In the waning months of 1970, with the early sales reports on their new Conan the Barbarian series good enough to warrant bumping the title up from bi-monthly to monthly publication, Marvel Comics — likely driven at least in part by the enthusiasm of Conan writer (and Marvel associate editor) Roy Thomas — decided to take a chance on another sword-and-sorcery barbarian hero created decades earlier by pulp writer Robert E. Howard: King Kull.
Though he’d almost immediately come to be seen by comics fans (well, by this one, anyway) as Howard’s “number two” hero, Kull was actually the earlier creation, predating the author’s imagining of Conan the Cimmerian by some three years. Kull could even be seen as the prototype for the later, more commercially successful hero, as the very first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (published in the magazine Weird Tales in 1932) was a reworked version of an unsold Kull yarn, “By This Axe I Rule!”
Technically, Kull made his Marvel comic book debut in the same month Conan did, via a one-panel flashback cameo in Conan the Barbarian #1 (Oct., 1970). But the character’s first full appearance came some five months later, in the 10th issue of Creatures on the Loose — a half-new, half-reprint anthology title, formerly known as Tower of Shadows. Behind a cover by Herb Trimpe and Marie Severin, readers found a 7-page adaptation by Thomas and artist Bernie Wrightson (one of his relatively few Marvel jobs during this era) of “The Skull of Silence” — a Kull story by Howard which, like “By This Axe I Rule!”, had gone unsold and unpublished during the author’s brief lifetime, though it had seen print since then (as had all of Howard’s extant Kull tales and poems) in Lancer Books’ 1967 paperback volume, King Kull.
By the time the decision was made to give Kull a shot in his very own title, Wrightson had moved on to other things, and so Kull the Conqueror #1 (June, 1971) had Thomas collaborating with two new artists,,penciller Ross Andru and inker Wally Wood, on Marvel’s first full-length Kull story, “A King Comes Riding!” (Andru also contributed to the cover, as did Sal Buscema and, again, Marie Severin.) Andru was at the top of his game here, providing solid compositions which were then substantially enhanced by Wood’s lushly detailed finishes; indeed, if you squint a little at that first triptych of panels that opens Kull #1, it’s not hard to imagine that you’re actually looking at one of Wood’s classic historical strips from the 1950’s, as published in such EC Comics titles as Two-Fisted Tales and Valor.
Alas, your humble blogger didn’t buy or read either of these comics when they first came out. As I’ve discussed previously, my younger self didn’t actually give Conan the Barbarian itself a shot until the title’s fourth issue, published in January, 1971; and even then, I didn’t get into the habit of regularly following the Cimmerian’s adventures until issue #6, which came out in March. So Kull wasn’t really on my radar when his first two Marvel outings were released. By May, however, I’d decided that I Ilked this sword-and-sorcery stuff pretty well; and thus, was primed to purchase Kull the Conqueror #2 when it showed up that month in the spinner racks.
By this time, however, there’d been yet another change on the artistic end of things. As Roy Thomas explained in an interview published in Alter Ego #70 (July, 2007):
They’d [referring to Andru and Wood] have been the regular team. But there were several months between those first two Kull issues. And by that time, Andru and Wood were both gone, so by Kull the Conqueror #2—the third “Kull” outing—we wound up up with yet another team. We had three different overall “teams,” if you count Bernie [Wrightson], in just three issues. Three artistic looks—and all of them excellent! [laughs] A plethora of riches.
The new art team consisted of Marie Severin and her older brother, John (both seen here in respective self-portraits). Both were longtime comics industry veterans, and had previously worked together at EC Comics in the Fifties (at least after a fashion — Marie had been the colorist for the publisher’s entire line, so she’d applied hues to the work of virtually all the EC artists, her brother included) — but this was their first collaboration as penciller and inker.
In May, 1971, thirteen-year-old me was rather more familiar with Marie’s work than with John’s, due simply to my personal tastes and preferences being what they were Thus, I’d enjoyed the the younger Severin’s satirical stuff for Marvel’s Not Brand Echh and, more recently, Spoof, as well as her “straight” superhero renderings for Sub-Mariner. Her sibling’s work for the same publisher, on the other hand, had mostly been in the war and Western genres, which I didn’t read. (John had recently begun a stint inking Herb Trimpe on Hulk, but I was only a very occasional buyer of that title.) Actually, John had been most prolific over the past decade or so as an artist for Major Publications’ Cracked — but as I was a die-hard Mad loyalist, I hadn’t seen any of that work (outside of his multitudinous covers for the magazine, which I could hardly avoid at least glimpsing on the stands whenever I picked up the latest Mad). In any event, if John Severin wasn’t a completely unknown quantity to me, he came pretty close; and therefore, my younger self had little idea what to expect from a collaboration between the two siblings.
What I (as well as the rest of the comics reading audience) got was, arguably, more than the sum of its two very talented parts. Marie’s fluid and dynamic style combined with John’s meticulous attention to realistic detail for an illustrative look that not only fixed Kull the Conqueror firmly in the tradition of such classic historical-fantasy adventure strips as Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and Frank Bellamy’s Heros the Spartan, but also established a visual identity for the series distinct from Barry Windsor-Smith’s ornately decorative approach on Conan the Barbarian.
Not that my thirteen-year-old self would have used such highfalutin’ language to describe the Severins’ accomplishment back in 1971, or made those kinds of comparisons (for one thing, I didn’t know Heros the Spartan from Zippy the Pinhead in those days). Nevertheless, I knew what I liked — and I liked what I found in Kull the Conqueror #2’s “The Shadow Kingdom”, from the first page on…
As the credits indicate, “The Shadow Kingdom” is based on a story of the same name by Robert E. Howard. Appropriately enough, this was the first of the author’s Kull stories to see print (in the August, 1929 issue of Weird Tales); in addition, it bears the distinction of having been frequently identified as the first “true” sword-and-sorcery story to appear from any author.
Something that’s not made clear in the credits, however, is that Marvel’s adaptation of the original tale (which can be read in its entirety here) had actually begun in Kull the Conqueror #1; indeed, the title of that issue’s story (“A King Comes Riding!”) was lifted directly from that of the opening chapter of Howard’s work. As Roy Thomas had explained on Kull #1’s text page, to put together that premiere issue he’d taken the opening scenes of “The Shadow Kingdom”, and then combined them with elements from both “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Exile of Atlantis” (Kull’s “origin story”). Of course, not having read Kull #1, my thirteen-year-old self didn’t know any of this; but I don’t recall ever feeling lost. That first chapter of the original, prose “Shadow Kingdom” had mainly served to introduce Kull and his world, and jumping in fresh with chapter two (“Thus Spake the Silent Halls of Valusia”, in Howard’s original) didn’t present any real problems in following the rest of the story; such, at least, was my experience.
“Pict” isn’t a word I’d ever come across prior to Kull #2; and I’m pretty sure that my younger self assumed it was every bit as made up as “Valusia” was. And since the folks bearing that name in the story vaguely resembled Native Americans of an earlier era, and lived in the far West (according to the map of Kull’s world I found in the back of the issue*) I came to imagine that Howard had in fact intended the Picts to represent the ancient ancestors of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
So I was a little surprised (as well as confused) when, a year or so later, a burgeoning interest in Arthurian legend led me to the public library to do some reading about Dark Age British history, and there I found the historical Picts — a people who’d flourished in Scotland during the early medieval period and, as best as I could tell, no place else. There didn’t seem to be a great deal known about them, but it was pretty clear that they weren’t related to Native Americans.
Eventually, I’d come to understand that Howard had become fascinated by the Picts in his youth (somewhat ironically for your humble blogger, this interest was facilitated by a trip to the public library when the author was about thirteen**). This was at a time when scholars knew less about the Picts’ origins and culture than is known today, and there was a good bit of speculation that they might be the source of the legends of “the little people”, or fairies, in Britain. Such ideas helped fuel the young Howard’s imagination to the point that the Picts eventually became tremendously significant in his body of work; in the end, the author developed a whole fictional chronology for them that extended from before Kull’s time (roughly 20,000 years ago), through Conan’s Hyborian Age, into the Middle Ages of known history.
One aspect of Kull’s relationship to Ka-Nu and the other Picts which Roy Thomas’ script doesn’t give nearly as much emphasis to as does Howard’s original text is the long-standing enmity between the Picts and Kull’s own native people, the Atlanteans. In the prose story, this hereditary animus colors our hero’s interactions with his traditional foes — especially with one Brule, the Spear Slayer, whom we’ll meet in just a bit — and is something that must be overcome for all the characters to unite effectively against their common enemy. At the same time, however, Howard underscores the irony that Kull, as king of Valusia, is obliged to count the Picts as his allies, while his own people, the tribal Atlanteans, consider him to be as much their enemy as they do the Picts. Howard makes this point rather more clearly than Thomas ever quite manages to: Kull, despite being the ruler of the greatest nation in his world, is a man very much on his own.
Ka-Nu’s account of how “men were not always ruled by men” echoes concepts found in the fiction of several of Howard’s fellow Weird Tales contributors, notably H.P. Lovecraft, who later dropped a reference to “the Serpent Men of Valusia” into his own 1936 short story, “The Haunter of the Dark” (which would itself eventually be adapted for comics by Marvel, in Journey Into Mystery [1972 series] #4 [April, 1973], just so’s you know).
This backstory would also ultimately be folded into the official history of the Marvel Universe, where it would receive considerable further elaboration over the next several decades, as well as being syncretized with seemingly incongruous conceptions of human prehistory that hadn’t even been imagined yet in 1971 (such as those.developed by Jack Kirby for The Eternals, circa 1976). But since a full discussion of these topics would likely double (maybe even triple) the length of this blog post, let’s move on…
Brule the Spear-Slayer had appeared briefly in the previous issue, where he was seen bringing Ka-Nu’s invitation to Kull in the latter’s palace. The two warriors had immediately rubbed each other the wrong way, owing in part to the traditional enmity between Pict and Atlantean, but also in part to, well, an evident overabundance of testosterone.
Both men are now determined to play nice, however, at least for the time being. They ride together back to Kull’s palace, where, alone, they enter his private chambers… and Brule immediately stuns Kull by revealing a hidden doorway the king had no idea existed — a doorway which opens onto…
Kull does as Brule bids — but he keeps one eye open, so that when his trusted councilor Tu creeps in and then approaches his bed with dagger still in hand, he’s ready:
Brule assures Kull that the creature he’s just slain isn’t the real Tu, who lies peacefully sleeping in his own bed. Then he hauls away the snake-priest’s corpse, leaving Kull to muse on an old legend about a king of Valusia who, ambushed and slain by Atlantean tribesmen, had the head of a serpent in death…
As noted earlier, Kull was already a man standing very much alone, even before this night — but now he can’t even trust that the faces of the men around him belong to actual men. Is the king of Valusia becoming paranoid? Well, considering that they really are out to get him, I’d say not.
Brule goes on to say that if it had been him trying to spear Kull, the latter would be dead now. “Perhaps,” Kull replies, “and perhaps not.” He keeps his sword at his companion’s back as the Pict carries the false Brule’s carcass to the same curtained alcove where he’d previously dumped “Tu”. Then, before they can return to Kull’s chambers, both men sense a presence growing nearer…
Kull recognizes the face as that of King Eallal, who reigned in Valusia a thousand years earlier and was found slain in his throne room. As the sad shade fades from view, Brule explains that their experience proves the truth of another legend of the Serpent Men — that the ghosts of those slain by them become their slaves, for all eternity.
The next day, Kull follows his normal schedule, attending to the routine matters of state — accompanied, as he usually is, by the true, living Tu (as well as by Brule, of course). Though, as you can readily imagine, the king’s mind is mostly on other things.
Seventeen men — all of whom had supported Kull’s cause when he first ascended Valusia’s throne — follow him and Brule to the Council Chamber. The councilors take their seats, and at first, all seems well…
Following this experience, Kull and Brule will become fast friends; and Brule will be a fixture in the comics series going forward, just as he was in Howard’s stories. In regards to the latter, it’s worth noting that while Brule never quite transcended his sidekick status to become a full partner in Kull’s adventures, Howard nevertheless seems to have considered him an important figure, making a point of identifying him in later tales as the ancestor of Bran Mak Morn — Howard’s 2nd century Pictish king who, like Kull and Conan, starred in his own cycle of fantasy stories (and who also, like them, would inevitably be adapted into comics form by Marvel, though he’d never receive his own series).
Realizing they’ve been duped by the Serpent Men, Kull and Brule beat feet to the true Council Chamber. Though the door is closed and bolted, Kull smashes it open — to find his exact double speaking from the dais:
The visible manifestation of “the mystic aura of the tiger-totem“, as seen in the first panel above, doesn’t appear in Howard’s original story; but Andru and Wood had drawn something like it at the conclusion of “A King Comes Riding!”, and it would become a recurring visual motif in Marvel’s Kull comics.
Wounded and weary as he is, Kull’s work isn’t yet done. Heaving the false king’s body over one shoulder, he leads the councilors to the Accursed Room. There, after depositing the corpse among the other dead Serpent Men, he drives his sword into the room’s closed doors to seal it up forever.
Wow. What an ending, huh? Back in May, 1971, I wasn’t certain whether this really represented the conclusion of Kull’s battle against the Serpent Men — it was obviously the end of Robert E. Howard’s story, if nothing else — or whether that plot thread would keep spooling out for a while (as it turned out, my latter assumption was correct). But whatever the barbarian king of Valusia would get up to next, I planned to be there. To put it another way, I had every intention of picking up Kull the Conqueror #3 when it came out.
Which, in fact, I did. I just wasn’t expecting it to take another eleven months before I had the opportunity.
Marvel had launched Kull the Conqueror in March as a bi-monthly series. But while the letters page of issue #2 gave no hint that anything was amiss with the title’s commercial prospects, one could glean from the fine print of the comic’s indicia that the sales response to Kull #1 had been somewhat less than Marvel had hoped for, as Kull the Conqueror was now a quarterly publication.
But there would be no Kull #3 in August, as things turned out. Rather, the book had been cancelled — or at least suspended — and while there would indeed ultimately be a Kull the Conqueror #3, it wouldn’t arrive on the stands until April, 1972.
Well before that, however, King Kull would again show his face in spinner racks, suggesting that Marvel — or maybe just Roy Thomas — wasn’t at all ready to let the king go riding back into the dim mists of pre-cataclysmic pseudo-history just yet. Will we be taking a look at those appearances as they hit their half-century anniversaries, here at Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books? You bet your sweet Topaz Throne we will. Until then, faithful readers, try to steer clear of Serpent Men — but if you simply can’t avoid them, don’t forget: Ka nama kaa lajerama!
*The map of Kull’s world that appears in Kull the Conqueror #2 (as well as in subsequent issues) isn’t signed or otherwise credited within this issue– but when next publoshed (in Kull #3), it’ll be unambiguously attributed to “Mirthful Marie Severin”.
Looking at the map a half-century after its debut, I’m struck by several things. For one, unlike Marvel’s corresponding map of Howard’s Hyborian age (which you may recall led off last week’s Conan the Barbarian #8 post) — but very much like most of your humble blogger’s favorite fantasy maps of the past five decades — it includes drawn-in physical features like mountains and jungles. Bonus points to Mirthful Marie for taking the time and trouble to do that.
For another (and more significant) thing, this map is considerably less detailed than the Hyborian one. This is likely a by-product of Howard’s not having written nearly as many stories about Kull as he did Conan, as well as of the fact that most of the stories he did write didn’t stray far in setting from the City of Wonders and its environs. Since Howard wrote but little about Kull’s wanderings before his ascension to the Topaz Throne, and then kept his kingly hero pretty much in place once he got him there, he had little need to come up with details about Commoria, Grondar, and the rest of the “Seven Empires”. About all we get are the counties’ made-up names, which give us little clue as to their respective cultures — a decided contrast to Conan’s Hyborian world, where the obvious derivation of Vanaheim from one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology (to give just one example) tells us plenty.
Perhaps in the interest of deference to Howard, Marvel followed his lead in leaving the realms of Thuria largely unexplored. Even in those years when Marvel had Kull temporarily deposed from his throne, so that he could go wandering across his world in the manner of the more popular Conan, there was little attempt to distinguish one adventure’s setting from another’s. Kull’s world became a generic sword-and-sorcery milieu — so generic, in fact, that writer Don Glut could craft an unofficial crossover between his Kull stories and the ones he was concurrently writing for Gold Key’s decidedly non-Howardian Dagar the Invincible, with neither of his editors the wiser. One might proceed to make the argument that however well-intentioned Marvel may have been in leaving the gaps in Howard’s Thurian world-building unfilled, in the end this approach did Kull no favors as a commercially viable comic-book property. Kull’s world never felt as real as Conan’s; perhaps, as a result, he himself never felt as real to many readers as did the Cimmerian.
But if the vagueness of setting of many of Kull’s adventures worked against his own popularity as a stand-alone sword-and-sorcery hero, the corresponding familiarity of several of the Thurian world’s place-names that Howard didn’t actually make up himself — Atlantis and Lemuria, in particular — worked just as effectively to facilitate the integration of that world into the larger Marvel universe.
Fans would begin taking note of the obvious possibilities for creative synergy at least as early as the letters column of Kull the Conqueror #4 (Sept., 1972), in which David McDonnell of Lebanon, PA observed of a follow-up story to Kull #2:
Mr. McDonnell didn’t get a direct response to that portion of his missive in Kull #4’s letters column; still, you could say that Marvel answered him with any number of actual stories in the years to come. Or to put it another way: Dude nailed it.
**Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet, “Robert E. Howard, Bran Mak Morn and the Picts” in Robert E. Howard, Bran Mak Morn:The Last King (Del Rey, 2005), p. 343-344.