Skullduggery

In the last post, I rhapsodised about the kinetic, pell-mell world of Lee and Kirby’s Captain America in the very late Sixties. Cap was perhaps less inventive but more self-consciously “hip” when his comic became a platform for political commentary in the mid-70s. So much so that Kirby’s Bicentennial return to the title was met with bafflement if not outright hostility. Yet, in many ways, King Kirby was tapping into a very weird zeitgeist:

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The fascination with ancient astronauts and the Devil’s Triangle perhaps mirrored a United States struggling in an era where the dissolution of post-war certainties and the souring of the hippy counterculture bred strange days indeed, mama. The new generation of heroes from Marvel Comics, the grandchildren of Captain America were futuristic barbarians; tormented cyborgs; Viet Nam veterans and even the scions of Satan himself.  One such was Marv Wolfman’s Skull the Slayer. Wolfman has created many successful characters for DC and Marvel – Blade, Nova, Cyborg, Deathstoke- but Skull is probably on  par with The Torpedo in terms of obscurity.

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Jim Scully is a former prisoner of the Viet Cong and killed his drug addict brother in self-defence. When his transport plane crashes in the Bermuda Triangle, Scully leads a mismatched trio of survivors ( a secretary, the troubled son of a Senator and a misanthropic black doctor) in a struggle to survive cavemen and dinosaurs- gaining super strength into the bargain from an alien artifact.

fantastic-journey

Those of us who grew up in the British isles during the Seventies might describe  Skull The Slayer as a cross between The Land That Time Forgot and Fantastic Journey. The lush artistry of Steve Gan suggests the fecund jungle landscapes of DC titles of the mid-70s, Tarzan, Korak and Rima, perhaps. The interior monologue, meanwhil,e aspires to the hardboiled, cynical tone of 70s darlings Englehart or O’Neil: more sour and jaded than the literary allusions of a Roy Thomas. However, the experiment as a whole was an unsuccessful one. Reading the tpb collection the other week, I found Wolfman’s dialogue  contrived and risible: “Who gives a screamin’ spit?”

Back in the 70s, though, I came aboard with issue 3, a story that plays heroic fantasy off sci-fi trappings , much as Mike Grell’s Warlord did at DC, as we discover that other time periods are accessible to Scully’s band. It’s all change  in issue four however as Stainless Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema pit the travellers against a reptilian alien mastermind.

In a shock twist, Englehart has all of Scully’s team slain by ersatz Egyptians ,which makes our protagonist look like a massive bastard. It was very daring and in keeping with some of his later, self-serving characters like the Djinn and Coyote. It might even have worked in the Nineties era of anti-heroes.

However, with the next issue, Englehart was gone- off to DC for memorable and influential runs on JLA, Mr. Miracle and Batman. In his place, Marvel’s Mr. Fix-It du jour, Bill Mantlo restored the series’ status quo after an Arthurian interlude.

In addition to the original Black Knight and Merlin,  Mantlo made links between other Marvel Universe elements and the series. Anxious about his missing son, Senator Turner appears the Lords of Light and Darkness epic in the Marvel Team-Up Annual for 1976. I didn’t read any of these stories at the time of course, thanks to the vagaries of comic distribution in Lanarkshire ( Cf. any number of previous blog posts!)

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Back on track, Mantlo leads the group to a city of time-lost Incas. Their leader is a disfigured US pilot defending them from samurai riding pterodactyls (!).

If you pick it, it won’t get better

Hideously deformed countenances, like those of the Vizier in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad or the earlier Dr. Phibes, are as much a trope of Seventies Marvel as the crucifixion imagery we’ll discuss in  a future post.

And there, like so many comics of the 70s, Skull ended. But unlike Steve Gerber’s Omega the Unknown, for example, Wolfman was able to resolve the adventures of his creation, staging the rescue of the travellers in Marvel Two-In-One with the assistance of the Thing’s pilot skills. It’s a rather tame resolution but the art by Ernie Chan recalls the steamy jungles Gan established.

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I must’ve had  enough interest in Skull to pick up the second part in 1978, even though previous Wolfman issues of MTIO had been ugly and histrionic. Even here, we can see Wolfman’s awkward way with dialogue: ” Don’t worry it”?!

Why did Skull go the way of virtually all the adventure titles from DC, which it resembled? The ever-changing locales and creative teams, perhaps and the fractious, feuding cast. I think it would have been wiser to publish the series in the pages of the b/w Savage Tales, but it might’ve still been too much like Ka-Zar.

Years later, in 1993’s Quasar (a repository for all manner of Marvel loose ends)  Scully returned as a new incarnation of 40s battler Blazing Skull with a visual that recalled Batman’s freakish foes Bag O’Bones or Dr. Phosphorus. Recent appearances were more true to the conception of the character: he returned to the Bemuda Triangle with Cyclops’ old flame, Lee Forrester.

It’s not a series I remember with much fondness and it had little to say that wasn’t said better in , for example, the aforementioned Warlord. Next time, we’ll look at  reflections of the 1990s through the cybernetic eye of another marvel antihero, Deathlok the Demolisher.

Coming soon: Do you believe in Magik?

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

 

 

 

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