Don’t judge a book by its cover. That’s what we’re told. This applies to comics as well, as the cover artist is often not the illustrator. But while visiting the Comicshop in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighborhood last weekend I judged a book by it’s cover. Covers. Digging through boxes of deeply-discounted books (the Comicshop is moving after 30+ years in their current location, so a big sale) I found singles of Jack Katz’s The First Kingdom. Not being familiar with this book, I was blown away by one cover after another. Flipping through some of the richest art I’ve ever seen I knew my judgment was sound, that this surely would be a rewarding read. And so it is.
Jack Katz’s The First Kingdom Book 12, published by Bud Plant, Inc., 1980.
Begun in 1974 - when independent comics were scarce - and ending in 1986, The First Kingdom is a sci-fantasy epic which opens on a “post-catastrophic epoch” initiated by atomic holocaust. From Burne Hogarth’s “Jack Katz - An Appraisal” at the end of Book 12:
The world as we know it is unrecognizable. All is gone from that last ferocious encounter, and what Katz is depicting is a ‘negative form of existence’…which sustains paranoia, despotism, degeneracy, atrocity as norms of life…Jack’s theme has one overriding element: He spells out a dream play of life and love. To paraphrase Lucretius: as the lives die and the loves go down - life and love go on; life and love are indomitable and eternal.
Katz’s twelve-year, twenty-four issue run of The First Kingdom takes us through the survival of man, the origin of the gods and migration into space (I haven’t read the whole thing yet and am presently stuck at a two-issue gap in the story, so sorry for the generalities) with startlingly dense art. It is shaped in part by Greek myths in which gods and men alike are subject to fate and frivolity. When Katz undertook his quest he’d been in the comics business for thirty years, pencilling Bulletman, Jughead and Archie, etc. Many consider The First Kingdom to be the first true (independent) graphic novel. Thomas Scortia, in the foreword to Book One says, “It is innovative in more than one sense. It is structured as a novel and spans generations, a concept never before considered by comic artists.” In the introduction to the same book Katz explains, “The work I am undertaking…is the first in a series of books in which I hope to extend the dimension of comics to the potential art form that one of its earliest and greatest artists, Hal Foster, laid down the foundations for.”
Yes, most pages are this amazing. Jack Katz’s The First Kingdom, Book Six, page 181. Published by Comics & Comix Co. (Bud Plant), 1977.
Book Three, page 86 of Katz’s The First Kingdom published by Comics & Comix Co. (Bud Plant), 1975
In an effort to learn more about Katz through instant gratification, I mean the Internet, I came across jackatz.com, a site that tells me, loudly, that “Jack Katz the Artist lives still“. Apparently we need reminding, and this is sad. To fill the gaps in my collection, I called around to comics shops in the greater Seattle area, finding that I had to explain what The First Kingdom is to most of them. Perhaps this ignorance is confined to my area. I know there must be keepers of the flame out there. It seems to me, though, that if a book isn’t heavily merchandised it fades into obscurity. The Internet didn’t give me much instant gratification on Katz. I then turned to the forewords from a variety of writers and artists to learn more about him and his art. Some choice quotes from George Clayton Johnson, Thomas Scortia and Burne Hogarth, respectively:
Sitting there at the drawing board so still you can hardly see him breathe, while tortured black ink is laid down with absolute control into delineatories that stun the mind — a full page without a mistake! — Jack Katz builds monuments. The mind-focused work slows him down enough that he has time for the thinking it takes to get it right, his mind leaping ahead coiling through mental constructs of flesh and substance and sometimes his mind gets so full of images that he can no longer think…
Jack Katz is a medium-sized man with an unruly shock of black hair that seems forever to be falling in front of his eyes as he gestures excitedly. With his full black beard he reminds one somehow of Rasputin but, unlike the Mad Monk, Jack’s special madness (or genius…Is there a difference?) is translated into some of the most intricate line drawings ever to appear in the much-maligned comic field.
Jack’s manner of drawing has a nervous, anxious quality. It is not ingratiating for it has no dash, flourish, abandon or largesse…There is a fixation here - a horror vacui - a mistrust of open space, a fixation of unipolar gravity, a private perspective into which everything implodes from a refracted vision.
For those interested in reading this monumental work, The First Kingdom has been reissued in volumes of standard comic-book size (so likely losing the magazine-sized detail) and may be found in your local comic book shop or on Amazon.
Update: I have been informed by Bob Gill of jackatz.com that the four-volume set of The First Kingdom was never published in full. “Century Comics was the successor to the original re-publisher of The First Kingdom but they folded before they could move past publishing the first half of the 24 volume set. The guy who was engineering the project later joined in with others who founded the Hero’s Initiative. They were the ones who published Jack’s Legacy graphic novel.”
Folks interested in reading The First Kingdom can purchase the singles through Mr. Gill (firstname.lastname@example.org) or from Mile High Comics - both have all twenty-four books.