A commentary on  Bryan Talbot's

The Adventures of Luther Arkwright

It is difficult to summarise The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. These commentaries will hopefully show how it is a rich, beautifully written (by Bryan Talbot) and exquisitely drawn (also Talbot) story. There are nine parts to the story (these issues were originally published by Valkyrie Press, and were later reprinted in three trade paperbacks by Dark Horse), and there will be nine parts to the commentary. I'll be working from the individual issues, as that is what is available... And I will resist revealing anything more about it, and allow the reader the pleasure of discovering it for the first time. For more information, take a trip here, a brilliant site all about Bryan Talbot and his work.

Click Here if you've got any suggestions, corrections, ideas, and other such things - all comments are appreciated, so don't be shy.

#1 - The Disruption Spiral

Cover -- Page 1 -- Page 2 -- Page 3 -- Page 4 -- Page 5 -- Page 6 -- Page 7 -- Pages 8 & 9 -- Pages 10 & 11 -- Pages 12 & 13
Pages 14 -- Pages 15 -- Pages 16 -- Pages 17 -- Pages 18 -- Pages 19 -- Pages 20, 21, 22 & 23 -- Pages 24 & 25

The border of the cover design is red, the main typeface is elaborate gothic, and on the cover are Luther and Rose. Luther is wearing ceremonial \ dress uniform; Rose is wearing something lace underneath a large fur coat. Both are looking straight out of the page, and are pointing guns. The characters are instantly engaged with the reader, and they are engaged confrontationally. Behind them the Bayeux Tapestry is depicted burning, a tapestry which - according to Talbot - is the first example of continuous, illustrated, narrative story-telling in (Western) art \ literature. One connotation of the tapestry burning is that narrative, in an abstract sense, is being broken up and destroyed violently; or, in keeping with the terminology of the chapter title, narrative and history is being figuratively 'disrupted' by the fire.

This sense that the Bayeux Tapestry 'represents' the 'idea' of narrative is backed up by the tapestry's reoccurrence at key-points in the story. But while it becomes a motif for the abstract concepts 'story-telling' and 'narrative', it also comes to stand as an example of the universality of certain 'subjects', ie. death, murder, fighting, conflict, invasion. The 'action' described in the Bayeux Tapestry possess the motifs with occur and recur throughout all literatures. [cf. the killing of the King]


Page 1
In a circular 'plaque', Luther is walking down stairs, while beams of light shine out from the clouds behind him, appearing almost to radiate from his presence, suggesting a divine, or heavenly origin for the character. Regardless of what we learn of his origins later, our first image of Luther - his 'origin' in the narrative - is that of him coming down a stairway, from heaven. Surrounding this plaque are peacock feathers, scrolls (onto which the type is placed), and two Britainnia-esque figures.


Page 2
A quotation from the writer \ historian J. R. Montpellier which discusses myth, folk memory, pre-history, primitive narrators, misrepresentation, the ability to perceive the relationship between cause and effect, the ability to distinguish between fact and prejudice, history in glimpses through a distorting lens. Diligence, striving, logic, evidence, piercing the veil, approaching the truth. There is much here which Talbot explores, but there is also much more beyond this also.


Page 3
PARA.00.38.56; FRI 22 SEPT 84. Luther is standing near 'an' Albert Memorial in 'a' Hyde Park, wearing the uniform of the 10th Prince of Wales Own Hussars. A boy-scout-esque child hands him a telegram. It is worth quoting the thought of Luther on this, the 'first' page of the narrative proper. As with the first lines of many great stories, these are quite revealing:

"A 1984... A Hyde Park...

"An Albert Memorial.

"A product of Victoria's death fetish. Or determination to perpetuate the prince consort's memory. Or deepest love.

"Or all three.

"Or none.

"It depends upon location.

"Which variation...

"Which alternative...

"Which parallel."

Parallel worlds and alternate histories - sf concepts - are delicately introduced. And from the outset Talbot starts to explore what the things mean. What an 'alternate history' actually is. There is a theoretical look, embedded in the ambiguity of this small snatch of writing, at the idea of 'parallel opinions' - or simply 'different' opinions - on the events of the past. Subjectivity and history. The narrative asks, implicitly: was the Albert Memorial the result of a death fetish or deepest love? And then asks more explicitly: "Which variation… Which alternative… Which parallel…" In one 'alternate reality' or 'parallel' it may be the former, in another the latter. In one sense these can be actual alternatives, leading to actual, physical different, and scientifically measurable, other earths. In the world of Luther Arkwright there may be one 'Parallel' where it was a death fetish, and another 'Parallel' where it was deepest love.

But also, the text suggests, both of these 'realities' could be opinions, held by different people, within the same 'alternate reality', within the same parallel. Each opinion is the opinion of a historian, but each opinion exists within one single history. Some people think X happened in the past because of Y; other people think X happened in the past because of Z. Talbot's suggests and creates, with subtlety, great complexity. Their can be 'actual' parallel worlds (in Luther Arkwright each 'parallel world' is giving a code and is clearly defined, monitored, and registered by Wotan), but there can also be 'parallel worlds' within one, single, continuous world. Our subjectivity creates 'parallels' in the past, each memory or remembrance of the past individual to the individual. The subjectivity of history creates different 'versions' of the past, a literal example being different history books arguing for different interpretations of history. X started the war with Y being one view (an opinion) and Y started the war with X being an alternative view (a different opinion). What is crucial is that both of these 'opinions' refer to the same 'chronological' and 'geographical' point in time \ space. The impossibility of forming a single, objective interpretation of history leads to our past becoming split into parallel pasts, each past attested to by the opinions and hypotheses of historians.

Talbot is playing with words by touching together, like volatile chemicals, different but intimately related ideas. The notion of the subjectification of the past exists in in close proximity to the science fiction tropes of parallel worlds and alternate histories. Talbot's writing is in touch with the epistemological debates of the twentieth century, and the SF writing of his time. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has this to say of contemporary explorations of 'parallel worlds', and the relationship between 'real' science writings, and science fiction:

"Modern uses of the theme usually imagine an infinite number of parallel worlds extending in a manifold which contains all possible Earthly histories and perhaps all physical universes. The notion that the perceived Universe is simply a single aspect of such a 'multiverse' has been lent credence by the 'many-worlds' interpretation of the enigmas of quantum mechanics proposed by, for example, John Wheeler, and popularized in non-fiction books by writers like Paul Davies and John Gribbin."


Page 4
Luther, it is said, knows many Crystal Palaces. One particularly spectacular example is depicted. Two Victorian, almost Dickensian 'thugs' lurk, waiting for the woman who has just sent Luther a telegram.


Page 5
In PARA.00.00.00 we see two men 'observing' Luther. PARA 00.38.56, we learn is one of 'the surviving British Empire variations'.


Page 6
In a beautiful sequence Talbot shows his virtuosity at depicting time to best suit the impact of action in the narrative. In a series of six frames the content of the frame shifts back and forth from Luther, to the man who attempted to kill Rose. These frames move left (1) to right (6) across the page:

1. Luther fires his handgun; muzzle flash.

2. The Disrupter agent appears to be standing still, but a hole is in his forehead, and a misty explosion of blood is behind his head.

3. Luther's brings his gun 'up' to take in the recoil of the shot.

4. The agent's head tips back; his arm droops, the mist fades.

5. Luther's gun comes all the way up in his hands

6. The agent's head flops forward, his body crumples, and a gaping hole is visible in the back of his skull.

It is a scene which, if filmed, would have to be filmed in very-slow-motion to have anything like the same effect. The potency of the effect is created by the extension of the narrative time, or the extension of the time it takes the reader to absorb the action depicted in the images. A very short portion of 'real time' in a drawn out portion of 'reading', or 'narrative time'. Talbot plays later, to great effect, with differences between 'narrative' time and 'real' time in the depiction of action. Mentioned here are Disruptor agents, a key element to the plot of the book.

Rose kills the second agent.


Page 7
The main image is of Rose and Luther watching television reports of the recent incident. 'Superimposed' or 'layered' above this main image is the dialogue of the news, a dialogue which 'narrates' the events that have occurred. Also layered above are images of the aftermath of the incident. The 'present moment' of page 7 is Luther watching the television, with the news story looking back into the past of the day's events. At the same time overlaid images retrospectively bridge the gap in the narrative from the events at the end of page 6 to events of the main image of page 7 (Rose and Luther watching the news). Frequently in 'tAoLA' the narrative acts retrospectively, and also (as we will see) it acts prospectively, foreshadowing future 'moments' in the narrative. The 'present moment' of the narrative acts as an 'anchor', the retrospection and prospection 'casting outwards' in narrative time from that present moment.

There is a third Queen called Victoria. Rose's room is furnished with a Japanese print of a mountain, a Buddha's head (?) and much else (is that one of Rose's toys lying on the bed near the Royal Albert cigarettes?).


Pages 8 & 9
Luther is able to communicate with PARA 00.00.00 (the 'central' alternate world) via electronic technology. It seems clear that psychic powers are required to move oneself from reality to reality, but the realities can be observed and communicated between by scientific means.

A beautiful extract:

"A sudden realization: They've activated the Fire Opal! Flashback to 1913: the discovery of the Firefrost codex...Then a duel... 1975 and Octobriana in the shade of the Sphinx... Ten minutes ago... Tantric lovemaking... Hot on the furs... ... Future glimpse of self... Face up... Bleeding... Dead... Rose is talking..."

Pretty self-explanatory, and immensely suggestive both as an insight into Luther's thought process, and as a distillation of Talbot's interests and concerns.


Pages 10 & 11
Here is recounted the discovery of the Firefrost Codex, in Egypt in 1913 on PARA.00.72.87, by Professor J. R. Montpellier. Also recounted, in a newspaper extract, is the story of his mysterious death. The images on these pages are full of hieroglyphics and Ancient Egyptian artifacts, and there is a strong sense of the past both in the old-fashioned appearance of the archaeologist, and in the crumbling remains being unearthed.


Pages 12 & 13
These pages form the first part of a sequence of flashbacks detailing Luther Arkwright's past. The art here is still black and white, but it is given a different visual quality by it being 'shaded' as well as being inked. Luther talks himself of his background, in the form of an interview with R. Wylde and K. Waszynko. His parents were killed in a mysterious fire in the hospital room where his mother was about to give birth. Page 13 is an illustration of a newspaper front-page (Daily Mirror, Thurs. Feb. 16, 1950). Other stories on the front-page detail an oil dispute between an Arab nation and Britain (the 8,000 ton cruiser Gambia is said to arrived in the Persian Gulf); a 'storm' involving Labour MPs; and further clashes between Syria and Israel. While these are, to the main narrative, only incidental details, they create a spatiotemporal picture of the world situation, and this picture of conflict, dispute, destruction, and rebellion feeds back into the central themes of the text. Further from the text, but still of some consequence, is the historical matter of the fall of the empire, as Britain lost power over its colonies throughout the world, and the subsequent critical notion of 'post-colonialism'. [Def. of Post-Colonialism]. This might seem distant from tAoLA, but in terms of the literary treatment of, and reaction to, the progression from order (Empire) to disorder (loss of Empire), it could provide a different angle on the contemporary context of Talbot's work. Important (so-called) 'post-colonial' novels by Kazuo Ishiguro possess many of the concerns of Talbot's writing, with particular reference to their treatment of narrative, time, order, chaos, and their application (it can be argued) of the theory of 'entropy' to literature, history, and politics.


Page 14
An image of Luther meditating fills the center of the page, with a profile of Luther's head below this, facing the left, and a medium shot of 'Karl Waszynko' also below the main image, facing the right. From this page until the end of the issue the narrative becomes particularly complex, with the main narrative strand up until this point (i.e. the story of Luther) threaded in-between a variety of other narratives. Luther does, nevertheless, remain at the book's core. At work is the process of subverting the form of the 'linear narrative' which is expected to accompany an 'adventure story' of the sort the title suggests. When a story is 'The Adventures of X', the adventure stories would be expected to feature 'X', and to proceed in a linear fashion. The adventures of Luther Arkwright, obviously, do not progress in a linear fashion.


There is more to Talbot's writing, however, than simply the rejection of 'linear narrative'. Throughout tAoLA there is the underlying sense that what is being told is a story of one man's 'adventures'. Luther is the narrative force around which everything revolves, however chaotically. The title, ever in the reader's mind, works reflexively, informing and constructing what we think the story will be about. And at the same time the title is being subverted and questioned by the story as it unfolds. The same could be said for Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat. The text both subverts and plays up the generic expectations suggested by the style and form of the book's title. The dynamic between title and text working proactively with the reader.



Page 15
PARA.00.00.00 appears to be a futuristic world; London here is a mixture of 19th century architecture, and hi-tech domes and towering structures. A futuristic-looking Rose discusses Firefrost and W.O.T.A.N. with Luther, an exchange which then leads the narrative voice to think back to Luther's time with the Rose from another parallel. They are depicted making love on furs. David Bowie is quoted: "Time, he flexes like a whore." Then, from this, the narrative voice goes on to mention that Arkwright's grandfather died in WW1, and that WW1 was engineered by Disruptor Factions. Hitler was a Disrupter Agent on most alternatives, and caused most of the "39-45" wars to "consolidate Disrupter footholds." At the bottom of the page is the first moment from an inset narrative, depicting two Tommy soldiers in Ypres, in PARA.00.30.22., and it is implicit in the text that one of these soldiers is Luther's father. Parsifal C. Hackenbush is first mentioned, and will appear frequently following this. To the left of the image featuring the WW1 Tommy soldiers is an image of Luther, chest partially exposed, with his eyes closed. It is a cropped section of the larger image from page 14 depicting Luther meditating.



Page 16
This page is a maze. On the left, seven frames; top to bottom:

  • Rose is standing in front of the Bayeux Tapestry
  • A close-up of the scene Rose stands in front of, lacking rose.
  • A further close-up, but with some of the image breaking up, leaving only an image of a soldier preparing to kill another prone soldier.
  • The photograph 'Street Execution of a Vietcong Prisoner' by Eddie Adams.
  • Luther, against a white background, looking sad and mournful.
  • A moment from the WW1 narrative - the two soldiers talk.
  • PARA.00.00.00

On the right, in shadow, Rose on top of Luther. Both appear to be experiencing pleasure, and the symmetry and composition of the image seems to recall images of Luther meditating, suggesting that the pleasure is both physical, and metaphysical. Two paragraphs of the 'narrative voice' bracket them, one above, one below, the tone of this text contrasts with their situation. They are in a clear, meditative and\or sexual union ("Her perfect Lotus Yoni"), suggesting pleasure and creation and other such positive concepts. Also, in a sense, their union represents order. The text, contrasting with this, talks of cruelty, constant levels of suffering through time, radioactive waste. We learn that the opal cannot be controlled or directed, suggesting a force of chaos, not order, and this then leads to a list of alternative names for the world's 'final destruction' across the world's mythologies: Ragnarok, Apocalypse, Kali Yuga, etc. Chaos and Order, Creation and Entropy.



Page 17
Over half of this page is taken up by a wide-shot of what appears to be a futuristic room concerned with mapping some sort of complicated, interwoven system. In the background is an enormous 'map', approximately 40 metres high, and 120 metres wide. As flat-screen monitors go, it's a pretty large example. Various robotic arms and cranes appear in the middle-distance of the shot, and in the foreground is some sort of raised platform, on which four people stand. Circling this platform are sunken computer terminals, almost like a trench encircling the platform, and at the terminals the heads and shoulders of technicians can be seen working. The man featured in the final frame of the previous page is - I presume - the man who is speaking here, on the raised platform. The other three people are listening to him, being briefed on the origin of the Fire Opal. The caption for this large image reads: "W. O. T. A. N. Operations Centre: Valhalla Nova". The combination of 'Valhalla' with 'Nova' is interesting - anecdotally - for the linguistic contrast between the Old Norse origin of 'Valhalla' and the Latin origin of 'Nova'. Nova can mean 'new' or 'strange'; Valhalla (or 'Valholl') means 'The Hall of the Slain' ('val' is 'slain' and 'holl' is 'hall', the word a compound, but not - I think - a kenning, because it does not possess any metaphoric meaning), or the place where brave men who die in battle go. 'The New Hall of the Slain' is one possible interpretation of 'Valhalla Nova'. More importantly, it is the 'chose' people from Valhalla who will prepare for the fight, at the time of Ragnarok, from which none will flee; they are called, in Norse mythology, the Einherjar of Odinn. Ragnarok is drawn on explicitly by Talbot, in the project called 'Project Ragnarok' mentioned on this page, in a smaller frame beneath the larger frame already described. In a frame beneath this Luther is seen in close-up - eyes and nose - and is telling someone that he "gained the confidence of King Charles" and that he "met the Czar a couple of times". Beneath this is a close-up of one of the Tommy soldiers seen earlier. He is talking about the dead eyes of the corpses. To the left of these three frames is an extract of dialogue which talks of "mythological quasi-men imprinted on race memory" and how this is passed down in folklore. The Disruptors' Rooks, their supersoldiers, with their helmets and black body armour, were "designed to terrify peasants." This page draws together PARA.00.00.00 and Project Ragnarok; Luther Arkright and his role in that project; history and how it is affected by the Disruptors; and the Disruptors themselves.



Page 18
As the first chapter of the story progresses, the narrative becomes more and more complex, Talbot utilizing the visual grammar of graphic or comic layout to tell create a visual experience which works not only with the notion of sequence, and progression, but also with the notions of association, contrast, juxtaposition, etc. Words, images, and ideas bump against each other, inviting subtextual readings, and forcing the reader to always move from the isolated detail to the bigger picture, and back again. At moments there is a hermeneutic circle at work: the small parts of the whole only making sense when the whole is understood, but the whole only making sense when the meaning of the parts is explicated. The first frame shows the two Tommy soldiers in a trench, chatting, and behind them a stick-grenade flying through the air. The next frame is an image of an explosion. The frame after this is a reduced photocopy of the "Weekly Casualty List", below which is reduced photocopy of a telegram addressed to Mrs. E. C. Arkwright that Guardsman E. L. Arkwright was recently killed in action. Below the two images of the Tommy soldiers chatting and the explosion is a large amount of text, the narrator of which is unknown. The content is a semi-stream-of-consciousness rumination on war, the Bayeux tapestry, animal characteristics, cause and effect, and much else. In an image beneath this four people stand in W. O. T. A. N.'s information retrieval system, discussing why PARA.00.72.87 is the most suitable for the "Ragnarok set-up". To the right of this, and beneath the notice-of-death telegram, is an image of white graves, simple crosses, disappearing into the distance. Beneath this frame Parsifal talks with Luther; they discuss the extent of Disruptor control. It is suggested in the text that Zero-Zero - PARA.00.00.00 - represents a quasi-utopia where Humankind is united. At the bottom of this page are three frames, with three images. The first is a section of the Bayeux tapestry depicting the advance of soldiers on horses; the second is a reduced photocopy of an image showing US soldiers raising the American flag in, I believe, Berlin; next to this, the third frame, is an image of a British Army recruiting poster which states that "Your Country Needs YOU".



Page 19
An image fills the top right of the page of Luther lying on his back, arms outstretched, with a bloody wound in his stomach showing through his shirt. In the text beside this are mentioned: Tarot cards, the Wheel of Fortune, Karmic rebirth and death, and destiny. Luther is "the son of Destiny", and an "instrument of Fate". The notion of Fate is working prospectively here - Talbot explicitly brings the idea of predestination to the text (by talking about Tarot, etc.), and implicitly acknowledges the idea of predestination, by drawing Luther with a bloody wound in his stomach. Only later will the reader see this example of 'fortune telling' come true. Fate knows the future, but more importantly Talbot, and the narrative, know the future - they know how things will end. Harlan Ellison is mentioned; Luther's pose is explicitly compared to the crucifixion pose; on PARA.00.00.00 they talk of their plans against the Disruptors. They plan to use W.O.T.A.N. to draw the Disruptors out, and then when they are exposed, to track them "back to their source". The characters talk about what they will, or hope to do, while the narrative voice muses on chance, destiny, predestination, and fate. Both are, in their way, looking into the future.



Pages 20, 21, 22, & 23
Pages 20, 21, 22, and 23 form a self-contained narrative, and other narratives are not interlaced with it as they are earlier on in this issue. The lack of juxtaposed or associative images in these pages is a gentle movement away from the zenith of narrative complexity reached in earlier pages, these pages solely concerning themselves with Luther. Page 20 shows first Luther meditating with a mushroom cloud in the background of the image. Superimposed on the left of this cloud is the face of a woman with her mouth open in either pleasure or pain; on the right, a skull, mouth open in a gasp of either pleasure or pain. The text above this image talks of Rose and mass destruction: "An easy one to interpret... sex and death". Images of Luther loading a gun, being given jabs, and reading a treaty, are placed in a top-to-bottom sequence on the right of the page. He is preparing to embark on a mission which will form an important part of the Ragnarok operation. The bottom of the page shows Luther, apparently melancholy about the task he has to begin, in profile, his head slightly bowed, his eyes closed. On page 21 Luther and another man are walking away from each other - back to back, so to speak - in the manner of a duellers preparing to duel. In the background is a winter tree in silhouette, bare of leaves, and next to this tree are two men, looking quite similar in dress, but quite different in height. Both are wearing tall, 19th century hats. The narrative here takes place in PARA 00.39.21., and Luther is on what could be called a 'fact-finding mission'. Some sort of (psychic) waves are depicted striking at Luther, and on the following page Luther's target the other dueller - seen from Luther's POV - appears to be blurring as though Luther was seeing more than one of him - like a more intense version of double vision. Luther shoots the man anyway, and is able to hit him, regardless of the psychic distraction. When Luther is speaking to the agent after he has shot him he is made to look dominant and powerful, looked up at from a low-angle by the 'camera'. This serves as an interesting contrast to the worried and melancholy Luther of page 20.



Pages 24 & 25
These two pages depict Luther's trip to Tibet - the art is coloured in the same style that earlier Luther-flashbacks had been (p. 15, for example): rather than simply lined-and-inked, they are shaded-in with gray, as though 'water-coloured'. The artistic effect distinguishes these sections from the rest of the issue, as do the captions which imply that this information was gathered together during interviews with Luther. Waszynko and Wilde are the people present at the interview. The last image of #1 is that of Luther turning back, after having left the temple, and seeing that it has vanished.