This is the introduction to the reprinted Brainstorm books, and is published
with the kind permission of Roger Sabin, author of Comics, Comix and Graphic
freakout! Leary never said anythin' about this!
- Chester P. Hackenbush, Brainstorm No. 1.
Portobello Road, London, in 1975. Freaks and Heads everywhere. Hanging
out at the Mountain Grill cafe, discussing the latest 'sides' from Hawkwind,
the Pink Fairies and the Deviants - all local outfits, all habituees of
the cafe. Fry-ups are devoured, stories exchanged, drug deals done. Spliffs
are smoked and shared with black hipsters, when the Bill aren't watching.
Within view of the cafe, somebody's graffitied 'Nuclear Waste Fades Your
Genes' in huge letters on the Westway flyover. It's a serious message.
But not today. There's too much giggling going on....
Enter Brainstorm Comix no.1. A
new psychedelic comic, published by a Portobello headshop ('Alchemy'),
and looking for all the world like it's the perfect product of its environment.
The fact that it's been created and drawn by a lad from Lancashire - an
unknown artist called Bryan Talbot - has nought to do with it. One look
at the cover tells you it fits: the central image is of what appears to
be a cosmic Hell's Angel on a rocket-powered bike hurtling through space;
to his left, a joint with wings flies by; to his right, in the corner,
there's a long-haired hippy called Chester Hackenbush muttering 'far out'.
If this didn't go down a (brain)storm among the denizens of the Mountain
Grill, nothing would. Even the comic's title was shared with a Hawkwind
song (indeed, the band were happy to advertise inside).
There had been other British underground comix before this date. But
Cyclops, Nasty Tales and the Cozmic line (all of which heavily featured
material reprinted from America), had had their day, and there seemed
to be a hiatus in activity around 1974-5. Brainstorm broke the silence,
and was immediately different because it included no US strips at all:
the cover legend 'Made in Britain' promised a new start. Not only this,
but the art was better than most undergrounds (despite Bryan's self-deprecating
comments in his own introduction to this
volume), and though you could see elements of Crumb, and perhaps of Dave
Sheridan, in the end the style was somehow very British. This went for
the writing, too: the star of the comic, the aforementioned Mr Hackenbush,
even went round saying 'Ey up!'. (Was he based on Bryan himself? Draw
your own conclusions.)
Indeed, Chester Hackenbush was to become something of a counter-cultural
hero. His raison d'etre, in case you couldn't guess, was to consume vast
amounts of drugs: '...essence of Fly Agaric and Peyote buttons... Qat...',
he'd intone, mixing up his medicine, 'plus a dash of ole Lysergic - just
to be on the safe side...'. Instead of killing him outright, such concoctions
would catapult him into 'Euphoria' ('flash!'), where he'd meet
various tripped-out characters, and try to discover the secret of the
universe. Bryan has since referred to him as an Alice in Wonderland figure:
'He goes up, and he comes down - it's as simple as that'. But, to be fair,
Alice in Wonderland never had this many laffs.
There was a serious side to the drugs content, too. It's clear from the
Hackenbush stories, for example, that the counter-culture saw pharmaceuticals
not just as a source of recreation, but also as a possible pathway to
spiritual enlightenment - a way of 'opening the doors of perception',
in Aldous Huxley's famous words. Brainstorm mainly featured LSD and dope
(the latter was emphasised in later issues), and these two drugs were
sometimes held in almost sacred regard. No wonder, then, that attempts
by the authorities to clamp down on their use were met with such passionate
resistance. By the mid-70s, Bryan was running a headshop in Preston, and
both he and the publisher of Brainstorm, Alchemy's
had seen at first hand the brutal way in which the anti-drugs campaign
was being waged (Portobello Road was a site of frequent busts). It was,
as they say, a heavy time, and Bryan's dedication in issue 1 to'all those
freaks serving sentences for dope offences and paying off stupid fines'
was heartfelt indeed.
It didn't take long for Brainstorm to garner a following. Hippies were
its obvious constituency, but it also found fans among older members of
the comics fraternity. Denis Gifford - cartoonist, author of numerous
comics histories, and publisher of Ally Sloper - was one. So, too, was
Alfred Bestall, octogenarian creator of Rupert the Bear, who had met Lee
Harris at a book fair. He signed a copy of Brainstorm for Bryan with
the words: 'Am very intrigued!' (as no doubt he would have been): Bryan
has kept the issue till this day. This anecdote explains the episode in
a later Brainstorm where Chester 'becomes' Rupert.
Of course, due to its content, Brainstorm could not be sold from newsagents
like regular comics: but on the headshop circuit it did remarkably well.
(The main headshops in the UK at the time appear on a map drawn by Bryan
in issue 1.) It was distributed by a variety of companies, including one
that dealt in Sufi literature, and a publisher of alternative sex publications,
and eventually ended up with the much bigger Moore Harness, who were able
to capitalise on its word-of-mouth success in the US. At its peak, Brainstorm
was selling a very respectable 12,000 per issue. It didn't make Bryan
rich - he had a wife and two kids to support, after all. But the figures
were pretty cool by underground standards.
But just when it seemed that everything was going so well, there came
a challenge from an unforeseen source. It was 1977, and punk had arrived.
All that mellowness, all that good Karma (man) that had come with Brainstorm's
success was suddenly blasted away by the new youth revolution. Punk was
a different kind of counter-culture - more a howl of outrage than a movement
with an agenda - which decreed, among other things, that hippies were
the enemy. Long hair was out, dope was out, 'dinosaur bands' were out,
and - yup - comix were out. If you were associated with any of these things,
you were a Boring Old Fart, dadd-io, and you'd better either leave town
or kill yourself. (Curiously, Portobello Road remained a centre for punkdom,
just as it had been for the hippie scene.)
One punk convert was especially vocal in his dismissal of the underground.
Cartoonist Andy Johnson, a.k.a. 'Andy Dog' (an old mate of Bryan's) complained
in a series of articles (in Graphixus magazine, Kidz Stuff and a letter
to the NME) that the hippy comix were just 'the same old drivel', and
implied that Brainstorm was as out of date as Hawkwind. Instead, he called
for a 'new wave' in comics to take over, reflecting what he saw as the
new spirit of the age. Bryan was obviously hurt by the broadside, and
responded by producing a strip for Street Quomix entitled 'Komix Comics'
(also reproduced in this volume) in which he depicted Johnson as a mewling
infant, the punk safety pin now being used for its proper purpose - to
hold up his nappy. (In fact, Bryan patched up his relationship with Johnson
to the point where they were going to collaborate on a new wave strip:
but it came to nothing. Bryan's response to punk per se was 'The
Omega Report' - again republished here - which came with the subtitle:
'Flabbergasting Punk Rock SF!'.)
In retrospect we can see that the punk and hippie movements were not
really that far apart - after all, Johnny Rotten claimed that Hawkwind
were one of his favourite bands. But at the time, it seemed as if something
had changed forever, and that the underground could not continue in the
same vein. Johnson's 'new wave' of comics never materialised in the form
he'd envisaged, but after the punk period the old-style sex-'n'-drugs
comix did start to disappear - Brainstorm included. Henceforward the term
'alternative comics' would become much more common to describe anything
that did not fit into the mainstream.
But Bryan was already ahead of the game. By 1977, he had sown the seeds
of his future career in comics by moving away from doper material, and
towards more involved science fiction subject-matter. In the third issue
of Brainstorm (subititled: 'Mixed Bunch'), he debuted a new character
- the remarkable Luther Arkwright. This seven-page strip revealed a new
side to his art - more Richard Corben line-and-wash than Robert Crumb
cross-hatching - and also to his storytelling. For this was a relatively
complex yarn, set in a parallel universe in which England was a Catholic
dictatorship where 'Henry IX was a tyrant, a religious fanatic...', and
where Arkwright, a 'mercenary and infidel', is the only hope of 'maintaining
the equilibrium of the parallels'.
(this entire strip is on the site in the Papist
Affair gallery: - James)
The humour was still there: a group of sexy biker nuns play a starring
role, and there is an amusing cameo from a Nazi bishop ('Herr Arkwright!
I might haff known you vere in on dis.'). But beyond the strip exhibits
the influence of two more sober sources: Michael Moorcock's 'Jerry Cornelius'
sagas, with their 'intra-dimensional realities'; and French bandes dessinees,
which at this time were a cult in the headshops. In particular, Bryan
had seen copies of Metal Hurlant (later Americanised as Heavy Metal),
and he had been 'knocked out' by the ways in which artists like Moebius
and Bilal had taken the science fiction genre in comics and reinvented
it in adult form. Now it was his turn to do the same, and in the late
1970s and early 1980s, he set about expanding the Arkwright story to the
point where it became a pioneering series of (serious) graphic novels.
The Adventures of Luther Arkwright books
remain one of Bryan's outstanding achievements - though here is not the
place to discuss them. Quite rightly, they opened the door for more commercial
projects: Bryan went on to work for Britain's Fleetway on 2000AD, and
for America's DC Comics on titles such as Batman, The
Nazz and Hellblazer. After producing another award-winning graphic
novel, One Bad Rat (1996), he returned to Arkwright, and the new series
of adventures 'Heart of Empire',
is currently available in the shops. In short, in the years since his
underground days, Bryan has become one of the most in-demand creators
in the industry. (Don't take my word for it: have a look at the excellent
website that has been created to chart his progress: www.bryan-talbot.com.)
And as for Brainstorm itself? Well, it finally went under in 1978 after
six issues. With hindsight, the comic has the aura of the last gasp of
the British underground - though its influence has been significant (Alan
Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison have all attested to the effect
it had on them - especially Moore, who paid homage to Hackenbush with
his character 'Chester Williams' in Swamp Thing). Of course, Portobello
Road is still there, but it doesn't have the same atmosphere that it did.
The Mountain Grill is long gone, the graffiti has been cleaned up, and
the area has become so yuppified that it was recently used as the location
for the grim Hugh Grant comedy 'Notting Hill'. On the bright side, Alchemy
continues to ply its dodgy trade, and for the price of a cup of herbal
tea Lee Harris can even now be found ready to discuss ye good ole days.
As Hawkwind might have sang: 'Brainstorm, here I go...'
Roger Sabin is the author of Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels (Phaidon).
Also take a look at Bryan's foreword to the
reprinted edition, the cover of the original
Brainstorm and the cover of Amazing Rock
'n' Roll Adventures, and also take a look at the publicity
shot of Bryan from 1982 taken at the Alchemy shop, when he was launching
the first Arkwright graphic novel: this image will be included in the
reprinted edtion of Brainstrom.