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

The Arkwright Thesis:Chapter 2: The Semiotics of 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.


In the previous chapter we have addressed the idea of meaning in Arkwright. This chapter endevours to look more closely at how that is accomplished, and what additional factors, if any, effect Arkwright's meaning.

Although it may seem an obvious point, reading a comic is a fundementally different experience to reading a standard textbook. With the standard text sentence in a book, all that is required of the reader is a simple linear movement from left to right and top to bottom. However in a comic panel the eye is drawn to the image first, sometimes it is to the figures, othertimes to the large shapes of the panel, only moving toward the text secondaryly. The comic page can also read, as identified by Will Eisner in his book Comics and Sequential Art, as a super panel. The eye is reading the page as a single image, and is something that must be taken into consideration. An eyecatching image can and will be be seen/read out of sequence, as the size, shape and colour of images conspire to draw our attention. The eye first witnesses the whole of the page and can gain an amount of intelligability from it as the images within are more immediate than the more abstract text. Then begins the process of analysing the individual panel parts. The layout on a page of the individual panels and their relationship to each other now becomes crucial; a different kind of reading requires a different style of writing, so that what Ruth S. Brent describes as design language is born.

An example of design language in Arkwright would be the 'skull' pannel that occurs shortly before the Puritan raid upon a royalist stronghold [fig 5]. The skull itself does not refer to the object, but rather an image of it that is created by a combination of a juxtaposing of objects, and the way inwhich light plays over them. The image of the skull connotes notions of death and is a recurring motif in many works of fiction, but more the actual composition of the skull with the heads of Arkwright and King Charles as the eye sockets presages their 'deaths.' Between them stands Anne, Charles' sister and Arkwright's lover, forming the nasel caverty she will cause their deaths.

The play of design language may well be an established idea within the field of art history, and possiblely to a lesser extent within the Dadaist movement however, within Arkwright it is brought out into the microcosm of single isolated images and into the largely uncharted macrocosm of comics as sequential art. It eschews the traditional beginning-middle-and-end narrative, with the traditional narrative line being invaded not simply with flashbacks and flashforwards, but also flashes sideways intertextually. The cumulative effect of this is to keep the reader guessing to a certain extent as to what precisely is going on, and as to where the focus lies, not only within the page, but also within thew narrative as a whole. As Talbot states "You can influence people's perceptions of events by layouts, manipulating the way they view things."

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Further to the play of design language, the integration of the text and artwork is exemplified in two main areas of contention; the speech bubble and the caption. There is a differing level of integration between the two, with the caption often, (but not exclusively) appearing boxed out, at the edge of the pannel, and the speech bubble appearing as shorthand for speech within and yet seperate from, the artwork. Often in the mainstream comics of '60's and '70's the caption simply reinforced the image, almost as if the editor were uncertain of the artwork's ability to communicate without overtly explaining it to the reader. Talbot actively challenging the status quo of comics up to that point, possibly in another attempt to return the illustrative quality of the early pre-comic wooden cuts, presses further for the intergration of text and image. He does this by first, wherever possible, freeing both caption and speech bubble from their iconic prisions to become integral to the artwork, a different less obtrusive icon, the attribution line, being used to denote speech instead. No longer is the caption subordinate, or even seperate from the artwork; they are here, (perhaps more than any other comics have ever been,) an integral unified combination.

This notion, a subdivision of design language, is further extended by the comic's existance as a reviewable object. Unlike television or classic cinema, where the linear progression of the narrative is relentless, comics are infinitely (re)viewable, allowing the reader to spend as much time on each individual panel as they want, and review it later as the narrative refers to itself. While this factor was often eschewed in the super simplified comics of the mainstream in the '60's and '70's, Talbot not only makes use of it, but plays with it on two main levels to introduce a densely intertextual, almost subconscious, series of subtexts and to create 'jokes'. The Puritain literature thrown into the streets near the end of the narrative, [fig 3.2] include a book by Mathew Cromwell, Nathaiel's father, called 'My Struggle,' which is the same title in translation as a book by Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, reinforcing the image of an earlier Nuremberg, style rally for the Puritans outside Westminster, where Cromwell's wave to his troops is reminiscent of a nazi salute. This book is alongside another, Baden Powell's manifesto for the 'Puritain Youth Movement.' While echo's of the Nazi regime are in clear evidence it would be churlish to simplyfy this down to a one for one allegory Puritainism=Nazisim rather, as a kind of attack on the extremism that was at the heart of both these movements, something which is borne out by the reference to the extreme imperialism that was underlying in the muscular christianity of the scout movment. To an extent the density of the inter/subtextuality reinforces and underpins the semosis of Arkwright.

The continued merging of text and artwork in comics highlights another conern of the the dedicated comic critic, the question of where the 'art' of comic books lies, what it is as an object. Perhaps this is an unresolved issue hanging over from attempts to define what a comic is as an abstract concept. However, here it gains new relevance, as it's actual physical characteristics begin to bear an important relation to how it means. The primacy given to the combination of two art disciplines traditionally seen as seperate, is here hit with a confusion that is compounded by the two seperate methods of comics authorship. While comics can be entirely the work of one single artist who writes, draws inks and letters his own comic, as is the case with Talbot's Arkwright, they can also be produced in collaboration with a group of 'artists' who separate those disciplines. This separation can unfortunately be misinterpreted as a dilution of two purer forms, rather than the notion of comics as a legitimate, unified artform.

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Either method, comics are created as an amalgamation of different parts these can not be taken simply in isolation as comics. The unity of the story is dependent upon their synthesis, and while McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, points to a great range of intergration of artwork's show to text's tell, emphasising differing levels of possible narrative effects achievable through comics, they all require both words and pictures. It equally should be remembered here that just as the art work alone does not constitute a whole comic strip, and writing alone does not constitute a whole comic strip, neither does the simple combination of the two.

While the insistance on comics both are and are not an amagamation of art and text may seem to be a complete contradiction of what I have just been saying, it is not. As the linguist Ferdinande De Saussure, and the more recent critic Roland Barthes suggest, the word is spilt into the signifier and signified, the concept and and the sound image that invoke that concept. This is equally true of comics, where the comic strip is the signified but the comic form is the signifer. The comic is an object, more specifically a commercial art object. The artwork and script combination can only ever be called a comic strip, for it is only an element of the comic art object, not the art object comic itself, which is formed from an amalgamation of artwork script, adverts, (which usually combine words text and images to form splash page narratives within the comic book, invading the strip itself,) perhaps a letters collumn, or some kind of editorial, and a front cover. Thus when we talk of comics as an art object we are exclude neither art work nor script, the storey content, or it's form, we are not even, unfortunately enough, excluding that necessary evil of 20th Centuary of commercial art, adverts, for they too are as much a part of the the modern comic as the strip itself.

The notion of the comic as an art object immediately brings to mind Walter Benjamin's influential essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." which appears to place mechanically reproduced art in opposition to the unique. The unique art object has about it an ethereal quality that Benjamin refers to as the aura, claiming "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art." The aura then is the uniquene singularity of the art object and its' idiosyncratic presence in space and time, and it is this uniquness that is so threatened by the age of mechanical reproduction.

Reproduction, mechanical or otherwise comodifies the art object and signals the disintigration, though importantly, not the destruction, of the aura. Where once the object stood unique, it also could be said to be priceless, there was no grounds for one object to be compared to another. Neither had any value beyond that of their use value. Yet after reproduction the emphasis shifts onto the original, from which all copies are made. "The presence of the original is a pre-requisite to the concept of authenticity."

The orginal has acquired a new fetishised value of authenticity as the singular template for a thousand copies. It is the existance of these copies that gives the original it's value. Benjamin also admits that any kind of representational art, man made art, is a decay in the natural object's aura of authenticity. This exposistion, an attack on the Dadaist notion of the found art object, moves all made art objects towards a position of commercial commodity.

Go to chapter two part two....


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