Tod und verklärung
The opening sequence of “Luther Arkwright” #6
At the risk of committing a brutal act of over-simplification, it is possible to define two distinct (but not separate) narrative elements in “The Adevntures of Luther Arkwright”. The first of these can be handily described as “plot” and is concerned with two interlocking stories; that of the search for Firefrost and the Disruptors' home parallel mounted by the denizens of Valhalla Nova, and that of the political crises centred in the Cromwellian England of parallel 00.72.87. The second element is not so easy to formularize but can perhaps be described as “self-discovery”, concerning as it does the spiritual growth and development of Arkwright himself. Such definitions are little more than a reductio ad absurdum of Bryan's achievement, but they serve to indicate that his narrative is constructed on the plot / characterisation combination that has been a staple foundation in English writing since Chaucer. What makes “Luther Arkwright” a unique experience is the way in which the two elements are intertwined, and, especially, the incredible wealth of detail packed into the account of Arkwright's personal evolution.
It is in this latter respect that Bryan demonstrates the potential of comics as a superior literary medium. He is not only a fine writer but also a brilliant illustrator who understands, as do comparatively few comics creators, that his chosen medium is ideally suited to the use of iconography as an extension of textual imagery. Adapting for that purpose Nicolas Roeg's flash-cutting cinematic technique, he has created a work perhaps rivalling in density Joyce's “Ulysees”, whilst being a good deal more compact and much easier to read!
At the epicentre of this hugely complex narrative stands the figure of Luther Arkwright. More than just the central character, he is the focus of the comic's iconology; much of the visual symbolism in the story is perceived by the reader through the medium of Arkwright's perceptions, made coherent by the impact upon him of sights and sounds, images and words. Mindful of dramatic unities, Bryan does not limit himself to a single narrative viewpoint; that which Arkwright does not perceive is conveyed to the reader through the dei ex machina of Zero-Zero, the Brechtian commentary of Kowolsky's dispatches, and the psychic linkage of the principal Rose Wyldes. That, however, simply demonstrates his mastery of dramatic plotting; Arkwright's perceptions constitute the cohesive factor uniting the narrative's storytelling and imagery. One crucial nexus in which these threads are climactically brought together is the “coma sequence” which opens #6.
Once again, bald definition proves inadequate, for the “coma sequence” is very much more than that simple phrase suggests. His body broken and tortured to the point of destruction, Arkwright is compelled to resort wholly to his spiritual and psychic resources for the first time in a life during which he has either suppressed them with drugs or allowed them only to serve the violence for which he was programmed by his childhood imprinting (Leary's “dexterity-symbolism” circuit) at the hands of the Disruptors. Having been further imprinted with awareness of this self-inhibition during his first sexual experience (Leary's “socio-sexual” circuit), he is now faced with the choice between dying and breaking the mould by evolving beyond the restrictions that have shaped his life so far. What follows is a tour-de-force,an exraordinary piece of writing in which many of the details delineated in the story so far are fused and shaped into the material of Arkwright's personal gnosis.
The underlying concept of this third person "stream of consciousness" is a fusion of various resonances of the figure 8.Bryan acknowledges this by appending a note (attributed to one Dr. S. Heywood) at the end of the sequence which explains the significance of the “Magician” card in the Tarot pack and refers to the figure 8 as a symbol of resurrection. Furthermore,while it is common knowledge that 666 is the number of the Beast, it is less well known that 888, according to the Greek numerological system called Gematria, is the number of Jesus. There is other material in this note which will be referred to later; for now,there are other aspects of the figure 8 which,to further clarify the episode, it seems worth emphasising. The Western musical scales (Major and Minor) contain eight notes - the octave first defined by Pythagoras. Kundalini is a yogic process involving channeling of one's psychic energy upwards through seven chakras (energy centres corresponding to the base of the spine, the sacrum, the solar plexus, the heart, throat, brow and the crown of the head) in a spiral, resembling the DNA helix, around an intangible axis; the whole pattern resembles the Hermetic caduceus. The “circuits” referred to in the previous paragraph are respectively the third and fourth “elements” in Tim Leary's postulated "Periodic Table of Evolution", which theorizes the existence of eight stages of potential mental evolution; the socio-sexual circuit is, according to Leary, as far as most people get. (1)
In short, the core material of the episode is a fusion of Occidental and Oriental consciousness-raising techniques. Arkwright is assailed by images of music and sex, two mystical experiences still common coin in the West, as his kundalini energy rises toward the sahasrana chakra atop his head and he is propelled further up Leary's evolutionary scale. Woven in with this are kaleidoscopic impressions of a past which he must come to terms with, must comprehend if he is to survive and grow beyond his near-death experience. Apparently random details seen previously during the story become a code of imagery deciphers for Arkwright the meaning of his past. The picture of Leda and the swan before which Anne stood in #4 gives him the key to his memories of their coupling and emphasises his imminent elevation away from Homo Sapiens; at the same time, the icon presages the result of Anne's pregnancy, for the offspring of Leda and Zeus were twins.
As the sequence climaxes, Arkwright's earlier struggle with his fear of death is replaced by an ecstatic appreciation of his ability to transcend it. The empty rhetoric of King Charles' last words on Black Tuesday is invested with new meaning, a lyric from a Gene Kelly film is placed in a new context, the music takes on the apparently chaotic form of modernism as Arkwright's kundalini peaks, shattering his ego and with it his fear of dying. The Wheel of Fortune ceases turning and Death is revealed, a significator not of finality but of Change. Arkwright is resurrected as a shaman, receiving a baptism of blood as he stands on an octagonal flagstone in the guardroom - the eight-sided baptismal font referred to in the note concerning the Tarot mentioned above. He has become as a new-born child, a near-innocent purged, except for the violence program identified for him by Miranda, of his past and possessing not super-powers but super-humanity.
As this crucial episode in Bryan's narrative ends with the transfiguration of the cold and unemotional Arkwright, so a corresponding shift in the relationship between his perceptions and the narrative's style follows. Elevated to Leary's sixth (“neuro-electric”) circuit, the reborn Arkwright displays the traditional attributes of shamanism - the power of flight, expanded awareness of, and oneness with, nature (beautifully delineated in his walk through the woods at the close of #6) and, above all, a fully developed precognitive sense. It is this that enables Bryan to effect a major change in narrative technique; where he had previously used the character and perceptions of Arkwright as a medium through which the reader could decipher the story's symbolism, the enhancement of those perceptions allows the character to more directly convey the story's action. The shaman shapes his own reality; thus #7's time-displacement sequence encapsulates for the reader Arkwright's knowledge of what is to come, triggered by the poignancy of what he knows to be his final meeting with 00.72.87's Rose. Immediately after comes the assassination of the Cabinet in #8, seen by the reader in the slow-motion mode in which Arkwright himself perceives it.
Bryan's adoption of prescience into the narrative mode following the climax of the “coma sequence” not only mirrors Arkwright's increased perceptions but accelerates the story's motion towards its climax. For the transformation is not yet complete; that is held over until #9, when Arkwright, in a first person “stream of consciousness” mode this time, confronts the ancient Urizen-like alien and is further elevated (albeit momentarily) to the godhood of Leary's eighth, ”neuro-atomic” ,circuit. In the course of the encounter his violence program peaks (“Stitch that!”) and is fulfilled, enabling him to at last objectify his personal mantra of violence, the intermingled images of the Bayeux Tapestry and the Vietnam slaughter footage. The story ends with a conversation with Rose, a kind of coda which amplifies and finally exhausts the material in #6's note on the Tarot, and concludes on a note of mythic resonance as the saviour of the multiverse hurls his vibro-beamer into the sea, Excalibur cast back into the lake.
The foregoing analysis of a single episode in Bryan's narrative, a superficial analysis at best, is intended to present a microcosmic model of the density of information apparent throughout the whole story. The thought of attempting an overview of the narrative is, frankly, horrifying; to suggest an “underview”, though, is perhaps a simpler task. Beneath the erudition and embellishment with which Bryan has continually dazzled and delighted the reader during the past year-and-a-half lies the solid foundation of a very venerable story. Hero opposes villain, achieves victory and individuation, goes home to a happy ending. Odysseus too underwent rites of passage and returned to his loved one; like Arkwright he then vanished beyond the readers' ken. "The Adventures of Luther Arkwright" may be the first genuine epic in the history of the comics medium; in my opinion, it is certainly the finest.
Mike Kidson, Liverpool 1989.
(1) See Robert Anton Wilson's “Cosmic Trigger” (London: Sphere, 1979) Bryan has publicly acknowledged the influence of Wilson on his work, and I therefore consider it appropriate to employ Wilsonian terminology in analysing this episode.
Campbell, J: Myths to live by (London, Souvenir Press, 1979)
Jung, C. G. and Kerenyi, F: Science of mythology (New York, Bollingen, 1949)
Miller, R. A: The magical and ritual use of herbs (New York, Destiny, 1983)
Rendel, P: Introduction to the Chakras (Wellingborough, Aquarian, 1979)
Skidmore, M. (ed.): Fantasy Advertiser #102, May 1988,pps. 24-28, FA #103, June 1988, pps. 24-55 (Leicester, Neptune, 1988)
Wilson, R. A: Cosmic Trigger: the final secret of the Innumanati (London, Sphere, 1979)
Zappa, F: Guitar (Hollywood:Barking Pumpkin, 1988)
WITH THANKS TO:
Bryan for advice,encouragement,subject matter!
Khris for patience,encouragement,hot tea!
Harry for making me use the computer!
Danny for showing me how to use it!
R. Strauss for the title - and for the final scene of Der Rosenkavalier!