THE FIRST KINGDOM and the True Impact of Jack Katz
By Andy Mansell | Contributor Published: 09/29/2013 10:00 am EST
Titan Books’ reprinting of Jack Katz’s The First Kingdom is certainly a major event in comic publishing. Why spend time summarizing the plot of an 800-page comic book epic when the publisher has done the work for me?
The first in a series of Homeric, post-apocalyptic graphic novels, following the vein of a futuristic, post-civilization The Odyssey or The Iliad! Author Jack Katz began his illustrated magnum opus in 1974, creating an epic tale that still awaits its unbelievable conclusion—published exclusively by Titan!
After nuclear Armageddon devastates the Earth, the survivors become playthings of resurgent “gods”. As civilizations rise and fall, as loves and lives are lost, the future of humanity will be won by uncovering the secrets of the past.
First, some bad news. There’s a decent amount of background material, but hardly a mention about the comic’s publishing history. A reader doesn’t even know how many issues of the original series are included in this volume (six, but I had to go to mycomicshop.com to figure it out). And where the heck are the original covers? And that new logo on the cover—it is straight type. The original (ok, actually the third or fourth) logo made you want to grab the recent issue of First Kingdom right off the shelf. My motto: Come for the logo, stay for the nudity! And one thing’s for sure, Jack Katz can really draw the female form sans post-apocalyptic wears.
Now, the worse news. Scanning page after page of the cramped art and busy layouts and tiny, tiny figures and even tinier blocks of letters, reading First Kingdom was a daunting experience.
As I began to read, I was reminded of one work of sequential art more than any other: Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Katz began his life’s work in 1974 and Miyazaki began his multi-volume manga in 1976. Is there any chance one influenced the other? The rendering has similarities. But I digress…
Mr. Katz set out to write an epic and damn it, he was going to write it as an epic. The style of the prose—both in captions and in dialogue—is right out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion but with the added heft of the world’s largest thesaurus.
This creates a few problems…
The big blocks of text take away from the often-impressive drawings. Without the use of word balloons or any punctuation, it’s hard to figure out whether it’s the narrator or one of the characters in the panel who is speaking. And yes, it matters because the plot calls for intrigues inside of intrigues.
This very densely written, formal, heroic, old-fashioned prose zaps all the humanity out of the struggle for humans to survive in this dangerous future world.
I realize that knocking this work is borderline blasphemous. The First Kingdom was an important work. Katz’s opus begat ElfQuest and Cerebus, and in turn the direct market is its ultimate result. Katz was the Neil Armstrong of the direct sales comic world.
We can barely begin to acknowledge the impact First Kingdom has had on the comic book industry. Just the fact that it’s being collected and completed 40 (!!) years after its inaugural issue shows the longevity and success of the direct market. But something has always bothered me. People talk about Mr. Katz’s life work in the same breath as Mr. Sim’s and Mrs. and Mr. Pini’s grand projects. There are a lot of mentions about the breakthrough delivery system, but one rarely hears about the work itself. And the reason is simple: It’s not a particularly great comic book.
I am trying to tread lightly here. First Kingdom was an important comic book and deserves its place of honor, but do we really need to read the sermons of Jonathan Edwards (except for short excerpts in a Norton Anthology) in order to fully grasp the artistry of Hawthorne or Irving or Poe? I suggest that we need to be aware of the righteously Reverend Mr. Edwards, but we do not need to read his collected works. And just to be clear, I am not comparing Jack Katz to Edwards—First Kingdom has much more nudity. But if it wasn’t for Edwards, we’d never have his grandson Aaron Burr, who participated in the duel that would give us the ten-dollar bill.
Mr. Katz is a true visionary. In the same way I think every comic should have a minuscule Kirby Tax that goes to his heirs, I feel the same kind of tribute—both laudatory and financial—should go to the comic firm of Sim, Pini, and Katz, but strictly for the revolutionary consumerism and not the jumbled, difficult storytelling that demands a lot from its readers but provides far too little in return.
HOWEVER (with a capital HOWEVER), much like this first volume of First Kingdom, I was not particularly impressed with the first trades of Cerebus and ElfQuest. These two creators grew and the dedicated reader who stuck it out was well rewarded (well, for a few years at least). Can the same be said for the work of Jack Katz? I will say that the last page is a hell of an improvement on the first page. But still, the confusing placement of the narration and word balloons, the jarring lack of segues and establishing shots…Katz has been in the business since Gutenberg published his first comic book—Tales from the Reformation. He apprenticed under the masters. He should know better. The fundamentals are missing.
With these lapses in sequential storytelling, was he trying to shake up the status quo, or is he just lacking as a storyteller? It’s hard to tell. Sometimes I think he’s trying to blend the old Raymond/Foster illustrated text with a standard comic page to create some new hybrid. Other times, I think he’s just cramming as much as he can on a page.
After the first issue, Katz relaxes a bit, the panels become (a bit) larger, and the context of the illustrations becomes clearer. It’s easy to become entranced with the Katz’s line work. You can actually feel the passion, immerse yourself in his unbridled imagination, feel the sweat on the page mixed in with the ink, and enjoy the fine and scratchy lines.
Unfortunately, almost all of the humanoid characters look alike. Sure they have some kind of reference point—a medallion or a bracelet that differentiates one person from another—but each and every panel is so busy, so filled with Katz’s pencil, pen, sweat, and thesaurus, that it all becomes a jumble. And several of the main plot points—deaths of major characters, turning points of battles—occur either off camera or are drawn in medium-long shots. How can we make contact with the characters when Katz keeps us at such a secure distance?
But, again, I enjoyed issue 6 much more than issue 1. It is improving as it goes along. So the question is whether we should go back and pick up volume 2. I am hesitant. There were some pages that knocked my socks off, but the whole reading experience gave me a bit of a headache. There were times I felt that finishing it was a chore. That is not the way an epic comic book reading experience should be.
But First Kingdom has a reputation and just may deserve some latitude. When I go back to reread ElfQuest I usually start with book 3. I plan to never read the first Cerebus collection ever again, but phone book #2, High Society, is one of my very favorite extended narratives in all of comics. So maybe, just maybe, the second HC of First Kingdom will be worthwhile, and then the third…
But if a judgment is to be made based on what is available now, I will say thank you, Mr. Katz, for all you’ve done for the comic book industry, but no thank you for the comic book itself.
Andy Mansell lived in Chicago for over 40 years until his doctors advised him that he would die soon unless he got as far away from the land of Italian combo sandwiches and soft serve frozen custard. He is currently growing rather old rather quickly in Charlotte, NC as a member of the Waistline Protection Program. He lives for four things: his family, baseball, opera, and of course great comics. He is also looking for a ride back to Chi-town for just one more breaded steak sammich. He will provide gas, guaranteed. Contact him at this address.