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.

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.)

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.

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...

Or the original Star Trek...

Or Hammett, Chandler, and film noir in general...

Or Sherlock Holmes...

...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.

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.

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.

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

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 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Specifically, Star*Reach.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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