Art as Magic, Magic as Art: The Hypersigils of Grant Morrison
Between 1994 and 2003, Scottish comics author Grant Morrison published three works that collected into a thematic trilogy called The Hypersigil Trilogy. The three are connected by being what Morrison calls hypersigils, or works of art which also function as works of magick (Morrison, “POP MAGIC!”). The first and last works in the trilogy are the epic ongoing comic The Invisibles and the cyberpunk miniseries The Filth respectively. The two comics work as first a suggestion—with The Invisibles—and then a warning of a last chance—The Filth—for society to move in a direction Morrison sees as positive. The middle installment of the trilogy, however, is a short, four-issue miniseries published in 1996 called Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery.
Using parodies of characters from forgotten comics of the 1950’s, Flex Mentallo is a critical look at mainstream American comics culture where The Invisibles and The Filth are critical looks at the popular culture of the UK. Flex Mentallo also works as a perfect, condensed explanation of Morrison’s occult beliefs, and an example of his hypersigil magick. This paper will focus on those aspects of the comic, looking at them in congruency with Morrison’s lecture at Disinfo Con where he explicitly states his experience with magick to analyze Morrison’s occult beliefs and practices.
Morrison’s story, as wild as it is, sounds at least like a solid argument at first glance. He draws analogies to scientific thinkers such as Stephen Jay Gould and psychologists like Stanislav Grof and Julian Jaynes, and he shows an understanding of complex scientific and political concepts (Morrison, “Magick”). However, under critical analysis, his argument falls apart as he fails to go into specifics about anything. While he tries to defend his excessive recreational use of marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs, their presence in his stories turn what he sees as validation of his occult beliefs into nothing more than anecdotal evidence from an unreliable source. While Morrison’s is a talented speaker and a brilliant writer, his lack of empirical evidence combined with his consistent recreational use of drugs leave much to be desired in his argument. His attempts at explaining and practicing his beliefs in his work lead to extremely original, well-written comics, but the validity of his arguments relies solely on the audiences’ choice of whether or not to believe Morrison, and therefore he provides nothing that would change the mind of someone who wasn’t already a believer in Aleister Crowley and the chaos magicians.
The basis for Morrison’s occult beliefs comes from an experience Morrison had in Katmandu in 1994 where he claims he was abducted by aliens (Morrison, “Magick”). After being brought aboard their spaceship, he was taken to the “fifth dimension” which exists “outside space and time” (Morrison, “Magick”). This also serves as the basis for much of the plot of Flex Mentallo. Wally Sage, a comic book writer who serves as Morrison’s self-insert, was abducted by super-heroes, who serve as the comics stand-in for the aliens who visited Morrison (Flex Mentallo 86-91) . This analogy becomes clear during a segment where an aging astronaut describes an encounter with a superhero while in space, begging Flex to believe him that the heroes are spying on them from their headquarters in space (Flex Mentallo 46-48). The superheroes used Sage as a medium to get their message to the rest of the human race, just as Morrison described the aliens telling him, “We’ve come to tell you this stuff, so you can put it in your work and explain it to the world” (Flex Mentallo 88-89; “Magick”).
Morrison’s claim of being abducted to the fifth dimension is not completely out of line with modern scientific thought. Using sociologist Erich Goode’s methods of labeling occult beliefs, Morrison’s abduction could best be described as pseudo-science. Goode describes pseudo-science as occult beliefs whose basis still agrees with mainstream scientific beliefs, but are based off evidence that “transcend what scientists believe as the natural order” (21). The existence of a fifth dimension which exists outside of space and time is not an uncommon theory among scientists studying quantum physics, and Morrison’s details of it are similar to what scientists theorize it may be. However, any proof of the fifth dimension is purely theoretical conjecture, while Morrison uses anecdotal—and therefore non-empirical and unaccepted by mainstream science—evidence to posit proof of its existence (“Magick”).
Once the claim has been defined as pseudo-scientific, its legitimacy must be called into question. In his foreword to Bryan Farha’s Paranormal Claims, Michael Sherner lists steps to determine the validity of a claim (x). The first step is to question the reliability of the source, and in this, Morrison unfortunately falls quite flat (Farha x). Morrison’s drug use is well known by his fans, and he openly admits to the amount of drugs he was on during the night of the abduction (“Magick”). On the night in question, he describes himself as “doing tons of dope [marijuana]” (“Magick”). He then attempts to defend his lack of sobriety by explaining that he smokes “a quarter of dope a day, and [has] been doing it since 1990” and that when stoned, “you might be picking up lots of interesting little bits and pieces that you don’t normally get when you’re straight. But you know what’s real and what’s not real” (“Magick”). He describes his abduction as an out-of-body experience that he would have to have done a drug like DMT or Ketamine to experience and all he had had was a “tiny little bit” of hash “the size of a lentil” (“Magick”). However, as he was visiting Katmandu and presumably smoking the marijuana provided from there in addition to having been extremely high “every single day” of the previous week, experiencing effects different from those he normally experiences on marijuana would not be unreasonable (“Magick”). Morrison’s lack of sobriety during the events already removes a level of credibility from him, and, when paired with the fact that it cannot be ruled out that after a week long bender on Katmandu marijuana he smoked some bad hash and hallucinated an abduction, his anecdotal evidence becomes extremely unreliable, and cannot be used as the basis of any extraordinary claims. Goode discusses the use of psychedelic drugs in defining paranormal phenomena; he states:
The hallucinations that a person under the influence of a psychedelic drug experiences would not be a paranormal phenomenon, since these effects are pharmacological in origin. But believing these visions to be literally real would represent a form of paranormalism. (Goode 21)
While there is no evidence proving the involvement of psychedelic drugs during Morrison’s experience, there is enough evidence where their involvement cannot be ruled out. Morrison’s insistence that his experiences were not effected by his drug use, then, can help us to place his beliefs within those of the paranormal.
Morrison’s claims cannot be completely written off, though, and one must examine the rest of his claims before passing any judgment. While viewing the universe from the fifth dimension, Morrison comes to understand what he sees as a fundamental aspect of the human race: seen outside of time, the concept of the individual is lost, and the entire human race is actually a singular entity (“Magick”). Every person we see and think of as an individual being, is in fact simply a section of a larger entity seen through time, and to move forward Morrison posits that we must “get rid of the sense of ‘I’ and make yourself something bigger” (“Magick”). This concept is introduced early on in Flex Mentallo when a man in a straight jacket on the TV tells us he was sent to teach us, but his head has been invaded by human memories, and only a select few of his “own” memories still exist (13). This corroborates with Morrison’s own theory that people with “Multiple Personality Disorder”—now referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder—are “mutants” from the end of the 21st century who have “taken ‘I’ to the limit” (“Magick”). In Flex Mentallo, Wally Sage states that he thinks he’s “some kind of mutant,” and this could he could very well be the mutants Morrison is talking about (43). Within the reality of the comic there exist four different versions of Wally Sage at the same time: middle-aged Sage who serves as a second protagonist, Sage as a young boy, Sage as a sixteen-year old who serves as the antagonist, and an old man implied to be Sage. Early on in the story, Flex encounters a junkie who has just shot up a new drug called “Krystal” (31-36). The high lasts for mere seconds as the junkie literally breaks free of the chains of reality and becomes “cosmically aware,” stating, “I’m everything everywhere” (33). As the story climaxes, a possibly drugged Sage begins to confuse his identity; he yells, “I’m Flex Mentallo… no, no, he’s a superhero. I made him up when I was a kid,” before confusing his ex-girlfriend with Minimiss, another superhero he created as a child, and flashing between multiple moments in his existence (66).
Morrison references the works of psychologists in order to prove this theory (“Magick”). He references Julian Jaynes concept of the bicameral mind, calling back to a time when Jaynes claims humans lacked the sense of ego and self-consciousness we have today, and that before the times of modern civilization the concept of “I am I. I am the I Am” (“Magick”). However, using the concept of the bicameral mind as grounds for proof is not a good choice for Morrison, as the validity of Jaynes’ hypothesis is currently still simply a hypothesis, with no solid evidence to prove or disprove it (Jaynes). Morrison makes a similar mistake later when he uses Stanislav Grof’s theory of perinatal matrices to further justify his beliefs (“Magick”). The theories of Grof’s which Morrison cites fall under the field of transpersonal psychology, which is widely criticized as failing to meet scientific criteria (Friedman). Failure to meet scientific criteria does not equal falsehood, as Goode notes that the validity of an argument and the acceptance of the argument by scientific circles are two separate issues (33). The problem in this case arises not from the fact that Morrison’s beliefs aren’t supported by science, but that he attempts to use science to back up his beliefs and fails. During his lecture, Morrison goes as far as to cite an article in New Scientist magazine describing the differences between “good science” and “bad science” to prove that his practices fall under the category of “good science” (“Magick”). Morrison claims you can verify and duplicate the results of his practice, but when called to give examples of the verification and duplication he gives vague statements such as, “People have been telling us about this for thousands of years. The Tibetans have been telling us about this. The Mesopotamians have been telling us about this” (“Magick”). These supposed proofs of the qualification of Morrison’s beliefs as “good science” rely completely on Morrison’s charisma, since his reliability has been previously established as questionable at best.
Assuming the truth of Morrison’s earlier two beliefs, he reveals the third, and most important for the active practice of Morrison’s magick, conclusion he made after his abduction: the magick practiced by Aleister Crowley and the chaos magicians works (“Magick”). More specifically, the use of sigils to manifest a person’s desires and create one’s own reality works (“Magick”). The entire premise of Flex Mentallo is based off this belief. Flex existed originally as a character in a comic book created by Sage until he was “brought to life by Wally’s psychic powers” (11). The rest of the comic is predicated on a rift between the base reality of the comic and the reality in which Sage’s comics exist as reality, and the cyclical nature of these universes—hinted at from the beginning when the book opens with a repeating image of a man inside a universe inside a man inside a universe inside a man—climaxes with the reveal that the reality of the universe within Sage’s comics is the building blocks of the base reality, in which Sage exists and created the reality which then built his reality (93). The book ends with the two realities converging, and the desires placed into the comics by Sage manifest themselves into his reality (100-103).
This manifestation of comics introduces and explains Morrison’s concept of a hypersigil. While Flex Mentallo explains many of Morrison’s occult beliefs, it also acts as a spell to alter reality to his desire. Morrison’s first attempt at a hypersigil was The Invisibles, where Morrison allowed his self-insert to be tortured just so that Morrison himself would end up in the hospital due to the same injuries which he subjected his character to in order to prove it to himself (“Magick”). As his work on The Invisibles progressed, he began to become more and more ambitious with the magick he practiced with it (“Magick”). In the end, The Invisibles stood as a fifteen-hundred page hypersigil with the intention to push the popular culture towards a more positive future (“Magick”). In that context, Flex Mentallo works in a similar fashion. It’s overall purpose is for the realities created by Wally Sage—the stand-in for Morrison—to become part of Sage’s own reality, and for the superheroes—the stand-in for Morrison’s aliens—to come to earth to “save us all” (Flex Mentallo 36).
This is the only aspect of Morrison’s beliefs that isn’t remotely pseudoscientific. Even though he uses New Science’s article to attempt its classification as “good science,” sigil magic has no basis in mainstream science. The use of sigils and magick to manifest one’s desires completely goes against the currently understood laws of science, yet Morrison insists on its validity thus placing it neatly into Goode’s definition of paranormalism as “a nonscientific or extrascientific approach to a phenomenon” (Goode 21).
The fact that Morrison’s beliefs do not fit within mainstream scientific beliefs, but he continues to show how they fit into scientific theories make Morrison a subsumer in his beliefs. Subsumation is the belief that while paranormal events may contradict the beliefs of a majority of scientists, they still fit within the basic laws of science, and are simply aspects of science which have not yet been discovered or proved (Goode 42). While aliens, the fifth dimension, and sigil magic have no concrete place in modern science, Morrison believes them to agree with the previous laws of science, and simply add new ones.
Morrison presents a nice, relatively original occult view of the universe. However, when under scrutiny the truth in his statements relies solely on the question of whether or not we believe a man who’s been heavily experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs for the past twenty-five years. Twenty years after the publication of his first hypersigil, there doesn’t seem to be much of the change he asked for in the world, but perhaps he sees it slowly happening, and as his spell he knows better than anyone what it would bring. For those of us not completely sold on Morrison’s magick, it is at least true that his hypersigils make for wonderfully structured, deeply creative stories unlike those of any other writer of the past forty years.
Friedman, Harris. “Oward Developing Transpersonal Psychology as a Scientific Field.” (n.d.): n. pag. Skaggs Island. Skaggs Island Foundations. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Galbreath, Robert. “Explaining Modern Occultism.” The Occult in America: New Historical Perspectives. Ed. Howard Kerr and Charles L. Crow. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1983. 11-37. Print.
Goode, Erich. The Paranormal: Who Believes, Why They Believe, and Why It Matters. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011. Print.
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print.
Morrison, Grant, and Frank Quitely. Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2012. Print.
Morrison, Grant. “Magick.” Disinfo Con. New York. Lecture.
–“POP MAGIC!” Ed. Richard Metzger. Book of Lies: The Disinformation Guide to Magick and the Occult. New York: Disinformation, 2003. N. pag. Print.
Shermer, Michael. “Science and Pseudoscience: The Difference in Thinking and the Difference It Makes.” Foreword. Paranormal Claims: A Critical Analysis. By
Bryan Farha. Lanham, MD: University of America, 2007. Vii-Xii. Print.