The Adventures of Luther Arkwright
Script and Art: Bryan Talbot
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: Bryan Talbot is a god among comics creators. In complete control of both script and art his visionary work has a pure an uncompromising brilliance. He is also a really nice guy. He drew me a Nemesis, you know, and a bad rat.
So what can I say about Luther Arkwright that has not already been said? Superstars of the comics world have already lined up to pay tribute to this astonishing work. I’ll show you what they said first:
“Luther Arkwright is probably the single most influential graphic novel to have come out of Britain to date”
“It's probably Anglophone comics' single most important experimental work.”
"A work ambitious in scope and complexity that still stands unique upon the comics landscape ... stunning"
“From riveting action scenes to beautiful silent sequences, from studies in hateful obsession to humour both ribald and gentle ... surely one of the all-time great epics of the medium.”
"I love the illustrative style. Talent is profoundly international and Luther Arkwright should sell on a universal scale. I get a great joy out of it."
"The stunning amount of work and commitment that goes into "The Adventures of Luther Arkwright" makes me weak at the knees. It's phenomenal.”
You see what I mean? These are important people. Why don’t you just go away and read it? Alright then, I’ll tell you what I think about it as well, and some more about the story.
The book is set in a “multiverse”, similar in some ways to that in Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories. There are many parallel universes with parallel Earths, inhabited by parallel versions of the same characters. Well, that is apart from Luther Arkwright. There is only one Luther Arkwright.
Luther exists in the one parallel that is aware of the existence of the others. He can travel between the parallels and this, coupled with extensive psychic powers, makes him a key player in the battle against The Disruptors – a shadowy organisation looking to destabilize the realities and cause the ends of the worlds.
While Luther is unique, though, he is not alone in his struggle. He is assisted by "agents" who can communicate with their parallel selves, telepathically, and an intriguing supporting cast, including Rose Wylde an agent whose relationship with Luther is constant across all parallels. The (main) villain of the piece is Nathaniel Cromwell, leader of the Puritan British Government.
Most of the action is set on a parallel where the English civil war is happening in what most closely approximates the 1930s. The original series takes place over 9 complex, sprawling issues (now collected as a TPB). The action is epic in scope and hops effortlessly between multi-dimensional battles happening in simultaneous timelines, philosophical speculations, sly humour , sex, political satire, and fart jokes – a rich tapestry of all that is human from the highest to the lowest, the angelic to the apish.
The book starts out as pretty much an adventure story, but that is only “what happens”, it’s not “what it’s about”. The real heart of the story is a discussion about change, development and evolution. It is about perspective and truth, history and time. It is a story of transformation, following the progress of Luther as he accepts the truth behind his own insanity and embraces a different conceptual framework and emerges as a new kind of superbeing.
As you might expect with this kind of story, it is not told sequentially. There are multiple story-lines running at different speeds and told in different styles that only all pull together, in a feat of superhuman plotting genius, towards the end. Amazingly, though, this does not make the story hard to follow, the flashbacks and forwards are handled so artfully that they add to the flickering instability of the world perfectly. To have told this as linear plot would not have worked nearly so well.
The art is black and white, dense and beautiful. There is an obsessional glee about the detail that shines out of the page. There can be no doubt that this is a very personal story and a labour of love. Once you have seen the “page with the skull” and the “transformation of Luther” you will realise that Bryan Talbot probably does have otherworldly powers himself.
There is a delicate, ephemeral unreality that seems to shimmer as you look at it. You know that behind every panel you look at there are multiple panels from different comics in different worlds stretching off to infinity. The influences displayed in the visuals are extremely rich. For those who enjoy the “spot the reference” game in Alan Moore’s work Luther Arkwright is a wildly indulgent treat. The beauty of Bryan Talbot’s work (here and elsewhere) though is that he doesn’t just reproduce a multitude of styles but uses them to create a perfect fusion that would not work anywhere else but a comic book. It is an example of the form and the content in perfect alignment.
Buy this and you’ll be reading it over and over again for many years to come, though, so don’t worry if it seems a lot to take in.
There is also a sequel “Heart of Empire” that came out in the late 90s and follows the adventures of Luther’s daughter, Victoria in an alternate restoration court. As well as a collected paperback edition, Heart of Empire is available on CD containing scans of the pencil roughs, black-and-white inks, final colour pages and high resolution versions and a great deal of annotation and supplementary material from Bryan Talbot. It also includes scans of the whole of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, from the recently created digital remastered version at the best resolution that it has ever been seen in. The CD is in some ways the "Directors cut" of the comic and was created to answer the perennial "where do you get your ideas from?" question asked by fans.
And finally a huge thanks to Bryan for writing the foreword to Cancertown Volume One: An Inconvenient Tooth.