Oeming’s artwork challenges the reader to reflect on the true impact of imagery, a strategy that proves quite powerful in conjunction with Rushkoff’s narrative.
Rushkoff draws upon a career spent researching the power of images to encourage us to do the same with the sorts of images we encounter every day. In Program or Be Programmed, he contends that if we do not have a working knowledge about how information spreads and why, we are at risk of becoming preset by it. Aleister & Adolf covers similar terrain when its main character begins to learn how Crowley and Hitler create and implement their messages. In this way it reminds people to take control of the ideas and messages that might be controlling them. As Boorstin once warned, “Pseudo-events thrive on our honest desire to be informed, to have ‘all the facts,’ and even to have more facts than there really are. But propaganda feeds on our willingness to be inflamed.” Our response to images and messages today will impact how they are used in the future. Understanding how we are triggered will improve our ability to respond intelligently.
Aleister & Adolf emphasizes the importance of understanding how messages are created, how they are used, and how they persist over time. Crowley and Hitler were fascinated and obsessed with control. Rushkoff, in both his scholarship and his fiction, has been consistent in inspiring others to vigilance when it comes to mass-mediated messages.
In the spirit of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Rushkoff creates a narrative that uses real history but alters our perspective by repackaging the past in a new way. When we think of global conflicts like World War II, our first thought might be about famous battles, family members who served, or the technologies like the atom bomb that helped the Allies win the war. Aleister & Adolf encourages readers to look at well-documented events as part of the history of ideological struggle rather than of armed conflict — to see images like the famous photo of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima as, first and foremost, images. In this respect we can understand Aleister & Adolf as not a diversion from, but an imaginative working through of Rushkoff’s preoccupations as a scholar and critic of modern media.