Rachel Pollack, an award-winning writer who developed a dedicated following among fantasy and science fiction readers, was an authority on tarot cards, and created the first transgender superheroine for DC Comics, died April 7 at her home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. She was 77. The cause was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said her wife, Zoe Matoff.
Ms. Pollack was teaching English at a university in Upstate New York in 1971 when she experienced perhaps the most pivotal year of her life. She sold her first short story, titled “Pandora’s Bust,” to the quarterly science fiction journal New Worlds. She discovered tarot cards — or “the tarot discovered me,” as she preferred to say — marking the beginning of a lifelong exploration of the revelations the cards contain for enthusiasts. And she came out as a lesbian and transgender woman. “In some ways,” Ms. Pollack remarked in an interview with LGBT Health and Wellbeing, a nonprofit organization in Scotland, “all those things keep reverberating through my life.”
They reverberated in her writings as well. She observed that “people think things like comic books, science fiction, can’t have an intellectual framework. But of course these are often a place where many ideas and issues and taboos can be examined.” Ms. Pollack was widely admired for her works of speculative fiction, which touched on themes of magic, mythology, religion and sexuality. She received the Arthur C. Clarke Award, an annual prize recognizing the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom, for her book “Unquenchable Fire” (1988), which was later released in the United States. Kirkus Reviews described the book as “an intricate feminist/New Age fantasy” centered on an ordinary woman who becomes “a postmodern Mary, immaculately conceiving a feminine savior who’ll restore the spirit of a revolution gone sour.”
Ms. Pollack later received a World Fantasy Award for “Godmother Night” (1996), a novel that shifts between the realistic and the fantastical as it recounts the story of two lesbian lovers and the daughter who binds them beyond death. “Rachel was a beloved writer of fantasy, but I prefer to describe her as a magical realist,” author Neil Gaiman, a friend for decades of Ms. Pollack’s, told the London Observer after her death. “She wrote these wonderful books of heightened reality and magical worlds where she would concretize metaphor.”
Ms. Pollack was equally, if not more, known for her publications on tarot reading, the centuries-old tradition of divining meaning and even the future from decks of illustrated cards. Her books on the topic included “Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Tarot Journey to Self Awareness,” a work that has been in circulation in various forms for more than 40 years and is regarded as a classic in its field. According to an account in the online LGBTQ publication Them, Ms. Pollack’s association with DC Comics began by chance when she was introduced at a party to the editor of “Doom Patrol,” a comic book about misfit superheroes. She was invited to succeed Grant Morrison as its author and wrote roughly two dozen issues published between 1993 and 1995. Ms. Pollack expanded the superhero team of “Doom Patrol” by creating the character of Kate Godwin, also known as Coagula, who has the ability to dissolve objects with one hand and reconstitute them with the other. DC Comics had shortly before introduced a male transgender superhero, but never before had the company featured a transgender superheroine. “There was no great fanfare or back-patting,” a writer for the online publication Polygon observed. “Kate’s trans status was simply and elegantly revealed to the reader with a close-up of a button on her jacket that said ‘Put a Transsexual Lesbian on the Supreme Court.’” The team of superheroes known as the Justice League rejects Kate Godwin for membership. “I suspect they liked my powers but couldn’t handle me,” the superheroine remarks. “So I guess I’ll just have to give up the superhero business and go on being myself.”
“Our message was to embrace who you are; not care about what anyone else says; not be a coward, love life and accept yourself. People hated Doom Patrol,” Ms. Pollack told the publication Fifth Estate. “But we had a young transsexual write to tell us that she would have killed herself it wasn’t for Doom Patrol. We saved lives.”
Rachel Grace Pollack was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 17, 1945, and grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Her father supervised a lumber yard, and her mother was an executive secretary at IBM. Ms. Pollack received a bachelor’s degree in English from New York University in 1967 and pursued graduate studies at Claremont Graduate University in California before beginning her initial career in higher education. She said that when she realized she was a woman, “no wanting was involved, this is who I was, in a very fundamental way that had nothing to do with anything else.” She underwent gender-affirming surgery in Holland and was active in the gay and trans rights movements. Ms. Pollack published her first science fiction novel, “Golden Vanity,” about contact with extraterrestrials, in 1980. Her other science fiction and fantasy works included “Alqua Dreams” (1987) and “Temporary Agency” (1994). In 2002, she published a mystery novel, “A Secret Woman.”
Her books on tarot and similar topics included “Salvador Dali’s Tarot” (1985), “Teach Yourself Fortune Telling: Palmistry, the Crystal Ball, Runes, Tea Leaves, the Tarot” (1986) and “The Complete Illustrated Guide to Tarot” (1999). Her volume “A Walk Through the Forest of Souls: A Tarot Journey to Spiritual Awakening” is forthcoming.
In addition to her novels, short stories and nonfiction, Ms. Pollack was the author of “Fortune’s Lover: A Book of Tarot Poems” (2009). She designed and illustrated her own tarot deck. Ms. Pollack’s marriage to Edith Katz ended in divorce. She and Matoff, who had been a couple for more than two decades, were married last year in a hospital intensive care unit were Ms. Pollack was receiving medical treatment. Besides her wife, of Rhinebeck, Ms. Pollack’s survivors include a sister. She said she wished for her epitaph to read “Story. It’s all story.” “Each card seemed a frozen moment in a story,” she wrote in a reflection published by the Tarosophy Tarot Association, explaining her fascination with tarot. “Some people love the cards because they can give us glimpses of the future. Still others love Tarot as a spiritual science. To me, these too are stories, for all time, and all science, are sets of interlocking stories.”