Sunday, 26 July 2015

Obscure Comic of the Month - The Prisoner: Shattered Visage

Obscure Comic of the Month is a monthly feature which takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.


The Prisoner: Shattered Visage by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith – DC Comics 1988

Contains Major Spoilers

Spies and secret agents were the courageous champions of the 1960's. The glamour, the gadgets, and the beautiful femme fatales were inseparable from the weighty implications of their daring assignments. It was a time when espionage seemed exotic and even heroic.

In 1968 one television show challenged that notion. Indeed, it even questioned the nature of an individual's relationship to society. That show was THE PRISONER.

It was the story of a man who, after resigning from a top secret government agency, finds himself the prisoner of an unknown power in an ominous wonderland known as The Village.

Now, twenty years later, in an era where the morality of covert operations is no longer taken for granted, we again find ourselves in The Village. It's fate and significance are, at last, about to be revealed.

Shattered Visage is far from what can be considered truly obscure, but for a licensed comic, and indeed The Prisoner's only licensed comic, it goes almost unmentioned by many. I once asked Chris Sims from Comics Alliance about his thoughts on the book, and he confessed he couldn't really remember much about it. So, since nobody else felt up to the task, here is The Prisoner: Shattered Visage.

One can never understate the importance of The Prisoner. It was the first TV series, truly the first, that insisted the viewer engage the story as a whole. Though each episode was mostly self contained, it demanded that viewers tune in every week to pick the story apart for clues. You can almost see the through line with it's legacy today. Without The Prisoner there would have been no Twin Peaks, no X-Files, no The Wire, Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.

Shattered Visage is a strange book, even by it's source material's standards. It seeks to be many things. A continuation of a long finished TV series. Both a re-visitation and deconstruction of it's themes. An explanation of it's final mysteries. That Shattered Visage would set it's goal so high, is almost certainly undermined by the fact that it is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

The story is packed with call backs and references. Conversations and lines of dialogue are taken almost verbatim from the original series and uttered in a new context. The art repeatedly uses visual cues to reinforce it's 'prisoner' theme, using panel frames as prison bars being one such example.

By and large a lot of this stuff hits its mark. I first read Shattered Visage about three months after finishing the TV series, and I lapped up all of the fanservice. It's only looking back now that I realise that the book is all style and no substance. It's actual narrative has very little to add or say about the series on which it is based.

Our story is split mostly into two parts. Alice, a former secret agent, has her round-the-world boat trip sabotaged and ends up stranded in The Village, crossing paths with a now deranged Number Six. Her ambitious husband, Thomas, also a secret agent and the one responsible for the sabotage, scrabbles around the halls of power trying to unravel The Village's mystery.

Practically nothing happens for most of The Village segments beyond nods to the series, and instilling a cathartic tone at seeing the previously sinister landscape brought low. The Whitehall segments have significantly more meat, but don't give us anywhere near enough answers to feel fulfilling. Nor do the Whitehall segments feel like The Prisoner at all.

In many respects Shattered Visage feels as though it was written too early. That the writers didn't have enough hindsight to truly deconstruct The Prisoner. It's worth mentioning that overturning nostalgia was still a new trick back in 1988 (Watchmen was published only a year earlier.)

It's main theme, the idea that The Village was merely a prototype for Western Civilisation is a great pay off. Though it would be a lot more cutting now in a world of mass surveillance, media outreach and cult of celebrity. The warnings of The Prisoner now are a hell of a lot more harrowing than they were in 1988.

The story finally starts kicking into gear towards the climax, with Number Six and Number Two finally having a showdown and the British Government moving to take The Village and it's secrets. But it's all over far to quickly, with little to give us a satisfying conclusion and it's pessimistic predictions given little foundation to build upon.

It's frustrating in a way. A lot of the written dialogue has the wit and sharpness of the TV show at it's best, yet we're never really given the great stakes for it to rise to. Motter's art too is great, but some weird design choices, like giving Number 6 a massive beard and rendering him almost unrecognisable, rob the book of that classic Prisoner identity.

When it comes down to it, Shattered Visage is fan fiction. It may be classed as an authorised sequel and headed by a major publisher, but under all of that it's still fanfic. Motter and Askwith themselves know as much of Patrick McGoohan's secrets as you or I do. What conclusions the book gives us are little more than their own theories.

McGoohan, for what it's worth, said something along the lines of “Reasonable enough, I suppose.”

Ultimately, if Shattered Visage had committed fully to at least one of it's goals then maybe it would have been a success. Sadly, it's not nearly trippy and psychedelic enough the feel like a continuation of the series, nor does it provide any satisfying answers to the mysteries that the series left. It wants to make it's mark on The Prisoner canon, but spends most if it's time reiterating things from the series. At one point a character utters “There's something of Number 6 in all of us,” as though it is deep and meaningful. It isn't.

There's a lot of good in Shattered Visage. The numerous references, both texual and visual, will please any fan of the series. But it's undercooked. Shattered Visage hasn't the time to make any grand statements on the human condition, and was written at a time that lacked the perspective to give them.

For most comics, that might still be enough, but when you propose to be a sequel to one of the most important pieces of art the 20th Century has given us, you are held to a higher standard.

Be seeing you.


Jack Harvey 2015. The Prisoner: Shattered Visage (c) 1988 DC Comics, Dean Motter and Mark Askwith. The Prisoner was created by Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein and produced by ITC Entertainment. Images used under Fair Use.