The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, by Bryan Talbot
There have been great American artists who have worked beyond the public's ability to understand them easily, but none who have condescended to the public--none who have not hoped, no matter how secretly, that their work would lift America to heaven, or drive a stake through its heart. This is a democratic desire (not completely unrelated to the all-time number one democratic desire for endless wealth and fame), and at its best an impulse to wholeness, an attempt not to deny diversity, or to hide from it, but to discover what it is that diverse people can authentically share. It is a desire of the artist to remake America on his or her own terms.
The inability of the vital American artist to be satisfied with a cult audience, no matter how attentive, goes right back to the instinctive perception that whatever else America might be, it is basically big; that unless you are doing something big, you are not doing anything at all.
--Greil Marcus, from "Randy Newman: Every Man is Free"
If I have to disagree with Marcus anywhere, it's the American. British popular culture, and I suspect any modern mass culture, overspills with artists who sought to remake their country by incorporating all its diverse people and history into their work. If Marcus can step around the obvious example of the Beatles by saying, through Leslie Fiedler, that they are "imaginary Americans," then so are Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock and Bryan Talbot.
That would be a strange honorific to bestow on a work as undeniably English as The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, Talbot's much-loved and highly influential graphic novel, newly reissued from Dark Horse. First serialized in Near Myths back in 1978 and not completed for more than a decade, the story concerns a life-or-death struggle between two dimension-spanning superpowers, the utopian technocrats of Zero Zero and the sinister Disruptors, mostly played out in a parallel England that combines the Puritan Protectorate with the fascist 1930s. When Zero Zero agent Luther Arkwright, your run of the mill albino dandy messiah assassin, stirs up a Royalist counter-revolution, the English Civil War meets the Spanish one.
The Adventures of Luther Arkwright features a sci-fi apocalypse, a potpourri of religious iconographies, and an insurrection against a fascist government that serves as a barely-veiled stand-in for both Hitler and Thatcher; the end result sits somewhere between V for Vendetta and The Invisibles, though it precedes both. (In fact, Luther Arkwright is so similar to parts of The Invisibles that The Invisibles looks a little shabbier in retrospect. Karmic payback for The Matrix? Or was that the other way around?) Talbot's inspirations run to New Wave SF and Nicolas Roeg and David Bowie and especially Michael Moorcock. In combining them, however, he has created something far beyond a Jerry Cornelius riff: Luther Arkwright is a teenaged geek boy's will-to-power fantasy blown up into something else entirely.
A voracious and rollicking pastiche, for starters. Talbot's art alternates between meticulous line drawings and more painterly images, often on the same page, throwing in flashes of photomontage, blocks of text, and "found" art both real and fabricated for good measure. Meanwhile, the plot incorporates Egyptologists and czars and Roundheads and insectoid stormtroopers and Daughters of Albion and chain-smoking American reporters in trenchcoats--seemingly every period or genre that ever interested Talbot. This is the kind of work that sums up an artist's influences and then looks around to see where else they can be taken.
Almost two dozen characters play significant roles, a web of interactions that makes Luther Arkwright one of those rare works for which the term graphic novel doesn't seem like a misnomer. Talbot's work matches the novel's social scope, imagining multiple strata of societies in conflict with themselves and each other. It shares the novel's capacity for historical scale, reaching from the Norman Conquest to Thatcher's eighties in an attempt to grapple with a thousand-year history of violence and revolution. (I'm tempted to say that Talbot substitutes English historical depth for Marcus's more geographically-inspired American bigness, but that comes perilously close to repeating old clichés. I'm not sure it's wrong, though.) The novel is a form that, at its best, engages with entire cultures as well as individual characters, and Talbot doesn't flinch from the challenge.
Nor does he skimp on the characters, grounding the high action of lumbering dreadnoughts, barbarian girl-gangs, and kamikaze biplanes in the drama of genuine emotion. The ruthless Queen Anne, who spends the entire novel trying to be the spirit of Britannia and Arkwright's true love, has a wonderful, wistful moment when she realizes she's been eclipsed in both roles by Rose Wylde; those futile longings spark sympathy for a character who normally comes across as treacherous and scheming. Even the noblest characters do evil things (Arkwright gets the sympathy-for-the-henchman routine long before King Mob) while some of the worst earn our pity. Like any good novel, graphic or otherwise, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright aims to acknowledge the broadest possible range of human experience, from the flatulent cynic Harry Fairfax to the antiseptic idealists of Zero Zero. Nothing is too big for Talbot to attempt; like Marcus's vital American artist, his ambition is half the point and Arkwright's scope is its own greatest success.
I believe that the reason the story remains so fresh and interesting is because under all the glorious invention and wild adventure, glamorous characters and exotic machinery, Talbot deals in fundamental realities and makes stern self-demands.
He is interested in reality. He is curious about reality. He isn't, thank God, afraid of reality.
--Michael Moorcock, from his introduction to the Dark Horse Luther Arkwright
Ambition isn't everything. Talbot's skills as writer and artist grew considerably during Arkwright's long completion, and the early chapters display a talent still in development. The anatomy is sometimes tentative and the plot rams up against iron walls of narrative convenience. (Why don't the Disruptors just take Arkwright when they grab Firefrost out of the pyramid?) But ambition delineates the possible, setting upper limits on a work's capacity for meaning and invention. Talbot's ambitions are virtually boundless, and he fulfills them with astonishing regularity.
The novel rapidly outgrows the potentially limiting dualistic moral framework of its Disruptors-versus-Zero Zero scenario to present a more seasoned view of politics and human nature. The monarchy Arkwright installs is scarcely better than the dictatorship he topples--both are laden with scathing evocations of Margaret Thatcher. Sometimes Talbot almost implies Arkwright is backing the wrong side: his erstwhile allies in the imperial Prussia and czarist Russia join the war because they despise the Puritans' once-democratic revolution, yet The Adventures of Luther Arkwright is a democratic work to its core. The strategists on Zero Zero prop up the Restoration as a gambit in their own battle against the Disruptors, a proxy war fought in a game of apocalyptic brinksmanship, but Talbot never quite lets them off the hook for it. The consequences of Royalist victory are too similar to those of Puritan oppression, and Talbot too cynical about any revolution.
He breaks down the dualism of his fantasy-novel source material in other ways that transcend politics. One of his recurring themes is the reconciliation of opposites, an idea incarnated in the doomsday weapon Firefrost and in Arkwright's various sexual and spiritual climaxes. The book's artistic tour de force occurs when Arkwright, in the midst of being tortured by the Puritans (this was back in the swell old days when heroes were only the victims of torture, not its perpetrators) escapes into meditation and recalls his birth, his upbringing, and his relationships with three women. Talbot's breathless narration modulates four characters, four seasons, four elements, and at least four musical genres, each one matched perfectly to the rest and culminating in one of those rare breakthroughs where the experience of reading matches the intensity of Arkwright's experience. There are epiphanies here, too, but they are the epiphanies of gnosis, of samadhi, of Beethoven's Ninth or "Memory of a Free Festival"--epiphanies of a consciousness reaching outside itself and finding something else out there. The union of the individual and the infinite. Satori must be something just the same.
The Adventures of Luther Arkwright is one of the first British graphic novels and one of the best of any nation, surpassing imitators and forerunners alike. Take advantage of the new edition at your earliest possible convenience, if only to remind yourself that ambition, epic scale, and the democratic impulse toward wholeness cannot be reserved for Americans alone.