Abducted by aliens in the late 1930s, the African-American musician Herman Poole Blount traveled more than 700 million miles to find his true origin. He was not, as he previously believed, from Birmingham, Alabama. He came from Saturn, and his real name was Sun Ra. For the rest of his life, he recounted this story, which was written up in periodicals ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times as his celebrity spread with the popularity of his otherworldly Arkestra.
The covers of Sun Ra’s albums were nearly as fantastic as his music. Several striking examples from the 1960s and ’70s are currently on view at the Drawing Center in New York, exhibited together with graphics ranging from Avengers comic book art to the cover of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
Sun Ra & His Arkestra. Discipline 27-II, 1973. El Saturn Records, Chicago, IL, Sun Ra LLC. Cover artwork by LeRoy Butler. Offset print on paper. Collection of John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis. Reproduced courtesy Sun Ra LLC
What unifies this apparently eclectic collection of objects is nothing less than the impulse to reimagine history. Novels and comics and music each do so in ways particular to their tradition and aesthetics. Showing them together in one place, with attention to their physical manifestation, accentuates what each form can uniquely achieve, and helps to elucidate why alternative histories are so important in modern society.
Although speculation about the past is as old as myth, most accounts of alternative history as a genre begin in 1888, when Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward: 2000-1887, a novel that envisioned the United States as a socialist utopia, telling the story of how it came to be that way. Narrated from the perspective of people living in the 21st century looking back to the time when the book was written, Bellamy’s novel essentially provided a plan for realizing his sociopolitical ambitions.
Published nearly seventy-five later, The Man in the High Castle is a novel in an altogether different register. Dick recounts the aftermath of an Axis victory in the Second World War, describing an American society under the dominion of Germany and Japan. His dystopia is a cautionary tale of what could have been, which also provides a critical perspective on the post-War US, questioning the extent to which American ideals were truly victorious.
Novels have the advantage of narrative complexity and detail, unlike the stark simplicity of mainstream comic books. Yet comics are no less powerful in their evocation of what might have been, what the present lacks, and what the future may hold. The Avengers cover art selected by the Drawing Center comes from Issue #87, in which the superhero Black Panther reveals his past. The story, which has recently reached a new audience in film, posits a world in which Africa was not decimated by European colonialism, presenting Black Panther’s homeland of Wakanda as a paragon of social justice and technological advancement.
The Black Panther legend is a modern myth. Like all great mythology, it provides an open-ended opportunity for us to collectively evaluate and reorient our society. The decision to tell the story in comics is significant not only for the popularity of the genre but also for the fact that detail can be avoided. The overall impression is what matters, and the iconic style invites recapitulation in ways that keep it current, as exemplified by the recent Black Panther movie.
Of course music is more abstract than comics or novels, especially in the hands of a musician as indefinable as Sun Ra. His story of alien abduction, whether apocryphal or not, is really just a prelude to the ambiance created when his Arkestra performed. Through that ambiance, Sun Ra created nothing less than an alternative reality in which African-Americans were not enslaved and did not suffer the oppression experienced by Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham. Unlike the self-evident fiction of Black Panther, the status of Sun Ra’s universe was intentionally ambiguous, as he eloquently articulated in a 1974 film titled Space is the Place: “I do not come to you as a reality,” he said. “I come to you as the myth, because that’s what black people are. Myths. I came from a dream that the black man dreamed a long time ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you by your ancestors.”
Through his music, Sun Ra conjured a realm in which listeners could dream up their own identity. Under the influence of the Arkestra, they could define their own history as a starting point for moving beyond the oppression in their midst.