Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Philip José Farmer has escaped this mundane world.
Portrait of Farmer's Lord Grandrith, India Ink on paper, digital color, 2005
My favorite writer, Philip José Farmer (January 26, 1918 - February 25, 2009) gave up this mortal coil, this morning.
I felt fortunate to have not only read all his books, but I actually got to meet the man in person a few years ago.
Ironically, one of the recurring themes in Farmer's work was the actual (albeit fantastic possibility of immorality for us humans), many of his characters have undergone some sort of transformation that results in them being forever young and healthy. So even after I met the aged author in person, there was a small part of me thinking that there was a young hero wearing a sophicated disguise and playing the part of a long lived old man, biding his time, until he was ready to make his escape to the amazing worlds of high adventure and daring do that his books celebrated. I would like to think this is the case.
Farmer was the spiritual heir to Edgar Rice Burroughs, his work often had the same superficial glow of Adventure for Adventures sake, but inside, in the heart of the tales, were amazing complex self aware deep literary currents. His stories would often reference, Shakespeare, Freud and Jung, Nietzsche, William Blake, Joseph Campbell, Mythology,structuralism, semiotics, existentialism, social theory, Marxism and post-structuralism. Farmer loved pulp adventure, but he loved it enough to breath new life and cunning intellect into it. He dissected it, remade it, parodied it, swam in it. HIs love of Tarzan produced Tarzan Alive, a masterpiece in which Farmer attempted to prove that Lord Greystoke actually existed as a living man in our world. HIs book A Feast Unknown, totally deconstructed the entire concept of the Adventure Hero, he took all the criticism that has been leveled on action adventure; that it is inane childish power fantasy with imperialist and homoeroctic sub-texts, and said, yes that's all true, hilariously true.
Farmer tapped into the deepest wishes of all the kids who live half their lives in books, the secret knowledge that all these tales are actually true. That the tales of Tarzan, the Shadow, Doc Savage, and Captain Nemo, and all the rest are thinly veiled reportage. For Farmer the world of the imagination was as real as any thing else, it was up to us to make the connections for us to build a bridge to the amazing, it was our duty to aspirer to fantastic and make it real, to flesh it out, to realize the hidden adventures and secret wars of heroes and villains that are happing everyday under our noses. Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Garht Ennis, owe Farmer greatly.
I owe Farmer a great deal, I discovered his work in 1997 right as I was begging my fully adult life, I had just graduated from Art School, and was caught in a go nowhere office job, in a soon to be loveless relationship, and in general a frustrated person, that needed to find a way to tap into and take charge of my imagination and my life. I picked up a copy of Farmer's book Flesh, which is an playful fusion of Space Adventures with Robert Graves' White Goddess, and the Battle of the Sexes. I soon discovered Michael Croteau's Farmer website which allowed me to create a check list of all of Farmer's books, and Reading Farmer's books, reminded me of the reason I was a artist, it helped me connect to my noble heroic self. It helped me realize that the Heroic could be an intelligent and complex a force in culture. That my burden as an artist was to create worlds, worlds upon worlds, and fill those worlds with Gods, Monsters, Villains, and Heroes, and Heroines.
Farmer's two great book cycles are The World of Tiers and the Riverworld series, both are classic sci-fi adveture series, but also touch on many wonderful aspects of mythology, history, and culture. The World of Tiers depicts an ever increasing multi-verse where the characters from William Blake's poems are real and caught in a life or death struggle for control of universes that they have created and lost control of. The Riverworld series deals with actual famous person from history, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Mark Twain, King John, Alice Liddell, and countless other in a fully realized afterlife.
I have not even touched upon some of Farmer's great one-shot novels, such as Jesus on Mars, Dark is the Sun, A Barnstormer in Oz, Dare, The Unreasoning Mask, and The Lovers. Or his great short stories and essays, Like the Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod, which tell the story of Tarzan as if it was written by William S. Burroughs instead of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Do yourself a favor READ THESE BOOKS!
I always try to honor Farmer in my professional work as a visual artist, HIs book Mother was a Lovely Beast was part of the inspiration for my Kala Paintings. I dedicated my Caveman Robot Gigantic Mega-Annual Comic in 2004 to Farmer, I mention him anytime I am interviewed, and I did a multi-media project that was a dramatic reading the first six chapters of A Feast Unknown. ... I really love this guy.
Like all great prophets Farmer was under appreciated and cheated by his fellow humans, many of his books are out of print, many of his ideas were ripped off by lesser artist, butchered by hack editors, and the all to few adaptions of his works in film are mediocre at best. My only hope is that as often the case when a real artist passes, people finally begin to see how great they really are. Long Live Philip José Farmer.