It makes me so happy that The First Kingdom is back in print. So, so, very happy! Because this weird-ass, totally idiosyncratic vision from a thoroughly unique creator is thoroughly worth studying. Whether it’s worth reading by you is a whole different question.
Jack Katz, who created The First Kingdom, was one of those cartoonists who always hovered around the comics industry without making much of an impact on fans or on many readers. Katz’s traditionally masculine style was a nice – if unexceptional – fit for the war and horror comics he drew in the 1950s and the western comics he drew in the early 1970s.
But all the while Katz was doing work-for-hire comics for other people, he was also germinating a powerful idea of his own: an intense, deeply thoughtful, thoroughly unique world of gods and men, monsters and beautiful women, powerful battles and passionate love mixed with spaceships, a post-apocalyptic setting and about a zillion different mysteries hovering around the plot.
He was thinking about The First Kingdom, and the only real comparisons to Katz’s vision was the literature of Homer or perhaps medieval epic poems.
Told completely in the third person, with poetic captions that ran decidedly towards purple prose, this awesome epic is as grand as they come, an operatic explosion of ideas and events that is alternately exhausting, exhilarating and baffling. Reading this book in long stretches can mess with your mind! You find yourself trapped thinking in grandiloquent words, thinking with an odd mix of passion and intelligence, and seeing the world as filled with topless women and oddly-proportioned art.
It’s tempting to call First Kingdom outsider art, but it’s not primitive or strange in the ways that most outsider art is defined. Jack Katz’s magnum opus is something else, something very unique: an epic verse-poem of a comic that is channeled through the mind of one creator. As such it’s a fascinating and important step along the way of idiosyncratic, self-published and self-realized comics, a bridge between books like Wally Wood’s witzend and Dave Sim’s Cerebus.
That bridge is a big part of what makes this book fascinating for comics history geeks like me. Appearing biennially between 1974 and 1986, in a magazine-sized format and published by friendly underground publishers, Katz’s work was among the first material by a longtime comics creator who decided to follow his own path and deliver on his own very specific vision. Before Katz most comics creators who went their own directions would see their quixotic endeavors halted by money concerns, either creating many stories for multiple outlets (like Steve Ditko did with his Objectivist comics) or simply stopping a run (as Wood and Gil Kane did with their own material).
But Katz saw it through, creating 24 issues over twelve years, all of which will be reprinted in Titan’s very ambitious six-volume series that will run through late 2014. This first book boasts lovely reproduction and insightful intros and backmatter, which justifies the very fair cover price.
Okay, I see you thinking, I appreciate that this comic is important, but will I enjoy reading it? And I gotta say, everyone’s mileage is going to vary with this book. For me, this book was a bit overwhelming and even exhausting. Katz wants to create a fully-fledged world of the type that Tolkein or Martin – or at least Hal Foster with his Prince Valiant – create in their art. That’s a worthy, ambitious and frequently thrilling goal. But – and I’m sorry to say this because of the ambition involved in this book – Katz is no George R.R. Martin in the way he creates his worlds. Rather than getting deeply involved in the adventures in this book, I found myself overwhelmed, in need of a calming place to stop for a moment, in need of a break from the intensity of Jack Katz telling me his incredibly dense story in an incredibly dense way.
In a way the tremendous ambition on display with this series works against itself. So much happens between gods and men, heaven and the real world and subterranean places, that the whole world becomes overwhelming.
All that said, this book is a visionary creation in the true sense of that word. There are several scenes towards the end of the book that are breathtaking in their detailed vision, their tremendous complexity, and their deep hints at more detail that may be behind the scenes just waiting to come out. No matter how overwhelming, there’s always the sense that Katz has this whole series planned out at that, just as with Tolkein, there are explanations for everything that we see.
I’m thrilled that Titan is reprinting Jack Katz’s massive saga, and I’m thrilled that I get to read new collections of the series. I’ve wanted to plunge into this amazing universe for a long time, and my life is richer for having done so – even if I added some confusion, complexity and strangeness to my world at the same time. I love it when art is challenging. Do you want to buy it? Take a look at the four pages scattered around this review. If those appeal to you, then you need to visit The First Kingdom.
Jason Sacks loves challenges in his art, and also peanut butter in his chocolate. He’s the Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him @jasonsacks