A review of Heart of Empire
The Adventures of Luther Arkwright
would be a tough act for anyone to follow, and it's to Bryan Talbot's
credit that he didn't try. Heart
Of Empire has a completely different look, and doesn't try to
duplicate the intricate plot and heavy overlay of mysticism from Adventures.
The main character in Heart Of Empire is Victoria Boudiccea Arkwright
etc Stuart, Crown Princess of the Glorious British Empire. Victoria is
nearly seven feet tall, anorexic, albino, and possessed of tremendous
psychic powers, over which she has little control. The same external influence
that squelches her abilities also puts her into near-constant pain, which
exacerbates her petulance, impatience, and general ill temper. It's interesting
to make your superhuman protagonist a cranky bitch, and doing so helps
make abundantly clear the fascism that lurks close to the surface of the
Empire, through the unselfconscious way this ultimately well-intentioned
product of royal privilege exploits and abuses everyone around her. That
said, Victoria has her mother's iron will and something of her wild sexuality,
which gives her character balance and keeps her from seeming like a male
superhero in drag. It still took all of Talbot's considerable narrative
skills to redeem her to me by the end of the story, though, because she
can be so cruel and thoughtless, to a degree I suspect many would find
unacceptable in a male protagonist.
Victoria's father Luther is absent (although never very far from anyone's thoughts) until the end of the sixth issue. When we first encounter him, in a powerful and violent meeting between daughter and long-lost father, he is much changed from who he was in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. There's much of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius in the old Luther -- he was cool, deadly, transcendently superhuman, and almost entirely amoral. The Luther that Victoria finds in a parallel universe where World War I stubbornly refuses to end is almost unrecognizable. He's renounced violence and adopted quasi-monastic garb, trying to live quietly as a healer in a war-torn world. He's also more than a little spaced out, like one of those Buddhist monks who's detached himself from the world so much that all of life's events are vaguely humorous but inconsequential. I had a very hard time reconciling these two images of Luther, but then then again, Heart Of Empire is a very different kind of story, being more about Victoria's coming down to earth than any sort of transcendence.
But the Arkwright universe demands sweeping drama, and Talbot provides it. Transuniversal psychic warfare, wanton destruction of world-sized supercomputers, bitchy arguments over proper language use, the epic struggle of Sir Kenneth Clarke to rise to greatness in a time of need and some crude fart humor all get their play before the end of the book. Plus Talbot continues to indulge his fondness for making contemporary British figures look ridiculous -- in addition to Damien Hirst, Tony Blair is subject to Talbot's mocking pen this time around.
It's worth mentioning that the draftsmanship is at least as good as anything Talbot's done before -- very clean and spare, and leaving lots of room for Angus McKie's eye-popping colors. Computer coloring can achieve some stunning effects, completely drenching the page in color, and McKie uses every gradient fill and boldly saturated palette he can here. My only complaint is that in making room for color, some of the complexity that made _The Adventures Of Luther Arkwright_ so stunning is lost, and I miss it. Then again, I'm coming to realize that on a certain level I prefer black and white comics, so that is a matter of personal preference. All in all, this story is not quite as satisfying as the original Luther Arkwright. But it's more relaxed and funnier, and for all its cosmic ramifications is a much lighter story, so I'm satisfied to read it as pure entertainment.
This was originally published by Ozymandias
The whole of Heart of Empire - together with all pencilled and inked pages, 60,000 words of annotations by Bryan and the whole of the Adventures of Luther Arkwright is available on a CD-Rom for only 18 US dollars.
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