Saturday, October 4, 2008

Blake's Got a New Face

Which is...the author of the first ever superhero comic!!

I'm co-teaching a course on visual narrative right now, and we're reading Blake, who is blowing my mind, again. One of the things I kept thinking about during our discussion on Friday was how much the illustrations in "America: A Prophecy" remind me of old school superhero comics. This larger-than-life, four-color madness particularly shines through in the image of Orc (?) chasing Albion (?) through the sky. Even distinct from the images, the way all of the characters in "America" stand in for larger concepts and can only be understood in relation to each other reminds me of the Justice League of America or the X-Men. (Paine and Washington band together with special powers from Orc to defeat the fascist Urizen! Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion!)

In a conversation with a friend this weekend, he asked me why I like superhero comics at all, since they're so dominant within the form. How can there possibly be anything new to say through superheroes? Because I've been thinking so much about Blake lately, I realized that superheroes challenge us to consider oppositions--both how we depend on binaries to make sense of the world, and how those binary systems of thinking always eventually fail us. (The last page of Alan Moore's Batman story The Killing Joke, in which the Joker and Batman are on the verge of killing each other but can't stop laughing is a great example of this--sadly, I can't find an image to link to.)

The particular value of Blake in this conversation, and why I think you can make the argument for Blake as a superhero comic artist, is how he makes the link between allegory, binary structures of thought, and the formal relationship between word and image so clear. What Blake shows us, particularly in "America," is how reading an image-text is always about negotiating the difference between word and image, and finding the place that is both in between these two modes of understanding and in them at the same time. Not either/or, but both/and. Superheroes demand that same trick of thinking, crossing the gap between good and evil and seeing how neither of those definitions are sufficient, even as we're confronted with how much we need them in order to make sense of the world at all. Also, I think the model of the superhero comic gives us a new way of thinking about Blake's negotiation between the weighty, self-serious business of prophecy and the pleasure he clearly takes in illustrating these images (and the pleasure he encourages the reader to take in reading them).

What do you think? Is it too big a leap to claim Blake within the comics pantheon?