Grandville Force Majeure original art now on sale

Page 54 of Grandville Force Majeure by Bryan Talbot

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Brilliant Depravities: A personal view of the Adventures of Luther Arkwright by Harry Payne


I encountered Luther Arkwright, Chris Bell, and Fox simultaneously at the Westminster Comic Mart in June 1987. I was slowly coming down off the "high" of actually meeting the artist and scripter of Redfox, and discovering both to be completely different from how I had envisaged them, when Chris thrust an A5-sized booklet at me. "We're also going to be doing this", she said, "what do you think?"

It's at this point that you're expecting me to say something on the lines of "Despite the poor reproduction, it was obvious to the most jaded X-reader that this was a Great Leap Forward in comics", etc. etc. If I did, I'd be lying. What I saw was a blur of disjointed narrative, graphic sex, extreme violence, and occult symbolism; the sort of things my pastor is continually warning me against (well, the last three anyway). So having thumbed through it, I handed the booklet back to Chris and muttered some polite and non-committal phrases about it. She obviously noticed that I wasn't too keen on it, and remarked, "It's going to be reproduced better than that when we bring it out". I said I hoped so and said nuffin' about the other reasons for my disquiet: despite what they tried to teach me at evangelism classes, you do not launch into theological hectoring at people you've just met. One is exhorted to be a fool for Christ, not an obnoxious idiot. Besides, Chris had the Axe with her that day...

A few days later, I was chatting enthusiastically about Redfox and Valkyrie Press to a friend, who pointed out that unless your name happens to be Dave Sim, a one-comic company wasn't really a viable proposition. "Oh, they're bringing out something else... er... Luther Arkwright or something like that", I remarked. The look on my friend's face resembled that of someone who had just been kicked in the stomach by a sportive mule. "Luther Arkwright?! They're doing LUTHER ARKWRIGHT?!! It's a CLASSIC!!! Is Bryan going to finish it? I've been waiting for it for YEARS!!!".

It was at this point I began to realise I might have missed something at Westminster, and after some diligent inquiries, managed to get another friend to part on a temporary basis, with a copy of RAT-TRAP; by now more a portfolio than a book due to the interesting method of binding.

By the time issue 1 of the comic had seen the light of day at UKCAC 87, my opinion of Luther Arkwright had changed somewhat. True, there were still large parts of it that made me want to spit, but a substantial minority of its images had filled me with a sense of wonder: the Prussian Imperial airship ("defying all the laws of aerodynamics" - held aloft by the sheer will of the artist), the berserk destruction of the Karl Marx memorial, the technological forging of the Fire Opal... These lifted Luther Arkwright above and beyond most of what I'd read in graphic form before, and made me decide to follow it through despite my strong reservations.

I'm glad I did. One of the nice things about Luther Arkwright is that it can be read on so many levels: from the taking it as a "Ripping Yarn" with all the traditional ingredients; good guys, bad guys, the Ultimate Weapon, and the race to prevent the End Of The Universe(s) As We Know It/Them. Lurking just below this highly orthodox veneer, however, is an entirely different framework which takes none of the conventions or assumptions of such earlier tales for granted. We see the story unfold around Arkwright, and we assume he is on the right side: but if he truly believes that "the only reasons for man's existence are chemical ones", as he patronisingly informs Fairfax, then which side is which? The struggle between Zero-Zero and the Disruptors seems mirrored in the four-cornered fight between the Puritans, Royalists, Russians, and Prussians on 00.72.87: a power struggle for its own sake played against the backdrop of an uncaring Multiverse and about to be overshadowed by its end.

However, no matter how much bleakness and cruelty Bryan portrays in Luther Arkwright, hope continues to creep in and make itself noticed. Most of its manifestations are futile: the doctor from St. Martin's hospital condemning the treatment meted out to Luther (people have been killed in totalitarian regimes for less); Whitelaw and his compatriot driven to the act of a Canaris; the camraderie of the group in the "Black Horse". Where it begins to blossom is when Luther begins fully to discover his human potential after his "transfiguration". It is not enough to be merely superhuman: for his potential to be realised Luther must become involved in humanity. Rose is the catalyst; "Firefrost must be stopped so that Rose shall live". And to save Rose he will stop at nothing. He will drain one woman of her life-force so that he can save another (and yet, Miss Bradshaw would not have survived the Battle of London; was Luther in some perverse way being merciful?) He stands against a being of incomprehensible power - is it Mentor or Gharlane? God or the Devil? - and slays it "so that Rose shall live".

Yet Luther continues to kill after Firefrost is destroyed - why? Surely it's immaterial to him which regime rules the England of 00.72.87? Not quite; under Russian/Prussian rule, Anne's (and his) children's future is doubtful. The father protects his children; Luther has indeed become human. There have been works of fiction I have read with whose basic tenets I disagreed, and have yet enjoyed: Stranger in a Strange Land springs to mind. Some I could not stomach and had to set aside, such as Illuminatus!, which Bryan claims as an inspiration for Luther Arkwright. Arkwright, however, transcends that particular tale, by sheer virtue of its clarity of thought. It is undoubtedly among the best, if not the best, graphic novels produced in this current culture and century. This is due in no small part to Bryan's self-discipline and perfectionism on the one hand, and the total lack of editorial constraint on the other; all credit is due to Chris in that respect. Luther Arkwright is, like any work of Art, flawed: though the artwork continually improves as the story progresses, it is not consistent throughout (but show me a person whose work is consistent over a ten-year span and you see a person who has stagnated). More important (and this is on a personal level), I cannot agree with its underlying philosophy. Nevertheless, I am grateful that Arkwright has provided me with one of the clearest expositions of that philosophy I have read (far more so than, say, Dr. Manhattan's Martian soliloquy), and enabled me to understand it more clearly, even if I must ultimately reject it.

Arkwright offers terror in one blood-smeared hand at the same time as it holds out wonder in the other; it portrays blasphemy in Cromwell's perversion of the Gospel and reverence in Luther's and Rose's lovemaking in Westminster Abbey, it drags its readers through the depths of despair but will not leave them there and leads them, ultimately, to hope for tomorrow when Luther dons Miranda's ankh and rejects violence. Above all, this is a work which demands of its readers that they think for themselves, and for that alone, if nothing else, Bryan and those who have supported him in this labour of love have earned my grateful thanks.

Harry Payne.
March 1989.

Also see Harry's massively excellent ARKeology website.