Blackmark is a Bantam Books paperback (Bantam S5871), published January 1971, that is one of the first American graphic novels, predating such seminal works as Richard Corben's Bloodstar (1975), Jim Steranko's Chandler: Red Tide (1976), Don McGregor & Paul Gulacy's Sabre (Sept. 1978), and Will Eisner's A Contract with God (Oct. 1978). It was conceived and drawn by the veteran comic book artist Gil Kane, and scripted by Archie Goodwin from an outline by Kane.
The term "graphic novel", while seen in print as early as 1964 in an obscure fan publication, was not in mainstream use in 1971 when Blackmark, a science fiction/sword-and-sorcery adventure, was first published; the back-cover blurb of the February 2002 30th-anniversary edition calls the book, retroactively, "the very first American graphic novel." Blackmark is, objectively, a 119-page story of comic-book art, with captions and word balloons, published in a traditional book format. It is also the first with an original heroic-adventure character conceived expressly for this form. It originally sold for 75 cents, comparable to other paperbacks at the time.
The 30th-anniversary edition (ISBN 1-56097-456-7) also includes the planned second book, the 117-page The Mind Demons; an eight-page historical afterword; and the paperback's double-page frontispiece. It does not include the original final page: A full-body shot of Blackmark with sword, and a Kane floating-head self-portrait and one-paragraph bio/afterword.
Kane — a major comics artist who helped usher in the Silver Age of comic books with his part in revamping the DC Comics characters Green Lantern and the Atom, and who drew The Amazing Spider-Man during an a landmark 1970s run — had previously experimented with the form with his 1968 black-and-white comics-magazine His Name is... Savage, a 40-page espionage thriller also scripted by Goodwin from an outline by Kane.
Kane said Bantam paid him $3,500 for 120 pages (including the cover) all written, drawn and lettered in "camera-ready" form, i.e., in completed form suitable to go immediately to the printing press. (The 120-page figure is either Kane's rounded-off approximation, or means he did the frontispiece and bio-page art gratis.) Kane recalled having to draw "30 pages in one week. Then I'd have to knock off for a week or two to make some additional money" drawing comic-book stories and, mainly, covers.
Goodwin came in, the scripter recalled, at "the 11th hour": ...Gil and I would talk about working together. ... And then Gil would get into a situation where he was ready to begin a project. I would find myself in other situations so I couldn't work on the project. He would begin getting other people to do stuff. It wouldn't work out totally to his satisfaction. He would ask me, 'Gee, can you come in on this thing?' And on both [His Name is...]Savage and Blackmark, I came in on them after they were started. [After the synopsis was written], Gil and I would get involved in the breaking-down and the layout-out of the stuff and reshaping it. But we would always be reshaping it as we would go along, because by then the deadline was on us".
The 2002 reissue, in its afterword, credits celebrated cartoonist and MAD magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman as laying out a small number of pages, and another major comics artist, Neal Adams, as inking some of Kane's pencil work, both doing so as a favor to help Kane meet his deadlines. Adams' own website, however, states, that Adams "penciled pages 80/81/82/92/98-107 / (total of 14pgs.)" and "Neal penciled 14 pages with Gil Kane inks (pages 80,81,82,92,98-107)".
Though Bantam had envisioned a series of eight books, the publisher halted plans after the first sold less well than expected. By this time Kane had already completed The Mind Demons, which eventually premiered — with its contents intact but its panel-layout reconfigured — as the 62-page Marvel Comics magazine Marvel Preview #17 (Winter 1979). In an early use of the term, it was called a graphic novel on the cover.
The first Blackmark book had already been reprinted by then — similarly with its contents intact but its panel-layout reconfigured — in Marvel's black-and-white comics-magazine omnibus The Savage Sword of Conan #1-4 (Aug. 1974 - Feb. 1975), as the 15-page "Blackmark" and the 14-page "Blackmark (Chapter 2)", "The Testing Of Blackmark", and "Blackmark Triumphant!"
According to Kane in a 1996 interview, Bantam CEO Oscar Distel had personally taken Kane's pitch after Kane's attorney had secured him an appointment through a mutual friend of the attorney's and Distel's. Kane went on to say Bantam contracted for four books, and increased the order to eight after Distel saw and liked the completed pages of the first. Then, Kane maintained, "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.... So Distel said [after the first book's sales figured had come in], 'OK, we'll do it your way. We'll turn out the books in a sequence."'
In the same interview, Kane also blamed Tarzan comic strip writer-artist Burne Hogarth, an industry legend, partly for the series' demise: "Then Burne came up and started to say that the pages were too small. So I get a call from Distel who says, 'You've got to make fewer pictures on a page so that they're not so small.' ... And they didn't have a trade book size in those days. ... But once the criticism started to come from Burne and everybody else, despite the fact that Oscar Distel was crazy about it, the fact was that about 60 days later I couldn't get him on the phone and then beyond that it was all a dead issue. And the contract didn't stand because I never could get the books in on time since I was underpaid [for] them anyhow."
Associate Professor Matt Thorn, School of Cartoon & Comic Art, Kyoto Seika University, Japan, on the 1971 paperback: "[I]t's a great read, beautifully illustrated. ... I found the separation of text and images to be no obstacle, and was soon absorbed in the story and art. And speaking of art, this is truly Kane at his finest. Here I think he approaches his own ideal of portraying 'life in motion'. Melodramatic? Cheesy? Maybe. Blackmark is pulp entertainment at its best".
Randy Lander, review of the reissue: "[A] work by industry legends Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin, [it] started to push the boundaries of what comics could do. The book does not look particularly revolutionary in 2002, but when you consider that it was created over 30 years ago, this illustrated novel that is a mixture of science-fiction and fantasy genres and is unquestionably aimed at an adult audience, starts to look a lot more impressive. ...Goodwin and Kane take a fairly predictable plot and stock characters and make it a fascinating and twisted ride. ... The material sometimes features cheesy dialogue or veers into melodrama, but mostly it holds up remarkably well. It's hard to argue against the merits of Blackmark. It's a piece of comic-book history, a solidly produced book and an example of work from two of the finest creators to grace the medium".
Not included in the reissue is this one-paragraph biography:
Gil Kane was born in Riga, Latvia, but has lived in and around New York City since he was four. One of the great panel artists, he has penned [sic] virtually every major adventure strip character from Batman to Hopalong Cassidy since he began drawing at sixteen as well as working in films and publishing a magazine. "Blackmark [sic, title not italicized or in quote marks] is an important first," he says. "It contains all the elements of painting and film, drama and novels. The comic strip has always generated tremendous vitality and quality, but only recently has it begun to communicate ideas and make comment. To me it's like exploring an undiscovered country."
- The Comics Journal #186 (April 1996): Interview with Gil Kane, Part 1, p. 88
- Afterword, Blackmark 30th Anniversary Edition, p. 238 (Fantagraphics Books, 2002) ISBN 1-56097-456-7
- NealAdams.com: Books
- NealAdams.com: Magazine list
- Comics Journal, p. 89
- Matt-Thorn.com: Comicology
- The 4th Rail (June 17, 2002)
- The Grand Comics Database
- Reading Room Index to the Comic Art Collection, Michigan State University Libraries
- Harvey, R.C., The Art of the Comic Book (University Press of Mississippi, 1996): Index entry, pp. 114-116
- Horn, Maurice, ed., The World Encyclopedia of Comics (Chelsea House, 1976): Index entry (pp. 287, 419