Engraving the Void and Sketching Parallel Worlds: An Interview with Bryan Talbot
Bryan Talbot has been a driving force in the comics industry since the late 70s, when he created the Brainstorm Comix series for Alchemy Press. In 1978, Talbot created Chester P. Hackenbush who was later renamed "Chester Williams" by Alan Moore for his run in Swamp Thing. It was also during this time that Talbot began publishing the highly influential The Adventures of Luther Arkwright in comics anthologies Near Myths and PSSST! Luther Arkwright is a member of an interdimensional group locked in a war with the Disruptors, a cult devoted to uncovering an ancient doomsday device. Arkwright wages this war on a series of alternate earths, or parallels, including one in which Charles II never regained the throne after the reign of Oliver Cromwell. During the conflict Arkwright's latent psychic powers awaken inside him, and in a series of images and words partly inspired by the illuminated poems of William Blake, Arkwright discovers his destiny as he helps the monarchy overthrow their Puritan tyrants.
I had the opportunity to talk with Talbot about the influence of William Blake on his work. Talbot is currently finishing up a meditation on Lewis Carroll called Alice in Sunderland.
RTW: Let's start at the beginning. Give me a little bit of your biography, and tell me about your career. Who were some of your artistic inspirations growing up?
BT: I was an only child and both my parents were in work, so I spent a lot of time by myself – playing with toys or watching the tiny screen TV. My folks both encouraged my drawing (my dad used to paint at one time) and introduced me to comics by getting me a weekly nursery comic – Jack and Jill – from when I was 2 to encourage me to read and later the DC Thomson weekly comics such as the Beano and Beezer. Every Xmas my dad bought me the Rupert the Bear Annual.
When I was 5, an uncle gave me a pile of old Giles annuals, which I loved (and still have) and for a while, I wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist.
I loved the strips by Leo Baxendale, Ken Reid and Dudley D Watkins in the Beano and I think that Alfred E. Bestall's Rupert style eventually had an influence on Bad Rat. In the 60s I became a big fan of Marvel comics and Jack Kirby and, later, artists like Steranko, Starlin and Barry Smith were big influences.
While a teenager, I was attracted by the work of William Blake – also Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, MC Escher, Heath Robinson and Gustave Dore, among others. I don't remember when I first read Alice, but it seems like I've always known the John Tenniel illustrations for the book. I also loved a lot of Pre-Raphaelite paintings
RTW: What role did William Blake play in your development as a comic artist?
BT: Hard to say. I first came across him at grammar school (where we regularly sang the Jerusalem hymn during the morning service) and I later studied him at art college. I remember thinking at the time that his use of images combining words and pictures had a correlation with comics. I admired his strong iconic images, such as the Cosmic Man and Nebuchadnezzar and first used a couple of them in my first comic series, Brainstorm. My father-in-law, the late JS Atherton – a Joycean scholar and college English Lit lecturer – was very keen on Blake and gave me the first book I had on him when I was 18 and dating his daughter. I now have his copies of Songs of Innocence and Experience etc.
RTW: Why did you decide to become a comic artist?
BT: Though I'd always read comics and even written and drawn them for my own amusement all the while I was growing up, it never actually occurred to me that I could actually make a career of it. I only knew that I wanted to work in art somehow as that and English were the only two subjects that I was really good at in school so, after taking my final exams, I went to a School of Art to do a one year foundation course. This is where I learned to hate, like Blake, the contemporary fine art world as I was taught by three obnoxious abstract artists who allowed no figurative work of any kind. They taught by fear, using sarcasm to humiliate before the entire studio students who didn't fit in. The daily "crits", where they rolled in from the pub after lunch to shout and swear at what they perceived as artistic weaknesses were so traumatic that once a fellow student threw up in the corridor. This is why I went on to do a Graphic Design, rather than a Fine Art course. It was only after I finished that, and was unemployed, that I continued an underground comic that I'd started at college and found a publisher for it. I was then, suddenly a comic artist.
RTW: You use historical elements in many of your graphic novels. Why is history so important for you as a comic artist? There is a parallel with Blake here, as Blake often attempted to bring back historical moments that were forgotten (his appeal to the mythical name Albion, his interest in the radical antiquarian Joseph Ritson). How does history figure into your work?
BT: As a storytelling tool. That sounds much more calculating than it actually is but I'm not a historian, just a storyteller, and history is rich in stories. I like to tell stories of parallel worlds where history has taken a different course and can draw from real history for verisimilitude.
RTW: Right. Alot of your work draws directly from literature and history. Your newest work, Alice in Sunderland, is about Lewis Carroll. But there's more to it, isn't there?
BT: Yes, it's an entertainment themed around storytelling, myth and history. The history in question is that of Sunderland – the city I live in – which is a little like the history of Britain in microcosm. Sunderland's history is exceptionally rich. For example, the Venerable Bede, father of British history and literature was born here in the seventh century and first conceived the notion of an English nation not a mile from my house. In the time of Carroll, Sunderland was the biggest shipbuilding port in the world and he visited it often, his cousins and sister living here. Jabberwocky, the most famous nonsense poem in the English language, was written here.
RTW: There seems to be some kind of resonance between comic artists and William Blake. How would you describe this resonance?
BT: The fantasy element, the strong image, dramatic composition and dynamic line – plus the use of text in his illustrated poems.
RTW: Describe how you came up with the idea of Luther Arkwright. Why do you think it was such a popular series?
BT: In 1976 I wanted an excuse to do a short strip in pen line and watercolour wash and I "invented" Arkwright for that. He was a version of Michael Moorcock's character Jerry Cornelius – a character invented by Moorcock as a template for other writers. By the time I started The Adventures of Luther Arkwright graphic novel in 1978, I'd changed his character so it was no longer based on Cornelius and the story is unlike any Cornelius stories. I think it was popular because it was so totally different from any other comics at the time. Also it was intended to be an exciting hard-edged adventure story.
RTW: Arkwright has been translated into several languages, hasn't it?
BT: Off the top of my head, it's been published in the UK, the USA, Italy, Brazil, Finland, Spain, the Czech Republic and France. It's coming out next year in Greece.
RTW: It also has a sequel, right? Heart of Empire. Why did you choose to go back to Arkwright after such a long time?
BT: Again, I wanted to tell an exciting adventure story for adults, though I wasn't interested in repeating myself. That's why the story is quite different and it's told in a purely linear manner, in colour and in a different drawing style: clear line as opposed to dense cross-hatching in black and white. The protagonist isn't even Arkwright – it's his daughter Victoria, born at the end of the first book and now aged twenty-three. Also there's a lot more humour involved.
RTW: Tom Paulin, in the introduction to the new Routledge Yeats edition of Blake's poetry, quotes James Joyce as remarking that Blake "always insists on the importance of the pure, clean line that evokes and creates the figure on the background of the uncreated void" (qtd. xv-xvi). How important is the line to your own work and to what you were trying to depict in Arkwright?
BT: A strong, clear line has become increasingly important to me. My early underground style, and also in Arkwright, was to use dense cross-hatching. With Arkwright, this was to impart a sort of historical patina to the artwork as, even though it was basically SF, it was a cross-genre story that involved elements of historical adventure. I'd been studying William Hogarth (whom Blake called "The Great Hogarth") and was trying to incorporate his etching style into my inks. I wanted The Tale of One Bad Rat to be very accessible to people who didn't have an acquired knowledge of comic grammar and chose a ligne claire style as part of this accessibility. A strong, heavy outline, with lighter lines within and in the background, with all texture and shading done purely with colour gives an image that's very easy to interpret. I used a similar style with Heart of Empire but employed more contour line shading within the clear line.
RTW: Do you see in the visuals of Blake's work something that is different from, say, many comic stories that rely upon the construction of a coherent universe with characters as these commodities that can be put on t-shirts or molded into action figures?
BT: Well, there's a soul, if you like, to his drawings, a belief or emotional attachment in them that is absent in commercial comics but his universe is absolutely coherent in that it's a self-contained world, that of Blake's unique personal mythology, and his figures are often more iconic than superhero drawings and have been used on posters and T-shirts and there's even a statue of his Isaac Newton in London, on Euston Road I think!
RTW: One of the motifs of Blake's later texts (Milton, Jerusalem, The Four Zoas) is the misrecognition of the revolutionary or prophetic moment as being completely good, that revolutions can produce new tyrants. If you think about revolution in the first Arkwright tale and compare it to what happens in Heart of Empire could you say that something similar happens?
BT: Yes, that was the idea. At the end of Arkwright we see that the new regime is every bit as brutal and corrupt as the old one.
RTW: Does Arkwright's mysticism contribute to this? Or is this something totally different? Arkwright's meditation sequences and his visionary experiences seem akin to a lot of what Blake investigates in his poetry. Do you see Blake as a revolutionary figure, or simply a handmaiden of British Imperialism, or something else?
BT: I'd find it very hard to imagine him as a lapdog of British imperialism, especially as the Empire, as such, was tiny in Blake's day. I see him very much as an anti-establishment figure, who completely lived in his own world – as must any artist – and railed against "the dark satanic mills" and the burgeoning Industrial Revolution of the capitalist establishment. He was a forerunner of the Pre-Raphaelite revolt against materialism (and a favourite of Rossetti) and so influenced the early socialists such as Morris, who in turn influenced Karl Marx. And his personal religion, his mythology, would have been heresy to the Church of England or, at least, extreme non-conformity.
RTW: What about the sequel, Heart of Empire? It seems like there are other Romantic figures showing up. Gabriel Shelley seems a reference to Percy Shelley. The two books seem to represent two generations of Romantic thought, divided by a monarchal revolution that takes the place of the French Revolution. Is there something that your comic can tell us about the history of romanticism that isn't covered in text books?
BT: Perhaps but, if so, it's an accident. I'm not an academic and I'm no expert on Romanticism. When I'm writing these stories, I'm throwing historical characters and events into the mix that I intuitively feel will go well together. Gabriel Shelley was also an allusion to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His partner, Ophelia Ruskinspeare (whose last name was taken from a member of the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band of the 60s but was used to suggest Ruskin) is visually based on Rossetti's model and lover, Jane Morris. William Morris also appears as "Maurice Williams," albeit in comedy form.
RTW: What I find so interesting about your artistic style is its realism. You can contrast this sharply with Blake's proto-pseudo-surrealism: even though Blake is very interested in the bodily form; in a kind of Michaelangeloesque form, his bodies are also very pliable. I am particularly interested in the three blank pages in the issue, which mark Arkwright's ascension into a higher consciousness. Why are these pages blank? And how does your depiction of these "unvisualizable" moments relate to the overwhelming verbosity of the printed text?
BT: Arkwright was very self-consciously experimental. I was trying to do some things that I'd never seen in a comic before, e.g. in one sequence I stretch six seconds over 72 panels. The large blocks of text are an example of this, as are the blank pages – I'd never seen it done before and thought it would convey the "pure white light of the void," especially when compared to the dense detail elsewhere.
With both books (in a marketplace which is still overwhelmingly dominated by American material) I was trying to produce something that was very English. One of the ways I did this was by including evocations of what Ackroyd calls "English Music." This included the Blake references, some of them quotations, some visual (e.g., you may have noticed that victoria has a "bow of burning gold").
Please visit Bryan Talbot's website at www.bryan-talbot.com.