The premise of Aleister & Adolf sounds like either a buddy comedy or a cage match. Both premises have promise, but author Douglas Rushkoff and artist Michael Avon Oeming present a story that delves into the subtle and insidious ways the iconography and symbols that represent concepts like Nazism can be just as dangerous as the tanks and flamethrowers present on the battlefield. Famous occultist Alestair Crowley is entangled in a war with the Nazis that is based around how powerful symbols are, and how the ideas conveyed in something as simple looking as a swastika can be as poisonous as anthrax. From Churchill’s “V for Victory” salute, to the appropriation of archaic mystic symbols, Crowley created a web of magic that continued to battle the Nazi and black magic ideologies into modern day.
Trying to convey the idea of symbol and sex magic in an eternal war using England and Germany as proxies sounds ridiculous and convoluted. Under most creative teams, it probably would be. Aleister & Adolf hearkens back to the early days of DC’s Vertigo titles, and it feels at home next to the works of Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis (who pens the introduction). Oeming’s art is kept black and white to incredible effect. Not a single moment looks goofy or silly. This story might sound like B-movie fodder, but Oeming grounds each panel with a macabre simplicity, bringing both the gore and horror of war to life, and clearly illustrating how dead and empty the world around us now often feels. Certain moments will make your skin crawl, while others offer some of the most breathtaking snapshots imaginable.
Aleister & Adolf is not an easy book to read. Rushkoff pulls no punches and digs out some of the more appalling atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi’s “science” division, which was often guided by occult ideas and myths. While the lack of color helps mitigate the gore, it is not a comfortable reality to face. It’s very obvious that there is a level of chastising happening, as well. As time passes, symbols like swastikas are used in a more cavalier manner and are looked at with derision, then quickly ignored. Yet, the toxic messages that those symbols are meant to spread still permeate culture and still motivate people to evil. Despite being steeped in the world of magic, there is truth to the philosophies both Crowley and Hitler follow in crafting their propaganda, and it’s clear that Rushkoff is aware of the pendulum swinging back to an era that needs to stay buried.
Aleister & Adolf is a must-read for anyone interested in history or mysticism. The book could very easily have a lasting impact on readers and inspire another push of works like we saw from Vertigo stalwarts back in the '90s and early 2000s. There is something magical happening here, although now I’m afraid of whether that’s a good thing.