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Sunday, 29 March 2015

Skull the Slayer

Skull the Slayer was a short-lived series from Marvel Comics that ran for just 8 issues, cover-dated August 1975 to November 1976. That was a time when I was buying at least half a dozen Marvel titles a month, but not this one – in fact I don’t even remember being aware of its existence. It’s a fascinating concept, though, combining two of the most popular Fortean themes of the seventies – the Bermuda Triangle and Ancient Aliens.

I bought the six comics pictured above at the London Super Comic Convention earlier this month. I mentioned the two Silver Age bargains I picked up, for just £2 each, in my post about Jack Kirby’s Universe. These Bronze Age oddities came from the same stall and were a mere £1 each – unbagged, but all in excellent, scarcely handled condition. They didn’t have issues 1 or 4, but I got the rest of the series. The final issue, #8 in the bottom right-hand corner, even has a cover by Jack Kirby. That’s one of the two covers that still work well at thumbnail size – the other being #6 in the bottom left corner, which is by far my favourite of the six covers (I’ll come back to it at the end of the post).

Whatever image the title “Skull the Slayer” conjures up in your mind, the actuality is a lot wackier than that. Having flown through a vortex in the Bermuda Triangle, the four protagonists find themselves transported into the distant past, where ancient aliens have built a huge tower-like construct that pulls in creatures from all different stages of Earth’s history (meaning you can have dinosaurs and cavemen in the same story, for example, which is always a good thing). It isn’t clear why the aliens did this (not to me, anyway), but by the time the action takes place there’s only one of them left, living in this tower and watching robot versions of King Arthur’s knights fight endless battles with the sorceress Morgan-le-Fay. This occurs about half-way through the series, and marks the high-point of the daftness curve – the earlier and later issues are a lot better.

There are a couple of references to the historic Bermuda Triangle. In issue 3, as the protagonists approach the Time Tower, they come across the skeletal remains of dozens of airmen and sailors who presumably vanished inside the triangle at various times in history. Then in the final two issues they encounter a U.S. Navy pilot, Captain Victor Cochran, who was sent out to search for Flight 19 in 1945 (the original flight of five torpedo-bombers which started the Bermuda Triangle mystery – see my post about The Mystery of Flight 19). After passing through the time vortex, Cochran was found by a tribe of Inca warriors who have worshipped him as a God ever since.

The four main characters are an interesting mix of 70s stereotypes: an ex-soldier, an egghead scientist, an outspoken feminist and a long-haired teenager. “Skull the Slayer” is the nickname of Jim Scully, a Vietnam vet who spent five years in a prisoner-of-war camp. He may have been a nice guy once, but the war left him resentful and untrusting – the perfect seventies anti-hero. He’s constantly squabbling with the war-hating, establishment-hating scientist, Dr Corey. The latter’s assistant, Ann, is one of those feminists of the blonde-haired, large-breasted, scantily-clad, grenade-throwing variety that particularly appeals to adolescent male comic book readers (and probably never existed in reality).

The least interesting character is Jeff, the teenage boy. Presumably he was meant to be a surrogate for the reader, but he hardly does or says anything, and has no discernable personality. I can’t help feeling the writers should have gone a step further and made him a real comic book geek, saying things like “Whoa, cool, dude” every time a T. Rex or barbarian warrior makes an appearance! As for the bearded, middle-aged, mega-brained scientist – I’d hoped he would be someone I could relate to myself, but the guy is a total jerk. At the end of #3, for example, he leaves his colleagues facing almost certain death in the Time Tower so he can run off and explore some its more fascinating technology (OK, that probably is what I’d do, come to think of it).

Coming back to that great cover in the bottom-left of my photo (which is by Conan artist John Buscema) – the creature Scully is grappling with is meant to be an ichthyosaur, a ferocious marine reptile of the Jurassic period. Now it just so happens that I may have had an encounter with one of these creatures myself earlier this month. I spent a day fossil-hunting at Lyme Regis with Paul Jackson and his wife Melanie, and among other finds Paul picked up the object shown in the photo below (it’s sitting on the cover of a pocket-sized booklet, so you can see how tiny it is). I’m not sure, but I think this might be a tail-end vertebra from a baby ichthyosaur – which isn’t as unlikely as it sounds, because such things are quite often found as pebbles on that particular stretch of beach.

11 comments:

Colin Jones said...

The film 'One Million Years BC' managed to have cavemen and dinosaurs together without any need for ancient aliens hee, hee. Skull The Slayer appeared in the (thankfully) short-lived 'Marvel Comic' which replaced 'Mighty World Of Marvel' in January 1979 and ran till July - the cover in the top left appeared on an early 'Marvel Comic' cover. The only fossil I've got is a shelly mollusc sort of thing with little bumps on the shell - I don't know how old it is but I saw something similar in a fossils book which was around 70 million years old if I recall correctly. I'm not sure if icthyosaurs were particularly ferocious - they mostly ate fish and I don't think they'd have attacked Skull The Slayer, just ignored him probably :)

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin. Personally I've always pictured ichthyosaurs as the reptilian counterparts of sharks - pretty ferocious, in other words. Bizarrely, however, the comic referred to them as "herbivores" - which is certainly wrong! They would have eaten fish, as you say, but also hard-shelled creatures like ammonites. Some of the ammonite fossils found at Lyme Regis have ichthyosaur teeth-marks on them to prove it!

There is a lovely 19th century drawing of "ancient Dorset" (Duria Antiquior in Latin) which shows an ichtyosaur attacking a Loch Ness monster stlye plesiosaur - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duria_Antiquior

Kid said...

I read Skull the Slayer in the comic that CJ mentions above, but it never left much of an impression on me. The first issue is reprinted in one of the Marvel Firsts volumes and it looks better in full colour. Maybe I'll hunt down the set one day - or wait 'til Marvel issues it in an Omnibus volume.

Colin Jones said...

Andrew, I'm no expert on icthyosaurs but to me their long narrow snouts look perfectly adapted for snatching fish (or ammonites) but not for attacking anything larger (and according to a shark expert on Radio 4 the other day sharks aren't ferocious either and get an undeserved bad name). Those early paintings and models of dinosaurs were always way off the mark but at least they were trying to understand and moving away from the nonsense of biblical creationism.

Andrew May said...

Colin - Having just checked on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ichthyosaur#Feeding) you're absolutely right about the long narrow snouts seen on most ichthyosaurs being adapted for small prey. But it also says there were other species better suited to larger prey, including animals their own size, so maybe Big John's depiction isn't that wide of the mark after all!

Kid - Yes, at 8 issues you would think the series was perfectly suited to reprinting as an omnibus Trade Paperback - can't imagine why they haven't done it. Personally I found the artwork in the latter part of the series, by Sal Buscema, more impressive than the first few issues.

Kid said...

What you mean, I assume, CJ, is the nonsense of some people's idea or interpretation of Biblical creationism. I've always found the idea of 'Adam & Eve' intriguing. Ignoring the more extreme examples of religious symbolism in Genesis for the moment, it says that God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man and took from him a piece of flesh (described as one of his ribs by the King Jame's translators) and from it created woman. Sounds pretty much like something resembling anesthesia and cloning (with modifications, obviously) to me. Of course, there's the eminently sensible 'scientific' theory that everything is just a result of one big accident and that there's no rhyme or reason why we're here. That means there are no moral absolutes and what we call bigotry and discrimination exists only in the minds of one group when describing the actions of another. No right or wrong in other words, only arbitrary concepts of such which are imposed on us on a whim.

Gosh! Isn't it a deeper and more complicated subject than most of us realise?

As for that Omnibus collection, Andrew, it's bound to happen one day.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid - interesting speculation, almost coming full circle back to the idea of ancient aliens that the post started with!

Colin Jones said...

Kid, by 'Biblical creationism' I mean the idea that the world was created in 6 days by God and all living things were created at the same time and had remained unchanged ever since. The new science of geology showed that the world was far, far older than interpreted from Genesis (about 6,000 years) and the discovery of fossils of long extinct creatures showed that animals had changed a lot over time. I can understand people believing the Genesis account when nobody knew any better and science was stifled by religious fundamentalism (and still is in Islam) but it's shocking how many people believe such utter bullsh*t in this day and age. Religious fundamentalism still has a lot of power to brainwash its' adherents.

Kid said...

Well, whether it's meant as six days or six stages is certainly open to question, but I think you're overstating what the fossil record shows, CJ. Apparently, fossils of sharks and alligators from 'millions of years' ago are essentially the same as now. And while no sensible person disputes that animals adapt to their environment (evolution), there's still dispute (even amongst certain sections of the scientific community) that 'organic evolution' (one species evolving into another) is very far from a done deal - even if it's accepted as so by the general public. 'Scientific' dogma still has a lot of power to brainwash its followers - especially those with something against religion. As to the age of the world, Bishop Ussher's calculations were based on a mistaken notion that Old Testament writers wrote their genealogies as all-inclusive, but they didn't (they sometimes skipped a few generations for the purpose of brevity). However, when living mollusks are tested by Radio Carbon 14 and the results suggest they've been dead for thousands of years, it sort of leaves a doubt over the dating technique's accuracy.

Thanks for your kind indulgence, Andrew.

Andrew May said...

I always try to stay out of the science versus religion debate, Kid!

The same is true of science and politics... so what's my next blog post going to be about? Science and politics! But with a particularly wacky slant, in this case...

Colin Jones said...
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