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Friday on the Cutting Edge of Long Ago

Sooner or later, if you read superhero comics long enough, it’ll happen to you. At some point, it stops being about Batman or Spider-Man or the X-Men and it starts being about the form itself. You want something more from comics. You know the artform itself has to have something to offer besides people in tights beating on each other. It has to.

Except, for the longest time, it didn’t. At least not in the U.S. Japan was all over the idea of adult comic books from day one, and Europe was at least open to the idea… but here in the States? Nothing doing. There was Eisner’s original Spirit, there was Kurtzman and a handful of EC’s… but by and large, in this country publishing comic books aimed at grown-ups was a laughable idea.

That started to change in the late 60′s and early 70′s, and I thought it might be fun to take a look at a few of those works that broke the early ground. Because you wouldn’t have American Born Chinese or Fun Home or Blankets, or even Watchmen or Sin City, probably, without them.

There’s an extraordinary energy about these early attempts to raise comics’ artistic game. As fumbling (and occasionally out-and-out wrongheaded) as these books were, you can nevertheless sense the creators’ palpable need to get more out of what they were doing, to dammit set the bar higher for once. That feeling of personal investment is contagious, and it’s what gives a great many of these books their charm.

Take Gil Kane, for example. In 1968, Kane took the first of what would be a couple of swings at trying to uplift adventure comics.

Gil Kane, bless him, was determined to elevate comics all on his own.

His Name is… Savage! was a self-published magazine-sized comic, a macho adventure that was plotted and drawn by Kane and scripted by Archie Goodwin. Sadly, comics publishers of the time took a dim view of this clearly adult-oriented, darkly violent tale and encouraged distributors to shun it. It may well have been that they just didn’t want the competition — but admittedly, the story was awfully lurid, in a Tarantino kind of way. In 1968 that was a big scary deal, especially for comics. (Today no one would give it a second thought.)

For whatever reason, only about twenty percent of the press run actually made it to newsstands. It’s something of a collector’s curio now and commands fairly high prices on the back-issue market. (Though if you are just curious, Fantagraphics did a nice re-issue of it in 1982 under the name Gil Kane’s Savage! and you can often scrounge one of those cheap at a con or on eBay.)

Fantagraphics doesn't ALWAYS publish broody indie things.

Despite Savage tanking so hard, Kane didn’t give up. It’s a perennial convention wrangle among fans as to who actually did the first ‘graphic novel’ here in the U.S., as we understand the term. Both Will Eisner and Jim Steranko have claimed it at one point or another, but really, looking at it from a historical perspective, I think Gil Kane beats out both of them. If you don’t give it to him for Savage — which was admittedly a magazine and only forty pages long or so — you certainly have to give the honor to him for his next try.

Historically, THIS is the first graphic novel.

Blackmark came out in 1971… and hardly anyone noticed. It was the size of a standard paperback book, which probably hurt it — Kane himself said the book suffered from format indecision about how to structure the pages and how much story he could fit on a standard paperback’s page size. Retailers’ confusion about where to rack it — should it go with the other cartoon paperbacks like the Peanuts and B.C. collections, or with the novels? — really hurt the book as well. Once the initial sales figures came in, Bantam Books backpedaled off the whole project, leaving Kane with a second one all ready to go and no place to put it. Eventually Marvel took it off his hands — Roy Thomas reprinted the first book in Savage Sword of Conan, which is where I first encountered it, and then the second installment was finally printed in an issue of Marvel Preview. These reprints were done with the pages cut apart and panels moved around to accommodate Marvel’s magazine size, and it wasn’t until Fantagraphics — yes, again — did a commemorative reprint edition in 2002 of both stories in one volume that readers got to see them the way Kane intended.

The story itself is… well, it’s okay. Fair-to-middlin’ barbarian action in a post-apocalypse future. But done with tremendous, tremendous care and attention to detail. This was Kane’s baby and it showed. Still, both of these attempts at adult-oriented comics were somewhat hampered by their genre roots; basically, they were lovingly-crafted pastiches, with Savage riffing on James Bond and Mickey Spillane, and Blackmark taking its cues from Edgar Rice Burroughs. (Pastiche — or homage, or theft, depending on who you ask — was a quality that would plague almost all the early efforts to do an actual adult graphic novel, as we’ll see.)

Exhibit A: Byron Preiss and his well-intentioned Fiction Illustrated. This ran four volumes and they ranged from okay to occasionally brilliant — but each one was an homage to something or other. Whether it was Kurtzman’s Mad

Could THIS be the first graphic novel?

Or the original Star Trek…

Fun? Sure. Gorgeous? Absolutely. Groundbreaking? Not really.

Or Hammett, Chandler, and film noir in general…

ALMOST the first graphic novel, except it's more of a Big Little Book. But bigger.

Or Sherlock Holmes…

The first MODERN graphic novel. Arguably.

…Preiss was always paying tribute to some pop culture icon somewhere. Now, I own these books and I really like all of them, especially the Steranko Chandler — and regular readers of this column know that I loves me some pastiche. But it would be dishonest not to admit that the derivative nature of these books hurt the effort.

There have been pastiches that rise above the source material — Laurie King’s Sherlock Holmes novels, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, Alan Moore’s revamped Marvelman… but Preiss’ Fiction Illustrated wasn’t in that league. He was doing adult comics, good ones even — but still, at the end of the day, doing them for genre nerds.

Preiss continued to experiment with the graphic novel format after Fiction Illustrated ground to a halt. There were a couple of SF adaptations with Howard Chaykin that were very cool in terms of design.

Preiss again.

They were amazing-looking books, to be sure. And there was something arresting and new back then just about seeing someone doing big full-color paperback comics novels. But in the end they’re still genre adaptations. It was adult nerd pandering, but it was still nerd pandering.

Another early effort. Again with the sci-fi.

To be honest, it really was one of those forest-for-the-trees things, back then. In the 70′s, it was all about format. You look at what Preiss and Kane were trying to do and what you see is comics that are, well… basically, kind of funny-looking, because they are trying so hard to NOT be comic books, to be New! and Different! Steranko’s Chandler is actually illustrated prose, not technically a comic at all; and the Holmes book fluctuates between comics, prose, and comics again. And the original Blackmark, with its small size and large panels, just feels… odd. Publishers were so busy thrashing around trying to figure out what that magic feat of packaging would be, what bookstore-market comics would look like, that it never occurred to them to consider a change in subject matter. Suggest that the problem was maybe that most adults just weren’t into SF and fantasy and action stories the way fans were, and you’d get an answer along the lines of, “that’s because they haven’t seen the GOOD stuff yet.”

Good stuff, meaning uncensored. That seemingly was the mission statement behind Metal Hurlant — the same warmed-over SF, barbarian space opera stuff as before, only with added gore and nudity.

Monsters and boobs. Ah, the French.

And of course, if the FRENCH can do it, well, hell, we can too.

And you thought the French never did anything for us.

I am probably being unfair, but there was so much crap you had to wade through to get to the good stuff in the adult-in-name-only Heavy Metal that I just never had the patience for it. For every interesting Moebius or Druillet strip they had, there were three or four generic space-western slash-em-ups with the requisite pneumatic babe, who invariably ended up unclad by the end of the story. I had the same problem with most everything that came out of Jim Warren’s factory.

Which is not to say there wasn’t some good stuff. I quite liked Philippe Druillet, and I was delighted when, in 1973, Dragon’s Dream Publishing put together a combined trade paperback edition translating “Lone Sloane” and “Delirius” for the U.S. audience.

Druillet should have sued Luc Besson's ass off for the Fifth Element.

Druillet had a sensibility all his own. His books read like a comic series set in the world Roger Dean was painting for Yes album covers. Anybody in the 70′s who thought Jim Starlin on Warlock was doing cosmic as well as it could be done had never encountered Druillet.

Comics for stoners, dude.

If you ever saw The Fifth Element, well, that was a fair approximation of what reading Lone Sloane was like: hard-to-follow cosmic doubletalk that leads to the amazing visuals. You were never quite sure what was going on, but damn, it LOOKED good. (I know it was Giraud and not Druillet that worked on that movie, but still — it’s Lone Sloane, the Motion Picture. Trust me.)

For those folks that wanted SF and adult comics and cool visuals but didn’t want to get caught reading something as crass as Heavy Metal, well, there was Ariel.

Ariel was Heavy Metal...

This was an odd but compelling experiment in format — yes, it’s still all about format, this was 1978. Ariel was basically a magazine, but one that was published as a large, coffee-table art book.

...Heavy Metal done as a coffee-table art book, that is.

They did publish some amazing stuff. Articles, interviews, some comics — mostly Richard Corben — and some really stunningly illustrated short fiction.

Basically I guess Ariel was Heavy Metal, but snootier.

There were four volumes of Ariel in all and each one is a classy package. If you have any fondness for books just as artifacts, you will want to prowl dealers for these; they’re great fun just to look at, even though, in the final analysis, Ariel‘s really only Heavy Metal for snooty people.

For genuinely ADULT comics in the 70′s, you had to reach a little further.

This was my first real ADULT comic.

Specifically, Star*Reach.

These were just awesomely cool comics.

This was one of the most groundbreaking series ever. Mike Friedrich called what he was doing “ground-level comics” — way more adult than the mainstream Marvel and DC stuff, but without the sniggering adolescent immaturity that plagued Heavy Metal and the undergrounds.

This cover spotlighted Byron Preiss' new book project excerpted within. Lot more logrolling back then.

Friedrich was the first guy to publish Craig Russell’s opera comics; he gave Howard Chaykin a platform for the style of sharply satirical SF that he’d later shape into American Flagg!; and he gave underground humor artists like Lee Marrs a chance to do straight adventure.

Loved me some Lee Marrs.

The thing that made Star*Reach such a treasure is that you could tell EVERYBODY was stretching and trying something new, whether it was Chaykin’s smart and funny Cody Starbuck or Motter and Steacy’s space-Catholic saga The Sacred and the Profane.

Chaykin was the big star of Star*Reach.

There was nothing else like it on the stands, and there’s been damn little to match it since. Several of the running serials were later collected in one form or another, but mostly this work has lain criminally out of print for decades. Let’s hope some forward-thinking publisher sees this and sets about getting the best of it back in stores — and they might look at reprinting the Star*Reach companion titles Imagine! and Quack! while they’re at it.

When Star*Reach folded, there really wasn’t anything to replace it. Though Eclipse certainly tried.

The very earnest Eclipse.

There was some good stuff that came out of Eclipse the Magazine — mostly Eclipse’s line of other comics. Several regular monthly books spun out of the anthology magazine, notably Steve Englehart’s Coyote and Collins and Beatty’s Ms. Tree.

How is Paul Gulacy not doing more movie posters?

Still, there was something cool about the magazine format itself and I was sorry to see it go. Eclipse, and Epic from Marvel, were about the last of that style of doing comics. The direct market doesn’t want anthologies any more. Pity.

Although there was one final hurrah of the magazine anthology comic after those two, that premiered in the 80′s. Ironically, that last gasp was a book that probably did more by itself to push forward comics for adults than everything else I’ve mentioned so far: Raw, from Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly.

The first REAL adult comic.

Raw was aggressively experimental, but even more than that, it was absolutely not a genre piece. No spaceships or barbarians here. It had an underground sensibility of sorts, but without the snorting Beavis-and-Butthead, we’re-naughty vibe that so many underground comics had. Really, it looked like an art-punk zine, except one with an actual designer and a lavish printing budget. The funny thing was that the strip everyone bought Raw for was Spiegelman’s Maus, which was as pedestrian and normal-looking in its design as it was innovative in its subject matter. You kind of paged through the experimental crap to get to the latest chapter about Art and his dad. (At least, I did. I admit it.)

There are lots more. Eisner and A Contract With God. The Pinis and Elfquest. Jack Katz and The First Kingdom. Crumb and the undergrounds. They ranged from brilliant to merely interesting, and once in a while there was something that was so painfully earnest and overwrought that it was mostly just embarrassing.

Again with the bad influences. McGregor tried hard, but... it's Road Warrior Shaft.

But they’re the folks that made it possible for us to have the bookstore graphic-novel renaissance we’re living in today. All of them are worth checking out, if you are the sort that wonders how we got from there to here.

See you next week.

25 Comments

I had that Howard Chaykin + Samuel Delany Empire book. I never managed to get more than about 5 pages into it before I was confused and hating the experience. That’s long since gone to eBay.

I’ve also got that Sabre book. “painfully earnest and overwrought that it was mostly just embarrassing” is a pretty accurate assessment

Loan Sloan does kick arse though!

Dan

Great article on a subject I don’t remember seeing discussed in this way before, and with some very smart observations – thanks Greg!

Shades of Greg Horn!! Is that Lee Marvin being photoreferenced for that “His Name Is…Savage!” cover?

I like how people decry photo referencing today, yet Gil Kane was drawing Lee Marvin in 1968!

I don’t think most people have a problem with photo-referencing when Alex Ross, Bryan Hitch, Tim Bradstreet, Arthur Ransom, Tony harris etc do it. It’s only when you reach the Greg Land level of tracing that it’s considered bad

Damn. T beat me to it. Damn you, T!!!!!

Whoa, whoa. Careful there. Laurie King’s novels do not qualify as pastiches that “rise above the source material.” Not by a long shot. If any one Sherlock Holmes pastiche has the chance, it’s Nicholas Meyers’ The Seven Per-Cent Solution. But Conan Doyle’s original works stand on their own as excellent writing.

Whoa, whoa. Careful there. Laurie King’s novels do not qualify as pastiches that “rise above the source material.” Not by a long shot. If any one Sherlock Holmes pastiche has the chance, it’s Nicholas Meyers’ The Seven Per-Cent Solution. But Conan Doyle’s original works stand on their own as excellent writing.

I don’t care for Laurie King’s stuff myself. Nicholas Meyers is okay. My Holmes pastiche of choice is the Irene Adler series by Carole Nelson Douglas.

Shucks, fellas, pick a Holmes pastiche you like better and slide it in there; but I think the point stands. I picked Laurie King because I think her Mary Russell books are more ambitious, in lit’ry terms, than most Holmes pastiches. But you certainly could say the same about Carole Nelson Douglas or Nicholas Meyer or Michael Chabon or Sena Naslund or Michael Dibdin or about half a dozen others. What I was getting at was the idea of a pastiche that’s AIMING higher than the originals, as opposed to merely trying to copy them.

None of which is a slam on Doyle, by the way. I’m as big a Holmes geek as I am a comics geek. But I’m surprised there are so many of us reading this.

A wonderful overview. As a kid, I bought both the “Starfawn” and “Chandler” issues of Fiction Illustrated when they came out–they’re still packed away somewhere–proud to be able to enjoy such “adult” fare. Steranko’s Chandler, along with seeing “The Maltese Falcon” on TV, were a gateway drug that got me reading all of Hammett and Chandler on one hand, and tracking down back issues of “Nick Fury, Agent of Shield” and “X-Men” on the other. In retrospect, your point about the early experiments being too tied to genre fiction is a good one.

Around the same age, I sampled the Warren magazines: There was some good work in the horror mags, but it was their Spirit reprints that won my heart.

I was (and am) a huge comics fan, but even so, as a raging-hormones male adoescent, I found that there was no good reason to wade through Heavy Metal since I knew where my older brother stashed his Playboys. They seemed to be going after the same audience.

Years later, “RAW” was a revalation. Not all of it “worked” for me, but the stuff that did–and I’m not only talking about “Maus” here–was mind-blowing.

I love these kinds of posts–keep it up!

That was really interesting. I’m fairly well versed in the undergrounds of the seventies, but I knew almost nothin’ about the more… genre-oriented grown-up comics between Witzend and Raw.

I’ve seen a “Best of” Star*Reach mini-series (First Comics?). Would that contain most of the worthwhile stuff from the series or should I really seek out the originals?

Thanks…

Joe

P.S. Nice piece by the way!

Ms Tree kicks so much ass. It’s a horrible shame it’s not in print.

I’ve seen a “Best of” Star*Reach mini-series (First Comics?). Would that contain most of the worthwhile stuff from the series or should I really seek out the originals?

Well, not MOST. Some. It only ran six issues, from Eclipse. I think those reprints concentrated mostly on the shorter pieces; the idea was, I think, to collect the longer serials in trade. “Sacred and the Profane” got a nice trade paperback collection, and I think some of Russell’s stuff was redone for Night Music. Not sure, though. Beyond that I couldn’t tell you.

Jog has a good review of Empire (from almost exactly two years ago!) here:

http://joglikescomics.blogspot.com/2005/02/old-stuff-from-todays-stars-part-1-of.html

He argues that it’s an early version of the “widescreen” style of comics art that’s been so popular in the early 21st century. Good stuff!

Have you read “The Upturned Stone” in this one issue of Heavy Metal? It brillantly mixes adolescent humor without overdoing it with horror.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

February 9, 2007 at 7:12 pm

Can someone tell me what Don Mcgregor’s Sabre was about, and which meaty issues of the day Mcgregor tackles within it?

He looks like a pirate, the girl looks ‘modern’, there’s a castle and a futuristic city.
It confuses me.

As for the other stuff, sometimes I wish I’d read everything Greg Hatcher has.
But then I realise how much bad he must have read to be able to bring us the good.

Can someone tell me what Don McGregor’s Sabre was about, and which meaty issues of the day McGregor tackles within it?

A noble, passionate man in a fractured, feudalistic dystopian future America fights to retain his individuality and freedom against a corrupt and decadent authority… but still must, in the end, walk away from the woman he loves and the unborn child of his that she is carrying. “Why does it COST so much to take a STAND??”

Plus lots of goofball SF satire stuff…. the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach you saw in a lot of late 70′s science-fiction comics. Swords and rayguns, gladitorial combat arenas and clone vats. Etc. It’s kind of the one-stop shop for everything that we ever saw in 70′s space-opera comics. Smoosh together Kamandi and Killraven and Deathlok’s worlds and you get Sabre’s vile, decadent America of 2020.

In fairness, the art from Paul Gulacy is absolutely stunning, and McGregor, despite the usual over-writing, crafted a pretty fair adventure. I make fun of the book mostly because at the time we all thought it was the Next Great Leap — there’s back-cover pull-quote blurbs from Gary Groth and Ed Via about how Important!! this book is. “First graphic novel produced for the direct market.” Remember, we were all obsessed with format back then, and everyone was thinking about what the book represented as a first step, as opposed to what it WAS. But it doesn’t really hold up, and all our huffing and puffing about how this would break comics out of the nerd ghetto at last seems… well, as silly as it looks when I type it out.

You really have no IDEA how fixated we all were on the idea of mainstream acceptance. And McGregor was determined to prove that comics could be Adult, they could Do It All, and as a result he tried to cram in everything he could think of.

It’s worth picking up, though, if you can get it cheap. I paid $3 for mine from a bargain bin and that seems about right.

…and yeah, I’ve read a lot of junk, but you have to remember, I’ve been reading these things for forty years, and you kind of have to have a taste for junk culture in the first place if you love comics enough to write about them. So it’s not really a burden. Besides, I read fast.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

February 10, 2007 at 2:20 pm

“And McGregor was determined to prove that comics could be Adult, they could Do It All, and as a result he tried to cram in everything he could think of.”

I like reading McGregor.
Even if I don’t like the story, I like the experience of reading him.
Just looking at it and seeing how close he got to being the one.

Eclipse Comics did indeed produce the six issue Star*Reach Classics reprint, although as I recall all of issue six was devoted to a single Craig P Russell story.

The Sacred And The Profance was printed in book form by Eclipse, but it was not a collection of the serial as printed in Star*Reach. Instead, it was a collection of the revamped serial that Motter and Stacy produced for Epic Illustrated (in full color). The Scared And The Profane is one of my favorite comic serials, which is why I know.

I enjoyed the Sternako Chandler book. There was a rumor that Dark Horse was going to reprint it but that never happened.

Personally, I would really like to see Steranko’s Outland adaption reprinted. It was serialized in Heavy Metal magazine and it is probably one of my Sternako works.

It is interesting/ironic that, after some comments about comic artists’ photo–referencing there was discussion of McGregor & Gulacy’s “Sabre,” as Gulacy did the photo–referencing work I’m most familiar with, “casting” real world actors as characters in some serials he drew for Warren’s “Eerie” b/w mag toward the end of its run. I especially remember him—I assume it was Paul’s decision, since these works had varying writers—making James Coburn the hero in one story, and while I can’t remember who she was at this date, at the time I recognized the leading lady as well (during proofreading, Susan George popped into my mind; maybe it was her). Some of that material would probably read well today (if I’m not looking at the past through rose–colored glasses), and maybe somebody should reprint it, but probably as comics rather than graphic novels.

As for the late Byron Preiss, I really liked his paperback book series, “Weird Heroes” (if I’m remembering that title right), eight volumes, I believe, most collecting short works but a scattered few were novels, all illustrated. Features included debuts of his own Gutz (again, if I’m…) and Philip Jose Farmer’s Greatheart Silver, as well as a character created by the same team that re–reinvented DC’s Paul Kirk, Manhunter (after the Simon/Kirby team reinvented him in the 40s), Archie Goodwin (R.I.P., guy) and Walt Simonson. I have only a vague memory of the name being Stalker, and am wide open to correction there. He was half Native American, the illegitimate offspring of the wife an “Indian Agent.” Wish I still had my copies. Anybody else remember these things, and if so, fondly?

Oh, a few of us remember Weird Heroes. Talked about it here a couple of weeks ago.

The problem with Land’s “photo referencing” (aside from his slavish tracing rather than referencing) is that he doesn’t “cast real world actors as characters”; he picks photos for the pose and traces them, so that Jean Grey might be Elisa Cuthbert in one panel, Tara Reid in the next, Paris Hilton or Anna Kournikova in the third, some anonymous pornstar in the fourth… Despite the “photorealism” his characters have to be identified by their costumes as surely as characters from the Golden Age. It’s all superficial, surface details with no foundation.

When Gil Kane or Gulacy did it, Coburn stayed Coburn throughout.

“…a few of us remember Weird Heroes. Talked about it here a couple of weeks ago.”

My word, Greg, that’s the last time I judge one of your columns by the intro paragraph on the home page and skip it. Sorry. I had several of those books (still have “Mission: Impossible,” sort of; it’s a replacement copy obtained in the late 70s), but had completely forgotten about the Challengers novel. First I’ve heard that those Maggin/Superman novels were so good. Indeed, the story at the time was that they WERE exploiting the films and the only reason neither was a novelization was that the amount of money Mario Puzo would have had to be paid was prohibitive. But again, no more skipping over, and my apologies for having done so.

My, what an intolerable view of comics you have. Your disdain for “genre pieces” and “nerd pandering” is almost impossible to wade through. I enjoy the more refined side of comics as much as anyone else, but does reading superhero comics really make me such a retard? I’ve read comics for a long time. And as much as I love the non-superhero stuff, I have to deny your first paragraph: I have not reached the point where I’m too cool and too hip and too adult for superheroes. They’re still great fun. It’s too bad you’re too hip to have fun, dude.

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