Not Born So Much As Ground Like Pigment From His Times (The Last War in Albion Part 5: Luther Arkwright and William Blake)
“Not born so such as ground like pigment from his times”
|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.
|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.
|Figure 32: William Blake’s illustration “Minos” from his
illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Butlin 812.9) circa
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
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.”
|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.
|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:
|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.
|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.”