As I argued in the introduction to the collection “William Blake and Visual Culture,” comic books contain frequent references to William Blake. J.M. DeMatteis, for example, includes the introductory poem to Blake’s Songs of Innocence in his graphic novel Moonshadow and a statue of Urizen appears in the first arc of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Alan Moore’s references to Blake are well known – appearing in V for Vendetta (1982-9), Watchmen (1986-7), From Hell (1991-6), and Angel Passage (2002) and acting as inspiration for his current novel-in-progress Jeruslaem. More often, Blake appears in comics that nevertheless give more focus to other figures from literature and media. A good example of this is James Robinson’s Starman (1994-2001) where quotes from Blake appear with references to Shakespeare, Bergman, and Elvis Presley, yet a much longer arc is devoted to a story involving a demon who lives in a poster and abducts people – a reference to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde even appears in an extended sequence where he has coffee with the Shade: a former villain who helps Starman throughout the series.
Mike Carey’s The Unwritten (2009-present) belongs to the second category of comics that include brief references to Blake amongst citations of a wide variety of literature. Carey is no stranger to stories that reference religious or mystical literature, working as he did on the popular Lucifer (1999-2006) series featuring the continuing adventures of a Miltonic Lucifer Morningstar after he gives up his station as the ruler of Hell. In an interview for The Examiner, Carey lists Paradise Lost and “William Blake’s ‘Between Heaven and Hell'” as literary references for Lucifer along with his previous appearance in Neil Gaiman’s celebrated series The Sandman (1989-1996). While admittedly getting the name of Blake’s work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell wrong, there is no doubt that Blake’s statement that Milton was “of the Devils party without knowing it” informs many of the stories Carey writes during the course of the series. In one storyline, Lucifer attempts to create a different universe that can free itself from what he sees as God’s tyrannical grip on humanity.
The Unwritten is a much more ambitious attempt to reconcile the imaginary universe Blake inhabits with the contemporary world. The main character is Tom Taylor, the son of Wilson Taylor: author of a famous book series featuring a boy wizard who, like Harry Potter, clashes with magical villains. Taylor is a celebrity of sorts, as he is seen as the basis for his father’s character Tommy Taylor. As the series begins, Taylor’s father has disappeared and Tommy spends most of his time going to fantasy conferences and signing autographs. During a particularly grueling Tommy Taylor panel, a graduate student reveals that photographs supposedly taken of him as a child are actually those of another child, and that his national insurance number belongs to another person. In fact, no one can find any information verifying that Tom is, indeed, Wilson Taylor’s son. The mystery becomes even stranger when Tom learns that the graduate student is named Lizzie Hexam, a named shared by one of the major characters from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Assassins start targeting Tom, and he begins to uncover a vast conspiracy linking literary authors from past centuries to the subjugation of the imagination. A particularly intriguing issue involves Rudyard Kipling who is employed to write pro-imperialist poetry and, unwittingly, helps entrap and enprison Oscar Wilde and ideologically prepare Britains for the destruction of the First World War. Carey’s saga paints a war between literary authors and the powerful people who try to exploit the imagination to their own benefits and cleverly connects the power of writing in the nineteenth century with the dissemination of celebrity, fandom, and social media in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
As a champion of the imagination, Blake’s presence in Carey’s story seems clear. He appears only briefly, however, in the third issue of the series. Here, Taylor visits the famous Villa Diodati – where Byron, the Shelleys, and John Polodori stayed during the famous Haunted Summer of 1816. (Carey also tries to link John Milton to Diodati, since the original owners of the Villa were related to Milton’s friend Charles Diodati. Though, as William S. Clark points out in his 1935 article “Milton and the Villa Diodati,” Milton died 36 years before the Villa Diodati was completed in 1710.) The Taylors stayed in the Villa during the early years of Tom’s life. Outside of Wilson’s study hangs Blake’s 1805 painting “Michael Binding Satan.” As Tom describes the image to Lizzie, he says that it depicts “the image of something terrible being put under lock and key.” Blake’s painting is used by Wilson to hide the key and the doorknob to his study. While taking the painting off of the wall, Tom exclaims that his father “was lousy at keeping secrets […] and hooked on cheap symbolism, especially if it made him look clever at someone else’s expense.
Despite being a rather obvious place for his father to hide his most precious belongings, Blake’s appearance – especially through a symbolically-loaded image like “Michael Binding Satan” – helps to conceptualize several of the imaginative and ideological struggles occurring in The Unwritten. First, the figure of binding and the serpentine form of Satan in the Michael painting have analogues in Blake’s The First Book of Urizen, where the iron and abstract laws of the tyrannic Urizen bind human beings to the earthly plane. Urizen portrays the creation of the world and the binding of the soul to the limitations of individuality, morality, and bodily form. Binding abounds in the poem, as well as the serpentine forms of the first human beings to be born on Earth (“The worm lay till it grew to a serpent/With dolorous hissings & poisons” [19.28-33]). In Urizen, the serpentine forms, chains and scenes of binding are products of narrowing human perception and fear. “We impose on one another” as Blake says to the Angel in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (20). The serpent isn’t an agent of evil, (and indeed Satan is not always evil in Blake’s work) but merely a failure to understand or empathize with the other. What cannot be understood must be controlled, bound, stifled, killed. The struggle reflects the episodes of misunderstanding, mistrust, fear, and anger felt between Tom and his father throughout the many flashbacks in Carey’s story.
In The Unwritten binding, fear, and imposition are products of storytelling and the imagination. At the end of the Kipling story in issue #5, Carey shows notes from Wilson Taylor’s desk. Several of them are evocative of the complex web of fiction and reality weaved through the story. “Philosophies are stories.” “Fame is a story.” “Religions are stories.” Each of these stories are to be encoded upon a map. Tom is, as he revealed in the first issue, a master of “literary geography.” As he says in issue #2, he knows “not a word” of the stories he encounters only “the geography.” In this, Carey not only keys into the more recent debates surrounding digital literary mapping (as the practice of literary geography could be seen as an imaginative form of digital humanities projects already underway), but a long tradition of literary mapping that includes Blake’s walks throughout London and his imaginative remapping of Britain and Western literary tradition in Jerusalem. “If the story becomes reality, does the map become the place?”
At the end of Wilson Taylor’s map, we see brief references to unwritten stories. If, as I suspect, Tom is an imaginary character pulled from his fictional world (like the monster from Shelley’s Frankenstein who shows up in the second volume), then the question of the relationship between the imagination and reality will become central to this storyline in the future. And what then? What unwritten Blake can we, perhaps, anticipate seeing in the future installments of Carey’s epic? If the first two volumes and Carey’s past Blakean allusions are any indication, Tommy Taylor will encounter Blake in some form in the future.