Saturday, December 14, 2013
Larry Schwinger's cover painting for Cornell Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man (Ballantine, 1981).

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Tuesday, October 08, 2013
  Jazz album covers animated


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Sergio Poncione's drawing based on my 1968 photo of Wally Wood.

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Friday, September 06, 2013
From Dick Lupoff's early 1960s Xero, here is Lin Carter's delightful updating of Gilbert & Sullivan. I chose to illustrate this with a Gilbert cartoon. He used "Bab" as his cartoon signature. Thanks to Robert Lichtman for the scan.

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Thursday, September 05, 2013
Sunday, August 25, 2013

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Friday, August 16, 2013
Another of my recent Wacky Package gags.

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Friday, August 02, 2013
  This week is the anniversary of Curiosity landing

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Saturday, July 27, 2013
  Alice Guy was 23 when she had the notion that film could be used to tell stories.
Saturday, July 20, 2013
  The classic Carl Reiner / Mel Brooks routine

The 2,000 Year Old Man
Thursday, June 27, 2013
Grant Geissman's biography of Al Feldstein is due next month from IDW. I've seen an advance copy, and it's impressive--412 full-color pages with covers, previously unseen photos and more than 90 of Feldstein's paintings. Sample pages:

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Below is an illustration I did for the November 1969 issue of Venture Science Fiction. This was eight years before it was revealed that James Tiptree, Jr. was actually Alice Sheldon (who had devised her pen name after seeing a jar of Tiptree marmalade in a supermarket).

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Here's my contribution to This Planet Is Doomed, a collection of Sun Ra's poetry published by Miriam Linna's Kicks Books in 2011.


The Shadow Waltz of Sun Ra and the
Outer Space Visual Communicator

I think of myself as a complete mystery. To myself.

                                                              -- Sun Ra, 1988

Beyond the interplanetary theatricality, catchphrases, non sequiturs, science-fictional costumes and kozmic chaos, Sun Ra (1914-1993) was an innovative bandleader, a potent pianist, an electronic keyboard pioneer, a visionary Afrofuturist poet-philosopher, an inventive composer and a prolific recording artist, releasing more than 100 albums totaling over 1000 tunes. Downbeat called him “the prophet of modern jazz”.  When the avant-garde arrived, they found that Sun Ra had already been there. “I’m a troubleshooter for the cosmos,” said Sun Ra, “sent here by the outer space beings from my home planet, Saturn.”

Blues and boogie-woogie erupted into Egyptological excursions, esoteric philosophical reflections and mystical polyrhythmic  music emanating from spiritual spider webs stretching between the stars. Or, as he put it, “I am Sun Ra, ambassador from the intergalactic regions of the council of outer space… I came from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you by your ancestors.”

Descending to the planet Earth and arriving in Alabama, Herman “Sonny” Blount played piano and wrote songs as a child, performing in Birmingham while in his teens and touring his Sonny Blount Orchestra in the late 1930s. He became known as Sonny Lee and Sonny Ray, which flipped into Le Sonra and finally, Sun Ra. A WWII conscientious objector, he left the South in 1945, arriving in Chicago where he made his first recordings and was a pianist-arranger with Fletcher Henderson’s band at Chicago’s Club DeLisa. During the mid-1950s, he launched his own label, Saturn, and brought together a band dressed in purple blazers, white gloves and propellor beanies before making a transition to their signature ancient Egyptian garb. Exiting Chicago in 1961, the Arkestra became regulars at Slug’s in New York during the 1960s and a focal point of the Black
Arts Movement in 1965, performing at Black Arts events along with the wildly ecstatic “energy music” of Albert Ayler. 

In 1968, after Sun Ra moved to Philadelphia, his home base for the next 25 years, the Arkestra toured Europe, performed at the pyramids in Egypt, added singers and dancers to the mix, made an experimental feature film, Space Is the Place (1974) and appeared on Saturday Night Live (May 20, 1978).

During the 12 Days of Infinity concerts in Boston (December 1978), Sun Ra ascended to a new plateau by adding to the Arkestra the splendiferous color organ, the Outer Space Visual Communicator. My own encounter with the OVC happened in the fall of that year when synchronicity sent me in the direction of the OVC’s inventor.

I was walking down Boston’s Washington Street when I went past the historic decaying Modern Theatre, built in 1900. Some sort of restoration appeared to be underway, and my curiosity about old theaters prompted me to step into the lobby area. When I introduced myself as a journalist to the two young men standing there, one gave me a tour of the auditorium and told me about the restoration work he was doing in preparation for Sun Ra’s upcoming 12 Days of Infinity.

Just as I was stepping back onto the sidewalk, the other guy walked out with me, speaking softly in a conspiratorial manner so the first fellow would not hear. He explained that I had been talking to the wrong person and said I should instead contact someone named Bill Sebastian. That’s how I came to learn about “the planet Earth’s first visionary intergalactic instrument,” which Sebastian had created to catapult Sun Ra into orbit.

The OVC was a machine of loving grace, but it was not programmed like a computer, nor was it like the liquid light shows of the 1960s. Instead, it had a human operator, Sebastian himself, who played it like a musical instrument. He had invented the much-vaunted color organ extrapolated by science fiction writers of the 1930s. In 1980, the music critic Mark Rowland wrote, “Sebastian may be responsible for one of the significant artistic breakthroughs of the 20th century, but so far hardly anyone seems to be noticing.” Sun Ra noticed and brought Sebastian aboard his cosmic Arkestra.

Sebastian, it turned out, was a suburban Dallas native who played piano and came north to study politics at MIT during the late 1960s. He became a political activist in the early 1970s, and during that same period, he was a Jonzun Crew keyboardist. But when he heard Sun Ra playing in Boston in 1973, his life changed. Although he knew nothing about electronics, he spent the next five years and $100,000 constructing the OVC as a way to visualize Sun Ra’s sounds. Basically, the OVC was a giant hexagon comprised of many smaller hexagons of translucent white plastic. Behind each of the small white hexagons were colored lights. Cables from that 16-foot high display screen were connected to Sebastian’s complex control panel with its keyboard and foot pedals. In 1978, after Sun Ra saw the OVC for the first time in Bill Sebastian’s Boston loft, he reflected on the “infinite number of vibratory ratios” and made the inventive light magician a member of the Arkestra’s galactic empire.

When I heard Sun Ra sounds saturating the auditorium of the Mass College of Art auditorium in 1980, Sebastian was caressing his keyboard at the right side of the stage some distance from the OVC, which was centered directly behind the musicians. I wondered how many people in the audience realized he was using his keyboard to paint with light. How many thought he was another one of the musicians producing sounds? There was no way to tell unless one knew.

While I began writing a film column for Heavy Metal that same year, Sebastian was struggling to open a midtown Boston arts center, the Space Place, intended as a home base for Sun Ra’s interstellar excursions. I went there to interview Sebastian for Heavy Metal, and at one point, he allowed me to interact with the OVC. For the September 1980 issue, I researched a history of light shows and color organs, incorporating into it the following account of my oneiric electronic experience, the Space Place face-off with the Tesla-like thaumaturgical wizard of the OVC:

I stand before Bill Sebastian’s towering color organ. It looms over me. Bill and I are alone in the cool daytime darkness of the club interior. He sits at his keyboard. I’m listening to my own reverb as I stand at the microphone on the dance floor, scarred by a million disco hustles of years past.

So I laugh. When Sebastian gives his instantaneous visualization of my laughter, beautiful pop hexagons of color radiating outward, a moving mandala of intense and luminescent blues and reds against a black background, my mind transposes these colored circles into representational imagery of an immense orifice—my own mouth. And when I see this, naturally I laugh into the microphone again, and the laughter booms into the far corners of the club’s upper level. The huge hexagonal screen instantly responds with colors completely different, combinations of colors, greens and blues now, spewing forth like giant geometric guffaws from the throat of God. I’m laughing the Cosmic Giggle at last…

Despite the technology involved (six hundred timing circuits that can sustain an image from one one-hundredth of a second to 20 seconds), the main factor here is personal expression. Sebastian’s hands glide over 400 touch-sensitive buttons as he does his “electronic fingerpainting.” Sebastian told me, “Out of 30 or 40 groups that I ever played with, there’s only a handful, three or four groups, that could really relate to the instrument. Sun Ra and Outer Tube are the most remarkable that way… Sun Ra’s music is largely what inspired the way the instrument is designed and constructed.” The end result is a synesthesia, high—tech and hard edge, of non-representational graphics unlike anything created by light-show technicians of the past.

Today, the OVC lies rusting amid the pine needles and dampness of a Cape Cod field, a home for squirrel nests. The “cosmic orchestra of the universe” echoes across the galaxy, a shadow waltz in the Suboptic Shadow World. The bright gamma-ray outbursts have dimmed and winked out.

The colors have faded, but Sun Ra lives on in his recordings, videos (two by Sebastian), films and writings. He produced many poems, pamphlets and books. The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets  (WhiteWalls, 2006) collects his early writings and 1950s lectures on street corners. Sun Ra: Collected Works Vol. 1: Immeasurable Equation (Phaelos Books, 2005) has over 260 of his poems.

In the mid-1960s, Sun Ra was part of the Umbra group of poets. The group included Lorenzo Thomas, who wrote, “The musicians themselves were as cleverly articulate in words as they were on the bandstand; some, in fact, were poets and writers themselves. Charles Mingus and Sun Ra, both excellent poets and lyricists, spoke in vast but terse metaphors to those who took the time to listen.” Umbra Anthology, 1967-1968 grouped Sun Ra’s poems with those of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg. Baraka labeled Sun Ra as “our resident philosopher” of the Black Arts Movement, and the Arkestra provided the music accompaniment to Baraka’s 1966 play, A Black Mass.

In 1968, Baraka and Larry Neal included Sun Ra poems in their 680-page anthology Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (reprinted by Black Classics Press in 2007), compiled to stand as the defining work of the Black Arts Movement. In African American Review  (1995), Baraka wrote, "Ra was so far out because he had the true self-consciousness of the Afro American intellectual artist revolutionary. He knew our historic ideology and socio-political consciousness was freedom."

In This Planet Is Doomed, more Afrofuturist poems emerge from the Shadow World, and you, the reader, stand upon the threshold of our endless eternal universe. Join the journey. Space is the place.

Countdown for blast-off! X minus five… four… three… two… X minus one... Fire!

                                                 --Bhob Stewart

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Masquerade of the albino axolotls

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is the editor of Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood (2003), reviewed by Paul Gravett.

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