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Dull the Slayer? – Skull the Slayer #1

July 30, 2013

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Hugh Jackman’s bare-chested big screen adventures in The Wolverine have made the time ripe to tackle one of the many other comic book heroes with a propensity for half-nakedness — and boy, there are a ton of them out there. Take your pick. And enter Skull the Slayer: The Guy Who Isn’t Kull And Isn’t Son Of Satan Despite Looking Like Him On The Gil Kane Cover You See Above.  

Skull (née James Patrick Scully) has popped in and out of the Marvel consciousness ever since his 1970s debut, but he’s had no sustained run since his eponymous comic was cancelled after its eighth issue. The reason for this isn’t some Masonic anti-Skull conspiracy to keep a guy down, one hatched by a shadowy cabal headed by the mythical The Man, though that’s probably what the perpetually pissed Skull would believe. No, his extensive time in limbo is because of the usual reasons for the cobwebs: he wasn’t that original, or that interesting. He was instead a rather boring one-note chap thrust into the already crowded field of costumed adventurers, and his sensible slacks couldn’t compare to the dazzling array of capes and tights, no matter what outlandish fantasy milieu he was thrown into.

But, for whatever it’s worth, his first issue had — and has — a goofy charm to it, an appeal only possible when a story tries to fuse the taut drama of a troubled P.O.W. with the same man wrestling a Tyrannosaurus Rex to the ground with his bare hands. It’s like the arm wrestling/child custody angst of Stallone’s Over the Top, but on horse steroids. Excelsior! The House of Ideas triumphs again!

Marv Wolfman wrote and Steve Gan provided art for this premier of their dual creation, and, like many of its “first of many (hopefully)” ilk, it’s chock-full of backstory — that and introductions to the star and his supporting players. These three opening panels give us a glimpse of Skull’s immediate circle of dramatis personae (2nd panel, l to r: Ann Reynolds, Dr. Raymond Corey, Jeff Turner):

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Their reasons for being on the plane and Scully’s incarceration? Well, Skull is a hunted man — or at least he was until he was caught. For his (senses-shattering, of course) origins we have to go back to that source of so many 1970s derangements: Vietnam. Skull was a pilot in that conflict, and a damn good one, but one day he was shot down while over North Vietnam. He was in short order pulled out of a rice paddy by pissed Viet-Cong, thrown into a bamboo cell, and then tortured. He refused to confess what they claimed to be his capitalist/imperialist/pig crimes, and only got more of a beating. Eventually he was released. It’s here where his story diverges from that of U.S. Senator and two-time presidential candidate John McCain’s. His first problem came when he arrived home, and found his wife had taken up with *gasp* a man with a Van Dyke beard:

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“I don’t know what’s more upsetting, the betrayal or the grooming…”

To paraphrase Maus: this is where his troubles began. His next stop was his parents’ house. The parents were dead. And his brother? His brother was strung out and belligerent and HI-KEEBA!, Skull killed him with one blow:

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Welcome Back, Skull.

So now Skull has been captured, and is being flown back to the U.S. and justice. But then an atmospheric disturbance of sorts envelops the plane, and then voila, they’re flying over some prehistoric world:

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Of course we’ve never seen such things before. Except in The Lost World. Or Lost Continent. Or Land of the Lost. Or that episode of The Twilight Zone where the plane travels through time and flies over dinosaurs. Or you get the picture.

Speaking of Lost, it turns out Skull was a bit of a forerunner to that engrossing yet ultimately unsatisfying drama. When the plane hits turbulence, it’s splitsville:

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Skull comes down alone, and the three folks who would briefly form his supporting cast survive the crash of the other half. Skull makes the best of it. He doffs his black turtleneck — Step IA for any marooned character with pretensions of comic book heroism — and fashions a spear, and kills himself some dinner. And hey, what the hell — why not bronco-bust a T-Rex for good measure:

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Apparently part of his strategy was trying to drive the great beast mad with his inane quips. All right, I’ll go away IF YOU’LL JUST SHUT UP.

The first issue ends with both Skull and his erstwhile companions menaced by stalking primitives. And what are we to make of this first issue? Other than the by-then been-there setting in pre-history? Not much. It’s standard mid-70s first issue fare, with its only standout being the overwrought wordiness of both the characters and the narrator. It’s like Wolfman was going for a dense, humid, pulpy élan, and would up drowning the damn thing like a plant given too much water. His narration winds up sounding more like Coleman Francis’s in the relentlessly MST3K’d The Beast of Yucca Flats. (I kept waiting for a “Flag on the moon. How’d it get there…” to be sprinkled in.)

Alas, Wolfman spent a lot of time bringing this story to life, as he recounts in this one-page discussion of the birth of Skull:

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One wonders if in the four-year development Wolfman didn’t become a little bit too enamored with Skull, as we’re all prone to do with any sort of creation, and wound up blinded to the obvious faults. Because Skull isn’t intrinsically bad. There are potentially enjoyable elements even in this crammed first issue. (A man stabs a T-Rex in the eye while taunting it. This is hard to hate, as much as you might want to.) It just doesn’t gel, though. The supporting characters were ciphers and remained so, and Skull was a tough guy to get behind.

And he only had seven more issues to go. He’d eventually (in the next) get a Scorpion power belt, which gave him enhanced strength and healing, but it was never enough to perform that most cherished comic character feat: staying in the public eye. Since cancellation, he’s had to content himself with occasional appearances and cameos (the dangling cancelled plotline was resolved in a Marvel Two-In-One two-parter), mostly as a reforged character going by the moniker of the Blazing Skull (in this guise he looked like one of those cheap Halloween skeleton costumes). Ironic, since this Skull was anything but Blazing.

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