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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 Two


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.

The essay itself is written to examine primarily the media of photography and cinema, however, there are two main points that diverge from this essay particularly salient to the comic in general and Arkwright in particular, and that I wish to explore, namely; That "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitic dependence upon ritual [the historical purpose for art, as identified by Benjamin]" and the notion that "To ask for the 'authentic' print makes no sense."

Benjamin's notion of the ritual-based aura places emphasis on the work of art's existence rather than it's display value. It is singular and serves a (ritualistic) purpose, the differentiation moves away from any kind of aesthetic value that we might attach, and revealing Benjamin's Marxist background, toward a point where the value of a work of art is that of a rare commodity. The concepts of authenticity, originality, comodity and decaying aura are inextricably linked here. They are equally tied to the bourgeoisie and their canons of taste, inaccessible to the proletariat, as was, in most cases the work of art before the age of mechanical reproduction. Indeed, critic Terry Eagleton insists that "mechanical reproduction-- which may figure here as a metonym for cultural revolution--destroys the authority of origins but in doing so writes large the plurality that was there all along." The age of mechanical reproduction signals the age of the work of art for the masses. Arkwright itself also reprisents a more egalitarian art form, one that is entirely autonamous requiring, unlike television or the cinema, no addition technology for its reading. Does Arkwright comply to Benjamin's forcast of the progressive disintegration, if not destruction of the aura of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction? To answer this question we need to examine Benjamin's notion of the (in)authentic print.

"From a photographic negative... one can take any number of prints; to ask for the authentic print makes no sense." Benjamin here is searching for the a concept of the original, something that he does not see in the sea of exact duplicate prints. As the negative is to the photograph, the script and artwork are required to the comic, they are the ritualistic cult base, for the exhibition value of the comic. However the comic is not simply the unified public face of an art object that is fundementally split in private, it also plays with the problem of exact duplicate prints. With their commodification comics, like other commercial art forms, exist in plural formats and printings that are self annotated to signal their difference from each other. The commodification of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction resurects a fractured element of cult value derrived from each single objects' differences from one another. This pluralisation of the original, that can be equally read as capitalism cashing in on the fetish for the orginal, or as the proletarianization of the art object is made even more explicit in the comics market place.

The comics marketplace, is perhaps idiosyncratic in that in the past fifteen years, its traditional vendor, the newsagent, has been forsaken in favour of specialist comic shops. These specialist shops combine the primary and secondary markets of new comics and old comics out of necessity because of the lack of any sale or return distribution deal. This mixture rarely occurs in the supply of other media, where the supplier is either intent on selling only the latest product, or the old and obsolete.

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The comic traditionally has been a disposible artform, using low quality paper and production values to keep costs to a minimum. However, paradoxically, these low production values and frailty appear to add to a comic's collectability, with its fragility and disposibility working together, the degredation of one comic conversly adding to the value of its brother in the same print run. The comic here reprisents the meeting point of commodity-charged form and narrative-centred content. Yet these place a differing semiotic emphasis on the comic/art object.

If we were to use the example of Arkwright's first appearence as a serialised strip in the comic anthology title Near Myths (1978), there would be the comics intial value, the value at its time of sale as an anthology comic containing comic stories including Luther Arkwright. The emphasis here is on the use value of the comic as a narrative medium. When the next issue comes out, the previous one begins to transform; it is required reading for the understanding of the narrative. It was also unobtainable at the time Near Myths was a newstand distributed comic, dedicated to the supply of the contemporary. With the passage of time the individual comics begin their degradation. The publishers overstock is pulped, further limiting the already finite print run and some of the creators go on to relative fame if not perhaps fortune. The original use value of the comic object as a narrative medium is still intact however the object through these circumstances has aquired the value of a commodity and with it another layer of significance and signification. The two aspects co-exist, if a little uneasily, in the same object. This situation is similar to that found in the market for first edition books yet here it is even more accenuated due to comics greater frequency and fractured, episodic, form.

The search for the original is particularly intriguing when considering the notion of second prints and alternative formats which have also been a hallmark of Arkwight's publishing history. Luther Arkwright himself first appeared in a comic strip entitled 'The Papist Affair' in Mixed Bunch Comics in 1976. The story and character was very tongue in cheek, and although containing references to different parallels which would later figure in Arkwright, the strip was essentially a one off and had nothing to do with Arkwight itself. Talbot then wrote an outline for a script in 1978, reusing the Arkwright character, intending to sporadically publish it in episodes each time a publisher asked him for a story, until the overarching stroyline was concluded. The strip was first published in the British comic-sized A4 of Near Myths. However this anthology only lasted for five issues and the narrative at this point did not include many of the flashbacks that fleshed out Arkwright's origin. The strip was then picked up for another anthology comic called Pssst (1982), which lasted only ten issues. This run reprinted the earlier work and brought the narrative to what Talbot describes as "its first natural pause." at the end of what would later be the first volume of the Arkwright graphic novels. The story was still unconcluded, yet this time the publisher of of Pssst, Serge Boissevain, was so anxious to see the outcome of the storyline that he patronised Talbot, in a similar manner to the Renaissance patrons, to help him conclude his work. Thus the strips serialised in Pssst were collected at the end of 1982 into the fledgeling graphic novel format as "Book 1: Rat-trap." The second volume, subtitled "Transfiguration," appeared in late 1987, followed by the whole series being published in the American format of roughly nine episodes of 32 pages by British publisher Valkyrie Press, with the last two issues containing previously unseen material. The first two graphic novels were joined with the final volume, "Gotterdammerung" in 1989. The whole series was then relettered for its American release by Dark Horse, again as a nine-issue 32 page comic format. Finally 1997 Dark Horse reprinted the series as a trade paperback in one single unified volume.

At this point it is worth pausing to mention the form of the graphic novel, whose nature is as hotly debated and contested as that of the comic itself. The first example of a graphic novel that described itself thus is Will Eisner's A Contract with God (1976), which introduced the key elements of an original story of greater length/scale, a thematic unity within the story, and the use of superior production values. The necessity of each of these elements has variously been challenged by subsequent graphic novels, with perhaps only the notion of originality being seriously compromised. Sometimes the term is confused with the similar notion of the trade paperback, which is a collection of standard format comics usually, though not exclusively, with a thematic unity. Just quite how applicable this term is to Arkwright is also debatable. Certainly in 1982 Arkwright was the first British publication to use the format, however, it used it to reprint old material whereas Raymond Brigg's When the Wind Blows (1982) was entirely original. Either way throughout the '80s and '90s The graphic novel format, unsullied with name etymologically biased toward juvenile humor, continued to establish itself as an alternative to the comic as a home for the comic strip.

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So where does the original art object lie? All these printings are in a sense their own originals. In each edition there is something different, either it is the new material, the location of the use/cult value of the work of art, it's 'originality,' or a new format, the location of the exhibition value. The line between the two blurring even further in its many serialised forms. But Arkwright's plural existance in a varety of formats gives rise to a number of intriguing questions about the way in which we interpret these differences and their effect on Arkwright's semiology.

At the end of his essay 'Interpreting Serials,' Umberto Eco poses the question, "How would we read a piece of a series if the whole of the work remained unknown to us?" Earlier in the essay Eco has outlined a variety of ways in which repetition, semantic in addition to the semiotic, occurs in the arts of the 20th century, a period and process inextricably linked with mechanical reproduction. Eco highlights areas from the simple repetition of the specific remake and the serial formats to the proliferate nature of the intertextual quote, a feature that is essential to Arkwright's semoisis. The division of any narrative into it's constituent parts always carries with it a similar possibility of a split in the readership between the one who will read the whole and the one who will read only a part of the whole. Is this division the same as a potential difference between the script and the artwork prior to their unification? Again I would argue no, for the seperation of artwork and script do not constitute the whole comic form, where as the single episode constitutes the whole form, but not necessarily the whole narrative comic. The episode of a comic is an autonamous as an art object in the way that the constituent artwork or script in isolation is not.

While the unity of a single text can offer what might be assumed to be the authors vision of the text, a text which is controlled by the author to the nth degree avoiding such commerial parasitic paranarratives as adverts, they also fix meaning in different ways. This semiotic difference is discernible in the earlier parts of the serialised Arkwight, where the narrative's fractured form, mirrors it's fractured content. The reader is not sure of when, where and even if they will see Arkwright again. His procession across the parallels almost removing him from all but the loosest forms of personal continuity. Indeed that is the game with the earlier, and shorter serialisations of the strip: Readers must interpret for themselves whether and where these narrative fragments fit together, for they were not presented in the same arrangement there as they might be in later printings. The reading of Arkwright thus becomes an active rather than passive pursuit and the text can be properly identfied with Roland Barthes concept of the death of the author that signals the birth of an inquisitive reader.

There is something else implicit in the unified form of the graphic novel, as opposed to the serialised form, the question of its length/reading ahead. This consideration shoud not be underestimated, for just as the comic page does not necessitate a linear progession of reading, neither does the comic object, or to a lesser extent, book form. All perhaps have felt the temptation to read the ending of a story first, to see how it all turns out. A serialised form does not permit this act. Alternatively, whilst reading a book, a situation has arisen in the narrative that makes us wonder if the narrative might soon end for whatever reason, so we flick forward through the book to see that there are other pages, but do not read them. Either way, readers know, through the form the approximate length of the narrative, and uses this information to interpret that they have not yet reached the final closure, or absence thereof, of the story's end. The serialised form denies the reader even this limited information. With serialisation, the reader is left to drift on a sea of (parallel) possible readings accentuated if not outright induced, by the reader.

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The enforced pause in the narrative becomes itself a narrative device forcing the reader into a peroid of reflection and meditation upon what has happened thus far. The speculation of readers are further accentuated by other devices, such as the cliff hanger ending which will at best both offer pause for thought and propel the readers into the next episode, and at worst, are viewed as a destracting annoyance, a momentary, irrelevant, digression away from the central themes of the narrative.

The degree of respectability that the contrasting graphic novel format grants Arkwright is debatable. Certainly the words 'graphic novel' are not linked to the juvenile connotations of the word 'comics,' however, as a comparatively new term only time can truly tell whether it will become generally accepted both as a word and as a format. However, the extra length allows tales of much greater scope to be told, and to be more evident in a unified form. It also speeds up the pace of the story. No longer is the reader mechanically required to wait for the next installment and meditate on each episode and examine it more closely because of its brevity. The opportunity still exists, the reader can still re-read sections, yet the punctuation of that the episodic pause offers is no longer as evident. The cliffhanger ending of the first volume of the intial graphic novel format, where Arkwright is apparently killed, a point at which also marked a five year hiatus for the Arkwright storyline is now entirely undercut as the narrative immediately continues and Arkwright is only absent for twelve pages. The unified format also eliminates the possibility of missing a part of the narrative offering a unity of narrative that is more definitive, is less bulky and often, cheaper for the consumer. That the different fomats alter the reading of a strip is undeniable. Yet, ultimately, as with any choice of medium to narrate as story in, the difference and preference of the various formats is entirely a matter of personal preference based upon the relative strengths and weaknesses of that form or format.

Go the the conclusion of the thesis....


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