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You’ve probably heard of Dionysus, an Olympian god with a reputation for being a badass. What you didn’t know about him, however, is that he’s also your new androgynous goddess, ready to liberate all who grace his presence through the power of dance, ritual, magic, and music. When I happened upon Zak Plum’s forthcoming graphic novel Rites of Dionysus, I became fascinated by his contemporary interpretation of myth making and ritual practices. Plum’s tale is led by Dionysus, who frolics his way toward greener pastures, rainbow sunsets, and magic mountains. I caught up with Plum via Facebook and email and asked him some questions about the journey.
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Alicia Eler: In Greek mythology, Dionysus is the god of ritual madness, ecstasy, wine making, and, of course, wine! He’s also the only god of the 12 Olympians to have a mortal mother. And he’s like the runt of the litter. How did you choose him to be the center of your graphic novel?
Zak Plum: Well, really, I would say that he chose me. It all happened in a beautifully aligned way. When I discovered Dionysus, it was as though the book had been about him all along. I had conceived this story in which I knew there was this character who shows up as an outsider in this big city, a sort of post-apocalyptic Phoenix where there is a lot of suppression, and he essentially leads this group of people in liberation. The story initially contained no mention of Dionysus, but then I discovered this ancient Greek play called The Bacchae by Euripides, and it was uncanny how many parallels there were. In The Bacchae, the city Thebes is basically under the rule of this oppressive King Pentheus, towards the end of the Greek civilization, when things were starting to decay. Dionysus shows up and liberates all these people to the mountains, where they engage in ritual, dance, and music.
I started doing all this research into these Ancient Greek mysteries because of a ritual that caused me to become fascinated with Dionysus. The ritual occurred on the spring equinox of 2012. Some friends and I did this invocation for the Horned God, which involved a lot of chanting, movement, and eye gazing. I definitely felt the subtle presence of the supernatural that night, but something really huge happened the next day. I found this flier for a rave called “Forward to Eden,” and the title really struck me. I decided to go out dancing, and I drank some red wine beforehand. When I was dancing, I felt this really strong presence of the Horned God, and the animal within me. I noticed that a lot of people were wearing horns and fur, or dressed up like maenads. I felt this presence identifying himself as Dionysus, and he gave me some serious downloads that night. I kept noticing people doing this particular motion, this head bucking motion. Months later, in my research, I discovered that this dance move was used as a method of invoking Dionysus in the Ancient Greek mysteries.
I feel that Dionysus and all the gods of humanity are real energies that exist within us, archetypes that we emulate. That night was when I put it all together, that this story is really about the Dionysus within us, that desire for wildness, passion, and aliveness. I realized that this energy is real and palpable. I started thinking about how there is this innate need within us for ritual, and it manifests in our modern world in various ways. The dance music culture seems to be fueled by this intrinsic desire to move and express ourselves freely through music and expression.
AE: You describe the main character, Isaac, as a “queer freakazoid.” Why? What are the other members of his band like? Tell me about other characters in the book — you mentioned that Tucson-based tarot reader Merrie Wolfie influenced your story?
ZP: I meant this in an endearing way, as a way of reclaiming the word “freak.” There are a lot of examples of this reclaiming of hurtful words, such as the word “queer,” which people use affectionately. To me, Isaac is just doing what feels natural and human, but that’s considered “freaky” in our culture. I would consider myself a freak. Not because I’m trying to be different or something, just because those things feel natural to me, and logical. Dionysus really is the freak god, the one who doesn’t quite fit in. He’s also the queer god and is described as being “man-womanish.”
The book is deeply exploring these mythical archetypes and how they appear in our modern culture, within ourselves. So, if Isaac is the Dionysus character, the other characters are really these avatars of the gods. There is a fertility goddess character, a Navajo character, a Krishna character, an Islamic character, among others. The story unfolds in this secret place called Hive where all these different cultural archetypes are merging and coexisting. It’s a microcosm, a symbol of our world today. We are merging to create this new human hive.
There are definitely a lot of people in my life who make their way into the story in various forms. I would say that none of the characters are based on any one person, but they are more like these recurring archetypes in my life, or maybe from past lives even. I notice how people tend to emulate the gods they worship, even look like those gods. Someone told me the other day that I look like Pan, and I thought that was funny.
AE: In an interview, you mentioned that you learned a lot about tarot, magic and esoteric knowledge through the making of Rites of Dionysus. Did the tarot guide you through the making of this novel, or were you involved in specific magic practices? What kind of esoteric knowledge did you acquire? I am super curious!
ZP: I had always had a deep interest in mysticism, even though I grew up Christian. A writer named Jordan Maxwell describes the Bible as “an Encyclopedia of Pagan Religions.” The idea of ritual takes different forms in every religion, and I’d say I am definitely someone who believes in the power of ritual. I started looking into witchcraft and shamanic traditions in high school. That fierce empowered woman archetype showed up and gave me a book on spells and ritual. It was part of my “coming out” process, essentially, and realizing the amount of suppressed knowledge and wisdom that occurred as a result of Christianity.
Definitely the process of creating a tarot deck really caused me to look into magic and Kabbalah, because there is this connection with tarot to those mystical traditions. When I started creating the book, something rhymed accidentally on the page, and I said, ‘hmm, wouldn’t it be cool if the whole thing rhymed?’ So I started thinking about rhyme and rhythm and the numerology of words and the flow of it, and how that is used in chanting, sacred song, and trance. That made its way into the book, for sure. Shortly after I started writing this book, I had a dream that Dionysus had his arm around me, and he was whispering this beautiful poetry in my ear. I awoke really early, before sunrise, and I could still hear his voice. I started writing, and it just kept flowing and flowing.
AE: You also mention a trance state that you entered while working on Rites of Dionysus. Did you time travel or journey through other worlds? What was the trance state like? Did you get in touch with archetypes that are present in the tarot, ancient myths, or even past lives?
ZP: It’s interesting that you mention time traveling, because on that fateful night of Dionysian Downloads, I definitely felt a sense of time traveling — like the outer shells of our bodies are just costumes for this deeper reality that is taking place. The time and place are different, but it’s really the same people. I felt that these people dancing were these souls who had reincarnated into this modern world and have this attraction to Dionysus because they were part of his cults back in the day, as well as other ecstatic traditions dating way back to primordial times. It’s like they maybe don’t know exactly what they are worshipping, but they feel it in their core, intuitively, because of past life memory. They can feel that dancing creates energy which feeds this Dionysus being, but they may not exactly be aware that they are participating in a ritual, because we’ve lost that as a culture. But it’s coming back at this time. People are realizing that our thoughts and intentions create our reality, and that there’s more going on than meets the eye. That’s really what magic is.
The first image I created for this book was a Sigil of Baphomet, which is the five-pointed star with the goat face in the center. This symbol was warped by Satanism but actually has much more ancient origins. There is this idea that the downward-pointing star is evil, but that is really a newer concept. The reversed pentagram really symbolizes energy manifesting downward into matter. So, it’s a powerful vortex of creativity. Once I created this symbol, every time I looked at it I felt that the creativity would just flow from me. That drawing still hangs over my desk, as an art altar, essentially. As an artist, I’m very interested in Sigil Magic, which is the creation of symbols that contain a lot of potent, meditated, ritualized thought. The “om” symbol in Buddhism is a perfect example of this. There are a lot of sigils throughout my story with a lot of different meanings.
AE: What do you hope readers will take away from reading Rites of Dionysus? Is there a vision for a better queer future in the text?
ZP: I hope that people will read something that resonates with them and see the magic in their own lives, see that corporate symbols are sigils, that cinema or concerts are rituals. I feel that this book will appeal to a lot of different people, because there are a myriad of very unique characters. I do envision a better queer future, and I see a lot of people who are tapped into this in various ways. There are celebrities coming out, gay pop stars and politicians. We are all collectively showing that we are people with stories and feelings, and we are being heard. One of my biggest concerns is that many queer people don’t know that there is a place for them spiritually, that there are these cultures that embrace us as having a unique spiritual role.
Rites of Dionysus is set in the future, so it’s really about where I see things going. There seem to be these two paradigms clashing right now: One is the culture of consumerism, which seems to be hell-bent on removing art from our culture and making everything as cheap as possible. On the other hand, we have this subculture of vibrant, beautiful, and creative people who are transforming the overculture. So, this book series is really about that transformation.
The first part of Rites of Dionysus, the book titled Act One: Whatever’s Clever, will be published on November 2 (the date of an ancient greek Dionysian festival called Dance of the Fiery Stars) and officially released that day at the Jet City Comiccon in Tacoma, Washington. There will be a booksigning the following day at The Dreaming Comics and Games (5226 University Way NE, Seattle, Washington).