A Legend of the Time Streams

Bryan Talbot in conversation with Alexander Glass

Bryan Talbot is the creator of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and its sequels Heart of Empire and The Legend of Luther Arkwright, the Grandville series, The Tale of One Bad Rat, and five collaborations with his wife, Mary M. Talbot: Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, Rain, and Armed With Madness: The Surreal Leonora Carrington.

Author and Interzone reviewer Alexander Glass spoke to Bryan Talbot about Arkwright’s consciousness, visual style, Leonora Carrington, and what he would like to do next. (Matters of the Multiverse, Alexander Glass’s in-depth look at Bryan Talbot’s Arkwright series, is also free to read here in IZ Digital.)

Alexander Glass: In The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, a totalitarian theocracy is overthrown, but it seems clear that the new regime is only a lesser evil. In The Legend of Luther Arkwright, one autocrat refers to ‘the cattle’ having ‘voted for precisely what the establishment had indoctrinated them to vote for,’ and the underground resistance leader declares ‘We will take back control’ and ‘We shall make Britain great again!’ The politics in your work are clearly progressive – but are they bleakly progressive?

Bryan Talbot: I think that they are simply realistic. The Arkwright stories all contain a total distrust of extreme right-wing politics and of hatred posing as patriotism, but they also have a desire to see a fairer world. The resistance leader you mention, Rosalyn Wylde, does say that she wants to make Britain great again by ‘returning to the traditional British values of fair play, decency and tolerance’.

Alexander Glass: Adventures ends on a hopeful note. Luther Arkwright is homo novus, a new stage of human evolution, with profound paranormal abilities, including the ability to move between alternate realities at will. In Legend, we meet Proteus, more advanced still in ability, but deeply flawed psychologically – as Arkwright says, ‘As deluded as many an ordinary human.’ Is the most important aspect of Arkwright’s evolution the expansion of his consciousness rather than his power?

Bryan Talbot: As a virtual immortal, as well as his expanded perception, by the time of Legend, he’s around a hundred years old. He’s travelled widely, studied many different civilisations and philosophies and has a wealth of experience, all of which gives him a keen vision of reality, unclouded by prejudice and delusional belief systems. As a novus, he’s also an extremely fast thinker, about to juggle multiple possibilities and strategies in an instant.

Alexander Glass: In Adventures, tyrannical regimes are abetted by, and reflect, the very convincingly malevolent Disruptors. By Legend, although Proteus is the main antagonist, there are indications that humans repeatedly create the systems of their own oppression, forging their own chains without the need for any external agency. But there are also illustrations of the better side of human nature. Is Arkwright’s role to break the chains, but allow humans to work the rest out for themselves?

Bryan Talbot: He only tries to intervene in sapien’s affairs for good, such as saving them from mass destruction in the three stories. He’s been a healer, but has no wish to become a politician or a leader.

Alexander Glass: One of the joys of the Arkwright books has been reuniting with characters, and seeing them develop – Victoria, Luther’s daughter, comes to mind, as does Harry Fairfax. To what extent is that development planned in advance, and to what extent is it instinctive?

Bryan Talbot: The characters have just developed naturally in the writing of each of the books. There were no long-term plans for them. You have to remember that there were 20-year gaps between the plotting of each one.

Alexander Glass: You have used different visual styles in different works – a bit like the way someone like David Bowie would reinvent himself musically and visually. With some works, like The Tale of One Bad Rat, or Grandville, the style seems almost to be inherent in the nature of the work. With others it’s less obvious. What informed your decisions about the styles to employ in the different volumes of Arkwright in particular?

Bryan Talbot: It’s partly intuitive, going by the nature, atmosphere and feel of each story and deciding what the best style would be to reflect it. The drawing and writing styles in comics are both part of the storytelling. Although the Arkwright stories are parallel world stories and are set in versions of different time periods. With the first one, I wanted to give the art a sort of historical patina to project a sort of 18th century atmosphere, so studied William Hogarth and Gustave Doré and tried to give the artwork some of the quality of their cross-hatching. The second, Heart of Empire, was a very different sort of story, more of a mainstream adventure, so used a clear line technique to speed up the reading, something that using clean images can do. With Legend, I wanted to return to the original Arkwright style, to some extent, which is why it’s crosshatched and in black and white.

Alexander Glass: With Adventures, you also decided to eschew speech bubbles; with Legend, although you’ve returned to a visual style reminiscent of the first volume, you’ve used standard speech bubbles. Is that down to the way the stories were composed, or did you have a different reason?

Bryan Talbot: The first story was self-consciously experimental, and the lettering was part of that. Although there is some experimentation in Legend, I used the balloons as they are less taxing on the reader, as they stand out more against the backgrounds, even a plain white one.

Alexander Glass: Of your major works, Alice in Sunderland is probably the most different visually to the others, even taking account of your versatility, with use of collage – and with you appearing as yourself. It works perfectly for the book, but it must have been difficult to imagine how it would work before seeing it on the page. What led to that decision?

Bryan Talbot: I realised very early on that what the book was really about was stories and storytelling, so decided to tell each story and each part of the book in a style suitable to that section. E.g. the ghost story of The Cauld Lad of Hylton is told in a EC horror comic style, the heroic tale of Jack Crawford like a 1940s Boys’ Own adventure, The Legend of the Lambton Worm in an Arts and Craft style etc. Alice in Sunderland is set in the Sunderland Empire, an Edwardian palace of varieties, using the framing device of a stage performance, so I made the book a variety show.

Alexander Glass: You’ve made use of cinematic techniques – lighting, camera level, and so on – sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly. You’ve spoken in the past about particular artists you’ve looked to when drawing particular works (e.g. for Adventures, Hogarth and Doré and Crumb and Moebius). Do you have similar influences or inspirations from cinema?

Bryan Talbot: Yes, I watch very little television but a great deal of movies, from different decades. The biggest influences have been from auteur directors, such as Nick Roeg, Alfred Hitchock, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Ken Russell, Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone.

Alexander Glass: You’ve written and drawn your own work; you’ve collaborated with your wife, Dr Mary Talbot, and with other writers; and, unusually, for Cherubs! you wrote the story and Mark Stafford was the artist. How do these different ways of working compare – do you have a favourite, or do you enjoy the variety?

Bryan Talbot: I enjoy both, but I do prefer writing and drawing my own books, as I have total control over every aspect. Cherubs! (for which, I must say, Mark gave a sterling performance) wasn’t all that unusual. I wrote a 6-part miniseries for Tekno Comix, Shadowdeath, which was drawn by David Pugh, and a 4-part series for DC’s The Dreaming called Weird Romance, drawn by Dave Taylor and Pete Doherty. I even wrote my version of Little Red Riding Hood for the Fractures Fables anthology, drawn by Camilla Errico, that was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Short Story.

Alexander Glass: What can you tell us about the Armed With MadnessThe Surreal Leonora Carrington? How did that come about, and is it a ‘straight’ biography of Carrington or are there other elements?

Bryan Talbot: It’s not as much a ‘straight’ biography as a surreal one. It does follow historical events and much of the book is narrated by Leonora , but parts, especially her horrific lengthy psychotic episode and spell inside a Spanish sanitorium are quite fantastical. It came about after Mary discovered her by way of a short documentary and went on to research her life.

Alexander Glass: What do you think will surprise readers most in Bryan Talbot: Father of the British Graphic Novel, the illustrated biography you’ve co-written with J.D. Harlock?

Bryan Talbot: Not many people will see it, as it’s only available to the relatively small number of people who crowdfunded it, though I am currently talking to a large publisher about a bookstore edition. Not sure exactly what actually would surprise people, as I’ve done lots of interviews over the years. Perhaps it would be the fact that I roadied once for Led Zeppelin!

Alexander Glass: Are there other projects you would particularly like to do – or other people you would like to collaborate with?

Bryan Talbot: It would be nice to do something again with Neil (Gaiman) or Alan (Moore) but that’s probably unlikely, especially as Alan’s retired from comic writing! I’m currently drawing The Casebook of Stamford Hawksmoor – a Grandville prequel. ∎

Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital. and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, forthcoming in Interzone #296.

IZ Digital is Interzone’s online sister zine. Become a member of the IZD Ko-fi for a euro a month to get EPUB editions of stories. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated and helps a lot.

You can also start a 6-issue EPUB subscription to Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered electronically, bimonthly.

Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of zines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!