William Blake may not be the most likely individual to come to life in graphic novel form, but writer and illustrator G.E. Gallas has taken a darkly beautiful look at the 18th-century poet and painter in her latest effort The Poet and the Flea.
Gallas’s interpretation of the creative madness of Blake and his nightmarish creation The Ghost of the Flea is the driving force of the book. Set in 1790s London at the start of the Industrial Revolution, Gallas began releasing the graphic novel as a free comic in August of 2020 to coincide with the 193rd anniversary of Blakes’s death on August 12. She released a page every week through the remainder of the year and into 2021. There are currently 77 pages available to read online, and volume 1 of The Poet and the Flea has now been compiled in paperback form for purchase.
The novel shows Blake’s dealings with grief after his younger brother’s death, and how a creature, The Ghost of the Flea, approaches him in an anxiety-heightened state with a sinister wager.
Although this macabre and imagined “origin story” of Blake’s famous painting is filled with supernatural elements, Gallas does a wonderful job depicting Blake as fully human. Her illustrations depict Blake with a tortured and tired demeanor, but not in a weak or unappealing way. He also comes across as creative and intelligent, with equal attention given to the savvy, kindness, and sometimes desperation of his wife, Kate.
Gallas, who specializes in historical fiction with what she calls “touches of fantastical and macabre,” is no stranger to graphic novels or classic literature.
Her graphic novel The Plague and Doctor Caim, the story of a 17th-century plague doctor, is available through the independent publisher Cast Iron Books. She has also written a tale of a sin-eater, Lilith, in the graphic novel Pawn My Soul. In addition to her novels, she founded Open Book Chocolates, creating literary-inspired handmade chocolates from a nori seaweed and ginger dark chocolate based on Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and an Earl Grey honey and white chocolate creation inspired by Sherlock Holmes.
Her passion for bringing her own new edge to familiar names or stories is well-represented in her latest graphic novel, with an eerie and intriguing look Blake. The black-and-white illustrations make good use of negative space and shadow to set the mood throughout the story.
So often, when a classic author, artist, or composer is depicted in a contemporary medium, they are portrayed in either an over-romanticized way or as an overly dark, almost monstrous tortured mad genius. Gallas finds the person behind the paintings. William and Kate are far from perfect, but they are very human. They aren’t porcelain “costume drama” characters. However, there is much more to Blake’s inspiration than sheer madness (although Blake often teeters on the edge of his sanity in this story). She used passages of Blake’s own poetry, as well as real influencers in his artistic journey, to further give him a unique voice:
“O Rose thou art sick. / The invisible worm, / That flies in the night / In the howling storm: / Has found out thy bed.”
The feel of gothic horror is also a big part of keeping the reader engaged in the tale.
The forces of good and evil, Blake’s angels and demons, will battle the blurry line between reality and fantasy, but it all works well in the flow and balance of the writing and illustration. Gallas does a worthy job plunging a historical character into his own dark fantasy with incredible ease.
The Poet and the Flea can be read online through Tapas (new pages are added each week), and volume I is available to purchase in paperback and digital form through her website at gegallas.com.