Published on January 23rd, 2016 | by Sam Sheplawy0
David Bowie: Iconography of an Outsider
We humans have a habit of singling out individuals in our midst for special attention. Some of those we select shun the spotlight; others beg their fellow species to acknowledge them, contorting themselves in wild attempts to capture our collective gaze; and then there are those who neither avoid nor yearn for recognition. Many are ultimately forgotten, but others, by virtue of their unique qualities and extraordinary deeds, captivate our imaginations for generations, their examples inspiring both veneration and imitation – that sincerest form of flattery. Sanctified by popular opinion and legitimized by the cultural adjudicators of authoritative institutions, they are called many things: heroes, celebrities, even saints.
Bowie is the quintessential outsider, forever existing on the margins of the post-modern pop-culture mainstream.
David Bowie ranks highly among these special beings. I use the present tense to refer to him, because, even though the creative and commercial juggernaut once called David Robert Jones succumbed to mortality (with his usual grace and poise, it should be noted) on January 10, 2016, the man we know as David Bowie will never truly die; rather, he has passed into the rarefied echelons of eternal cultural icons.
And he is an icon in the truest sense. His life is encapsulated by the series of interwoven self-images that map his journey in and out of the public eye. As a symbol, the endlessly mutating Bowie persona embodies the times from which it emerges, even as it rejects the conformist tendencies inherent in the zeitgeist and adapts to new eras. Always seeking to challenge limitations, blur lines, and press beyond conventional boundaries, be they personal or social, physical or spiritual, creative or pragmatic, Bowie is the quintessential outsider, forever existing on the margins of the post-modern pop-culture mainstream. With his endless life experiments, he forces his observers to expand their perspectives and embrace their inner outsiders. For this reason, among many others, he deserves acclaim as the Champion of Misfits, or even Patron Saint of Geeks.
Geeks, in contemporary parlance, are defined by their passionate devotion to very particular activities and near obsessions with idiosyncratic interests that are at odds with conventional preoccupations and lifestyles dictated by the collective opinions and expectations of society at large. If you consider his subversive tendencies in the light of an avant garde, sexually, socially, and creatively transgressive life lived out of step with contemporary norms, and take them alongside his seemingly contradictory love for traditional forms of cultural production, then Bowie should most definitely be considered a member of Geekdom, if not its benevolent leader.
Case in point: as a man who has donned and doffed characters as frequently as his costumes, Bowie deserves to be numbered among the seminal, and certainly most accomplished cosplayers, even if the roles he has played are of his own invention. Like Forrest J. Ackerman, the sci-fi pioneer credited as becoming the first cosplayer, Bowie’s cosplay personas make clear he is also master of science fiction, one of the perennially favourite genres among Geeks the world over. Major Tom, Starman, Ziggy Stardust: his epic life-as-art performances early in his career defined David Bowie as a literal alien in our midst. One wonders how much acting was involved in his role as the eponymous Man Who Fell to Earth in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film. It must have been quite a natural development when Doctor Who, one of the quintessential Sci-Fi characters of the TV Age and certainly one of the most beloved Geek icons outside Bowie himself, drew on the former’s style for inspiration for the twelfth iteration of the Time Lord.
At once a model for his acolytes, demonstrating the empowerment and enrichment to be had as a Rebel [Rebel], he also continues to inspire other artists, not only in music, but across media, and not least of which sequential media.
If you are not yet convinced that Bowie deserves the mantle of Patron Saint of Geeks, then consider the meticulously curated catalogue of artifacts comprising the epic exhibition of Bowie’s material life, David Bowie Is, which is currently making the circuit of international cultural institutions. From libraries of books and comics to halls of costumes, furniture, instruments, and artworks, his massive legacy summarizes the passions and preoccupations of a man existing through his fetishes for things, ideas, and idiosyncratic objets d’art, not unlike any collector of pop-culture ephemera creating shrines to his or her passion for PEZ dispensers, pre-war comic strips, or Star Wars action figures.
Speaking of legacies, we should also consider David Bowie’s profound influence on Geekdom. At once a model for his acolytes, demonstrating the empowerment and enrichment to be had as a Rebel [Rebel], he also continues to inspire other artists, not only in music, but across media, and not least of which sequential media.
As much as David Bowie acted on stage in his spectacular musical performances, he also appears in an astonishingly broad spectrum of film roles. Unsurprisingly, he excels at embodying outcasts and misfits, elegantly turned out and/or outrageously appointed misfits, of course, like the aforementioned Man Who Fell to Earth, the painfully antisocial avant gardist, Andy Warhol in Basquiat, and a doomed vampire in The Hunger. In Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, he took on the role of the imperial villain, Jareth the Goblin King, resplendent in eyeliner and glamourously coiffed mullet, fulfilling the fantasies of geeks everywhere. Yet the wigs and face paint were still not as extreme a makeover for the man of many disguises as those he underwent as the voice behind beloved cartoon characters like Lord Royal Highness of Spongebob Squarepants fame.
From filmed frames to printed panels, Bowie’s persona, music, and iconography have provided numerous comic creators with material for a pantheon of characters, storylines, and images. Neil Gaiman’s Bowie worship, for example, is a well-documented fact. Kelly Jones, an artist for The Sandman, explained in an interview how Bowie, with all his glamour, charisma, and playfully menacing swagger, became the diabolic template for Lucifer in Gaiman’s epic Sandman comic series. “Neil was adamant that the Devil was David Bowie… He just said, ‘He is. You must draw David Bowie. Find David Bowie, or I’ll send you David Bowie. Because if it isn’t David Bowie, you’re going to have to redo it until it is David Bowie.” Meanwhile, Gaiman’s latest short story collection, Trigger Warning, includes a two-part story, The Return of the Thin White Duke, blatantly inspired by Bowie’s persona, which is also partly illustrated by Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano.
Two other comic culture celebrities have drawn inspiration from the Berlin-era persona embodied inBowie’s Station to Station album for their unique interpretations of the Thin White Duke. Some seven years ago British comic writing superstar, Grant Morrison, drew shamelessly on the elegant, slightly sinister figure for his interpretation of the Joker in Batman R.I.P. #680. Morrison was unabashed in acknowledging that he wanted to bring “that sort of Euro kind of creepiness, that kind of heroine addict, David Bowie in Berlin seventies vibe and really stick to that sort of shifting persona to the Joker … – slightly sleazy and decadent.” More recently, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, writer and artist of the wildly popular Image Comics series, The Wicked + The Divine created their own Lucifer (AKA “Luci”) for that book whose impeccable style, irresistible charisma, androgynous identity, and decadent sensibilities owe a clear debt to the Thin White Duke prototype.
Yet Bowie’s impact on comic art and stories does not end there. Here are further examples of his apotheosis in comic book iconography. And as you meditate on these images and reflect on the ways in which he has informed your own special brand of nerdiness, remember—it’s only a matter of time before the next pop-culture incarnation of David Bowie: Space Oddity, Goblin King, and Patron Saint of Geeks.