Two By Talbot reviewed by Rob Vollmar

Posted by on January 5th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Heart of Empire; Bryan Talbot, Color by Angus McKie; Dark Horse Publications; 296 pp., $27.95; Color, Softcover; ISBN: 9781593077266

Art of Bryan Talbot; NBM Publishing; 96 pp., $19.95; Color, Softcover; ISBN: 978156163-5122

One of the unexpected benefits of Alice in Sunderland’s breakout success is the relative wealth of creator Bryan Talbot’s work currently available. Alice publisher Dark Horse has put out an edition of Heart of Empire, the sequel to Talbot’s landmark, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. NBM Publishing has also released The Art of Bryan Talbot, an illustration retrospective of the artist’s career that serves as an able springboard for Talbot’s own ruminations on his development and career as a comics artist and visual storyteller. Though unequal in their status within the body of Talbot’s printed work, these two books read in tandem reveal all the strengths necessary to anticipate the intellectual ferocity and the visual genius of Alice in Sunderland.

With a career tethered at one end to the last gasp of the underground comix movement and, at the other, still spooling outward through the second coming of the graphic novel, it takes a book like The Art of Bryan Talbot just to appreciate the scope of the artist’s activities over the last 30-plus years. The Art of grants the reader generous access to Talbot’s formative art experiences and shows his rapid progression from gifted hobbyist to professional. Talbot’s earliest published work on display here from the British underground comic Brainstorm speaks plainly to his influences. His attention to design and lavish devotion to detail is cumulatively reminiscent of R. Crumb. His stories show an interest in the world-building aspects of fantasy and share a certain degree of sympathy with French science-fiction/fantasy comics of the 1970s, particularly the work of Moëbius.

The book spends a number of pages on Talbot’s first unabashed masterpiece, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. Considered by many to be one of the more influential graphic novels of the 1980s, Arkwright suffered a torturous process of serialization that stretched from 1978 to 1989. Talbot’s story of the difficult road that his originally conceived and produced graphic novel had to travel in order to finally reach print serve as vivid reminder of the less-than-ideal circumstances under which graphic novelists then and now have to produce their most personal and most important work.

Though the illustrations supplied to represent Arkwright (and consequently most of Talbot’s major works as an artist) are testament of his ability to draw very well, they also demonstrate the major shortcoming of The Art of Bryan Talbot. While Arkwright does represent one of the high points of realistic drawing in British comics from the 1980s, that is not why its influence has been so vast or its inspiration so widely spread. Talbot’s sophisticated narrative and formal experimentation with the flow of time on the page were absolutely cutting-edge when the serial began and widely imitated by writers and artists alike by its completion. While it is possible to demonstrate a quality like that through the careful selection and presentation of excerpts from those works, it simply can’t be done through a short sequence of beautiful if thematically unrelated illustrations.

In all fairness, the title of the book is not The Comics of Bryan Talbot. Whatever its shortcomings, perceived or otherwise, The Art of Bryan Talbot more than achieves its immediate goals of creating a timeline from Alice back to Brainstorm, as well as archiving deserving illustrations that many of Talbot’s fans might have never otherwise seen.

While readers can expect to emerge from The Art of Bryan Talbot with a sense of scope, Heart of Empire is all about depth. From many standpoints, it is his superlative work. Beginning 23 years after the ending of Luther’s first adventures, Heart of Empire expands on the themes of the original while coolly sidestepping many of its formalist quirks. Talbot opens the book with a wicked three-page sequence that confidently establishes the aesthetic criteria for what follows.

The first page is a splash panel of fruits and vegetables on a windowsill overlooking the buildings surrounding the Vatican. The eye is first drawn to the objects in the foreground, accentuated by Talbot’s lewdly full inking and the implied violence of a knife jutting out of a pomegranate. The Vatican looms just off-center on the canvas created by the window and draws the gaze first out across the finely inked structures that separate the viewer and the object. Finally, the building lumbers up from the city and is swallowed by the unbroken sky above, a visual meditation of sorts on the interaction between the mortal and the divine. The only text is a cryptic caption that establishes the location of the scene in Rome while contextualizing the time as “Seven Days to the Cataclysm.”

The second page begins with the image of a record playing, doubly ironic in its implication of sound and motion in a mute and frozen medium. Talbot changes angles on the next shot as he pulls his gaze back, now partially exposing a robed figure with his back to the record player. Then, he suddenly pulls us figuratively through the figure so that we are looking down at him with the record player now at his back before carrying us outside the window to show the knife, the monk and the record player from yet another vantage. There is no text on the page, only the implied sound of the music.

Page three opens with an abrupt close-up on the record player’s needle. The monk’s eyes now roll begin to roll strangely back in his head as his gaze turns upward. The middle of the third page is dominated by a fragmented triptych representing the monk taking in a number of fresco paintings that adorn his ceiling. His blissful meditation is interrupted as the needle reaches the inside of the record and, without explanation, he clenches his eyes shut and begins to moan. This guttural is the only text that adorns the page and the first dialogue balloon to appear. What awaits the reader after the next page turn is just shocking enough to warrant omission from a review for fear of spoiling one of Heart of Empire’s more priceless moments though certainly not its last. From its opening pages, it is clear that Talbot intends to differentiate Heart of Empire from Arkwright with a new strategy that redirects the narrative energy once spent on furious stream-of-consciousness captions toward visual concerns like blocking, architecture and meticulous costuming. In stripping away the ability to deliver his story in chunks of expository monologue, Talbot enables the plot to flow from the character’s actions rather than their thoughts.

Heart of Empire also features some of the finest drawing of Talbot’s career, enabled by Angus McKie’s sharp colors. Arkwright stakes its artistic claim on the nuanced graytones that Talbot is able to blend, stipple, crosshatch and otherwise coax from his pen. Its fine lines and inclination toward photorealism stand in marked contrast to the thick, more emotive inking style that characterizes his earlier work on Brainstorm. The effect on the page is a mathematical detachment that underscores Luther’s aloofness in relation to the world he is saving — a theme doubly reinforced by the dominance of the text over the images in shaping and delivering the narrative.

In eradicating the captioned narration, Talbot must rely more heavily on the art in Heart of Empire to carry both the meaning and emotive value of the story. In adding color to the storytelling equation, he is able to pull his (and our) attention to details beyond texture and light sourcing. The pages breathe with a sense of space that the often-claustrophobic Arkwright is rarely allowed and are visually more dynamic for it. Despite the repellent qualities of the Empire that has replaced Arkwright’s fascist state, the physical environment is so richly developed and visually stimulating that one is often tempted to root for the status quo if only that it might extend the time spent exploring in this world of Talbot’s creation.

Read in context with The Art of Bryan Talbot and Heart of Empire, the only thing surprising about Alice in Sunderland’s success is the blinding speed at which Talbot developed and executed its madcap vision. Nearly all of its other strengths are well evidenced through Talbot’s career as a comics creator. While his work as a younger man was rightly hailed as among the more progressive of its time, Talbot has demonstrated a restless desire to improve and expand that has driven his career into second and third phases that have eluded some of his talented peers. Given the richness of the fruit brought about by his efforts of late, there is little danger in looking forward to his next with a justified sense of expectation and more than just a little impatience.

Images [©2007 Bryan Talbot]

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