Marcus SedgwickThe blog of

William Blake - the first graphic novelist


That's a pretty big claim and others may want to suggest alternative candidates for the first graphic novelist, but I've always been struck by the way the Blake was master of both word and image, and mixed them both on his engraving plates with unrivalled skill.



I thought, since my first graphic novel, (co-written with my brother Julian Sedgwick and illustrated by Marc Olivent and John Higgins) came out this past week, that it would be a good idea to write a little more about why the book is called Dark Satanic Mills, and why William Blake is such a large influence on the project.

Blake: poet, painter, engraver, and visionary. Born 1757, died 1827.

There was a massive exhibition on the life and work of William Blake at Tate Britain some years ago. I remember peering through the glass of a display cabinet at one of Blake's handmade books, on one spread of which was a picture of the human anatomy. Not content with the depiction of the exterior of the body, Blake had made paper flaps to be opened, to reveal the organs inside the chest too. This probably makes Blake the first paper engineer too, but it's just one small example of the inventiveness of this rebellious, dissenting figure.

Dissent was at the heart of Blake's credo - his creation of a personal mythology that rivals that of more than a few small nations' remains both at once his greatest achievement, and the reason, I believe, that he remains underrated and unexplored: his works are simply so vast and so impenetrable that they defy easy understanding. It would take a lifetime of study to understand Blake fully, but that's not the only reason he does not feature as highly on the list of British cultural icons as he should. I also think that we're not very good at celebrating the genius who excels not just in one field of artistry, but many. I believe there's a prejudice; no one can be that good at so many things. But Blake was.

And yet he was largely ignored and derided in his own time, and part of the reason for that is his dissension. If there is one simple message you can derive from studying Blake; it's this: believe what you want to believe, not what you are told to believe.

Which brings us to Dark Satanic Mills. Those famous three words from the poem nowadays known as Jerusalem are often thought to refer to the factories of the Industrial Revolution. But to Blake it meant something different; the dark satanic mills were the churches of orthodox religion; which he saw as places of enslavement and oppression; which did not allow man or woman to follow their own spiritual path. Blake came from a long line of dissenting believers, but he took things to a new level.

Which brings me at last to our graphic novel; a world set in a near-future Britain in which the climb to hegemony of a new church threatens anyone who does not share their beliefs. It's no longer safe to believe in any other religion; it's not even safe to be an atheist, as one of the book's heroes is. Thomas Aikenhead is an atheist preacher, and is, incidentally, named after the last man in the British Isles to be executed for being blasphemy.


Our message, if we have one, is Blake's: create your own system of belief, or be enslaved by another man's. To put the reverse case, to put it more positively; again in Blake's words: "Lord of thyself; then thou art lord of all."

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Working with my brother

My brother, Julian, and I have been working together on two or three projects for a few years now. None of them have yet seen the harsh light of day but come October the first of these will be published: our graphic novel entitled Dark Satanic Mills.

By way of early celebration, we decided to each write and publish a blog post simultaneously, without reference to what the other brother was writing. This is my take; a link to Julian's is below...

We're still a few months away from publication as I write, yet already we are often asked what it's like to work with your brother.

Writing in collaboration is very different from working by yourself. I can't say I like it more or less than working on a book on your own; it has some advantages and it has some drawbacks. Overall I think it's an easier task in many ways - we often find that we leap ahead in the course of one conversation, getting to a place I suspect it would have taken me months to get to by myself. Another advantage is built-in editing - by discussing things aloud we often censure ideas that aren't up to scratch, are clichéd or are otherwise best left unwritten. Perhaps most importantly, when done well, I think the combination of two people's imaginations should be greater than the sum of the individuals; that something more weird and wonderful is sparked and brought to life through collaboration. I

The disadvantages? The main thing, for me, is exactly because you're living in a world of two people's creation. I think most writers would recognise that when you make a story, some part of your mind goes to live in the world that you're creating. It's an internal space and it's very intense at times. Emerging from one's writing cave, at the end of a day's work, can feel like you've been away for a long time on a distant journey. But when this world is no longer exclusively an internal space, that feeling is altered somewhat. Less intense. Maybe this doesn't matter if the end result is the same, or indeed better, than working on your own, and it's certainly less tiring working in collaboration. There's also someone else there to keep your nerve together at times when you're doubting yourself, and it also should be said that it's an awful lot of fun; as can be seen from the photo above; a day when we were doing some corrections to the page proofs of Dark Satanic Mills.

So that's collaboration; however, the added element with Julian and me is that we're brothers. I guess for many siblings this just wouldn't work, but for us, it does. We're very close, we always have been, and our childhood, growing up in a rather remote corner of the countryside, was largely one we created between us in a thousand games and flights of imagination. So we're used to that process, including the 'resolution of differences'... and there the main thing is that you respect the person you're working with; or their writing talents at least, and I respect my brother's skills enormously.

We're about to embark on a new collaborative book project, and I for one can't wait. I only hope my  brother, over here, is typing the same thing...


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The "Next Big Thing" Blog Meme

DARK SATANIC MILLS


As part of the ongoing Next Big Thing blog meme, I've been tagged by my excellent brother, Julian Sedgwick, whose first novel, The Black Dragon, comes out July 2013 from Hodder Children's Books.
I've got a few things on the go at the moment but I wanted to honour my brother by talking about a graphic novel we've written together. And at that point I must immediately talk about our superb illustrator: John Higgins

For John to be illustrating our work is more than a dream come true: Julian and I grew up reading 2000AD and the like, so we're beyond pleased to have this legendary artist bringing our thoughts to life.

What is the title of your next book?
Dark Satanic Mills

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The title may be familiar to some readers; it's a line from the verses now known as "Jerusalem" by William Blake. And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills.

But the real origin of the book lies in our wanting to say something about the perils of belief.
I have to pick my words carefully here: we're not saying it's wrong to believe in God, or Allah, or UFOs for that matter. We're saying it's a dangerous thing when you believe so devoutly in your chosen god that you allow the possibility of no others, that you are at risk of enforcing others to think the same way as you do.

We absolutely want to champion those who believe in a fair and free way, and often these people are those who do not follow orthodox religion, but find their own route to understanding.

And this brings us back to William Blake, because although his religion was nominally a Christian one, he made his own very unorthodox approach to it. People often mistake the "dark satanic mills" of those lines of his from the introduction to his edition of Milton as referring to the woollen mills of the industrial revolution. But he actually used the term to refer to the church. The orthodox church, which he saw as imprisoning our true nature and spirituality.

What genre does your book fall under?
It's a graphic novel, about a dystopian future. Elements of sci-fi.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
For Christy, our heroine, I'd like someone young and interesting looking, like Bella Heathcote. She has to be believable on a motorbike though. For Thomas, her co-protagonist, we need someone with an honest face, and determined. Ewan McGregor'll do nicely.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
V for Vendetta meets The Wizard of Oz, with a side-order of William Blake.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Our agent is the diligent Kirsty McLachlan at David Godwin Associates. It will be published by Walker Books in 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I have absolutely no idea. Writing a book is a strange process that goes through many stages, some of them less obvious than others, but all of them critical. How do you know how much of your time you've actually spent getting ready to put virtual pen to paper? I think we worked on it on and off for about a year, but that's a total guess.

What other books of the same genre would you compare yours with?
As I mentioned above, V for Vendetta would be a good comparison. And I also think it bears some similarity to certain serials from 2000AD.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I think I've covered that above, but it might be worth adding that having had those ideas about religion, it was necessary to find a world to place it in. The thought of a collapsing England, shrouded in darkness in a time of unrest and ecological disaster was too good to ignore. It's been done before, but then, what hasn't? And it seemed right and true to our concept, so that's they way we went.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The titles of each of the seven chapters are the "last seven words of Christ": his utterances from the cross. There's elements of A Clockwork Orange and Quadrophenia. There's the coolest Citroen DS ever. And did I mention that the illustrations are coming from the pen of John Higgins??

I hereby tag the following awesome writers:
Jacqui Brocker
Kevin Jackson
Annabel Pitcher
Philip Womack

Their answers should appear on Wednesday next week.



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