2004-01-15 03:14:55 UTC
Comic-strip artist of 'The Trigan Empire' and 'Storm'
15 January 2004
Donald Southam Lawrence, comic-strip artist: born East
Sheen, Surrey 17 November 1928; married 1954 Julia Wilson
(two sons, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1978), 1979
Elizabeth Clunies-Ross (one stepson); died Jevington, East
Sussex 29 December 2003.
Don Lawrence was a vastly influential comic-strip artist who
dominated the genre of science-fiction epics across most of
Europe. Lauded on the Continent as he was for his work and
awarded a Dutch knighthood, his claim to fame rests on two
immensely long-running adventure strips: the British "Trigan
Empire" and its Dutch successor, "Storm".
Born in East Sheen, in south-west London, in 1928, the
youngest of three children, Lawrence boarded at St Paul's
School in Hammersmith but felt overshadowed by his
academically gifted elder brother. He was later to claim
modestly that he
took refuge from academic studies by doing art. I had to
force myself to do it, because it was not something I have a
natural talent for.
Following evacuation during the Second World War years and
National Service in the Army from 1947 to 1949, he went on
to study art for four years at Borough Polytechnic and was
bitten by the comic bug:
I'd seen comic books when I was a kid, but one was not
encouraged to read them. It was regarded as a shameful thing
to do. I liked comic strips because they were full of life
and they told stories. It was then that I realised I wanted
to draw comic strips.
In 1953, Lawrence signed up with Mick Anglo's Gower Street
Studios after submitting a fantastically detailed sample
page of their super-hero character Marvelman that had taken
him a week to do - only to learn that he would be getting
paid a £1 per page. The following year he married his first
wife, Julia, and, with a rapidly growing family to support,
over the next four years Lawrence honed his artistic skills
on "Marvelman". He also ended up writing and drawing the
western strips "Davy Crockett" and "Daniel Boone" for the
studio, before falling out with them over money in 1957.
Turning freelance, he tackled numerous historical adventure
strips for several publishers, including "Wells Fargo" in
Swift for Odhams Press and, for Amalgamated Press, "Billy
the Kid" in Sun, and "Karl the Viking" (1960-64) and "Maroc
the Mighty" (1964-65) in Lion. Throughout his British comics
career, he would also contribute to other strips, among them
"Blackbow the Cheyenne" in Eagle, "Thunderbirds" in Joe 90,
and "Fireball XL5" in TV 21. Up to 1965 his strips were
rendered in black and white, but his painted "Herod the
Great" strip in Bible Stories led to his big breakthrough,
the full-colour sword and sorcery epic "The Rise and Fall of
the Trigan Empire" for a new comic, Ranger.
"The Trigan Empire" was the brainchild of the
science-fiction writer Mike Butterworth, and mixed
feudalism, futuristic technology and monsters in a pseudo
ancient Rome on another planet. Gripping as the setting and
storylines undoubtedly were, the real highlight of the
series was Lawrence's stunning painted double-page
depictions of this lost world.
Ranger the comic lasted less than a year, but "The Trigan
Empire" transferred to the educational weekly Look and
Learn, where it lasted until 1982, with Lawrence supplying
the bulk of the artwork until 1976. Marked not only for its
longevity but also its exceptional quality, "The Trigan
Empire" has been reprinted in book form in Britain and also
in several foreign languages.
For a time, Lawrence's photorealistic style also won him an
older male readership in the men's magazine Mayfair
(1973-75), where his eponymous model Carrie's monthly strip
was a whole different ball game.
However, by the mid-Seventies declining comic sales meant
the traditional British adventure strip was on its last
legs, but across the Channel its popularity continued
undiminished. Unknown to Lawrence, his "Trigan" saga was
being syndicated across much of mainland Europe to massive
acclaim - but with no royalties from his parsimonious
publishers, IPC. It all came to light in 1976 when he was
feted by fans at Comics 101, the first-ever British comics
convention, and IPC presented him with an award. The next
day, Lawrence asked for a pay rise in the form of an
increased page rate (traditionally, comics artists are paid
by the page); IPC made a token offer, and he stormed off. To
add to the grim outlook, his stint on "Carrie" had finished
His career in British comics was at an end: closures and
publishing mergers had ravaged the ranks of adventure comics
and concentrated most of the surviving titles in the hands
of IPC. Fortunately, Lawrence's new international reputation
led to an approach from the Dutch publishers Oberon, whose
editor Martin Lodewijk envisioned another space opera for
their new weekly comic, Eppo.
Lodewijk and Lawrence's first attempt, dubbed "Commandant
Grek", was rejected by Oberon as "too weak", but their
second, "Storm", utilised the same ingredients that had made
"The Trigan Empire" so successful - time and space travel,
barbarian motifs and lost worlds, all lavishly rendered by
Lawrence. Like its predecessor, "Storm" was to become the
very model of a pulp adventure epic.
Lawrence revelled in his new artistic assignment, and his
art had never looked better, despite the stories ranging in
quality from barely serviceable to outstanding. This was
thanks to a revolving door of scriptwriters until the
ever-reliable Lodewijk took direct charge of the plots
again, starting with the "Pandarve Chronicles" in 1981. The
results speak for themselves, with sales of over two million
albums and Lawrence himself acquiring a mantelpiece of
European cartooning awards, culminating in his being created
a Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau by Queen Beatrix of
Recognition in his native country largely eluded him,
though, and none of his work is in print in the UK, although
plans are afoot for English-language hardback collections of
"The Trigan Empire" and "Storm."
Don Lawrence's first big success in the adventure-strip biz
was "Karl the Viking" (more properly, to begin with, "Swords
of the Vikings"), writes Jack Adrian. When I joined the
comic Lion in the mid-1960s, we were reprinting the strip,
only amusingly calling it "Erik the Viking" so as not to
alert Don that we were cranking the handle on his stuff yet
again but not paying him a penny.
Not that, legally, he was entitled to a penny. In those days
the term "creative rights" had no relevance, or even
meaning, to the boys in the "bought-ledger" department. You
signed your name across a stamp on the back of a cheque and
at once two things happened: money for the scripts or pieces
of artwork became yours, but the scripts or pieces of
artwork themselves became the sole property of someone else.
An absolute scandal, of course, But it was the culture of
the day. Don had a kind of revenge years later by walking
away from "Trigan" but it was something of a Pyrrhic
reprisal since, by the time he walked, "Trigan" was pretty
well played out as an adventure strip, mainly sabotaged by
lacklustre storylines and lumpen writing.
Don was the last of a great triumvirate of solo imaginative
artists that emerged out of the poky, backstreet British
comics shops of the 1950s: Frank Bellamy and Ron Embleton
his artistic co-fabulists. His effects were often dazzling;
he had enormous technical expertise and his colouring was at
times superb. But I always felt that his mightily thewed
males, especially in the latter part of his career, did
smack a little too much of the kind of gormless,
torn-singleted models to be seen in biker mags of the
period. You didn't warm to them.
His mildly raunchy strip "Carrie" was said to have been
inspired by the Daily Mirror's "Jane" strip. It wasn't. It
was - and this has to be said - a poor man's version of
Harvey Kurtsman's and Will Elder's outrageous, and gorgeous,
"Little Annie Fanny", which ran for years in Playboy.