Englands dreaming

For The Comics Journal a read of The Legend of Luther Arkwright, only the third full length story Bryan Talbot has published in 46 years about the character who nevertheless gets mentioned every time Talbot’s name comes up.

Roughly zero surprise that from Talbot’s position on the Left the Luther Arkwright of 1989 was angry and revolutionary and the Luther Arkwright of 1999 was cautiously optimistic that things had improved and the Luther Arkwright of 2022 teeters over a deep well of pessimism about people and the media and politicians and everything—and that the book literalises these agonies directly rather than risk anything more metaphorical.

The art has reverted back to black & white after the wide-screen Hollywood colour of 1999, although a lower energy and less esoteric style than the mystical brainstorms of 1989, and the book is a sombre black hardback tome of serious import. Radical art should get back to samizdat agitprop on copier paper and radical arts criticism along with it if you ask me, but presumably Talbot feels he has something serious to say and sought a physical form to match.

Although some of the content seems like well trodden ground—a supervillain storyline and its double-cross double-bluffs could be from a Mission: Impossible cross-over with the X-Men, and a blond fool British Prime Minster blaming the electorate for voting for isolation is a sighting of that worn-out chestnut Has Art Stopped Brexit Yet?—the book smears story threads and locations into each other in ways that seem at heart extremely British. Like the first Arkwright (and less like the second) it plants a shovel into the British landscape and its various lost promises, the mythical floorboards under the uncivilised furniture.

Moving the furniture requires Luther Arkwright to slaughter a lot of people, again. He was always UK comics’ warrior-philosopher, the enlightened pilgrim in a universe Talbot is careful to show runs on strict mathematical lines, its multiverse coordinates mapped out like IP addresses. But regularly over several decades Arkwright has kept renouncing brutality and preaching a Leftist message and getting the monk’s kasaya out of the wardrobe, before being forced by circumstances to engage in the old ultra-violence and blow some brains out, sometimes while still wearing the thing.

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