A Look at Marvels' Stillborn 'Prisoner' Adaptations
By Tom Stewart
His face clouds. His speech becomes clipped, the words bit off and spat at the viewer. "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, de-briefed or numbered. My life is my own." With that, the man known only as Number Six, turns and stalks toward the door. He doesn't where he is, where he's going or how he'll get there, all he knows is he has to get OUT.
Thus begins one of the strangest, most frustrating series ever broadcast by a commercial network, Patrick McGoohans' The Prisoner. Conceived in 1967 by McGoohan and script editor George Markstein for British Television as an allegory on modern society, politics and the then current Vietnam War, The Prisoner's 17 episodes hit the US airwaves in 1968, as a summer replacement for The Jackie Gleason Show. I suspect that CBS and the nation thought they were about to see a continuation of McGoohan previous series, Secret Agent. They were wrong. (Some claim that it WAS a continuation of Secret Agent, something McGoohan has always denied...but that's ANOTHER article).
In the first episode, we see Number Six angrily resign from an obviously top secret job (a running theme is how pissed No. 6 is throughout the series. He does everything angrily), go home and start packing for a trip to a warmer climate. Unknown to him, No. Six is followed, kidnapped, and awakes again in his own apartment... so it appears. (First lesson of the Prisoner, nothing is as it seems) When he pulls ups the blinds, he finds not the streets of London, but the strange, jumbled Meditation architecture of The Village, his prison for the next 16 episodes.
No. Six finds he can only make local calls; local taxi rides, and get local newspapers. He is summoned to the 'Green Dome' by the apparent head honcho, No 2. No. 2 asks the biggest question of the show, the reason why No 6 is in the Village, "Why did you resign." No 6 makes a speech (another hallmark off the Prisoner), and storms out. He tries to escape, but is caught by the security system, a huge white ball called a Rover. No 6 is foiled this time, but time is on his side, and next time....
The series is basically a psychological cat and mouse game between No 6 and the forces of the ever-changing No. 2 (and that getting into the realm of over simplification. (No. 6 is a life-force, a caged animal, pacing back and forth in his cage, waiting for the moment to strike out and win his freedom. No 2 is his keeper, but who is the real prisoner?
The Show played out its run on CBS in 1968, was repeated in the summer of 1969, then was gone. But not forgotten. It has enjoyed a cult following that continues to this day (it's said McGoohan is very tired of Prisoner questions). In the seventies, during a spate of other TV and movie adaptations, Marvel Comics bought the rights to do a comic book adaptation of the series, prodded by writer Marv Wolfman.
"I was a major fan of the series. I thought it'd be a wonderful comic to do."
Marvel obtained copies of the scripts, some with McGohans' own handwritten changes on them, and started to work with Wolfman in place as writer. It was then that Marv had to bow out.
Marv: "I would have loved to have written it myself, but (when I became) editor-in-chief I never believed (I) should do things like that... assign it to myself." The job of writing the series then went to Steve Englehart, another Prisoner fan (Marvel was over run with Prisoner fans then). The art assignment went to Gil Kane, who turned in his 17 pages, Englehart hurriedly scripted them...
And they were filed away.
Unhappy with the first effort, Stan Lee brought in Jack Kirby for another try. Kirby was a master storyteller, and, at the time, was adapting for Marvel Stanley Kubricks' 2001. If he could put that movie of pure ideas into comics form, The Prisoner should be no problem. The feeling seemed to be, 'If Kirby can't do it, It can't be done.'
The big themes of the Prisoner were right up Kirby's alley: Man vs. Society, the individual vs. the Mob, the dehumanization of technology, the powers of a secret government, all subjects Jack had dealt with before. He and Stan Lee had even visited the Prisoner series before, in Fantastic Four #84-87, with Dr. Doom and Latvia standing in for No. 2 and The Village. Jack sharpened his pencil and started work, penciling and writing The Prisoner #1. (Ironic, isn't it?).
Kirby (like Englehart and Kane before him) adapted the first episode, 'Arrival'. He sent his pages off to Mike Royer to be inked and lettered. Mike started off by lettering and inking the first several pages, until he got to page six;
Mike Royer: "Well, they told me to stop."
Jack's pages joined Kane’s in that big drawer of unpublished stories. Marvel was never to publish a Prisoner comic.
You certainly can't fault the art.
"Gil (Kane) was obviously a very good choice, I sensed that the look of Patrick McGoohan fit into his style, and he would understand the material the best."
Jack Kirby showed an unknown talent for likeness in his portrayal of McGoohan (especially in the uninked pages). McGoohan certainly looks more like McGoohan here then in the Gold Key 'Secret Agent comics of the 60's.
The biggest problem is the nature of the series itself.
"One of the problems with the Prisoner, if you are doing it accurately, is it's not a comic book visual series... back in the 50's and 60's, Gold Key could do essentially very quiet stories, that weren't visually dynamic, (but), the way Marvel was by the mid 70's, the quieter, and subtler look of the Prisoner did not translate into what people were interested in seeing. "
Another problem might have been the very talent assigned to it.
""Most of us were purists, and couldn't move it to far, which is probably the wrong attitude to take.
We were such fans of the series that we could not imagine doing it and changing it. If you wanted to be accurate, you had to remain in a city type environment."
The two attempts were fairly slavish adaptations of 'Arrival', one of the most expository of all the Prisoner episodes. Even though both Kane and Kirby turn in fine art jobs, the art can't hide the fact the not a lot happens in the story. In fact, both versions are able to adapt only the first part of the episode, keeping in all the trips around the Village and discussions with No. 2, but missing the final escape attempt and betrayal that ends the episode, thus ending up with a comic that might appeal to fans, but might not grip someone who had never watched the series.
The Prisoner is essentially a static series, a series of ideas and concepts, tied, by its very premise, to one place, the Village. You could take it outside that environment (as the series itself did as it ran out of ideas), but that's not really the Prisoner. (Which is probably why Dean Motter chose to set his adaptation AFTER the end of the original series). Maybe just giving Kane and Kirby the theme, and allowing them to expand on that might have been the better way to go. That (esp. with Kirby) would have probably have been the way the series would have headed, though I can't imagine a mind as cosmic as Jack Kirby's being satisfied with as small a plot of physical land as the Village for very long.
Could the stories be published now? Sure. But it could only be as a curiosity. Maybe Marvels' Prisoner adaptations are things better observed as if only's, and I imagine ITC (the corporation the owns the rights) sees the property as an ongoing thing, rather that as something to ruminate 'if only's' on.
Thanks should go to Marv Wolfman and Mike Royer (for giving me his comments on-the-fly at San Diego) and White and Ali's book, the Prisoner Companion, highly recommended. Hi Mom!
Originally published in Comic Book Artist, 1997. Since this was written, the Kirby and Kane stories have been published in hardcover, and are awesome. Check it out.