A product of its time, but not in a bad way: Skull the Slayer

Usually “a product of time” identifies books (or people) with unsavory qualities such as the antisemitism and racism in H. Rider Haggard’s The People of the Mist. While Skull the Slayer (I just finished the TPB)is very much a product of its time (1975-6), it’s more in the book’s style and the writers’ storytelling choices than anything offensive.

The protagonist. Jim Scully (nicknamed “Skull” because he’s so hardheaded) is a Vietnam War POW. Prior to the start of the series he returned home to find his wife has divorced him, his parents are dead, and his brother Jeff is a junkie. Jeff attacked Skull while high (heroin highs are not actually violent), fell on his knife and died. Scully ran (but why? It was clear self-defense), got busted in Bermuda and shipped back home.

Vietnam veterans were a big deal in pop culture back then. Veterans — heroes, villains, crazies — were a big deal after WWI, WW II and Korea too, but ‘nam pushed it to a new level. The plight of POWs was a big part of this even though we had fewer POWs than previous wars and they were a smaller percentage of our forces (historian Michael J Allen has an excellent book that details the reasons). Scully was a textbook example of the burned out veteran as anti-hero.

The Bermuda Triangle. Things kick off when the plane flies through the Bermuda Triangle and crashes into a world of dinosaurs, mixed with cavemen, robots and ETs (Scully gets a belt from one alien corpse that charges him with super-strength). The Bermuda Triangle mystery was another touchstone for 1970s pop culture, appearing in multiple movies and TV shows such as Fantastic Journey.

The supporting cast. Accompanying Scully into time we have Dr. Corey (angry black guy), Ann Reynolds (pissed-off feminist) and teenage Jeff (rebellious youth). That’s a good spectrum of 1970s character types, though they get almost no character development and little to do. Scully’s the hero, his supporting cast is little more than a Greek chorus.

Captions. Like a lot of Bronze Age books, Skull tries to make the captions into something better than “as Scully jumps on the dinosaur.” In #1, for instance, as the pilot of the doomed plane realizes something’s gone wrong: “don’t worry about it friend. You’re not going to live, so why aggravate yourself more than you have to?” I like that style, a lot of people hate it, but it’s very much a Bronze Age thing.

Shifting creative teams. While some Bronze Age books had steady creative teams (Flash for instance), a lot of books suffered from constantly changing writers that yanked the book in different directions (e.g., the Bronze Age Blackhawk and Secret Society of Super-Villains). The first three issues of Skull the Slayer were written by series creator Marv Wolfman. They culminate with our heroes discovering some of the dinosaurs are robots, and that a mysterious time-spanning tower lets them travel to other eras (Egypt, specifically).

Wolfman then became an editor, which left him with no time to write the book. Steve Englehart took over with little enthusiasm (Diversions of the Groovy Kind covers all this behind-the-scenes stuff) and revealed the Tower of Time was the work of Slitherogue (who looks way too Sinister Oriental), point man for an alien race plotting to conquer Earth in all time periods simultaneously. Slitherogue kills Jeff, then Scully abandons Ann and Corey to die, teaming up with the Black Knight (the Arthurian one) in a new level of the tower.

Bill Mantlo who took over the following issue, restoring the first issue’s Lost World tone: he resurrects the supporting cast, blows up the Tower, kills off Slitherogue and drops everyone in the Aztec-ish City of Gold, ruled by a time castaway from WW II . Mantlo also played up Scully’s Vietnam War background: Jeff’s father, a corrupt senator, recruits Lancer, another former POW (he got early release by collaborating) to drag Scully and Jeff back from the Devil’s Triangle.

Cliffhanger and resolution. Like a lot of unsuccessful Bronze Age series, Skull ended mid-story (thought that’s hardly unique to the era) but got resolved in another book (since the 1990s, it seems like nobody bothers to do that any more). A power-hungry priest and some pterosaur-riding samurai conquer the City of Gold and capture Skully & Co, then the series ends. Wolfman finished the story in Marvel Two-in-One by having Ben Grimm fly through the Bermuda Triangle and help everyone go home.

I don’t know if Wolfman sticking around would have mattered — a lot of books died in the 1970s —  but it couldn’t have hurt. That said, I don’t feel we lost a potential classic. Skull is readable but it never held me the way Warlord did.

#SFWApro. #1 cover by Gil Kane, #3 by Ron Wilson, #5 by Rich Buckler.

 

8 Comments

  1. Pol Rua

    As someone who grew up in the 70’s, that whole ‘Bermuda Triangle dimensional portal’ thing was all over the place at the time…

    Sometimes, it’s nice to let a trope like that rest for a bit, and return to it decades later, by which time, it’s not only fresh again, but has an added sense of tonal quality based on its historical context.

    You’re absolutely right in the sense that it’s a potent mix of ingredients, and I think it’s definitely something worth taking a second look at.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    The Skull tpb is definitely one of those books that testifies to the fact that we are indeed living in a golden age of reprints (but then also leaves me to wonder why there’s *still* no color reprint of stuff like, say, the Killraven stories from Amazing Adventures).
    If I ever stumble onto a cheap enough copy of it, I wouldn’t mind picking this one up, just because – as you note – it seems so chock full of 1970s pop culture tropes.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Edo: The Amazing Adventures with Killraven were reprinted a few months ago, in glorious color!!!! Now, it’s in a Marvel Masterworks and it was pretty danged expensive, but it’s amazing, and it collects the graphic novel from the 1980s, too. Beautiful stuff!

    1. Edo Bosnar

      So true. Jemm, Son of Saturn and Thriller are two other series like that from the 1980s – I actually gave up waiting on the latter and just gathered up the single issues and then had them all bound.
      But I’m still waiting for the original Ragman series to get collected…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.