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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Trigan Empire The Collection

In 1965, one of the finest of all British comic strips began with a bang… or, rather, a crash. On 18 September, in the debut issue of Ranger, readers were introduced to ‘The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire’ in one of the most bizarre openings of any comic strip. A spacecraft of alien design crashes in the Florida Everglades… the inhabitants are humanoid but twice the height of the average human. The craft and its dead pilots are studied intensely, as are a collection of records written in a wholly alien language. One man, Richard Peter Haddon, spends seventy years on the task before he is finally able to translate the first of these records, the first book that related the founding of the Trigan Empire.

Ranger was absorbed into the educational magazine Look and Learn after only 40 weeks, but the adventures of the Trigan Empire were to continue until 1982, a run of 17 years.

The story was written by Mike Butterworth, a thirteen-year veteran of comic scriptwriting and long-time editor at Fleetway Publications, the publishers of Ranger. Butterworth, who had recently turned freelance, worked with Leonard Matthews—head of the juvenile publications department—to create a range of strips for the new paper. It was Matthews who found an artist to provide the two colour pages each week. Don Lawrence had produced a story in colour for the 1964 edition of Lion Annual which led to a colour strip for Bible Story. Impressed, Matthews asked to meet the artist and Lawrence was invited to draw the strip. With the occasional break, Lawrence drew the strip until 1976.

The story was set on the distant planet of Elekton where a war was about to break out between the technologically advanced Lokan race and its neighbours on the continent of Victris. The heroes of the story were three brothers who led one of the nomadic tribes that wandered the harsh deserts and mountain passes of Vorg. Trigo, Brag and Klud were each very different in personality: Klud was a schemer, Trigo a dreamer and Brag a plodder with little imagination. It was Trigo who had the vision to see that the nomadic life of the disparate tribes was soon to be threatened from beyond the borders of Vorg. He also saw a solution: bring together the tribes and create a city, gaining strength and security from unity.

Trigan City was built after many setbacks, thanks in part to the aid of a scientist fleeing from neighbouring Tharv. Peric, who is also an architect, helps create the mighty city and assists when Vorg is attacked by the Lokans. By capturing the Lokan air fleet, Trigo averts disaster, foils the invasion and—as they now have a strong military presence on Victris—begins expanding his empire. Not through military might but by offering protection to, and trade with, other nations. Trigan City becomes the hub of the globe-spanning Trigan Empire.

Comparisons with Rome are inevitable: the title itself was inspired by Edward Gibbon’s 18th century study, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; if the title hasn’t stuck, most people remember it for its mixture of horse-riding warriors, Roman and Greek architecture, slave, gladiatorial games and modern war machines.

Although Trigo was not a warmonger, he never backed off from a fight and, over the next few years, the Trigan Empire would have to contend with spies in their midst, battles against rogue states, the ever-present Lokan underground, who emerged regularly to attack the empire, and alien invaders; it was probably the first science fiction epic in British comics in which the hero gets married and has children (with, of course, disastrous consequences when one falls under the thrall of an alien). To broaden the scope of the stories, Butterworth and Lawrence introduced the Emperor Trigo’s nephew, Janno, and his two friends, Roffa and Keren, all three pilots in the Trigan Air Fleet.

For eleven years, with the occasional break, Butterworth and Lawrence charted the rise of Trigo’s empire. And, despite many pitfalls, it was a rise that saw the look of Trigan City change dramatically over the years. As story followed story, readers were able to see how the empire was developing, from its relatively humble horse-riding—or kreed-riding as it was on Elekton— beginnings to the development of motorised transport, roads and monorails criss-crossing the once desolate plains. Tower blocks rose in parts of Trigan City, blocking from sight the villas that dotted the hills. Nuclear power and space travel were amongst the scientific advances made by Trigan scientists.

Lawrence filled his frames with imaginative detail, whether it was a crowded marketplace or a sun-drenched landscape. More importantly, he was a master of archetypes when it came to drawing people: his elderly patriarchs had brows furrowed by the weight of years, the enemies of the empire looked evil, sneaky, angry, greedy and cunning; the heroes, by contrast, were virile in the Hollywood tradition of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.

The partnership between Lawrence and Butterworth was one of the finest ever in British comics. The two men only ever met twice—which was perhaps for the best as their second meeting ended in a heated, drink-fuelled argument, thankfully some years after the partnership was dissolved. Lawrence departed in 1976 after discovering that the Trigan Empire strip was being syndicated successfully around Europe; neither of the creators received a share in this success and Lawrence, despite having won an award sponsored by his publisher acknowledging him to be their finest artist, was offered a meagre pay rise. Impulsively, Lawrence quit.

The latter years of the strip were produced by a succession of artists. Ron Embleton, Miguel Quesada and Philip Corke had all stepped in other the years to fill-in when Lawrence required a holiday, but Oliver Frey was the first permanent replacement, drawing the strip until 1978 when Gerry Wood took over. These final stories were penned by Ken Roscoe, under whom the Trigan Empire became more of a galactic empire with many stories taking place off-planet.

‘The Trigan Empire’ remains one of the most popular comic strips ever to appear in the UK. Its appearance in Look and Learn, purchased by parents with ambitions for their children rather than out of the pocket money of the intended audience, meant that it was one of the most widely seen of all picture strips; Look and Learn could be found in many schools and waiting rooms; being an educational magazine, copies were often kept, sometimes in the binders offered by the publisher, for years. The occasional reprint—by Fleetway in 1973, Hamlyn in 1978 and Hawk Books in 1989—has kept the story alive for a newer generation. Abroad, most notably in Holland, it is still possible to buy the complete series in album form. An ambitious project to release the complete Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence era stories as a set of twelve deluxe volumes, begun in 2004, should see completion in 2009.

Over twenty-five years after its demise, The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire remains as magnificent and glorious as ever, one of the finest stories ever told.

Trigan Empire 1: The Invaders from Gallas. Oosterhaut, Don Lawrence Collection, Jan 2009.

The Trigan Empire 2: Revolution in Zabriz. Oosterhout, Don Lawrence Collection, Mar 2007.

The Trigan Empire 3: The Reign of Thara. Oosterhout, Don Lawrence Collection, Nov 2006.

The Trigan Empire 4: The Three Princes. Oosterhout, Don Lawrence Collection, May 2006.

The Trigan Empire 5: The Red Death. Oosterhaut, Don Lawrence Collection, Apr 2008.

The Trigan Empire 6: The Puppet Emperor. Oosterhout, Don Lawrence Collection, Nov 2007.

The Trigan Empire 7: The Rallu Invasion. Oosterhout, Don Lawrence Collection, Aug 2006.

The Trigan Empire 8: The Prisoner of Zerss. Oosterhout, Don Lawrence Collection, Aug 2004.

The Trigan Empire 9: The Curse of King Yutta. Oosterhout, Don Lawrence Collection, Dec 2005.

The Trigan Empire 10: The House of the Five Moons. Oosterhout, Don Lawrence Collection, Jun 2005.

The Trigan Empire 11: The Sun-Worshippers. Oosterhout, Don Lawrence Collection, Feb 2005.

Trigan Empire 12: The Green Smog. Oosterhaut, Don Lawrence Collection, Jan 2009.

(* Trigan Empire © IPC Media.)

1 comment:

Mike W said...

A fascinating article, Steve; I can't wait for the final 2 books. At least I have only one to pay for as Rob asked for a double payment up front way back in 2004. Although Trigo may have been the first sci-fi comics character to get married & have children, Roy of the Rovers also got married & had children - 3 as well but not triplets. In Roy of the Rovers the children all survive and Roy Junior (or Rocky) follows his father into football. Roy's wife featured a lot more than Ursa, Trigo's wife, but was sadly killed off on a mysterious car crash in Italy. There used to be an excellent Trigan website but it ended a few months ago - it mentioned how the stories went into sharp decline & this became clearer when someone a few years ago stated that Butterworth did not write the final stories as had earlier been believed.Unfortunately the resurrection of Kassar (& reportedly Zorth, although I personally am not sure about this),& the strange status of Gallas - was it a moon, a meteor, a meteorite, a spacecraft, a bird, a plane (I made the last 2 up!), meant the stories weakened - the editor should have had the confidence & initiative to move the action onto a later generation - strangely Trigo's son seemed to gain 20 "years" on Salvia and become the same age when he had earlier been a babe in her adult arms! Another strange moment was when Salvia's brother appeared in a soap opera style development!