The First Kingdom vol. 1: The Birth of Tundran HC (Titan, 2013) – Jack Katz

3 out of 5

I keep trying to find a mature way of writing this review, but it’s difficult: I keep coming around to the notion that Jack Katz’s First Kingdom – or at least its initial collected volume of six issues, reprinted by Titan Comics – is bullshit. Shallow bullshit. Bullshit in which a plot twist has a character reversing the letters of their name (for no conceivable reason) after they’ve been mutated; in which the “gods” – or Transhumans – meddle with human affairs without any plot motivation, and in which those gods actions’ are occasionally – read: when it suits Jack Katz’s interests – led by their own gods as well. It’s the shallowness of late night high school conversations in which dawning awareness of the world meddles with furious hormones and crafts the ultimate cynical rule of law: that we’re damned from the start to repeat endless cycles, and how come no one realizes this, and how do we break free, and etcetera… That Katz is still parroting this in his introduction, and a bonus interview (with the eye-rolling inclusion of “they don’t want you to know this, and that’s why The First Kingdom isn’t popular!” paranoia) decades after the fact feels… stunted; when this is coupled with his non-humble brags about being an amazing artist (which he is, and isn’t), it sets a dark veil over what you’re about to read.

Even without that bias, The First Kingdom is shallow bullshit. It’s faux-biblical prose is clumsy, and Katz’s crowded Prince Valiant imitations are not well-suited for his equally crowded writing style; avoiding comic book norms of word bubbles for narrative panels in which characters speak makes connecting word to image sometimes difficult, compounded by made-up fantasy names and lands and rituals, and characters which are either lithe, muscley men who are bald or with long hair, or lithe, blonde women with larger or smaller boobs. We’re introduced to a Transhuman-favored human, who emerges from a world-searing apocalypse to build a kingdom anew; to the would-be usurper who’s jealous of his prowess; to the various “gods” with their own squabbles, picking and choosing what they get finnicky about. Foreground / background balance in panels is blurred with overly sketchy linework; pin-up styled panels look good, but action is stiff. By the time Jack has established most of his core elements, he drops a proxy god into the mix – Aquarre – who starts warning everyone he can (tiredly) about how we’re all doomed to repeat cycles of destruction and rebirth over and over…

…And once you make it through that point, about halfway in… the potential appeal of The First Kingdom becomes more apparent, and the possibility that this could actually be an epic becomes more possible. The background of shallow bullshit is absolutely still there, but Jack’s pencils – which I’ve misleadingly described above, as they’re always impressively detailed, just not necessarily great for sequential comic reading – become much better suited to the tone / pacing he uses, with more confident silhouettes and much better balance of blacks and details, drifting more toward “fresco” like splashes versus smaller paneling; the writing also settles down with all of its lingo-slinging and unmotivated character actions: Jack has achieved outlining the cycles, and we’re able to more consistently track the path of several key figures, including Tundran, our initial character’s son, who’s destined (via a random, unexplained oracle dude) to rule the lands. Aquarre takes on the more intriguing position of pleading for others to let the cycle play out without the usual interventions; the gods’ interplay is better juxtaposed against the same cycles. Our rather forced creation yarn has, slowly, gotten into a more tolerable and entertaining fantasy vein, and volume 1 ends with Tundran starting on his journey proper.

Circling back around to my opening criticisms, despite them, I agree with Will Eisner, quoted on the cover, that Katz undertaking here – often considered the first long-form narrative – is awe-inspiring. That teen who is spouting nonsense over coffee and cigarettes isn’t likely to throw himself in to hundreds of pages of dense comic artwork, and even if the story isn’t initially all the sensible (or interesting), again: the effort it took / takes to commit to that is admirable. Could 80 or so pages of this be scraped away, with the comparatively good stuff still being worthwhile? Probably, but who can know that when they’re starting out on something like this? More importantly, if you’ve shoved your way through the tale to this point, there’s enough going on to merit at least seeing where things will go in the next volume.

Titan’s hardcover, at $25 bucks, is a pretty ideal collection of this stuff, printed on bright white paper with a stitched binding, and sized such that it’s not cumbersome but gives plenty of room for taking in the pages. Just be prepared for a bit of commitment when it comes to actually reading the damn thing.