Friday, February 12, 2021

The First Kingdom



Before Christmas I read Jack Katz's The First Kingdom right the way through. 

I didn't really understand it, so I read it again. 

Wow. 

Or at any rate "a qualified wow". 

I re-read most things, but I don't generally read then twice in a row. I tackled Mr James Joyce during Lockdown I, and understood enough of him that I am going to re-read him at the end of 2021. The First Kingdom was fascinating enough, and baffling enough, that I read it, and then read it again, and am going to pencil in reading it a third time while I still have some of the details in my head. 

I have been aware of The First Kingdom for as long as I have been a comic book guy. When I first started to look away from the Marvel shelves in Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, there it was, sharing space with Heavy Metal and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. 

I was old enough to know that sex and drugs existed. D.T.W.A.G.E displayed fliers for the Legalize Cannabis Picnic and shared Soho frontage with a cinema which promised Actual Copulation. But forbidden fruit made me feel uncomfortable: I certainly had no wish to taste it at that point. A glance inside The First Kingdom made me think that it was a dirty book and not suitable for me. There were copies of Elfquest on the same stand: quite different in style, but identical in presentation: thin, flimsy, magazine style booklets; colour covers and 30 pages of cheaply printed black and white artwork; a single storyline that unrolled over many years. One issue of Elfquest had an orgy in it, although only from the waist up.

C.S. Lewis talked about falling in love with the title of The Well at the World's End before he knew anything about the story. I think The First Kingdom stayed in my mind because of that title. It was clear from the covers that it was about space gods and swords and sorcery. I think it merged in my head with a totally forgotten Marvel comic called Space Gods From Beyond the Stars. These were the years when Jack Kirby was disrupting the Marvel Universe with his Celestials and totally misunderstanding 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

So now I have read it. Twenty four issues, reprinted in four volumes, the lettering redone so you have some chance of actually deciphering it: plus two stand alone sequels. A final, seventh volume is on the way, inshallah. Jack Katz is 93. 

In 1974 the Fantastic Four had already been and gone, and the Fourth World was nearly over. The First Kingdom must already have looked terribly old-fashioned. It feels like a newspaper strip from an era before anyone had quite worked out how newspaper strips were supposed to work. 

There is a lot of third person narration: one sometimes feels one is reading a lavishly illustrated novel; or else a series of pictures with a commentary, rather than a comic book. Speech is printed in captions (like Prince Valiant) not as balloons. Characters talk a lot -- a lot! -- but you have to work out what is speech and what is narration from context. (Everyone talks in the same way: there is nothing that you could call dialogue.) There is no guttering between panels. Some issues consist almost entirely of full page illustrations. 

It feels like Flash Gordon: or perhaps more like the yarns of Barsoom and Pellucidar that Alex Raymond was drawing on. Impossibly handsome men and impossibly beautiful women strike impossibly heroic poses. They are cast into arenas to battle beasts which are part dragon and part dinosaur. But the action and the drama is held at arms length: you feel you are looking at a series of pulp magazine covers depicting hunts, battles and space wars, but you are never inside the action, experiencing the fight or wondering about an outcome.

No-one wears any clothes. Even the futuristic characters keep their chests and bottoms proudly on display, although they usually -- but by no-means always -- keep their willies in uncomfortable looking pouches. The women are less modest than the men and the kids are less modest than the grown ups. There is some sex; or at any rate, some scenes of beautiful ladies and beautiful men entwined in diaphanous daybeds on idyllic islands. I don't think it is especially pornographic; and I don't think Katz is pushing a naturist philosophy. He's an artist; artists paint nudes. If Stan Lee wanted to be Shakespeare, Jack Katz wanted to be Michelangelo. He taught anatomy at art college. Maybe he just wasn't very good at doing clothes. 

But this isn't swords and sorcery. This isn't even really deep, adult swords and sorcery with politics and philosophy and penises. This is an epic. The original series ran to exactly 24 books. 

Star Wars has been called a comic strip which thinks it's an opera. Mostly by me, admittedly. Lucas's early scripts seemed to be struggling towards a world where characters who looked liked they came from Mongo engaged in strategy, intrigue and councils of war. Like Dune, but with swashbuckling. The First Kingdom is Conan the Barbarian on the outside, but under the bonnet it's two fifths Game of Thrones and three fifths the Silmarillion. What it felt most like to me is that Indian language Maharbarat which we all watched on late night BBC2 in the 80s: strange language; complicated dynasties; portentous narration; mysticism that you can't understand and more characters than you could possibly keep track of; but a sense that at any given moment you have walked in in the middle of something monumental and heartbreaking and evocative. Maharbarat was a TV version of a sacred text of one of the great world religion; Jack Katz is having a damn good shot at faking it.  

There has been a nuclear war. The human race has relapsed to the stone age. There are mutants and monsters. People are forming war-bands and hunting tribes. One guy, Darkenmoor, founds a kingdom and raises mighty cities and palaces and temples. The story is called The First Kingdom, but it's the kind of book in which kings are referred to as "Kenmores" and kingdoms are called "Gans". After 750 pages, this gets a little tiresome. 

Darkenmoor marries Nedlaya, and they have a baby boy, Tundran. But Nedlaya's evil brother kills them and seizes the throne. Baby Tundran is taken away to an island, ignorant of his heritage, while priests train him to reclaim his father's kingdom. Sixteen or so books later, he is on the point of doing so, but at the last moment, some aliens appear and suggest that he would be much better off going with them and learning the secrets of the universe. (They are particularly interested in finding out why human beings spend so much of their time and effort killing each other.) So he does. 

So far so mainstream. Katz draws beautifully; huge full page illustrations chocked to the brim with human figures and impressive architecture, far more than you can take in at a glance. It isn't always clear how you are supposed to read it: the full page pictures demand to be lingered over like a portfolio of art; but that removes any sense of narrative flow. He has a marked tendency to show and tell simultaneously: a caption which tells us that Tundra and his lover Fara have been imprisoned on the only projecting rock in the middle of a perpetually raging sea is illustrated by a beautiful line drawing of Tundra and Fara standing on the only projecting rock in the middle of a perpetually raging sea. There are moments where the static, arms-length, distanced narrative comes within striking distance of Wagnerian intensity. Towards the end of the first volume the goddess Selowan comes to Darkenmoor in his chamber, while he is thinking kingly thoughts about politics. "Can you look into my eyes and tell me you don't love me?" she asks. Apparently he can't; and while they are in each other's arms, his wife, Nedlaya, enters stage right. Thinking that he no longer loves her, she does the descent thing and throws herself off a cliff, leaving Darkenmoor howling "I love you, no, gods of Helea Voran, no!" in a suitably statuesque pose. Selowan asks him to "come into my arms and fill my body with happiness", and just as he is about to do so, she vanishes. She has been taken back to the realm of the gods where her father, top-god Dranok, is most put-out. "The taking of the life of a mortal by the direct intervention of a goddess for the sole purpose of possessing the love of another mortal" is punishable by extinction, apparently. 

Nedlaya survives the fall and the lovers are back together within a few pages.

Yes, there are gods in the First Kingdom as well. They don't wear many clothes either. They make their first appearance on page 3 of the very first episode, and everyone takes them for granted, although they seem and odd fit for the post-holocaust backstory. 

It isn't until the end of the first volume that Katz starts to explain what is going on. Darkenmoor has two councillors, Terrog and Hiemmet. They appear to be dwarves or goblins: mutants, at any rate. On page 110, Terrog catches a glimpse of his reflection in a pool, remembers the days before he was mutated, and breaks out in an extended flashback. It seems that he and Hiemmet are not natives of Earth: they were part of the crew of a Galactic Hunter, a vast star ship from a very high-tech space civilisation: more Doc Smith than Star Trek. They travelled around the universe trying to stop other planets destroying themselves in nuclear wars: their mission to earth wasn't one of the more successful ones. 

This brings on the structural device which makes the First Kingdom so impressive and so very nearly impenetrable. We leap into Hiemmet and Terrog's narrative: about the mission of the Galactic Hunter, and how it failed, and how they came to be mutants. This is interleaved with the doings of several different sets of humans and several different factions of gods. Not infrequently, characters in the flashback narrative narrate their own back stories; several times we find ourselves three levels deep, a story teller telling a story in which someone tells a story about how someone once told them a story. It transpires that Galactic Hunters are partially crewed by very advanced automatons. Katz refers to them as Cyborgs, but I think they are what would more normally be called Androids: synthetic life forms, not augmented humans. And -- are you ready for this? -- when it became clear that the Galactic Hunter's mission to save the earth was going to fail, some of the Cyborgs were reprogrammed so that they believed themselves to be gods. Except that one of the gods, Aquare, has retained his memories and is aware of the ruse, and spends a very large number of episodes trying to decide whether to reveal the secret or not. 

There is also Ceer, an oracle, who lives on the tops of mountains and prophecies Darkenmoor and Tundran's destiny in the first issue. He turns out to be from another hugely advanced alien civilisation where no-one bothers with clothes, and to have had all the knowledge in the universe downloaded into him. And towards the end of the saga, it turns out that there are survivors of the Galactic Hunter's original mission, running around the swords and sorcery mileu with ray guns. They get an embedded backstory as well. 

And I haven't even got to the weird part yet. In nearly every panel featuring the human cast, we can see tiny, elfin figures -- often winged, sometimes interacting with tiny dinosaurs or hunting tiny animals. No-one talks to them or interacts with them; they don't affect the story in any way. They are just there: like grotesques in the margin of a medieval Bible. Eventually, two thirds of the way through the narrative, we are told that when the Galactic Hunter crashed on earth, the serum which contains the androids memories got out into the ecosystem, and along with the space fuel and other Science Stuff it brought these new creatures into being. 

The best way of conveying the density and complexity of the comic is to try to summarise a single issue. I picked book 16, at random. Tundran and his lover Fara (who is actually the goddess Selowan in mortal form) have been enslaved and held in an arena. He has won his freedom by defeating the local King's son in a battle. He sails off in a boat, with the prince as hostage, but being a decent chap sets him free when they are out of range of their pursuers.

Meanwhile, Alandon and Dami, friends of Tundran and Fara, who have also recently been freed from slavery, bump into a pirate, who comes originally from their homeland, Mooregan. When they mention Tundran, the pirate asks if by any chance he had a luminous wrist band, and when they admit that he does, the pirate reveals that this identifies him as the true king. 

Meanwhile, Aquare -- the god who knows he is really a Cyborg -- comes across the camp of the survivors from the original Galactic Hunter spaceship, and destroys their salvaged high-tech supplies. 

This naturally upsets Tarvu, one of the survivors, so she decides to explain to her boyfriend how she came to join the mission in the first place. She tells him what her grandfather told her about her heritage. (This takes fifteen pages.) It seems that many thousands of years ago, there was a terrible war between a stupendously advanced civilisation which built galaxies (this was during the fifth regeneration of the universe, obviously) and the Anti-Life-Legions who are compelled by their deviant perspective to wreak incredible destruction on all life and space plasma. (I am not making this up.) Her ancestor, Volrood, had had a nice idea about declaring one particular area of space a conservation zone which they wouldn't interfere with, but this annoyed the merchant class, who had to take the long way round. This results in a thousand years of civil war: only at the end of it does it turn out that the Merchants are being manipulated by the Anti-Life-Legions who are planning to take over the universe after the war has devastated it. It's too late to prevent the destruction, but some of the goodies sign up to the caucus of Volrood and disperse through the universe in search of places where humans are prepared to fight against oppression. As a descendent of Volrood, Tarvu is part of this noble calling. 

Meanwhile, back in Mooregan the priests, who are loyal to Tundran, plan to assassinate the usurper Vargran. There is an annual solemn ceremony in which he has to drink from the "bowl of supplication": the Priests are going to poison it. But Vargran is warned in advance by Tedra (Tedra? who the hell is Tedra?) and, at the last moment, he forces the high priest to drink from the bowl, revealing the conspiracy. 

Meanwhile Tundran and Fara harbour their ship on an island, where they take off all their clothes and snog for a bit. They go hunting, and meet up with Alandon and the pirate, who immediately kneel to him and announce that he is Thane of Cawdor Kenmoor of Mooregan. Tundran wanders off into the forest and bumps into the Oracle, who tells him not to be too single-minded in his revenge. Fara says that now Tundran is a king he probably won't want to marry a mere huntress like herself, but Tundran says his parents were hunters before they were kings and queens. They snog a bit more, and everyone salute Tundran and Fara and Kenmoor as Kenmar of Mooregan. To be continued.

I often use Larry Marder's Tales of the Beanworld as my touchstone for peculiar comic book experiences. It's a comic book which operates according to its own rules; which releases those rules to your gradually and acclimatises you to them: it starts to make intuitive sense that something bad is going to happen if you put a mystery pod next to a twink. When you put the comic down, you feel as if you were emerging from one of those dreams in which Miss Bell who taught you French at lower school is part of the text of the Anglo Irish Agreement. There was a point, about twenty books into the First Kingdom, where I felt that I had all the trans-gods and cyborgs and mortalised gods straight in my head. I think there was a baroque beauty to it. Elisabath Sandifer, who writes so brilliantly about Doctor Who, shows signs of knowing what William Blake's mythological poems are all about. I've never been able to make head nor tail of them myself. People have compared the First Kingdom with William Blake. Blake imagined Newton thrashing out the laws of motion with no clothes on. 

Jack Kirby says that Jack Katz is doing the kind of thing he wanted to do with New Gods. It's an interesting point of comparison. Both are trying very hard to be cosmic; with talk of the forces of life and anti-life and the infiniverse and the beyond and beyond the beyond. But Kirby's gods seem godlike. Those of us who grew up in Stan Lee's head expect gods to be blonde and muscular and clad in primary coloured spandex. The First Kingdom is heroic as hell, and conceived of on a massive scale, but it never really achieves a sense of wonder. However high up the chain of the cosmos you go, the hierophants and the guardians always seem to be just like folks: playing catch, eating picnics, frolicking in various states of undress in the grounds of citadels that looks suspiciously like mid-western campus universities. 

First Kingdom can't really be said to have had any influence or impact. Admired by all the right people, but hardly ever read. The last hurrah of a style of illustration which was obsolescent before it started. A magnificent folly; a testimony to a bizarrely individualistic vision; impossible to grasp, but cumulatively breathtaking; and with an awful lot of boobies.





1 comment:

Gavin Burrows said...

El Sandifer's a good writer of course. But I persist in thinking that if you imagine Blake is comprehensible you're missing the point of Blake, and if you imagine you understand Blake you've already missed the point. Though Blake himself does at times seem to imagine he understands Blake. Just to add to the confusion.