Jack Katz’s The First Kingdom is an intense work that deserves, or really demands, concentration and devotion from the reader. This isn’t a book to be read as a quick break from the stresses of daily life, nor one that can be skimmed, set down, and come back to over the course of several readings.
Those are meant to be positives for Katz’s work, but make no mistake: Katz’s story is dense, in more ways than one. The pages are absolutely jam-packed with art and story, and every single panel contains levels of artistic detail in such a small space that aren’t commonly seen in today’s comics. Take a look at the preview page to get an idea of what I’m talking about, and then be marveled by the idea that this book contains over 200 pages of similar artwork. Then have your mind blown by the fact that this is simply the first of a six volume series of Jack Katz’s post-apocalyptic magnum opus, for which the Titan Comics promotional copy says “the term ‘epic’ was invented.”
That’s no hyperbole, but a rather accurate statement of this first volume. Katz worked on his story for more than twelve years, with the first stories of Volume I of The First Kingdom taking about three years to complete.
The cast of characters here is staggering, and given the length of the story and the highly packed pages, at times it’s overwhelming and they can be difficult to remember. This particular volume is subtitled “The Birth of Tundran,” but the majority of the first part of this volume is dedicated to Tundran’s father, Darkenmoor, as he becomes a tribal leader in a post-apocalyptic world where the inhabitants are, for the most part, not even aware of the world that existed before the cataclysm that brought them to a prehistoric state.
We are treated to the semi-savage tribes of the world in which Darkenmoor travels as they struggle to attain the basics of life such as food and shelter, all while defending themselves against the mutant carnivorous beasts of this far future age. In this world, it’s Darkenmoor’s physical skills, combined with his charisma, that win him the support of his tribe, while other individuals are shown as conniving and jealous of Darkenmoor’s leadership. At times, Darkenmoor calls to mind the “noble savage” archetype, a la Tarzan, which isn’t a huge surprise given that Katz himself has pointed to Tarzan illustrator Hal Foster as a major influence to his style. There’s a very caveman-like “might makes right” theme to the tribal characters, including how they view women, who are very seldom clothed. However, we also see their spiritual side with characters such as a shaman who shows Darkenmoor glimpses of his future.
On the theme of spirituality, Katz also shows us a different society of sorts, the so-called “trans gods” of Helleas, hedonistic “rulers” who sit on high and, as a rule, do not get involved with the “mortals” of the lower realms where Darkenmoor and his kin dwell. The interaction with the trans gods and the post-apocalyptic tribes forms one of the major sources of conflict in the first part of the story.
Katz’s artwork is simply unlike anything that I’m currently reading in comics. The story started as an underground comic back in 1974, and the style does at times evoke some of the classic underground comic artists such as R. Crumb in terms of the dark, heavily-inked panels. It’s a combination of the level of detail in each panel as well as Katz’s ability to switch between futuristic scenes of spaceships and astronauts, to prehistoric tribesmen, to Greek-like gods in palaces in the sky that really make this a stand-out work.
Above I mentioned how the work is dense in more ways than one. It’s not just the complexly illustrated scenes, but also the themes of the story itself that are deserving of the term. As he notes in his foreword to the work, The First Kingdom deals with Katz’s theories of constant states of regeneration and re-enactment, the growth and decay of empires. This is heavy stuff and, again, not something that can be read cursorily. It is the antithesis of “light reading.”
And yet this, along with the superb artwork, is The First Kindgom’s greatest strength. It is not only an excellent time capsule of sorts, a look into the aesthetics, politics, and socio-economics of the mid-1970s, but also a philosophical look into what it means to be human and the physiological imperatives that we live with as a species.
Review copy provided by Titan Comics.