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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Remembering The First Kingdom by Jack Katz

"Our choice: the caves or the stars…”
Jack Katz
The First Kingdom is very special to me.

I remember discovering a copy of The Fist Kingdom: Issue One in the newsstand rack at the old Shinders that used to be on the corner of Block-E in downtown Minneapolis. It was snowing, close to Christmas-time, and I pulled the slightly crinkled copy of this weird comic/magazine thing from a box of back-issues and discount stuff. The cover was garishly colored and hyper-detailed. It caught my eye right away--I knew that this was something special. When I opened it up, I was disappointed, at first, that it was all in black-and-white. I had grown up reading ratty-edged four-color comics at the barbershop in Princeton, and I only bought color comics from Harold's Poke & Tote in Zimmerman. Here I was in the Big City and I wasn't going to buy scruffy old black-and-white junk. But I did. You see, like many another comics-nerd before me, I made the glorious mistake of actually reading the words interspersed amidst the incredible artwork of Jack Katz. There was a story to all this complicated, hybridized science fictional/sword & sorcery pageantry. A big story. One that encompassed and spanned millennia of drastic disasters, incredible marvels, and the struggles of human beings to become more than just opinionated savages. It was awesome, heady stuff. Intoxicating. It opened up vistas previously unimagined and totally unsuspected to my tender young mind. I wanted to know more.

So I added The First Kingdom to my pile which included a copy of The Fantasy Quarterly that included the very first appearance of Elfquest, some Famous Monsters of Filmland back-issues, and a copy of W. Paul Ganley's Weirdbook, which  I had only been able to get via the mail prior to that trip. My first sale of an illustration was to the very kind and considerate Mister Ganley only a year or two before. He opened the doors to a whole underground world of small-press publishers, 'zines and all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff that ran parallel to the comics, comix and stuff like Ackerman's FMOF. It meant a lot to me. It got into my blood. It still has a hold on me to this day. Thank all the gods.

 The First Kingdom was awe-inspiring stuff. I managed to collect eight or nine of the issues before it just wasn't available outside of mail-order sources and as money tightened-up as I neared High School and beyond, choices had to be made and Omni & FMOF won out over Elfquest and Eerie won out over The First Kingdom, but mostly because of the availability of Eerie down at the Zayre's in Coon Rapids, or Omni being always ready to go at the corner drug store in Elk River. For a while I subscribed to the Ackerman-zine. But, beyond a handful of tattered and fraying copies that I guarded jealously, The First Kingdom eluded me. It may have eluded my grasp, but it haunted my mind and echoed over and over again in my brain the way that something truly unique, original and wonderful does when you're a kid and you've encountered it for the very first time.

Jack Katz influenced my way of looking at things as much or more than Jack Kirby did. Not in the sense of imitating them, but in digging into the same rich source matter and seeing what I could do on my own, in my own style. I spent hundreds of hours trying to draw creatures, monsters, machines, and characters that I could make distinctly my own, the way that Katz & Kirby were able to do so effortlessly (I thought naievely). It would never do to imitate them, to do what they did. That would be just plain wrong and completely stupid as well as totally missing the point of what they did in their work. They were original. They were creators. They didn't copy--they invented. I took that to heart at an early age and have followed the path illuminated by that lamp ever since without looking back.
“Had I been permitted to continue my New Gods series, both [Jack Katz] and I would be galloping neck to neck in regions still unexplored by the average storyteller. However, the task has fallen to Jack, who is wading through a wealth of early dawns...exotic and sensual characters fill his pages with a ritualistic muralism, a pantheon format which reminds one of stately gatherings carved in stone by Grecian sculptors.”
Jack Kirby
From the introduction to
The First Kingdom #10


The First Kingdom is an essential old-school treasure, one of the first works of art to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that comics could be for adults. It also proved that comics, like humanity, must accept no boundaries in achieving its ultimate potential.”
From Stone Age to Starships:
Evolving Comics with The First Kingdom

 The First Kingdom is one of those anomalously-weird Seventies experiments with the whole notion of what a graphic novel might eventually become or look like. As far as I know, it was the first. Unique and utterly original, The First Kingdom broke new ground on a number of levels, not the least of which was having to negotiate the maze of the underground comix scene just to get distribution. There just wasn't any other way to get this serialized novel featuring loads of artwork out to the masses outside of the underground comix channels. Thankfully Bud Plant saw the gleam of genius in The First Kingdom and picked it up and tried to get it out there.

The First Kingdom is a close relation to Elfquest in that it bravely blazed an eccentric, unconventional and idiosyncratic trail out beyond the accepted boundaries of mainstream comics publishing. In Elfquest (http://www.elfquest.com/) Wendy & Richard Pini explored a Non-Tolkien-esque Fantasy that dared to include such things as sexuality, honest emotional depth, real character development (Rayek actually becomes more than just an a**hole, eventually...), family-ties, loyalty, and more. In The First Kingdom, Jack Katz explored post-cataclysmic attempts to rebuild civilization, slavery, definitions of humanity, ethics, eugenics, and a host of the sorts of things that you almost only ever find in Olaf Stapeldon novels. The concepts dealt with in The First Kingdom were complex, very deep stuff, full of thorny contradictions and philosophical implications. It required the reader to think, to engage and to look deeper, past the boobies and little monsters in the margins. It was a grown-up work of art and literature that masqueraded as a comicbook tart. It remains unchallenged in terms of the sheer scale of the story, the lush details of the art, and the overall unmitigated ambition of the one man who wrote it, drew it, and independently published it all on his own, back in a time before anyone had ever really attempted anything of the sort other than maybe William Blake. And I think that you can actually make a case for some similarities in the way that Blake and Katz approached their respective projects. Not exactly in terms of content necessarily, but definitely in quite a number of compelling ways that perhaps some scholar of the funny books might someday tackle seriously in academia.

Not only did The First Kingdom go where no one had gone before comics-wise, it managed to accomplish something that few have ever come close to matching ever since--Jack Katz spent 12 years of his life assembling and illustrating and writing his magnum opus which comprises a set of 24 over-sized black-and-white comics. Here's a sample image of one of the pages from The First Kingdom that was featured at Madinkbeard's blog:


 Wow! There are so many 2-page spreads throughout the entire run of the series that it sometimes resembles a coffee table artbook split-out into a serialized 'zine format.  The level of detail rivals the work of George Perez, but in a style that is distinctly all its own. The jam-packed panels are intense and almost give you carpal tunnel just looking at them. It is an incredible tour de force of virtuoso originality that remains a landmark in the history and development of the graphic novel as an adult and serious artistic medium. To state that The First Kingdom was groundbreaking is an understatement, it opened doors and blazed a trail that has since become increasingly well-traveled by those who have come after Mr. Katz.

No one had ever before done what Jack Katz did. He abandoned mainstream comics and devoted himself to completing what many consider to be the first real graphic novel, bringing out two issues a year until the entire series was complete. He did this independently, in a semi-underground manner. Indeed, The First Kingdom was distributed for years by Bud Plant, the foremost mail-order source for underground comix there was during the Seventies & Eighties.

The mainstream just wasn't ready for The First Kingdom, at least not in 1974.

"The function of genius is to furnish cretins with ideas twenty years later."
Louis Aragon,
"La Porte-plume,"
Traite du style, 1928
As far as many of us are concerned--I am hardly alone in this sentiment--Jack Katz was, and is, a genius.

Jack Katz Links
You can purchase autographed copies of various publications by Jack Katz via the official JackKatz site, including the first two (of the four planned volumes) of the collected anthologies of The First Kingdom produced by Century/Mecca Comics.

Single copies of the original series of The First Kingdom can be purchased from Mile High Comics - or you can take your chances on eBay -- but how long these old school treasures will remain available is unknown.

3 comments:

  1. Why have I never heard of this before? This looks amazing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It is amazing. Really, really amazing. Since it first came out in the early Seventies, it can be kind of hard to find, but it does surface from time to time. It sure would be nice to see some outfit like Dark Horse pick it up and produce an archive edition...

    ReplyDelete

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