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The Official Bryan Talbot fanpage / The Adventures of Luther Arkwright homepage

The Arkwright Thesis: Chapter 1:
Semiosis in The Adventures of
Luther Arkwright: Part One


Note: the Luther Arkwright Thesis is written and copyright by Robert Cave: I helped Robert to get in touch with Bryan for his research, and in return asked if I could put his thesis on the site: Robert agreed, and here is the excellent result.

The thesis consists of an Introduction, and Chapter One, part one and part two, then Chapter Two, part one and part two, and finally the conclusion. If you've liked this page, then also see the true history of the Arkwright Multiverse page, and also the reality behind Arkwright's arch enemies, the Disruptors.

As we have seen in the introduction, comics are a continuously evolving, living thing, but it was in the late '70s that the most significant change to the comic form and medium occurred, with the creation of the graphic novel. The exact genesis and definition of graphic novels are perhaps as difficult define as that of comics. However, in general terms, a graphic novel is the novel of the comic form, allowing comic creators to break away from the tyrrany of the 32-page standard length of the incredibly American format. What the key features of the graphic novel form graphic are is hotly contested, and will be dealt with a little more fully in the next chapter. Suffice it to say that one of the first in this field was Bryan Talbot's The Adventures of Luther Arkwright.

Talbot's tale deals with parallel worlds, a notion current in science fiction since the '50s at least. Unlike contemporary multiverse theory that looks at an infinite number of universes within a single multiverse, divergent from each other, so that every possible cause and effect is played out, Talbot sees the multiverse as a cut dimond or other precious stone, with each parallel universe constituting a facet of the whole. However, each parallel remains just that, parallel and separate. The most stable parallel is parallel 00.00.00, or simply zero zero, a parallel which theorised the existence of other parallels and eventually started monitering them through the use of psychics. These psychics ability and hightened self awareness allows them to contact themselves on other parallels, and centrally collate all the information that they gather. It is from this chart that we view all other parallels.

The two basic narrative strands jammed together within Arkwright take place on just two of these parallels: the search from parallel 00.00.00 for the source of the entropy that appears to be slowly consuming the multiverse, moving it away from order and harmony into chaos, an entropic chaos induced by the mysterious firefrost opal. The citizens of zero zero see as their enemy a faction that they know only as the disruptors, a force who are as equally mysterious as their supposed prize the opal itself. To wrest the power of the opal away from the disruptors the citizens of zero zero employ what is refered to as the ragnarok stratagy, they plan to create a revolution against a disruptor backed government in one parallel that will force the disruptors to enter the conflict directly, thus revealing their location and that of their prized weapon, the firefrost opal. The parallel which they choose for this ragnarok stratagy is also the location of the second narrative strand; the political struggle for world domination on parrallel 00.72.87. There is even a third, more subtle narrative that weaves it's way through these two, entwining them together, that results from the search and the culmination of the political revolution and explains many of the reasons behind them.

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The narrative is a composite of seemingly unrelated but chaotically precise images and occurrences invading each other, with the elements of a traditional linear narrative being invaded not simply with flashbacks and flashforwards, but also with flashes across the parallels. These take the form both of scene changes from one parallel to another, and of one-line quasi-news reports that appear in the gutter between panels, interspersing the text and detailing the events in other parallels. [Fig 1]. These are backed up with further incursions into the narrative of book extracts, quotations and the very layout of each panel and page. As Talbot is quick to point out, "Luther Arkwright came about as a reaction against Marvel comics ... a reaction against the main stream...[it was] very self consciously experimental."

However, as its title suggests, Arkwright does not necessaryly represent a complete break with the past, the word 'adventure' harking back to the British adventure comics of the '50s and '60s. This link to the past is also symptomatic of Arkwright as a whole; it is both a continuation of and reaction against previous comic elements, the effect of which will be more closely examined in the next chapter.

Beyond this narrative structure, underlying motifs in the plot can be finally reduced to two concepts. One of an imperial grand narrative of nationalism/symbolism that asserts its own "overarching, totalising explanation of things...(whose attempts) to explain and reassure are really illusions, fostered in order to smother difference, opposition and plurality," and the other of inevitability of class struggle and civil war. I will attempt to examine these two independently, starting with the imperial grand narrative. Aside from Arkwright himself, the most overtly patriotic character who appears in Arkwright is Octobriana, a Russian freedom fighter expounding, as her name suggests, the true nature of the October Revolution. But Octobriana was not created by Talbot for Arkwright; rather she herself is based upon the earlier work of Czech Petr Sadecky. In his book Octobriana and The Russian Underground (1971), Sadecky claims that she was the product of an underground movement in Soviet Russia, known as the PPP (the Progressive Political Pornography party), a movement of which Sadecky was a part. This group, it is alleged, were working under the considerable presssure of severe censorship and punishment to expound freedom of speech and expression. Octobriana in that sense is also the symbol of a freedom of expression on and off the page and is employed by Talbot as a salute to the bravery and conviction of those comic writers that created her off the page.

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Octobriana is also a macrcosm of the kind of statement that Talbot is attempting to make with British nationalism on parallel 00.72.87-- a parallel where (amongst other things) the Restoration never happened, and the office of Lord Protector was carried along Oliver Cromwell's bloodline, in a kind of anti-kingship. Here many readily established symbols, icons, and ideas are constantly playing with our perceptions of nationalism. The union flag is a symbol of the terrorists in Cromwell's Puritan state, the Royalists, and their subversive attempt to unite the various counties in Britian behind the monarch. In effect, the flag which is the very icon of our nation functions in this parallel, more along the lines of the Northern Irish Republican banners of our own world, a reference that is compounded with the existence in 00.72.87 of the I.R.A. as the Irish Royalist Army.

One of the most striking things about Arkwright is the peculiar sense of Britishness that permeates it. This Britishness can be seen purely on the facile level of iconography, with a naked Arkwright wrapping himself in the union flag at one point. [Fig 2]. However, here the flag has been cut from its significance as a symbol of Britain, which forces us to re-evaluate the value it has left, its historic significance. The history from which it springs is unmistakablely British. Many of the key plot features are not only lifted directly from British history, but also from the history of Preston, where Talbot lives. The title character's name of Arkwright is British, and aside from being synonymous with the equally British Ronnie Barker's amusing tight fisted comedy character, the name comes from Sir Richard Arkwight. Sir Richard Arkwight invented the water frame, one of the many new technologies the British Empire would later be built upon, and was a pioneer of the new factory system. History and its definition by the imperial grand narrative, the connotations of these two notions within Arkwright are almost as far reaching as the British Empire itself was. This period is also significant, as it was the point at which the comic form really became acessible to the masses in the wake of much technological advancements and education reform, as pointed out in the introduction.

Arkwright's narrative begins in the heart of that Empire, on parallel 00.38.56, one of the many parallels, so we are lead to belive, where the British Empire survived. Arkwright is even clad in full Imperial finery, the uniform of the tenth Prince of Wales' own Royal Hussars. Above all else, Arkwright here seems comparable to that other great, but sadly fictional, character synonymous with Britain, James Bond, also an agent of Her Majesty. Thus it seems natural for him, after a short adventure sequence and an encounter with a beautiful naked woman, to return for a briefing. All this is intercut with representations of artefacts from the Empire's war history including lists of war casualties and the infamous poster of Lord Kitchener proclaiming that 'Your country needs YOU.'

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Even in parallel 00.00.00 we are lead to believe that the Empire that monitors the multiverse is British. At the very least it is based in London. Yet when parallel 00.72.87 is selected for the ragnarok stratagy, although it is focused around a British civil war, the plans begin, and are underpinned by, the international politics of the Prussian and Russian Empires. In both 00.00.00 and 00.72.87, the story is the same, of an Imperial grand narrative, a self-aggrandising validity claim by which everything else is defined.

However, the imperial grand narrative is not seen as something to aspire to; rather, it is a concept that is continually worried by the text. Despite the common bond of British nationality that is shared by Arkwright and the Empire on 00.00.00, they seem content to exploit their British brethren of 00.72.87. After all they see it as nothing more than "a dometic squabble." This ambivalence can be read as the arrogance of the imperial grand narrative that promotes itself above, not only the ideologies of 'others,' but above even the value of their lives.

Arkwright himself, however, may have different reasons for affinity for the inhabitants of parallel 00.72.87, for he has at least three lovers there. The life of one of these lovers, Princess Anne, and that of Arkwright's unborn children, hangs on the success of the Royalist revolution. It is never quite explained whether he takes paternal responsibility seriously, or even whether he has littered the parallels with bastard children, as he significantly refuses to be Anne's Prince consort, leaving Parallel 00.72.87 once the success of Anne's Royalist revolution is assured.

Go to part two of chapter one.....


Bryan and myself have just completed the Second Edition of the Heart of Empire Directors Cut which contains the whole of the Adventures of Luther Arkwright in normal resolution and also in very high resolution; you can buy it right now from our online shop at Cafe Press. Alternatively you can buy the The Adventures of Luther Arkwright in traditional printed graphic novel format from Amazon.

Also, the Adventures of Luther Arkwright is now available to
read as a webcomic from this very website


The design and content of this page and this entire website is copyright 1999, 2006 by James Robertson: all images are copyright 1999, 2006 by Bryan Talbot