So last week, I indulged in a rare splurge on an objet d’art:
The Original Art Edition of Jack Kirby’s adaptation of The Prisoner, which reproduces his pencils at the size he drew them. I’ve bought a few of these art board reproductions over the years (Kirby’s Mister Miracle, a collection of Wally Wood stories for EC Comics), and I’d sworn I’d never buy another one. Not because they’re not nice; they are, especially for a comics historian and process junkie like myself. It’s a tiny bit awe-inspiring to see the work at full-size, before the inkers and colorists got their hands on it. You can see details and technique that might otherwise be invisible, and get some idea of the decisions made in the process of turning story into art.
They’re fascinating to look at… once. But then, after the 30 minutes or an hour it takes to pore over the pages and garner what insights there are to be gained… I’m done. I don’t look at them again. Or at least, I don’t look at them often. I might pull them out to show them to somebody else, or maybe, every once in a great while, to remind myself of how pretty they are. But mostly they just sit, leaning up against the wall because they’re too big to put on a shelf, gathering dust. And these things cost too damn much money for something I’m only going to get an hour’s enjoyment out of.
So why did I take the plunge on this Prisoner volume, then? Well… That’s a complicated question.
For one thing, it’s Jack Kirby, my favorite comics artist of all time. For another, it’s work from the 1970s, my favorite period of Kirby. It’s also an adaptation of The Prisoner, one of my favorite television shows ever. AND it’s a lost Kirby work! Jack did an entire issue of this thing, and it never saw print! And even though I’ve had digital copies of all those pages for a couple of years now…
…I liked the idea of being able to hold it in my hands. But that’s not the only reason. I also– What’s that? What’s The Prisoner? Oh, yeah. I suppose there might be a few people (or, you know, a lot) who aren’t familiar with it. So I suppose an explanation is in order. The Prisoner is a 1960s British spy series conceived by and starring Patrick McGoohan.
Rather than being just another adventure show, however, The Prisoner is a psychedelic psychological thriller about a man being held against his will in a pleasant holiday village on a remote island in an undisclosed location, and the attempts by the people who run said village to break his will in hopes of getting some variety of unknown information out of him. The village is just called “The Village,” and the man is called only Number Six, the first and most basic of the many attempts to dehumanize him. Number Six rebels against even that, however, declaring “I AM NOT A NUMBER! I AM A FREE MAN!”
In spite of his protestations, though, it’s worth noting that we never learn his real name. Whether that’s because he refuses to even give them that much information, or because that most basic level of conditioning actually works, is open to debate. Lots of things are open to debate on The Prisoner, though. It’s a weird show that resolutely refuses (much like its protagonist) to explain its core mysteries. The final episode reveals all, but does so in a way that’s entirely open to interpretation. The fan debates over it still rage on now, 50 years after its initial broadcast.
So OF COURSE I love it. How could I not?
I’m not alone in that love, either. The show’s lingering legacy is the main reason these Kirby pages even exist. Because former Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Marv Wolfman is another big Prisoner fan, and that fandom lead him to seek the license for the series in the mid-1970s, even though it had been off the air for almost a decade. Wolfman planned to write the book, with artwork by his Tomb of Dracula collaborator Gene Colan. But Colan didn’t share his enthusiasm (“It’s just a guy trapped on an island,” he reportedly said), and without Colan, Wolfman’s enthusiasm also waned.
So the book was offered to Kirby, who responded to the show’s staunch individualist themes. Now, you’d expect (Kirby being Kirby) that he would have put his own stamp on it, the way he did with his adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But he plays things surprisingly straight, adapting the first episode (or, rather, the first half of it) with few changes. Mostly, the differences are in storytelling approach, with Kirby favoring clarity over mystery. He explains Number Six’s reactions and motivations through narrative captions, and gives us access to his thoughts in a way that the show never does.
One thing to note in the narration here, by the way, is how Kirby never refers to Our Hero as Number Six. He calls him “The Prisoner” instead, even after everyone in the story starts calling him by his number. That seemed a little weird to me at first, but eventually I realized that it’s Kirby’s own bit of defiance in the face of Village brainwashing, reflecting Number Six’s own rejection of the number and everything about it. It’s a nice small detail from a writer not given to that kind of nuance, and I love it.
But Kirby also stresses the theme of surveillance with a far less subtle sequence in which Number Two shows Number Six the full extent of the information they’ve already gathered on him, including photographs of events that should have been impossible to film.
In the age of Watergate, the dangers of secret surveillance must have seemed quite vital to Kirby. He’s focused on a sense of paranoia all the way through the book. As he establishes the Village and its inhabitants, he doesn’t show us anyone who’s acclimated peacefully (the fate that awaits Number Six if he gives in), or even anyone who seems like a nervous victim of the surveillance state. Instead, everyone Our Hero meets seems somehow sinister, evasive and part of the conspiracy to keep him in the dark. Kirby obviously had a clear idea of what the book would be, and he was shaping the story to accentuate it. I’d be curious to see what he’d have done if it had been picked up for series.
For instance, I wonder if he would have adapted the back half of the first episode. There, Number Six runs into his former colleague Cobb, who starts to share information with him before being taken away for a “medical exam.” Afterward, Number Six is told that Cobb committed suicide immediately thereafter, but he’s revealed to the audience to be alive and well in the end, just another agent of whoever’s running things in the Village. That’s the sort of mind game that would seem to play right into what Kirby wanted to do with the book.
So I’m doubly surprised he didn’t use it in this first issue. I guess he decided that the set-up was more important, and that he could get to the action later. It just strikes me that, by spending less time on things like Number Six’s abduction prior to being taken to the Village, and that surveillance sequence up above, he could have worked in something that would have played to his core themes, AND (with an additional sequence in which Number Six tries to escape using Cobb’s plan) given his first issue a touch of action after all the talky bits.
And I think a bit of action might have made this try-out issue go over better with Marvel editorial. I mean, a talky first issue is not such a big deal these days, but in the 70s, a mainstream publisher like Marvel generally wanted a fight scene in every issue. So I can kind of see why this didn’t get picked up for series.
After Kirby’s pitch was rejected, the project fell into the hands of Steve Englehart and Gil Kane, who also produced a first issue, and that’s reproduced in this new volume, too.
Kane turned in his usual fine work on the book, and Englehart, honestly, captured the surface gloss of the show a lot better than Kirby. I don’t think Kirby tosses out a single “Be seeing you,” for instance, and he never has Number Six deliver his signature “I AM NOT A NUMBER” line, either. Englehart hits those beats, and that makes his version feel more like the show, even if I don’t get the sense that he was as deeply engaged with its themes. Of course, he apparently wrote the thing in a single night, so I can forgive him a certain lack of depth. But more on that in a minute.
Otherwise, the Englehart / Kane version hits the same plot beats that the Kirby one does, right down to leaving out the back half of the episode. They do manage to work in the one action scene, though, when Number Six tries to escape, only to be brought down by Rover, the weird guardian of the Village’s borders.
If you can’t tell quite what’s happening there… On the show, Rover was played by a weather balloon, brought on set after the mechanical contraption initially built for the part proved to be inappropriate (among other things, it threatened to kill its driver with improperly-vented carbon monoxide fumes). It’s one of the more bizarre things in television history, so inexplicably ridiculous that it manages to be disturbing, rather than ludicrous. I don’t know that it comes off quite as well on the page, but Kane gives it his best shot.
Now, then. The Englehart / Kane version of The Prisoner never saw print, either, and that can be attributed, at least in part, to editorial politics. Somewhere in between the two pitches, Marv Wolfman resigned his editorship at Marvel Comics, and the people who replaced him had no great love for this licensed property he had saddled the company with. Maybe worse, Steve Englehart also decided to leave. So new editorial honcho Jim Shooter issued an ultimatum: Englehart could still write The Prisoner, but he had to turn it in by the next day. So Englehart (as much, I suspect, out of spite as anything else) pulled an all-nighter and delivered the completed script the next morning at 9 AM sharp. Then he left Marvel, and never heard anything about it again.
So it seems this was a doomed project from the get-go, facing rejection from both artists and editors, and proving to be a right bastard to adapt, even for the freaking King of Comics. But that’s The Prisoner for you: difficult to the end.
And that, to get back to our initial question, is why I had to splurge on an 80-dollar art book that I will likely never look at again once I’m done writing this review. It’s a beautiful thing, though, and a fascinating look at how some of comics’ top talents approached telling the same story. I’m sure the audience for this thing is pretty rarified, but if this is the sort of thing you like… You could do a lot worse.