The Empire Strikes Back
Tripwire’s contributing writer Tim Hayes takes a look at Rebellion’s The Rise And Fall Of The Trigan Empire volume one…
The Rise And Fall Of The Trigan Empire Volume One
Writer: Mike Butterworth
Artist: Don Lawrence
Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics imprint hits a major seam of its archiving efforts with this first volume of reprints from The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire, a stand-out strip on the UK comics’ landscape which ran for more than 16 years after its first appearance in 1965, although not all with its first artist and co-creator Don Lawrence. Starting out in the boys’ comic Ranger before transferring within a year to Look and Learn, two comics with an educational remit to go along with their entertainment mission, Trigan Empire is fondly remembered for the painted art of Lawrence, but now looks just as notable as a reminder of the period when opportunities existed for artists to draw like this and tell stories like this, and do it in comics like these.
That story is an epic fantasy set on the planet Elekton, said to be a billion miles from Earth – a distinct underestimate for any young readers of the comic who went on to study astronomy. Three brothers, Trigo, Klud and Brag, lead their nomadic tribe across the planet’s desert, but are destined to found a mighty city and then a powerful empire, with Trigo as its benevolent and wise ruler. Constant conflicts then bubble up, involving wars with neighbouring empires, visits from aliens both evil and friendly, and family friction between the brothers, especially with the jealous Klud. All this is told through a framing story in which a Trigan spaceship crashes in the modern-day Florida swamps and the best brains on Earth get to work deciphering the history books inside. One scholar spends his entire life, from student through to elderly professorship, struggling with the translation before making a historic breakthrough – a not very subtle message from the comic to its target audience: study hard in school boys, the joy of knowledge awaits.
Writer Mike Butterworth sets up Trigo as a cross between a more scientific Alexander the Great and a more diplomatic Caesar Augustus, and then introduces technical marvels of all kinds into the pseudo-historic setting. It’s the kind of playful genre splicing that has never gone out of fashion, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to 2000AD, and the quick pace of the storytelling – usually only a couple of pages per weekly instalment – keeps the constant palace intrigue moving along. The age of the comics’ readership rules out any severe peril or violence, and the postcolonial era of publication might have something to do with the white Anglo Saxon nature of Trigan’s empire and the distinctly Oriental villain looking to conquer it from the neighbouring land of Loka, although Butterworth is never cynical about it.
But the art is the thing, Don Lawrence’s soft lines, painted directly without underlying black and white art according to Liam Sharp’s introduction, give the painting a lightness of touch that always feels like cartooning first and portraiture second, even in these rich brush strokes. You can detect some future connections too: Chris Weston was an apprentice of Lawrence and has created a retailer-exclusive cover for this book, but there’s already some future Weston in Trigan Empire’s faces sometimes; and late on in this story there’s a huge mechanical ape-man very reminiscent of that fine robot gorilla Krong in Judge Dredd. But a lot of Lawrence’s work looks deeply individual.
He stayed with Trigan for over a decade, leaving when he discovered he was being denied the royalties that were his due; but the strip shows every sign of being painted for love as well as money.
The Rise And Fall Of The Trigan Empire vol.1 is out now this month from Rebellion.