Return of the Trigan Empire

The dark art of Don Lawrence.If you’re duly devoted to the search, you may find a copy buried in your library’s delete bin, under shaggy tomes on potato slicing or the history of the Cleveland Browns. At least it’ll be easy to spot: even with its black hardcover peeling at the spine, the book is a thrilling object. On its cover, a pale blue spaceship sails through the cosmos, while the comic’s title smoulders just below:The Trigan Empire. It opens on a stunning watercolour panorama, a white-bearded man instructing two blonde warriors on a hillside overlooking a vast, ancient Roman city. Crouching in the bottom right corner, an afterthought, is the artist’s signature, the only reference to either artist or writer in the entire book, as though the work had simply willed itself into being. “Don Lawrence,” it says.

When Don Lawrence died last December at age 75, a chorus of artists and writers emerged from the wings to pay homage. Neil Gaiman posted an encomium on his weblog that began, “When I was a boy, Don painted a comic I loved. It was called The Trigan Empire.…” The Guardian called Lawrence “an exemplar” of British comics, “acclaimed across Europe.” Acclaimed everywhere, that is, except his native England (and the rest of the English-speaking world), which paid him as much attention as a shitting pigeon does a windshield. Lawrence was a superstar on the Continent — knighted, even, by Holland’s Queen Beatrix — and, for the bulk of his career, a nobody at home.

He had been the artist behind the The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire, part Roman epic, part sci-fi fantasy adventure, which began its run in the mid 1960s in the otherwise dully edifying British children’s magazineLook and Learn. His artwork was visionary, defined by its luscious gouache and photorealism, and his fondness for dressing his characters in the cartileginous mugs of actors like Kirk Douglas. The Trigan Empire was L&L‘s signature series, a futuristic tale of an ancient humanoid race from the planet Elekton, whose phallic spacecraft crashes into modern-day Earth. The ship’s crew dead, our planet’s top scientists scour the trove of documents left behind, unlocking the alien hieroglyphs that recount the story of the doomed Trigan empire.

The dark art of Don Lawrence.Through 46 stories over nearly 1,000 pages, Lawrence spun his opus in L&L two full-colour pages at a time, every week from 1965 to 1976. The writing, by SF author Mike Butterworth, was taut and suspenseful — and, by today’s standards, impossibly literary for its audience. “In the evening they came to a water hole,” one caption read, “and there they slaked their ravening thirsts.” Lawrence’s panels were extravagant with dizzying landscapes and exotic creatures, wrought with maniacal detail. Though for its ample imagination, the work held fast to its era’s stereotypes. The Trigan men, cut from the finest Aryan cloth, sport meticulous buzzcuts or sculpted bouffants, while the women — in particular the ravishing Dr. Salvia — are compliant, and swell suggestively beneath their modest attire. The “foreign” races betray a more sinister prejudice: the evil Lokans are nasty, needle-moustached curs with slivered eyes and Samurai helmets, while the natives of Daveli are a spear-wielding jungle tribe who cower before the Trigans’ gleaming silver spacecraft. Not the most enlightened politics, but the adventures were bracing, the cliffhangers fearsome, and readers had no trouble losing themselves in Lawrence’s majestic vistas.

At least, not outside the UK. Despite the Empire‘s growing popularity elsewhere in Europe, Lawrence toiled in relative obscurity at home, earning a measly pound per page, with no royalties from the top-selling collections his publisher was hawking behind his back. And when, after 11 years of dogged labour, he demanded a raise, his publisher refused and Lawrence resigned. He wasn’t out of work long, though: that same afternoon, Dutch imprint Oberon hired him to develop a new sci-fi series: Storm. The Flash Gordon pastiche confirmed his standing as a master fantasist, and he continued drawing it into his final years.

Death has been kind to Don Lawrence, at last igniting Anglophone interest in his work — Trigan in particular, mirroring Hollywood’s recent penchant for ancient epics. A Dutch publisher plans to release the complete series in a library of 12 hardcovers; two volumes annually, beginning this year. Ironically, it will be the first time the complete series is compiled in an English edition, even as reprints have steadily sprouted in places like Holland and Italy. And, on rare occasions, in the delete bin at the local library.

Categories: Comics

15 replies »

  1. Actually the Trigan Empire series first appeared in the short lived “Ranger” comic between 1965 and 1967. Ranger was then “incorporated” into the above mentioned “Look and Learn” at which point I lost total interest as it really was a stiflingly dull read, even for a 10 year old! I’ve never forgotten the Trigan Empire though and found it again after “Googling” in an idle moment.Fascinating to look at something you’ve not seen in 40 years!


  2. The Trigan Empire was great! I used to get Ranger just to follow that. The artwork was tremendous. And then suddenly it was gone!
    But I also have never forgotten the Trigan Empire…


  3. I loved the Trigan Empire as a boy…does anyone know if this series will ever be made into an epic film as The Lord of the Rings has been? It would be a shame not to…if so, I do hope thay use European actors and not (North)Americans…the ‘Old World Continentals’ have a feel all their own.


  4. There is mention of a “dutch publisher” being interested in printing copies of
    The Trigan Empire. Who? when and where? It will be good to read through
    these old stories again-I last read them as a schoolboy in the early 1970s
    and greatly enjoyed them and will enjoy repeating the experience again with
    the added benefit of over 30 years life experience.


  5. There is mention of a “dutch publisher” being interested in printing copies of
    The Trigan Empire. Who? when and where? It will be good to read through
    these old stories again-I last read them as a schoolboy in the early 1970s
    and greatly enjoyed them and will enjoy repeating the experience again with
    the added benefit of over 30 years life experience.


  6. There is mention of a “dutch publisher” being interested in printing copies of
    The Trigan Empire. Who? when and where? It will be good to read through
    these old stories again-I last read them as a schoolboy in the early 1970s
    and greatly enjoyed them and will enjoy repeating the experience again with
    the added benefit of over 30 years life experience.


  7. On The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire: Guy Leshinski writes that the story began in the ‘otherwise dully edifying Look and Learn’. L&L was certainly that, but ‘Rise and Fall’ had begun about (if memory serves)a year before, in the children’s mag ‘Ranger’, which I found anything but dull. L&L took over Ranger, and included a diluted section of the latter, but was otherwise so boring that I (i.e. my folks) cancelled my subscription around 1967. I have vivid memories of those first episodes, and didn’t know the strip continued until 1976; so thanks for that, Guy, I’ll be on the look out for the collection.


  8. I have search the last 20 years , for the Book “The Trigan Empire ” which i had purchase at Coles Book store ,Canada NB , in the Bargin Bin for 10.00 , Summer of 1981
    As a Young Teen , with only 15.00 dollars in my pocket.
    As I gazed thru it pages of master pieces of art work , i had to buy it , i search thru bin for any others , none was found . this book in my humble opinion , bought many hours of reading and wonderment. As i have read it , cover to cover many times .
    Of all the Books i have read , this was my most prized Book . I have alway held it in high reguards , with it adventures and Heroism .
    Four Years later i move from home and Attended College , and left most of my processions at home , and of coarse,,,, with younger Siblings , the Book got abused and torn, missing pages .
    Later i was married In 1986 and had it with me , missing pages and front cover . My wife rolled her eyes at it,s condition.
    After a few moves,place to place, it got lost ??
    Yes we are still happly married .
    I have check many book stores to find it.
    the Search was very difficled,,, due to the fact i had forgotten the Books Title , i remembered it,s story and it s amazing art work .
    I spent time searching the internet, the last 3 years on and off , checking
    for it . under Graphic Novels Hardcover.
    Till this weekend . it finally paid off .
    My younger brother also was involved in the search . and Has lost our Wager , In whom would find it first .
    I have been secretly told from my wife , my oldest , who is 17 , will be ordering the book ,as a birthday persent. And looking forward in rereading and admiring it,s art work and story.
    I decided to look in to, who was the person behind the The Trigan Empire.
    Don Lawrence, a man that i have never met , had a impact in my teen years , in the content of his art work. and the Story .
    I will reread the book in Dec , with a greater appreation.
    I agree this book should be turn into a Epic Movie . “The Trigan Empire” would stand along side movies such as
    ” Lord of the Rings” And “Star Wars”
    In Memory of Don Lawrence


  9. I was into comics (American DC) from the age of 6. Very little of British comics except for the Eagle and the Valiant impacted with me. Then in the 60s there was Jason Hyde, Louis Crandell, Robot Archie, Mytek the Mighty, a few others … and there was The Trigan Empire … the most lavish and epic of all British Creations. I LOVED this series! Why haven’t the Yanks bought it to bring out in monthly Comics format? I can’t afford the prices quoted for the books … but I’d get a monthly comic so I can show my grandkids that at least ONE Britcomic strip was every bit as good as ANYTHING DC, Marvel, Top Cow, image or Vertigo ever produced. LONG LIVE THE TRIGAN EMPIRE!!! Publish it Again!!!


  10. Hallelujya!
    The wait was not in vain!
    There is a God after all!
    Yes, I’m another tragic baby-boomer reliving my youth!
    Geoff Doherty


  11. The Trigan Empire was the first sci-fi/fantasy that I ever read. With it`s mix of technology and classical themes it hooked me like no publication did.The result of this has led to a near 40 year love of the genre.Thank you Don Lawrence


  12. I read all the other comments and related to them all – the guy from Canadas tale mirrors mine exactly – bargin bin – pocket money – the lot except my copy is here beside my computer in excelent nick, but best of all a book mark sticking out of it where my son Alex (9) is reading it – I also saved all 28 issues of a comic called Starlord, which was like a better version of 2000AD for its brilliant artwork and he’s reading those too. Oh yeah I first saw The Trigan empire in L&L – god it was a long wait between instalments!!


  13. The Trigan empire was also the first sci-fi I ever read. I was buying How stuff Works magazine, in a newsagent, and bought a Look and Learn off the cuff. When I read the first chapter of the empire, it was a revelation. The visual style and aesthetics of the drawings were beautiful. Sure enough, forgot about it, and spent two years looking for it, in the late 90’s, as you do.

    Thanks Don.


  14. Many thanks for this item on The Trigan Empire, which really took me back to the time I was ten or so and reading this comic strip in the many issues of Look and Learn we read at elementary school (which subscribed to it). This comic strip was really my introduction to science fiction, especially its cosmic elements (time travel, etc.) The above article is right about its reactionary politics, but it wasn’t like this 100%–there was one strip portraying (disapprovingly) a racist politician similar to Enoch Powell, and the street violence carried out by his followers.
    Look and Learn, as dry as it was, had a few other items of interest, such as comic-strip adaptations of classic works of literature–my first introduction to Macbeth.


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