This is the time of year where I revisit the sword-and-sorcery craze of the early-to-mid Seventies- which reared its hoary head again in the very early 80s, thanks to a Heavy Metal boom, the Schwarzenegger Conan Movie and the rise of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons.
It was Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian that got me first- very swiftly followed by DC’s Weird Worlds. Gil Kane’s elegant, dynamic and deadly Cimmerian seemed a departure to me: I associated Kane with tearful, tormented and declamatory DC heroes like these:
although I was aware, in passing, of his work on Captain Marvel and Warlock– who both also seemed weepy and temperamental. I didn’t know in the early 70s that Kane was one of the progenitors of the graphic novel, with His Name is Savage in 1968 and Blackmark, in 1971.
Four chapters comprising the first book of Blackmark – a kind of sci-fi Exodus-meets-Spartacus– appeared in Savage Sword of Conan 1-4, beginning in late 1974. The first chapter of the sequel, The Mind Demons, saw print the following July in the second issue of Kull and the Barbarians, a very short-lived sword-and -sorcery magazine from Marvel. I reviewed that issue last summer. https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/idylls-of-the-king/
Blackmark was scheduled to return in issue 4 but K and the Bs was cancelled with issue 3. Kane had regained the rights to the series from Bantam Books but his Shakespearean tragedy of ambition, revenge and loss would not resume until the winter of 1979!
Marvel Preview 17 prints The Mind Demons in full. It’s a Sword-and-Science feature, not unlike DC’s Stafire or the gruesome Ironjaw from Atlas. Gardner Fox’s prose barbarian Kothar was also set in a distant future but these characters operate in a world where technology is seen as magical in a fallen savage world. Blackmark wields a sonic “demon” sword which prefigures the lightsabre. Obviously, John Carter amd Marvel’s Gullivar Jones (both of which were illustrated by Kane at some stage) originate the concept (albeit on Mars) but we can include Killraven in this sub-genre too – and perhaps Kamandi, too.
Marie Severin , of Kull and Sub-Mariner fame, is art director and John Romita Jr is credited as Art Consultant. This very much a graphic novel- it is an illustrated text with the odd word balloon and the style is quite appealing. I’ve seen it used in later comics- such as 1990’s Secret Origins 50, with its O’Neil/Perez Robin story. The character designs of Blackmark are reminsicent of the Gullivar Jones strip from Creatures on the Loose that also appeared in the earliest issues of the UK POTA weekly.
The driven Blackmark declares war on the mutant lords of Psi-Keep but is betrayed by a sleazy nobleman and his wife is assaulted and expires in the aftermath of the battle. Blackmark is implied to have a great destiny but is humourless and not very identifiable.
Why was Blackmark bumped from SSOC for a spin-off project like Kull? Possibly to bolster the title- the pensive Atlantean king was never the hit that Conan was ( stories that were too sedate and concerned with disguise and illusion?). More likely, I think, is the length of the stories being adapted for the Conan magazine. Perhaps there just wasn’t room for Kane’s epic.
Cut now to DC, eight years later and, in the wake of the ERB-esque Sword of the Atom ( which I confess, I still haven’t read), a new sword-slingin’ special.
Like Blackmark, Talos of the Wilderness Sea is set in a post-nuclear war world. Carn Whitemane is a Moses-figure: the human child of mutants who bears a red birthmark, like a domino mask, when angry. He becomes bonded as a boy with a huge white feline called Star ( shades of Ka-Zar). More appealing than the haunted Blackmark, this prophesied redeemer of the mutants is also Mowgli – and of course, Kane’s Jungle Book was published by Marvel in the early 80s.
The comic didn’t spawn any sequels however- nothing much happens and perhaps it’s too Marvel-esque even for late-80s DC. While I first read it in 2011, it’s certainly a dozen years too late for comics’ brief Barbarian phase or a handful of years too early for the edgy Anti-hero age of the 90s.
For admirers of Kane’s work, Talos gives a melancholy flavour of what might have been. In a future post, I’ll try a comics genre with which I’m not at all familiar: the Western.
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