“Do what you will, this world’s a fiction and is made up of contradiction.” – William Blake
Sometimes, I see something on the internet that grabs me—and won’t let go. Writer-illustrator G. E. Gallas caught me on Twitter a few weeks back. Now I think I’m in a death hold.
One peek at Gallas’ latest project, a graphic novel biography of 18th-century British poet, painter and print-maker William Blake, and you’ll see why I’m hooked. The Poet and the Flea is as beautiful and original as Blake himself.
So what inspired Gallas to tackle such sprawling subject matter?
“William Blake first snuck in my consciousness when I read (of all things) Allen Ginsberg’s ‘A Supermarket in California,’” Gallas explains. While that poem is influenced heavily by Dante’s Divine Comedy, Gallas asserts that “the eternal questioning nature of this poem is not Dante’s influence, but Blake’s.”
Gallas later learned that Ginsberg had had a vision of Blake several years prior to writing his own poem. She herself had a similar “vision” (really, a discovery of William Blake’s illustration on the cover of a Dante edition) that spurred her interest in exploring this unusual creator’s work.
Though largely unrecognized in his time, William Blake is now regarded as one of the foremost figures of the Romantic movement. Some of his more famous illuminated poems include Songs of Innocence, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and The Book of Los. Both his poetry and his artistic work are so unique, they are difficult to classify. Many of his contemporaries considered him mad.
With even these scant tidbits, is it any wonder that Gallas’s first interest in Blake turned into a multi-year graphic novel project? The catchy title, The Poet and the Flea, comes from Blake’s painting The Ghost of the Flea—which was inspired by a spiritual vision the poet had, wherein an otherworldly being visited him in the form of a flea (which is actually a large, scaly, blood-drinking monster).
Supposedly, the flea told Blake that he and his brothers carried within them human souls. In Gallas’ graphic novel, the Ghost of a Flea and William’s guardian angel make a deal about William’s soul . . . which may not turn out so well on Blake’s end. “Will William triumph over The Flea’s sinister meddling?” writes Gallas in the book’s overview. “Or will he fall victim to The Flea’s corruption?”
Gallas launched her research for the book by reading all of Blake’s works closely and researching 18th century London life.
“I found myself asking questions like, ‘Would Blake have been wealthy enough to own a pocket watch?” she say. “. . . Little by little all these details began to fall into place to form a contained yet precise universe.”
Unlike many creators of biographical works, who labor disconnected from the larger community of devotees to their subject matter, Gallas has been blessed with many opportunities to give and receive from the large community around William Blake’s work.
“I truly enjoy connecting with fans of William Blake,” she says. “Blake is a very unique and fascinating figure, and attracts all sorts of amazing people from all over the world.”
In 2013 she took a research trip to London and, while there, was honored to speak to The Blake Society in Blake’s very own flat on South Molton Street where he painted the painting that inspired the title of her novel. She also visited Tate Britain and the British Museum, where she was able to view Blake’s Original works—including ones not on public display.
And of course, she spent ample time visiting places where Blake was known to frequent. “Seeing these places in person gave me an amplified sense of atmosphere that reaffirmed the tone I had already set for my graphic novel,” she says.
All of this, however, was just the most recent leg of a journey that began ten years ago in high school, when Gallas planned and executed her first graphic novel. Though she describes it now as “embarrassing” (as I think most of us would of our first attempt), she admits it was excellent practice for this and other larger works she’s now undertaken.
That first effort led to studying cross-cultural storytelling at New York University. Gallas’ unique program of study led later to an internship with the publisher of such works as Little Fish (Ramsey Beyer) and Tomboy (Liz Prince) while pursuing a more targeted collection of courses.
Since undertaking her work on Blake, Gallas has guest-authored a blog post for the Inspired by Blake Festival and Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology (Oxford). Her illustration shave also been featured in Age of Saints: An Illustrated Guide to the Saints of Wales and Welsh in the Old West (A Raven Above Press), Magic Bullet (Washington, D.C.’s free comics newspaper), Do More Good. Better. (High Impact Press), and FMyLife’s Illustrated FML.
Even now, The Poet and the Flea is not her only project.
While The Poet and the Flea printing project has launched on Kickstarter, Gallas is already busy on The First Reich, a graphic novel about Jewish-Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich: a collaboration with Shannon Brady. Gallas is also active in the zine community and convention scene, specifically those like Small Press Expo and Alternative Press Expo that focus on independent creators.
She’s also beginning work on Volumes 2 and 3 of The Poet and the Flea.
For other creators, Gallas has just a simple bit of advice: “Stay organized and take everything in baby steps.” She begins her larger process with smaller steps such as note-taking, research, outlines, and character designs before scriptwriting and drawing begin. “I think a lot of creative people get overwhelmed with the size of a project,” she adds, “so baby steps makes everything much more manageable.”
If The Poet and the Flea is any indication, Gallas’s advice is sound indeed.
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The Poet and the Flea is currently on Kickstarter, where you can pre-order your copy. Or get your feet wet first by reading the first 30 pages of the book on Gallas’ website. Also reach the author via her blog.