This Zen-Crazed Aerial Madman Just Won’t Take No For An Answer (The Last War in Albion Part 4: Michael Moorcock, Luther Arkwright)
“This Zen-crazed aerial madman just won’t take no for an answer”
-Grant Morrison, The Invisibles #18, 1996
[previously] The Cornelius books are characterized by large quantities of philosophical dialogue in amidst the action set pieces, which often fade towards the background. A few chapters after the yowling passenger Cornelius recalls a conversation where “a girl had once asked him, stroking the muscles of his stomach, ‘what do you achieve by the destruction of the odd library? There are so many. How much can one man do?’ ‘What he can,’ Cornelius had told her, rolling on her. ‘It’s History that’s caused all the trouble in the past.’” Moorcock has commented that the Cornelius books are populated by “characters who are aware of the psychological implications of their statements and actions. That is they are as aware of the unconscious as the conscious. In that sense it was a rejection of modernist techniques as found in Joyce, Woolf and so on. My view was that we had moved on from needing to make that sort of observation.” Instead Moorcock’s characters, as he describes it, “tend to anticipate one another’s statements and short-cut their own,” engaging in an endlessly anticipated and reiterated philosophical dialogue that plays out over the superficial frame of the heroic fantasy stories.
In this regard the Cornelius line can be thought of as the archetypal Moorcock work – the one that explores the way in which the same basic story structure that underpins all of the iterations of the Eternal Champion changes and shifts as the world around it does. The later Cornelius stories arbitrarily change the frame and rules of the story from chapter to chapter without particular explanation.
|Figure 22: Barbarians and Mods juxtaposed in “Time is a|
Four Letter Word,” from Near Myths #2, 1979 (Click images
To suggest that it is possible that a fictional multiverse in which one primary character is a dandy action hero who lives in an eternally shifting world and another – the most prominent, in fact – is a sword and sorcery barbarian figure whose world blends in with the present day at times might have been an influence on the writer of the Gideon Stargrave stories or “Time is a Four Letter Word” seems almost too obvious to be worthwhile. Of course Moorcock was a major influence on Grant Morrison’s earliest comics work, and, more to the point, on much of his subsequent work.
The question of why Moorcock, who was after all usually perfectly happy to let others play with his fictional concepts, lashed out so angrily at Morrison for his Cornelius pastiche is interesting, but not entirely germane at this point in the war’s development. Suffice it to say that Morrison is quite justified in his exasperation when he points to his later works and asks “can anyone tell me from which Michael Moorcock novels Zenith and Animal Man were plagiarized,” but that it is equally clear that Morrison was influenced by the entire new wave literary tradition Moorcock came out of, and that it is in many ways very easy to draw direct links between Moorcock’s work and his.
|Figure 23: Jon Finch’s rendition of Jerry Cornelius talks|
assassination in an arcade in the 1973 film version of
The Final Programme
But it is also important to realize that for Morrison it is more the interplay of iconography that fascinates Morrison than the actual content. So while Morrison may include a flashback to Stargrave and his sister Genevieve arguing, whereby Genevieve proclaims that “love is a lie! A justification for sex! Sex is all there is! Sex! Sex! Sex! You’re out of synch with the world, love. Obsolete…” – a scene with marked similarities to the sorts of twists the Cornelius books take – this is, for Morrison, just a visual and narrative trope to riff off of. In this regard it is perhaps more significant to look at the degree to which Cornelius had filtered out into the larger culture. Echoes of the concept, after all, can be found throughout 1970s popular culture. Most obvious is the 1973 film The Final Programme, a Moorcock-disclaimed adaptation of the first Cornelius book starring Jon Finch as Cornelius and imbuing Cornelius’s adventures with a genuinely visual aesthetic. The film was a disposable piece of 70s trash cinema, and its execution rarely matched the giddy ambition of the books, but it still grounded Cornelius’s adventures in what seems like their natural environment: the world of cultural images out of which his adventures are built. Morrison, for his part, cites the film as equally important to his aesthetic and self-conception as the books when he mentions them in Supergods.
|Figure 24: Jon Pertwee glam action hero third incarnation of the |
popular television character Doctor Who was another blatant
Jerry Cornelius ripoff
If the film of The Final Programme was cheap-looking version of the Cornelius stories then it compares sensibly with the other obvious Cornelius analogue in 1973’s popular culture, the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who, featuring Pertwee as a ruffled shirt-wearing dandy whose magical blue box moved him rapidly from setting to setting, and who never quite fit in, always seeming more like an alien doing a drag performance of the manly action hero – the sort whose cool car was in fact an antique roadster, and whose action sequences consisted of shouting “Hai!” a lot as people fell over at the hands of his mighty Venusian Akido. This idea of an alien drag performance also describes the glam rock period of David Bowie’s career, which seems in many regards a decade-long real life performance of a Jerry Cornelius story, complete with the inevitable transformation into Pierot the Clown that awaited Bowie in his last magnum opus, the 1980 album Scary Monsters. If Cornelius is less a character than a technique then the technique was a standard approach of 1970s media, and Morrison, who is clearly deeply invested in the visual style of things, would have picked it up from far more places than just some novels.
|Figure 25: Pierot the Clown is a familiar figure from|
the Commedia dell’arte
This marks a profound difference between Morrison and Moorcock. Moorcock is aggressively literary in his influences – from his perspective “the Commedia dell’arte,” an Italian style of theater based around stock and trope characters, “has been one of my chief influences, especially in relation to the Cornelius books. I have a large collection of commedia material as well as French and English versions. I have some of those old commedia plot books which can be very stimulating when mulling over the structure of a story.” Elsewhere he lists his influences as Ronald Firbank, a post-decadent British author of the early 20th century heavily inspired by Oscar Wilde, and Burroughs, who he remarks are “two not dissimilar figures in my estimation.” The difference between this profoundly bookish approach and Morrison, who in 2005 declared that “I haven’t had any interest in science fiction since a brief but inspirational teenage obsession with the ‘New Wave’ generation of Moorcock, Ballard, and Ellison” and that “these days I just read comics and watch DVDs for my fiction dose” is self-evident. However similar the material the two writers treat, in other words, there are fundamental divergences in their interests and approaches.
In other words, rather than focusing on the specific question of direct influence it is more useful to consider the general question of interplay between the new wave that Moorcock and Ballard belonged to – a movement that had demonstrably broad impact on the culture – and British comics in 1979, particularly in the context of Near Myths.
If this means going beyond Moorcock’s work to understand the context then it also means going beyond Morrison’s, as Morrison’s work is by and large only the second best Moorcock-indebted work in Near Myths, and Gideon Stargrave is in no way the sole protagonist in the anthology to be inspired by Jerry Cornelius. The other, greater Moorcock riff is Luther Arkwright, eponymous hero of Bryan Talbot’s universe-hopping epic. Talbot is, largely unfairly, the forgotten man of British Comics; unlike both Moore and Morrison, who abandoned drawing their own comics due to their lack of speed and talent, Talbot remained known primarily as an illustrator, as well-known for his work on Nemesis the Warlock for 2000 A.D. and his credits in things like Vertigo Comics’ Sandman, Hellblazer, and Fables. But his solo work is of equal note, particularly Alice in Sunderland, The Tale of One Bad Rat, and The Adventures of Luther Arkwright.
|Figure 26: Gunplay with nuns in the first appearance of |
Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright, “The Papist Affair,” from
his mid-70swork in Brainstorm Comix…
Luther Arkwright did not begin in Near Myths, but in Brainstorm Comix, a mid-70s underground book put out under the Alchemy Press label and dominated by Talbot’s early work. A seven pager a not even thinly veiled Cornelius clone, “The Papist Affair” did not bristle with promise, and is not even included in later editions of the story. Still, its mix of motorbikes and period detail in an alternate history in which the villain is the church is a close mirror of Grant Morrison’s “The Vatican Conspiracy.” This fact is not lost on Bryan Talbot, who in 2009 referred to “a kung fu fight with a fascist archbishop – a scene later plagiarized by Grant Morrison in one of his Near Myths strips.” Talbot overstates the case, but more has been made out of narrower similarities in the course of the war.
|Figure 27: And in Grant Morrison’s second Gideon Stargrave|
strip, in Near Myths #4 (1979)
Still, all of this would be an odd footnote were it not for the fact that Talbot resurrected the character for a strip in Near Myths, which debuted in the first issue and continued into issue number five, which Talbot himself edited in a last, desperate, and failed to get the magazine into usable shape. Talbot tried it again in psssst!, when it was interrupted by the magazine folding out from under it again, before the existing material was collected along with several issues of new material by Valkyrie Press from 1987-89, and eventually Dark Horse Comics in a manner not dissimilar to DC/Vertigo handling of Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta.
Although few would suggest, particularly in the light of the latter’s appropriation by Anonymous and the Occupy movement, that The Adventures of Luther Arkwright has had the same degree of influence as V for Vendetta, the comparison is not entirely inapt. Certainly The Adventures of Luther Arkwright has what might be described as friends where it counts – Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Rick Veitch, and Garth Ennis provided fan mail for the letter column of the first issue of Arkwright sequel Heart of Empire. Moore and Moorcock further provided introductions to the Valkyrie press editions of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, where Moore tipped his hat to Talbot for being “a crucial stepping stone” and positioning Talbot as the genesis of the entire wave of British comics writers and artists that was cresting in 1987 when his introduction was written. Moorcock declares him “one of my own personal favorites,” while Warren Ellis goes so far as to proclaim Arkwright to be “the single most influential graphic novel to come out of Britain to date.” Even Grant Morrison, whose relationship with potential influences can be strained, defends Talbot in a 2002 interview, crediting him over Alan Moore for comics’ abandonment of thought bubbles, and defending him when the interviewer proclaims, “I don’t rate Luther Arkwright,” saying that “I just thought it was fantastic” and “I like Bryan Talbot’s work. It kinda resonated with stuff I was into.”
Clearly The Adventures of Luther Arkwright is a landmark text, and, by most reasonable standards, more important than the appearance of Morrison’s promising juvenilia. But these proper Luther Arkwright stories follow from what is almost an incidental detail of “The Papist Affair,” which is mostly as Talbot described it in 2009 – “a daft romp.” In the course of its heavily armed motorcycle nun antics the story almost incidentally introduces its premise of parallel worlds. This is sensible enough – “The Papist Affair” is an admitted Cornelius riff, and thus it’s essentially impossible that parallel worlds weren’t in Talbot’s head as he was writing it. But Talbot became intrigued by this concept and decided to develop Arkwright into a character who could anchor a sustained narrative.
|Figure 28: Textual artifacts from|
within the fictional world and tight,
detailed linework from The Adventures
of Luther Arkwright #1 (1987, original
from Near Myths, 1979)
In the course of this he moved the character away from his Moorcockian roots. So the Luther Arkwright of Near Myths is a more austere character, still modern, but rendered in a less period-dated style. Talbot also swapped the cartoony, exaggerated style of the Brainstorm Comix iteration of the character in favor of a shadowy style dominated by intricate inkwork and photorealist faces, and abandoned the simple grid he used for his straightforward action romp in favor of an experimental style heavily reliant on layering objects on top of objects and including snatches of documents that exist only within the world of the story.
Like Morrison’s work there’s a high degree of formal complexity to Luther Arkwright. And like Morrison’s work this complexity is turned towards a specifically psychedelic approach in which the hopping between parallel universes turns into an intensive spiritual enlightenment. This culminates in issue six of the nine-issue Valkyrie Press series, in which Arkwright has a near-death experience that provides psychedelic and spiritual rebirth. Splash pages dominated by blocks of text abound, walls of stream of consciousness and ecstatic visions juxtaposed with Blakean horrors rendered in what Morrison describes as Talbot’s “meticulous drawing style” and compares to Albrecht Dürer.
|Figure 29: Albrecht Dürer was a German Renaissance|
printmaker and engraver.
The text becomes a cut-up invocation that puts Burroughs to shame, describing how “in the garden of Gethesemene Kali becomes Miranda take this my ankh the egyptian sign of life renounce the ways of violence Luther the tabla beat faster the star changes to a distant Balalaika Siberian winds howl” against a backdrop of copulating demons drawn in sinewy shadow. [continued]