Written between 1978 and 1989 Luther Arkwright can lay claim to being one of the very first, fully realised Steampunk novels. The retro futurist genre can be seen everywhere nowadays, in children’s books like Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines books and comic book franchises like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but Talbot rarely receives much credit for helping define it.
Arkwright takes place mainly in a parallel world where the English civil war has been indefinitely prolonged, and Oliver Cromwell still fights on, enabled by the ‘Disruptors’ who are attempting to destabilise the entire mulitiverse… come back non-geeks! Just think of it as His Dark Materials mixed with Dan Dare and you’re part way there (you’re not).
I didn’t really understand it at the time, and to be honest still don’t really. But as a teenager that was part of the appeal – this deliberately perplexing story was infinitely cool. And unlike the superhero comics I was also into, I could read Luther Arkwright on the bus without getting beaten up – I even made friends with other kids who were in on this culty secret.
What really impressed me was the sheer amount of bloody effort that had obviously gone into this comic. It felt like the creation of a crazed outsider artist, producing obsessively detailed work for the eyes of the privileged few. Talbot has said he became interested in the engravings of William Hogarth and sought to emulate his dense style through cross hatching. The image above, ‘Transfiguration’ Talbot describes as an ‘essay in light and shade: the light streams in through the window and the interior is filled with softly reflected light. The character is side-lit by the match he lights his cigarette with. And, on the wall behind him, is the Pre-Raphaelite painting by Holman Hunt I am the Light of the World – a reference to the messianic status that Arkwright achieves ‘.
The success of Luther Arkwright led Talbot to 2000 AD (home of Judge Dredd) and a job with the daddy of modern British comics Pat Mills, whose strip Nemesis the Warlock needed someone with a suitably steampunk style. Of which more soon…