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You are in the About the Author section: Parallel Lives

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Parallel Lives

During a romantic weekend in Whitby I came across a studio entitled The Victorian Image - a place where tourists could have themselves photographed in high Victorian style, in a choice of period costumes. It immediately gave me the idea for this "parallel biography" and had the shot of myself in the Hussar's uniform taken there. I've since "distressed" the photo to make it look older. This piece was a joy to write - once I'd had the idea it practically wrote itself.

Three years before the first issue of the Heart of Empire comicbook was published, I'd commissioned the imitation Pre-Raphaelite portrait in oils from the hugely talented young Science Fiction illustrator Jason Hirst. At the time, Jason was a poor, struggling and literally starving artist. The commission was just a way I came up with of getting him some money. He said he'd charge £150 for such a piece and I paid him half up front. Then the bastard got a job and didn't do it! I'd see him every few weeks and he'd apologise and promise to do it soon but eventually I gave up hope of ever seeing the painting.

Then, a year after I'd last seen him and a couple of months before Chapter One was published, Jason rang me. He'd started the painting and would have it finished within a month! This was perfect timing - and real synchronicity, as he didn't know when the book was coming out, nor of my plan to do this spoof biog. As you can see, he did a brilliant job.

The mask on the wall is one of my African ones. There's a rat motif in the wallpaper. The painting in the background is a version of Millais' portrait of John Ruskin standing before a Scottish waterfall - with Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet in the place of Ruskin. On the mantelpiece is a statuette of mine, which used to be my grandmother's (and appears in the first chapter of Luther Arkwright and in the portfolio illustration of Rose and Luther making love). On the canvas is a page from Bad Rat. The plant below is based on my aspidistra here in the studio (which is now three times that size). I'm wearing a "Big Shirt". The rat on my shoulder was Victoria, the last one I owned (the rat I had whilst doing Bad Rat was Beatrix) with added batwings. You can glimpse a Mars Attacks bubble gum card in my pocket. On the table are five of my favourite artists: books on Moebius, Jack Kirby,Will Eisner and William Hogarth, with a Robert Crumb Mr Natural card (unfortunately cropped by the computer-generated frame in the comicbook). There's a Rizla cigarette paper packet, something that appeared frequently in my underground comics, poking out from behind a box. Jason used the Golden Section in his compositional divisions. The big mistake, of course, is that I'm usually drinking red wine, not white.

The original now hangs proudly on the wall of the main staircase, just opposite the door to the half-landing toilet. The painting was well worth the three years' wait. Not only did I get an excellently painted and splendidly daft portrait of myself but, now Jason's an "in demand", highly paid SF illustrator for the likes of Terry Pratchett, I also got it cheap. These days he would charge £2000 for a comparable work.

The wonderful cartoon of myself and Aubrey Beardsley was a present from writer / artist Al Davison, drawn after reading this spoof biog. Al's book The Spiral Cage, now sadly out of print, is possibly the best British Graphic Novel ever produced. His new book Spiral Dreams is now on sale, published by Slab O'Concrete. See also Al Davison's version of Octobriana.

See also his illustration of Gabriel, Victoira and Ophelia.

I put together the photo of myself as the grumpy old recluse on computer, starting with a photo especially taken by Mary in our back garden. I made the top hat by fitting a roll of black paper around a bowler hat I'd bought from a junk shop for this purpose and made the side whiskers out of frayed rope. This was then combined with elements from several Victorian photographs, the buildings to the right being Market street, Wigan at the turn of the century, and blurred to suggest movement. The lens flare was then added and finally the whole sepia tinted.

The Text

"It is hard to imagine…etc.": inspired by the public outrage generated by The Yellow Book in the 1890s when the publisher's offices were indeed stoned and angry mobs demonstrated outside the London home of Aubrey Beardsley.

I do live in a rather large Victorian terraced house, but it's hardly a mansion.

Empress Camilla: the Queen on the parallel of this alternate self - Camilla Parker Bowles.

"Six month's hard labour in Newgate Gaol": Oscar Wilde's sentence after his famous trial. It broke him and he emigrated to Paris, where he died. His apocryphal last words were "Either that wallpaper goes or I do".

The son of a sailor and a mill-girl": absolutely true. My dad was in the Navy when he met my mum during WW2. After the war he became a carpenter, then later worked at Wigan Power station till his retirement. He used to draw and paint at one time, so I suppose that's why I was never dissuaded from taking up art as a career. It was the only thing I was any good at anyway. My mum went on to train as a hairdresser and opened a salon in our front room.

Being an only child and with both of my parents working I was left pretty much to my own devices and spent hours on my own, making up adventures for my toys. I always read a lot of comics, getting The Beano and The Beezer every week and when visiting schoolfriends, while they were outside playing football, I'd be reading their collections of The Topper or The Dandy. In fact, one of their dads used to deride me in an attempt to oust me from his living room by calling me "The Comics Kid". Though I loved the surreal artwork of Ken Reid (beside whom Basil Wolverton fades into normality) Davy Law and Dudley D. Watkins, my absolue favourite was Leo Baxendale. Though my style is very different, I'm certain that his huge, innovative and, best of all, hilarious set pieces crammed with detail had a big effect on me. Leo originally hails from Preston and it was to my great delight that we became friends, he staying at our Preston house whenever he was in town. Though Leo now only draws occasionally, he's still writing and publishing funny, polemical and thoughtful books. See his site at:

"The Orwell Workhouse, Wigan Pier": The Road to Wigan Pier was George Orwell's book on the lives of the Lancashire poor during the 1930s, researched in Wigan. In fact he met my father-in-law while he was there (the Joycean Scholar J.S. Atherton - look up the entry for James Joyce in the Encyclopaedia Britannica: he wrote it and several textbooks on Joyce) - and shopped at Mary's great-aunt's greengrocers in the same street where he had digs. I studied Orwell at school, mainly Animal Farm and 1984. I lived near the area known as Wigan Pier (See George Formby below) for the first 17 years of my life and walked past it to secondary school every day. The actual pier itself was a short iron jetty: the end of a track where coal wagons tipped their cargo into the waiting barges in a siding and turning point of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. It was ripped out in the 1920s. For decades the warehouses surrounding the siding were derelict. Twenty years ago they were all renovated, mostly forming part of the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre. The last time I was there, I was made to go and stand at the front of the class in the reconstruction Victorian schoolroom - a punishment for talking during class (to Joe Sacco - he and Colleen Doran killed themselves laughing). There is a pub in one of the warehouses - called The Orwell and opened in 1984!

I was born in 1952, which makes me about 29 years old.

I did attend Wigan Boys' Grammar School. Mary went to the nearby Notre Dame Convent. Make of that what you will.

After leaving school I was at The Wigan School of Art in the local Technical College - the equivalent on our Parallel of the George Formby Institute. The Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge was a Victorian pre-mass education charity college in Preston.

George Formby Senior, The Wigan Nightingale, was a Music Hall singer and comedian in the first two decades of the last century. All great Northern comedy is derived from misery and deprivation and his stage persona epitomised this. His jokes and songs were punctuated by a real life hacking cough - the manifestation of the bronchitis that would kill him in his early forties - which he cleverly worked into his act. "I'm coughin' summat champion toneet" was one of his catchphrases. It was he who started the running surrealist joke that Wigan, then a dirty, smoky inland Northern industrial town, had a Pier - like that of seaside resorts such as Blackpool and Southport, places familiar to his working class audiences. The real pier was a small coal-tipping point (see above). The joke was propagated through the years. During WW2 local girls would cod visiting American airmen that on Saturday nights they went dancing to the Big Bands in the ballroom at the end of the Pier. His son, George Formby continued the joke and also his father's gormless Lancashire Lad stage character - "John Willie"- and followed in his theatrical footsteps with no great success until he met and married the formidable Beryl who became his inexhaustible agent. His career then took off like a rocket and pretty soon he was in movies and recording hit records (at his height he was releasing a record a month, for several years, of his silly ukulele songs filled with sexual innuendo). Unknown in America, it's hard now to conceive how popular this affable, daft entertainer with his broad Wigan accent was. During WW2 he was the biggest British star, churning out movies, touring the theatres and travelling to active combat zones in Europe, Africa and the Middle East to entertain the troops. His movies represented a cheeky but honest working class lad who was always in trouble with the authorities - perhaps the reason he was so popular in Russia, with crowds queuing for blocks to see his latest comedy adventure. A survey confirmed that during the war, Formby was the biggest single morale-booster in Britain - even way ahead of Churchill. I was born half a mile from his birthplace and my grandmother was a schoolfriend of his - I went to the same primary school. Hmm. Didn't mean to go on about George Formby for so long - just to explain that, to British ears, the concept of The George Formby Institute for the Diffusion of Knowledge is utterly laughable.

No, I didn't enlist. I'm a Pacifist- I moved to Preston to do a 3-year Graphic Design course instead.

"The Shah of Persia's jewel-encrusted war machines": Brilliant, eh? Pleased with that one.

Asturias is in Northern Spain. I've been a couple of times to the wonderful Gijòn Comics Festival, held every October. Hi Faustino!

Minais Gerais is a large region of Central Brazil. I've been twice and have made lots of friends there. The last time was to teach a week long course on comics at the University in the beautiful and magical city of Ouro Preto, the capital of Brazil three hundred years ago. Hi Chantal!

"Hindoo philosophies, Vindaloo curries and opiate drugs": not that far from the truth. (Hindoo - the patronising Victorian spelling of Hindu).

"Consulting Detective…": from Sherlock Holmes, of course.

"The infamous suffragist, Dr Mary Atherton": my wife, to whom The Tale of One Bad Rat is dedicated. She is a Doctor (of Philosophy) and has a Readership at Sunderland University in the Media and Cultural studies Faculty. Her two best selling textbooks are Fictions at Work (concerning the use of language in storytelling) and Language and Gender. I thought it was funny, making her my Doctor Watson. Atherton is her maiden name. Here is a photograph of the good Doctor herself.

On this parallel we don't seem to have any offspring. In reality we have two fine sons, Robyn and Alwyn, both of whom draw comics. In his spare time Robyn writes and draws strips in conjunction with Ben (Vogarth) Hunt. Their first self-published Classic Comics has a second issue coming out soon. Alwyn is a professional illustrator and has worked on a variety of comics since getting his BA in Illustration including Armageddon Patrol and some of Paradox's Big Books. He recently married the love of his life, Angela, so we've now happy to have gained a delightful daughter. Also see his illustration of Luther Arkwright.

The strand: the magazine where Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, narrated by Doctor Watson, were first published.

John Coulthart, Angus Mckie, Ellie DeVille, SMS : All folk who contributed artistic skills to Heart of Empire. Dave Windett should also have been in this list in the comicbook, but his inks were done after this piece was first published.

Nicholas Park: animator Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run fame. Nick's originally from Preston and I met him there. He turned up at my house once with his two Oscars in a plastic carrier bag!

The Pre-Bakelite Brotherhood: Pleased with that one, too!

"Flirting with Anarchist politics…the occult": blatant lies.

"Learning French": true.

"Laudanum addiction": laudanum was tincture of opium, a Victorian cure-all and the downfall of many a Romantic artist and poet in the popular imagination.

Bordeaux: I am rather too fond of good French red wine.

The BRAINSTORM Trilogy: My first published (Underground) comicbooks. Reprinted with other stories last year by Alchemy Press in one volume, entitled BRAINSTORM!

Nemesis the Warlock: I drew three of the Nemesis volumes. Written by Pat Mills in the mid ‘80s.

The Dread Judge: I worked on Judge Dredd, written by Alan Grant and John Wagner, for about three months.

Second Millenium AD: Britain's premier, groundbreaking weekly SF comic, 2000AD for which I did Nemesis and Judge Dredd.

Constantine, the Living Saint: he's anything but! I drew the Hellblazer Special, The Bloody Saint, written by jovial Jamie Delano.

The New Nazarine: The Nazz, written by Tom Veitch. I still think Tom's story was one of the best post-Watchmen superhero tales.

Morpheus, Master of Dreams: The Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman (as if you didn't know). I did draw some Sandman stories.

Legends of the Gentleman Bat: my first piece of work as a writer-artist after The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was the Batman story Mask for Legends of the Dark Knight.

New Amsterdam: original name of New York.

Illustrated Detective Fiction: the original name of DC Comics for whom I did the above four books was Detective Comics.

"The Adventures of Luther Arkwright…by Dark Horse in 1998": all true; though the title was simply Near Myths, which was a low budget UK equivalent to Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal in the US).

"The often inebriated and increasingly incoherent…": well, uh, *hic* aye, oh, blub, flub, blub…

The Tale of One Bad Rat: was published first in 1994 as a four issue miniseries, then republished in one volume in the following year and a limited edition hardback a year later. Hey! It's not often I get a chance to give myself a good review.

"Victorian Mycologist Beatrix Potter": Beatrix Potter was one of the themes of The Tale of One Bad Rat. Before she began writing and drawing children's books, Potter had ambitions to become a scientist. She extensively catalogued and meticulously painted many species of British fungi, including previously unknown varieties, and even wrote an academic paper on the subject which presented for the first time her fungoid discoveries - now accepted facts. Her career as a mycologist was cut short when the Royal Society (the highest British scientific body) refused to admit her (to present her paper) because only members were allowed to enter and women weren't allowed to join. Her uncle presented it on her behalf, but the experience so annoyed her that she abandoned her studies. On this parallel at least, she achieved her ambition.

"Lord William Eisner plaque": it did win an Eisner Award. And Will Eisner is truly a lord of the medium and a genuinely nice guy to boot.

"A hedonistic libertine": nothing could be further from the truth.

Diana: I had written the script before her accident. Wicked Steve Gallagher suggested the airship crash.

Sir Kenneth Baker: as far as I know, Kenny Baker never played King Lear but he did play R2D2 in all the Star Wars movies (including the new one). He did pose for his character Sir Kenneth.

Belle Island: there is a Belle Isle in Lake Windermere, but there isn't a mock-Gothic castle on it.

Aspidistras: I am quite fond of these quintessentially Victorian plants and have two large specimens. I thoroughly recommend them as houseplants - they don't need much light, seem to thrive on neglect, and don't mind being over-watered. They are quite slow growers, but they live forever. A recent contributor to Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time reported that she had one that had been in the family for 150 years.

Prize-winning rats: my choice of pet, though I no longer keep them for reasons described elsewhere.

For Bryan's real biography check out the biographies section; also see the detailed annotations of every page of Heart of Empire.

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Heart of Empire Directors Cut
Contents | Annotations | Pencils | Inks | Colours | Hi-res colours | Index

Introduction | About the author | Dramatis Personae | Interviews | Back covers
Biographies | The Adventures of Luther Arkwright

Heart of Empire Directors Cut : All text and images are copyright by Bryan Talbot 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001: no part of this may be reproduced in whole part in any medium whatsoever without express, written advance permission of Bryan Talbot.

For more information about Bryan and his work, visit the Official Bryan Talbot fanpage