By Gil Kane, with Archie Goodwin, Harvey Kurtzman & Neal Adams (Fantagraphics Books)
Gil Kane was one of the pivotal players in the development of the American comics industry, and indeed of the art form itself. Working as an artist, and an increasingly more effective and influential one, he drew for many companies since the 1940s, on superheroes, action, war, mystery, romance, movie adaptations and most importantly perhaps, Westerns and Science Fiction tales. In the late 1950s he became one of editor Julius Schwartz’s key artists in regenerating the super-hero. Yet by 1968, at the top of his profession, this relentlessly revolutionary and creative man felt so confined by the juvenile strictures of the industry, that he struck out on bold new ventures that jettisoned the editorial and format bondage of comic books for new visions and media.
His Name Is Savage was an adult-oriented black & white magazine about a cold and ruthless super-spy in the James Bond/Matt Helm/Man Called Flint mould, co-written by friend and collaborator Archie Goodwin. It was very much a precursor in tone, treatment and subject matter of many of today’s adventure titles.
The other venture, Blackmark (also with Goodwin), not only ushered in the comic book age of Sword and Sorcery, but also became one of the first Graphic Novels. Technically, as the series was commissioned by fantasy publisher Ballantine as eight volumes, it was also envisioned as America’s first comic Limited Series.
Volume 1 was released in 1971, and volume 2 just completed when the publisher cancelled the project. Long term collaborator Roy Thomas reprinted the tales in Marvel’s black & white magazines Savage Sword of Conan and Marvel Preview, with the artwork rejigged to accommodate the different page format.
Enough background. Blackmark tells the tale of a boy born into a war-ravaged and primitive future where atomic holocaust has resulted in a superstitious society that has shunned technology and science. Feudal lords rule by might and terror, whilst rebel technophiles are hunted like dogs. Whilst fleeing persecution a married couple encounter a dying scientist king who pays the woman to impregnate her with a son pre-programmed to be a messiah of science.
Blackmark is born into a life of poverty and toil. When his parents are killed by a wandering warlord he devotes his life to vengeance, and learns the physical skills necessary when he is taken for a gladiator slave. It is sadly very familiar to us today, simply because it was so influential at the time – albeit with those few original purchasers who seem to have been the next generation of comic and literary creators.
Although the tale may seem old hat, the beauty and power of the illustration has never been matched. Kane designed the pages with blocks of text as part of the whole, rather than with willy-nilly blurb and balloons to distract the eye, and his evocative figure drawing has never been as taut, tense and passionate. Always suffering from deadline pressures, the artist called in colleagues Harvey Kurtzman and Neal Adams to help lay out and finish the project on time. The script, over Kane’s story, is provided by the incomparable Goodwin, as much a master as Kane himself: Nevertheless, Blackmark is very much quintessential Gil Kane.
This compilation (incomprehensibly out of print and hard to find) collects the original volumes 1 and 2 and presents them in a size much larger than the original standard paperback. As well as a fantasy masterpiece, and a spectacular comic romp, it preserves and presents a literal breakthrough in comic story-telling that should be on every fan’s must-read list.
© 2002 Fantagraphics Books & the estate of Gil Kane. All Rights Reserved.