In “The Cartoon Utopia,” alt-comics creator Ron Rege, Jr. has assembled page after psychedelic page, fully embracing esoteric concepts like alchemy and thought forms, and transforming ideas from the likes of Jung and Tesla into trippy black and white illustrations packed with dizzying detail. Dubbed his magnum opus, “The Cartoon Utopia” took four years to complete and will be released this month from Fantagraphics. While some sections of “Cartoon Utopia” have previously appeared in magazines, ‘zines and art galleries, the majority of the material is new.
Rege, who also plays drums for the Los Angeles-based band Lavender Diamond, said that as soon as title “Cartoon Utopia” came to him, he knew it would link together the ideas that would form the project. “It quite simply describes what I am up to, what I wish for you to imagine with me,” said Rege talking to Comic Book Resources about his book that concludes in the future with an idyllic society of Utopians.
Rege spoke with CBR News about the synchronicities and imaginative new philosophies that led him to create “The Cartoon Utopia,” including a visit to Magic School. He also talked about the link between alchemy and comic books.
CBR News: “The Cartoon Utopia” is a pretty wild book and doesn’t feature much in the way of plot or characterization. How do you explain this book to people, outside of shoving it in their hands and letting them take it all in?
Ron Rege, Jr.: “The Cartoon Utopia” is a sort of esoteric textbook. By “esoteric” I don’t mean mysterious or abstract. Although it is these things, I am referring to Alchemy, Hermeticism, the ancient knowledge that forms the basis of all spiritual belief systems. Similar to Lynda Barry’s “What It Is,” it should be approached slowly, as a textbook would. It might also be useful when read via bibliomancy, opening the book to a random page to access the information in a magical way.
When did you first get interested in the esoteric?
When I was child and first saw “The Dark Crystal?”
Well… I was shaken from the haze of secular skepticism when Becky [lead singer of Lavender Diamond] and her mom Diane Stark entered my life. While visiting Diane in Kansas City in 2005, she brought me to have a psychic reading with a woman named Susan Towers. Part of what Susan told me is that I had “an instinctual understanding of ancient wisdom.” I thought this was funny, and joked about it with Becky for a long time. But it was this joke that led me to reading and relating to esoteric works. The statement was true. There are things that I have intrinsically understood as true my entire life. The more I explored the esoteric, the more I recognized things I have always known.
Maja D’Aoust, the White Witch of Los Angeles, writes about your time at her Magic School in the introduction to “Cartoon Utopia.” What is Magic School and what led you there?
Magic School is a monthly series of lectures given by Maja in Los Angeles. I have been attending her lectures regularly since 2010. I was led to them by my growing curiosity regarding magical ideas, my own spiritual pondering, and an interest in ancient wisdom, especially in relation to the history of Los Angeles. It is a city like no other in that regard, being formed and created fairly recently by individuals with an immense sense of magical imagination. I first knew Maja from the world of ‘zines and comics. I noticed that she had begun lecturing about Shamanism and Alchemy, and decided to check it out.
Aside from writing the intro to the book, she also helps out with the bibliography at the end. How did she influence the project?
Many passages in “The Cartoon Utopia” are direct quotes from Maja’s lectures. It seemed logical to have her introduce the book she had done so much to inspire, and helpful to include her bibliography from these lectures.
How much of “The Cartoon Utopia” concept did you have before you went to Magic School? Have you always been interested in these ideas?
My work has always had a philosophical, spiritual sense of yearning and pondering to it. Around 2008, I began feeling confused and constrained in my relation to comics. I wasn’t forming ideas that had much to do with the standard forms, characters, plots and so forth. Yet I still wanted to produce drawings that contained words and ideas. I began creating a series of independent drawings and decided to call the project “The Cartoon Utopia.”
When did you first start thinking of bringing these influences — from the esoteric to Henry Miller, William Blake and Carl Jung — to comics?
Around the time I started attending Maja’s lectures on Alchemy and Relationships, I was reading a biography of Manly P. Hall, founder of The Philosophical Research Society, and author of “The Secret Teachings of All Ages,” a massive, astoundingly illustrated book. While attending a month long residency (via Drawn & Quarterly) in Montreal, I found a book on Alchemy lying on the sidewalk. These synchronicities sent me on an epic journey of reading and exploration into many facets of magical, spiritual and imaginative philosophies.
While doing this, I began to run across many passages that I wanted to adapt into comics. It reinvigorated my love of the comics form, as I began to see links between the ideas of so many artists and thinkers through the ages. William Blake? Oh man! That guy was such a hardcore ‘zinemaker!
What can comics do when discussing these esoteric ideas that books can’t?
Well, I guess “The Cartoon Utopia” is a bit like “Alchemy for Dummies” or something. Comics can convey complicated and unwieldy information in a clear, concise way by distilling the information down to its essence. Just like Alchemy!
The pages are dense, loaded with interesting design and text, packed with ideas. Can you talk about the development and structure of a single page? How much do you lay things out before you actually begin drawing?
I develop my comics in script form first. I have always worked this way. I ruled out all of the pages and drew in the lettering before I had any idea what any of the images would be. This made things pretty challenging as I went along!
What was the most challenging passage? How long did it take to complete?
Oh! There were some parts that I kept putting off and were difficult to complete! I have trouble drawing animals for some reason, and all of the parts concerning human and animal interaction were done last, and took a while to do. In the end the procrastination and avoidance took up more time than the actual execution.
You’re also in the band Lavender Diamond. Music and cartooning must be two pretty different creative itches to scratch. Do the two mediums have much in common for you?
I feel very lucky to have my creative work split into these two disparate forms of expression. Playing in a musical group offers social, collaborative, and performance based aspects that are mostly absent from the practice of cartooning, which requires dedicated and concentrated periods of isolation. They compliment each other very well. It’s an amazing time right now, to be releasing this giant book at almost the exact same time as our new record “The Incorruptible Heart.” Both projects have been years in the making!
The book is full of positive ideas, especially the Cartoon Utopia seen at the end of the book. Would you call yourself an optimist?
Well, not really. I admit that the book contains a lot of ideas that point towards the power of positive thinking, but “optimism” implies some sort of hope or struggle that I don’t personally associate with. Yes, of course, I wanted to engage in an alternate sort of imagination that is loving and positive in spirit, as I have become overwhelmed and disheartened with the weight of negativity and fear presented as entertainment in our culture. But I don’t personally engage in this struggle.
Many things in life are sad and lonely and difficult, but I find aspects of these experiences to be just as beautiful as joy and happiness. I don’t know if that makes any sense. I have surrendered. I don’t need to be optimistic because I accept everything as it is. I’m not asking anyone else to do this; it’s just where I happen to be right now. The universe is spellbinding to me. Every moment of experience is overwhelmingly beautiful, no matter what it contains. I don’t know how to explain how I got here, but everything is love.
Who is the “The Cartoon Utopia” for? Who do you hope will pick it up?
The Cartoon Utopia is for everyone! Well… I hope to bring new ideas to people who are already attracted to my artwork, and I hope to have created something exciting for people who recognize the ideas behind the image on the cover!
“The Cartoon Utopia” is available October from Fantagraphics.