Philip K. Dick and the Genre of Ideas: PKD In Comics
For a man who's been dead for nearly thirty years, Philip K. Dick is suddenly getting a lot of attention. With BOOM! Studios starting "Dust to Dust" this week, a prequel to "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" there are now three PKD-related comics to hit the shelves in the past year, including Marvel's "Electric Ant." And several venerated comics creators have come forward to contribute to these projects: David Mack, Paul Pope, Warren Ellis, Ed Brubaker, and New York Times Bestselling Author Jonathan Lethem.
With the comics industry being the copycat league that it is, and the level of success that these adaptations have found, there's bound to be more PKD coming down the pipe and scrambling a few readers' paradigms. Even if that weren't the case, Dick's impact on the medium of comics is already significant. For the uninitiated then, there's relatively little time to get acquainted with the man who smartened up comics without ever writing.
So lie back, take a deep breath, and pay no attention to the walls of reality crumbling around you. A little Dick never hurt anybody. (Had to get it out of my system.)Describing the novels of Philip K. Dick can be a little like explaining String Theory to a ten-year-old. In Esperanto. Over the course of his thirty-year-career, he produced around 121 short stories, over forty science fiction novels, and even a few mainstream literary novels that remain unpublished. Though he was able to scarcely maintain an existence as a full-time writer, he remained largely unappreciated throughout his life. Popular among hardcore sci-fi fans and other writers - like his sometime benefactor Robert Heinlein - the world at large remained totally unprepared for the self-professed freak's forays into trans-realism and paranoia. Sci-fi's very own Van Gogh: prolific, unnoticed, and in his own way, anguished.
Dick's life began in tragedy. Born six weeks premature in 1928, the odds of his survival were simply astronomical. But maybe those odds were halved by being a fraternal twin. Philip Kindred and Jane Charlotte were born December 16. By the end of January, Jane was gone. Though he couldn't even have had memories of her, the specter of his sister haunted him all his life, and practically hovered over him as he wrote. Variations of her influence appear all throughout his work, as the characters and motifs that power some of his most profound works. Perhaps this is the most fundamental thing to understand about his work: the lost twin, what is fake and what is real, and the strange out-of-phase feeling that all of his output projects; that things are not as they should be.
These reckonings with reality appear in many ways: in his paranoia, his explorations of identity, time-displacement and even divine intervention. He delved into these themes very early, in 1959's "The Cosmic Puppets," in "The Man in the High Castle," which won him the Hugo Award in 1963, and especially in "The Three Stigmata of Peter Eldritch," published in 1965 and a personal favorite of John Lennon, who even thought about making a film of it. Keep in mind that Lennon was officially the coolest person in the world at the time.
Eventually, Dick found his audience among the great turned-on. The psychedelic movement forced a shift in popular consciousness, people began to be ready -- some, at least -- to appreciate his genius. Once you've crossed an interstellar chasm to enter the pregnant, beating heart of creation at a Grateful Dead concert, suddenly Dick's out-of-phase view of reality didn't seem so crazy.
Fortunately and unfortunately, it -- and Dick -- got even crazier. In his 1974 novel "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said," all of the currents running through his work came together in a flood that broke through the levee between life and fiction. In the story, the world's most famous actor is transported to a world completely different from the one he knows. It won PKD the John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fiction novel, and set him on the path the dominated the rest of his life and career. When Dick described a scene to his priest, the priest told him it was similar to a story from the Bible, the Book of Acts. Dick read the Bible story and decided it was exactly the same.
The details of his experiences and transformation have been retold many times, from Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" to R. Crumb's "The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick." The official version, though, is PKD's own work. Over his final three novels, "VALIS," "Radio Free Albemuth," and "The Transmigration of Timothy Archer," the writer laid out the strange kaleidoscope his life had become. The bullet points: in 1974, after a dental procedure, Dick experienced "an invasion" of perfect knowledge and began to see reality peel away, that all time was one time, and that man was held in a Black Iron Prison, a concept that originated with early Christian Gnostic sects.
If you've read Grant Morrison's "The Invisibles," all of that sounds pretty familiar. But strangely, the Scottish superstar has only picked up PKD recently, long after the similar experiences he has described time and time again. Which is... kinda freaky... but not that shocking. PKD's influence is so far and wide that Morrison is essentially a second-generation devotee: could "The Prisoner" have existed without PKD? And truth be told, comics has felt the author's influence since the 1970's, from Marvel's "Cosmic Awakening," Steve Gerber and (separately) Jonathan Lethem's "Omega the Unknown," even Peter Milligan and Edvin Biukovic's modern classic "Human Target."
Despite how crazy he seems to the average American, PKD's influence on modern media is significant. Several of his stories have been adapted into films -- "Minority Report," "Total Recall," and of course "Blade Runner" -- and several other movies have applied similar archetypes. The identity-questioning action thriller and reality-questioning action thriller have dominated the box office from "Face/Off" to "The Matrix."
And now things are really beginning to spin out of control. Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt plans to print "The Exegesis" this year, an 8,000-page, one-million-word chronicle of the bizarre state of reality and his attempts to decipher meaning from it. It's even co-edited by Jonathan Lethem. Matt Damon is starring in "The Adjustment Bureau," aimed for release this year. Paul Giamatti has been trying to play the author in a bio-pic for years. And if "Dust to Dust" continues the trend that "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and "Electric Ant" started -- of quality interpretations and reiterations of the talented writer's work -- we should be seeing more in the near future. After all, he referred to sci-fi as "the genre of ideas," and at its very best mainstream comics is the medium of ideas.
Despite the craziness that molded his life -- or maybe even because of it -- Philip K. Dick was one of the most talented storytellers of the twentieth century, as vital to fiction as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Vonnegut. He was just waiting for the world to catch up.