Is America Ready for Bryan Talbot?
Next fall D.C. Comics is scheduled to release a creator-owned series I wrote called The Nazz. Yes, it's a new look at the idea of the superman, four issues, in squareback format.
Who is Bryan Talbot?
If you have to ask...
History, blood and parallel lives
In a parallel universe called England, at the Preston trans-temporal nexus, there lives a voyager of cosmic mythologies named Bryan Talbot.
Preston, Lancashire, is a city of 150,000 people thirty miles north of Liverpool, at the edge of England's coal-mining and industrial district. It's the birthplace of Richard Arkwright, wigmaker and inventor who became a founding father of the Industrial Revolution. It's the site of Oliver Cromwell's victory in 1648 and the surrender of the Jacobites after the uprising of 1715.
The whole region is saturated in history, blood, and human suffering. A vast labyrinth of mine shafts perforates the earth beneath your feet and runs out under the Irish Sea. Men once spent their whole lives down there, chipping out chunks of anthracite with hand tools.
Cheap coal made this area the cradle of capitalist enterprise. Here one realizes the human price that was extracted to create the 20th Century. The region is crowded with the shells of textile factories where 19th and early 20th century English burghers made their fortunes breaking the bodies of children.
In Wigan, not far from Preston, there's a proudly preserved example of one of these "dark Satanic mills", as the locals like to call them. Here tourists are charged admission to view huge machines -- Wagnerian visions of cast iron and polished brass three stories high -- that still stand freshly painted and oiled, turning turning turning, symbols of the power motive that raped the energies of Lancashire's poor.
Bryan Talbot's great-grandfather, both his grandfathers, and his father all worked in the mines. His father finally managed to escape by joining the Navy. Talbot's mother left school when she was twelve, to become a "mill girl". Fortunately she too was able to cut loose, by becoming a self-employed hairdresser.
The life of Bryan
Bryan Talbot, his wife Mary, and their two teenage sons Robin and Alwyn own a three-story terraced townhouse in the center of Preston. It's a house of winding staircases and long hallways and musty attics and rooms full of holy relics of the imagination. It's a place where many an itinerant artist and writer (and even an editor or two) have enjoyed the superabundant Talbot hospitality.
Bryan and Mary were married and had their first son, Robin, while still in college. Their second son Alwyn was born a couple of years later. The years since have been one long struggle for creative freedom. Mary's a Ph.D. in linguistics now. Bryan is a full-time "strip artist", as cartoonists are called in Britain.
Bryan's labor of love, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, swept up four British Eagle Awards in 1988. In 1989 it won an award from the British Society of Strip Illustrators as "the Best British Produced Work" of the year.
Until now America has seen little of Bryan's work. The paperback edition of Arkwright has been available at conventions and in a few specialty shops. And Bryan illustrated a Hellblazer Annual for D.C., which came out this past fall.
Then there's his work on Nemesis the Warlock, with writer Pat Mills, for the British weekly 2000 A.D. Quality Comics has reprinted much of that in America in the past couple of years. Unfortunately the misnamed "Quality" reprints commit a grave injustice against Bryan's masterful penwork. In order to fit the square 2000 A.D. pages to American comic book format, Quality attached a distorting lens to a photocopy machine, elongating and effectively destroying the art in the process. That and abyssmal printing made classic stories like Mills and Talbot's Nemesis and Moore and Gibson's Halo Jones virtually unreadable.
Thankfully you can find Bryan's 2000 A.D. work -- including his Judge Dredd pages -- in the black and white Titan paperbacks. And now Dark Horse in bringing out the complete Luther Arkwright, in a nine-issue series that has just begun appearing in American comic book stores.
Luther Arkwright is a new kind of hero
The Adventures of Luther Arkwright is the story of a trans-dimensional war spilling into human history on an earth parallel to our own.
One of its central themes is that historical events, as we know them, mask a conflict of cosmic proportions -- a war for the"multiverse". Many of the villains of earth's history -- including people like Hitler -- are in actuality "Disruptors", agents of an unseen cosmic evil. The local wars and atrocities they initiate resonate through multiple universes, leading to universal breakdown.
This all-encompassing science fiction concept is used by Talbot to open a new perception of the hero. Luther Arkwright effectively supplants the comic book archetype of the hero as inflated ego -- the self-involved man of power completely concentrated in vanquishing a never-ending series of villainous counterparts.
In Talbot's vision, the heroic struggle becomes a window into the movement of forces deep, mysterious, and almost unknowable in their vastness.
The effect is to give us a picture of a man -- Luther Arkwright -- who has learned to function on many levels at once ...and is fully conscious of the macrocosmic effects of his microcosmic actions.
Luther Arkwright operates at heroic levels of awareness where the adulation of crowds cannot follow. A hero without hero-worship. A solitary wanderer among the worlds, free of the terrible confines of identity that bind virtually all comic book heroes to lives of posing before mirrors and satisfying the protective needs of the common man...
As such, Luther Arkwright is, almost certainly, one of the progenitors of Moore and Gibbons' Dr. Manhattan.
But if Talbot helped others by pointing the direction in which heroic character must evolve, even more so does he open the minds of other creators to the possibilities of visual storytelling.
Cinematic storytelling in Arkwright
Bryan freely acknowledges the influence of film in his experiments with storytelling technique -- especially the work of Nicholas Roeg, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah.
He was impressed by Roeg's way of focusing on random, minor events, adding a rhythmic resonance to the details of ordinary life. The result, as Bryan sees it, is to "set the reader's mind working, draw him into creative participation in the story".
In other words, Bryan is invoking the mind's tendency to complete a pattern, to project order and meaning and even mythological significance into uninterpreted images.
Traditional mythological symbols -- potent containers of energy -- are also consciously used in Arkwright. I was especially struck by the way the Tarot cards are employed to giveone a feeling of uncanny coincidence. It reminded me of the way life will throw images back at you -- even from comic books -- which reveal chilling truths about yourself.
Bryan's cinematic storytelling isn't confined to what he's learned from Roeg, Leone and Peckinpah. My sense is that those artists merely helped him to realize his native genius. I think Bryan is a "filmmaker" in his own right (indeed, he's made his share of 8mm films).
As a whole Luther Arkwright is a compendium of dozens of storytelling techniques, many of them entirely new. Any comic creator worth his salt would do well to study these books to improve his grip on the medium.
Yes, Bryan has learned from Eisner and other master cartoonists. But clearly Bryan can teach the old guys more than a thing or two. Mr. Eisner has admitted as much, in his comment that Luther Arkwright "is really pushing back the boundaries of the comic medium." Others have heaped praise on Arkwright -- including Moebius, Harlan Ellison, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Moorcock, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Kirby, Clive Barker, and Alan Moore, who wrote the introduction to Volume 2 of the British paperback edition.
As Moore acknowledges in his introduction, Arkwright marked a true turning point in the history of British comics:
"Back in the seventies", says Moore, "there was no British comic scene worth mentioning. The glory days of the Reid/Law/Watkins & Baxendale Beano were long gone, and although 2000 A.D. had appeared, its revitalization of the boy's adventure comic was still some years in the future. The Alternative comics were in a similarly bleak condition: The H.Bunch reprints of American underground material had vanished, and apart from Hunt Emerson and the Arzak crowd, there was little in the way of home grown alternative material to be had.
"Luther Arkwright was the exception. Starting as just one strip in the anthology title, Near Myths, Luther Arkwright went way beyond anything that creator Bryan Talbot had attempted in his previous tribute-laden doper fantasies, the Chester P. Hackenbush series. Synthesizing influences from as far abroad as the New Wave science fiction of the period and the films of Roeg and Peckinpah, he created a seamless whole, a work ambitious in both scope and complexity that still stands unique upon the comics landscape. As the only avant garde graphic adventure strip of its day, there was nothing like it back in the seventies. There is nothing quite like it now."
Concise history of British comics, BA (Before Arkwright)
The "modern comic book" -- approximately 7x10 inches with slick cover, was invented in America in the 1930's. But the Brits had all-comic periodicals long before that -- going back to Funny Folks in 1874. Some even take the history of the comic book back further, to The Comick Magazine of 1796, which featured the art of William Hogarth. Hogarth's influence can still be felt in the work of Moebius, Robert Crumb, and...Bryan Talbot.
By 1920 there were dozens of all-comic tabloids in Britain -- all aimed at children. By this time the idea that comics are exclusively children's entertainment had become deeply ingrained in the British mind.
Some have suggested that this British prejudice insinuated itself across the Atlantic -- and influenced the fledgling American comics industry.
Certainly there is much evidence of cross-breeding between the two comic book cultures. The Brits quickly imitated the American superheros. And when the Wertham persecution of horror comics began in the 1950's, a simultaneous outcry arose in England -- as documented in Martin Barker's excellent book, A Haunt of Fears.
The lightning jumped the Atlantic again in the early 70's, when American undergrounds awoke young British artists to some of the free-wheeling possibilities of the comics medium.
British publications such as Cozmic Comix and Nasty Tales reprinted the best American work (without payment, I might add). These publications then became the forum for a new generation of British talent.
Both Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland first appeared in British undergrounds. Graffixus, a British underground anthology title, even reprinted Bolland's student work, with new covers by Bolland. Other well-known British artists who worked in the undergrounds include A-1 editor Garry Leach, Heavy Metal artist Angus McKie, and Watchmen colorist John Higgins. Alan Moore began his creative life writing and drawing underground-style comics for the British music press.
Bryan Talbot also comes out of the British underground movement. His Brainstorm Comix, which ran from 1975 to 1978 and sold very well, shows Bryan heavily under the influence of the American scene -- especially the work of Robert Crumb, Dave Sheriden, Greg Irons, and George Metzger -- with a tip of the hat to Spain, Jaxon, and Larry Todd. However, in retrospect, the seeds of Bryan's entirely individual vision are quite visibly present in Brainstorm.
Bryan told me that the ideas for the story of Luther Arkwright were turning in his head for several years. Then one extraordinary night of insight in 1978 the whole plot came together -- and remained essentially unchanged until the book was finished ten years later.
Bryan began serializing the Arkwright tale in the "ground-level" anthology title Near Myths in 1978. When Near Myths folded after five issues, work on Luther Arkwright was suspended until 1981.
At that time Bryan met Serge Boissevan, the man who would eventually become Bryan's patron "in the Victorian artistic sense", as Bryan puts it. Portions of Arkwright were published in Boissevan's beautifully produced Pssst! magazine, which ran ten issues from 1982-83. Pssst! was a bit ahead of its time -- the new wave of adult British comics was yet to take root. After Pssst! folded, Arkwright lay unfinished for six years, until Boissevan offered to bankroll its completion -- including its publication in large paperback format.
Valkyrie Press brought out all of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright in American-style comic format in 1987-88. That's the edition that is finding its way -- retouched and relettered, with new covers -- to American shops right now, thanks to Dark Horse.
Luther Arkwright has won a wide following in Britain. It was nominated for no less than eight British Eagle Awards in 1988, and, as mentioned, won four: "Favorite Artist", "Favorite New Comic Title", "Favorite Character", and "Best Cover" (for issue number one).
What does the future hold for Bryan Talbot? If his current work is any indication, I expect we'll see Bryan continuing his explorations of the known universe...and taking long voyages into universes no one's even heard of. Hopefully he won't forget to pack his sketchbook and pens!
The design and content of this page and this entire website is copyright 1999, 2006 by James Robertson: all images are copyright 1999, 2006 by Bryan Talbot