When my siblings and I were in early grade school at the beginning of the 1980s, we discovered a strange book in the children’s section of our local public library. It was a heftier tome than we’d ever seen on the shelves, oversized and thick—close to 200 pages. Barring encyclopedias, we’d only seen books this big in the adult section or on our parents’ bookshelves at home.
But the best part was that this strange book was a comic book!
Today we’d call it a graphic novel but we hadn’t heard that term back then. We checked it out, brought it home, and each read through it a couple of times.
My memories of reading this book are difficult to properly describe: fragmentary, dissociative, surreal, and dreamlike all come close. I recall that my in-the-moment experience of reading it as a little kid was similar: surreal, dreamlike, dissociative, fragmentary. I had a difficult time keeping the narrative strung together as a cohesive whole in my head.
It was the most challenging thing I’d read up to that point in my life.
I also had little experience with comic books at that point and I had no practice in the skill of navigating panel layouts, of knowing how my eye should travel across the page, of integrating both narration and dynamically laid out speech text with wall-to-wall illustrations. Picture books for kids tend to keep these elements more separate and distinct from one another, and limit the total number of elements on each page. I hadn’t ever had to deal with so many visual elements working so closely together on every page before.
It was a challenging and strange experience, and I can’t say that I enjoyed the book. But I’ve never forgotten what it was like to read it. Looking back, it was clearly far too advanced for young children. I remember that I wondered at the time why it was in the kids’ section of the library to begin with.
I recall very little of the story itself. It was a bizarre amalgam of Roman Empire-style costumes and architecture side-by-side with science fiction ships and technology. There were both swords and laser guns, space ships and sailing ships. It was, without doubt, the weirdest book I’d read at that point in my life.
In any case, my siblings and I read it, returned it, and moved on.
But none of us forgot it. Our memories of it may have been imprecise but they never left us. Occasionally as the years went by, one or another of us would mention, “Do you remember that weird comic book thing we read when we were kids?”
When I got to college, I decided to try to find this book again. The only problem was that I couldn’t remember enough specifics about it to be able to search for it effectively. My fragmentary memories of the artwork and narrative elements were never enough to lead me anywhere fruitful. I couldn’t even guess at the title or author.
One memory I had was an image of fur-clad, sword-wielding characters riding creatures that looked like ostriches. This, of course, consistently led me to Gil Kane’s Blackmark. A sword-and-sandal scifi adventure comic with characters riding alien ostrich-looking things? Blackmark seemed to be the only thing that came close to checking off all those items.
I may not remember the book from my childhood very clearly, but I was absolutely certain that it wasn’t Blackmark.
With every path leading me inevitably to the wrong book, I gave up searching. My siblings and I continued, every now and again, to reminisce about that old novel-length comic and wish we could remember what it was.
Flash forward several years, and I now have my MLIS degree and I’m working in a public library. I have coworkers who are trained readers’ advisory librarians and I have access to professional library listservs. I decided to try again to find this mysterious book.
I posed questions to RA and reference librarians across the country. I posted questions to various listservs: Does anyone know what book this is? I would describe what few fragmentary elements I could remember.
And all I got back was Blackmark by Gil Kane. Every. Single. Time.
Needless to say, this was somewhat disheartening.
A couple months ago, spurred on by a text exchange with my brother and unwilling to admit professional defeat, I went back to basics: I did a few more Google searches. This time, I found something…
I don’t know if I used some combination of search terms I’d somehow never used before. I don’t know if it’s just that there’s more and different stuff online now than there was the last time I scoured the internet for it. Maybe Google’s algorithm finally became sophisticated enough to know what I meant.
Whatever the case, this time I found something. I wasn’t entirely sure it was the right book. Google Images showed me some artwork that looked exactly like what I remembered, but some was less familiar. And I didn’t see any of the ostrich creatures in any of the individual images I found online.
Nevertheless, this felt like the closest I’d come since I started looking as an undergrad. And it wasn’t Blackmark. So I went to WorldCat, found a few libraries that had a copy, and requested it via interlibrary loan.
It came last week.