What Is Tabula Rosetta?

ON MADNESS
What Is Tabula Rosetta?

(adapted from the intro to Triage 2)

 

0.
ON FORCING THE PULSING MIASMA INTO A BOX WHOSE LID YOU CANNOT SHUT



"Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."

--Jean Dubuffet. “Place à l'incivisme
(Make way for Incivism)”. Art and Text no.27
(December 1987 – February 1988). p.36

I have, in the past, attempted to define this series as two things: a literary work--a work based partly or wholly on fact but written as if it were fiction--and a work in the genre of horror--a work designed to elicit the feeling that something is deeply wrong, to awaken that which scares us at our core, to make us uncomfortable at the deepest level.
Both of these definitions are, at best, only partially accurate.

The reasons for this is simple--my world, in and of itself, is a living horror, and this work in and of itself is a portrait of the horrifying madness that is my world.

Tabula Rosetta is not what you could call an enjoyable series; nor have I truly made any effort to make it even merely palatable. I do not care enough about consuming mass-market work to have the tools that could shape my work into something marketable to the masses, and the times I have attempted to craft something palatable have eventually warped themselves into self-destructive hellworlds. And so, I have intentionally made something far worse--a collection of horrors, of autobiographical nightmares and of tales of wasted lands and broken hearts. This work is horrifying, it is brutal, it is depressing, it is dark. It disturbs the comfortable, but does little to comfort the disturbed. It is a hard sell.

One would, perhaps, view this as justified if my oddly confrontational and incredibly unsellable work was somehow marketed in a sellable manner. It is not, and I have almost surely facilitated this by my own design; in fact, if one looks at its publication history, one could even say that I have made every effort to prevent you from buying it, finding it, or investing any time in it at all in the first place. I have set the books on fire, ripped them to shreds, taken them down and re-released them in different forms. I
have hid them throughout the United States and made bootleggable “print layout” versions freely available, making it impossible to tell fakes from the real original versions and destroying what little “collector’s value” might exist in the process. I have intentionally (and unintentionally--in many cases, often due to episodes of mental illness) antagonized readers, both in person and through the proxies of obtuse subject matter, cryptic and often fallacious public messages and statements (in many cases literally using coded messages), and Kafka-esque labyrinths one must navigate in order to obtain copies. I have watched readers cry while reading some of the most difficult passages, I have gotten angry messages about how stupid my methods are, I have been beleaguered by commenters on the Internet who simply do not understand what I am trying to say yet insist upon speaking for me regardless, and I have (thankfully) been ignored by many of those on the main stage of underground comics and the greater public alike. Many of my coded messages have been left unsolved. Many of the clues I have left around the world have gone unobserved. My letters have gone unanswered, and one could make the logical leap to say that I do not want them answered simply by virtue of how they were sent.

In addition, the release schedule, in and of itself, is inordinately taxing. This is a self-published, bi-monthly series, with each issue stretching to about forty pages and often longer. There have been many times where I have worked sixty to eighty hours a week at day jobs while working on the series, and while I am an incredibly efficient and prolific inker (my current record for inked pages in a single day for this series stands at six, and my all-time record while working on any series stands at eight; compare this, if you will, to the industry standard work rate of one to two pages per day) this can often result in me working hundred-plus hour weeks. While my years of working in factories and warehouses (as well as my time as a trucker, which is a profession I hope to return to soon) have prepared me for this pace, it is incredibly wearing on the body and mind, and when you calculate it all out I rarely have much time in my day where I am not working or thinking about this series and about BLACKWORK as a whole. The last two issues in Volume 1 were published while I was living in a truck and a van, respectively, and the first four have in their roots similar hardships. I have very few friends, and many of the few personal relationships I have harbored over the years have shuttered due to my single-minded obsession.

There is no profit in this, no glory to be found. I have sunk my life, my mind, and my own money into this work of black ink and desperation, and lost what I have sunk into it many times over in the form of lost time, broken dreams, empty wallets, and decimated relationships. In short, this has caused me little but pain. The answer to “why I create it in the first place”, however, is simple: because I must. I am driven to it. It is who I am, and to no small degree is all that I am. I know nothing but this.

But if I must create, then, why publish? And why set what I publish ablaze in the ways I do?


I.
ON THE DEFINITION OF TERMS AND THE DECONSTRUCTION OF CONCEPTS.



“Outsider art, synonymous until the 1980s with art brut, any work of art produced by an untrained idiosyncratic artist who is typically unconnected to the conventional art world—not by choice but by circumstance. The “classic” figures of outsider art were socially or culturally marginal figures. They were usually undereducated; they almost invariably embraced unconventional views of the world, sometimes alien to the prevailing dominant culture; and many had been diagnosed as mentally ill. These people nevertheless produced—out of adversity and with no eye on fame or fortune—substantial high-quality artistic oeuvres.”

Colin Rhodes. “Outsider Art.”
Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/art/outsider-art


Something that surprises many people is that, save two figure drawing classes, I have no formal art education. In fact, I have very little formal education at all--were I not kicked out of high school, I would have flunked out. I have never taken a “creative writing” course, nor have I any training in publication or printmaking. What I do have is an obsessive desire to create, a lack of avenues to communicate what I wish to say outside of creative work, and a disturbingly single-minded obsession with the act of creation in and of itself.

Allow me to be frank: I am not an artist; rather, I would not consider myself one. Furthermore, I am not a “graphic novelist”, or a “sequential artist”, or any other silly term that some have come up with to put gravitas to this goonish bastardization of visual shorthand. I suppose the word “cartoonist” fits best--graphics as shorthand, simplification as priority, art as narrative, less as more--but these implications are far-reaching and not universally agreed upon, and they are often lost to those not familiar with the medium.

At best, I am a glorified author with a brush pen; at worst, a self-aware mentally ill scribbler with a deranged obsession. I continue to make work as prolifically as I do for two reasons: I am not good at much else, and I do not care for much else. The use of visuals and words to convey these emotions and ideas is a single-minded obsession that has taken eighteen of my twenty-six years from me, and given me not much more than a reason to live for two more months at a time in return.

However, these statements, by themselves, place Tabula Rosetta, as well as its creator, squarely into the camp of outsider art: art as compulsion, art as a way of being in the world. I am untrained, my input is unwanted and my actions are unwarranted--an outsider. My work is difficult to understand, my methods are often incomprehensible, and my imagery is often meant to evoke emotion and question rather than to provide answers and clarity--art. Je suis la cynique. Je suis la bouffonne. Je suis la Diogenes moderne.

This is not a story meant to provide you with a ending. This is not a narrative meant to make sense. This is not a process that even I understand.

This is compulsion.

There was, however, a time where this compulsion had a plan, and a rather grandiose one at that.


II.
ON THE PARADOX OF MY CREATION AND THE FIRES I SET TO CONSUME IT.


“Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
because the mass man will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.”

--Johann Wolfgang von Goeth, The Holy Longing

Tabula Rosetta, as you know, has nothing on its cover to indicate me as the author, and very little to tell you about what is inside. All it displays is the name of the series, and a single roman numeral to indicate where in the series you are currently standing.

This was a grotesque compromise.

BLACKWORK., as you know it now, is a small shell of what it was originally envisioned to be. I never wanted it to be a sort of shell company for my own work, nor did I wish it to be a traditional publishing house for traditionally viable comics. The original books--Tabula Rosetta in its original form included--were designed to be printed without any information cluing you in to what was inside, save a single illustration that covered its surface.

Picture this, if you will. You are an unassuming college student who has been unwillingly dragged to an unremarkable comic book convention in an understated venue. Everything around you is precisely what you expect it to be. Fan art of series you know covers the booths. Kigus and fanart hang from stall walls, the names of the vendors painted in bright and colorful colors. The vendors are all in costume, smiling and happy and eager to tell you all about their new books about zombies and unicorns and other such tripe, which are adorned with colorful portraits and rainbow text telling you that what is inside is exactly what you expect to find from it. It all makes sense. It all fits right in. Everything is just as it should be. Everything is the same, with minor variations on a theme of marketable nerddom. Everything is oppressively true to form. Everything is boring.

Then you find it--or rather, you happen upon it. A booth covered in all black, with nine letters and a period in white text on a black background hanging from the base of the table. There is no wall-hanging, there is no signage other than this. The attendant is sharply dressed in a black gown, with black hair and a devious smile. There are seven books on display, but you don’t know what they are. The books have no names, no author credits, no publishing company’s logo, nothing--just a single illustration, in black and white, wrapping around its spine in full bleed, and a single box with an ISBN and a price on the back.

You have no idea what you are getting into. All you know is that you have never seen anything quite like it. You aren’t drawn in by a name you might recognize, or by a format you find familiar or nostalgic. Perhaps you aren’t drawn in at all, because it’s too alien, it’s too odd, it’s too uninviting.

But if you are drawn in, you‘re warmly greeted and instructed by the attendant (in all likelihood, me) to pick the books up and page through them. They’re each a set price, often chosen with numerology in mind rather than cost or any other factor. They’re each equally mysterious and unforgettable, containing some of the most challenging and interesting content you’ve ever seen in your life, each works brooding with emotion and raw power and brimming with intrigue, experimentation, and insane amounts of talent and beauty. None of them are like anything you have ever seen. None of them are something you can put down. From this point, if you stepped forward, there’s no going back. The attendant smiles as you page through the works, unable to look away. The idea has taken root, the formless has created a fire. The vision of BLACKWORK has taken hold of your mind, and you cannot let go.

This glorious vision, sadly, was not to be, due to three insurmountable issues.

The first was personnel. I had a great deal of trouble finding artists and authors as motivated and as inclined to experimentation as I was, and I continue to have trouble with this today. It should be stated here that this book is the sixth major work I have created in my career that was completed while homeless. The fact that removing the last two words in that sentence marks a feat in and of itself that many of the artists whose work I am continuously astounded by have yet to accomplish should help clue you in as to why BLACKWORK’s metaphorical roof houses a cast and crew of one. It is often difficult to motivate true genius, and it is even more so to convince it of its worth. Granted, lack of motivation or self-worth is a concept I understand on a core level--I am no genius, but I surely would have quit by now if I had it in me to do so--but it is a concept that I am uniquely set up to ignore, even at my own peril, whereas many others are cursed with instincts for sustainability and desires for families and warm rooms and reliable meals.

The second problem was innately tied to the first--I had no money to toss. As an uneducated person with few connections in a legally unprotected minority group, I often find it difficult to find work that pays enough to live and even more difficult to keep said work due to discrimination. I often find myself working multiple odd jobs simultaneously simply to pay the bills, and whatever money I do not use to keep the lights on I pour into keeping the presses going. While this single-minded obsession allows me to continue to publish and print my own work with very few limitations on what I can experiment with, it does not allow me to pay anyone else anything approaching a reasonable wage, and I often find myself losing money on it to boot.

The third was publication, and if you are looking for an illustration of the point, I have a very recent one. As some of you may have noticed, the publication format of Tabula Rosetta changed once again after Issues 5, and all current issues have been pulled from Amazon and re-published on blackwork.org, with each copy Xeroxed and stapled by yours truly. The reason for this is simple--the company I went through to print these books was absorbed into another, and the company who absorbed them refused to print any of the new issues. Was it due to content? No--if anything, issues five and six are the tamest in the bunch thus far. Unmarketability? No--print-on-demand companies often do not care whether or not your content is good, sellable, or even worth printing, as long as you can pay up. Rather, the problem was far more surface-level--the cover art did not display the author’s name, and they refused to print it until I added it. If a company refuses to allow me to pay them to print a book without my name, one could imagine how they would react to a cover art with no words whatsoever!

My grand vision of a great and glorious organization of auteurs of brushes and ink and works of insurmountable mystery and unmeasurable value was, for the most part, untenable. My magnificent collective was reduced to my work and mine alone. My budget was nil. My means of publishing was neutered.

But my claws still worked, my teeth remained intact, and my back lay unbroken, and so I pushed onwards, clawing at the walls and chomping at the bit.

I worked with what I had to craft this sense of unfathomable mystique in a more achievable, if much less tenable, manner, using the only fallback I had--my own signature cocktail of chaos and unpredictability. The blood-red logo, the blacked-out backgrounds, and the odd cover art choices took the places of the mysterious covers and full bleed illustrations. On shows that I was sane enough to actually attend, I became multitudes to take the place of an entire production studio, often alternating between a black hoodie and no wig and a colorful dress, a terrifying man and a strange woman, and often dragged along a friend or lover to act like there was more to “us” than just myself.

And I did my best to let the mystery and depth of my own work sink to a level that would create an abyss large enough to suck you in all on its own.

However, there was still one problem as far as marketability goes--I endeavored to create meaning.


III.
ON ART AS LANGUAGE AND THE POPULARIZATION OF SAYING NOTHING AT ALL

Allow me a segue. One fall evening in 2016, I found myself standing outside of a building on Cherokee Street in Saint Louis, Missouri. I had been invited to table at a small noise show hosted by some members of the local scene, and as I tend to do when confronted with these types of scenarios, I very rapidly found myself attempting to leave. One of the most inconvenient parts of being on the autism spectrum is the predisposition to sensory issues, and there is nothing that quite screams “sensory overload” than blaring strobe lights and walls of distorted television fuzz set to maximum volume and weaponized impact. And so I stood, my hands dug in my pocket, my head down, my mind bored and hurting, my eyes glazed and dulled, on the outside of the building.

However, there was something I saw through the evening frost on the plate glass window that drew me right back in.

I do not remember the music, if one can truly call anything that one hears at a noise show “music”. I do not remember the faces in the crowd as they stood entranced, or the exact time of the event in question. I remember the unmistakable stench of shit beer, gut sweat and hipster chauvinism, but whether that was the venue itself or the odor of Saint Louis simply being a bit stronger than usual I cannot recall. What I do recall distinctly are the visuals that danced before my eyes--a projector aimed at a plain white wall, its beams of light painting sacred geometric figures on the wall alternating with photos of grisly death and rainy landscapes and accompanied by text mentioning the “Enochian Keys”.

I was entranced, and my curiosity piqued. I found the man running the projector standing idly and chatting with the organizer of the show, not particularly paying attention to his work of mystic allure. He had ran the soundscape he had recorded earlier through a laptop and set the visuals to repeat, allowing him to not give too much of a care as to the flow of his slideshow or his music. He was on autopilot, and very drunk.

I quickly introduced myself and began to ask him about the visuals. At the time, I had just begun my study of the occult, and I had read a small fraction of what I have read now, but I had never heard of the Enochian Keys. I knew of Enoch, the father of Methuselah and the author of the Book of Enoch, and I knew a bit of sigils and their uses and the Keys of Solomon, but I knew nothing about the Keys of Enoch, and so I asked, wanting to know more, wanting desperately to know what he knew, wanting to learn.

He laughed, and said “It means nothing. It’s all bullshit.”

And I learned a valuable lesson that day.

The act of explanation of the work and its meaning runs counter to every other publication similar to Tabula Rosetta, and is part of why this series will never sell while other, much more dumbed down series will. Much of the modern movement towards marketing occult symbolism as edgy or mental problems as fashion centers around the terror and mystique becoming teethless and, therefore, accessible; taking the guts from the powerful and symbolic until they become empty, hollow, and voiceless enough to be hung on your wall without making a fuss should guests come to call. Horror as fad. Funeral garb as everyday attire. The sacred search for meaning reduced to jogging clothes marketed to middle-class young professionals, adorned with a screen-printed mandala and a gaudy rainbow     Om.

I have no interest in this.

In the back of every trade paperback I have published in this series lies one of the hardest parts of the series for me to construct, as well as the piece of the work that, more than anything else, damns it to obscurity: The Codex, a concise explanation of the symbolism I wield and what it means. This work is not a mirror for you to apply your own meaning to; rather, it is a message, designed to state something very specific with each page, panel and letter. I may omit some details for my own privacy, dear reader, but although my methods and practices may be arcane and obscure, they are not meaningless or groundless. If you find that everything in this work speaks to you directly, that is all well and good; if you are confused, intrigued, or you simply wish to know more, I am happy to explain these things to you. Furthermore, if you wish to write to me for further explanation or discourse, I encourage you to do so; although my mailing address changes with my travels, the most current one can be found on the About The Author page on this website.

However, my voice and my story is mine alone, and it is my story that I have to give.


IV.
ON THE POINT OF IT ALL


“Any work of art that can be understood is the product of journalism. The rest, called literature, is a dossier of human imbecility for the guidance of future professors.”

--Tristan Tzara


This brings us to our answers, both to “what” and to “why”.

This work is a letter, a dialogue, a plea to be understood. Its delivery is both part of the work and a means of distributing it.

This is a message to you.

I do not craft these tales because I want to, per se--I do these because I must. However, I distribute them and address them to you, dear reader, because I want you to have them, I want you to understand them, in the observable, the demonstrable, and the intellectual senses alike.

This is not a comic. This is a cry, a plea, a heavy-hearted work of staggering pain. The horror here is not contained in the work; rather, the work itself, and my battle against my mental state and my constant plight, is the cosmic horror, my compulsion to bring it to fruition like that of a maddened cultist, struggling to bring the darkness to light.

This is not a light-hearted romp. This is not a fun escape. This is not something you can delve into and emerge unchanged.

This is not a work of fiction. This is a journal of the damned.

This is Tabula Rosetta.


Sarah Allen Reed
October 22, 2018