The Art of Jonathan Bowden, Vol. 3: Early Pop Art, 1967-1974
The Spinning Top Club
During a recent meeting with Jonathan Bowden, I told him that I do not regard him as human; that, to me, he is part animal, part inanimate object, part gargoyle, or ghoul, or beast; that, in fact, he—it, really—was like a wooden doll or puppet that had been possessed by a demon, and thus come to life by these means. The puppet, or avatar, has will and ferocity, it has self-awareness, and it speaks Nietzschean truths, but, ultimately, there is no one really there.
Here we have a photograph of it, taken in 1971, when it was eight or nine years old. You will notice it is wearing shorts. And that these reveal human legs of flesh and bone. Why are they not mechanical? I thought it only had trouser legs, made out of tweed, concealing wooden limbs, and ending in leather shoes that never came off, even at night, during sleep.
The Bowden beast is also Kratos, the psychopath who appears in a short story by that name. Elsewhere, in a future Antarctica, it is the object of myth and legend, the beast that comes at night to take away children who have shown weakness. It arrives in the dark Antarctic winter, amid a howling blizzard, and takes the weakling, on a sledge piled up high with corpses, to its ice cavern in the glacier, hundreds of miles away, where it keeps the child until it is bored and finally eats him.
And elsewhere still, it is Iron Man.
Has my mind been warped by looking at Bowden’s graphic novels, the earliest of which we find collected in the present volume? My imaginings, when retold to the beast’s seated form at a pre-Industrial public house, caused it to emit a loud, startling laugh, the force of which sent tables and chairs tumbling away from Bowden until they crashed against the walls and plunged the plates and paintings hanging from them into smashed oblivion on the floor.
If you have already perused The Art of Jonathan Bowden, Volume 2, you will be well prepared for the content of Volume 3, where we find Bowden’s favourite character from the Marvel stable, Iron Man, his alter ego, bringing order—not equality or democracy!—to a chaotic world in need of a strong man; to a world of warring titans, of mighty forces, and little people who do not really matter. The battling characters are Molecule Man, Hydra, Mr. Fish, Hate Monger, Torpedo, and Bowden’s creation, the green-skinned Oriental-looking Dr. Fang. Evidently, since we are looking at art that was done when the monster was between five and twelve years of age, Bowden was too young to be philosophising with a hammer. This does not mean, however, that a basic version of his elitist, brutal, pagan outlook in life is not evident: the chaotic-looking comic strips reveal Bowden’s early fascination with power and violence, and his innate admiration for the frank use of force. His stories are about the struggle for power, pure and simple: we see the villains promising violence, revenge, supremacy, and the Iron Man coming to smash them to the ground. The implication is that man is neither purely good nor purely evil, but a mixture of both, and that, after choosing sides, life is about the struggle for hegemony.
Also apparent is Bowden’s instinctive recognition of a link between spiritual form and physical form, a recognition that later drew him towards the criminological and physiognomic theories of Cesare Lombroso. Of course, the link was already present in the Marvel originals, where psychopathic villainy appears with grotesque and twisted features, but I think Bowden found in this not illumination but rather confirmation of a pre-existing intuition. And in all likelihood he also found in this a source of amusement, since he finds that freaks and deformity, because they are extreme in some way or another, add interest to the human race.
As can be expected, the derivative nature of this early work is more obvious still than in the preceding volume. And Bowden’s allusions to current and recent historic events, which include racial tensions within communities and the Nüremberg trials, evince retention but not yet critical examination. (Still, he seems to have been unusually well informed at an age when most children are thinking of playing with their Legos or punching another child in the face.) What we can trace, however, is the precocious development of Bowden’s individual style of representation: while his early comic strips use flat colours and outlines, this minimal technique quickly evolves into his characteristic jumble of dots, lines, and bright colours —a style and technique best described as a blend of Claude Monet with Roy Lichtenstein, with added black. Another sign of Bowden’s incipient non-rationalist outlook is found in his references to magic and the occult; we even see the Green Ray making an appearance—is it he same that hides behind the Black Sun?
It is amusing to note the frequent self-promotion that goes on in Bowden’s graphic novels: their presentation imitates a commercial magazine format, where the readership is acknowledged, urged to read on, sent to get the next issue, and even impersonated as fans in letters to Iron Man signed under various names but penned by Jonathan Bowden. I wonder if he went around his school imposing his graphic novels on his fellow pupils, cornering them in the playground, bullying them into reading them, and chasing them up every day for weeks afterwards, demanding feedback: ‘Did you read it? Did you read it? And now? And now? Did you read it? What did you think? Which part did you like? How much did you like it? Tell me, tell me! In detail!’
What is clear is that Bowden spent a great many hours absorbed in Marvel comics, and that they provided a framework for his explosive creative urge—one that defined it thereafter. As I have noted previously, the graphic novels from childhood and adolescence segregated into two separate strands as Bowden travelled from popular culture to high culture, where he now resides, imbued with a Nietzschean, conservative revolutionary narrative: on the one hand there are the plays and short stories, which are organised in snapshot episodes or vignettes, and on the other there are his paintings, which seize on the visually grotesque. Yet, Iron Man, Bowden’s avatar—the avatar of an avatar—is always there, even now.
This early volume may appear somewhat self-indulgent, but, since the artwork has been preserved, it now documents a process of possession, from human to avatar, from man to beast. Jonathan Bowden, the Beast of Berkshire: iron man.