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The Official Bryan Talbot fanpage / Articles
 

Roger Sabin's introduction
to the Brainstorm reprint

 

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 Novels (Phaidon).


Wotta 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 Lee Harris, 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

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.

 

 
   
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