The Adventures of Luther Arkwright
By Bryan Talbot
“We make love now?”
“No… Later. I must meditate.”
Ever since this Book Club started I’ve had The Adventures of Luther Arkwright on the list as “book to do.” Only I’ve hesitated and hesitated and kept punting it on down the list. Obviously the aim is always to try and get more people involved and different viewpoints expressed and so mostly that means sticking with the mainstream comics that everyone has heard of: the blockbuster hits as opposed to anything too strange and obscure.
So why then Luther Arkwright? Especially when you know – for all the talk about diversity and etc the book is so un-woke that even the main character’s hair is white (LOL). And – well: at this month’s post Barbican Comic Forum chat in the pub I was told in no uncertain terms that “dude – this book looks totally rubbish.”
Well: first up. I feel like every single public Library I’ve ever been into ever has had a copy of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright just sitting on the shelves between Maus and a few copies of some Batman stuff. I mean: seriously – this book is frigging everywhere. It’s like when a Library starts it’s Graphic Novel section that this book comes as part of the starter pack or something? But the thing that I’ve always found kinda weird is that – while the book is everywhere: in terms of the cultural conversation or whatever you want to call it: it basically doesn’t exist. Like: I’ve been doing the Comic Foruming for a while now – and yeah: no one ever talks about this book. Like: if you wanna do Bryan Talbot then most people talk about his Grandville stuff or – the big obvious one: A Tale of One Bad Rat (one of those books that people used to like to mention a lot when they did: “Did You Know? Comics are For Grown Ups Now” thing). But yeah – Luther Arkwright. If I mentioned it at the Barbican Comic Forum or whatever then all I’d get in return is a whole bunch of blank looks.
So yeah part of this is just me wanting to get this book some Library issues / getting more people to just give the blasted thing a read.
Although – just in terms of full disclosure: for a very long time I was not one of those people. In that: The Adventures of Luther Arkwright? Err. No thanks. I don’t think I’d like it. Because shit – have you actually tried to read the bloody thing?
Like Amir was saying with Love and Rockets: one of the main requirements for a comic book is that it has to be easy to read. There should be no resistance between the book and the reader. You should just be able to drop into it like falling into a body of water. It should just wash over you and envelop you in. And well yeah – sorry Mr Talbot – but The Adventure of Luther Arkwright is very much not that. Like: the first time I read it – it was a proper struggle. And instead of water – it was like trying to fall into dirt. Nothing made sense. It felt impossibly dated. Like Gideon Stargrave but with none of the irony. Like: I could imagine a crusty voice in my ear saying: “Well yeah – but if you really wanna appreciate it then you need to hear it on the original vinyl.”
Except. Well yeah – I persevered. Long past the point that if it was any other comic I would have simply given up and tossed it aside: and do you want to know why?
The back cover.
Because yeah when I first picked up the book and had no idea about what it even was or what it was about or if it was any good or worth reading or not or whatever – the thing that drew me in and made me want to give it a go was the quotes on the back… Three people. The middle one was Michael Moorcock. And well yeah – I’ve never really got into Michael Moorcock so you know: whatever. No biggie. But wow – the first name was Alan Moore (“A work ambitious in scope and complexity that still stands unique upon the comics landscape … stunning”) and Garth Ennis (“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. This long-overdue collection proves both Bryan Talbot’s mastery of his craft and his understanding of what makes a truly great comic book: an intriguing story, characters with genuine resonance, and illustrative excellence in perfect balance with clear and precise storytelling.”)…
And here’s the thing: I mean – just because someone I like thinks that something is good – well: that’s nowhere near a guarantee that I’ll think it’s good. I mean: as much as I love Alan Moore for all time and forever he also loves loads of dusty old tomes that bore me to tears. And Garth Ennis – I mean: when he does a war comic it’s cool – but I don’t think I’d enjoy reading all the old ones that he seems to love so much. But but but – Alan Moore AND Garth Ennis both recommending the same book in such glowing terms? I mean: thinking about what a comic would have to be like in order to fit into the overlap between their two Venn Diagrams made me very very curious to check it out (oh and also: altho I didn’t know this at the time but Warren Ellis, Jack Kirby, Iain Banks and Pat Mills are also fans: so).
And well yeah: lastly – I mean: this is the London Graphic Novel Network you know? And so as much as I very much distrust patriotism and all the rest of it… There is a very small part of me that wants to be like: well yeah – you know: let’s if we are going to get strange and obscure then why don’t we do it with something that’s home-grown?
To quote Warren Ellis: “probably the single most influential graphic novel to have come out of Britain to date… probably Anglophone comics’ single most important experimental work.”
So yeah. As Big Ben stops tolling. As Brexit tears as all apart. As the forces of the far right seemingly grow ever stronger – maybe a trip to a parallel world would be rather nice? Or whatever.
If you’ve got this far then and you’re willing to give the book a go then let me give you a small bit of advice: please don’t expect it to make much sense the first time you read it. In fact – it might even be a good idea to do what I did which is to read the first hundred or so pages and then stop and start again. Because well yeah – no one said it was going to be easy. But hey you know: hopefully it’ll be worth it. There are lots of cool bits once you get into it…
And as for the rest of you: well – we’ll do Batman: Arkham Asylum in three weeks time ok?
In tracking down a copy (by which I mean I successfully googled “Luther Arkwright” and followed a link to Comixology) I came across Bryan Talbot’s home page. On it, he’s posted a copy of the first appearance of Luther Arkwright, a seven page story called “The Papist Affair”.
I don’t know (yet) if it’s included in the volume we’re reading, but I read it on the website. Talbot had me at a guerrilla force of buxom, cigar-smoking biker nuns. The interdimensional ninja archbishop is just icing on the cake.
(Here’s that link, in case it’s not in the book: http://www.bryan-talbot.com/arkwright/the-papist-affair.php )
Barbican Comic Forum
I just happen to pick this comic up a few months ago. Mostly because it was lying in front of me and also because the cover hinted at enough for me to risk it. I don’t think I even bothered to open it up and glance at it’s pages…lesson learned.
Where do I begin? I’ll start with Joel’s initial message. Joel has recommended some good comics and some not so great ones. The fact that he advises reading halfway then starting again would have set my spidey sense tingling. The funny thing is that I stopped reading halfway through and would not have finished it if I hadn’t felt bad about trashing it during the forum. As a result, I went through the last half during the meeting. Before I decided to do that, I was tempted to take it home and finish it…boy am I glad I didn’t. Another warning I should have heeded was the fact I had the book for so long I had to renew it a few times. In fact, I still got fined a whole pound for it. Worst money I’ve ever spent! That includes dropping random coins down sofas, the lottery and paying the charge at cash points that aren’t free!
I wish I had delayed my reading of this comic by a few months so I could have had the benefit of this discussion. In the spirit of mutual cooperation and goodwill to all humans…I will say if you haven’t read this, and don’t have a burning desire to, or are not writing a essay or graded paper on this then do not bother. Sorry Joel, but I would have appreciated someone telling my past-self the same thing a few months ago.
Now since I’m feeling the urge to help others, I will try to remember the book for a brief moment and discuss my opinion of certain aspects of it.
The Art: The art was not pleasing to my eyes. The characters didn’t seem all that well drawn, the black and white colouring was probably a good idea as the thought of colour being added to the pages does not seem right. I have to describe quite a few of the pages as busy. There can be a lot going on at times and there is so much detail that it takes an extra effort to take it all in. For some stories this is a bonus and lets you discover tidbits that help you understand or fully appreciate a story. In this story (I almost used it’s name but realise I don’t even want to remember the title), there is nothing compelling enough to entice you to go the extra mile. I actually began the story doing that, but quickly stopped as it didn’t add much to the story and I suppose deep down a part of me had already realised I had made an error and wanted to get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible. The art wasn’t exactly depressing, but it was dull.
One of the better examples below:
The characters also make a skull which foreshadows death. Yes this is very clever…unfortunately you’ll probably find it hard to care by this point. I can see a lot of effort has gone into this page, and in terms of art it is one of the better ones in the book but still…
The Story/Plot: This is by far the weakest part of this whole endeavour in my opinion. I found it more disjointed than The Invisibles, and even more dated. I don’t think the main character was well developed and his evolution from initiate struggling to deal with new abilities, to his ultimate super-self was not even told in a linear way that would allow me to root for the newbie and enjoy his character’s growth. The not subtle messianic themes were stale and already overdone in way way (second way is not a typo) better novels. I won’t give examples, pick one…yes it’s better done in that one! The only point in this tale I was mildly curious, was when he comes back from the dead. That’s right, just in case you missed the saviour themes his resurrection bludgeons you with it so there is no doubt. I wanted to see what the story would do with that. I was even more disappointed than I was with The Matrix Revolutions. It also seems like the author got a collection of all the words in the world that reference spiritual energy and made a pledge to use them all and use them as often as possible. During my second attempt to finish it, I just ploughed on out of sheer determination and my dislike of leaving things partially complete. There was a cameo of MODOK, which was kind of…not boring. I spent a few moments thinking of Krang from TMNT even though the character looked more like MODOK. (To be clear it wasn’t the actual MODOK character in a crossover that would have made this story much better). Even the discussion of the plot bores me so much I am struggling. In summary, the story was not very imaginative, the characters were not well developed and in some cases they were quite ridiculous. The fact that the story is carried along by the psychic, messianic, James Bond (of course, every woman wants him) with a vague and easily forgettable supporting cast did not help. Perhaps this becomes “one of the all-time great epics of the medium” if read under the influence of mind-altering substances? Who am I to say that the great Moore and Ennis are wrong…let’s just say if I’m missing something that makes me wrong, then I don’t want to be right!
Overall impression: Extremely underwhelmed, it might improve with subsequent readings but life is too short so I won’t be reading this again. I’m more enthused about cleaning up under my bed than trying to get through this again, whatever the pay-off will be I can’t imagine it will be worth it.
I hope others who read this enjoyed it a lot more than I did, I would prefer to think I just didn’t get it than to think this book was so highly recommended by such well respected figures in the comic book world. My last words: This book reads like a fanfic that someone invested a lot of time and money into because being published was the dying wish of it’s author.
That is all
So, yeah. The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. Often mimicked – Alan Moore’s Scottish Tribute Act has got a lot of use out of it, for a start (his illustrated fan-letter in the bonus ARKeology issue proves he’s read it) – but never bettered. There’s also, probably, an argument that The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was a massive influence on Steampunk (along with Moorcock). Y’know, if you choose the right room.
It’s truly a masterpiece. The art and some of the dialogue in the earlier Pssst installments/episodes sometimes miss the mark, but Talbot quickly improves with both, although there’s a definite smell of patchouli hanging around the first hundred pages or so…
It’s a solo vision too, and therefore Talbot doesn’t have to compromise with anything. He was still having Nemesis artwork edited by bodgers in 2000AD during this period, so the freedom of unrestricted expression really shines through it. I remember that Valkyrie Press had a very much hands-off attitude to censorship/editing and Talbot was able to show some, really rather shocking for the time, scenes.
Yes, it’s complex and infuriating and challenging. And? It’s deliberately closer to European comic sensibilities and therefore survives several readings unscathed. Every word is essential – including the trip-out stream-of-consciousness section – it expects concentration from the reader. The amount of research is staggering too.
I was very lucky as regards The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, in that I got along really well with Valkyrie Press who were the first company to finish publishing the first part of the story (pre-Heart of Empire). Consequently, I got to see the original artwork for most of, what was then, volume 2, before it was printed and got to wander around Bristol’s Forever People after closing, chatting to Bryan Talbot about it. I was in my mid-teens, unfortunately, so I didn’t appreciate exactly how fortunate this was at the time.
Weirdly, I never had a problem with following the story either. But then, I *was* listening to a lot of Hawkwind at the time.
Of course, I’ve just corroborated the ‘you gotta hear it on vinyl, man’ argument. Curses.
You know what? I think Nana might be right…
Like: I first read Luther Arkwright about 6 years or so ago. Oh wait! Look! Actually – I wrote a thing about it at the time – here you go.
It made me LOL that even back then I was fixated on the Alan Moore and Garth Ennis quotes… Plus my cheesy writing style makes me sound like a gameshow host or something. Oh well.
Wish I could go back and speak to the old me to ask him more about what he thought about Luther Arkwright. Because yeah I wrote that first email above before re-reading it so I was still fueled by that old memory. But jezz – picking it up now and reading it for the second time… I mean yeah ok: it’s all very impressive and Bryan Talbot builds up a big world and all the rest of it But well – shit – it’s a whole lot of candles but there’s not really much in terms of cake underneath it all you know?
Like: the “experimental” heavily stylistic stuff – yeah. Ok. That’s cool. When Luther does his whole stream of consciousness thing. I’ve got to admit – that worked on me. Especially especially when it goes from all the swirling blackness and total lack of ful stop style noise into the pages of pure white – I was impressed. It made me feel something. There was an aesthetic experience. And it was cool.
And the bullet point reports from all those different realities in the margins? Also cool.
What’s not so cool tho? Luther Arkwright himself. (LOL – sorry dude).
I mean – it’s interesting right? The kind of stories that get told. What stories become popular and how and why. And – (oh wow) – stories that you can’t (or maybe just shouldn’t) tell anymore.
Mazin Saleem (who used to write on here many moons ago!) did a thing recently (read the thing here!) and talked about everyone’s favourite (come on! who doesn’t like) Quantum Leap pointing out that the:
whole set-up of a middle class white guy leaping into other, often oppressed people’s lives, the show might now seem like the epitome of appropriation, ventriloquism, voyeurism, fiction-as-tourism, the saviour complex, etc.
aka. It’s just not the sort of show that could be made anymore with the internet going ape-shit and demanding that it be banned. And you know – part of me thinks that’s a good thing. Because you know: the stories that will tell are important.
And erm yeah (sorry Al!) I kinda feel like that a lot with Luther Arkwright – where basically the whole thing is: What if James Bond was also Jesus Christ? And omg – as much as I think a lot of the time this song gets played too much and too loudly – but the privilege or whatever you want to call it was just too much for me to take… Or actually maybe just Luther Arkwright is basically one of the biggest power fantasies ever ever ever. And as good as that can make you feel (and obviously my past self really dug it) nowadays – I don’t know: I much prefer stories that mess with me more. And actually there’s a part of me that hopes that maybe we should all get past the point where we have main characters that are just so boring and dull (*cough* Luke Skywalker *cough* Harry Potter *cough*): nothing more than empty avatars for the audience to get off on… And yeah – but also: not just replacing that with a power fantasy where instead of a white guy it’s a white woman or a black woman or etc and whatever (altho yeah it’s slightly a step in the right direction for sure: but Luther Arkwight won’t be better if you changed his sex or gender or whatever: it should still be pretty inert you know?): but oops – you know: better characters. Better stories. Better possibilities.
The reason Moore, Morrison and Ennis liked this is because it was telling what was, for its time a very adult story and was full of very innovative storytelling techniques that they’ve all borrowed and built upon but I’ve never found blurb from any of them to be a particularly reliable guide as to whether I’m going to enjoy anything. Actually the only comic creator whose recommendation blurb seems to guarantee a good read (for me) is Robert Crumb (Barefoot Gen, My Friend Dahmer, Peter Bagge, etc…).
It’s worth noting Arkwright’s character was heavily influenced by Michael Moorcock’s counterculture hero Jerry Cornelius (also a big influence of John Constantine) who was in turn a sort of critique of Bond. At the time that seemed pretty radical but as Joel’s pointed out, ‘radical’ is something that changes over time.
Personally I don’t think it stands up very well in 2017 but since no one else has mentioned it, I will give a shout out for the fantastic semi sequel ‘Heart of Empire’ which Talbot wrote and drew in 1999. This has dated far better. It’s one of the few genre graphic novels I’ve read with the density of a proper novel and really good world building in the art and storytelling and I think it’s a real shame it’s lost in the shadow of its predecessor
Barbican Comic Forum
I got a tattoo in the back of a “head shop” on the portobello road and the proprietor lent me his copy of this book to help occupy my time.
It was interesting.