"It's developed it's own style. It has more in common with things like Hogarth and even Shakespeare", Bryan Talbot explains to me from his huge Victorian house in Sunderland.
Bryan Talbot is one of those strange comic creators: he's never going to be a superstar but he'll always be respected and he'll always have work. He cut his teeth on the British underground scene of the late seventies, which spawned other visionaries like Grant Morrison. What came next for Talbot was The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, a bold blend of science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction that painted in broad strokes, which gave him the opportunity to develop his now recognisable delicate linework. Many years later, he now has the opportunity to follow it up with another epic: Heart of Empire.
Although it's a sequel, Talbot has deliberately made Heart of Empire more accessible than the Adventures of Luther Arkwright, for a number of very important reasons: "I've told this one in a completely different way. The first book was very self-consciously experimental and I wasn't interested in doing the same thing again. The story's a lot more linear and accessible. I tried to write a classic adventure story, which is actually a great deal of fun. There's a lot more humour in it than there was in the first one. "
With the addition of colourist Angus McKie, Heart of Empire is immediately marked out from its predecessor. So it's not just Talbot's approach to the project that's different here: "The colour'll make it easier on the eye than the last one, which was very dense and dark," he points out to me. "I wanted to have a European feel to it more than an American superhero atmosphere, so it seemed the right way to go."
Although Heart of Empire is being computer-coloured, it's being used as an appropriate tool rather than swamping the pages: "Angus can do this wonderfully fully rendered computer artwork where every panel looks like it's an airbrush painting but I didn't really want that because I find that sometimes it slows the reading of the story down, so I'm asking him just to use flat colours and fades, with just an occasional touch of rendering."
One of the strengths of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was its vivid cast of characters. Talbot has planned that Heart of Empire shares that sensibility: "Heart of Empire's central character is Arkwright's daughter, Princess Mary Victoria Elizabeth Boudicca Cordelia Miranda Arkwright Stuart. She's his and Queen Anne's daughter and she was born at the end of the last book, in the middle of the battle, along with a twin brother. Her twin brother was actually killed when he was five years old, by assassins, who found their way into The Palace. The building was still under construction and so it was quite easy for them to gain access. We see this in the first issue. The old physician/ alchemist Dee relates this to the Princess because she wasn't present. This event acted as a major catalyst and afterwards, the Queen withheld her affection from Victoria, almost blamed her for surviving the attack and one by one, everybody close to Victoria disappeared in a way."
Talbot has found that using a character who's less rounded than Arkwright was has been to his advantage as he has been able to deal with the Princess's state of mind in a much more interesting way. "As I was saying, everyone close to her has disappeared. Lady Diana, her lady in waiting, Princess Diana on this parallel, was driven mad by the experience, Arkwright's not even involved, as he's vanished, presumed dead right at the beginning of the story and even her favourite uncle Harry Fairfax, was banished from court. So she's been brought up alone and, on top of that, she's developed as she's grown up, these horrendous migraines. She has constant headaches and feels this pressure on her all the time. This leads her to vomit quite a lot and as a result of this, she's thin as a rake and about six foot six in height. She doesn't exactly have the hourglass figure that most comic book heroines do and also, because of the migraine, she's in a perpetually foul mood most of the time. She's a problematic heroine. As part of her character, she's a racist because of her upbringing: She's a princess in this empire that's dominated the world and is sucking it dry of its resources."
Even though Luther Arkwright isn't in Heart of Empire in the conventional sense, he does still play a part:"Luther Arkwright is in the story all the way through in one form or another. He's there in the form of statues, paintings and street names. He's become a myth. There's stories that he'll come back to England in the time of dire need. He's actually dead but all of these little myths have sprung up about him. He's the hero achetype."
Talbot has always played with British history and here he gets a chance to toy with, amongst other things, the British Empire and the reign of Queen Elizabeth The First. It's a task he obviously relishes: "It's not the Victorian British Empire that we knew, it's a different British Empire in a different parallel. The Royal Court is like a grand Elizabethan court and The Queen has moulded herself on Elizabeth The First in some respects. She is protected by a team of all-female private guards, The Daughters of Albion. I read a wonderful book on Elizabeth called 'The Cult of Elizabeth'. In fact, it's one of the first bits of research I did for this story about six years ago. It's amazing how much her image was manipulated at the time, consciously by herself. It was used to make her this demi-goddess, like Titania, the fairy queen, or Gloriana. During her reign, religious holidays were replaced by things like her birthday. Elizabeth used to have a dwarf at her court, which is why I asked Kenny Baker if he'd mind being in Heart of Empire. He posed for me and I won't say anything more about him but he has an extremely heroic death."
In terms of plot, Heart of Empire is chock full of intrigue and mystery, partly about the fate of the Princess's father, Luther. Talbot has concocted a story that puts Victoria out of her royal world in her attempts to track him down: "At the beginning of the book, she gets drawn into something big partly as a result of a chance meeting with an anarchist propagandist who mentions that he knows somebody who could be her twin. It's this guy called Gabriel Shelley, who remains unseen until around the fourth chapter, who's got white hair, the same eyes and identical bone structure. After this meeting with Dee, where she talks about her father, she decides to embark on this quest to find out his fate. The first three or four chapters are more like a detective story, although the whole thing is a superhero story of sorts, because it deals with superhumans."
We are interrupted by the sound of a door opening. The Victorian monolith that Talbot has just moved into is currently being redecorated and this chaos has slowed him down a little with Heart of Empire but he doesn't seem to be too fazed by it. If anything, he appears to be relishing the whole experience and it doesn't seem to have thrown him too much off track. Getting back to his train of thought, he continues to fill me in on the plot of the series: "Gabriel Shelley doesn't want to but he's become the leader of the opposition forces in this Empire. There is no official opposition, no government in fact. It's just ruled by the Queen but Shelley's organising this huge pro-democracy rally in Britannia Square, their equivalent of Trafalgar Square but bigger and more elaborate. He's organising this demostration which ends up like Tiannemen Square. He's aided by his lover, Ophelia Ruskin-Spear, who looks like Jane Morris. We also have Barbarini, who's The Pope's top assassin and right at the beginning of the story, The Pope sends him to London after having a vision from God. Barbarini's mission is to demand that Queen Anne hands the empire over to Rome. If she refuses, he's to consider her excommuniced and even kill her on the spot, as well as Victoria, severing the royal blood line. Britain is a Catholic country, as it was Protestant in the last book. For all intents and purposes, it's a fascist dictatorship but I couldn't use the word 'fascist' because that wasn't coined in this parallel until the thirties in relation to Mussolini's mob. Another main character is Colonel Eugene Kray, The Duke of Northumberland, who's the Spymaster General and head of Anne's Secret Police. We have a situation in London rather similar to that of Pinochet in Chile. People are going missing: they vanish off the streets at night and it's the secret police, it's rumoured, who are responsible. Another one of the tantalising things here is the disappearance of these people and you're wondering what's happened to them. Hundreds disappear off the streets every year. Northumberland is involved in intrigue: He plans to use the democracy demonstration not only to crush the democratic forces but also to assassinate the Queen and take over as World President. He's aided and abetted by Sir Joshua Hirst, who is the court painter and a really big fop."
Talbot's enthusiasm takes him over while we're talking. It seems that he's packed so much into this series that he can't help but wander off on a slight tangent.
One of the characters from The Adventures... makes a reappearance here. Hiram Kowalski, the American reporter. Talbot is keen to emphasis that his role here is similar to the one he played before: "Hiram's back playing the same role as before, that of an outside observer. In the first chapter, we see him arriving on a skyliner, coming back to Britain, for the first time since the last book, with a young hot reporter, a black woman called Angela Russ. You're going to notice a lot of angel imagery here, what with Gabriel and Angela. There is a reason for this, which you find out in about chapter six. Getting back to Kowalski, he thinks that he's coming over on holiday basically and that he's taken an easy job. He's got to write a report for the Picture Post. He does however play more of an active role here than in the first one. Of course, one of the first things he does is that he immediately encounters the centre of the slave trade."
The depiction of Britain is not the only thing that's altered here. We see a view of a very different America: "In this story, America's a bit of a backwoods country but it is slightly enlightened. In the last one, America was still a bunch of disunited colonies, and mainly a farming nation. At this point they do have a president. In this America, cops don't carry guns. The Americans are shocked when they see the British policemen walking around armed. We follow the two reporters throughout the story."
The pace of Heart of Empire is maintained very simply and Talbot has used a very compact time structure to make it very focused: "It really builds up and up and gets faster and faster as it goes towards the climax. The whole thing takes place in just seven days. The countdown starts in Chapter One, with 'Seven Days To Cataclysm' and then it jumps to 'Five Days..'. After forty-eight hours, it's reporting every eight hours and the last two books take place in the last hour. We see the minutes being counted down to the psychic cataclysm about to happen. This situation is being monitored by Zero Zero and Rose Wylde and Karl Waszynko, from the first book, are called out of retirement at the beginning of the story in chapter two. All that they've been told is that there's some sort of huge undefined danger threatening the multiverse and it's building towards a catastrophe nexus that culminates at the start of this democracy demonstration."
One of the most interesting things abour Heart of Empire is its lack of uniformity. Right down to the page count of individual issues, chapters will be different lengths depending on what each chapter warrants. Talbot really has put a lot of precision into this series and he found it hard to disguise his enthusiasm when discussing the structure of Heart of Empire: "The length of each issue varies because it's structured as a novel and I just had to find the best way of cutting the story up. Dark Horse are going with this. They know that they're going to lose money on a couple of issues because they're going to be selling them at the same price as the regular ones and it's very brave of them to do it. But they've got faith and they'll see it back eventually."
Everything is building up to the big demonstration and Talbot has framed it in a significant event for this Britain, again consciously so: " The demonstration is taking place on Victory Day, which is the annual celebration of the glorious revolution that happened twenty three years ago. Chapter Five takes place mostly on Victory Eve, on which London goes mad. You've got things like fireworks, acrobats, big fantastic costumes in the streets and bonfires, where they burn effigies of Cromwell. Victoria has had unconscious psychic abilities since she was a child and she's gone wherever she wants because of these abilities. It's like a virtual invisibility cloak. On Victory Eve, she finds herself right in the centre of London after inadvertently ingesting a huge amount of a hallucinogenic substance, so all of her shields are down. So she's vulnerable in the middle of all this madness. Chapter Five is a real cracker. It starts with a sunrise and everything's light and happy and very quickly it turns into this spiral of madness."
As well as colourist McKie, Talbot has collaborated, albeit on a smaller level, with another artist, brought in because of his expertise with architectural illustrations: "On 10 out of 284 pages of Heart of Empire, some of the backgrounds have been done by the SF illustrator SMS. He doesn't do many comics these days (He used to draw ABC Warriors) but I've known him for a while and he's very good at architecture. Like I say, I've drawn most of it but on certain scenes, I thought that it'd save me a bit of time. So what I do is I design the page, lay it out, draw the main characters in and then indicate where the buildings should be in the background and the sort of buildings. Then he goes away and spends a week drawing a single page and a couple of the pages have worked exceptionally well with these backgrounds. I've still had to spend about four hours going over his inks to make them look like mine. I've just finished inking them, so it's not saved as much time as I'd hoped because you've got to have the same style all the way through to maintain the visual look."
Visually, Heart of Empire plays with the architecture of London and Talbot must have enjoyed redesigning the metropolis: "The look of the city has changed immensely from the first book. This very strictly non ornamented black and white architecture of the Puritans has given way to this architectural fantasia. It's like a Christopher Wren fever dream or Mega City designed by Christopher Wren. Hopefully the city'll be a character in its own right, in a similar way to Frank Miller's use of New York in Daredevil, this constant presence.
The only old part of London that still exists, which is due for demolition, is called The Rookery, which is the slang term for it. Its real name is Alsatia. It's bordered by the Thames and the Fleet River and Holborn. The area used to exist in the real London in Regency times. It was literally a no-go area for the law, with open sewers. We visit Alsatia a couple of times."
Apart from the larger, epic storyline, Talbot loves to play with the smaller scale, almost anecdotal part of the proceedings. This is very much in evidence in the more peripheral characters he has come up with to add a little extra colour: "Fairfax's cousin is called Nellie Winterton, who runs a tavern in Alsatia. Her name's actually a skit on Jeanette Winterson. I don't know if you've ever read Sexing The Cherry but it's a novel set in the Restoration. It's a brilliant piece of work and there's a character in that called The Dog Woman. She's this large woman but she never seems to describe exactly how big she is. Her size seems to change depending on what she's doing and she keeps all these wild dogs. Nellie's also the name of a character from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, another Winterson book. Here, Nellie Winterton is the Rat Woman and she's this huge woman, a giantess really, who has loads and loads of shawls, rags and layers of clothing on and she's infested by rats, who are her pets. There's another character, called The Bermondsey Giant, Sir Cyril Strickland, the Queen's chief adviser. She has a small cabinet of advisers and he, like Northumberland, has plans to abuse his position."
Returning to Victoria's character, as with everything Talbot creates, her personality is multi-faceted. She hasn't just led a life of idle boredom but put her abilities to great use, as Talbot elaborates once another builder interrupts the flow of our conversation: "On Victory Day, we see the opening of their Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace. This Crystal Palace has been designed by Victoria. As a princess who's hyper-intelligent, with nothing to do, she's filled her time with problematic engineering schemes. In fact, when she was twelve years old, she designed the London subway system, the Tube, and she's got her own private Tube, in the shape of a swan, and private Tube stations. Victoria's character changes all the way through the story. She goes through a huge learning experience. I'm really pleased with the title Heart of Empire because there are multiple layers of meaning in the title but one of the reasons that I chose it was that it has some sort of resonance with Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, and like that, the story's also a personal voyage for Victoria and how she develops her character within the story."
Finally, Talbot attempts to encapsulate the whole series in a statement, finding it hard to do so. It's reflective of how rich Heart of Empire is in content and scope: "I can't pigeonhole the series because it's not really like anything else that's out there at the moment. It's a multi-genre story: part detective story, with a horror story trope in it and there's erotic sequences. As I said before, people can read it without having read the first book but for people who have read the first book, there's a lot of the same themes and characters. I spent a lot of time over the actual structure of the plot. I spent two whole weeks before I started writing. I worked on the overall structure until I had it down scene by scene, like bricks in a wall and it really is solid and it all pays off."
Heart of Empire #1 ships in March, 1999 published by Dark Horse. Come back here in January, for a review of #1.
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