Unseemly Pictures: Graphic Satire and Politics in Early Modern England by Helen Pierce. Yale University Press, 2008. $60.00. (Click on the pictures below for bigger reproductions from the book.)
Evidence that I'm a nerd: I love to browse the new book shelf at my university library. Typically, I look for books in philosophy, law and film studies, but I sometimes check out cookbooks with particularly delectable pictures, and I love to leaf through new graphic design titles too. It still flabbergasts me that academic libraries have begun to build comics collections. We've come a long way from dirty longboxes on damp basement floors, and reading those library hardcovers of Osamu Tezuka's Buddha volumes (2003-2005) and Paul Pope's Heavy Liquid (2001/2008) didn't cost me a cent.
I try to be open-minded minded about my reading, though I do play favorites. On a recent library trip, I found Helen Pierce's Unseemly Pictures, a study of the prints and posters of Great Britain during the early 17th century. Initially, I thought I'd pass on Unseemly Pleasures--to be blunt, British history isn't a big enthusiasm of mine--but then I opened the book and saw its endpapers, a picture of cats from an anti-papist broadsheet titled Which of These Fower That Here You See (1623):
Are these word balloons that here I see? I thought, and I checked out and read Unseemly Pleasures. I'm glad I did. Pierce writes in high academese, which could put off casual readers, but she's relentlessly thorough; she doggedly and insightfully tracks the many ways that satirical prints and publications reflected and influenced English culture from, roughly, the reign of James I (who became Britain's king in 1603 and who was slated to address the House of Lords on the day when Guy Fawkes tried to blow it up in 1605) to the rise of religious tolerance after the Civil War. One example of Pierce's scholarly thoroughness is her discussion of how Archbishop William Laud appears in woodcuts and etchings from 1640. Pierce writes that the Anglican Church was "imagined by pamphleteers as a sickly patient in dire need of cleansing from inside" (118), and as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Laud was depicted in at least one engraving, Archbishop Laud and Henry Burton (1641), as an ill fellow literally puking out volumes of unpopular church law:
If you're at all interested in the visual culture of the period, Unseemly Pleasures is a must-read. If, like me, you stumble over Pierce's book in the library, you really should flip through the pages and gaze at the dozens of beautiful images therein.
After you look at the pictures, give the text a try, because Pierce elegantly structures Unseemly Pleasures to articulate both major and minor points. In her first chapter, she presents the big arguments that bind the book together: that the English satirical prints of the post-Elizabethan, pre-Restoration period were more than just inferior offshoots of continental printmaking; that these prints used certain icons (clerics carrying churches on their backs, ugly alewives, rat-headed "monopolists") over and over again to represent and lampoon common vices; and that the prints reached readers through map stores, bulletin boards in neighborhood pubs, and other venues. Throughout the book, Pierce also challenges the idea, espoused by earlier art historians, that English graphic culture didn't "start proper" until the 1640s. According to Pierce, the earlier art historians got the date wrong because pre-1640 prints were too much like comics:
The 'picture' is a categorical model that sits uneasily with much of the material analyzed in this study. The frequent integration of word and image, whether explored through the marriage of title page and pamphlet text, intricate engraving and explanatory captions, or the literal 'drawing out' of an image through words as experimented by Joseph Mead, compromised the modern boundaries established between the literary and the aesthetic. The particularly fluid relationship between the verbal and the visual prevalent in graphic satire, combined with its wider exchanges with, and manipulations of, a range of forms, including elite portraiture and 'underground' verse, further contributes to its complexity, and distances it from our more modern understanding of the 'picture' as an independent cultural category. (206)
In other words, cultural tastemakers have long been prejudiced against verbal-visual blending, whether it is in Martin Droeshout's engraving Dr. Panurgus (1620s) or an issue of The Fantastic Four. It's great to see scholars like Pierce rewrite art history to include comics and proto-comic forms. It also tickles me that some of the prints reproduced in Pierce's book were "underground" enough to unnerve academic canon-builders; it's probably too much to argue that Zap Comix and Young Lust had antecedents in the early 17th century, but I adore comics' long-standing tendency to be vulgar, transgressive and impure.
Pierce tackles issues of taste throughout all of Unseemly Pleasures, but she also focuses the book's chapters on individual satiric targets. My favorite chapter may be the second, "The Political Print and the Threat of 'Popery,'" which zeroes in on broadsheets and political cartooning that expressed British fears of "Catholic overthrow" and invasion. Fueled by specific events like the Spanish Armada menace of 1588, Protestant anti-papism made for some wild art: prints depicted the Vatican as a nest of vipers and a hive of bees, and nuns and priests as gamblers and perverts who freely expressed (in Pierce's low-key description) "insatiable and inappropriate sexual desire" (50). Pierce does a remarkable job tracing the history of one anti-Catholic visual trope in particular, images of the Devil eating priests and shitting out soldiers to attack non-Catholic countries. This scatological motif, pioneered by German artists, was enthusiastically adopted by the British, who brought it to profane but sublime expression in prints like Claes Jansz Visscher's A Pass for the Romish Rabble to the Pope of Rome Through the Divils Arse of Peake (1624). Here's a detail:
Now there's an underground image. Later chapters similarly troll the disreputable, as we see (and read Pierce's expert discussions of) greedy courtiers with rat's heads and the piercing of the Christian Sacred Heart with knives and swords. Most surprising, perhaps, is Chapter 5, where Pierce argues that during the "Puritan Revolution" of the English Civil War, the Puritans banned some forms of Godless spectacle (such as theater) but nevertheless published satirical prints and engravings that proselyted for their beliefs. Even the Puritans liked a nasty underground picture, God bless 'em.
In the first chapter of Unseemly Pleasures, Pierce describes the business of print-making and -selling in the immediate post-Elizabethan period like this:
Prints were circulated and sold in the city in a variety of ways. During the early seventeenth century it was rare for an individual to deal exclusively in loose prints and engravings; but such material was often found alongside related, illustrated items. From his premises at the sign of the Falcon in Shoe Lane, Richard Shoreleyker sold pattern books, emblem books and charts, as well as illustrated broadsheets. Following his death, his wife was referred to as "Widdow Sherleaker who lives by printing of pictures." The trade in maps was also closely aligned to that of prints. The uncle-and nephew partnership of John Sudbury and Thomas Humble began selling maps from the White Horse in Pope's Head Alley at the turn of the sixteenth century, before expanding their stock to include the wide selection of engraved portraits, broadsides and illustrated histories for which the White Horse became renowned. (18-19)
Pierce does us all a favor by writing eloquently about this neglected history of publishing, but being the 21st century funnybook fanboy that I am, I kept linking the observations in her text to the world of contemporary comics. I speculated that it might be possible to write a history of English self-publishing that began at the White Horse and ended at Paul Gravett's Fast Fiction table. I thought that Pierce's description of the diversity of Sudbury and Humble's wares--maps, "engraved portraits, broadsides, and illustrated histories"--sounded similar to the jumble of gamers' manuals, mainstream comics and art comix in today's comic shops. And I kept wondering: how multifaceted is the history of comics, anyway? How broad? How vast?