When today's comic book professionals talk about their influences, the chances are that five names will invariably pop up: Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, and Gil Kane. In yesterday’s feature I discussed Kane's early years of development. We now move into the period when Gil Kane would continue to develop, doing his most important work, thereby becoming a giant in the comics field in the process.
By the end of the 1950s, the comics were crumbling. Little by little Kane's workload began to diminish, from his work on the westerns to Rex the Wonder Dog , titles would fold and go under. Aside from an occasional science fiction story for his editor, Julie Schwartz, Kane also picked up work with Western/Gold Key, in partnership with artist Russ Heath. His new assignment on the recently revived Green Lantern helped a bit, but not quite enough; the title was not a monthly then, but was published every six weeks. The Atom, another resurrected Golden Age hero, was his second full book at DC, and helped fill in the gaps in Kane's freelance schedule.
While Kane's illustrations at DC were skillfully rendered, the artist was still dissatisfied with his work, struggling to overcome his limitations through practice and study. By 1967 Kane left DC and Green Lantern to work for other companies, freelancing for publishers like Wally Wood's Tower Comics and King Comics' Flash Gordon. This was also the period when Kane first began working for Marvel.
As Kane produced more and more work for DC's rival, in time an improvement in his style gradually became noticeable. The artist's approach to the balances and tensions of anatomy, soon to become his hallmark, continued to evolve. At Marvel he had ample opportunity to improve if only through practice and sheer volume. The titles he worked on include The Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Warlock, Kazar, both the comic and magazine Conan titles, and numerous other books.
In 1968 Kane took a sabbatical from Marvel in a bold attempt to achieve increased independence; the creation of his own comic book, His Name Is… Savage. After selling the idea to a distributing company, Kane was advanced enough money to work on his new creation. Plotted and drawn by Kane, with scripts by Archie Goodwin, Savage was a brutal departure from the usual run of the mill comics protagonists, something along the lines of Donald Westlake's Parker character; deadly, unforgiving, and… savage. Kane loved his new creation: "The character clearly represented an enormous amount of fun for me. I did everything as outrageously as I possibly could on that character. I couldn’t think of enough material." Kane did an incredibly good job in an incredibly short time, rushing through the art in thirty days, even inking the last page in the back seat of a car heading for the printer.
Published under the label "Adventure House," the 32-page black and white comic only lasted one issue (there were also some legal problems over the cover portrait of Mr. Savage, who bore an unfortunately libelous resemblance to film tough-guy Lee Marvin). 200,000 were printed and only 20,000 ever reached the newsstands. Despite that failure, His Name Is… Savage represents an important first step in the future trend of self-published, creator-owned, black and white comics. Later the title was reprinted as Gil Kane's Savage by Fantagraphics Books in 1982.
After Savage, Kane’s next attempt to branch away from standard comic books was to turn to a paperback format, selling a sword and sorcery genre strip, Blackmark, to Bantam Books in 1971.
Kane calls Blackmark a learning process. It also must’ve been a grueling process as well; the artist was continuing his regular comic book assignments while also doing 30 pages of his paperback strip over a seven-day period. "All of a sudden, in doing this material I organized a whole set of exercises to teach myself how to draw. Within six months I was ten times the artist, and within a year I was doing the best work I ever did in this business." Unfortunately, despite promising sales, the publisher soured on the project. The sword and sorcery craze was a few years ahead in time, and a comic strip paperback fell outside the usual categories of publishing. "When we were lucky, we wound up in the science fiction section of bookstores," recalled Kane, "when we weren’t, we wound up in the Mad book-pile, illustrated cartoon stuff."
Armed with his increased skills as a visual storyteller, Kane alternated between Marvel and DC during the seventies. Working on titles like Marvel’s Iron Fist, Black Panther,and Captain Marvel, and on DC’s Teen Titans, Hawk and Dove, and Captain Action, as well as numerous other titles, the prolific artist churned out over 900 covers for both companies!
In 1977 Kane again moved into fresh territory with Star Hawks, a syndicated science fiction strip, scripted by science fiction author Ron Goulart, that ran until 1981. During the same period Kane also drew the full-page Sunday Tarzan. StarHawks, like Blackmark, was to see print in paperback form when Ace reprinted the strip in 1979.
In the mid 1980s the artist moved to southern California and, while continuing to freelance for the comics (doing a memorable job on C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel),got into television animation, working on the Superman cartoon, as well as other properties for Hanna-Barbera.
In late 1989, after recovering from a serious illness, Kane returned to DC for a four- part miniseries, Richard Wagner's The Ring of Nibelung, then going on to illustrate Jurassic Park for Topps, and numerous Superman comics. In the nineties Kane continued to work on The Man of Steel, also finding time to work on Batman: Legend of the Dark Knight, and The Edge for Malibu's Bravura line.
For those who missed it the first time
around, His Name Is… Savage, the first creator-owned graphic novel,
was revived by Dark Horse in collaboration with writer Steven Grant. Grant
also started work with Kane on a Superman graphic novel for DC that
traces Superman's family history back to the founder of the House of El,
but that project was tragically interrupted: Gil Kane died January
31, 2000 of complications from cancer. He was 74 years old.