❉ Titan Comics’ graphic novel is what the 2009 remake should have been, and is as wild and off-the-wall as the original series, writes Rob Fairclough.
The Prisoner has had a chequered history in comics. There were the Marvel false starts of the 1970s (available in a handsome collectors’ edition earlier this year) and the 1988 four-part DC Comics graphic novel Shattered Visage. That had some interesting things to say about The Prisoner concept in the age of Peter Wright’s 1987 tell-all book Spycatcher, and a British intelligence community in hock to the better resourced American security services. Nonetheless, it still wasn’t able to shake off the overwhelming influence, or presence, of the series’ prime mover, Patrick McGoohan.
Perhaps surprisingly, and certainly refreshingly, writer Peter Milligan and artist Colin Lorimer’s The Prisoner: The Uncertainty Principle does just that. The 2009 TV mini-series tried it, but still had to slavishly state its adherence to the McGoohan touchstone, with the new Prisoner (Jim Caviezel) discovering a dying man (John Whiteley), who was clearly meant to be the 1960s’ Number 6.
Instead, Milligan and Lorimer’s point of reference is a Village which exists in the same psychedelic warp as the original: a Fall Out-style trial, the North Wales Portmeirion location and balloon-like Rovers, striped jerseys, white-trimmed blazers and canopied Mini Mokes are all present and correct. It’s an effective visual contrast with the gritty, Bourne films/Homeland-style espionage conducted outside the penal toy town.
The plot is fairly simple – or rather, in the best traditions of The Prisoner, it initially appears to be: the crop-headed agent Breen, working for a division of the British security services called “the Unit”, is ordered to pretend to turn traitor and go on the run, so that the Village can abduct him. Once imprisoned, the new Number 6 will rescue or liquidate agent Carey, a fellow secret agent he has become emotionally involved with… From there, The Uncertainty Machine develops into a self-perpetuating cycle of paranoia, lies and deception, which becomes progressively – and entertainingly – wilder and wilder.
Lorimer’s art (suggestive of comic strip master David Lloyd in places) captures the visual madness of the Village perfectly. Milligan, writing from Breen’s point of view, cleverly hints that the agent may have been trapped right from the start. All the way through, you don’t know how real what Breen is experiencing actually is; with the recurring theme of the spy waking up from Village-induced hallucinations, the narrative hints that Breen has been in a Village virtual reality simulation right from the beginning. When he takes on a cover identity in the toilets of King’s Cross station in the first chapter, by the sinks a man in a black and white checked suit is playing chess and calling out chess moves…
The Uncertainty Machine shares the same creative territory as the layered, spiral realities of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), but as that film’s structure was arguably lifted wholesale from The Prisoner in the first place, it seems fair enough in terms of artistic pay back.
A quote on the cover of this collected edition – there were four original issues, just like Shattered Visage – suggests that this story will appeal to fans of spy stories in general as well as The Prisoner, and I agree with that. It’s a difficult thing to pull off, but Milligan and Lorimer have made The Prisoner as off-the-wall and accessible as it originally was.
Which is entirely fitting, because that’s exactly what Patrick McGoohan did all those years ago…
❉ ‘The Prisoner: The Uncertainty Machine’ (Writer: Peter Milligan/Artist: Colin Lorimer) will be published by Titan Comics November 13, 2018. Softcover, 112pp, RRP £13.99.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’, Robert Fairclough is the author of ‘The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.