William Blake: poet, painter, indie zine maker

Bust of William Blake made by James de Ville c. 1807. Public domain.

Poet. Painter. Printer. Visionary. Stranger from Paradise. Prophet against Empire.

William Blake (1757 – 1827) has been called many things. But as far as I know, “forerunner of the modern indie RPG movement” has not been one of them.

I can’t call Blake history’s first zine maker, and I can’t concretely situate him as something like a godfather to the current scene. But I can argue that Blake’s artistic project strongly anticipates the nature and itinerary of the contemporary indie RPG space.

And that’s exactly what this post is going to do.

Historical Blake

Blake earned his living as an engraver, but he lived for poetry and painting.

He was a friend of and collaborator with Henry Fuseli. He was a direct inspiration to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the other painters in the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Blake “a man of Genius” and considered himself “in the very mire of common-place common-sense compared with Mr Blake”.

Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807. Public domain.

Today, Blake hides everywhere in plain sight. Now residing in the public domain, his paintings are commonplace even if we don’t recognize them on sight. He’s frequently quoted in epigraphs to essays, books, and other materials. In 2003, Blake scholar Morris Eaves—in his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to William Blake—ventured to guess that “The Tyger” was the most anthologized poem in the English language.

But in his own lifetime, Blake was not widely recognized except as a reproductive engraver, a distinction he earned through his own natural artistic talent and his meticulous training as an apprentice in the workshop of James Basire. As an adult, Blake survived partly on income earned through commissions and partly on gifts and benevolent purchases from more well-to-do friends and patrons. His creative works didn’t reach a wide public until after his death.

But since then, his illuminated books have become his most enduring contribution to our culture.

The Illuminated Books

In Blake’s lifetime, bookmaking was a fairly rigid process. Text was produced by setting metal type, and illustrations were engraved and set alongside the text. There was no strong interaction between the visual and the verbal dimensions. Blake changed that.

Illuminated printing showcases the “fearful symmetry” of the visual and verbal dimensions of texts. “The Tyger” from The Songs of Innocence & Experience copy AA, 1826. Public domain.

Or more accurately, Blake restored the intimate connection between word and image through a process he called illuminated printing. The name derives from the illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages, a time when all books were singular works of art; the text was produced and reproduced by hand, and the margins and interstices between lines were filled with rich, colored images—the eponymous illuminations.

Illuminated printing began with a sheet of copperplate. After carefully planing and polishing it, Blake used brushes and pens to apply stop-out varnish to the plate. When a layout was complete, the surface was immersed in nitric acid, which ate away the copper around the varnish, leaving text and image in relief.  Next, the plate was inked—sometimes using color inks—and then pressed. Once dry, watercolors were applied to finish the page, which was then bound with others into small books.

Due to the very hands-on nature of this process, illuminated prints retain marks of authorship—in the pen- and brushstrokes and the visual character of handwritten script—akin to original productions (like sketches, paintings, and monographs), which were valued commodities in the art market of Blake’s day. Paradoxically, while retaining these authentic marks of production, illuminated prints were simultaneously mass producible.

Pages still had to be finished by hand, which was time consuming but allowed for variation and customization. And similarly, illuminated prints could be revised or altered by leaving portions of plates un-inked and then drawing or writing in missing content by hand. As a result, no two versions of a single illuminated print are alike.

Different copies of the “same” prints and books can vary significantly. Plate 16 from The [First] Book of Urizen copies A (1794) and G (c. 1818). Public domain.

Throughout the process, Blake maintained complete and total creative control. He composed the poetry and designs, laid them out on the copperplate, etched and inked the plates, pulled the prints, and painted the pages. At every step, Blake retained direct contact with his books.

Illuminated bookmaking was not, however, a solitary activity. His wife, Catherine, assisted him in printing, which required two sets of hands to keep the paper clean. And she often collaborated with him when coloring the pages; William had taught her to paint (and to read) and was quite proud of his wife’s proficiency.

The illuminated books they together produced are a milestone of Western culture. Nothing else in the world looks quite like a Blake; the particular sensibility and style sets them apart from everything else in the Western tradition and its counter-currents.

Blake with Us

Almost 300 years after Blake’s death, we are all Williams and Catherines.

The DIY bookmaking culture that thrived in the Blakes’ home is alive and well across the planet, especially in the indie TTRPG scene. Digital technology, planet-spanning networks, and desktop publishing—all but unimaginable in Blake’s day—have delivered the means of production and distribution into the hands of an entire world of content creators.

Sometimes we work alone, meticulously devising and arranging text and pictures. Sometimes we collaborate, authors working with other authors or with graphic designers and layout artists to realize their vision of the zine. And especially now, there is an emphasis on the graphic element of the written page and leveraging the visual dimension to affect the reader and drive the play experience.

Many (if not most) of us do this work on the side. We make content to satisfy our creative drives and our unquenchable passions for games that inspire us. We might make some money. We probably don’t make enough to live on. We support our enthusiasm in this area by working day jobs that give us less satisfaction but pay the bills so that, on nights and weekends, we can have the opportunity to pursue something that is more meaningful to us.

And hopefully, it will reach a public who finds it meaningful as well.

Indie/Blake

The modern indie scene strongly aligns with certain ideas and themes found in Blake’s work and philosophy.

Enitharmon emanating from Los in the form of a globe of blood. The [First] Book of Urizen copy G, plate 17, c. 1818. Public domain.

A lot of his poetry’s manifest content fits with modern aesthetic preferences in the RPG space. In Blake, we find shadowy voids, globes of blood, choruses of demons, giant serpents and dragons, and world-ending cataclysms that are perfectly at home in RPGs and especially in the OSR subculture. Blake was, in my opinion, the very first heavy-metal lyricist in the English language and a premier source for dark imagery and motifs.

At the same time, many of his poems feature a sense of sentimentality and a pastoral quality that’s also gaining ground in the RPG space (for example, Wanderhome and the honobono genre). And there is plenty of sheer weirdness strongly reminiscent of the psychedelic trend in games (Ultraviolet Grasslands and many others). In short, Blake’s work is very much as diverse as the interests and themes that are continually emerging amongst, and being renegotiated by, RPG creators.

Blake’s politics and ideals also seem to align with a large swathe of the RPG community. Blake was an outspoken advocate of individual liberty and a virulent opponent of imperialism (at a time when both of those were extremely dangerous stances). He denounced the king of England, physically removed a trespassing soldier from his garden, and somehow beat the subsequent sedition charges in court.

Blake was also openly sex- and body-positive; Blake’s poetry can be interpreted as condemning sexual oppression, and by one account, Alexander Gilchrist stopped by to visit and found William and Catherine sitting naked in their summer house (reciting Paradise Lost in character, no less). The argument can also be made that Blake depicts the binary male/female division as a recurring and fundamental ideological problem.

In sum, there is evidence that favors viewing Blake as a progressive thinker, artistically and politically, and his ideas and opinions resonate with a widespread modern desire for social change and personal empowerment. But the connection between Blake’s creative corpus and the indie RPG scene goes much deeper than these cultural resonances.

The Work of Blake’s Art

The Ghost of a Flea, 1819-1820. Public domain.

Throughout his life, Blake experienced strange (some might call them supernatural) visions. As a child, he was beaten by his father after claiming that God had leaned over to peek through young William’s bedroom window. Walking past the fields outside London, he saw angels watching over the workers there. His Ghost of a Flea is a graphic representation of another of these experiences.

William Blake perceived the world in a very different way than the majority of humanity did and does. The purpose of his illuminated books is to help the rest of us break our inherited, habitual perceptual and cognitive modes so that we can all live more fulfilling lives.

Blake explicitly states this in one of his early illuminated books, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite

plate 14

Leaving aside the issue of what Blake means by “infinite”, the key point here is that Blake’s artistic purpose is to renovate human consciousness (perception and cognition). The Marriage situates illuminated books as the crucial tool in that mission:

This I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

plate 14

Elsewhere in The Marriage, Blake establishes Hell as the site or state of active, creative energy that overruns boundaries and transgresses strictures in favor of innovation, growth, and fulfillment. When we pursue these things, Blake suggests, we are truly at our most human because we are at our most creative and imaginative.

In their immediate context, the quotations given above address the misapprehension of the body distinct from the soul; Blake argues for a sort of monadism in which soul and body is a false dichotomy, each being a single aspect of the unified human being. In this, he is also speaking about the nature of the illuminated book, which unites the verbal text (which is often mistaken to be purely cognitive, ignoring its graphic and physical character) with the bodily, visceral visual nature of the page, which the illuminations emphasize.

A staggering array of interpretive strategies and frameworks have been fruitfully applied to Blake’s hybrid visual-verbal art. And all of them can be legitimately applied because of the sheer complexity of Blake’s books. Every interpretation reveals something different about them, but for every point revealed, there’s something else is missed or misinterpreted.

Take, for example, Northrop Frye’s comment on The Four Zoas:

… the poem was never engraved, and was left abandoned in an extraordinary manuscript. … Anyone who cares about either poetry or painting must see in its unfinished state a major cultural disaster.

Fearful Symmetry, p. 269

Frye’s Fearful Symmetry situates Blake as the central figure of the Western poetic tradition, and his poetry as an intersection or synthesis of Christian and pagan mythic traditions. Frye’s study of Blake led him to the larger project presented in Anatomy of Criticism, which systematizes the entire scope of Western literature.

But in both cases, Frye succeeds by emphasizing certain features and ignoring or suppressing others. And this remains the case with the vast majority of Blake criticism; the interpreter brings certain assumptions to the table and silently trims Blake’s work to fit with their preconceived notions of what it should mean.

Through these activities, interpreters lapse into Blake’s version of the Last Judgment: they fall into error by seeking “a solid without fluctuation”, a stable Truth, the object of which inherently rebels against such reductive interpretation that collapses its multiplicity or plurality—arguably, the quality of it being “infinite” in its interpretability. (This process is dramatically presented in The [First] Book of Urizen and elsewhere in Blake’s corpus.)

Donald Ault sought to remedy this situation in Narrative Unbound, a book that is (by necessity) as sprawling and experimental as the Zoas itself. Instead of forcing the manuscript into a predefined framework, Ault instead interrogates the poem’s contours and details—from large, obfuscated narrative structures down to the placement and function of individual marks of punctuation—and, as much as possible, lets the poem speak for itself by analyzing and explicating the process that it enacts in the reader through that reader’s act of navigating and transacting with the text. For Ault, the poem’s “meaning” is the very process of reading it, not a central idea that we can extract and summarize.

Part of Ault’s approach involves rejecting the notion that the manuscript is in some way deficient or unfinished because it exists only as a manuscript and not as an engraved, printed book. Instead, the poem’s task of revising the reader can only be performed by a text that is itself forever frozen in the process of revision.

This is an example of the literal “work of art,” a phrase that is often implicitly used to indicate the creator’s labor embodied in an aesthetic object’s “final” form. But Blake’s books explicitly showcase that not only are they never truly “finished,” but also that the work of art is not the creator’s labor of making the static books; it is the work that those books perform in tandem with the reader who actively engages with them. There is no such thing as a “finished” work, and if there is, it is a failure on the part of the reader; they have opted for the illusion of mastery rather than the creativity of continued imaginative engagement and exploration.

Blake’s works, more than many other artists’, require enormous effort from the reader to truly realize them as works—ongoing processes rather than static things. And in this context, we can finally see the deeper relevance of illuminated books to RPGs.

The Mental Travellers

Many people in the RPG community enjoy rulebooks as recreational reading. I’m one of them. And the trend toward lavish and avant-garde graphics and layouts—of which Blake would surely approve—not only encourages this but makes it a satisfying activity in itself.

But the jump from reading to play transforms engagement and investment. Games require more, active effort to fully realize than non- (or less) interactive media. To play a game, we must do more than move our eyes and flip pages. That deeper active engagement generates an even more sophisticated and complex process than the ones Blake could engender in his illuminated books.

In Gaming: The Future’s Language, Richard Duke argues that games are a mode of communication needed to convey large, abstract, and complex dynamics. Reduced to game systems, these dynamics are more comprehensible and manageable, and they are open to direct intervention. By playing games, we are able to familiarize ourselves with large-scale conflicts and experiment with solutions in a no-risk environment. In addition to being fun, games also prepare us to leverage our knowledge and ludic experience in the real world.

In this way, games perform cognitive and perceptual work similar to what Blake intended in his illuminated books. They reveal new aspects of reality, and having realized them, we can engage them and work toward effecting change in the world and in ourselves.

As the work of an illuminated book exists only in reading, so the work of a game exists only in playing. When we play a game, we interpret it, and by interpreting, we engage it in a unique way. Blake and RPG designers both design indirectly; they devise a structure and arrange the components, but they can’t control the experiences of readers and players, all of whom bring certain preconceived expectations and desired outcomes to the book and to the game.

The abstract mechanics and creative fiction provided by the rulebook inform the players’ interpretations and actions within a specific manifestation of play at the table. And by playing, the players produce endless variability and unique experiences—“displaying the infinite which was hid” in the printed page.

“Enough! or Too much”

In 1831, Catherine Blake passed away, and a substantial portion of William’s papers, drawings, and unsold paintings and books passed into the hands of Frederick Tatham. Tatham later underwent a religious conversion that led him to believe Blake had been an agent of Satan, and Edward Calvert raced to rescue what he could of Blake’s corpus. G.E. Bentley concludes his biography of Blake:

Frederick Tatham was devoted to William and Catherine Blake, but the heritage of William Blake which passed into his hands was far greater than what survives today.

That, far more than the so-called “unfinished” nature of the Zoas, is the great cultural tragedy.

But for better or worse, we lose culture along the path of history. Thankfully, much of Blake’s output has been preserved and now resides in the public domain, where it continues to inform and inspire new generations of readers and, just as importantly, creators.

Likewise, RPGs rest entirely in the hands of the “Children of the future age”.


To learn more about Blake’s life and times, I recommend G.E. Bentley, Jr.’s The Stranger from Paradise and David V. Erdman’s Prophet Against Empire. For Blake’s poetry, settle for nothing less than Erdman’s The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. (Ignore Harold Bloom’s commentary. Rip it out of the book.) The Blake Archive hosts a free digital edition of the Complete Poetry & Prose alongside an excellent collection of illuminated prints and other graphic works. There are also many high-quality print facsimiles available on the market. Arizona State University hosts the current digital version of Erdman’s concordance for Blake’s writings, which is a valuable tool when navigating and interpreting Blake’s texts. For more technical information on Blake’s process, see Joseph Viscomi’s article “Illuminated Printing.”

Indie TTRPGs are widely available on platforms like RPG Kitchen, DriveThruRPG, and itch.io as well as many small presses and booksellers. News and information about them all abound in social media communities like Twitter.

And if you’d like to talk to me about any or all of the above, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

From Aether Operations by World Champ Game Co. in association with Floating Chair Club, © 2021. Image used with permission.

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