The Trigan Empire series is one of the most cherished, celebrated series in the history of British comics. Written in the 1960s to ‘80s, it achieved fame mainly in Britain and mainland European countries. The Netherlands in particular embraced the artist Don Lawrence and offered him much work after this series was finished. Let’s take a closer look.
The story of the Trigan Empire series at first feels overblown, overdramatic and contrived. But it is a story where the truth of actual evens is two steps removed from us. The opening chapter tells of a UFO crashing on planet Earth and inside were found the crew and a set of beautifully bound books. These books were then translated into the story that we observe in the panels. Gene Wolfe would use a similar idea for his The Book of the New Sun a decade later. And what we get is a mythological story, an origin story of the Trigan Empire. Unsurprisingly, the characters are all larger than life. The plot is full of dramatic gestures – grand geniuses, terrible betrayals, masterplans, the stuff of myth and legend. We don’t know if it all actually happened the way we see it. A country like Turkmenistan could also produce an origin story like this.
That means that the artist, and I don’t mean Don Lawrence himself but the artist in the narrative, made choices in how to present this story of myth and legend in a form that is familiar to us. The story of Trigo and his founding of the Trigan Empire mirrors our legends of the founding of Rome. The enmity between Romulus and Remus, the founding of Rome on seven hills (Trigan City has five hills, and yes he named the city after himself) and the violent struggle against Rome’s neighbours in its early days. It is all mirrored in the comic, but also Roman architecture and outfits are drawn into the panels.
So we have a story that vaguely resembles Virgil’s origin story of Rome, but it also has futuristic technology. It has ray guns and spacecraft. Alien ecosystems, blue horses and green men, strange human-like races, dinosaur-like monsters and so on. It is planetary romance; Virgil meets Edgar Rice Burroughs. And, what’s more, this series is a charming example of what we now call retro-futurism. Look how cute artists depicted rocket ships in the 1960s. And futuristic cities and laser blasters and helmets… Don Lawrence’s art is magnificent, let me make that clear. But very much of a certain time.
So far for the good stuff. Now for six paragraphs of criticism…
Lawrence’s art also makes the stories palatable. With a form of heightened realism he makes it look so exciting and easy to suspend disbelief, but without his art the stories would become preposterous. The hero Trigo is this blond, muscled guy who is the best in everything and the villains are over-the-top villainous. They build a megacity within a year and go from plain-dwelling nomads to space-farers within a decade. The pace of storytelling was also different at that time. The series was serialised in biweekly magazines, so Butterworth and Lawrence produced two or three pages for every new issue and had to keep readers invested for those pages. Therefore, the stories are very concise, with much of the plot told via omniscient narrators in floating text rectangles. Reading straight through feels a bit like running through a story, with one thing happening after another.
The series reads as a glorification of empire; and as a glorification of a blond, muscled Übermensch as an enlightened despot. Trigo is so just and honourable. Of course, the story could be an origin myth as it is translated from alien books, but that framing device is only ever brought up in the very first story and never touched upon again, and so quickly disappears from the reader’s mind. I don’t think that Butterworth wanted to keep using that device to maintain a tension about the reliability of the narrative. We are supposed to feel immersed in the stories without thinking too much about them, dragged along by Lawrence’s spellbinding paintings and a quick pace. And so the glory of the Trigans becomes an unquestioned part of the stories. Where the glorification fails is that Emperor Trigo frequently makes the dumbest decisions that are used as setups for stories of adventure. That, and that the empire inexplicably still sends prisoners to slave away in mines for the rest of their lives.
Every story is the same! There’s a format: (1) there will be some threat to the empire. Sometimes foreign invaders, sometimes aliens, sometimes a long lost member of the imperial family. (2) Trigo or sometimes his favourite nephew Janno (they are hard to keep apart) ends up in the wilderness. (3) They meet pirates or nomads or tribes and fight through or raise an army, (4) the genius philosopher Peric comes up with a solution to a problem, and (4) they return to win back Trigan City. Any aliens or tribes now want to become vassals of the empire because Trigo is so honourable. As the series progressed, Butterworth tried his hand at writing longer, more complicated stories, but found it hard to shake off the format I outlined above. Instead, he made the chapters longer by adding another adventure at the end, and another, and another, with the result that we have stories end in the middle of a chapter and then continuing into a second or third story where you would expect a chapter to end.
The writing is mediocre in more ways than just the format. The stories are full of plotholes, idiotic, spur-of-the-moment decisions, contrived writing and ex-machina twists. People and nations really don’t behave as they are portrayed in here. Much of the descriptive writing is unnecessary or clumsy, leading to text like: “And then… it happened!” The invented names are also all very weak. We’re on the planet Elektron, with its moon Bolus, and Trigo lives on the plain of Vorg with his brothers Brag and Klud, and the Vorgs are neighbours with the Tharvs and the Lokans ruled by Zorth, and so on. All dumb, simple names. I can’t count the number of antagonists with names like Yorro, Yarro, Zoggo, Zarro, Orro, etc. Butterworth also reuses descriptions constantly. One story, for example, features “the desolate sea of Mara” and repeats that same phrase over and over in the story. Or a person is described as “an old doddering fool” ten times in the same story.
In one story, The Tyrant, Trigo abdicates so that a republic can be formed, which then immediately falls apart due to corruption, so Trigo returns and is crowned emperor again before a cheering crowd. Butterworth really leans into the romantic ideal of empire. This same story is also a good example of other tropes that this series reuses again and again. Such as: (1) an emperor is drugged, hypnotized or telepathically controlled, (2) a lost underground kingdom is found beneath the earth and (3) favourite nephew Janno is the only one to escape to save the day. Halfway through the series, the episodes start to feel like cut and paste stories from an assembly line.
Don Lawrence’s art must have been the reason why this series became beloved and celebrated, because the stories are SF writing at its laziest. But, in that, not much different from much of the pulp SF written in the early 20th century. Go read it if simple, old pulp writing appeals to you and you appreciate the art style. But what really needs to happen is a reprint of the work Don Lawrence did after the Trigan Empire, namely the Storm series. It is available in English but terribly expensive. The Storm episodes have Lawrence’s best work and the stories are better too because they are more varied and original and take their time.