Review by Frank Plowright
By the material reprinted in this volume Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence had been working on The Trigan Empire for nine years, and the opening seven stories largely reveal a wall has been hit. Because Lawrence is a contender for the best artist ever to work in British comics that’s not immediately obvious, because even operating at less than his peak the art still looks very good indeed. However, while the big action sequences still resonate, not as much imagination is applied to the basics.
Likewise, Butterworth had always been a bit of a magpie when constructing the plots, but by 1973 he’d become increasingly reliant on adapting ideas from elsewhere. The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Man in the Iron Mask, and his own back catalogue are obvious touchstones. In mitigation, Butterworth never considered he was writing for posterity, nor that his stories would ever appear in collected editions. He worked on the principle that if he re-used a plot element readers would hardly remember he’d used it three years previously. This shouldn’t give the impression he’s devoid of ideas. The big reveal for a gothic horror outing is ordinary, but the epilogue coda constructed by way of explanation is neat, and the penultimate story drawn by Lawrence in this collection is tense and shocking as an astronaut returns only to experience attempts on his life.
However, any quibbles about Lawrence’s pages not being quite as imaginative as they once were is placed into perspective by over half this volume being drawn by other artists. After the stories reprinted in lavish format in The House of the Five Moons, and the title strip of The Sun-Worshippers, Lawrence took a year away from the strip. As seen in Volume III, Miguel Quesada filled-in for a few weeks during 1971, and draws ‘The Rogue Planet’. He has the visual imagination and the painting skills, but his people are stiffly posed, and no other artist will come off well compared to Lawrence.
Even taking that into account, and making allowances for some artistic teething problems as the run begins, the 120 subsequent pages drawn by Philip Corke are a let-down. Part of the problem is his attempting to imitate Lawrence, where he can’t help but come across as second best, and part is that Corke’s just not good at drawing people, and Trigan Empire features a lot of them. The exception is Peric retaining a nobility.
Strangely, though, Butterworth seems invigorated by the change of artist, and ups his game for the strips Corke draws. Perhaps it’s to do with the publication of a hardcover reprint of his earliest stories. His first is an epic disaster movie, remembering the industriousness of Trigo and his people, and that the Lokans are their enemies. It’s followed by use of a rejuvenating potion, an assassin, and a form of Hammer horror tale about possessed children. Each takes surprising turns, the assassination plot set up for instance, but becoming a bonding struggle for survival in a hostile jungle with a further desperate situation then added.
That’s not to say Butterworth provides Corke with a gem every time. Trigo replaced as ruler recycles old plots unconvincingly, and the final story relies too much on superstition. That’s drawn by an uncredited artist far better than Corke. Thankfully, Lawrence will be back for his final run in Volume V.