Illuminating Underground Roots
A Swamp Thing factoid known to almost all British fans of the series but almost no US fans is that Chester Williams, the benevolent, likeable hippie character Alan Moore introduced to Swamp Thing, was a nod to Bryan Talbot’s most popular 1970s UK underground character, Chester P. Hackenbush. Bryan and I will get into that matter (and the life and legacy of his Chester) in a future interview, but it seemed appropo to use the blog interview format to introduce those of you unfamiliar with Bryan’s pioneering early work and the British underground scene of the ‘70s to both.
I caught Bryan just before he began his April tour of Europe and the US, and we completed this, the third in a series of interviews we’re doing together (the first two were completed for PaneltoPanel.net; see link, below). This intro will serve to introduce all our subsequent interviews, so read on, please, and meet (as best as my own blog can provide a meeting ground) Bryan Talbot.
Spawned -- uh, born February 24th, 1952 in Wigan, Lancashire in England, Bryan Talbot is among his native country’s and the world’s premiere graphic novelists. Bryan in fact created the UK’s first modern graphic novel, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright (launched 1978, first collected into a single volume by Never Ltd. in 1982), an immediate contemporary of Raymond Briggs's celebrated When the Wind Blows.
But that was, in many ways, just a beginning (but not the beginning, as this interview will reveal to those of you who don't know otherwise).
Among Talbot’s other key and notable works are his comic strips (for Manchester Flash, Wired, Vogarth, Imagine, Knockabout, etc.) and contributions to 2000 AD (beginning in 1983, and including artwork for Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, etc.), Hellblazer, Sandman, Fables, the two-part “Mask” for the Batman series Legends of the Dark Knight, and many others. He collaborated with famed vet American underground comics author and poet Tom Veitch on The Nazz, and with Tom’s younger brother Rick Veitch on the first six issues of Teknophage, from a concept by Neil Gaiman; assuming the writing chores on his next Teknophage collaborative venture, Talbot scripted the six-issue miniseries Phage: Shadowdeath. Talbot’s ‘breakthrough’ graphic novel (for the US market, in any case) was the now-classic The Tale of One Bad Rat (1995), followed by his Luther Arkwright sequel Heart of Empire (1999, which also spawned a CD-Rom created by Talbot and his website maestro James Robertson, released the same year).
His most recent graphic novel is the marvelous Alice in Sunderland (2007), which
And that’s just the man’s comics work: Talbot has also illustrated and created covers for numerous comics, books and magazines, worked in advertising, created designs for British Aerospace, collaborated (with sf author Bob Shaw) on “Encounter with a Madman” for Granada TV’s anthology program Celebration (1981), produced concept art for the TV movie Above the World (based on a Ramsey Campbell story, 1994), and oh, so much more.
But it all begins somewhere.
It began for Bryan with an illustration in the Tolkien Society magazine (1969), a weekly comic strip (created with fellow UK cartoonist Bonk) for his college newspaper, and -- most vital of all -- with the British underground comix.
Just as a key component of the American underground comix of the ‘60s and early ‘70s emerged from the countercultural underground newspapers of the day, the British underground comix had their own roots in British underground papers like Oz and International Times (aka IT). Like their American counterparts, these were often rag-tag affairs brimming with radical political screeds, poetry, articles, photo collage, art and comics. The first British underground comic tabloid to emerge from this scene was Cyclops (four issues, 1970), founded by members of the IT staff helmed by Graham Keen, which reprinted choice cuts of the American comix and some new British work. The notorious Nasty Tales (1971-73) followed and was quickly squelched by the authorities and brought to trial; it, too, reprinted US comix along with new work by British cartoonists (Chris Welch, Edward Barker, Malcolm Livingstone). The same was true of the longest running of all British comix, the Cozmic Comics line, which was launched in 1972 (ostensibly as a life-support for Oz magazine) and lasted over twenty titles/issues, showcasing US comix alongside new work by Brian Bolland, Angus McKie, Dave Gibbons, Joe Petagno, Edward Barker, Mike Weller and others.
But even Cozmic Comics met its Waterloo, and by the mid-70s the scene seemed prematurely defunct -- until the arrival of Bryan Talbot and Brainstorm Comix (1975), the first British underground composed of entirely new and all-British creations -- the maturing work of one Bryan Talbot.
Brainstorm Comix was an unabashed psychedelic experience, published by Lee Harris, proprietor of the still-vital Portobello Road headshop Alchemy. Brainstorm Comix #1 also introduced the character of Chester P. Hackenbush -- and, with its third issue, Luther Arkwright, whose adventures proper were launched in Near Myths (reprinted -- in considerably revised and expanded form -- in Psssst! beginning in 1981). Bryan also serialized the adventures of one Frank Fazakerley, Space Ace Of The Future, in Ad Astra (1978) -- but we’re getting ahead of our story.
Let’s talk to Bryan about the underground comix scene overall, and we’ll get to Chester and Luther Arkwright next time around...
SB: When did the cartooning bug first bit you, Bryan?
BRYAN TALBOT: When I was around five years old and an uncle gave me some second-hand collections of the work of British newspaper cartoonist Giles. I couldn't understand the political jokes but I loved the drawings and the wealth of detail in them.
SB: What was your first published work -- and when, in your own mind, did something of yours see print that really had you thinking, "Now I'm on to something..."?
BT: I had a short prose story printed in the school annual when I was about fourteen. My first printed illustrations appeared in The British Tolkein Society magazine, when I was eighteen. I suppose that it was while working on my first underground comics a few years later that I realized that I could perhaps aspire to becoming a professional comic artist but I can't remember a specific moment of revelation.
SB: Between age 18 for you and your first underground creations, what did you do?
BT: A one-year foundation art course followed by a three-year graphic design course.
SB: The British underground scene is a rather murky period to Americans. I recall seeing my first UK undergrounds in a friend's collection, though precious few made it over here. What are you primary memories of how that scene started?
BT: The first UK undergrounds were, on the whole, very influenced by the American ones. In fact the two that lasted for more than an issue or two, Nasty Tales and Cozmic Comics, were filled with reprints of American strips. Both these comics were off-shoots of UK underground publications -- the International Times (IT) newspaper and Oz magazine, respectively. Towards the end of it's run (about eighteen issues) Cozmic Comics started to publish original British material by the likes of Chris Welch and Edward Barker.
SB: Would you care to chart the UK underground in terms of your own development and role therein?
BT: I came in on the tail end of UK undergrounds in 1975 with Brainstorm Comix #1. It had been about two years since the last Cozmic had appeared and the field was empty. Altogether, six issues were produced, mainly of my work but two were anthologies (including work by Hunt Emerson and Chris Welch). At about the same time, Hunt started producing low print run surrealist comics while he worked at the Birmingham Arts Lab. These got more ambitious over the next few years, increasing in size, circulation and contributors.
SB: The American underground expired, really, after the one-two punch of the 1973 Supreme Court Obscenity ruling and the outlawing of head shops, which quickly dismantled the distribution for comix. Arcade was the last, great gasp here. How did the UK underground scene evaporate?
BT: Head shops were never outlawed over here but Brainstorm was pretty well distributed anyway - even to news stands through the distribution company Moore Harness (which used to specialize in T&A mags). In 1978 I stopped doing undergrounds as such and began writing and drawing The Adventures of Luther Arkwright which was serialised in the independent "ground-level" adult SF comic magazine Near Myths. The Arts Lab's comics were never, strictly speaking, underground in that their subject matter wasn't the typical counter culture mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll that is usually associated with the genre. They, themselves, described their comics as "alternative" rather than underground. For example, they published the first UK feminist comic Heroine. They gradually stopped publishing comics at the end of the seventies, after Hunt Emerson left to go freelance. From the mid-seventies, Tony and Carol Bennett had been reprinting Gilbert Shelton's Freak Brothers and,in the early eighties, began Knockabout Comics and have since sporadically published underground and alternative comics and graphic novels, often by Hunt. By the way, my Brainstorm and other underground work was reprinted in one volume a few years ago by Alchemy, its original publisher, and is still in print.
SB: Two variations on the same question, Bryan, if you’ll indulge me. At the time, what was the single most influential British underground comic, story or creator within the scene? And, looking back, 20/20 hindsight, what would you consider today the single most influential comic, story or creator of the 1970s UK underground period?
BT: I don't think that I can really answer this as I think that the answer's Arkwright and myself! The UK underground scene was quite small compared to the US one. Both Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland started in the Brit underground but I can't really say that their work there was very influential. Whereas, Arkwright had many readers who went on to become comic pros who've affirmed the influence that Arkwright had on them, including Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis -- and even Rick Veitch, Michael Zulli -- and yourself! The 1980s Italian edition of Arkwright was also very influencial, I gather, influencing a generation of young Italian SF writers.
SB: That’s true, your Arkwright work was a real influence on me -- we’ll get into that later, promise, in the Arkwright interview!
So, there’s a sort of limbo between the demise of the underground and the rise of 2000 A.D. and what Americans experienced stateside as the British Invasion, if you will, of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. That began with the import and US collections of Judge Dredd, particularly Brian Bolland's tenure on that character, and John Bolton’s new Marvel work and, in 1983, Alan Moore’s taking over the scripting of Saga of the Swamp Thing. All we saw, here, on our own newsstands were works like So Beautiful, So Dangerous serialized in Heavy Metal; horror fans, like myself, also savored the monster magazines -- Bolton, David Lloyd, etc. in Halls of/House of Hammer, which got some US distribution, Dave Gibbons popping up in The Monster Times -- and attentive comics readers caught the eruption of Warrior, which is strictly an import here. We missed Action completely, mind you, and most missed the coming of 2000 A.D. until the Titan trade paperback collections were imported.
You remained active throughout this transitional period; there were the music zines, which few saw here, and you poured yourself into Luther Arkwright, which was at last collected in book form in 1981. Could you chat about this post-underground, pre-British Invasion period, Bryan? What was it like over there, as a creator and a reader? And what, specifically, was it like for you?
BT: I was actually making money for the first time! This is the period when I went professional. As well as working on Arkwright, I did a lot of illustration work -- airbrush paintings, rock star pinups etc, as well as the
weekly strip Scumworld in Sounds. It was a pretty exciting time. Pssst!, the experimental precursor of comic magazines such as Heartbreak Hotel, Escape and Deadline was coming out and we were all waiting for Warrior, which was a year or two in preparation and promised -- and delivered -- a lot. Meanwhile, 2000 A.D. was the cutting edge of the adventure comic. I started working for it myself in 1983.
SB: What would you consider your key works from this pre-Luther Arkwright, early career period for you?
BT: The "Chester P. Hackenbush" trilogy in Brainstorm, I suppose -- and Frank Fazakerly, Space Ace of the Future! -- a monthly one page SF spoof strip in Ad Astra magazine (the UK's answer to Omni).
SB: Thanks, Bryan, I really appreciate the time you’ve given us -- let’s chat again, and soon. Good luck and happy trails on your April tour!
For more on Bryan’s life, times and comics, check out
Bryan selflessly adds,
This is just the first in a series of upcoming interviews, with all kinds of folks I hope you'll find of interest: cartoonists, writers, filmmakers, jacks-of-all-trades, and many more. So -- more exclusive interviews with other folks in the coming weeks -- keep your eye on this blog, folks!