Jack Kirby Collector Edited by John Morrow Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.

Once Upon A Time: Kirby's Prisoner

by & © Charles Hatfield

From Jack Kirby Collector #11

The Prisoner resigns! Fully inked and lettered by Mike Royer.


What happens when your favorite cartoonist gets his hands on your favorite television show?

The Prisoner!

A British response to the 1960s' Bond-inspired fad for spy thrillers, The Prisoner was conceived in 1966 by writer (and former secret service agent) George Markstein, and brought to life by actor/ producer Patrick McGoohan, co-producer David Tomblin, and crew (under McGoohan's banner, Everyman Films Ltd, but financed by the company ITC). A conceptual follow-up, if not a direct sequel, to McGoohan's popular series Danger Man (US title: Secret Agent), Markstein's Prisoner concerned a former espionage agent imprisoned in a retirement community for spies. As finally produced, the series elaborated on Markstein's premise by treating it symbolically: the spy thriller became an allegory of the tension between individual self and institutional authority in McGoohan's words, an "allegorical conundrum" open to myriad interpretations.

The allegory rests on a plot elegant in its simplicity: a secret agent resigns his position, only to find himself a prisoner in the Village, a superficially quaint yet rather sinister locale. Unnamed powers want to know why he resigned, and try to force his secrets from him, but he refuses to say anything, and dedicates himself to escaping. Week after week, the Prisoner, dubbed "Number Six," fights to preserve his free will and individual identity in the face of near-overwhelming odds; week after week, he succeeds in foiling all attempts to make him talk, yet fails to escape the Village. Ironically, he is never named, despite his repeated cry, "I am not a number! I am a free man!"

Though Number Six matches wits with a series of figurehead leaders, all known by the title "Number Two," the ultimate power behind the Village (Number One, presumably) remains unknown. Throughout the series, the stalemate between Village and Prisoner is challenged but never broken - that is, until the last two episodes of the series, an infamous two-part story in which No. 6 defeats his captors, encounters No. 1, and "escapes," only to begin the same cycle all over again!

Under McGoohan's direction, the series departed radically from its literal premise, so much in fact that writer/script editor Markstein eventually bailed out of the project. By then the show had become a truly strange blend of spy heroics, Orwellian SF, absurdist humor, and philosophical allegory. After more than a year of production, ITC pulled the plug on The Prisoner - which was, after all, costly, behind schedule, and (by TV standards) obscure. Broadcast in the UK in 1967-68, and in the US in the summer of '68, The Prisoner caused brief ripples of enthusiasm, puzzlement, and outrage; in fact, British reaction to the last episode was so hot that McGoohan went abroad to escape notice. Yet, once shown, The Prisoner faded into obscurity - only to be recovered by a growing fan following in the 1970s, and rerun in the States by PBS in 1977 (my first exposure to it). The show's memory lives on in numerous books, record albums, videotapes, and other merchandising, thanks in part to the efforts of Six of One, an authorized, international fan club. (Reportedly, McGoohan has recently signed with Polygram to write and produce a Prisoner feature film.)

References to The Prisoner in comics are many, but to my knowledge only two licensed Prisoner comics have been attempted: one, a four-part sequel by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith, published by DC in 1988-89; the other, an unpublished adaptation from Marvel Comics, written and drawn by none other than Jack Kirby! This unfinished, seventeen-page story, what was to have been the first in a series, was created by Kirby and partially inked and lettered by Mike Royer in the Summer of 1976 (to be published in Nov. '76, with a Feb. '77 cover date). Since Marvel scrapped the project, this single episode is all that remains of Kirby's plans for the series.

Why Kirby?

According to Steranko's Mediascene (Nov.-Dec. 1977), Marvel's Prisoner began as a proposal by editor Marv Wolfman, which led to an effort by Steve Englehart and Gil Kane - an effort nipped in the bud by Stan Lee, who gave the project to Kirby. Lee later scuttled the series altogether. Given its history, one might expect Kirby's adaptation to be lukewarm, a matter of assignment rather than passion - but no, his Prisoner is an intense, ambitious comic, oddly in tune with his other 1970s projects.

It's not hard to see why The Prisoner appealed to Kirby. Indeed, the series' concept, which Kirby glossed as "an individual's stubborn attempts to wrest freedom from subtle but oppressive power" makes perfect sense within Kirby's oeuvre. Its paranoiac, Orwellian premise dovetails with the dystopian future of Kirby's OMAC (1974-75), as well as the Orwell riffs in Kirby's "Madbomb" saga in Captain America #193-200 (1975-76). Likewise, echoes can be found in the later "Mr. Machine" story in Kirby's 2001 #8-10 (1977), with its theme of free will vs. mind control.

Going back farther, we find the theme of freedom vs. control tackled most directly in Kirby's Fourth World saga (1970-74). The Forever People, in the "Glorious Godfrey" story arc (#3-6), confront brainwashing on a grand scale, in the form of Godfrey's evangelical crusade, then are imprisoned within Happyland, an amusement park which serves as a kitschy facade for Desaad's experiments in manipulation; later, in "The Power" (#8) they face a megalomaniac whose will-power can turn others into puppets. Over in Mister Miracle, the very idea of a "super escape artist" invites comparison to The Prisoner, with its stress on entrapment and escape; indeed, there are echoes of The Prisoner's nameless Village in Granny Goodness' horrifying "Orphanage" on Apokolips. On a larger scale, throughout the Fourth World, Darkseid's ongoing quest for Anti-Life dramatizes the struggle between individual freedom and totalitarian control (see TJKC #6).

Kirby's fascination with The Prisoner in fact dates back at least as far as Fantastic Four #84-87, which would have been produced in 1968, the very year The Prisoner was first broadcast in the US. That story focuses on a Latverian village constructed by Dr. Doom to entrap the FF, a village in which the falsely-smiling peasants seem just as cowed and evasive as the inhabitants of McGoohan's village. Stan Lee later (October '69) acknowledged this story as an homage to/parody of The Prisoner - clearly, the concept lodged itself in Kirby's brain soon after, or even during, the TV show's original run.

The Prisoner must have appealed to Kirby the storyteller on a gut level, as it raised philosophical questions in a disarmingly accessible form. McGoohan and Co. used the then-popular spy genre for all it was worth - despite its intellectual ambitions, and portentous tone, The Prisoner was filled with chases, fisticuffs, and intrigue; its thematic conceits were grounded in a credible, almost palpable world. In short, the series used a familiar genre, and a hard-hitting style, to allegorize weighty issues. Sound familiar? This might be a capsule description of Kirby's Fourth World. Just as The Prisoner had treated the spy genre as an intellectual vehicle, Kirby had tried to make the superhero comic a platform for ideas. Kirby's Prisoner, in the wake of the Fourth World, represents another attempt to wring significance and depth out of his style - a style forged in juvenile adventure comics yet responsive to Kirby's own preoccupations and concerns.

The Comic Book

Unlike most of Kirby's comics from the mid-'70s, The Prisoner is not broken down into brief chapters, so the story's rhythm seems less dynamic, more deliberately measured, than was his wont. Yet the pages feature standard Kirby layouts: usually four, five, or six panels per page, plus two full-page splashes and a double-page spread (pp. 2-3, of course). In keeping with Kirby's mature preference for regular layouts, the page designs are steady and gridlike. Royer, impeccable as ever, inked the first five pages and one panel on the sixth, and lettered all of the captions and most of the dialogue; thus The Prisoner provides an instructive glimpse into Royer's working process as well as Kirby's. Through-out, Royer's fidelity to Kirby's pencils is evident, as is his practice of skipping around in a story rather than finishing each page one at a time.

Plot-wise, Kirby's story recaps the first half of "Arrival," the first episode of the TV series:

The Prisoner finds himself in the Village. Seeing a waitress at an outdoor cafe, he plies her with questions (closely paraphrased from the original), but learns nothing. A flashback reveals how the Prisoner got here (Kirby's version of the series' main title sequence, cleverly interpolated). He leaves the cafe and takes a taxi ride, which, again, reveals almost nothing. Back in his appointed cottage, he answers a telephoned invitation from Number Two to meet him at "the Georgian House" ("the Green Dome" in the original). No. 2 and No. 6 meet, and the interview between them establishes the series' basic conflict (again, with dialogue lifted almost verbatim from the show). Finally, the Prisoner (now called No. 6) takes a helicopter ride with No. 2, and thus learns that the Village is in an isolated setting, cut off from the rest of the world.

Like Kirby's tabloid-sized 2001: A Space Odyssey, his Prisoner is a close, painstaking adaptation, faithful to the original not only in concept but also in many of its details. Yet unlike 2001, The Prisoner offers few opportunities for Kirby's panoramic style, and these seventeen pages, since they cover only the first half of the series' pilot, lack even the brisk, physical action which was Kirby's stock-in-trade. "Arrival" in fact contains much that Kirby didn't get to, including the introduction of "Rover" (the enigmatic watchdog of the Village), a plot involving the apparent suicide of "Cobb" (a former associate of the Prisoner), and a couple of failed escape attempts. Kirby's story includes none of these violent shocks - no fights, no tricks, no unexpected reversals - but instead simply introduces the series' premise. In a longer form, Kirby's adaptation might have achieved the varied rhythms and rough-and-tumble action of the original, but in the seventeen-page comic-book format, we are left with a story which promises much, yet lacks the expected Kirby fireworks.

Indeed, The Prisoner is a remarkably restrained effort for Kirby, in contrast to his other mid-'70s work. Here Kirby's energy is pent-up, his trademark freneticism banked and contained. In fact, physical action reaches its highest pitch in the two-page flashback which replays the main title sequence from the original series: the hero hurls his letter of resignation onto his superior's desk and storms from the office; later, in his apartment, he is gassed, and carried away - that's all.

Yet, despite its seemingly unkirby-like restraint, the story simmers with intensity. From the outset Kirby's powerful storytelling devices are evident, though turned to unusual purposes. For example, the two-page spread which establishes the Village locale, though devoid of the teeming life typical of Kirby's spreads, capitalizes on Kirby's monumental sense of scale: we see the Prisoner wandering the deserted Village streets in the early morning, walking stiffly, dwarfed by the architectural setting of the Village square. The sheer scope of the drawing underscores the Prisoner's aloneness, and the apparent lifelessness of the Village, while Kirby's rendering summons a dark, threatening atmosphere. Clotted shadows, thick crosshatching, and distinctive details (e.g., cobble- stones, shingles) give the Village a rough, weather-beaten look, somehow more akin to the Eastern European settings of The Demon or FF #84-87 than to the quaint holiday resort (Portmeirion, North Wales) used in the TV series. Though Kirby's Village square is modeled on the original (indeed, the fountain and columns are exact copies), it seems more dense, more claustrophobic, and less cheery. Here the sinister aspects of Village life are all too apparent at first glance, while the absurd aspects, underscored in the TV series by the colorful location, banal music, and other comic details (e.g., the marching band, the striped awnings), are less pronounced. Kirby's Village is nightmarish, but lacking in irony.

Besides the opening spread, other stock Kirby devices also contribute to the story's intensity. For instance, an extreme close-up of the Prisoner's face, one eye glaring from the shadows, signals the beginning of the crucial flashback sequence; the staring eye and the densely shadowed face are pure Kirby. The scene of the resignation itself, on the following page, takes its cue from the thunderclaps heard in the TV show's main title, but gives the device a Kirbyesque twist: the scene is lit by flashes of lightning, signified by a storm of crackling Kirby dots!

Kirby in fact takes every opportunity to increase the visual drama of the piece without inserting gratuitous action. When the Prisoner is gassed, we see the shadow of his crumpling figure, hand clutching his throat, obviously struggling to stay conscious . When, later in the story, the Prisoner hears the phone ring inside his appointed house, his stance is pure Kirby: legs spread, knees bent almost to a crouch, body tense with alarm. The next panel shows him bolting toward the door to answer the phone, his figure a study in torsion and momentum. All the mannerisms of Kirby in action are here, even when the story's action is subtle.

Throughout, one senses that Kirby's ferocious energy has been turned inward, resulting in a quiet yet restive piece of work which reflects the Prisoner's own plight. Repeatedly we are reminded of the Prisoner's powerlessness, as if Kirby felt the need to justify the character's apparent passivity. "There's no way out," the Prisoner realizes as No. 2 demonstrates the power of his unseen masters; moments later, his anger gives way to resignation, as he ruefully admits, "I could be considered a captive audience!!" Urged to join No. 2 on a helicopter survey of the Village, No. 6 responds blandly, "Since I must accompany you, there is little reason to refuse." Because the power which oppresses him is subtle, The Prisoner himself must be subtle in his efforts to escape; thus Kirby's too-brief episode ends in mid-air, the tension not at all dissipated, the intensity not at all dispersed by violence.

In an impressive close-up in the final panel, the Prisoner seems like a caged tiger, anxious to escape - and you can sense this in Kirby as well. The "next issue" blurb, overeager to please, promises a story with the blood-pumping title "Kill Me If You Can!" replete with "new revelations... and new gimmicks!" The incongruity of this blurb, after a story as measured, as controlled, as the one we've just read, suggests that Kirby wanted to balance philosophical depth with hard-hitting action, much like the original series - who knows where he would have gone with it from here, or how wild the ride would have been? In any event, The Prisoner pushes Kirby's action-adventure formula to its limit, daring to depart from convention with a long, slow build-up. The series' premise demands such deliberate treatment, yet one can sense Kirby's impatience to take the material and run with it.

Design-wise, The Prisoner invokes the original series yet remains very much a Kirby comic. The landscape, gadgets, and characters, though patterned after the original, are rendered with Kirby's usual energy and freedom. Only the likeness of No. 6 himself (i.e., the face of Patrick McGoohan) gives Kirby problems, as indeed one might expect, given Kirby's well-known impatience with reference photo-graphs. The opening splash, in particular, does not suggest McGoohan at all: the Prisoner is too gaunt, his nose not round enough, his expression too old and careworn. Yet by page 4 a stable likeness emerges, one which remains fairly distinct throughout the tale - the face is not precisely McGoohan's, but close enough for recognition. I'm tempted to attribute the improved likeness to the good offices of Royer (who, for example, later "fixed" the details in Kirby's strip adaptation of The Black Hole), but, no, the face remains consistent, and indeed becomes even more McGoohan-like, in the later pages, uninked by Royer. During No. 6's interview with No. 2, Kirby produces a number of drawings which are startlingly close to the original.

This interview scene, pages 10-15, is the story's most obviously "Kirbyesque" sequence. Departing from the original series somewhat, Kirby allows his Prisoner to see the high-tech gadgetry which his so-called "keepers" use to monitor the Village; indeed, he transforms the interior of No. 2's headquarters, "the Georgian house," into "a maze of technical wonders." Whereas the cameras and other devices used in the series were hidden from No. 6, behind a quaint household facade, Kirby turns the entire setting into a futuristic playscape, rife with high-tech detail.

Thankfully, he preserves many essential design elements from the TV series: No. 2's large, bubble-like chair; the enormous seesaw-like monitoring device in the control room; the streamlined telephones, now dated but then futuristic; the badges bearing the penny farthing symbol; the homey little details such as teacups and dishes; and even the pint-sized butler (a nice likeness of actor Angelo Muscat on the bottom of page 12). Yet in Kirby's hands No. 2's office goes from a huge, austere circular room (the design of the original) to a complex, architecturally-cramped setting filled with Kirby's distinctive abstractions. The only other full-page panel in the tale (aside from the opening splash) comes when No. 6 encounters No. 2, and it surrounds the latter with a riot of detail. Screens, buttons, and glyphs are everywhere; geometric forms, shadows, and metallic highlights transform the backgrounds, in panel after panel, into a claustrophobic Kirby wonderland, reinforcing the text's initial description: "It is as if the present has been gulped down into the dark maw of a threatening future." (page 11) In contrast to the openness and weathered look of the first few pages, the sequence inside the Georgian House is a clutter of beautiful shapes.

Yet this clutter is dramatically effective, reinforcing rather than distracting from the narrative, because Kirby uses his abstract forms to guide the eye. For example, a panel on page 13 shows a head shot of No. 2, against a swirling, circular pattern of techno-stuff, as, in the extreme foreground, the Prisoner's accusing finger points directly at him. Thus the composition focuses everything on No. 2, reinforcing his words, "Haven't you realized there is no way out?" Similarly, on page 15, dark, circular patterns of machinery surround and contain the small figures of No. 2 and No. 6, as the latter declares, "You won't hold me!!" Altogether, pages 10 through 15 demonstrate Kirby's extraordinary ability to organize gobs of visual detail into dramatic compositions.

Uninked pencils for page 15 of Jack's adaptaion of The Prisoner


Yet there is more than visual craft at work in The Prisoner. These seventeen pages have a peculiar resonance - indeed, it's tempting to read them as an allegory of Kirby's own professional situation in the mid-'70s. As Chris Harper has observed, Kirby's version of No. 6 resembles himself, sometimes remarkably so. That Kirby's hero should be square-faced and rugged is hardly surprising, yet the resemblance between the Prisoner and the artist goes beyond this in its specificity. The brooding eyes and taciturn mouth recall McGoohan, of course, but the face and figure also recall Kirby's familiar self-image: broad-nosed, compact, pugnacious. More importantly, the story - about a man resigning his position as "a matter of principle," only to find that he is once again in the grip of an unprincipled power - seems to echo Kirby's departure from Marvel, the frustration of his ambitions at DC, and his return to Marvel under a new set of editorial restraints. Such conjectures, of course, fascinate us precisely because they cannot be confirmed or unconfirmed, only pondered.

On the face of it, it makes no sense to read so much into what is, after all, only a licensed TV adaptation. Yet The Prisoner, finally, remains a remarkable Kirby artifact - both because its theme and tone are distinctly personal, and because its quiet tension pushes Kirby to new limits. Though the adaptation can't be called a complete success - the scripting is inconsistent, sometimes labored, and, again, the premise demands more than seventeen pages can give - Kirby's Prisoner offers much: ingenious breakdowns, startling compositions, and a subtle, carefully sustained mood. Hopefully, the entire story will one day be printed in complete, authorized, and legible form - and recognized as an extraordinary response to an extraordinary series.

Thanks to Chris Harper, Mark Nevins, and especially John Morrow for research help. Published sources include Alain Carrazé and Hélène Oswald's The Prisoner: A Televisionary Masterpiece (Barnes & Noble, 1995) and Roger Langley's The Making of The Prisoner (Six of One, 1985, enclosed in the BAM-Caruso LP, Prisoner Themes, 1986).


Click to join!
Sign up here
to receive periodic updates about what's going on in the world of TwoMorrows Publishing.
New Fall/Winter catalog cover

Click here to download our new Fall-Winter catalog (2mb PDF file)

Search Search the web
All characters are trademarks of their respective companies. All artwork © Jack Kirby unless otherwise noted. All editorial matter is © the respective authors.
Jack Kirby Collector ©1994-2003 TwoMorrows. Website © 1995-2003 TwoMorrows Publishing.