I first picked up Bryan Talbot's acclaimed graphic novel* of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright several years ago, having long been aware of its mythical and significant status amongst comics* writers and artists. It is, to put it mildly, a rather odd text: it certainly benefits from re-reading, largely because its complex weaving narrative can be described as rich, dense or, to detractors, unintelligible. It is visually stunning for sure: just absorbing the images can take days of 'reading'. To take in the communicated storyline(s) as well means paying close attention to what is taking place across the pages. (It just isn't possible to talk of Arkwright using panels in the conventional sense of many graphic novels).
All of that could suggest I am less entranced by this particular work than some of my other favoured texts in this genre/media: my love for Gaiman's work, especially The Sandman series, is well established; Ennis and Dillon's Preacher swept me off my feet and made me care especially deeply for the flawed non-heroic Cassidy; From Hell bought to life a compellingly rich (and well-referenced) version of the the Jack the Ripper killings and their context; Speigelman's Maus showed that a serious story could be told in this media (a view that more recently Satrapi's Persepolis reinforced); and so it goes.
But whilst I would acknowledge that I perhaps 'love' some of those other narratives more, Talbot's Arkwright nevertheless remains one of the most wonderfully thrilling and delightfully infuriating texts in the medium. I cannot help but be drawn to it, not just because it is so admired, but because it is so powerful, so enthralling, and so well controlled by its creator. Yes, it is to some extent a product of its time - hell, it was produced long before the concept of graphic novels as we know them were really thought of. But it's futurism, its parallel world narrative, still stands up. Whilst other texts can be relished or swept through at a speed as the reader sees fit, and undoubtedly each can be regularly returned to for repeat visits in order to add fine layers of visual or prose understanding, Arkwright needs - benefits - from more thorough attention at each visit. It has a structure, for sure, but it isn't simple and the early 'chapters' especially made this reader feel like (on first visit) someone was throwing in mental 'oh DO keep up' signs into the narrative grass. But it pays rich rewards for such efforts as you switch between multiverses with a sweeping whoosh sound ringing in your ears, tracking Luther and his telepath companion, Rose Wylde.
So that's the book format version: how the hell do you manage to convey that in an audio dramatised version?
The answer is, from my perspective, very well indeed. I resisted for some time the lure of buying the Big Finish dramatisation of Talbot's seemingly untranslatable narrative, even though it had caught my eye during a trawl of various internet sites including Amazon. Somehow, it all works: the soundscape is fabulous (befitting the work of Big Finish generally) and though a few characterisations were not quite how I heard them in my head, the major roles are wonderfully conveyed. Yes, yes, I know it's David Tennant in the lead as Arkwright (that wasn't, I admit, a discouragement to purchase), but it's a fine performance from him throughout (even if a thousand fan-fics would relish this solely for the chance to finally hear 'him' say "I love you Rose"). Interestingly, I think Paul Darrow (ah, those years of me and my mum relishing his performances as Avon) was absolutely perfect for the malignant incarnation of Cromwell and actually just the person I was hoping for in the role. But best of all it somehow conveys all of the mystery, all of the convoluted and yet controlled chaos of Talbot's storyline with its parallels, its technology, its politics and intrigue.
I listened to parts one and two yesterday and finished listening to part three today. Its three hours long in total and I can't imagine how they could have done it quicker or comprehend the imagination it must have taken to keep track of its narrative. A hearty well done to all involved.
In other words, both are highly recommended (if not for the faint-hearted).
* You'll have spotted that I have used the terms somewhat interchangeably here. Personally, I just think of such works as this, Sandman, and Preacher etc as fine writing with pictures, though it is a genre or medium that lends itself to conveying ideas in varied if particular manners. It is also an approach whose nuances, speed and agility of story-telling can rarely be captured in other forms - such as traditional prose narrative or film - even though several try to translate such texts to alternative media.