Review: Her Infernal Descent#1

There have been many re-interpretations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly its first part, Inferno, since the poet wrote his vision of heaven and hell in the early fourteenth century. As well as influencing writers as diverse as T. S. Eliot, Osip Mandelstam and Jorge Luis Borges, it has inspired classical (Puccini, Liszt) and popular (Nine Circles, Depeche Mode) music, video games – most notably Dante’s Inferno (2010) – and has been illustrated repeatedly by an infernal army of artists, most notably Gustave Doré, Salvador Dali and, of course, William Blake.

The connection between Blake and Dante is explored in a particularly fascinating way in a new comic written by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson and illustrated by Kyle Charles, Dee Cunniffe and Ryan Ferrier. Entitled Her Infernal Descent, the series – the first episode of which, “Denial”, was released this week – charts the journey of a lonely widow into hell to find her family. We find the, as-yet-unnamed, protagonist in her home, void of the life once given to the place by her husband and children but full of the detritus of material that reminds her of them. She herself is ageing, visibly sinking into despondency and unable to rouse herself from the deadening effects of loss, and the opening pages have been noted by several reviewers for the simplicity and beauty of their engagement with an all-too ordinary form of grief.

It is five pages in, after a beautifully illustrated montage of her climbing into an attic to pack away yet more mundane stuff of finished lives, that she encounters the figure who will be the spirit guide on her future journey: William Blake. In a reverse scene of that in Alan Moore’s From Hell, when William Gull (Moore’s Jack the Ripper) appears as a ghost to Blake and inspires the original The Ghost of a Flea, Blake rears up before her in the attic space to tell her that he has spoken to her family in hell and that she now has the opportunity to accompany him there. Sceptical at first, she soon succumbs to his prophetic charms (as so many of us do) and lets him lead her out into the dreamlike streets that soon transform into a portal into the underworld.

All the reviews I’ve read have been extremely positive, and in general I can see why. The artwork is delicate and reminiscent of the work of Dave McKean and Eddie Campbell in particular. While I am less impressed by the writing than some, for reasons I’ll outline below, nonetheless the topic is wonderful in its scope, especially as it combines the descent into hell with such a mundane sense of an ordinary woman’s life. It’s not quite the first graphic novel version: Joseph Lanzara’s Dante’s Inferno (2012) made use of Doré’s art in a frankly derivative fashion while Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory (2004) is a much more original take. Her Infernal Descent is very much in the latter category, and for this reason alone is a worthy example of the inclusion of Blake – as well as Dante – in a long line of comic-book adaptations.

While this version is extremely admirable for so many reasons, however, its depiction of Blake is one with which I can’t quite connect. The initial appearance of Blake bears a resemblance to that of Eddie Campbell’s in From Hell, yet is more gaunt, rather like a spectral Nick Cave. That connection would be admirable enough, but throughout the comic it was a slight irritation to me that this was not my Blake as I so often imagine him based on a series of paintings and drawings of the artist during his lifetime. This, however, was much less of an issue than his tendency to speak in rhyming couplets: William Blake was not necessarily averse to such couplets – they appear, most notably, throughout Auguries of Innocence – but the form is actually a relatively rare one for Blake. After meeting him and before deciding to go along for the ride, the protagonist asks him, “Are you gonna be rhyming the whole time?” and, I’m afraid, I felt her pain, as in such lines as the following:

You should be assured hell is as real as the great human spirit.
This offer only comes once, or be cast aside if thou fear it.

This example (admittedly one of the worst in the issue) appears to be attempting to emulate both Blake’s fourteeners from epic poems such as Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion as well as the heroic couplets of the Augustan age. Frankly, it doesn’t work, not least because the rhythm (something that Blake was a thorough master of at his very best) is all utterly irregular and thus fails to scan effectively.

Somewhat less egregious, but also mildly annoying to me, are some weird decisions – probably factual errors – on the part of the writers of Her Infernal Descent: Blake talks about the loss of his son throughout the issue, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was not a profound if obscure reference to Tristanne Connolly’s work on Catherine Blake’s miscarriage in William Blake and the Body (a hypothesis that was never widely known) as a simple mistake for the death of Blake’s brother, Robert. Likewise, when the pair first descend into hell, Blake greets the classical writers Plato, Aristotle, Ovid and Homer as those figures “from whom the word of power I glean”. While this line strictly refers to a pseudo-occult power that Blake as psychopomp possesses in the comic, the notion that Blake the man would have given such reverence to classical authors – whom he so memorably attacks in the Preface to Milton a Poem – is inaccurate.

And yet, despite these criticisms, Her Infernal Descent is a wonderful book. I am most certainly not the target audience for a graphic novel of this kind and, the occasional very poor poetic couplet aside, most of my criticisms above are nitpicking or subjective responses. Above all else, the fact that the authors decided that William Blake should replace Virgil as the archetypal guide to the underworld is a brilliant conceit, demonstrating a deft understanding of pop culture appropriations of Blake that generally work. I doubt that many readers with at least a passing understanding of the Romantic’s poetry would question his suitability as a spiritual guide, and although this first issue essentially sets the scene for further encounters I wonder how much of Blake’s antinomian visions of hell will percolate through future episodes of the comic.

Her Infernal Descent is published by AfterShock, aftershockcomics.com, RRP $3.99 or £2.49.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, March 2018

March ended with something of a bang in terms of Blakespotting, with the public unveiling of the new arrangement of Team England’s theme for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Recorded by Tokio Myers, the current champion of Britain’s Got Talent, and The Voice star and Commonwealth silver medallist, Jazmin Sawyers, their new version of Parry’s “Jerusalem” attracted a huge amount of attention during the month. As well as having a remarkable voice, Sawyers (who won silver in the Glasgow 2014 games) also attended the 2018 events to participate in the long jump. Team England announced the version mid March, and the British newspapers carried a fairly typical series of stories, with plenty of explanations as to why the song is performed instead of “God Save the Queen” and, my personal favourite, The Sun explaining why “This is… the right anthem for England“. If you haven’t heard it already, the link to the new version appears below.

The exhibition at Petworth House, William Blake in Sussex, continued to attract attention in March. There is a straightforward notice in The Argus and I shall note my own review of the exhibition and catalogue. The highest recommendation, however, is for an extremely thoughtful review by Esther Chadwick is available at Apollo Magazine, in which Chadwick also notes how Blake “was drawn to the patron of [his] strange work”, A Vision of the Last Judgement. Certainly the National Trust attracted a great deal of attention for the event, with it being sold out on the day that we attended and showing off Blake to his best effects.

In other news, Eric G. Wilson, a professor at Wake Forest University, published a collection of stories, Polaris Ghost, which offers the intriguing claim to connect “the dots between William Blake and David Lynch”. It’s available on sale now and in the near(ish) there will be a review on Zoamorphosis, along with another book published in January but only recently available in the UK, Jeremy Limn’s The Auguries of Lost Lilacs. The Scoundrel & Scamp stage in Tucson, Arizona, also saw a performance of Mickle Maher’s 2011 comedy, There is a Happiness that Morning Is, in which two lovers and academics give their views of life as based on the work of William Blake. Kathleen Allen of the Arizona Daily Star called it a “stellar production.”

In music, Englabörn & Variations by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, was released on 23 March and includes a version of the poem “Holy Thursday” on its second disc. Jóhannsson was famous for his film work, having composed the score for The Theory of Everything as well as a number of movies by Denis Villeneuve and had tragically died, aged 48, in February. Englabörn had originally been recorded in 2002 as his first solo album, and so the re-release with additional material (including the Blake track) was the first record to be issued after his death. “Holy Thursday” is particularly beautiful and makes his sudden death even more poignant. You can listen to it at Spotify.

The end of the month also saw the announcement of a new exhibition to open in April at the Hyde Collection in Glen Falls, New York State, featuring a local artist, Rockwell Kent. Kent is not an artist I have been familiar with, but apparently studied Blake alongside Nietzsche and his politics and private mores “scandalized family, friends and adversaries” according to a preview in The Post Star. While his work has passed me by so far, one image that has been used to publicise the exhibition – Flame – is so clearly Blakean in its inspiration that my own curiosity has been stimulated to explore his works more fully. The show, the first comprehensive one since 1974 after his death in 1971, opens on Sunday 8 April and runs until July 22.

 

Blakespotting: My Pretty Rose Tree – Jason Franks and Luke Pickett

“My Pretty Rose Tree” is a short, four page comic adapted from Blake’s song of experience. Written by Jason Frank and illustrated by Luke Pickett, it was originally published in Kagemono: Flowers and Skulls, a collection of 22 horror stories from Australia, in late 2010. Luke Pickett, however, has made a low-res version of the story available on his blog and my thanks to him for drawing the comic to my attention.

Blake’s poem is pared back to a few skeleton lines that allow Frank and Pickett to re-imagine the poem as a luridly coloured gothic horror story, with implicit themes of sexual transgression being brought to the fore.

Luke, who currently resides in Toronto, studied art in Melbourne and now dedicates much of his time to developing comic art (a form that, unsurprisingly considering the combination of word and image attracts a large number of Blakeophiles – see, for example, Roger Whitson’s article on Korshi Dosoo’s Tyger). Jason Franks, also from Melbourne and the editor of Blackglass Press which publishes the Kagemono series, is a writer and programmer, and you can read more of his work on his blog at jasonfranks.com.

Kagemono: Flowers and Skulls

Mike Carey’s Unwritten Blake

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.