Monday, June 8, 2015

Guest Review - Gil Kane's Blackmark

If I've not said it previously, I have really, really enjoyed the variety our guest writers have brought to the reviews here on the BAB. Karen is much more varied in her interests than am I. I am a Marvel first guy, but with a fair working knowledge of some things DC. But beyond that, call me mostly ignorant. So I've thought it just great that our readers have had the opportunity to consider formats beyond the four-color newsprinted page. Edo Bosnar is your moderator today for an Archie Goodwin/Gil Kane collaboration that is many likely new for most of us.

Blackmark (one of the earliest graphic novels)(Bantam Books, 1971)
Created and drawn by Gil Kane; Script by Archie Goodwin

Edo Bosnar: Besides being an artistic mainstay in American comics pretty much since the Golden Age, Gil Kane was also one of the pioneers of the graphic novel, i.e., a long-form comic story that deals with more serious, “adult” themes and appears in a format different from the periodical comic books all of us love so much. Kane actually first experimented with this different form to tell comics stories in a book called “His Name is Savage!” that came out in 1968 (and later reprinted in the early 1980s by Fantagraphics as “Gil Kane’s Savage”). It didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but he didn’t let this daunt him.

So he came back in 1971 with this book, a sort of barbarian epic set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. It was released in pocketbook format, and some years back I found a really inexpensive copy online and snapped it right up.

As the introductory page notes, the earth has devolved to a state of pre-industrial barbarism. But there’s no magic, instead there’s the “old science,” for it is looked upon as some kind of dark art that elicits fear, as do any who have some knowledge of it and/or know how to make use of it. And to some extent, there would seem to be good reason for this. Kane drew the backgrounds as suitably bleak and desolate, and besides the normal-looking humans, everything else seems mutated and grotesque – in fact, all of the animals have the hyphenated suffix “-mute” added to their names, i.e., mutants.

The story begins with a young woman named Marnie and her much older husband, Zeph, described as a tinker, as they travel through some dangerous wasteland on their way to a new home. At one point, after Zeph wards off a primate-like mutant that attacks them, he goes off somewhere (it’s not really explained why – to fetch firewood or hunt game I guess), leaving Marine alone with her thoughts, when she gets some unexpected visitors.


They introduce themselves as Amarix, the recently deposed king of a country called the Westlands, and his companion Balzamo. The people of Westlands rose against Amarix because he was trying to revive science. Amarix tells Marnie if she undergoes this odd procedure (that looks something like a blood transfer), it will transfer all of the knowledge he acquired into her mind, and also alter her physical structure slightly to enable her to bear children (she is infertile up to that point). He and Balzamo also offer her all of the wealth they have a left, a small pouch of gold. She agrees and goes through with it. The two then leave to try to evade their former countrymen who are in hot pursuit.
Zeph returns to the camp and Marnie tell him about all of the excitement and shows him the pouch of riches – and this leads to the first of two genuinely disturbing and brutal parts of the story, as Zeph, believing that Marnie cuckolded him, with a man using science to boot, starts slapping her and then finishes the job by caning her. It’s not drawn in explicit detail (thankfully), but it is narrated.
Marnie eventually gives birth, to a healthy child who has the same black mark she does on his upper thigh (hence his name, obviously). And she also has troubling visions that she doesn’t understand – the consequences of the procedure Amarix put her through.

At first Zeph can’t stand the sight of the baby, even though Marnie insists that the child is his. But by the time child is a year old, he eventually comes around.


Zeph and Marnie eventually used the last of the gold from the pouch given to her by Amarix to buy a piece of land that Zeph farms. Blackmark grows into a strong, intelligent and inquisitive boy, and the small family seems content. Of course, any reader knows this won’t last. And sure enough, a band of raiders attack the nearby village, and then eventually make their way to Zeph and Marnie’s homestead. And this is the second of two scenes I mentioned, as the brigands kill Zeph and proceed to beat and then rape Marnie in front of the young Blackmark, and when she manages to scratch the face of her assailant, he plunges his sword into her chest. All the while, her assailant wears a distinctive helmet that Blackmark will never forget as he swears vengeance.

He eventually gets caught by slavers and ends up in captivity. And the story now jumps ahead to Blackmark as a 21 year-old man, a gladiator-slave in the court of the rather repugnant king of the Westlands, Kargon. The narration indicates that Blackmark actually escaped from captivity several times and even led a band of ex-slaves in an abortive revolt before being captured again.

The gladiatorial arena has an interesting feature: a giant rocket ship, pointing to the sky. It is called the “Warlock Shrine,” and according to legend, anyone who manages to free it from its earthly bounds (i.e., launch it), will become the king of the world. Kargon explains to a visiting dignitary that the previous king (i.e., Amarix) tried for years in vain to figure out its secrets (and was probably on the verge of succeeding) before Kargon riled up the people to exile him from the kingdom for “blaspheming” by using science. Kargon adds that he has a standing offer to any who attempts to move the “Warlock Shrine”: he will give his kingdom to anyone who succeeds, but the price of failure is death.

An additional problem for Blackmark is that Kargon’s youngish and alluring wife, Lyllith, has taken quite a shine to him (apparently Kargon is used to her having little flings gladiators and visiting warriors who tickle her fancy). At one point, Blackmark spurns her advances, so she sics the trainer on him. This doesn’t end well for the trainer, who gets strangled by his own whip and Blackmark then proceeds to beat the daylights out of most of guards. However, they finally manage to subdue him. Kargon shows up and wants him killed, but Lyllith begs for him to be spared. So he decrees that that Blackmark will face the “fire lizard” (an actual fire-breathing dragon) the next day. He’s thrown into a dank cell to get some rest the night before facing this challenge. There’s another inmate in that cell, an old man who recognizes Blackmark’s, well, black mark, and tells him that he’s Balzamo, a name Blackmark recognizes from his mother’s stories. So the two do some catching up.
The next day, both Blackmark and Balzamo are ushered into the arena to face the fire lizard. In the stands, Blackmark notices that Lyllith’s new boy-toy has a very distinct helmet – he recognizes it immediately as the one worn by the man who slaughtered his parents.

The battle goes well for Blackmark, as he unexpectedly (well, to Kargon and the spectators , anyway) kills the dragon.

The crowd goes wild, cheering for Blackmark. Even Lyllith realizes that Blackmark is a threat at this point, and tells Kargon he should have him killed. Blackmark rather impulsively wants to take the king out, even though there’s a bunch of archers with arrows mounted ready to take him down. Balzamo advises caution.

(By the way, that page above was apparently inked by Neal Adams, as Kane called in a few artists to help him out when he was having trouble meeting his deadline.) Blackmark tells he’ll take the challenge to move the rocket. Against Lyllith’s opposition, Kargon agrees, thinking there’s no way he’ll figure out how to move the thing. But the knowledge of Amarix apparently stored away in Blackmark’s genes comes to the fore, and he enters the craft without much effort and, similarly, just seems to automatically know how to operate the controls. He turns on the ignition so to speak, and the rocket launches. The astonished spectators are already calling him their new king,.

He turns the rocket around and then lands back in the arena, and he’s greeted by the adulation of the people. Kargon orders his guards to kill him, and a melee ensues. The sword Blackmark found in the rocket seems to have a life of its own, and makes a screaming sound as Blackmark easily slashes through his opponents. He first takes down the king, and wants to get the mysterious helmeted man who’s with Lyllith. He spots them fleeing in the crowd, and flings his sword, but the mysterious man – a model of chivalry to be sure – uses Lyllith’s body as a shield. The sword kills her and he gets flees through the city gates just before they shut. Blackmark sees that he’ll have to get his revenge another day, and instead returns to the people.

At the very end of the story, there’s a scene that sort of sets up the sequel, as a large dragon passes over the city and casts a pall over the otherwise cheering crowd. Blackmark fires an arrow at it, which just flies right through. And then it turns and leaves.

(I mainly put that last image in there just to show the contrast between the original, aged pocketbook I have and the later reprint edition. Also, I was starting to get worried about doing too much damage to the spine of that older book by repeatedly shoving it into the scanner.)

The story hits all of the typical notes one would expect to a find a sword & sorcery tale (although in this case it’s sword & science, I guess), with lots of melodrama and a rather predictable ending. However, I still thought it was pretty solid, and can’t help thinking that a Blackmark movie – with the right director and production company – could be pretty good.

Kane did a sequel to this story (also scripted by Goodwin) that never got the pocketbook treatment, rather it was later published in Marvel Preview #17 in 1979. (The original Blackmark story was also reprinted by Marvel in the first four issues of Savage Sword of Conan.) Both of the Blackmark stories were then published together in a very nice paperback edition in a larger, more attractive format by Fantagraphics in 2002.

As I mentioned at the start, Archie Goodwin was the actual writer, and one thing that really bothers me about the original pocketbook edition is that his name does not appear anywhere in it. Seems a bit unfair to me. The Fantagraphics volume does  redress this to some extent, as there is an almost fine print credit above the indicia: “Written by Archie Goodwin from an outline by Gil Kane”), and, commendably, publisher Gary Groth also discusses Goodwin’s role in writing Blackmark in the afterword.

Like Chandler: Red Tide by Jim Steranko, which I also reviewed not long ago, the main thing I like about this one is simply the fact that it exists. I just love all of these experimental efforts with comics and sequential art done in the 1970s. (This review, by the way, is dedicated in particular to frequent BAB commenter Garett, who mentioned it in the comments to my review of Steranko’s Chandler.)


Anonymous said...

A pleasant surprise today, as I haven't seen this stuff for ages - nice one, Edo.
I first read Blackmark in Savage Sword of Conan, where Marvel reprinted two original pages on each page in a way that added even more white space to the layout. Even then, it seemed a bit generic.... but that was ok, because ever since reading his Gullivar Jones as a kid (in Marvel UK's Planet of the Apes comic) Gil Kane has always struck me as the perfect artist for this kind of thing.

Which makes Blackmark very much like Chandler - an artist trying to do something they were really suited to without the restrictions of the monthly format and comics code, but maybe still limited by pulp convention.
All the same, good to see the artists making the effort, and theres a lot to like in both books.
You've convinced me to get hold of the Fanta edition, Edo.


J.A. Morris said...

Edo, thanks a lot for sharing this review, I'd never heard of this story. Lots of people often cite Eisner as the creator of graphic novels, but you never hear Kane or Goodwin's names in that context.

Edo Bosnar said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.
J.A., yeah, Eisner often gets credit for being the first "graphic novelist" (and he tended to toot his own horn in this regard as well), but as noted here, he was preceded by others. In fact, a good argument can be made that the very first graphic novel as we think of it now may have been It Rhymes with Lust, first published in 1950.
By the way, I just noticed a few typos in the text, so my apologies...

Doug said...

I'll also own the typos, guys. I only had time last night to put this together -- I'm just in a really busy stretch (the new "usual" for me, I guess). If I can get to it later I'll spruce it up a bit. I noticed when reading the post this morning that there's an instance early on where Marnie is "Marine".

Again, my apologies to Edo and to all.


Edo Bosnar said...

Nope, no need to apologize to me, Doug: I just checked the original file I sent you and noticed that all the typos I saw - including 'Marine' - are my own (all of the kind that are not detected by the spellcheck function).

Garett said...

A review dedicated to me? Ya got me blushin', Edo! : ) Thanks!

Great review! I have the fantagraphics reprint, and it's a cool book with some very nice art by Kane. He obviously had a love for sword and sorcery, with this and Sword of the Atom, some Conan, etc. Good recap of the story, and yes it does seem to hit all the usual notes, but overall makes a good impression. I wonder if Blackmark would've been a bigger hit if it had been a regular monthly comic? I found the format here awkward to read, from paragraphs of type to the square word balloons. I think with Kane's art and Goodwin's writing, and the '70s fantasy boom with Conan, Warlord, John Carter, and even lesser characters like Claw and Thongor, Blackmark could've been a big hit in comic format. I also remember reading something about sales rack problems with this graphic novel, as store owners didn't quite know where to place it.

The science aspect of Blackmark is interesting, and a relevant theme even in today's society with some leaders denying scientific evidence when it's staring them in the face like a giant rocket in the arena! The black and white format is good, like Savage Sword of Conan, but again I wonder if the art could look even better in full page oversize format like SSoC. Some great compositions and exciting art by Kane in your choices here, but I find the emotion gets somewhat subdued by the mechanical lettering font.

Still a unique book by Kane, and worth a spotlight! Thanks for another great review Edo! Perhaps a Will Eisner review is next?

Anonymous said...

To be fair to Eisner, Edo, I think he also gets more credit as a pioneer "graphic novelist" because he avoided more obvious "comic book" genres; Contract With God does come across differently to other 70s work in a similar format.(Funnily enough, I think I recall from an interview that Gil Kane had quite strong opinions about the lack of serious ambition among comic creators).

Although yeah, Eisner wasn't shy about putting himself forward.


Anonymous said...

I vaguely remember this from paging through some old issues of Savage Sword, but I've never seen it in "book" format before. I always liked Kane's stuff (his Spidey was great) and this reminds me why.

Mike Wilson

Edo Bosnar said...

Sean, true enough about Eisner and the subject matter he dealt with - and I hope it doesn't seem like I was dissing him, as I'm a huge fan of Eisner's.
And on that same topic: Garett, I do have a few of Eisner's books in my collection, but I just don't have the inspiration to write anything about them that hasn't already been said. It seems like Eisner and his works have been covered quite exhaustively in various books, articles and reviews over the years. Generally I'm ore interested in writing about material that I think doesn't get enough attention, or seems entirely forgotten.
By the way, I totally agree with your observation that Blackmark might have been a bigger success if it was just done like a straight-up monthly comic, either in four-color or b&w magazine format. Of course, those were the formats Kane was avoiding as he tried to blaze new trails. There's some bitter irony there, I guess.

Garett said...

Looking forward to whatever comes next Edo! I like how you're highlighting lesser known works that deserve attention.

It makes me wonder how comics would've changed in the Bronze Age and beyond if Kane's bold attempt here would've been a commercial success. I looked up the Wiki page, and here's part of the reason it didn't get a fair chance:

"Though Bantam had envisioned a series of eight books, the publisher halted plans after the first sold less well than expected. Kane maintained that,

'...they didn't do what they said they would do, which was originally to put two or three of them out at once so that they could be noticed on that stand. ...I finished the second one, and I was almost finished with the pencils on the third one, when the whole thing ran out of steam because the first one came out and the original plan was to turn out two of them at one time, and a third one the following month, so that they would have a place on the rack. But when they turned out one by itself, nobody knew where to put it, whether it was science fiction, cartoons....' "

Also I see Gil Kane did win a Shazam Award in 1973, a Special Recognition "for Blackmark, his paperback comics novel." So at least it was recognized by the other industry professionals, and blazed a trail as you say.

Martinex1 said...

I like this review too Edo. I had no idea this exists as I have mostly been a mainstream Marvel follower. I have to say that I like Kane's black and white and grey work. The first couple of pages you share are wonderful. There are still some of the up nose shots here but it seems less noticeable if that makes sense. One thing that I had to acquire a taste for in Kane's art is the clear and deep lines of musculature. But in black and white those lines seem more correct if that makes sense. Maybe those lines just seemed too intense against the cream and pink color used for skin in comics; here they look good I would say. I am curious also how the printing was handled and if the typeset was handled separately. Hitting those square boxes may have been difficult if the press alignment was separate.

So much I did not know was out there.

Anonymous said...

As if I didn't have enough reasons to love Gil Kane, Edo you popped out another hidden gem on us here! I certainly have never read this particular effort by Kane, but you can tell he really tried something different here. This was definitely a graphic novel before people even knew what a graphic novel was. While Kane's love for sword & sorcery is well documented, I never knew about his experiments in the graphic novel format. It seems he was one of the pioneers of this format; hats off to him, and it's another reason why he ranks among the greats of comicsdom.

- Mike 'YellowMark' from Trinidad & Tobago.

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