Posted August 12, 2004
If you’re duly devoted to the search, you may find a copy buried in your library’s delete bin, under shaggy tomes on potato slicing or the history of the Cleveland Browns. At least it’ll be easy to spot: even with its black hardcover peeling at the spine, the book is a thrilling object. On its cover, a pale blue spaceship sails through the cosmos, while the comic’s title smoulders just below:The Trigan Empire. It opens on a stunning watercolour panorama, a white-bearded man instructing two blonde warriors on a hillside overlooking a vast, ancient Roman city. Crouching in the bottom right corner, an afterthought, is the artist’s signature, the only reference to either artist or writer in the entire book, as though the work had simply willed itself into being. “Don Lawrence,” it says.
When Don Lawrence died last December at age 75, a chorus of artists and writers emerged from the wings to pay homage. Neil Gaiman posted an encomium on his weblog that began, “When I was a boy, Don painted a comic I loved. It was called The Trigan Empire.…” The Guardian called Lawrence “an exemplar” of British comics, “acclaimed across Europe.” Acclaimed everywhere, that is, except his native England (and the rest of the English-speaking world), which paid him as much attention as a shitting pigeon does a windshield. Lawrence was a superstar on the Continent — knighted, even, by Holland’s Queen Beatrix — and, for the bulk of his career, a nobody at home.
He had been the artist behind the The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire, part Roman epic, part sci-fi fantasy adventure, which began its run in the mid 1960s in the otherwise dully edifying British children’s magazineLook and Learn. His artwork was visionary, defined by its luscious gouache and photorealism, and his fondness for dressing his characters in the cartileginous mugs of actors like Kirk Douglas. The Trigan Empire was L&L‘s signature series, a futuristic tale of an ancient humanoid race from the planet Elekton, whose phallic spacecraft crashes into modern-day Earth. The ship’s crew dead, our planet’s top scientists scour the trove of documents left behind, unlocking the alien hieroglyphs that recount the story of the doomed Trigan empire.
Through 46 stories over nearly 1,000 pages, Lawrence spun his opus in L&L two full-colour pages at a time, every week from 1965 to 1976. The writing, by SF author Mike Butterworth, was taut and suspenseful — and, by today’s standards, impossibly literary for its audience. “In the evening they came to a water hole,” one caption read, “and there they slaked their ravening thirsts.” Lawrence’s panels were extravagant with dizzying landscapes and exotic creatures, wrought with maniacal detail. Though for its ample imagination, the work held fast to its era’s stereotypes. The Trigan men, cut from the finest Aryan cloth, sport meticulous buzzcuts or sculpted bouffants, while the women — in particular the ravishing Dr. Salvia — are compliant, and swell suggestively beneath their modest attire. The “foreign” races betray a more sinister prejudice: the evil Lokans are nasty, needle-moustached curs with slivered eyes and Samurai helmets, while the natives of Daveli are a spear-wielding jungle tribe who cower before the Trigans’ gleaming silver spacecraft. Not the most enlightened politics, but the adventures were bracing, the cliffhangers fearsome, and readers had no trouble losing themselves in Lawrence’s majestic vistas.
At least, not outside the UK. Despite the Empire‘s growing popularity elsewhere in Europe, Lawrence toiled in relative obscurity at home, earning a measly pound per page, with no royalties from the top-selling collections his publisher was hawking behind his back. And when, after 11 years of dogged labour, he demanded a raise, his publisher refused and Lawrence resigned. He wasn’t out of work long, though: that same afternoon, Dutch imprint Oberon hired him to develop a new sci-fi series: Storm. The Flash Gordon pastiche confirmed his standing as a master fantasist, and he continued drawing it into his final years.
Death has been kind to Don Lawrence, at last igniting Anglophone interest in his work — Trigan in particular, mirroring Hollywood’s recent penchant for ancient epics. A Dutch publisher plans to release the complete series in a library of 12 hardcovers; two volumes annually, beginning this year. Ironically, it will be the first time the complete series is compiled in an English edition, even as reprints have steadily sprouted in places like Holland and Italy. And, on rare occasions, in the delete bin at the local library.