The history of the comicbook has been written. Superman is part of that story; likewise Funnies on Parade. Before that, there were newspaper comic strips; and before that, single panel drawings with word balloons. Hogarth’s illustrations were preceded by illustrated Bibles. Greek friezes followed Egyptian hieroglyphics. Cave paintings.
Richard Shaver claimed that there was something older still . . . art and stories from the most ancient of days, from before the flood, from the time of the first moon-fall when the Mer-folk swam in the waters of Tehom.
Shaver is mostly forgotten now, nearly lost to time in the way the Mer-folk and the Titans of Atlan are lost: forgotten, overlooked, dead and buried in some deep, subterranean cavern. At one time he was famous, or nearly so. In June of 1947, the best-selling pulp science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, dedicated an entire issue to Shaver’s work, to his curious blend of fiction and non-fiction, of fantasy and truth and madness.
Shaver believed that behind the world that we think we know, the world that we think we understand, is a world ignored by scientists and overlooked by historians: a Hidden World.
He was tormented by disembodied voices that came to him unbidden, voices that claimed to come from caverns under the surface of the earth, caverns inhabited by the horrifying monstrosities known as the Dero — or Detrimental Robots — degenerate creatures left behind when the ancient race of Titans fled our damaged planet for the stars. These voices revealed to Shaver an ancient and cosmic drama of extraterrestrial civilizations and of long forgotten technology; they revealed to him a debauched world under our feet, where the Dero operate decaying machinery to manipulate events on the surface of our planet and to torment us with wicked desires and terrifying visions — desires and visions Shaver knew oh so well. Opposing them were the Tero, the angels of mercy who battled their fallen cousins for the soul of the surface world.
Shaver — with the help of Ray Palmer, his collaborator, friend and editor — told the (true) stories of the ancient races and their malevolent subterranean offspring in the pages of Amazing Stories. The Shaver Mystery, as it was called, intrigued the masses and captured the attention of readers for a brief time between the end of World War II and the birth of the flying saucer craze. The fame did not last. Science fiction fandom turned on Shaver and Palmer and their claims that the wild fantasies they wrote about could be true. Palmer left Amazing Stories for the world of flying saucers and conspiracy theories. Shaver mostly disappeared, along with the pulp sci-fi magazines in which he played such a central part. The Mystery that he revealed was forgotten, itself now a part of the Hidden World.
Hidden, but not completely lost. Gone underground, for sure, but flowing still, like the subterranean streams that rise to the surface from time to time, that flow on and on, unrecognized, to the sea.
And so, the water from Shaver’s underground stream flows into George Lucas’ Star Wars, where, like some evil Dero, Jabba the Hutt drools over Princess Leia in chains. It washes through Erich von Däniken’s and Zecharia Sitchin’s ancient astronaut theories. And it surfaces, time and time again, in the world of comicbook superheroes and space operas. Otto Binder and Julius Schwartz nourished Clark Kent as Superman, Barry Allen as the Flash, and Ray Palmer (yes, Ray Palmer!) as the Atom with water from Shaver’s well. Shaver’s Titans live on in Marvel’s Kree and Celestials; his Dero and Tero in the Deviants and the Eternals. Shaver’s cosmic rays transformed the Titans before Kirby’s and Lee’s transformed the Fantastic Four. Shaver’s heroes battled evil underground forces before the Mole Man ever reared his ugly face.
With his wife Dorothy, Shaver moved to Marion County, Arkansas, a place of hills and hollers, a place of caverns and caves. With the voices still in his ears, he trolled the rocky fields searching for more information about the world that was, searching for pictures that told the stories of the past. He found them.
Shaver came to believe that, in the ancient and forgotten days before the Moon-Fall, the Earth was inhabited by a race of Mer-folk, denizens of the deep waters, pre-Atlan Atlanteans who swam and breathed with the freedom of fish, like some ancient and true Aquaman, like some Old Earth Submariner. Shaver believed that he had found the record of their glorious and vibrant civilization in the rocks that were everywhere under his feet.
Inexplicable to all rational thought, Shaver began sawing through the Arkansas stones looking for images, attempting to free stories and pictures that had been trapped there, hidden there for millennia.
Shaver called the rocks that he found Rock Books. To Shaver they were picture books; they were stories told through illustration; they were graphic novels; they were, I suppose, comicbooks – the world’s first comicbooks, from before the flood, from before the flight of the ancient ones to the stars, from before the rise of our fallen world.
Just as he heard voices that no one else could hear, so Shaver saw pictures that no else could see. When he discovered that others could not discern what he could make out so clearly, he began to do again what he had done before. Once, he had written down what the voices told him, recounted the ancient tales and, with Ray Palmer, published them for the world to read. Now he painted the pictures that he saw, transferring his visions to the rough construction paper, cardboard and wood materials that were at his disposal. He painted for the same reason that he wrote, I suppose, to make plain the hidden, to reveal the mystery.
Shaver’s technique, which he called “rokfogo”, was unorthodox. He would project an image of the Rock Book slice onto a wet canvas. Then he would sift wax and dry glue down onto it, believing that the light rays from the projector would guide the falling materials into their proper place. He would ask the Tero to help him and bang on the floor with his shoe when they didn’t. Then he would trace with pencil the images that were revealed, and color them with paint. The final product was a deeply textured surface, itself resembling the stone from which it came, that contained the once hidden images, now visible to the world.
But, before the world could be persuaded of the truth of what he saw, Shaver was carried away forever, taken underground by the Dero for his foolhardy refusal to keep the secrets of the Hidden World. Or, perhaps, he was transformed, finally and forever, into something stronger and better, into a fitter form, into something that was itself both hidden and true, transformed for life among the lovely Tero, those who soothed his fevered brain when the tamper rays of the enemy were at their strongest. Shaver died, and his paintings, his Rock Books, became once again a part of the Hidden World.
But underground streams do surface and that which is hidden is sometimes revealed.
Richard Toronto has brought Shaver’s paintings to light, giving them a bit of the attention that they deserve. This is sacred ground for Toronto, who founded the Shaver fanzine, “Shavertron”, way back in the days of mimeograph machines and continues it today at Shavertron.com. (Your Only Source of Post-Deluge Shaverania!) His War Over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer and the Strangest Chapter of 1940s Science Fiction (MacFarland, 2013) is itself an indispensable resource for anyone interested in Shaver, Palmer, the Shaver Mystery, or the history of sci-fi fandom. Toronto is the curator of all things Shaver, the keeper of the flame. I don’t know if he hears voices from the caverns or if he sees pictures in rocks, but it is clear that he hears and sees something in the life and work of Richard Shaver, something hidden that should be revealed.
And now, in addition to his marvelous book about the Shaver Mystery, Toronto has produced the first of two volumes dedicated to Shaver’s Rock Book art: Rokfogo: The Mysterious Pre-Deluge Art of Richard S. Shaver. (Shavertron Press, 2014) It is a wonder to behold, filled with images that Shaver believed were from the distant past, with notes from Shaver and others on the processes and meaning of rokfogo, and with a long and meandering introduction by Toronto that itself plumbs the depths of esoteric and occult caverns. The Mer-folk are here, and Amazons too.
Shaver’s images are layered on top of one another, melting and bleeding together, the result, Shaver believed, of the imprecise nature of his cuts. The pages of these ancient comicbooks became stuck together over time, like the layers of ancient sediment under our feet, so Shaver’s paintings reveal more than one page at once, reveal panel stacked on top of panel.
There are red lips and shapely women; heads adorned with crowns and golden curls; things with fangs and with claws; faces, lost faces from the past; disembodied features from out of time.
My favorite image is the cover image: “Amazons Defending Against the Attack of the Ape Bats.” It leaves me wondering: Did these creatures have the minds of apes, brains quick enough to develop strategies, to be angry and malicious and mean? Was the Amazonian defense only the drawn knife, the sharpened nail, the biting jaw? It must have been a grand battle, grand and bloody. Indeed, it must have been a grand story that was told in this comicbook from the days of the Mer-folk and the Titans, as grand as any tale of the Avengers or the Justice League.
The Hidden World of Richard Shaver is, perhaps, not for everyone. It is dark; it is bizarre; it is mad. It is also, for those with eyes to see and with ears to hear, wondrous, thrilling, magical. His stories and his pictures reflect what he heard and what he saw, and they reveal, if not the Hidden World that is underneath our feet and buried in our past, then at least the Hidden World of this remarkably creative man.
Toronto put it best: “What Shaver saw in the rocks mirrored Shaver. He found a world of gods and goddesses, of princes and princesses, of Amazons, and of mermaids falling from the Moon.”
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Rokfogo: The Mysterious Pre-Deluge Art of Richard S. Shaver. vol. 1, by Richard Toronto and published by Shavertron Press, was released September 2014 and is available on Amazon.
First Insert: “Amazons Defending against the Attack of the Ape Bats.” Enlarge.
Second Insert: Richard Shaver
Third Insert: “untitled”, courtesy of Brian Emrich
Splash: a detail of “untitled 2”, Enlarge.