Not Born So Much As Ground Like Pigment From His Times (The Last War in Albion Part 5: Luther Arkwright and William Blake)

(18 comments)

“Not born so such as ground like pigment from his times”
- Alan Moore, Angel Passage, 2001

[previously] The text becomes a cut-up invocation that puts Burroughs to shame, describing how “in the garden of Gethesemene Kali becomes Miranda take this my ankh the egyptian sign of life renounce the ways of violence Luther the tabla beat faster the star changes to a distant Balalaika Siberian winds howl” against a backdrop of copulating demons drawn in sinewy shadow.” This is all, however, too late to have influenced Morrison’s work directly - The Adventures of Luther Arkwright #6 contains only material prepared after Near Myths. Rather this demonstrates the extent to which Morrison’s early strips firmly belong in an existent literary and artistic tradition. 

Figure 30: Grant Morrison spending
five minutes scribbling Luther Arkwright
for Valkyrie Press in 1989
Even still, for all that Morrison insists, admittedly with self-depricating panache, that he dismissed Talbot because “I was a punk, and I didn’t need things to be slick as long as they had conviction and personality,” the direct influence is compelling. Morrison’s artwork evolves over his time on Near Myths, adopting a heavier shadow and thicker line that owes a clear debt to Talbot (as well as to the squarer-jawed action style of then-DC Comics based superhero artist Neal Adams, discussions of whose work bookend the chapter of Supergods in which Talbot and Near Myths are discussed). Morrison’s final Near Myths story, “The Checkmate Man,” feels more like Luther Arkwright, both in its structure and style. Morrison’s copyright notice on the strip separates the script from the art, dating the script back to 1977, as though mindful of the similarities and wanting to make sure everybody knew he’d come up with it independently.

But the anxiety of influence is not particularly interesting in this case, as we’ve seen. Morrison’s work fits clearly into an overall tradition in which all of these things - dandy secret agents leaping among worlds and having psychedelic revelations - were downright common. What’s interesting is not the question of when Morrison became aware of Talbot’s work any more than it’s whether Ballard or Moorcock is the larger influence on Gideon Stargrave. There’s no reason not to believe Morrison when he says that Near Myths “introduced me to Bryan Talbot,” a statement that seems to consciously hedge against the possibility that “The Vatican Conspiracy” is, as Talbot alleges, plagiarized from the similarly named “The Papist Affair.” Given that Stargrave appears in issue #3 of Near Myths several months after Arkwright’s debut, it’s entirely possible that Morrison was self-consciously tweaking the comic’s head feature with a glitzed-up experimental parody of its abandoned first version. It would, after all, be a perfect reflection of Jerry Cornelius’s first story’s status as a rewrite of some early Elric yarns. Equally, however, it’s just possible that Morrison and Talbot individually hit what was obviously hanging in the air like cannabis smoke hung over social meetings in Edinburgh’s Science Fiction Bookshop. In the end there’s not really a difference. 

What is more significant is the fact that Talbot and Morrison had visibly different interests within this basic nexus of themes. The Adventures of Luther Arkwright seems overtly concerned with the content of its psychedelic event, bathing it in a textual and semiotic excess that renders it particular and precise. The paratexts of the comic reinforce this - The Adventures of Luther Arkwright #6 ends with an essay by Mike Kidson about the main psychedelic sequence. In it he provides a dense inventory of occult details in the sequence, blazing in one paragraph through Timothy Leary, DNA, the symbol of the caduceus, Pythagoras, the chakra system, the musical scale, Kabbalah, the tarot, and the number of the Beast. Like Talbot’s tight-knit linework, the hyper-density of the references marks this as a work concerned with details.

Figure 31: Karl Marx being assassinated in "The Checkmate
Man" from Near Myths #5, 1980
It is not that Morrison’s work is not detail oriented. “The Checkmate Man”’s absorption of the techniques of strips around it shows that Morrison was a savvy observer of other people’s work. But Morrison’s focus is less on substance than on visual style. The high point of “The Checkmate Man” comes in its first page, a perfectly staged visual set piece of the eponymous assassin taking down Karl Marx with a high-powered sniper rifle. Although both textual narrative (“his briefcase bursts open, the papers within caught by the wind are blown like the leaves. The sky is reflected, in the swelling puddle around Marx’s head”) and visual components are competent, the central brilliance of the scene is its existence in the first place. 

Morrison, in other words, is the David Bowie to Talbot’s Brian Eno, an energetic populist opposite a meticulous craftsman. But this constitutes, in a sense, the logical final form of the new wave approach pioneered by Ballard and Moorcock. The collapse into images is simply the furthest possible reach of treating the genre markers of a story as mere decoration to subject to a cut-up reworking. Morrison plays entirely within the frenetic interchanging of images. It’s the exact inversion of Moorcock’s approach - where Moorcock sets out to demonstrate that the story exists regardless of its frame, Morrison sets out to demonstrate that the story is just a skeleton to drape a frame onto. 

In this regard the most telling statement in his discussion of Bryan Talbot in Supergods is his suggestion that Talbot was “a better writer than he was an artist,” a statement that applies equally well to Morrison himself. Morrison’s implied suggestion is that Talbot’s mistake was to not pursue writing as he did, and that the Luther Arkwright stories were in their own way just as superficial as his Gideon Stargrave strips. Certainly Morrison took a swipe at it in the review he put out in Ark #28, which he describes as “five pages of autobiography, and then a bit where I have to say something about Luther Arkwright” before trailing off and suggesting he fell asleep at that point writing the review. 

This tension between writing and art underlies a lot of British comics - both Morrison and Moore, after all, started as writer-artists before concentrating their portfolio. Furthermore, this is clearly one of the sources of both of their skills - they have sufficient training as artists to think substantively about the visual dimensions of their work. But ultimately both decided that they were writers. Understanding the war through them necessarily puts the focus on that aspect of what comics are. But the art is a massive dimension of it, and one that is easily overlooked. Comics are, in point of fact, a visual medium, and talking about them is as they say, like talking about sex. 

Figure 32: William Blake's illustration "Minos" from his
illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy (Butlin 812.9) circa
1824-27
An example of how this art/writing divide dramatically affects how a given figure within the war is understood, consider William Blake, one of the key figures in the British magical tradition that defines the contours of the war. Blake was an artist-writer in a protocomic form of illuminated manuscripts. Within his manuscripts he wrote prophetic visions of a mythology shaped in his own head, spinning tales of demonic Urizen and rebellious Orc and how the shifting of power among them shaped the future of Albion. His influence is felt in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright #6, where his writhing masses of demonic figures from his illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy are transmuted into crisp detail without losing any of their libidinous terror, and where the physical layout of large images adorned with prose sections mirror Blake’s works like Jerusalem

Figure 33: Cavorting Blakean
demons from The Adventures of
Luther Arkwright
 #6, originally
circa 1982
This connection was explicitly commented upon by Dave Thorpe, a primary developer of Captain Britain for Marvel UK, in the Arkeology volume reprinting various essays on the comics that Valkyrie Press published. His two-page essay entitled “a Vision of Albion” quoted Blake passages alongside an interpretation of Luther Arkwright and some poor black and white reproductions of Blake’s art (as well as, of all things, a 1989 sketch of Luther Arkwright by Grant Morrison that Morrison boasted when asked about it in a February 1990 interview was a “five minute scribble”) based around the relatively thin fact that both of them are British and based around visionary and psychedelic experiences. Still, if the understanding of Blake’s system is thin the similarities are still relatively straightforward. In an interview with Roger Whitson for ImageTexT Talbot admitted to a “resonance” between his work and Blake’s on the fundamentally technical level of “the strong image, dramatic composition and dynamic line - plus the use of text in his illustrated poems.” 

But there’s an even more basic point of intersection between Blake and the new wave tradition that Morrison and Talbot follow from. Central to Blake’s visionary mythology is the notion of Albion, a primeval humanity that has not been divided and split into its fallen form. This sense of unity as a form of divinity - that it is only when all the disparate elements of a thing are gathered back together and allowed to coexist, contradictions and all, that it becomes, in Blakean terms, a part of Eternity - is an obvious precursor to the composite landscapes of Burroughs’s cut-ups, Ballard’s pataphoric lists, or Moorcock’s shifting facets of the Eternal Champion. 

Figure 34: Image and text juxtaposed
in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright #6,
originally circa 1982
In Blake’s mythology characters repeatedly fragment, are turned into their emanations or others, or otherwise transform so that their role in the narrative is completely new, such that a name like “Enitharmon” can refer to both the child of the Zoa Tharmas and his emanation, Enion and to the emanation of Los, the fallen form of the Zoa Urthona. Enitharmon, with Los, gives birth to Orc, the fallen form of the Zoa Luvah, who, along with Urizen, the fourth Zoa, are the four divisions of Albion, the primeval man. The similarities to Moorcock’s fragmented Eternal Champion, or to the uncertain and shifting reality of the Jerry Cornelius stories could not be any more blatant.

Blake succeeded as a working artist for his entire life, though his income was meager and he lived in borderline poverty. The practical result of this was that his work was split between his prophetic illuminated manuscripts and freelance illustration jobs, some interesting and provocative like his illustrations for Edward Young’s largely forgotten Night-Thoughts, others rather less so. Blake’s relationship to this work was at times tense, as was his relationship to the poverty he felt harmed his work. But more significant is the way in which this split in his career between writing, illustrating his own writing, and illustrating other people’s writings has affected his reputation, fragmenting him into various disciplines and careers. For most he’s the writer of “The Tyger” and perhaps also “The Lamb,” and rarely credited with anything outside Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which are transmuted from an entwined pair of illuminated books into the base lead of poetry anthologies. 

Figure 35: Image and text juxtaposed in object
47 of Copy E of William Blake's Jerusalem The
Emanation of The Giant Albion
, circa 1821
The visionary nature of William Blake defies the usual genre divisions and, perhaps more problematically, subject divisions. It is simply not accurate to treat him as a poet or as an artist, nor even as a comics creator, although comics scholars have produced some of the most compelling work on Blake of of recent years. In truth Blake belonged to a category poorly appreciated by history - the working creator. Blake was, as Peter Ackroyd put it, “a lower-middle-class tradesman, a mystic intimately involved in the world of commerce and craft,” and his career as an engraver, working with varnishes, oils, and acids as “hard and continuous physical labour. Words were for him objects carved out of metal, and it could be said that the technical requirements of his trade - the need for strong outline, for example, and the importance of minute particulars - helped him to formulate an entire metaphysical system.” So when Blake writes:

I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes 
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity 
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God. the Human Imagination 
O Saviour pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness & love: 
Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be thou all my life! 

Figure 36: Object 5 of Copy E of William
Blake's Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant
Albion
, circa 1821, quoted above
The annihilation of selfhood should be taken not merely as a mystical experience but as work - the great task alluded to some lines earlier. Nor is this work merely the creative business of sitting around waiting for a vision to strike him. To open the immortal Eyes Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought and into Eternity Ever expanding in the Bosom of God requires the brutal, burning, acrid physical labor of creating prints and engravings, of framing and laying out the page, and of perfecting the linework of each individual page, of which there were a hundred in Jerusalem, always to be hand colored, unique from any other copy. It involves laboring for sixteen years on the poem, plus another eight on the unfinished Vala, or the Four Zoas, elements of which were repurposed into Jerusalem, in at times crushing near-poverty, dependent completely on patrons and commissions thrown his way as much out of sympathy as out of regard for his talent. It is not merely vision but the brutality of what Alan Moore calls the world’s blunt engine that produces Blake’s art, and to understand it as anything other than material creation is to to violently misunderstand it. 

Figure 37: Muted psychedelia from Bryan Talbot's
Heart of Empire #3, 1999
This reality makes the work of a visionary comics producer harder. The need to take on commissions and side work means that Talbot, instead of creating his works of pioneering vision like he has spent much of his career on Judge Dredd and Batman stories or illustrating cards for Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering money factory. Even in his later personal work the sense of vision at times chokes and drowns underneath the realities of modern comics production. Heart of Empire, his 1999 sequel to The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, retains none of the original’s experimental or psychedelic heft. His obsessive linework vanishes beneath Angue McKie’s digital coloring, making the pages look like nothing more special than his illustration work for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and even when the comic embarks on psychedelic vision there’s a muted cleanliness to it.

This is a pity, as Talbot is, in practice, every bit the skilled genius of Moore, Ellis, Morrison, and Gaiman. The trouble is that Talbot’s great work is a narrow band - the two Arkwright stories, The Tale of One Bad Rat, and Alice in Sunderland providing the bulk of his major work. Talbot has, save for four issues of Sandman spin-off The Dreaming, never written comics for others to draw. His vision is, like Blake’s, suited only to his own hand, unlike that of Morrison and Moore, who quickly came to conclude that their vision was best realized through the eyes and lines of other men.

Figure 38: Comparable image from Sandman #55,
illustrated by Bryan Talbot (1993) 
Indeed, Morrison’s self-illustrated work consists of the four Near Myths strips, a single issue of Starblazer, and his four year run doing Captain Clyde for various local Scottish papers. He contributes an occasional page or scribble later, but that's basically it. His reasons for abandoning art are simple - as he put it, “when you’re writing, you can do so much more.” Unlike Moore, who proclaimed that he abandoned drawing his own material because he was neither fast nor good enough, Morrison maintains that he could have made it as an artist, declaring that he “could’ve been better than most people who’re drawing today” and that “sometimes I do thumbnails before I write a story, and the thumbnails look better than the finished art,” although these quotes come from 1990, a period when Morrison’s public persona was defined by what might charitably be called over the top rhetoric - in 2011 he admitted that he was, at the time, “comics’ enfant terrible” and that “reading interviews from the time makes my blood run cold these days.” 

Regardless of his reasons for abandoning art, the Captain Clyde strips and Starblazer issue are interesting both for providing the last major glimpses of Morrison’s vision of himself as a writer-artist in the Bryan Talbot mould and for providing the remaining body of Morrison’s work that carries no influence whatsoever from Alan Moore. Of these Captain Clyde provides some particular difficulties, as no full archive of the comic exists in an easily accessed form, although the Mitchell Library in Glasgow is believed to have copies of the newspapers that covered it. Nevertheless, at least some conclusions can be drawn. [continued]

Comments

Eric Gimlin 3 years, 9 months ago

And as usual, need to think about things before I actually post much here. One minor correction, though: Morrison drew one page in Invisibles v3, n2 (a jam issue by multiple artists). Hardly major, but I think it does qualify in its own small way as "self-illustrated" work. He was also solicited as doing a variant cover for Batman Incorporated 12, but that didn't actually come out:

http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/07/04/the-batman-inc-grant-morrison-variant-bait-and-switch/

Neither of these are major, of course, but they (and some occasional sketches as bonus material in the back of collected editions) seem to suggest there's still a desire from Morrison to show he COULD draw the comics still if he wanted to.

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Carey 3 years, 9 months ago

"Morrison, in other words, is the David Bowie to Talbot’s Brian Eno"

Brilliant!

Although that does beg the question, if we are making musical analogies, who is Alan Moore? Led Zeppelin?

(Kirby and Lee, of course, are Lennon and McCartney).

Eno will undoubtably be a reoccurring character in your narrative: not only has Moore admitted to using Eno's Oblique Strategy Cards to help him on occasion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oblique_Strategies) but also interviewed him for the Radio 4 programme "Chain Reaction" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kwdrn). A wonderful interview, including the lovely revelation that while recording the brilliant Heroes, Bowie and Eno were taken by the work of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wejNjdPndLI) and often spoke in their voices. Which makes listening to the moving tale of a couple of star crossed lovers separated by the Berlin war all the stranger. And all the better.

Which leads us to something that I hope you'll be addressing in your essays, Doctor Sandifer: both Moore and Morrison have a sense of humour that runs through much of their work but is usually ignored.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 9 months ago

"although these quotes come from 1990, a period when Moore’s public persona was defined by what might charitably be called over the top rhetoric"

Should that be Morrison?

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Anton B 3 years, 9 months ago

One of Eno's Oblique Strategies cards is -

'Which is the Picture? Which is the Frame?'

Which makes your statement -

'...where Moorcock sets out to demonstrate that the story exists regardless of its frame, Morrison sets out to demonstrate that the story is just a skeleton to drape a frame onto.'

Even more cogent.

Another great post Phil. I need to read this one a few times.

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Spoilers Below 3 years, 9 months ago

Although that does beg the question, if we are making musical analogies, who is Alan Moore?

David Byrne.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 9 months ago

I'm glad that this project is not shattering my image of Morrison as a self important and pompous asshole. The more I learn and the more we explore the war, the more vindicated I feel. Of course anyone who throws their own Con and names it after himself is fairly suspect.

I'm glad you mention Talbot; I feel he is an incredibly underrated artist. His work in Starman is to this day some of my favorite comic art. The comparison to Blake seems clear now, although I will admit I would never have come to it on my own.

Excellent entry!

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C. 3 years, 9 months ago

Moore is more a slightly-out-of-time Dylan, the guy who made a "juvenile" medium "serious," who spawned a number of lesser imitators, a colossus even among his contemporaries/rivals.

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rossco 3 years, 9 months ago

So if Morrison is DAVID BOWIE, then Alan Moore is, oh, ALL OF THE BEATLES, fused into one Meta-being. I can backup my statement with graphs and pie-charts.

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Cleofis 3 years, 9 months ago

"This sense of unity as a form of divinity - that it is only when all the disparate elements of a thing are gathered back together and allowed to coexist, contradictions and all, that it becomes, in Blakean terms, a part of Eternity - is an obvious precursor to the composite landscapes of Burroughs’s cut-ups, Ballard’s pataphoric lists, or Moorcock’s shifting facets of the Eternal Champion."

And, as will no doubt be touched upon later, Morrison's approach to superhero comics; integrating every Batman story ever as canon, fusing all of the various interpretations and Silver Age strangeness of Superman into one monolithic take in All Star Superman, etc.

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Kit 3 years, 9 months ago

I don't remember Simecon, when was that?

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 9 months ago

Simecon? I was referring to Morrisoncon.

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dm 3 years, 9 months ago

Moore is Stephen Malkmus, Morrison is Billy Corgan.

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Jesse 3 years, 9 months ago

George Harriman is Duke Ellington
Frank King is Thelonious Monk
John Stanley is Carl Stalling
Charles M. Schulz is Hank Williams
R. Crumb is John Fahey
Chris Ware is Beck

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BerserkRL 3 years, 9 months ago

He should really have called it MorriCon. Except people might have thought it was for fans of Errico Morricone.

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Alan Abraham 3 years, 3 months ago

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Roger Whitson 2 years, 11 months ago

I keep thinking of that Arkwright ascension image in terms of Blake's Glad New Day.

http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/files/2012/02/blake.glad_.day_.jpg

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Daru 2 years, 2 months ago

"... air like cannabis smoke hung over social meetings in Edinburgh’s Science Fiction Bookshop."

Wow Phil. You have genuinely blown me away - my ancient haunt mentioned on this blog! I spent my teens/twenties and onwards at The Science Fiction Bookshop whenever I could. It was devastating when it closed and we got Forbidden Planet in its place. I have so many memories of whiling away hours there and I loved its slightly worn and dingy atmosphere.

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