Blackmark, from the cover of his 1971 book. Artist: Gil Kane.


Original medium: Comics paperback original
Published by: Bantam Books
First Appeared: 1971
Creator: Gil Kane
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Blackmark, by Gil Kane (Green Lantern, Morbius the Living Vampire) with writing assistance from Archie Goodwin (Manhunter, Secret Agent Corrigan) has been called the first American graphic novel. Even disqualifying The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck (1837) for its European origins, it isn't even close. Tho the term itself predated this book by only seven years, American cartoonists had been doing …

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… what we now call graphic novels for a long time. Milt Gross's He Done Her Wrong (1930), for example, was even more "graphic" a novel, in that it didn't contain any words at all.

But with a publication date of January, 1971, Blackmark still represented a departure for the American book industry. No previous work of comics had been published in standard paperback form, without having been printed first as magazine cartoons or a syndicated comic strip. What's more, this one wasn't even intended to be funny. Kane pitched it to Bantam Books as resembling the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, Nyoka the Jungle Girl), which at the time was riding a wave of renewed popularity. It had all the right elements — fantasy, exotic locale, stalwart hero, scantily-dressed fair maiden … Kane even designed the cover to remind readers of the ones Ace Books was then using for novels by Burroughs.

Like Harvey Kurtzman (Goodman Beaver) before him, Kane was taking active steps to push the boundaries of his chosen field of creativity. A few years earlier, in His Name Is … Savage, a magazine-formatted (like Vampirella) comic book, he'd broken new ground in hard-boiled storytelling techniques. His later Star Hawks experimented with a two-tier format for daily newspaper comics, allowing greater scope for graphic design.

Unfortunately, most experiments fail. This one was hampered by the fact that, being the first of its kind, Blackmark didn't fit a familiar publishing category. Bantam didn't quite know how to promote it, and retailers weren't sure where to place it. Kane originally intended it as an eight-book series, and even drew the second book in its entirety — but Bantam chose to publish only the first.

Marvel Comics re-formatted the book's 119 pages for reprinting as a four-part serial in the back pages of its magazine-style Savage Sword of Conan, in 1974. Later, it published the second book in the same format, as Marvel Preview #17 (Winter, 1979). Other than that, Blackmark remained out of print for the rest of the 20th century.

In 2002, Fantagraphics Books (The Comics Journal, Love & Rockets) reprinted both stories in a 30th anniversary edition. But that, too, is now out of print.


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Text ©2007-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Gil Kane.