by Andy Wolverton
The word “epic” may be the most overused word in our modern cultural lexicon. Statements such as “That was an epic football game,” “I had an epic pizza,” or simply, “Dude, that was epic,” usually fail to inspire any real sense of awe, grandeur, or respect. Yet after reading the first volume of Jack Katz’s The First Kingdom, you just can’t find a more appropriate word. It’s truly epic.
The First Kingdom, written and drawn by Katz over a 12-year period from 1974 to 1986, is an enormously ambitious tale totaling 768 pages. The work (originally printed in 24 single issues) has been difficult to find, but thanks to Titan Comics, the complete series will be published in six hardcover editions over the next year. (See projected publication schedule below)
Although the first volume is titled The First Kingdom: The Birth of Tundran, most of the story involves Tundran’s father Darkenmoor, one of the survivors of a post-apocalyptic event of immense magnitude. Darkenmoor leads his fellow humans through a bleak wasteland seeking food and shelter, battling mutated creatures and enemy hunter tribes along the way. In time, Darkenmoor becomes convinced that he can lead his people to Gan, a place they can permanently settle.
Meanwhile in the home of the gods, Hellas Voran, the emperor god Dranok has witnessed Darkenmoor’s quest from afar and seeks to stop the human warrior from finding Gan. Dranok’s daughter, Selowan, however, desires Darkenmoor and will do anything to have him.
What I’ve described is the tip of a very, very large iceberg. If you could mix The Iliad, The Odyssey, War and Peace, Conan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tolkien, Shakespeare, Greek mythology, philosophy, space opera, and the biblical concepts of creation/fall/redemption into a blender, you’d still have only a glimpse of what Katz is undertaking with The First Kingdom. The world-building is massive, the cast of characters enormous, and the imagination flowing from each page is simply astounding.
But does it work? I certainly had some serious reservations going into this title. Can a black-and-white comic from the wild-and-crazy ‘70s still hold up 40 years later, or is it nothing more than a dated, curious artifact?
Simply put,The First Kingdom: The Birth of Tundran succeeds as an enormously engaging adventure that keeps the pages turning and demands your attention. The first thing you’ll notice when opening the book is Katz wastes no space. The entire story is told not in word balloons, but rather in open text boxes, probably to leave more room for the artwork, which is the second thing you’ll notice. The level of detail is astonishing. Pick any panel and you’ll find yourself marveling at the meticulousness of the art. (Katz also has an incredible understanding of the human form. Yes, there’s lots of nudity in the book, but almost all of it is of a non-sexual nature.) And as impressive as the individual panels are, you’d better be sitting down when you encounter the grandeur of the full-page spreads. It’s no wonder this project took 12 years.
As dense as the art is, the story is even more so. There’s a lot of text to get through and when I saw how small the print is, I groaned. If the book has a weakness, it’s that Katz sometimes shows us the story visually and tells us verbally at the same time. That’s certainly not a deal-breaker, though. Neither is the fact that many of the female characters look the same, a problem Katz seems aware of by keeping the characters’ names in front of us pretty frequently.
As big as The Birth of Tundran is, you get the feeling that this volume is a prelude to something much bigger, which is honestly difficult to imagine, but something I eagerly await. The volume includes an introduction by Roy Thomas, a foreword by Katz, a conversation with Katz and his agent, Peter Beren, an afterword, an artist’s biography, and a three-page sketchbook.
So, find a desk or table, pull up a chair, brew some coffee, and open up a copy of The First Kingdom: The Birth of Tundran. You’re going to be here awhile. And that’s a good thing. It is, after all, epic.
Publishing schedule for The First Kingdom volumes:
Volume 1: The Birth of Tundran – available now
Volume 2: The Galaxy Hunters – December 2013
Volume 3: Vengeance – March 2014
Volume 4: Migration – June 2014
Volume 5: The Space Explorers Club – September 2014
Volume 6: Destiny – December 2014