The Comics Journal #302: Authors Meet Images by Gavin Callaghan Excerpt

The writer-artist (or artist-writer) is a problematic figure for many reasons. A hybrid figure in either medium, literature or drawing, he or she is suspect. The literary world, for its part, often displays an almost aniconic idolatry in its repudiation of image in favor of language; while the visual world, compelled to reject figurative renderings as mere “illustration” in its promulgation of the extremes of abstraction, often dismisses out of hand the writer-artist, who actually dares to combine figurative images with the additional blasphemy of the written word. But whether they are called pictorial writings, as they were by Austin Osman Spare, or American hieroglyphics, as they were by Vachel Lindsay, or Illuminated Books or stereoscopic printing, as they were by William Blake, the time has come for us to finally recognize it as cartooning and be done with it, and allow the cartoonist to assume a proper place in literary and artistic history.2

Although surely not the first writer-artist (after all, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Asian pictograms, medieval illuminations and woodcut broadsides preceded him in this), William Blake (1757-1827) is still perhaps the foremost exemplar of this tradition, and, despite his tacit acceptance by the literary establishment, is still a problematic figure. Like many of the writer-artists we will consider, he is quite typical in this regard. For scholar Milton Klonsky, for example, William Blake is “huge and anomalous”: “How to define and where to assign Blake, in what genre or tradition, still perplexes critics,” Klonsky writes, Blake somehow remaining “outside any circle of reference we attempt to draw him into, existing in an epicycle apart and his own.” Describing William Blake as an early comic-book artist/writer, however, might be a good place to start (Klonsky perceptively describes Blake’s works as “a kind of metaphysical science fiction.”3) Scholar Mark Schorer likewise emphasizes Blake’s hybrid status, calling him a “poet of strangest mixtures,”4 whose “gift was a high degree of visual imagination.”5 As editor David V. Erdman observes, “No English poet has had such absolute control over the formal appearance of his own work” as Blake did, and “few have had such ill fortune with their work’s subsequent publication”6 — mostly at the hands of purely literary editors, who often reproduced his works sans illustrations.

From William Blake’s America, a Prophecy (1793) reprinted in Geoffrey Keynes’ William Blake: Poet Printer Prophet (1964 Orion Press).

As Jean Hagstrum perceptively notes, Blake was a “composite artist” [italics Hagstrum’s], who “drew upon no graphic artist who was not intellectually or verbally oriented.”7 Despite the fact that Blake “‘intertwined’ painting and poetry so closely that they cannot well be separated,” Hagstrum observes elsewhere, literary students of Blake often tend to ignore “the visual side of Blake either because they regard it hostilely — ‘a medium’s scribble’ — or because it seems intrusive or irrelevant.”8 Even Hagstrum, however, misses the obvious comparison (i.e., with comics) — concluding that Blake “was more than a poet who happened to also be a painter. He molded the sister arts, as they have never been before or since, into a single body, and breathed into it the breath of life.”9 [Emphasis mine.] Such a determination, of course, keeps Blake unique — but it also unfairly disinherits Blake’s descendants.

Biographer Peter Ackroyd, for his part, does not miss the obvious comparison — although he mentions it only to dismiss it:

A contemporary comparison [with Blake] might be made with the modern comics devoted to ‘science fantasy’ and genre fiction in general — the Gothic element persists there in the illustrations of gigantic villains and superhuman heroes, all of them placed in abstract landscapes not unlike those of Blake himself. And when in Ahania he piles on the Gothic effects — ‘Hopeless! abhorrd! a death shadow, / Unseen, unbodied, unknown’ — we are close to the overwrought language of contemporary fantasy with its death stars and dark forces. Of course, it would be unwise to press the comparison too far, since there is a qualitative difference between Blake’s illuminated books and the comics of the late 20th century. But there is a resemblance, at least, which springs in part from the sense of alienation or exclusion from the conventional literary establishment that many writers of fantasy experience; modern writers of fantasy tend also to be political radicals with an urban sensibility not untouched by an interest in the occult. They might be seen then, as sharing part of Blake’s consciousness. But before we ask what is so 20th-century about Blake, we might consider what remains 18th-century about ourselves.10

The resemblance is far more than one of mere consciousness, however — but also one of medium. And — as Ackroyd himself elsewhere observes — for Blake, medium and message were one. “Blake had invented a method that allowed him to deploy the full range of his genius for painting, poetry and engraving,” Ackroyd writes, “combining these several arts” to create “a wholly new kind of art that proclaimed the unity of human vision.”11 [Emphasis mine.] Naturally, it would not do to admit that Blake had merely invented the comic book, or that the English literary establishment has been lauding a mere cartoonist for decades. No, Blake must remain unique — never mind the obvious resemblances of the progeny to their father (however distant they may be.)

Blake could even be described as the first of the small-press comics publishers, and also as the father of the minicomic movement, doing (sometimes with the help of his wife, Catherine) all the “letters, illustrating, printing, and finishing” for all his works, “in color with his own hands …”12 and later selling them at prices ranging from three shillings for The Book of Thel, to 10s 6d for America, a Prophecy,13 although Blake found few buyers for such esoteric works as Milton, America and Europe.

The notes for this article are located at www.tcj.com/callaghanprotocomics

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6 Responses to The Comics Journal #302: Authors Meet Images by Gavin Callaghan Excerpt

  1. R. Fiore says:

    I suppose Blake is closest to the tipping point on the question of “Is he a painter or a poet?”, and I think the balance would go towards poet. The switch hitter is comparatively rare, and the switch hitter who does both with distinction is very rare indeed. Max Beerbohm is considered more a writer than a caricaturist. I think Mervyn Peake actually spent more of his creative energy on visual art, but he’s known more as a writer. Gerard Hoffnung is probably better remembered now for his musical evenings than his cartoons.

  2. Robert Boyd says:

    Norman Lindsay is probably equally remembered both for his writing and his art (although he is probably more remembered for his lifestyle than either–as depicted in the movie Sirens). He however is a very minor artist/writer–certainly not in league with Blake.

    • Gavin C. says:

      I forgot to mention Norman Lindsay and Max Beerbohm in the article; rats! No doubt there are many more I passed over.

      I also left out children’s book authors, since they seem very successful and well-accepted in their particular field. Blake, Schulz, Lindsay, etc., however, have always presented problems to the critics.

      The main difference between the writer-artist and the modern cartoonist is lack of SEQUENCE. But can the fact that Blake’s art isn’t sequential bar him from recognition as a comic artist? (In fact, the pre-eminent comic artist?)

  3. patrick ford says:

    Except that in comics it is the rule that the very best material past and present is the work of writer/artists. There aren’t any exceptions I’m aware of. I suppose it depends on how far you want to expand the boundaries of “very best.” Who is there though? Pekar…anything else?
    And I’m not saying all those non-cartoonist writers are worthless. I’m saying who can be ranked with Chris Ware, Walt Kelly, Robert Crumb, George Herriman, Kim Deitch…,…,…,…,…”

    Harvey Kurtzman: ” Cartooning consists of two elements; graphics, and text. There is no doubt the two coexist and very often one can exist without the other. You can have poor text with good art. The more closely the two are integrated the greater the opportunity is to create capital “A” art.”

    • R. Fiore says:

      I would agree that the writer/artist has a leg up, but much of the reason for much of comics history is that a writer who was good enough to write a good comic book was probably good enough to do something with higher rewards and more prestige. In the last 20 years or so in the commercial realm, where writers get paid wages, I think the best writers are more impressive than the artists. I believe this is largely to do with the difficulty of making a living as a writer these days. In non-commercial comics done on spec the writer who doesn’t draw is very rare – Harvey Pekar, Dennis Eichhorn and Josh Alan Friedman come to mind, and not much else. I would guess that an artist is more likely to sacrifice his material wellbeing to do comics is more common than a writer.

      Mostly a comics writer/artist will be looked on as simply a cartoonist, rather than one thing or the other. Isn’t the first impulse to look at a comic book as the work of the artist, though? Has anyone ever looked at an Alex Toth comic and thought of it as the work of the writer? Even being aware of Otto Binder, don’t you tend to think of Captain Marvel as the work of C.C. Beck? The rule-bending exceptions are John Stanley and Harvey Kurtzman. Steve Gerber would be another, though there we’re edging into the modern commercial comic. Then there’s Stan Lee, of course, but we know what’s going on there, and I’d sure like to not get into it again.

      • patrick ford says:

        The modern mainstream writers do seem to get a lot more ink and are no doubt the stars of that comics cul-de-sac. I couldn’t say if that makes them any good. What little I’ve sampled reads like fan fiction on steroids. Actually what little I’ve read was back in the ’80s when I sampled Alan Moore and Frank Miller to see what the buzz was all about. So that was almost thirty years ago and maybe things are much better today.
        I had an exchange of e-mails with a guy at TCJ recently and his comment was, “I don’t know that they are any better, but they are certainly more pretentious.”
        My opinion has always been that in the old days the cartoonists were for the most part really devoted to and excited by cartooning. They were people who grew up wanting to be the next Fontaine Fox, Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, or Chester Gould. The writers were for the most part older guys who had been writing for pulp magazines or younger guys who aspired to write for pulp magazines. I think that is a very important factor right there. One set of people who are excited about what they are doing, and another set who like…well Stan Lee are constantly quoted in interviews about how badly they wanted to get out, how they wanted to write novels.
        Mort Weisinger (of all people) said:

        “Writing comics is an eternal graveyard. Writers rarely get out of comics. I’ve found that nobody really respects a comics writer. Mentioning it is a liability. Mickey Spillane wrote comics when he was hungry, but he quickly got out of it. Many of the other writers who wrote for me were ones I got from outside the field of comics, from science fiction, and they used to do comics work for what they called ‘hungry money.’ They’d turn out a quickie once a week to pay the rent. Then they went on to radio, TV work, novels or films. They outgrew the field.
        In comics, you always have to rely on your writer or your artist – who in turn has to rely on the inker or the colorist.
        You either are are you aren’t a complete artist. The present system, to me, seems to be a masquerade of comics. One man should do all and never have to rely on others or accept something that doesn’t represent him at his best. For example Hal Foster. He did the entire package.”

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