Slipping Through the Parallels with Bryan Talbot, by Brad Cook
PARA 00-42-87 DARK HORSE COMICS PUBLISHES Heart of Empire
PARA 00-72-87 HIRAM KOWOLSKY SLIPS THROUGH TO PARA 00-42-87
Hiram Kowolsky, your ever faithful reporter, here with what is surely the scoop of the century. I am back in the United Colonies of America and writing this in the offices of the New Amsterdam Herald after returning from an extraordinary journey. My editor had to insist on a lie detector test to prove the validity of my claims, and I'm happy to say I passed it with flying colors. Despite the fact that he still has his doubts about my story, he is allowing me to write it anyway. Believe me, if he had declined to print it, there would have been many publications which would have gladly done so. This is a tale like no other.
It began last week in London. I was finishing up my stay there in the aftermath of the Battle of London, where national hero Luther Arkwright assisted in the bloody overthrow of the totalitarian Cromwell government. As you know from my weekly dispatches, all has not been as rosy during the past six months as the newly crowned Queen Anne would have her people believe. In my quest to find out the inside story on her regime, I arranged to meet with Harry Fairfax the night before I was due to leave. He and I met for old time's sake in a bar deep in The Nether Eye tavern in Soho and engaged in some small talk and several pints of beer before moving to weightier topics.
Now that I look back on that meeting, perhaps what happened next was pre- planned by Fairfax. He announced that he had to go to the bathroom and suggested that I go as well, since he had quite a bit of inside gossip to tell me about the Queen and didn't want to be interrupted during the telling of it. So we both went, and as I was finishing up and flushed the john, the lights went out. I managed to feel my way out of the bathroom ---
--- and came out into the loveliest bar I had ever seen. Fairfax was nowhere in sight (and nowhere to be heard; his infamous farts make him very bad at hiding), although I had plenty of strange eyes staring at me as I made my way to the front door and onto as nice a street in London as I have ever been on. Right away I knew something was wrong, of course, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I wandered around for at least two hours, drawing many peculiar stares but unwilling to ask anyone where I was for fear that someone might decide I was crazy and lock me up in Bedlam. Queen Anne's England was not known to be much more tolerant than Cromwell's after all.
Finally, I came across a bookstore which calls itself "Gosh!". A lovely Mozart selection beckoned me into the shop, so I decided to stop in and look around; perhaps I would find a newspaper. I discovered that they sold many different kinds of comic books, but not the ones with dull Bible stories and farming tips which are so popular in the UCA. These were from a variety of genres, and many were even in color. I decided to browse a bit, hoping to glean a sense of where I was from the contents of the books.
And then I saw it. "The Adventures of Luther Arkwright." I felt at home when I saw that tome, because I knew that these people had heard of the greatest folk hero England has ever known. When I finally mustered up the courage to ask the clerk if he had supported the Royalist cause during the October Revolution, however, I drew a look as if I had just turned into a monkey and shit on his counter. I realized with a sinking feeling that somehow I was not in my own world anymore. I tried to purchase the book, but the clerk didn't recognize my money either. Finally, he told me to just take it and leave because my talk was upsetting the other customers.
I headed to Hyde Park, where in that world there is no monument to Arkwright, and sat down to inspect the book. It was created by a man named Bryan Talbot, and it contained a version of Arkwright's adventures which I hadn't heard before. I sat there all afternoon and read the story of the son of a British Air Force Captain who has the power to skip across parallel worlds and is embroiled in a story of intrigue and mystery. I was shocked to learn that my home was simply one of those parallel worlds, designated PARA 00-72-87, and the place where a threat to the multiverse had been happening the whole time I had been covering the revolution.
It was as if a light went on in a dark part of my brain. I read about the disruptors, the footsoldiers of a higher power bent on creating chaos in the multiverse by starting with my home world. Amazingly, Arkwright's involvement in the revolution was actually part of the counter-offensive to this grand plot, and it had been hatched in a place called PARA 00-00-00, the nexus of all worlds where a team of people used a vast thinking machine known as a computer called WOTAN to monitor the multiverse. There was a woman named Rose Wylde on that team, and I learned that she exists in different forms which are spread across the parallel worlds. She is constantly in touch with all of them, and the one who died on 00-72-87 was Arkwright's lover. Fascinating.
The way the story was told was a revolution in itself. Talbot bounces the reader between time streams, relaying bits and pieces of the story as he follows Arkwright's journey. There are sections which are actually told in stream-of-consciousness, such as when Arkwright recovers from his fatal wounds in the battle where King Charles is killed and Queen Anne takes over his role in the revolution. Talbot even uses some of my own dispatches to help fill in gaps in the story's exposition; how he knew where I was and what I was doing, however, puzzled me.
The art is highly detailed black-and-white, and images appear again and again like minor themes which support the major theme in a musical work. Pictures from different wars in different parallels serve to underscore the threat to the universe which is at the core of the story. The theme of destiny versus free will also plays out as Arkwright has repeated visions of his own death as well as the deaths of others; at one point the pictures on the page even form a skull. What happens to Arkwright at the end of the story, however, runs counter to every myth which has risen up in our world since his disappearance after the Battle of London. It will shock you, but, instead of ruining the surprise for you here, the company which owns The New Amsterdam Herald has agreed to reprint the book from the dog-eared copy which I brought back with me. It will sure to be a bestseller.
When I finished reading the book, I rushed back to the shop to ask the clerk more about it and Bryan Talbot. I found out that he is a British comic book artist and writer who got his start in underground comics during the early 1970s. In 1978 he started working on The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, which bounced from home to home until he finally completed it with Valkyrie Press in 1988. In the 80s he worked for the seminal British publication 2000 AD and in more recent years he has worked for US comics such as The Sandman, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight and Hellblazer.
US? It turned out that this place didn't have a UCA; it was known there as the USA, or United States of America. It seemed that they threw off their imperialist British shackles far earlier than we did and rose to a world power while the British Empire shrunk to a place where the sun now sets every day, unlike our world where it is the reverse. The Arkwright comics were published in the USA by a company called Dark Horse, and I learned that this Talbot fellow was in America at that very moment, in a city called San Diego where they were hosting something called the San Diego Comic Con. I decided that I would go there and meet this man. I would find out where he got his Arkwright tale.
The trials and tribulations I went through trying to get to the USA would only bog down this story; suffice it to say that I finally managed to board a plane to a place called New York City (it looks a bit like our New Amsterdam and is located in the same place, only its much larger and the buildings are taller), where I then switched to another plane which took me to San Diego. While en route, I read some books about the history of that world's comics business which the clerk had given to me (I think he pitied me). I needed to do as much research as I could if I was going to corner Talbot and interview him.
Once in San Diego - so named I guess because of its proximity to Mexico, even though Mexicans do not rule it - I found my way to the comic con and was able to gain entrance once I explained my purpose for being there. Apparently, telling the people at the front desk that you are at the convention on behalf of a magazine called Wizard is enough for them, so I lied my way in and hoped that none of the editors of that publication - which must be highly esteemed - found me out.
I had never seen anything like this convention. It was a huge hall devoted to nothing but the buying, selling and promoting of comic books. Dark Horse had a large booth in the middle of the place which was easy enough to spot, so I made my way there and hoped for the best. As it turned out, Talbot's name was on a large board which advertised autograph signing times (a peculiar phenomenon which I had never heard of), and I had arrived just as his session was about to begin.
To say that he was shocked when he saw me was an understatement. I think the people waiting for him to sign their books assumed I was there in costume like so many other convention-goers, but Talbot knew who I really was. Let me put it this way: If you gave birth to a child but didn't see them again for 20 years, you would still be able to spot them in a crowd. Such is the tie of the creator to his creation, and I didn't realize that until later.
We arranged to meet after the signing, and at that time we went upstairs for a private talk. I think Talbot was a bit nervous, but I assured him that I only wanted to find out how he knew so much about this Arkwright character and his adventures - indeed, how he knew so much even about me and my whereabouts the whole time. His explanation when we were ensconced in privacy made my jaw literally drop.
"I made it all up," he said. "You, Luther, Harry Fairfax, Queen Anne, all of you: you are all products of my imagination. What I want to know is how you got here."
I told him what had happened, and he nodded.
"I see. An anomaly in the timestream, perhaps caused when you flushed the loo. I wouldn't be surprised if Harry had a part in it; the bugger has a mind of his own." He clasped his hands, put them to his mouth. "I suppose you've continued to ask too many questions about Queen Anne's policies?" I replied that I had. "Well, that would probably explain it. I'm sure Harry set you up. For what, I dont know, but you ended up here."
But how could this have happened? I wondered.
"I think my plans for the upcoming sequel may have caused it. Perhaps I subconsciously willed it to happen to drum up some publicity for the new book. It's called Heart of Empire, or: The Legacy of Luther Arkwright." He pulled out a volume which contained some of the art for the series, which will be nine issues long and in full color. Issue one will be published in late 1998 or early 1999. It looked simply marvelous.
I asked him what it was about.
"Well, I wanted to get some resonance with Heart of Darkness," he explained. "So it's sort of like that, it's a very anti-imperialist story. It's anti- nationalist.
"It's a journey like the Conrad novel in the sense that it's an internal journey for the protagonist, who's Luther Arkwright's 23-year-old daughter Victoria. She's a problematic heroine, and she's not a very nice piece of work at all. She has constant migraines and vomiting attacks and has a very foul temper because of all this, but she was also brought up as a princess to this British Empire that rules the world, that holds the world in an iron grip of tyranny. It's leeching the world of all its resources, all its culture."
Unlike the first series, Talbot plans Heart of Empire to be a more straight- forward, linear story which will build to a frenzied climax much like many adventure stories, only he hopes this one will be seen as the intelligent adventure story it is. Like in the first tale, there will be a threat to the multiverse caused by a mysterious force which is unseen for the first two- thirds of the story, and the team on 00-00-00 will be monitoring it with their thinking machine WOTAN, now embodied as the holographic projection of the Teutonic god it was named for (Talbot told me that the name was once an acronym for something, but he has since forgotten).
"There's a ticking clock to the whole thing," he said. "The first page says 'Seven days to cataclysm,' and then within fifteen pages it's 'four days to cataclysm.' The last five chapters are all in the last 24 hours, as it gets faster and faster toward the end.
"Usually when you read an adventure story they're pretty dumb and the plots are full of holes. I wanted to write an adventure story which was rich and deep but still had a strong narrative drive and excited different things, visual sense, erotic sense, humor, adventure, all sorts of stuff."
I was disheartened to learn that this was taking place 23 years in the future and the British Empire was probably going to be worse than it is now. For example, Queen Anne is revealed to be a vampire who has been keeping herself alive - and wide awake - for the entire time by sucking the psychic energy out of people. As it turns out, she is a pawn herself, but Talbot won't reveal who the higher power is behind the impending cataclysm. Not a settling thought for those of us who are hoping to be collecting pension checks in 23 years.
Talbot also won't reveal if Luther Arkwright himself will be in the book, although he did mention that he couldn't have made him the protagonist anyway, since Arkwright renounced violence at the end of the first story (okay, I partially gave the end away). As he said with a laugh, "It's very hard to do an action-adventure story with a pacifist hero." Your intrepid reporter will say this, however: many characters in Heart of Empire will be wondering what happened to Luther, among them Victoria.
What will the story be about on a thematic level? I wondered.
"The big thing is the title: Heart of Empire," Talbot said. "We start off with a little prologue to the story in Rome, which was the heart of the ancient Roman Empire. And then we go to the Vatican, which is the heart of the Catholic Empire. Then we move to London, where in the story is the heart of this world-dominating empire, which is the Imperial Palace, and to the queen, who is the virtual heart. The title works on many different levels throughout the story.
"At one point we look up at the stars and it's obvious that the human race is going to spread through the stars like a virus, and so the Earth is really the heart of empire, and within the Earth, the human, and within the human, the DNA, the real heart of the drive to conquer. There are many layers of meaning in the title."
I learned that the UCA is still a minor power in this tale, and that I will be back with a more active role than before. I will even have a side-kick of sorts with me, a younger black female reporter who travels with me to London as I return there for the first time since the last series (and learn, to my shock and her disgust, that slavery is practiced there). I hadn't expected to be away for so long, but there are many domestic issues which the Herald plans to have me cover now that I am back home. I wanted to know more about my fate, but Talbot wouldn't tell me. Perhaps that is for the best.
I also learned that Harry Fairfax will return, although time will not be kind to him. He'll have gout and bleeding gums in addition to a host of other maladies, and he'll have even lost his trademark ability to "fart like a Blackfriars brewmaster," as Talbot described it. The sad part is that Fairfax, even if this article reaches him, is such a victim of his own base desires that he won't be able to avoid his fate no matter what he does. Perhaps there is something to this idea of destiny after all.
This book will again break new ground in its presentation. Even though the storytelling is planned to be more accessible, the story will be serialized by Dark Horse into nine parts which are more like the chapters of a novel than traditional comics.
"It's a very brave thing for Dark Horse to do," Talbot said, "since it's structured as a graphic novel. That means you can't just break it into convenient 24-page slices, so each chapter will vary between 25 and 41 pages. Forty-one pages means 48 pages of printed material and they're going to be charging the same price as for the regular 32-page comics, so they're losing money on it."
The series will be collected into one volume later, and I wondered how the creator feels when he looks back on the first comic in juxtaposition with this one.
"I really learned my trade on Arkwright," he explained. "I started the original story in 1978, so if I was drawing it now I could do a lot better. I'm very embarrassed when I look at [the first series]. Some of that artwork is 20 years old.
"The nice thing about the new Arkwright is that it isn't as self-consciously experimental as the first one. But it will give the impression that the first one is in the past, because it was in black-and-white and it was in this highly textured inking style and told in a different sort of way. I think that when you read the new one, it will definitely give the first story a real distance, a bit like looking at the first like it was a black-and-white or a silent movie."
Talbot is doing everything except the lettering and the coloring himself with Heart of Empire. He has collaborated with some first rate comic book writers in the past, such as Neil Gaiman (on The Sandman) and Alan Moore (on several short strips plus an unpublished occult work called Nightjar), but he finds it more satisfying to do everything on his own. And his creative process seems to be built for solo work anyway.
"It's a long process," he said, "because you start off with ideas for different scenes and things you want to do in the book, and for me it's a matter of structuring it and corralling the whole thing into a plot. I spend a lot of time on structure, and I do this by sticking together big sheets of paper and working on the thing overall so that I can see the plot structure as a whole and move things about. There are arrows going all over the place and little scribbled notes."
He became more animated with his hands as he continued, as if he was painting a picture in the air of himself at work in his studio. "Then I get another series of papers together and I do a neater copy with things in the right order, and I keep doing that until I have the structure rock solid. Then I start working on the first draft of the script, which I do in pencil because it's a comic, it's a visual medium. You have to think about the drawings at the same time as the words, so I start telling the story in drawings with speech written on the side.
"It's only after I've done that that I'll sit down and type out the first printed draft of the script. All the time I've been drawing it I've been polishing it, substituting words and sentences, changing the order of frames around to find the best way to tell the story, so then after I've drawn it I'll go over the script and do the final lettering draft. I'm doing that a year or two after I've done the original draft."
This intense creative process probably explains why he doesn't do many collaborations and has no other comic book work planned for the next year as he finishes inking the new series (he says he's turned down quite a bit of work to be able to finish HOE). His experiences a couple years ago working on Sandman stories with Neil Gaiman proved to be fruitful, however.
"When I work with Neil, it's a very close operation. On two or three stories, he actually came and stayed at my house, and we talked about things first before he'd go off and write it. And then when he'd write it he would be faxing me little details, then while I'd been drawing it I'd be faxing him pages.
"On a couple occasions we'd been working on something that I'd been drawing while he'd been writing the end of it, and he'd seen something in the faxed pencils and said 'That's interesting,' and brought it back into the story. Perhaps he'd given a name to a character I'd had standing in the background and written it into the story. So that's my favorite way of working with a scriptwriter, where its a real close collaboration, because it's closer to being a writer-artist and having one single vision. They're always the best comics."
Talbot's output over the years has been incredibly diverse. He has gone from work like The Adventures of Luther Arkwright to underground books such as Brainstorm Comix (which spawned a lesser-known character named Chester P. Hackenbush, an American version of whom Alan Moore introduced into Swamp Thing under the name Chester Williams) to even a slice-of-life mini-series about child abuse called Tale of One Bad Rat, which won him many awards and positive reviews. I wondered, though, if he had been pigeon-holed despite the wide array of comics he has done, since people in that reality aren't really that much different from people in ours in their attempts to label and categorize the world.
"I'm used to it," he responded matter-of-factly. "I'm in several different pigeonholes. Some people in Britain only know me for my underground work. They haven't seen anything else I've done and haven't bought anything since. And then there's a whole bunch of people in Britain who only know me for my work on 2000 AD, and there are some people who only know me for Bad Rat. Others only know me for Arkwright. I suppose if I'd just done Arkwright for the past 20 years, then I'd probably be a big name right now, and Luther Arkwright would be as famous as other long-established characters."
He didn't seem to worry much about his place in the world, and I suppose that's the way it should be. I certainly know I've missed a lot of opportunities here in the UCA while I was covering the war, and had I not gone abroad I wouldn't have had to live in a grimy room deep within the Maze when all foreign press agents were expulsed by Cromwell, but I believe that a rich array of experiences is the only way to go through life. Besides, I wouldn't have gotten this incredible story had I stayed with domestic issues, would I?
After the interview Talbot and I headed for the escalator, he to get ready to fly back to England and I to look around the convention some more before trying to figure out how to get back home. Talbot suggested the third john on the left in the bathroom downstairs; as it turned out, he was right.
Before we parted ways, though, I remembered reading in one of my books during the flight about how many comic book creators try to get their work adapted to film. Would he have any interest in an Arkwright movie?
"There's a producer interested at the moment," he admitted. "I don't care [if they make one], even if it was a bad film, as long as they paid me money for it. In my mind it doesn't matter, though, because the artistic statement is the comic."
We paused then, I with my hand on the door to the bathroom, he in front of the entrance to the exhibit hall. He smiled. "The artistic statement is the comic itself, and they can't touch that."
And with that, we headed off to our own particular destinies.
Other interviews with Bryan on the site include: Bryan Talbot the best kept secret in comics: an interview with Bryan originally published by Popimage in December '99; and an interview with Bryan conducted by an Italian fan named Lorenzo by email.
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