Another Luther Arkwright story? I just got to the point where I was beginning to understand the first one! Graphic author Bryan Talbot has given us another cross-universe tale involving everybody's favorite psionic-messiah. Though conspicuously inferior (even though it's in color) to the original series � a circa late �80�s black and white �science-fictational� story �in nine parts�, it's still a massive romp.
IF YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF LUTHER ARKWRIGHT: The continuum in which Arkwright lives encompasses a reality composed of multiple universes called �paras� � each one being its own reality both divergent and convergent with others. While the inhabitants of most of these universes are oblivious to the existence of the others, the advanced (and highly secularized society) of �Para 00.00� has not only learned how to cross the multi-versal divide, but has taken it upon itself to police the continuum. Using high-technology and �psionics�, they saved the continuum in the first series from a doomsday weapon fielded by a mysterious army called �disruptors�. Luther Arkwright is 00.00�s greatest weapon against multi-versal disruption, but even he is an alien to 00.00. Arkwright instead is the product of eons of genetic engineering meant to create a human with unmatched psy-powers, capable of crossing the barriers between parallel universes. As in the original AoLA, "Heart" involves some terrifying threat to the existence of the entire continuum, but focuses much of the action on a parallel in which the imperialistic powers of pre-WWI Europe were never wiped out. (In AoLA, the crown heads of Europe conspire to overthrow the fascist British regime descended from the 17th century theocratic protectorate of Oliver Cromwell�s Puritans and install a puppet king in his place; with Cromwell�s help, the weak Prince Charles is killed and his sister, the strong-willed Anne succeeds to the throne on Cromwell�s ouster. When the rest of Europe�s royalty is �accidentally� killed in the climactic battle of AoLA, leaving Anne the sole surviving ruler, her kingdom is poised to become the greatest on Earth.) Got that?
A complex plot linked Luther�s origins with the fate of the universe and that of the inhabitants of that specific para. Even when its plot wasn't clear AoLA excelled in its narrative, a peerless blend of graphic art and judicious use of prose and dialog in place of traditional comic technique of using thought-baloons. To sweeten things for people who insisted on having everything explained to them, Talbot crafted a wonderfully nuanced alternative earth, inspired by Europe in both its early fascist and terminal imperialist phases (AoLA appeared in the late 1980's when the cold war looked ready to take a dramatic turn).
"Heart " takes place nearly 20 years later and Britannia truly rules. While Princess Victoria, the tempestuous daughter of Anne and Luther, struggles under endless migraines, the empire faces threats from without and within. Anne's closest advisers are actually a cell of hardcore neo-Puritans, with a plan to reclaim power; while in Rome, a dying pope dispatches an assassin with orders to ensure that Anne "render her empire to the Church". Unknown to them all, a horrific psionic force is building strength across the many universes, primed to explode in days, already leaving hints of itself everywhere. Luther, who disappeared shortly after Anne's ascension, a feared victim of underground puritans, is of no help. Only Victoria, who may have inherited Luther's psi-capabilities, has a realization of something horrible and imminent. In frequent black-outs, she dreams of her twin brother Henry, murdered by puritan terrorists.
"Heart" is superb, but still less than AoLA. The colors are splashy, but lack the intricate detail that drove AoLA 's plot robs the sequel of its narrative force. Also missing...is Luther himself for large spans of the story - leaving poor Vicky to shoulder the burdens of heroism, which also deprives the story of as centralized character as Luther. When Luther does show up, he's more aloof than ever, unfortunately. Also missing is a good villain - the neo-puritans of this book are just a bunch of deluded fascists, possessing not a shred of the self-awareness of Cromwell in the first book. Their leader, Kray is too cartoonish (metaphorically and literally � we first meet him as he poses for a portrait that looks more real than he does). Vain and hinting of racial tendencies that underlined Anglo-identity theory, he's a corseted, spectacled loser with shoulder pads and a bad haircut to go with his big dreams; only Queen Anne's growing dementia allows these guys to get as far as they do. Nothing underlines the futility of the puritans' cause as much as their slogan - "The Future Belongs to Us" (I wonder how long it took to dream that up). The joke of course is that there may not be a future to steal. The horrific force itself, when revealed, is essentially a blob, a force of nature without the character of those who invented the �fire frost� weapon of the first series. The real menace of the original story was Luther and his untapped abilities, but that's sidelined in the sequel. Even Rosa Wylde, Luther�s love of the first series is grayed here. With her hair in beads, Rosa looks a shadow of her former self. The end is much too pat and unsatisfying, revealing the disparity between two Arkwright epics. Still, it's an Arkwright story, one that you can get into if you've never read the first, and one that perhaps should be read first.