The Prisoner: Shattered Visage


I bought this when it first came out, four issues in the then new Prestige format, perhaps long enough ago that it was still being referred to as the Dark Knight format. I traded up for the graphic novel collection, getting it for free because the guy in the shop, a mate of mine, the kid who got me into writing for British comics fandom, hated the owner, and admitted that practically all of them did stuff like that from time to time, to fuck him over. I kept it for several years and then got rid of it, because despite being an Authorised Sequel, and Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern consenting to the use of their likenesses, it simply wasn’t anywhere near good enough. When I was doing my series on The Prisoner some years ago, I referred to it under Other Media, feeding off twenty-odd year old memories. Now I’ve bought the collection again, cheap, in decent but not excessive condition, to refresh those recollections and write about it properly. One day, I may be able to afford the Marvel hardback collecting their two efforts to adapt episode one of the series.

Yes, I am a completist.

Shattered Visage is still not very good. In fact, it’s a mess on many levels, and it totally fails to get either the atmosphere or ethos of the series. Reading it, I wonder, given the intensity of his involvement with his ‘baby’, just what McGoohan saw in the project that led him to authorise it as an official sequel, because I’m hanged if I can see it.

The story is the work of writer/artist Dean Motter, a Canadian creator then noted for his serialised work, ‘The Sacred and the Profane’, with co-creator Ken Steacey, and then for creating and designing ‘Mister X’ (originally written and drawn by Los Bros Hernandez). Motter wrote the story with Mark Askwith, a Canadian television TV writer and producer, and drew the issues with colour by David Hornung and Richmond Lewis. The series first appeared in 1988-89, as issues A – D.

The set-up for the story is that twenty years have passed since the Village was liberated by the Americans and its inmates released. The Leo McKern Number Two was imprisoned for twenty years, the Village fell into disuse and was left empty, but for the former Number Six who, once free to go, elected to stay, and has remained there ever since. But Number Two is about to be released from prison. One of the conditions of his release has been that he was allowed to write his memoirs about the Village (‘The Village Idiot’), although apparently its relevance to the truth, after Britan’s Intelligence Services have been over it, is tangential at best. It is feared that Number Two intends to return to the Village for revenge. It is intimated that there are still secrets in the Village.

So: an interesting angle in that we’re not trying for another ‘lost’ episode effect. It’s a genuine sequel in that respect, but it’s also a possibly unconscious admission by Motter and Askwith that they couldn’t do a ‘lost’ episode, that they couldn’t begin to capture that wholly Sixties mixture of paranoia and holiday camp absurdity. Because they certainly can’t capture anything of the series in what they produced.

To begin with, they can only create their story by denying the original ending, reducing Number Six’s experiences to a drug-induced hallucination, a fantasy. Secondly, having him elect to stay in the Village once it’s liberated, may be superficially consistent with Number Six/Patrick McGoohan’s insistent upon the rights of the individual (My life is my own), but in practice it reduces the character to a contrarian, a figure without independent thought or opinion, merely a drive to do the opposite of everybody else.

But that’s before the story introduces its own characters and its contemporary view of espionage. The two most important figures are Alice and Thomas, the one a former spy for British Intelligence, the other still in the service, head of a small Department called Excavations, which seem to be a background operation. Alice and Thomas were married but are separated at Alice’s instigation, which seems to be linked to the reasons for her resignation. Alice has lost faith in what they do, affected by incidents that have happened to other agents: her reasons are only slightly more concrete than those of Number Six but seem to echo those he appeared to be about to expand upon in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’. Late in the series, we will learn that Alice’s surname is Drake, but whether this is her married name, or whether she has reverted to her maiden name (something her character portrayal strongly suggests she would do) we are not told.

The story is deliberately unclear about everything it possibly can be, even more so than the series.

Thomas has edited Number Two’s book, having practically rewritten it for him, to eliminate active security issues, which appear to be manifold and include all sorts of modern issues. But he’s concerned about The Village, Number Two, an Agent who’s following him, the approval of his mentor, the now bedridden Mrs Butterworth, and the refusal of his superior, Colonel J, to officially support him. So Thomas ropes in a freewheeling American agent called Lee West (a steal from Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh, in Edge of Darkness).

Alice meanwhile is celebrating her freedom by going on a solo voyage around the world in a super-yacht with all modern satellite system guidance. To do so, she has to put her tearful daughter Meagan (aged 8 or thereabouts) into the convent school that is Alice’s old alma mater, thereby making Meagan a prisoner. (She also gets her hair cut and swaps her elegant calf-length skirts for shorts and bikinis: Alice may be a strong, independent woman but she’s also eye-candy, at least so far as Motter’s art style permits). But Thomas distracts her long enough to enable Lee to mess with the guidance system, so that Alice’s course takes her past the Village.

That’s before the Hurricane that wrecks her boat, fries her guidance system and maroons her on the beach below the Village (now defined as being an island). Alice makes her be-shorted way through a dilapidated, boarded up, vegetation-shrouded Village, all the way to Number Two’s office (how does she know to go there?) where a heavily-bearded man sits in the Chair. He greets her, tells her she’s safe, and names her… (wait for it), Number Six.

The bearded man is our old friend, the original Number Six.

All of this so far has been set out in issue A. I’ve explained it in such detail because it’s been necessary to set up the premise of the story, and also because it’s a carefully-detailed, espionage oriented set-up. You can build a good story on what’s been laid out thus far, though little of it would have relevance to the series. But I shalln’t be going into anything like the same detail for the other three-quarters of the tale because from this point onwards, the story falls apart like wet tissue-paper.

Number Two turns up in the Village (how? Don’t ask stupid questions). He’s older, fatter, bearded as well (though not with either of the beards Leo McKern wore in the series) and has bad teeth. He’s being served by the Butler, although as poor Angelo Muscat wasn’t around to agree, the latter is only shown in shadow, with ratty hair and stooped shoulders. He’s there to provoke Number Six into a fight.

Not a psychological battle, a contest of minds trying to outdo each other, intelligence warring with intelligence and sharp dialogue, but a fist-fight. If ever the limitations of comics creators’ mentalities was exposed, it is here. Number Six beats Number Two up and shaves off his beard.

By now, the Village has been invaded by two military forces, an unofficial one led by Lee, with Thomas, that exposes the true secret behind the Village, the thing that it’s all been about since the very beginning: a nuclear missile. You know, the very thing that was fired during the ‘Fall Out’ episode that Motter and Askwith dismissed as wholly a drug-induced hallucination in order to tell their story becomes their big idea. It’s pathetically weak.

The other invading force doesn’t get anywhere. They’re sent by Thomas’s superior Ross, D.Ops (Director of Operations) to retrieve all information and people they find, but they find nothing because the beaten Number Two sets off the missiles without opening the silo doors, so the Village is destroyed, as it was when the missile was fired in ‘Fall Out’ that Motter and Askwith dismissed, etc., killing everyone in the Village but not necessarily the maverick Lee.

There are two codas to this conclusion. One involves a shift in authority in British Intelligence, involving a takeover by remote figures for whom, it appears, the seemingly detached Lee West was working: Ross is dismissed, gassed unconscious and removed in an undetaker’s hearse, presumably to The Village 2.0.

And Alice, who escaped with Number Six, is reunited with Meagan (whilst under surveillance), after a brief conversation with our erstwhile hero. She asks two questions which elicit two answers that sound clever but which, after the failure we’ve read, are functionally meaningless. In reverse order, to a question about how Number Six knows his secrets are still safe, he answers ‘None of us would still be here if they weren’t’, whilst to the $64 Million Dollar question of Who was Number One, actually? we get the gnomic response, ‘Does the presence of Number Two… necessarily require the existence of Number One?’ It’s cute, it has its appeal, it could actually be the basis for a serious story if you produce it early enough, but in context it’s as meaningless as everything else: just someone thinking that they’re being clever.

According to the Wikipedia entry, the story was ‘thoroughly evaluated’ by ITC Entretainment, and every page of Shattered Visage (title taken from Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’) and every issue was sent to Patrick McGoohan, who signed off on it but offered no feedback: the only thing Motter ever got back was, apparently, “He didn’t hate it.” Leo McKern sent a note to say how flattered he was to be a comic book villain for the first time. It’s a nice gesture, and I’m sure McKern was amused, but he did rather put his finger on it: Number Two is a comic book villain, with all the usual implications.

What of the art? Does this, in any way, make up for the inadequacies of the story? Unfortunately not: Motter’s art is sketchy and undetailed, his faces and figures awkward. He can catch enough of a likeness of McGoohan and McKern without being so simplistic as to topple into caricature, but his pages are open, lacking in detail, flat. There is no sense of depth to the panels, an effect muliplied by colouring that seems to be content with slapping wide expanses of plain, ungraduated pastels in sunshine, or muddy, lifeless shades in night conditions.

I’m torn over the decision to use treated photography for certain scenes, especially of the Village, and London, rather than have Motter draw these. Even with a deliberately degraded image, these scenes have too much detail to blend into Motter’s style, and the fact of their realness constantly drags the eye out of the story by reason of the contrast.

All in all, a pretty comprehensive failure, and called as such by most critics, especially among the especially fanatical fans, though the opinion is by no mean unanimous. In the end, the actual Village element seems like a sideshow beside the underlying story of power-shifts in British Intelligence. The twenty years on milieu, though an intelligence angle, proves to be determinedly anti-Prisoner-esque and the two worlds are too far separated to ever meet on their own terms.

At least they got it published.

The Prisoner: Other Media


A Graphic Novel

Though the canon of The Prisoner lies solely in its seventeen, much-repeated episodes, there were attempts, both contemporaneous and afterwards, to expand the concept into other media. I am not referring to the 2010 re-make by American TV, which I neither have nor will watch. But there were spin-off novels, in the tradition of the American market for popular shows, and several attempts to translate the series into comics.
The most prominent examples of trying to cash-in on the appeal of the series were the three novelisations written in America between 1968 and 1969: The Prisoner by Thomas M Disch, Who is Number Two? by David McDaniel and A  Day in the Life by Hank Stine (a mini-pseudonym for JeanMarie Stine).
I bought these in the Eighties when they were re-published in the UK through New English Library, though I’d read the first and third as library books in the late Seventies, whilst living in Nottingham. I sold them on again, years ago, and my memories of them are faint and patchy.
The three books are very different in style and approach, although the three authors wrote them to be continuous, with the succeeding novels having some vague reference to their predecessor, as if that adventure had been half-obliterated by brainwashing or drugs.
Disch was a major SF writer of repute, whose work centred upon helpless, passive individuals in situations they are unable to control, so not the obvious writer to continue the story of Number Six. His story was set after the end of the series and Number Six’s ultimate ‘escape’, and involved his recapture and return to the Village, in an oddly prosaic fashion.
However, he has been brainwashed to forget completely his previous incarceration and everything to do with the Village (he only discovers this in the form of videotapes – several years before these became available – consisting of the seventeen episodes of The Prisoner).
I remember little else of the story, save that the book as a whole was downbeat and generally dull. It completely lacked the surreality of the series, save for that in-joke, and the device of effectively restarting the whole thing, treating The Prisoner as something done and dusted, seems to me to be, in retrospect, a device to allow Disch to write as Disch, and not in McGoohan’s model.
McDaniel, in contrast, was a prolific writer of licensed properties – The Man from U.N.C.L.E and Star Trek being two of his regular berths – and a very good exponent of the field according to those who collect such books. His Who is Number Two? was chronologically second, but not released until last, for some unfathomable reason.
It’s the most conventional of the trio, and the one most anchored to the format of the series. McDaniel’s Number Two plots to undermine Number Six’s resistance, to gradually overcome his desire to escape by allowing him to have his /lotus in the Village, and by gradually providing supplies that enable the Prisoner to lavish attention on cleaning, re-tuning and eventually racing his beloved car on a self-built track near the beach.
The more Number Six has a stake in life in the Village, the less determined he will be to resist. But Number Six is very slowly constructing an escape plan, as his new, customised, fibreglass streamlining is actually intended as a boat hull, with the Lotus to motor an escape. Which fails,of course, but which enables Number Two to get away in Number Six’s stead.
Stine’s A Day in the Life, though the furthest removed from the series, was always the most interesting book. It’s a subjective, sollipsistic, impressionistic account of life in the Village as a mixture of good and bad times. The Prisoner ends up getting away to London, absolutely free and clear, only for the whole experience to be revealed as some kind of hallucination which, as he has expected all along, cracks in one go.
Incidentally, both McDaniel and Stine specifically identify Number Six as John Drake.
All three are worth reading as curios, and several different editions are available through Amazon and eBay, but they bear the usual relationship spin-offs have to a series: they are neither canon nor able to evoke more than an impression of the original.
Since then, there have been two other attempts to invoke The Prisoner in print. Roger Langley, founder of Six of One, wrote three Prisoner novellas in the Eighties, all privately printed and collected in a single Volume that can be bought in the Six of One shop in Portmeirion. I have read none of these, but the internet accounts are dismissive.
More recently, the LA-based Powys Media, who specialise in Space: 1999 novelisations, have branched out into Prisoner spin-offs as well, with two to date and a third due in 2013. Again, I have read none of these, but the on-line reviews available for The Prisoner’s Dilemma do praise its capture of the mood of the series and its sheer energy of invention.
The world of comics has not ignored The Prisoner either, with both Marvel and DC taking their turn at trying to adapt the series. Marvel licensed the show for adaptation in the mid-Seventies, at the behest of writer Steve Engelhart, who was in tune with its anti-establishment theme. Working with veteran artist Gil Kane, he produced an eighteen page adaptation of Arrival which, in a later interview, he described as following the episode faithfully, but adding thought bubbles.
The result, to the best of my knowledge, has never been seen, as Stan Lee decided it wasn’t visual enough, and gave the project to Jack Kirby instead. Kirby had already demonstrated his enthusiasm for the series in 1968, plotting and drawing a four part Fantastic Four story, set in a similarly mysterious Village in Latveria, operated by Doctor Doom.
With the standard page-count having been adjusted yet again, Kirby got seventeen pages now, and he duly wrote and pencilled an adaptation of the first half of Arrival. A total of six and a half pages were inker by his regular inker, Mike Royer, before the plug was again pulled, and Marvel concluded that they couldn’t turn The Prisoner into a Marvel Comic, for which I am grateful.
Nevertheless, many of Kirby’s pages have appeared, and can indeed be seen on-line: enough to make you wish he’d been given more latitude. He does a sterling job of interpreting McGoohan and Portmeirion into his style, whilst working within his own futuristic design, and the work intrigues.
It would be left to DC, a decade later, to actually succeed in getting a Prisoner comic into print, as a four part Prestige format series later collected as the Graphic Novel, Shattered Visage (the title being taken from the Shelley poem, Ozymandias).
The comic, co-written by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith and drawn by Motter, was fully approved, with both McGoohan and Leo McKern agreeing the use of their faces. It departed from the series in being set contemporaneously, twenty years on (and dismissing the series’ own finale as a drug-induced hallucination).
The story centre on a divorced couple named Drake, Thomas and Alice (the latter a nod to Lewis Carroll), who both come from a British Intelligence background. Alice, who has resigned, plans to sail the world in a computer-controlled yacht. Thomas, who is still in the system, rigs her boat to run aground and strand her on the island where stands the decaying ruin of the Village.
Twenty years on, the man who was Number Two, after a long prison sentence, has published an autobiography exposing the Village. Thomas has been responsible for vetting it and has blurred many details as to the programmes running at the time (as well as contemporary, real-life security issues). But what Thomas knows is that, when the Village was closed down, the man known as Number Six stayed on, renumbering himself Number One. And the former Number Two is on his way to the Village.
Hence, Alice is sent on ahead, whilst Thomas, working alongside a seemingly rogue American agent, follows later. By now, Alice has been named as Number Six by the ageing, heavily bearded familiar figure, who speaks mainly in shallow platitudes, and whose decision to stay when he could leave makes him look like a mere contrarian, as opposed to a principled man.
When Number Two turns up, intent on ‘freeing’ his erstwhile enemy from the Village, instead of the subtle psychological battle of Once upon a Time, we get a fist-fight. Though it is interesting to have the ex-Number Two claim that the Prisoner was defeated: unable to bend, he broke, shattered, and when he took a Number, any number, even Number One, he accepted the Village’s valuesand lost.
This pertinent point is, however, undercut when Thomas and his American pal arrive, find the underground control rooms that were the scene for Fall-Out and discover several more active nuclear weapons. These get set off, destroying the Village once and for all, and killing Thomas with it.
Alice and Number Six sail back to London, where he shaves off his beard and delivers one final platitude that undermines the precepts of the series: “Does the presence of Number Two require the existence of Number One?”, and assures her that his secrets are still completely safe and that the World would have been destroyed by now if they weren’t.
All this takes place against a background of sub-Le Carre intrigue, culminating in a new set of masters taking over British Intelligence. Thomas’s boss is ordered to resign, is gassed and take away mysteriously, implying that the cycle is beginning again.
What might have been moderately interesting in its own right, turns out to be confused, confusing and over-eager to stuff itself with unexplained hints, nods and winks, and it falls a long way short of living up to McGoohan’s original ideas, even if it was approved by him (“he didn’t hate it,” Motter said).
So, when all is said and done, we only have the seventeen true stories, and nothing else to lend itself to expanding our visions.