Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Adventures of Luther Arkwright

'The Adventures of Luther Arkwright' by Bryan Talbot

The Dark Horse Comics series, March 1990 - February 1991

 Graphic novel, Dark Horse, July 1997

'The Adventures of Luther Arkwright' has a complicated history.

Throughout the 1970s, British artist Bryan Talbot contributed material to various underground comix being published in the UK, among them Brainstorm Comix.

In 1976, as Talbot recounts in his history of the Arkwright canon, in an issue of Mixed Bunch Comix (a Brainstorm imprint) he drew a seven-page strip titled 'The Papist Affair'. This represented the first appearance of the Luther Arkwright character.

'The Papist Affair' was a humor strip, and in my opinion, it was mainly intended as an opportunity for Talbot  to draw the 'Leather Nun' archetype so fondly rendered in American underground comix.

Additional episodes of what was to become 'The Adventures of Luther Arkwright' ran in various short-lived, UK under- and above- ground comics in the late 70s - early 80s. 

Several trade paperback compilations of the Arkwright comics were released in the UK in the 80s, but it was not until 1987 that American indie comic publisher Valkyrie released the complete Arkwright comics as a 9-issue series.

The Valkyrie series was given an underwhelming reception in the US, an outcome that may have had something to do with the formatting of the comics; in a reaction to what he saw as the sterile, contrived nature of American comics, Talbot had drawn them without speech balloons, sound effects, whoosh marks, etc. 

Despite the disappointing reception of the Valkyrie imprint, Dark Horse Comics publisher Mike Richardson acquired the license to the series and decided to republish it, this time with changes to the formatting that Richardson felt would make the comic more palatable to the US readership, such as including speech balloons. 

Talbot agreed to provide all-new covers for the Dark Horse series, and each issue was to contain, in addition to the comic proper, ancillary features such as essays on the Luther Arkwright phenomenon, and previews of upcoming episodes.

Dark Horse published issue #1 in March, 1990, finishing up with issue #9 in February, 1991. In July 1997 the company released all 9 comics in a trade paperback compilation.

So.....what is 'Luther Arkwright' all about ?

The plot is heavily reliant on Michael Moorcock's 'multiverse' concept, in which what may be an infinite number of parallel worlds exist, simultaneously , alongside one another in the space-time continuum. This idea is not overly novel on Moorcock's part - in the 1950s, H. Beam Piper was among the first to make the concept an integral part of sf, and in the early 60s Keith Laumer based his 'Imperium' novels on the parallel worlds concept - but Moorcock's interpretation exerted much influence on British writers in the 60s and 70s.

The 'Arkwright' adventures take place on a number of parallel worlds, or 'paras'. These are at various stages of political and technological development. A shadowy force, composed of beings of  malevolent intent known as the 'Disruptors', seek to influence events on multiple paras. The ultimate goal of the Disruptors is unclear, but they are prepared to kill and maim in order to achieve it.

The most technologically advanced para, known as 'ZeroZero', watches events on the other paras with alarm, as the influence of the Disruptors grows.

In an effort to counter the influence of the Disruptors, ZeroZero decides to infiltrate the paras with its own agent for change: an agent named Luther Arkwright. Arkwright possesses esp and other paranormal abilities, which will serve him in good stead in his shadowy war against the Disruptors.

On one particular para, it's 1984, and in a London ruled by the descendent of Oliver Cromwell, the contest between the Disruptors and ZeroZero approaches critical mass. A rebellion by the remnants of the monarchy is about to emerge, even as the forces of Germany and Russia look on in anticipation of stepping in to subdue the exhausted victors and take Albion for their own.

 All that stands between the Disruptors, and their takeover of the multiverse, is Luther Arkwright......

'Arkwright' is not the most accessible comic; as a product of the 70s, it's initial three issues are more of a display of the author's desire to showcase the experimental, avant-garde ethos of the underground comix movement than a coherent narrative. The storyline jumps about in time and space, and fails to provide the necessary exposition that might give the reader any orientation as to what is taking place.

Things improve from issue 4 on, as the central plot begins to take shape and a storyline emerges out of the confusion.

What gives 'Arkwright' its status as one of the great sf comics of the 20th century is not so much its plot - which could be classified as proto-steampunk -  as its artwork. Because the series unfolded over a protracted interval of time, Talbot had the opportunity to apply his meticulous, deliberate draftsmanship in every issue.

The result is an impressive display of black and white and graytone artwork. From page to page, panel to panel, Talbot displays his skills in chiaroscuro, pen-and-ink, ink wash, and other techniques: 

For example, the intricate Pre-Raphaelite motifs of the wallpaper behind Rose Wylde, in the panel below, must have taken days to complete:

In the page below, the careful placement of the individual reaction shots of the characters, superimposed on the cataclysmic event taking place in the central illustration, with its penumbra rendered in staggered layers of shading, is also very well done:

This type of draftsmanship, the dedication to cross-hatching and shading, simply doesn't exist anymore in contemporary mainstream publisher comic books. And today's 'indie' comics, that have since supplanted the underground comics of the 60s and 70s, are marked by mediocre, amateurish artwork.

Summing up: if you're a fan of old school comics and graphic art, then you'll want to pick up 'The Adventures of Luther Arkwright'.

But...... I suspect that anyone under 30 will find 'Arkwright' underwhelming, even over-rated. Compared to modern comics, the experimental nature of much of the Arkwright content will be a turn-off.....such as trying to read a page containing a block of stream-of-consciousness text set in 5-point font:

 In 1999, Dark Horse Comics published a sequel to 'Arkwright', titled 'Heart of Empire'. 'Heart' ran to nine lengthy issues, from April 1999 - December 1999.

Printed on quality paper, with computer-generated coloring provided by Angus McKie, 'Heart' was much more user-friendly in its attitudes towards the modern comic book concept.

I recommend reading 'Luther Arkwright' prior to taking on 'Empire', as many aspects of the latter's narrative won't really make sense in the absence of familiarity with the preceding volume.

Complete sets of the Dark Horse series for 'Arkwright' and 'Empire' are available at the usual online outlets for reasonable prices, as are the two graphic novels that compile each of the series.

Talbot's online shop offers a variety of merchandise, including a CD that contains the complete 'Arkwright',  'Empire', plus a host of ancillary material, such as a commentary by Talbot, draft sketches, and essays. Talbot's shop also offers pages of original artwork, tee-shirts, and copies of his other graphic novels, such as the 'Grandville' books, 'The Tale of One Bad Rat', and 'Alice in Sunderland'.


mahendra singh said...

Thanks for cheering up this inker with your serendipitous reminder of B. Talbot's glory days … few publications are willing to pay for detail and quality anymore, in fact, the exact opposite is usually the case.

Keep 'em coming, love your blog.

fred said...

As much as I share your admiration of Talbot's ability, I believe the "Pre-Raphaelite" background referred to was reproduced from other work, "sampled" I think they say these days.

Boscoe said...

Additional info: Valkyrie also published Arkwright in a three-volume set of trade paperbacks that were printed at a larger size than the comics. By far the best format I've seen, if you ignore the fact that the brittle glue on the binding caused them to transform into loose-leaf folios after a reading or two. :P

Also, Last December Dark Horse published a 500+ page Arkwright Omnibus, containing both series in 8.5 x 11" format, which is still available.