Page 45 Review by Stephen
Here we go, then, first with THE ADVENTURES OF LUTHER ARKWRIGHT:
A damning indictment of man's ceaseless inhumanity to man in the form of oppression, warfare and retribution: its attempts to justify war in the name of God or country; its failure to learn or advance except in more effective means of destruction; individuals' consistent failure in power to live up to their promises made in revolution, and all the endemic, sorry subterfuge behind it all.
Bryan's knowledge of political history is matched only by his command in communicating its lessons, however they may be ignored by our lessers, and for a work which is essentially science fiction involving multiple parallel worlds, precognition and psychometry, this has its feet planted firmly in British history and on its very streets as Luther Arkwright is dispatched to a key parallel world in which Britain never succeeded in unshackling itself from its Cromwellian past. There he must uncover the Disruptor agents that have infiltrated key positions in the world's governments and in particular that of repressionist, Puritan Britain, marshal the underground Royalist forces and start a great big fucking revolution to uncover the legendary Firefrost and prevent pan-dimensional Armageddon. I know that it's a dirty job but someone's got to do it.
This is a work that is rich in texture, vast in scope and charged with sexual energy. It's also incredibly dense in its truest sense, for it could have been expanded into four times its length with no filler whatsoever. Instead, by weaving Arkwright's complex history through the threads of the main narrative, by gradually lacing the present and particular with what is known of the parallels' past, and by excavating as they go what few clues the guardians of central and stable Para 00:00:00 have of the mysterious Firefrost, their role and their goal in locating that ultimate weapon of mass destruction is slowly revealed. It really is intoxicating, as is the central climax of orgasmic satori when Arkwright rises from his own ashes - a phoenix primed with pure impressionistic poetry - which by contrast is allowed to explode across the pages in all its lush allusion. For anyone else this would be their magnum opus, not their opening salvo.
As indicated, Talbot has much to say about governments and war. The Firefrost, as its name implies, is an entity of opposites, a conjugation capable of destruction and creation, death and rebirth: the ultimate weapon of mass destruction designed to preserve life "until inevitably - as with any deterrent - it was activated". Concise and to the point, I think you'll agree.
Nathaniel Cromwell, Lord Protector and head of the Church of England, is an exceedingly ugly creation. A puritanical preacher, he rages against sin yet fornicates in secret, forcing himself on young royalist virgins, bound and gagged in the dark. Riddled with venereal disease, he is rabid in public whilst, in private, deliriously drunk; he is plagued by his father's abuse which left him sexually disfigured. Even the revolutionary Queen Anne has a ruthless side that will take you by surprise - or maybe not if you've read HEART OF EMPIRE. Just like HEART OF EMPIRE (a sequel of sorts) this shares its Shakespearian elements contrasting affairs of state with backstreet bawdiness, and this has an awful lot of omens. Bryan has a worryingly broad and vivid imagination when it comes to the hundreds of worldwide catastrophes visiting the other parallel worlds! Here too are the Hogarthian references as you'll see down in Cheapside overlooked (I think) by Westminster, as foul-mouthed farter Harry Fairfax (again, some relation to Sir Thomas) questions the meaning of it all.
It's also in Cheapside especially that the true majesty of the art - until now smothered and smudged beyond all recognition by a printing process inadequate to the task - really shines in this new shooting. The sheer detail on every page is remarkable from the exterior architecture with its intricate cross-hatching to the textures of a library crammed full of foliage, cloth and cultural carvings, and the final battle is epic. Steeped in British legend and lore (Boudicca, Britannia, George and the Dragon...), the World War fighter planes are dwarfed by futuristic helicarriers which hover in the sky like mighty, metal, military toads defying the laws of gravity. Absolute carnage!
October 2008 marks the 30th anniversary of the first pages seeing print in one form or another, and I think what may be most remarkable about this is that Talbot had the drive, ambition and courage back then to embark on it at all. That he then managed to successfully complete such a complex and painstakingly rendered grand narrative of sequential art which the British and American markets at the time were neither ready for nor willing to pay properly for, paving the way for future sales and showing what could and should be done, leaves us as progressive retailers (and others as subsequent comicbook creators), I believe, substantially in the great man's debt.
Please note: readers of editions earlier than 2007 really won't recognise what they see here: there are mountains whose delineation never made it onto the printed page and stars will explode in a night that was previously pitch-black - or rather bland grey. For many comicbook readers this is their favourite graphic novel of all time, and they'll now need another copy to see what it should have looked like.
Talbot wrote to me:
Yes, I was trying to do a Hogarthian scene - though it's not based on any specific one. I just looked at the page in the Czech edition with a magnifying glass and there's a lot of stuff in there I'd forgotten - me at the drawing board looking out of the top left window, a woman hanging washing in the BG of the next window along, people pissing and fornicating in the narrow alleyway, an old guy sitting on the steps crushing body lice with his thumbnails (as seen in a plate from The Harlot's Progress - the prison scene). And I noticed, for the first time, not having gone through this edition religiously, that Vaclav Dort, the publisher, has even unobtrusively translated the graffiti on the walls. I think that the tower is one from the old St Paul's cathedral - the one that burned down on this parallel in the great fire of London 1666. You can see it two pages earlier in the rooftop scene. That scene is based on a Doré print - 'cept in that it's the new St Paul's in the BG. Likewise before the Battle of London when Rose walks up to Westminster Abbey, it has the domes capping the side buttresses that were replaced on our parallel a couple of hundred years ago.
And now our second feature this evening, HEART OF EMPIRE:
Highly ambitious, very British and totally engrossing work, this uses all the clarity and majesty Talbot found for THE TALE OF ONE BAD RAT.
It is, in fact, thoroughly Shakespearean both in scope and treatment, alternating between high matters of state and street-level bawdiness whilst emphasising the connection through social and sexual decadence amongst the aristocracy and their entourage, and revolutionary aspirations and individual courage in the no-go areas of London. Then there's the dilemma raging between the individual and his/her role in society, the missing kin, the moment of upheaval and the looming cataclysm - all traditional elements of Elizabethan theatre; it might be stretching it a bit but the parallel worlds could be looked at as foreign territory and the science fantasy element as replacing the role of magic.
As to the story itself, 23 years ago Luther Arkwright saved this alternate reality, leaving behind him a wife, two children and an ambitious empire whose heart is Albion (England), and which has by now conquered most of the known world outside of America. Only the Vatican is allowed a modicum of independence. This world is very much a contemporary of ours - the two US reporters make that clear - but so much of it is Victoria in extremis: the all-consuming, rapaciously greedy imperialism, the vast state expenditure on monument (Talbot's art here, particularly for the creation of the neo-Crystal Palace and its environs, is awe-inspiring, right up there with Guy Davis but with his own distinctive light and clarity), the seemingly unassailable, matriarchal monarchy, slavery bolstered by racism and apartheid, the hypocritical sexual values forced upon the commoners yet flouted by the well-to-do, flaunting both their bosoms and their catamites. Some sciences have advanced whilst others languish, superstitious prophets and quacks maintaining weight amongst the court, madhouses still the destination of the unstable or politically undesirable.
From the very first page looking out through a Roman window, with its overripe fruit cleaved by a knife, the waste, decadence and latent violence is made patently clear.
Talbot's anti-authoritarian credentials are well documented (see ALICE IN SUNDERLAND's substantial post-script), and this work has at its heart a total disgust for inequality, control and corruption. Machinations are rife. Brutality is common. Sycophancy permeates the court. But even so Talbot is not so dismissive as to avoid counter-arguments, and his strength as a writer shines through in his portrayal of the protagonist, for the princess at the heart of the story has a journey to make, and as the story opens she is as cold and aloof as the empire but has made use of its wealth, power and her own talent to build an astoundingly beautiful city, replete with buildings, squares and vistas rarely seen since the Renaissance, and on a scale we don't even aspire to any longer.
The resources of the many squandered by the few on self-aggrandising, imperialist spectacle
? Well of course, but it's more than a little tempting to mourn such architectural planning and achievement, especially after Talbot's pen lines.
The book also boasts some fine Alan Moore-ish LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN mock endpapers, a great deal of explicit sex and I wasn't kidding about the bawdy humour, so be warned. Okay, back to the plot and an interdimensional apocalypse approaches...
Quick reminder that you can find Page 45's Bryan Talbot interview in our website's FUN & RESOUCES section. There are several paragraphs there relevant to this including a couple of behind-the-scenes secrets.