Alexander Glass on the many facets of Bryan Talbot’s Arkwright sequence
Bryan Talbot’s Arkwright sequence – The Adventures of Luther Arkwright (1978–1989 – its publication history was an adventure in itself), followed by Heart of Empire (1999) and The Legend of Luther Arkwright (2022) has its roots – not exclusively, but significantly – in the New Wave. Discernible influences include Robert Anton Wilson, Colin Wilson and Norman Spinrad; but in particular the sequence bears comparison to the work of Michael Moorcock. The character of Arkwright has been compared to Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius, though on closer examination the connections between the two are actually quite limited: Cornelius is a much more Protean figure, his form and transformations much more a deliberate, frequently satirical, design depending on which of the many strands of Moorcock’s multiverse he finds himself. Arkwright, by contrast, although experiencing evolutions of his own, is unique, a multiversal constant.
In character and milieu, Arkwright also somewhat resembles a lesser known (and perhaps under-appreciated) incarnation of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion: Oswald Bastable, hero of the sequence A Nomad of the Time Streams, in which the First World War never happened and the British Empire therefore persisted, along with uninterrupted colonial oppression.
The main narratives of Adventures and Heart of Empire, along with part of Legend, are set in a variation of England, in a world where the Restoration of Charles II never happened. The result is that the descendants of Cromwell remain dictators – troubled by centuries of underground Royalist resistance – into the late twentieth century. Steampunk is not quite the right word for it – K. W. Jeter had not yet even coined the term – but as with Oswald Bastable, the presence of airships and empire lends it something of a steampunk feel. (Talbot employs the aesthetics of steampunk with great skill, as can be seen in his work on Pat Mills’ Nemesis the Warlock for 2000 AD, and in his own Grandville sequence.)
What sets Arkwright apart is that it concerns a multiverse of parallel worlds of which only a few people are even aware, and only Luther Arkwright himself is able to move between them at will. He is allied with the peaceful, advanced world government of the parallel that designates itself zero-zero. The alliance is necessary: in Adventures a barely-understood but malevolent force, the Disruptors, is also at play in the multiverse, supporting myriad despotic regimes for reasons of its own.
Complex and demanding, richly allusive, these are graphic novels with the depth of novels but the sweep and beauty of cinema. As Alan Moore has powerfully argued, comics are not a mere halfway house between novels and cinema: they are entirely their own medium and any work in the medium should be judged on that basis, not by comparison to works in other media. The fact that comic artists employ techniques from cinema (as well as painting and photography) does not detract from Moore’s point. And yet Talbot, perhaps more than any artist in the medium, is clearly drawing on particular styles and at times on the work of particular artists, and doing so deliberately and consciously, with specific purposes in mind. A master craftsman in his own right, he is capable of reflecting on his influences and emphasising one or another as needed. Those influences therefore vary from work to work: the references to the work of Beatrix Potter in The Tale of One Bad Rat are clear; the nods to cinema in Arkwright are perhaps more subtle.
Talbot largely eschews the shorthand, and the clichés, of comic art: here you will find no motion lines, sound effects, or thought bubbles. Even speech bubbles are set aside in Adventures. In place of these techniques, the art adopts methods Talbot learned from directors like Sergio Leone, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, and in particular Nicolas Roeg. In framing, in composition, in editing, Arkwright is distinct from most graphic work, then and now.
Above all Talbot pioneered distortion and fracturing of time in the medium. Adventures has a number of beautifully rendered slow-motion sequences – one major assassination that takes a mere handful of seconds is spread over eight pages – but there are also more experimental effects. Part way through Adventures, an American journalist (for the ‘New Amsterdam Herald’ – one of many nice world-building details) reflects on a massacre carried out by Cromwell’s police, and prepares to write his copy. In a time-splintering technique previously used by Roeg in films like Walkabout (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973), the reader’s attention is pulled this way and that: from the journalist to flashes of the incident itself, and then to extracts of the piece he writes. The latter element would not work in cinema: there is simply too much text. But on the page, that is not a problem. Talbot has adapted and expanded upon Roeg’s technique, made it his own, and made it a technique for graphic storytelling.
Interestingly, editing methods that might be experienced as disjointed and disorienting on screen have a different, though equally interesting, effect on the page. On screen one might be shown a glimpse, a shard of time, and then it is gone. When that shard of time appears on the page, the reader is given a suggestion as to where and for how long to focus their attention, by way of the layout; but it is only a suggestion. The reader has a greater degree of control. In both media there is always an ongoing interaction between the work and the person experiencing it, but the interaction works differently in each.
Other examples of splintered time appear in Adventures, with cuts between different worlds, but also ‘rolling news’ updates from those worlds as the scientists of zero-zero monitor the worsening effects of multiversal Disruption: ‘Random selection incoming data… Para 00.53.56: Moscow. Statue of Stalin weeps blood… Para 03.55.83: World War Three. Nuclear holocaust.’ These, too, are reminiscent of New Wave experimentation with form, as are occasional stream-of-consciousness passages (particularly effective when Arkwright’s own state of consciousness has been altered – which happens repeatedly).
The references to nuclear holocaust become more frequent in Adventures as the story accelerates to its final crisis point. Like other significant graphic novels of the period, Adventures was clearly written in the shadow of the bomb. The engine of destruction in Adventures is Firefrost, an ancient mystical artifact as opposed to a modern nuclear weapon – but the point of it is that humans, as long as they remain in conflict, will be constantly tempted to use the most powerful weapons they can muster, even if that means destruction of the world (or of the multiverse).
In Watchmen, Alan Moore implies in typically lugubrious fashion that all too often human nature will undermine any attempt to save the species from its own self-destructive tendencies. In The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller seems positively to relish the prospect of post-civilisation survivalism in a nuclear winter. (And Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows is more horrifying than either.)
Talbot does not shy away from the darkness in the human soul, but he insists its triumph is not inevitable. Arkwright is his exemplar, though it is perhaps telling that Arkwright is one of a new species – Homo novus – and that Arkwright’s view of humanity is therefore often patrician, sometimes dispassionate, occasionally ruthless. Talbot even wrings some low humour from this; at one point Arkwright says to his companion Harry Fairfax: ‘The only reasons for man’s existence are chemical ones’, upon which Fairfax farts.
But the doomsday device, whether it be a mundane world-ending nuclear arsenal or a Firefrost out of an abyss of time, is just a tool. Talbot is interested in the structures that make construction and use of such a tool possible. On a broad scale, that often means empire. In Adventures, competing imperial powers are hoping to capitalise on the collapse of Cromwell’s Puritan dictatorship. The British Royalists prevail – Arkwright ensures it – but Talbot turns a clear eye on the atrocities that take place in the course of the transition. Arkwright is not blind to the Royalists’ faults; the clear sense is that he treats them as the least worst option. He does not set out to instruct Homo sapiens on how to run its affairs. He lets it make its own mistakes, only stepping in when it strays too far off course.
In Heart of Empire, just beneath the skin of an adventure story, Talbot considers the ongoing instability of an autocratic imperial system – challenged by proponents of a fledgling democracy, but also by external agents and by plotters within the regime itself. Set twenty-three years after Adventures and focusing on Arkwright’s daughter by the Queen, the story also considers the possibility of transition from dictatorship to democracy, and how that might come about.
Narrowing the focus, though, Talbot is keenly aware that empires are made up of people. The imperial urge to dominance reflects the same urge that is present in sapiens at an individual level; imperialism is a kind of emergent property. But the urge is only present in potentia: it can be nurtured, or suppressed.
In Adventures, Talbot shows how Cromwell was made. A monstrous, fanatical figure, he is the product of abuse both personal and systemic, and sustained by a corrupt system around him. Arkwright understands him, without condoning. Empathy is harder to find when it comes to the Disruptors, whose directing intelligence is profoundly alien, but even here Talbot allows Arkwright – and the reader – a measure of understanding, without condoning. Similarly, in Heart of Empire the greatest peril is from a creature which, while bent on destruction, is at heart a tormented innocent.
That brings us to The Legend of Luther Arkwright, set fifty years later again. Here there is less direct focus on political systems – though Talbot has fun with a wonderfully drawn (in both senses) Kingdom of Mercia; and in a grimy, Orwellian near-future London he gives us perhaps the most directly political speech in the entire series: ‘What’s ironic is that they’d been so effectively manipulated by their rich establishment and its right-wing media, they actually believed that they were delivering a blow for liberty! […] Once free of external controls, it was easy for their masters to scrap regulations and standards, do away with elections, and sell the country out to multinationals they all had shares in… The country was enslaved by a rich elite.’
The main focus, however, is on a new antagonist, Proteus – the next stage in human evolution. Arkwright is Homo novus; Proteus is Homo eximia (‘exceptional’). A hermaphrodite (Talbot, and Arkwright, use the pronouns s/he and hir) and visibly different in appearance to other humans, Proteus intends to wipe out Homo sapiens entirely, and build a new society using Homo novus volunteers to breed more of Homo eximia.
On the surface, this seems a very different story to the others, but Talbot is mindful of the threads that join this conflict to his examination of political systems. Once again the personal is political. There is no obvious doomsday weapon here – but in a sense Proteus, full of destructive power, is the bomb. S/he is ultimately revealed to be another damaged would-be dictator, reacting to individual persecution with vengeful, far-reaching violence.
Talbot introduces subtle but telling parallels with Arkwright’s character. For example, Proteus says s/he chose hir own name. Later Arkwright is shown, in flashback, as a young man, strung out, being welcomed into a squat, and giving his name as Luther. Is it synchronicity that a report about Martin Luther King is playing on the television, or has Arkwright, too, chosen his own name?
But the more important comparison concerns the responses of Proteus and Arkwright to their beginnings. Proteus, born into a strict religious community, was tormented and shunned; Arkwright was initially trained to be a Disruptor agent himself – the Disruptors intended to make hideous use of his world-walking powers. Talbot shows that monsters are not born but made – but then why is Arkwright not a monster?
The answer may be seen in the final defeat of Proteus, which is accomplished by cunning, planning, teamwork, and Arkwright’s greater experience and self-understanding – but also, crucially, by Proteus’s failure of empathy, which by its nature is a failure of imagination. Talbot deftly links this to the matter of the multiverse: repeatedly in Legends, characters learn about other worlds, and are thereby awoken to the possibility of change, of making a better world, or a worse one. Talbot’s point is that this comparator, utopia or dystopia, could be a parallel timeline; it could be another place in one’s own world; or it could be entirely fictional. Which one it is matters relatively little. What really matters is the ability to conceive of worlds, lives, joy and suffering, other than one’s own.
This may be the end of the Arkwright sequence; Talbot has, as ever, other projects demanding his attention. If so, it is a fitting end: powerful, insightful, politically engaged and – always – beautifully written and drawn. ∎
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.
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