This latest book from religion scholar Jeffrey Kripal treats the mutual generation of science fiction and paranormal mysticism, primarily under the figure of the costumed superhero of comic books. He explores the roots of late 20th-century popular culture in elite culture extending back into the 19th century, and caps it off with the case studies of comics artist Barry Windsor-Smith, science fiction author Phillip K. Dick, and “contactee” metaphysical speculator Whitley Streiber as instances of “supermodern gnosis” (255).
The body of the book is organized around a sequence of seven “mythemes” that constitute a “super-story” (Divinization/Demonization, Orientation, Alienation, Radiation, Realization, and Authorization) common to the culture of the paranormal that Kripal is presenting here. He manages to address these in a roughly chronological sequence reflecting their rising to prominence in literature and culture. Left unstated is the possibility that they represent an initiatic sequence which might transpire on the individual level in the same complex, feedback-ridden way that he shows it on the larger social scale.
Mutants and Mystics is physically gorgeous. It nicely bound on stunningly heavy stock, with a tough, non-gloss dust jacket. There are numerous full-page color illustrations throughout, mostly reproduced from the author’s private collection of comics and science fiction. The page designs include multicolor text and very appropriate fonts that are nevertheless unusual in academic publishing.
Throughout the book there is a sense of humor, and Kripal makes great efforts to suspend judgment about the “reality” of the paranormal narratives with which he deals, although he admits frankly the points at which those efforts weaken. He is a skeptical scholar, but he is also a sympathetic mystic who has had his own confessed paranormal experiences, and who can be swayed by apparent signs and portents. He admits to confusion about the nature of this or that manifestation, but insists on the validity of a shared phenomenological core. Sounding like a character in the pages of a comic himself, he insists “The damned thing is radioactive” (8)!
The book is fun, thought-provoking, and at 350 pages, over all too soon.