Apr 24, 2015

The Arguments part 2 of 3: Link to the Past - The Argument for "Metaphore"

Part 2, both forward and backward. I learned after writing this that there are indeed scholars who write on the connection between Emblem Books and Comic Books. I was actually accepted to present a paper on this issue at a conference in Germany a couple of years ago, but finances kept me from attending. Whatever faults one might find with Moore's Promethea, it is still one of the most fascinating comics texts of the last few decades.

Link to the Past: The Argument for “Metaphore”
First appears in Promethea #12, 2001, by Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III, and Mick Gray
Reprinted in Promethea v.2 and Absolute Promethea v.1
            One of the most important parts of establishing a form as a literature is establishing a history.  We look to Homer for poetry, to Sophocles for drama, and trace the ways those forms have evolved over millennia.  Scott McCloud’s opening to Understanding Comics and Thierry Smolderen’s forthcoming The Origin of Comics do their best to delineate this history of comics.  McCloud reaches back to cave paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Smolderen locates one of comics’ originary branches in the work of William Hogarth.  Artists such as William Blake, or works like the Bayeaux tapestry are also often cited.  One literary form that never seems to make an appearance in discussions of the origins of comics is the emblem book[1].  An art form of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, it flared in popularity during these years and then disappeared; perhaps this is the reason for its absence from comics studies.  Peter Daly describes the emblem thus: “[E]mblems are composed of symbolic pictures and words; a meaningful relationship between the two is intended; the manner of communication is connotative rather than denotative” (8), though he takes pains to note that this is hardly a definitive description (for an example of an emblem, see Fig. 1 and 2 in Appendix).  An emblem is composed of  the “inscriptio, pictura, and subscriptio” (7, emphasis in original).  The inscriptio is a “short motto or quotation [that] introduces the emblem” (7), the pictura “depict[s] one or several objects, persons, events, or actions” (7), and the subscriptio comes “[b]eneath the pictura...a prose or verse quotation from some learned source or from the emblematist himself” (7).  As Daly’s above quotation suggests, there is a “meaningful relationship” intended between these three elements.  This is also reminiscent of what McCloud calls “the most common type of word/picture combination [in comics]...the interdependent, where words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither alone could convey” (155, emphasis in original).  By this similarity alone, I contend that the emblem should have some place in the study of pre-comics history.
            Moore and Williams’ “Metaphore” is an emblem book.  It is laid out in a way that not-so-subtly hearkens to the most common versions of the emblem book from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (for an example, see Fig. 3 in Appendix).  As we see in Figs. 1 and 2, from Stephen Bateman’s A Christall Glasse of Christian Reformation, the early modern emblem opens with the inscriptio, a description of the topic which will be covered by both pictura and subscriptio[2].  Similarly, in “Metaphore,” each page features a Scrabble tile anagram of “Promethea” that gives a commentary and introduction of some sort on both the picture and the verse on the page.  In Fig. 3, the inscriptio is “Metaphore,” and the verse commenting on the picture notes the similarities between stepping over a cliff and beginning a venture, a metaphor (Moore et al. n.p.).  The notion of a pictura in each emblem is relatively self-explanatory, though Moore and Williams expand the possibility of the pictura by including not only a speaker of the subscriptio, but a reader, in the figure of Promethea, as well.  This addition to the form serves a function in the serial of which “Metaphore” is a chapter, and also links to the lineage of an art form that defies solid generic delineators.  Similarly, the images along the bottom of each page of “Metaphore,” showing the birth, life, and death of Aleister Crowley add another level of pictura/subscriptio, and asks the question of whether or not a picture can also comment on the primary pictura of an emblem.  In Bateman’s emblem, the pictura is followed by a two-part subscriptio which comments on the picture and on the idea of “covetousness.”  In “Metaphore,” the verse commentary from “Mike” and “Mack,” (representing microcosmic and macrocosmic interpretations, respectively), offers interpretation of the pictures on the page, both the Tarot card and the life of Crowley, as well as upon the somewhat enigmatic Scrabble tile inscriptios.  This brief comparison thus demonstrates, and solidifies, the lineage between the two forms.  Comics communicate metaphorically much of the time, and certain genres rely heavily on iconic resonances of particular visual cues (a lantern, for example).  It is my thinking that scholarship on the emblem and scholarship on comics has a convergence that has not yet been realized. 
A further aspect of “Metaphore” which makes it an important piece to consider is the way in which it can be lifted from its serialized milieu, and read in isolation as an emblem book.  The pictures and words within this 24-page chapter comment upon history, both of the human species and its culture, and on the development of the individual human being as thinking subject.  Though a reader coming to this text without any knowledge of its basis may wonder at the choices of speakers in the text (Promethea, Mike and Mack, Crowley), they do not detract in any way from the discussion going on on each page.  A single issue of an ongoing series that can be lifted from its serialized format offers potential for the inclusion of traditionally-serialized genres to be included in lists of important comics.

Figure 1: Inscriptio, Pictura, and partial Subscriptio, from Bateman, A Christall Glasse of Christian Reformation, courtesy Mills Memorial Library, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON.

Figure 2: Partial Subscriptio, from Bateman, A Christall Glasse of Christian Reformation, courtesy Mills Memorial Library, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON.


Figure 3: A modern-day emblem from Moore and Williams "Metaphore."

Bibliography and Works Cited
Bateman, Stephen. A Christall Glasse of Christian Reformation. London: John Day, 1569. Print.Courtesy of Mills Memorial Library, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON.
Daly, Peter. Literature in the Light of the Emblem: Structural Parallels between the Emblem and Literature in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Toronto: U of T Press, 1979.   ebrary. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: DC Comics, 2000. Print.
Moore, Alan (w), J.H. Williams III (p), and Mick Gray (i). “Metaphore.” Absolute Promethea v.1. La Jolla: Wildstorm Productions, 2009. N.pag. Print.

[1] On my final reading list, there will be included selections from at least one emblem book, as well as a reading from Peter Daly’s Literature in the Light of the Emblem.
[2] We should note here that Bateman’s subscriptio is broken into “The signification” and “The description.”  This is not standard, if anything can be said to be standard in emblem books, as Daly notes when he mentions a 1946 article on emblems that hopes “ ‘that the term Emblem need not be again and again defined by everyone who discusses the subject’” (Stegmeier, qtd. in Daly 3).  This hope, too, is reminiscent of many discussions in comics criticism.

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