Graphic novels long ago secured mainstream acceptance. More than just a way to repackage stale comic books, the graphic novel has evolved into a formidable creative medium of its own. Bookstores devote entire sections to graphic novels just like they devote in-store real-estate to mysteries, science-fiction and cook books by washed-up celebrities. Major best-selling books will have graphic novel versions for sale right alongside the hardback, paperback, e-book and audio editions.
When did the modern graphic novel originate? One of the pioneers in melding the comic book format with a traditional paperback book structure was Gil Kane. A prolific comic book artist in the 1950s and ’60s, Kane penciled such iconic heroes as Green Lantern and Spider Man, along with many others.
But Kane had higher ambitions. His Blackmark (1971) was a deliberate attempt to break out of the limitations imposed by kid-friendly comic books. A sword-and-sorcery epic set in a brutal and barbaric future, Blackmark was grittier and more violent than the usual comics-code-approved fare. It also broke away from the traditional stacked-boxes layout, using a combination of word balloons, expository captions and full-page illustrations. It’s a well-illustrated, gripping tale that still holds up.
Blackmark was published by Bantam books as a 75-cent mass-market paperback. A second volume was planned and completed but Bantam lost interest after modest sales of the first volume. (It was not until 1979 that the follow-up appeared in the pages of Marvel Preview magazine. A 30th anniversary edition of Blackmark in traditional graphic novel format included both works.)
There were other attempts to create new forms for illustrated stories in the 1970s. Marvel
Comics tried to expand its reach with Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts (1978). Another mass-market paperback, this book collected the first 18 Doctor Strange stories from the pages of Strange Tales comic book. As a proto graphic novel, it works less well than Blackmark. You’d need the unstrained eyes of a healthy teenager to read the fine-print type, as the pages of the original comics were shrunk down to fit the 4.25 x 7-inch format. But at least it was in color, unlike the black-and-white pages of Blackmark.
By then, however, Marvel was not far from finding the sweet spot for graphic novels. In 1982 the company launched a series of trade paperbacks in today’s recognizable graphic novel format. It was the Marvel Graphic Novel series, the first of which was The Death of Captain Marvel. This book, and the fifth in the series, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, were both smash hits in 1982.
Graphic novels are common today, but they didn’t arrive on the market fully-formed. These two small paperbacks remind us of the early efforts to rise above the confines of the oft-disparaged “funny book.”