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Introduction, "William Blake and Visual Culture"

By Roger Whitson, Guest Editor

Two hundred and fifty years after William Blake's birth, his work continues to have a very strong visual resonance. Artists and academics were asked to trace that resonance in the 2005 Clouds and Vision exhibition at Lambeth. The show reinterpreted Blake's vision for the contemporary audience with the intended purpose of illustrating his continuing relevance. David Burrows created an installation entitled The Sick Rose (figure 1) in which several felt roses twined together have thin strands of material emerging from the center of the bud. It seems like the rose is throwing up. The roses are sick, but they are also plastic, manufactured, indicative of a culture that espouses spongy beauty and synthetic substances. Even Burrows' sickness is sick, colored bright pastels anesthetizing us from the reality of illness but also from the reality of the roses' beauty. In Burrows' hands, Blake's poem becomes a critique of contemporary global capital and its encroachment upon all aspects of daily life. The sickness of the rose has become an autoimmune disease – the very substances we use to help our bodies fight off infection and illness have started attacking us.[1] The rose is sick in the same way that we are all sick: awash in the achievements of civilization and the seeming triumph of the modern capitalist state, we turn inwards with iPods and laptop computers and build citadels out of preemptive assaults on nations suspected of having biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. Plastic and felt replace flesh, and the dark satanic mills churn out ceaseless mechanical automatons armed only with their cash flow and their fear.

Figure 1. David Burrows The Sick Rose © 2005.

Burrows' piece is only one of many in the exhibition showcasing what a contemporary Blake might look like. And the issue of transformation is central in all of the artists' works. The Sick Rose may not be a direct visual representation of Blake's illuminated poem, but this is hardly the point. The exhibition shows just how pliable William Blake's images remain. The illuminations remain relevant because they give themselves up to the future that haunts them: Burrows makes Blake contemporary by molding and endowing him with new life. William Blake's images are archetypal, as Northrop Frye famously argued, but they are archetypal precisely due to their transformation.[2] The illuminations linger on the mind that molds them into its own universe, becoming a vortex of associations and mutations.

ImageText, as a journal dedicated to comics and critical theory, seems like an odd place to publish essays opening up this maddening, but unmistakably literary, vortex. The visual images in the illuminated books might correlate to the gothic sensibility of contemporary superheroes with their bulging muscles and gigantic stature, as Peter Ackroyd suggests in his biography of Blake.[3] There is also something deeper, however, a Broglioian-Blakean-Deleuzian mole tunneling beneath contemporary comic culture, driving creators to aesthetic innovation with visions of brimstone and apocalyptic nightmares contesting the bourgeois dream life of spandex-clad defenders of the status quo. One such tunnel flows through William Blake Everett, a distant descendant and namesake of William Blake, who created Namor the Sub-Mariner (figure 2), scourge of the deep. Namor is the son of a human and an Atlantean who sometimes saves the Marvel Universe and sometimes threatens it with leviathans seemingly pulled from Blake's illuminated works.[4] Fixed between two worlds – at home in neither – Namor is, like Blake, a stranger in paradise. Everett occasionally used the name of his ancestor as a pseudonym, thrilling readers with tales of Hydroman, Namora, and the Fin. In a more general sense, Blake's designs influence two generations of comic artists, from the acid-induced philosophical ramblings of Grant Morrison, to the wide-eyed fleshy perversions gracing the pages of work by R. Crumb, to the wistful fairytales conjured by J.M. DeMatteis and the more independent work of Keith Mayerson.[5] Each of these creators, in his own way, foregrounds the indisputable visual presence of transformation and metamorphosis in Blake's work in their own.

Figure 2. Namor the Sub-Mariner.  

But there is another reason why an issue on William Blake would appear in a journal dedicated to "the academic study of comic books, comic strips, and animated cartoons." W.J.T. Mitchell, who coined the phrase that serves as the title for our journal ImageText, designated three different ways to define the term. Imagetext "designates the composite, synthetic works (or concepts) that combine image and text," while image-text "with a hyphen" focuses on relations between images and texts, and image/text with a slash is a "problematic gap, cleavage, or rupture in representation" (89). By introducing slashes and hyphens, Mitchell gives his term a motion reminiscent of the way he depicts the interaction between image and text. Mitchell wrote his first book on Blake's Composite Art, and used Blake to develop his concept of the imagetext, showing how the tensions and flows of Blake's illuminated art provide a starting point for investigating what he would later call "imagetexts" more generally. The imagetext emerges in a bewildering haze of interaction, transformation and mutation – thus signifying much more than just comics and cartoons. Or rather, the academic study of comics and cartoons opens up its own infinite vortex – that of the imagetext itself – and forces a broader study of woodcuts, novels, paintings, new media, film, television, graphic art, advertisements, and indeed comics and animated cartoons.

In the spirit of this process of transformation, we asked a mishmash of Blake critics, comic book writers, and visual artists to grapple with the extremely complex relationship between William Blake and the visual. Arkady Plotnitsky painstakingly plots lines of connection and disconnection intersecting William Blake's infinite vision and Niels Bohr's interpretation of quantum mechanics. Plotnitsky sees the power of Blake's infinite vision focused on his intense attraction to the engraver's line. Both Niels Bohr and Blake rebel against the Newtonian universe, with its series of coordinates and points completely describable by mathematical equation. For Bohr, the quantum level of reality cannot be encompassed by mathematics. There is no certain knowledge, outside of particular statistics capable of predicting the outcome of various experiments, that allows us unimpeded access to the totality of the quantum universe. Blake's vision, on the contrary, depends upon the belief that the eye can infinitely transform its surroundings and, through this transformation, grace the edge of eternity.

Nelson Hilton uses imagery from Blake's "Holy Thursday" to argue for an early critique of Wordsworth's first collection of poetry. The setting of Blake's illumination for the poem, far from Lambeth and centered most probably in the north, mocks Wordsworth's pastoral sense as – in Hilton's words – liberal sentimentalism. Ron Broglio sets his eyes on America to articulate the poet's interest in the visual instigation of the new, innovation and revolution. Broglio's Blake is the poet of transformation and becoming, articulated by the centrality of fire as a central visual metaphor in the poem. Blake's work is consumed and produced by fire, the flickering annihilation of its tongues grooving to the dance of a "glad new day."

The issue of transformation and the line cut through other essays in the collection. Esther Leslie uses the line to structure her Benjaminian trace through Blake, William Hogarth, Laurence Sterne, Sergei Eisenstein, Lenin, Newton, Samuel Johnson, Hegel, Eduardo Paolozzi, back into Blake again and finally to the figure of Alan Moore. Moore is a contemporary comic writer who, along with British writers Iain Sinclair and Aidan Dun, sees Blake as a cockney visionary redeeming the dark murderous alleyways of London with his visions of a utopian city. My essay takes this utopian hope as a starting point to show how enmeshed Blake and Alan Moore are in contemporary visual culture, and, consequently, how global capitalism incorporates the prophet into its ever-widening body. Donald Ault reprints two appendices from his massive Narrative Unbound volume. The first, a "Postscript on The Four Zoas as Visual Text," discusses the simultaneous impossibilities and proliferations of visualization in the poem, and how these multiplications frustrate, while enticing sexual fantasies of visual fulfillment. The second, "On the Embedding of Night VIIb in Night VIIa," transforms Erdman's editorial decision to combine the two versions of Night VII into a Cartesian/graphological mapping. Ault superimposes the spatial and temporal properties of Nights VIIa and VIIb in a way that is both mathematically coherent and revelatory of one possible set of stark, uncanny interconnections between these two incommensurable Nights.

The voices of comic writers and the images of visual artists complement the essays. Matthew Ritchie talks about his experience with the poet, from his early memories of singing the chorus from Jerusalem as the national ballad of England, to his use of the character Los in his grand mapping of the universe.[6] Bryan Talbot describes an early interest in Blake as formative in the creation of his British science fiction mystical super-agent Luther Arkwright. John Coulthart provides us with a collage of graphic images displayed at the 2001 Tate Gallery exhibition in London. Finally Joel Priddy redesigns some of Blake's well-known prophetic images in a short biographical comic and, inspired by his walks into Eternity, transforms the comic panel into a window for mystical revelation.

William Blake is a prophet of visual metamorphosis, an artist of infinite sight composed of minute lines and particularities promising a better future. This sight and this future, in turn, transforms Blake. If Blake is the poet of transformation, then he himself forms the center of this transformation. He visually transforms the eye of the reader, but he also violates the stability of his own identity. Blake lived from 1757 to 1827, and died. But he has also given us the keys to his uncertain resurrection as a new form of life and art. The articles in this collection prove the famous line from Blake's Mental Traveller, that "the Eye altering alters all" (l. 62). And this alteration, along with Dr. Who television shows, underground comics, Goth metal songs, paintings, psychogeographic poems, and occultic chants, pushes Blake towards futurity.

Acknowledgements

This project would have been impossible without the help of many people. Laurie Taylor helped me to envision the project and convinced me that ImageText would be an ideal place for a collection on William Blake. Ron Broglio gave much needed support and advice for a graduate student embarking on his first foray into scholarly editing. Zach Whalen spent countless hours designing and formatting the issue. Terry Harpold provided strict deadlines and encouragement – without which the issue would have never been completed. The rest of the ImageText staff were extremely helpful with copyediting and enthusiasm.

Finally and most importantly, my co-editor Donald Ault changed my academic life by formally introducing me to the power of Blake's work. I can only dream that some day, perhaps, I might measure up to the Blakean who showed me what it meant to strive "with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems" (E. 154).

Notes

[1] Jacques Derrida defines autoimmunity, in an interview with Giovanna Borradori, as "that strange behaviour where a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, 'itself' works to destroy its 'own' immunity, to immunize itself against its own protection," and he argues in "Faith and Knowledge: Two Sources of 'Religion at the Limits of Reason Alone'" that democratic governments, by acting democratically, lead open themselves up to ruin and destruction ("Autoimmunity" 94).

[2] For Northrop Frye's analysis of Blake's archetypes, see Fearful Symmetry and its more famous sequel Anatomy of Literature.

[3] Ackroyd briefly compares the "topical pamphlets, popular prints and broadside ballads" of Blake's London with "the modern comics devoted to 'science fantasy' and genre fiction in general" (180-1). Blake's abstract landscapes and mythic characters, especially in The Book of Ahania seem to evoke for Ackroyd the atmosphere of contemporary superhero comic books. He warns us not to take the comparison too far, since he argues many comics do not have the quality of Blake's illuminated books. But he sees a definite resemblance emerging from the fact that both Blake and many comic writers feel a sense of "alienation or exclusion from the conventional literary establishment" and are frequently "political radicals with an urban sensibility not untouched by an interest in the occult" (181).

[4] Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939) as a foil to the first Human Torch. He reappeared when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reinvigorated the Marvel Universe in Fantastic Four #4 (May 1962). In fact, in his first appearance in Lee and Kirby's comic, he attacks New York atop a huge Leviathan seemingly taken directly from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. William Blake Everett is also known for co-creating, with Stan Lee, the character Daredevil for Marvel Comics.

[5] Grant Morrison has frequently cited Blake as one of his inspirations. Blake's Urizen appears as a statue in the Thames in the first story arc of Morrison's The Invisibles, entitled Say You Want a Revolution? R. Crumb never produced any work directly related to Blake's, though he too cited Blake as an inspiration. Donald Ault mentioned to me that he has produced a comic interpretation of Fuseli's The Nightmare. J.M. DeMatteis's Moonshadow is prefaced by the introductory poem to Blake's Songs of Innocence. According to Tom Knechtel, Keith Mayerson's Pinnocchio the Big Fag, has a "literal homage […] in which Pleasure Island is shown as a page from a Blake manuscript" (par. 13). Mayerson, furthermore, has produced a group of watercolors collectively titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

[6] The song is frequently attributed to the poem Jerusalem, while actually appearing as a motto at the beginning of William Blake's poem Milton.

References

Ackroyd, Peter. Blake: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.

Burrows, David. The Sick Rose. 2005. Clouds and Vision Exhibition. Lambeth, UK.

Derrida, Jacques. "Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides." Trans. Giovanni Borradori. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues With Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. 85-136.

---. "Faith and Knowledge: the Two Sources of 'Religion' at the Limits of Reason Alone." Trans. Samuel Weber. Religion. Ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo. Cambridge: Polity, 1998. 1-78.

Knechtel, Tom. "The Road of Excess Leads to the Palace of Comics: The Work of William Blake and Andy Hartzell." X-tra 6.1. 15 January 2007. <http://www.x-traonline.org/vol6_1/william_blake.html>

Mitchell, W.J.T. Blake's Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.

---. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

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