Idylls of the King

I made a second summer  trip to the far south of Scotland last week- this time to the Machars of Galloway and Wicker Man country: Wigtown, Scotland’s  Book Town and the Artists town, Kirkcudbright .

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I was based in Newton Stewart, where at some point in 1976 or 1977, I bought Skull-Face Omnibus volume 3. This paperback introduced me to the prose of Robert E. Howard although I was already a fan of Marvel’s Conan and of The Lord of the Rings.

The book led me to the Sphere Conan paperbacks throughout 1978 and 79 and thence to Moorcock, Lieber and the pulp pastiches of Lin Carter: especially his Thongor, Callisto and World’s End paperbacks and later, the first of his Green Star series. I was such a sucker for demoniac wizardy in shattered cities from Time’s dawn, et cetera.

 To commemorate that discovery, nearly 40 years ago, I bought the Marvel b/w magazines, Kull and the Barbarians 2 and 3 from 1975 on ebay.

I dispensed with the series premiere: the contents of issue 1 comprise adaptations from that Omnibus and its predecessors: The Shadow Kingdom itself, adapted for issue 1 and 2 of the 1971 colour Kull the Conqueror and Valley of the Worm  by Thomas, Conway and Kane from Supernatural Thrillers 3 in April 1973.

Allegedly, the magazine came about because  a Steranko fanzine mistakenly claimed Marvel was publishing a dollar comic collection of Kull stories. So Roy Thomas decided it was worth trying.

The Teeth of the Dragon: the saga of Kull the Destroyer, the rebranded Kull the Conqueror monthly which went on hiatus in 1974, continues here in a story by Gerry Conway and Filipino artist Jess Jodloman. (I confess this name was new to me but he trained Alex Nino, creator of DC’s Captain Fear.)

Deposed by Ardyon (secretly skull-headed super villain Thulsa Doom- any relation to Victor Von? ), Kull seeks allies in the Pictish Isles. However, he is capyured by the shaman Teyanoga.

The snake-man hybrid monster of the month recalls REH’s  grisly pulp inferno Beyond the Black River (a Conan yarn and itself something of a homage to Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales). Brule the Spear-Slayer, Tongah to Kull’s Ka-Zar, is written out here. A dull Noble Savage archetype, Brule is no great loss.

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I first read this story in the UK Savage Sword Of Conan  reprint monthly in June 1980. That year was probably the absolute peak of my devotion to Sword and Sorcery, with the publication of Marvel UK’s Valour that November.  I also got my hands on the second Skull-Face Omnibus in East Kilbride library in 79 or 80.

The Hills of the Dead: a  Skull-Face 2 adaptation, this is a voodoo/vampire mash-up starring dour (and here, rather wiry) Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. I read of this Thomas/Weiss/Adams story first in the long-ago Foom Magazine#2. We’ll return to it later…

A photo-feature showcases willowy Dawn Greil as she cosplays the Barry Smith Red Sonja at San Diego’s Comic-Con in 1974. Frank Capra, Uhura and Chekov were also in attendance but the word “cosplay” had yet to be coined.

She-Devil With a Sword: Chaykin and Thomas parody Little Red Riding Hood as Sonja encounters a werewolf in Mirkw-eh, Darkwood  . There’s also a soupcon of Psycho in this stylish tale.

Blackmark versus the Mind Demons: the sequel to Gil Kane’s seminal 1970 science-fantasy graphic novel begins here: 15 pages of illustrations and text. Blackmark’s post-apocalyptic kingdom is threatened with invasion by the mutants of Psi-Keep. The original graphic novel was also serialised in the US SSOC 1-4. This is superior stuff to Marvel’s Kull.

The third issue has a slightly more cartoony cover.

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The Omen in the Skull:  Moench and Alcazar present a pretty but slow-moving tale as Kull enters an illusory dreamscape of skeleton warriors and skull-headed serpents. The  exploration of a futuristic Atlantean city continues in the US SSOC 9, December 1975: my very first issue.

The minstrel Ridondo, who once plotted against Kull, makes a better sidekick than Brule. While I find the comedy foils of the Forties tiresome ( Doiby Dickles; Stretch Skinner, etc.). I feel Marvel’s Conan is more appealing when partnered with the likes of fat, minor wizard Erfu or the  hoyden Tara,  the acrobat. The same is true for Kull.

Day of the Sword: a grim and stylised story which gives Red Sonja an origin. It’s a depressing mix of rape, revenge and celestial visitation as Sonja has a chance meeting with the man who assaulted her. However, he has been tortured and has become catatonic.

It’s unfortunate that one of Marvel’s biggest female stars of the Seventies has such an exploitative origin but it’s the tenor of the times, I suppose.

Into the Silent City: this second episode is rather sketchy- looking. Solomon Kane’s battle with the vampire hordes is relentless and becomes a bit tiresome. The conclusion is a little disappointing and could easily have found a home in Vampire Tales.

The house ad for the unpublished fourth issue promotes Blackmark first, perhaps realising that Kull is a pretty but undynamic strip so far. The Atlantean and the Puritan were also promised: presumably the SSOC story When a Tiger Returns to Atlantis would have been the lead in issue 4. Perhaps the Chaykin Solomon Kane two-parter printed in Marvel Premiere was Kull/Barbarians material too.

Why then did Kull and The Barbarians fail? The sword and sorcery market didn’t shrink at that stage – the original US SSOC ran well into the Nineties, probably thanks in the main to the movies. My feeling is that the humourless fantasy world of Kull is less rounded and convincing than Conan’s and therefore less easy to invest in.

Also, the character is less action-oriented; more cerebral and existential than Conan, inhabiting a world of shadows, illusions, doppelgangers and symbolism. He’s actually more interesting, therefore, as a reigning monarch in a decadent, treacherous court than as a rebel in exile.

In future posts, we’ll look at Starlin’s new Thanos novel; DC’s Stalker in the Seventies; and the Twelfth (or Thirteenth?) Doctor!

 

Still no images, I’m afraid.(Images presumed copyright of original owners -Amended Spetember 13 2014!)

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