Friday, 24 October 2008


Blackmark: 30th Anniversary Edition
by Gil Kane (with Archie Goodwin)
Fantagraphics 180pp £ 13.99

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I remember reading the late Gil Kane’s BLACKMARK when it first came out, in 1971, in a mass-market format Bantam paperback. At the time, I was a massive sword & sorcery fan: Robert E Howard’s Conan, Bran Mak Morn, and Solomon Kane, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and John Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian in particular. I had read Kane’s HIS NAME IS SAVAGE, a magazine-format graphic novel that was part Richard Stark and part Donald (Matt Helm) Hamilton, and knew Kane was trying to push the envelope in terms of comic book story-telling.

But even at the time, I knew there were limitations. Kane’s artwork is extremely fluid, and, at its best, elegant, as seen in his work on Green Lantern. But the geometrical nature of his faces meant the emotional range was strong at the ends but somewhat weak in the middle—his characters spoke better through action than in portrait. And although Kane was always an outspoken proponent of more literary content in comics, the quality of the prose and the use of it within the layout, more illustrated book than graphic novel, didn’t necessarily break new ground. Even within the limited literary bounds of the sword & sorcery universe, Kane (despite the talented Archie Goodwin doing the actual scripting) came a lot closer to Gardner Fox than Fritz Leiber.

Given those limitations, when the original BLACKMARK came out, the small paperback book format worked against Kane’s greatest strength as a comic book artist, his sense of movement. The panels were cramped into tiny pages, the flow was disrupted severely. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see the book reprinted in a larger format, with spacious clean page layouts. This volume also includes what would have been the second BLACKMARK book, had not Bantam pulled the plug, and this brings the story to a better finish. The package is completed by an informative afterword by Gary Groth, tracing the history of the project.

Having said all that, BLACKMARK still doesn’t really work. Goodwin’s prose is made to seem more hokey than it is, because it’s too often left out on its own, marooned in a sea of empty page. And Kane’s art, though dynamic, and given space to breathe, simply can’t provide enough richness to fill the static moments. Rather than transforming the rather static beauty of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant into something with the dynamic flow of his Green Lantern, Kane appeared to have instead wound up with the weaker points of each.

Since Gil Kane’s experiments, the graphic novel has come a long way. Writers like Alan Moore and Neal Gaiman have found ways to integrate quality pulp prose with art work that provides both depth and movement. They, of course, were helped by a different atmosphere in the comics world. Perhaps Kane was simply ahead of his time, and was let down by the way the system treated his trailblazing ideas. Or perhaps he didn’t set his sights quite high enough. Either way, BLACKMARK remains more than a curiosity, and it’s nice to have it back in print in a quality format at last.


Rick Tucker said...

I could not disagree more with the contention that this book failed because it was clunky or had stilted, badly written prose. When I read this book the first time after reading it in Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan (with added art to try to expand the format to suit the larger pages) it was like reading it for the first time. The pace was more concise but the art literally breathed from page to page.
The prose often worked more like a candid narration, a solid back drop for the imagery. For me this was the "comic book" I'd been waiting for since I first started reading them. My paperback copy was bought through the collectors market since I missed it when it came out.
The newly expanded edition with the larger trade paperback sized format was welcomed without hesitation. Now we had both of the original stories in one volume (rumored to have been the first two of what was supposed to be a much larger series or saga).
Kane's art is more spare in this series but it's still that angular, dynamic, illustrative process that he brought to comics. It's better here because it is a raw but also sophisticated form of cartooning. There are no huge, steroidal heroes. The landscape is expansive like the American west of middle east. The edginess of the story is perfectly suited to a time when people feel helpless to change their own fates, hanging on for dear life and relying entirely on a ruthless fuedal system that offers little but the sparsest of respites from the savage environment.
The benefit here is the sweep of the tale. It's turgid in some ways, the way most post-apocalyptic tales are. However that scope of the human deprivation and desperation is needed to propel the urgency of the world's need to find a new way to live, one less reliant on murderous robber barons and jaded nobles who are out to exploit the fear they need to stay in power.
The idea that a former slave and gladiator is possibly the answer is nothing new. But for this guy to be the hope without him being a noble orphan-lost as an infant- or some messiah was very refreshing.
Best of all, science is the tool of salvation even as people fear it and curse its return, seeing it as the reason the world is in such a hopeless shambles.
I love this book, both for what it is and for what it could have become if given a chance. Gil Kane engaged and experimented with an idea that's all but lost in today's popular graphic narrative; he kept it simple and layered his story to give it the emotional impact it required while not weighing it down in useless subplots that would never be resolved. Even the wierd scince, mutant enemies and blasted wastes are used not for exploitative, over the top excuses for drawing stupid monsters. No, like the best SF and fantasy films these are crucial elements but also on the edge of the story, the threat that sometimes reveals itself but withdraws to keep the fear potent and to keep people on the edge of reason.
Lastly, there is no question mark. This was the first graphic novel whether it rates scorn or popularity. There's nothing like it today, this rare melding of prose and art. There are bigger, fatter comic books but most of them are just that, comic books with fatter packaging. So, whether it's apprciated for it story or not there is nothing like this. Will Eisner's city tales are the closest and they are also graphic novels in the their format and scope.
I may be in the minority, but there is no single book in my library of comics that hit on so many cylinders as Blackmark did. For me it is the near perfect marriage of art and prose that I wish I saw more often while realizing there's not much of a chance of it happening ever again.
That's my lengthy two cents worth.

Rick Tucker

Michael Carlson said...

Thanks for that comment--I agree with lots you say abt the story (after all, I do like it) and especially the layout of the art (which I might have said more about) but you do use the word turgid at one point, and I found a lot of it close to that (something I rarely thought abt Archie's work).
But I may be over-valuing that--the way some film reviewers review the dialog and not the movie...

As to the question mark: I know there are other theories, but I included it simply because I thought if this were the first GN, then what was His Name Is Savage?