Childhood Memory: Found

The Trigan Empire by Mike Butterworth & Don Lawrence
The Trigan Empire written by Mike Butterworth & artwork by Don Lawrence
Chartwell Publishers, 1978
(inside title page)

Without further ado, I present my long lost childhood memory:

The Trigan Empire, written by Mike Butterworth with artwork by Don Lawrence.

This is definitely the book my siblings and I read as kids. As fragmentary as my memories of it are, I was shocked at how familiar it felt to read through it again as an adult. I found that I remembered almost every page as it was revealed to me. And I was delighted to discover that the copy I received via ILL came from a public library in my home state. Seems appropriate.

The Trigan Empire was a comic that ran from 1965 to 1982, published in Britain by Fleetway, with Butterworth and Lawrence as the primary writer and artist. It ran as a serial installment in an educational magazine focused on science. The hardbound novel-length book my siblings and I read was an omnibus collection of the earliest stories from the comic, published in the United States in 1978 by Chartwell.

What’s it about?

The Trigan Empire is the story of an empire founded by the leader of a nation of nomadic hunters, called Vorgs, on the planet Elekton. This leader, named Trigo, envisions a grand city built on five hills and makes it happen through sheer force of will and personality. Other nations on this planet are technologically advanced and some remain relatively primitive. The comic traces the advancement of the Trigan Empire—following the exploits of Trigo and his family—and its various conflicts and alliances with other nations and peoples, through crises and machinations and wars. By the end of this omnibus, the Vorgs (now Trigans) have grown from nomadic hunters using swords and spears, to the strongest nation on Elekton with ray guns and space ships capable of taking them to one of Elekton’s moons.

Reading it now, it’s clear why I had difficulty with it as a child—it’s definitely not written for early grade school audiences. It’s entirely appropriate for middle schoolers: narrative complexity, vocabulary, design and layout, concepts… None of it is sophisticated by adult standards but it’s too much for very young readers.

Is it any good?

The writing style is awkwardly inflated and cringingly overdramatic—if I had a dime for every time the narration uses the phrase, “… and then it happened!” I’d have enough money to buy my own copy of this book. If I had a dime for every time the narration relies on ellipses for dramatic weight, I could buy several copies. The naming conventions for the characters and nations of Elekton are particularly ham-fisted. The concepts throughout are entirely derivative, although quite well imagined. The character design—particularly of the villains and “primitive” people—is shockingly racist. So, too, the fact that the great, glorious, and righteous Trigan Empire is founded by a nation of blond-haired, blue-eyed white people.

The artwork is overwrought and as gorgeous as one could hope.

It’s pretty much exactly what I would expect from a juvenile sword-and-sandal scifi adventure comic written in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

It’s slightly less sexist than I might have expected. There are very few female characters but those who are part of the story are mostly capable and empowered. Of course, they’re also all statuesquely beautiful according to Western cultural standards and none of them are lead characters.

But is it any good? That depends on your expectations. It’s not well written by any standard but it’s certainly entertaining and the artwork offers its own ostentatious joy.

Quality Control Problems

Of greater concern is the production quality of the copy I received. It was a full color print on heavy paper stock that lacked the original covers: it had been rebound with blank red marbled boards. This is common in libraries and archives with older books whose bindings are falling apart. The new binding was fine and the pages were in excellent condition with no visible damage. But there were odd artifacts in the printing itself.

At some point in the layout process of this book, some or all of the text bubbles were pasted over with new ones. These text bubbles are printed in two completely different fonts: some of the text is crisp and clean, and some is blurred and faded almost to the point of illegibility. You can also see that some of these new pasted-on text bubbles had begun to peel off by the time it went to print: some have wrinkles and folds in them and you can see the glue underneath.

There’s some evidence that the colors in the book may not be accurate. In the last section, there’s a reference to a “green light” but the illustration shows it blue. The colors throughout the entire omnibus are consistent, so this makes me wonder if blue should be green everywhere else, and how many other colors are off.

In the last section of the book, there’s a three-page sequence with several of the panels laid out in the wrong order and the bottom half of one page is entirely blank. There’s also a panel in this last section where the tail of a speech bubble has been obviously and jarringly redirected so that now the wrong character is speaking the line. These are egregious mistakes by whoever prepared this edition for print.

The thing is—I can’t be certain if the copy I received was an original. Pasting in new text bubbles is something you see sometimes in preservation efforts. It also could be something you’d see when an American publisher prepares an edition of a British comic for a U.S. audience, what with the variations in spelling and expression between the two countries.

Either this copy is an original, in which case this omnibus was produced poorly and cheaply, or the copy I received is a badly done preservation edition. The only way to know for certain would be to compare it to a verifiable original copy. My brother said he might try to find a copy to purchase—if he gets an original, I’d be very interested to see it.

But what about the ostriches?

There aren’t any. The characters in The Trigan Empire ride horses (called “kreeds”) which are mostly colored blue but otherwise unequivocally look like horses. Occasionally one might sport a subtly beak-like aspect to their muzzle, although I’m certain this is less an intentional design choice and more an artifact of a cheap printing process.

My memory of fur-clad warriors riding ostrich-like creatures turns out to be a false memory. Given that my childhood recollections of this book were so fragmentary, I suspect other memories leaked into some of the gaps. There are rudimentary design similarities between settings and characters in The Trigan Empire and the animated movie Heavy Metal; these two works also occupy a similar storytelling tradition of mixing fantasy and scifi, as well as both being collections of stories rather than a single narrative. There are vague aesthetic similarities between some of the imagery in The Trigan Empire and the artwork which adorned the old arcade game Joust (which game entered my awareness at around the same time as when I first read this book). I think my faulty recollection over time conflated these things.

A single remembered image of ostriches—an image which threw off my search for lo, so many years—stands revealed as a false memory.

Disclaimer & Backpedaling

It has come to my attention that Blackmark by Gil Kane doesn’t actually have ostrich-like creatures in it, either. The horse-creatures in Blackmark have beaks but are otherwise entirely horse-like: quadrupedal, hoofed, etc. Also, given the relative prominence of Blackmark vs. The Trigan Empire in the history of comic books and graphic novels, the description “sword-and-sandal scifi adventure comic from the 1960s” will be far more likely to return Blackmark even without any reference to ostriches. Still, I feel like it was the ostrich memory that threw me off for so long.

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