Tuesday 10 August 2010

Trigan Empire State of Mind

A few weeks ago I was browsing a second hand book shop in Brecon when my eye chanced upon this:

It wasn't too expensive and the hardcover was in pretty good condition, so I snapped it up. But who remembers The Trigan Empire? Not many of you, I'm willing to bet. For a start, you probably had to be a Brit, and not only that but a Brit growing up in the sixties/seventies. For me, though, The Trigan Empire was very much part of my induction into the world of SF - although I came to it by rather roundabout means.

The Trigan Empire was a comic strip running in the children's magazine "Look and Learn" between 1966 and 1982, although (according to Wikipedia) it actually commenced in Ranger in 1965, before Ranger was swallowed up by Look and Learn. Magazines and comics swallowing each other up was very much part of the texture of British publishing then, and probably still would be, if there was a magazine and comics industry worth speaking of. Stephen Baxter has just done a very good overview of the insanely complex history of Eagle magazine in the most recent issue of Vector, but no comic was immune to these factors. My own experience of the process came via the swallowing up of "Speed & Power" magazine, which my parents had been buying me from issue one. Here's a typical S&P cover nabbed from the internet:

Speed & Power was great, especially if you were eight and almost insanely obsessed with machinery and technology. More particularly - as I've mentioned elsewhere - it did me the singular service of reprinting classic Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov short stories, which was pretty much my portal to the world of written science fiction. I still own every issue. Speed & Power, though, was obviously not a big commercial success and alas it was eventually doomed to be swallowed up by Look And Learn in November 1975.

I didn't much care for Look And Learn, if I'm going to be honest, and bitterly resented the way "my" mag had been reduced to a miserably small logo on the new masthead. Plus, there was lots of stuff in Look And Learn that didn't particularly rock my nine year old world. Stuff about the Bible, stuff about history, lions, kings and queens - all deeply boring, in my considered opinion. I wanted stuff about aircraft carriers, tanks, lasers, sci-fi, not all this boy's own all the world's knowledge rounded education type nonsense. Nonetheless, there was one rather fantastic thing about Look And Learn, and that was The Trigan Empire. I loved it immediately, if only because it offered the one piece of recognisable sci-fi amid all the improving, educational dross I detested.

The Trigan Empire was great for several reasons. Firstly, it was beautifully illustrated - the artist, Don Lawrence (who drew the strip until 1976) had a fantastic eye for scenery, figures and technology, and the use of colour was tremendous. The stories were also easy for me to get my nine year old head around - there was a sense of history behind the strip (it had been running for ten years) but it wasn't hard to get up to speed. Best of all, though, it was proper sci-fi, albeit of a somewhat unusual kind. The strips looked like retellings of Bible stories, except that the various characters and tribes also had access to advanced weaponry and nuclear-powered aircraft. I cropped a couple of frames from internet pages, which I hope constitute fair use in the context of this post.

As the Wikipedia entry puts it:

"The fledgling Trigan nation is established under the leadership of Trigo, with the trappings of a Romanesque civilization with swords, lances and Roman-style clothing, but with high tech ray guns, atmosphere crafts and high-tech navy. In a later story, they create a rocketship in months to fly to one of Elekton's moons. Several of the other civilizations show a blend of low tech and high tech."

It was SF, though. In the first strip, which is reprinted in the volume I found in Brecon, we learn that the action takes place on a planet in a different solar system, inhabited by 12 foot tall humanoids. In fact these humanoids are now extinct: the entire history of The Trigan Empire has been translated by a human researcher, based on documents recovered from a crashed Trigan spacecraft. It all happened long, long ago, lending the whole thing the heft of legend. Nothing overtly fantastical happens in the strips; everything is rationalised. Indeed, one of the main characters, the immensely old and bearded Peric, is a scientist figure. As such, it sits squarely in the tradition of Dan Dare, that other great British SF comic series of the immediate postwar decades.

It's all hideously old-fashioned, of course, from the "typeface" lettering in the speech bubbles, to the resolutely non-PC depiction of women and people of colour in the various adventures. The heroes - Trigo and his mates - are all blonde, square-jawed and muscular; the adversaries are generally dark-skinned, Mongolian-looking baddies. Women exist mainly to scream or scheme. It's futile to complain about these things now, though - I doubt that The Trigan Empire was any more sexist and racist than any other comic strip dating from the same period. What's not in doubt is that by the time I came aboard, the days of Look And Learn - and by extension The Trigan Empire - were already numbered. In punk terms, with its meticulously rendered artwork, sensible plotlines and stoic fifties worldview, it was like Emerson Lake and Palmer versus the snot-nosed Sex Pistols of 2000AD. It couldn't last, and it didn't. But since I threw out all my Look And Learns, I'm very glad to have at least this small part of my past back with me again, and if the stories now seem quaint, Don Lawrence's artwork remains as marvellous as ever.

In other news, I'm delighted to report that my story "The Fixation" won the Sidewise award for best short form alternate history - many thanks to the judges for selecting my piece, and commiserations to the other shortlisted authors. Chuffed to bits about that, me.


  1. You need to check this out, then: http://triganempire.co.uk/home/

    The Don Lawrence Collection have published 12 volumes of Trigan Empire strips, and they're handsomely-produced books.

  2. The series was also published in the Netherlands, and there I met it in the libraries. It read a bit dated when I encountered it (late 80's)but it was some innocent fun. The main reason it caught my attention at the time is that I knew Lawrence from his 'Storm' series. Similarly an SF/F hybrid; about an astronaut who after a buck rogers/planet of the apes style timetrip first ends up on future earth and later, and more interesting in a weird new place. Fun, interesting, brilliant artwork at times, highly recommended.

  3. I stumbled across a copy of the Trigan Empire someone had scanned and posted online (I rather suspect it's not there anymore) and read some of it on my computer screen while I was living abroad. It is, indeed, stunningly and resolutely non-PC, so much so I began to feel a bit uncomfortable despite otherwise warm memories. Still, yeah, seminal influence and all that. I remember reading it in Look and Learn, and Trigan Empire being the primary if not indeed the only reason for purchasing that magazine.

  4. Oh.. I own a whole stack of comics by Don Lawrence. Quite a few Trigan Empire ones among them. Here in the Netherlands he's better known for his Storm series though.

  5. Hi Al,

    Congrats on the Sidewise Award win for "The Fixation."

    - marty

  6. Pretty sure this was in Australia, too - don't remember if they were imports or not though.

  7. Ah, brilliant! I have my copy of the 1978 album safely tucked away in a hard plastic case, it is still read but treated with care :)

    I first had it as a child and lost it to find it again years later on ebay for quite a few quid.

    Its nice to know I am not alone in having excellent taste :D

    Here's mine: http://hitchable.blogspot.com/2010/03/book-worm.html picture in that post.

    We should form a geeky club of Trigan nerds :)

  8. Ah, the Trigan Empire! I too had that collection and remember much childish sniggering with friends over the speculated length of the Trigan willy.

    But sfnally speaking it was Countdown that did it for me, introducing me to sf and spinoffery and space opera all at once. Countdown was 90% reprints from TV21, which I didn't know at the time, plus a Dr Who strip and the one original item - the titular Countdown strip which was darker and edgier than anything Gerry Anderson could do. Eight years before Blake's 7, the crew of an alien-enhanced starship fight an evil Earth dictatorship, with spaceship designs borrowed from 2001. Happy days.

  9. Andrew Breitenbach18 August 2010 at 11:28

    THE TRIGAN EMPIRE was also one of my first introductions to sf. My elementary school library had a copy of it, and it was one of the few fiction non-picturebooks, so I checked it out several times and became enamored with it. I even created several puppet shows starring my stuffed animals based on its stories that my younger sister and I would perform and force my parents to watch. (Oh to think what I've subjected them to over the years... oh my.)

    Decades later, I found a non-library-discard copy for five bucks at a used book store, and snatched it up. I was surprised at how well it stood up, though many aspects made me cringe in horror, particularly the Evil Yellow Empire (I don't remember what they're called in the book). It was also more obvious that the book was missing some comics pages.

    As a kid, the one thing I didn't like was that the book wasn't really a novel -- it feels like it'll be one at the beginning, but then it just sort of tapers off into a bunch of small storylines. I can't remember what I thought it was going to build up to -- maybe the launching of the ship that the scientists find at the start of the book -- but that always annoyed me. Now I know why -- it was a comic serial that ran for seventeen years! Still... did the actual strip finally show the spaceship launch by the time it ended?

  10. I don't know, Andrew - the book I picked up only covers a few of the early adventures, from 1965 onwards. I bailed out on Look&Learn long before it folded, alas.

  11. Hi Al - yes I remember the Trigan Empire from Look & Learn magazine which I read as a kid (showing my age now). Tempted to invest in the books mentioned above...
    ...see you in Melbourne!

  12. Oooh, I remember getting that hamlyn Trigan book one Christmas, when I was about 8 years old. I adored that book, with stories brought to life by those superb illustrations. I've just ordered a copy from Amazon, which is for my two sons of course ;o)

  13. Dear Alastair

    Speed & Power was something of an obsession for me: I haven't seen a copy in probably 35 years, but I very much remember the issue dealing with potential life-forms in the atmosphere of Jupiter (I think), with some kind of big illustrative spread and another which depicted the tragic end to the big prototype Valkyrie bomber in the States.

    Funnily enough, I don't recall Trigan being in it at all, but very much remember that collection being released.


  14. Peter: it wasn't in S&P, though - only in Look & Learn, which swallowed the other magazine.

    My guess is that feature you remember of the life-forms in Jupiter was actually part of the serialisation of the Clarke story "A Meeting with Medusa", which was brilliantly illustrated, culminating in what was to me a truly terrifying image of the cyborg Howard Falcon.

    And yes, I remember that Valkyrie article very well...

  15. Aha - you have solved an age-old mystery for me and I have clearly confabulated the two magazines. Looking back, the inevitability of one journal being absorbed by another seemed absolute: the phrase 'exciting news, readers!' always sent chills to the spine!

    The Trigan collection appeared at more-or-less the same time as those h/b Terran Trade Authority collections and for some reason they are all linked in my addled, 42 year old mind.

    with best wishes


  16. I've had the Hamlyn book for years. I've also got a much larger format Trigan Empire book as well, I think from Hawk Books, who did the Dan Dare collections. I also picked up a couple of hardback books full of Don Lawrence's SF art a couple of years back. Beautiful, and quite an evolution from his days on the Trigan Empire. I could hardly believe it was the same artist.

    I first came across the Trigan Empire strip in the mid-1970's, when it appeared with many other older British strips in the British reprint comic Vulcan. I wasn't aware of the above collection of TE books - I must go looking for those.

    The dodgy un-PC elements never troubled me. As an historian, I've always been able to compartmentalize and put older material in their correct historical context. If you read through many of the "classic" novels, you'll find plenty of much more shocking examples of un-PC material. People nowadays tend to get on their high-horses about this kind of thing, but I daresay that there will come a time, maybe fifty or a hundred years from now, when much of our "enlightened" attitudes and behaviour will seem quaint, pathetic and just as shocking.

  17. HELP WABTED ref speed and power

    i remember reading a sci fi story , " escape from Icarus" ? Im trying to find the picture that goes with the story.

    A spaceman in a suit with stubby claws, one broken off stranded on an asteroid near the sun. The clock is ticking the sun is rising, something like that.

    If only i new of the name of the story or the issue of the magazine i could google for the picture. It was very powerful and has stuck with me all these years....any clues ?

  18. Hi anonymous

    "Summertime on Icarus" - can't help you with the issue number, but it definitely appeared in S&P, as you rightly remember.

  19. I didn't have access to the strips as a child in the U.S., but somehow I got that hardcover book at age 9 or 10 (30 years ago), and loved it.

  20. The Trigan Empire series was also published in ex-Yugoslavia in 1974 and 1975 under the title The Distant Planet in ZOV Strip.