Monday, September 28, 2015

Skull the Slayer: Polemic or Pulp? [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

1975 saw two things happen almost simultaneously. Marv Wolfman came to Marvel comics and he created Skull the Slayer. Who? Yes, Skull was not the runaway success that Tomb of Dracula was. But it was a project that Marv had thought about for four years before getting to write it. What he wanted to do was take an entire skyscraper full of people and put them in the dinosaur-haunted past. The series would focus on a different character each issue. That idea is at least as old as Murray Leinster's "The Runaway Skyscraper" (Argosy, February 22, 1919), but Wolfman's version was a little closer to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Leinster's early pulp tale has the skyscraper arrive in Manhattan before Columbus.

A couple of things changed Wolfman's original idea. First was the popularity of von Daniken's The Chariot of the Gods (1969) and Charles Berlitz's The Bermuda Triangle (1974). The second was Gold Key's Tragg and the Sky Gods, beginning April 1972, which featured cavemen and dinosaurs with aliens. Thirdly, Stan Lee liked the idea, but insisted on dropping the anthology part for a central character. Wolfman accepted the challenge and created Jim Scully or "Skull," an ex-Viet Nam hero who has been branded a murderer. Encountering the left overs of a UFO, Scully finds an alien belt that gives him super strength.

When the comic finally appeared August 1975 it was named Skull the Slayer. (There had been some trepidation around the name because Marvel also had Robert E Howard's Kull. That title folded, removing any difficulties.) Set in the Bermuda Triangle, Skull the Slayer features dinosaurs and cavemen and all things Edgar Rice Burroughs. It also has a cast of four, with Skull being the lead. The other three are Dr. Raymond Corey (a black professor of physics and Skull's ideological antagonist), Ann Reynolds (spokeswoman for the female side), and Jeff Turner (the son of Senator "Stoneface" Turner). Between these four viewpoints, Marv found his anthology of characters, making the comic not only a pulp for fourteen year olds, but also a venue for political discussion, a polemic for issues of the mid-1970s.

That's up to Issue 4 (March 1976) when suddenly Marv's no longer writing this strip, but acting as editor. Steve Engelhart takes over and changes everything. First he kills off the supporting cast in a scene that cuts counter to everything that has gone before. Jim Scully, who has dived in feet first in every other fight, suddenly abandons his friends to death. From hero to zero in one page! Also, Engelhart turns the storyline from ancient Egypt to the days of King Arthur, bringing in Marvel's former character the Black Knight.

And if you don't like it... don't worry, because by the next issue (May 1976) Bill Mantlo is driving the bus and he brings back the three friends (Hey, this is science fiction. We can do anything!) and after an aerial battle in which Jeff, Ann, and Dr. Corey fight against Skull's side in the robot battle, they all make up and the team is back together. Mantlo confesses that when he was approached to take over the comic, he insisted on going back to Marv's original ideas. This meant as quickly as possible bringing back the dinosaurs and blowing up Slitherogue and his time tower, erasing them from the storyline.

For the last two issues (September and November 1976), the revolving door took Marv from the editing post and replaced him with Archie Goodwin. Mantlo's writing improves things with the team back together and finding an Incan city of gold run by another person from outside. The back-biting polemic is gone, with Skull and Dr. Corey co-existing under a truce. Mantlo heats things up by having Senator Turner send Scully's arch enemy from Nam, a Southern boy named Lancer, into the Bermuda Triangle after them. Despite the improvements, the flip-flopping took its toll. Issue #8 was the last. Skull and his friends remained in the power of a new villain, The Children of the Night, introduced via pterodactyl riders.

In the art department, the lead on Skull the Slayer had been Steve Gan; sometimes inking his own work, sometimes with Pablo Marcos. The look was good, feeling a little like Joe Kubert and a little like Alfred Alcala. With Issue #4 Sal Buscema took over, having his work inked by Mike Esposito, Steve Gan or Sonny Trinidad. The inconsistency on the inking made some issues better than others and hurt the over-all feel the book.

But Marvel, having many comics to play with, did not have to leave Skull and his friends in limbo. The big finale appeared in Marvel Two-in-One #35 (January 1978) and #36 (February 1978). Ben Grimm and even Mr. Fantastic, Reed Richards, show up to finish this saga off. Written and edited by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Ernie Chan, the two parter follows Ben and the Skull crew as they encounter dinosaurs while looking for the old crash site so they can fix Grimm's plane. They eventually get out of the Bermuda Triangle but bring Baldy, the priest of the Children of the Night, and his pet pterodons with them. After one last fight, the crew is finally home and Jim Scully decides to turn himself in and face trial for his brother's death. (You can almost feel Marv Wolfman sigh in relief. The saga is over and he can get on with other things.) Despite being mostly retread, Wolfman does have fun by referring to currently popular people and events such as the changing of the name of Cape Kennedy and the election of Jimmy Carter to point out that the characters have been lost in a time warp for two years.

And so the saga of Jim "Skull" Scully ends on a landing strip in Miami. Marvel could have resurrected him, given him a new comic set in the regular Marvel world but this never happened. And it isn't surprising. Skull the Slayer still had his magic alien belt that gave him super strength but so what? Marvel had plenty of strong men on their backlist: Luke Cage (Power Man) and the orange gorilla himself, Ben Grimm, for example. One more muscle man with no dinosaurs to fight just didn't scream out as a bestseller. A slayer with nothing left to slay. He quietly went into comics oblivion, facing a self defence trial, with his girl Ann Reynolds declaring she'd wait for him and his two friends Dr. Corey and Jeff Turner ready to stand up and testify in court to his character. The polemic was long gone. No arguments were left.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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