Interview: Bryan Talbot on 30 Years of ‘Luther Arkwright’, Part One
Bryan Talbot emerged from Britain’s underground comix to become one of the most innovative creators in the UK. He’s the creator of the critically acclaimed graphic novels The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and A Tale of One Bad Rat. He remains a creative force, most recently producing Alice in Sunderland, a graphic novel released last year form Dark Horse and Cherubs!, with Mark Stafford, which Desperado released this summer.
Warren Ellis said, “Luther Arkwright is probably the single most influential graphic novel to have come out of Britain to date.” This month, Bryan Talbot’s seminal work is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. It was first serialized in Near Myths, a British title, before being collected as a miniseries and graphic novel through the years. A new edition, using digitally remastered pages from the Czech edition, is being released by Dark Horse.
Talbot graciously agreed to chat with us about the work and its influence on graphic novels. Part one will focus on Luther Arkwright and tomorrow’s second part will explore Talbot’s career.
CMix: Bryan, thanks for taking the time to sit with us.
Bryan Talbot: Thanks for inviting me.
CMix: Do you agree with Warren’s assessment?
BT: Er…yes, it probably is the most influential UK graphic novel as I can’t think of another that’s comparable in that respect. Most of the "Brit pack", including Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, were fans of it years before they started writing comics professionally. Writers such as Warren, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison and Rick Veitch have acknowledged its influence. According to Steve Bissette and Michael Zulli, it inspired them to want to draw comics.
CMix: He went on to say, "He took from everywhere – the films of Nick Roeg, head shop culture, 19th Century magazine illustrated, medieval woodcuts, classical portraiture, Sixties collage, Mal Dean and the New Worlds illustrators, anything and bloody everything, and adapted it all to work in the special environment of comics." Was there one element that started the process?
BT: Two years before starting on the graphic novel I wrote and drew a one-off eight page strip called "The Papist Affair" in my Brainstorm Comix series of underground comics. It was an excuse to do a Richard Corben-style line and wash strip and I invented the character of Arkwright for that, inspired by Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels. Mike created Cornelius and offered him as a template hero. So that was the starting point. After finishing the strip I started to think about fulfilling a long-standing desire I had to produce what we now call a graphic novel and started to develop it based around Arkwright.
When I was a young teenager in the 60s I’d read a news item in an issue of Castle of Frankenstein reporting on someone adapting Poul Anderson’s prose novel The Broken Sword into comic form and I was struck by what a wonderful idea it was — a comic that was a whole novel! I immediately started making up a Tolkeinesque fantasy story. I plotted it all and did a few sketches but nothing ever came of it. The Broken Sword comic also came to nothing as it turned out but it had given me the concept.
Plotting Luther Arkwright, I realized that I didn’t want him to be a carbon copy of Cornelius, so I changed his character and the story is different to Mike’s Cornelius stories in many ways. Warren is right about how I tried to soak up influences that hadn’t been used in comics before. Everything was grist to the mill: history, politics, art, religion, sex, philosophy, the paranormal, ultra violence! I wanted a rich, heady mixture. I wanted to bring the ethos of underground comics — adult, gritty, political and hard-edged — to a mainstream SF adventure comic. It’s hard to remember now how bland comics were back then — basically because they were still aimed at kids. In mainstream comics nobody swore or blasphemed, nobody vomited, farted, took a piss or had sex. If someone was shot, there was no blood. I put all these into my story. When Arkwright shot somebody, the back of their head blew off. Prose novels could deal with these things. I couldn’t see why comics shouldn’t be able to.
CMix: You proudly proclaim this as the first steampunk graphic work. What is the appeal to steampunk?
BT: I’ve always been fascinated by alternative histories — the what if? element. I also like the architecture, costume and iconography of times past and seek somehow to appropriate it. It’s cool.
CMix: The story structure is very complex and as you bounce from world to world, the reader has to really pay attention. Were audiences ready for such demands when you first produced this?
BT: Some found it hard-going! You do really have to be quite comic-literate to follow it. Many did enjoy it though — because it was new, because they hadn’t come across this in comics before. I was, as Warren mentions, very influenced by the early films of Nic Roeg, back when he still had his visionary fire — films like Don’t Look Now, Performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth — and tried to adapt his visual storytelling techniques to the comic medium. He used a lot of jump-cuts and visual misdirection, leaving the audience to piece together the story in their own way, rather than telegraphing plot points. I was also influenced by Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Francis Ford Coppolla — you can see them all in Arkwright. As Alan Moore says in his book on scripting comics, I put then cutting edge contemporary 1970s cinema techniques into comics, as Will Eisner had adapted Hitchcock and Orson Wells before me.
CMix: The work involves parallel worlds, psychic powers and many of the traditional trappings of science fiction and comic books. Do you personally believe in any of these elements?
BT: Nope! But they’re great story material.
CMix: When it was first serialized, what sort of reaction did it receive in England?
BT: A good reaction but it was slow, it took a while to build a reputation, especially with Near Myths only appearing every few months. It took a while before people could see what I was doing, several episodes at least. That’s the thing about it — it isn’t structured as an episodic read: it’s structured as a novel, which was a big innovation at the time.
CMix: When it finally came to America, was the reaction the same or different?
BT: It didn’t make a huge splash initially, though I did receive many complimentary letters from fans. Still, it’s never been out of print since then, so I guess I can’t complain.
CMix: Was the underground comix scene in England the same as in America or were you freer because mainstream American comics were less prevalent in society?
BT: US comics were freely available at most newsagents. The biggest difference was that British UGs weren’t just available in head shops, as in the states, but they also had mass distribution and were sold in many high street newsagents. They were distributed by the same companies (mainly one called Thorpe and Porter) who distributed US super-hero comics and soft porn mags.
Tomorrow: Bryan talks about the new edition, the sequel, the media adaptations and the state of comics.