In April, 1972, the third issue of Marvel Comics’ Kull the Conqueror arrived on stands — a full eleven months after the release of issue #2.
Of course, as folks who’ve been regular readers of this blog for a while already know, while Kull, the comic book, had been absent for almost a year, the same could not be said of Kull, the character. Marvel’s associate editor Roy Thomas, who in 1971 had launched this second series based on a Robert E. Howard fantasy hero in the wake of Conan the Barbarian‘s success (as relatively modest as that was, so far) was evidently determined to keep Conan’s literary forbear in the public eye — perhaps in hopes of eventually resuscitating the cancelled Kull title, or maybe just because he liked the hero and his milieu and/or was enjoying his collaboration (as the series’ writer) with sister-and-brother art team Marie and John Severin, who’d both come aboard Kull with issue #2.
Whatever the motivation, Thomas’ first attempt at keeping the Kull franchise alive was made in the context of Marvel’s short-lived experiment with a more expensive, giant-sized standard format. Thomas figured that an extra-length Conan the Barbarian would have room for Kull as a semi-regular back-up feature; and when the first issue of Conan to be published in this format (#10) appeared in July, 1971, it did indeed include a five-page adaptation by Thomas and the Severins of a Kull poem by Howard, “The King and the Oak”. But the downsizing of Conan (along with the rest of Marvel’s line) two months later left King Kull once again with nowhere to hang his crown.
Kull didn’t resurface until January, 1972, when he showed up in the 16h issue of the mostly-reprint anthology title Monsters on the Prowl. Unlike the brief feature in Conan #10, the Thomas-Severins Kull tale presented here (the ten-page “The Forbidden Swamp”) picked up directly from where Kull #2’s “The Shadow Kingdom” had left off; in fact, the first eight pages had been plotted and drawn months before for the aborted Kull #3. As with the previous back-up slot in Conan, it seemed that the barbarian monarch of Valusia had at last found a new regular berth.
That turned out not to be the case, however; in fact, the King Kull feature lasted in Monsters on the Prowl only for as many issues as it had in Conan the Barbarian (i.e., just one). But this latest suspension was for happier reasons than the one previous; because between the release of MotP #16 in January and #17 in March, the powers-that-were at Marvel had determined that the time was ripe to give Kull the Conqueror a new lease on life — and so, in April, the sword-and-sorcery hero returned to spinner racks in his own bi-monthly title.
And that was good news for my fourteen-year-old self, who in 1972 was keen to read as much sword-and-sorcery material as I could get my hands on. Having to wait one extra month for the next chapter in the ongoing Kull storyline wasn’t so bad — especially since there was going to be ten more pages of it than there would have been in Monsters on the Prowl #17. That said, I’m sure that by the time I finally sat down to read Kull the Conqueror #3, I was more than ready to get on with things — in particular, I must have been eager to learn why this Thulsa Doom guy looked so different on this book’s cover (pencilled as well as inked by John Severin, incidentally) than he had when first introduced in “The Forbidden Swamp“…
“The Death-Dance of Thulsa Doom!” is an original story, not an adaptation; nevertheless, it owes more of a debt to the writings of Robert E. Howard than might seem to be implied by the simple note at the end of the splash page’s credits, “Featuring the epic hero created by…”
To begin with, as already noted, it continues narrative threads from Kull #2’s “The Shadow Kingdom”, which was based on a Howard Kull story. That story, in both its original prose and Marvel Comics versions, had ended with Kull vowing to root out and destroy the Serpent Men who’d infiltrated his court, wherever they might be — and in MotP #16, Roy Thomas and the Severins followed up on that conclusion in a way Howard never had, showing us readers how Kull and his Red Slayers tracked the Serpent Men to an ancient temple in “The Forbidden Swamp”, and destroyed it and them. Naturally, that same temple was where Kull first met the mysterious Thulsa Doom: a character who, like the Serpent Men, had his origins in a Kull short story by R. E. Howard — just not the same story. Rather, Thomas had drawn Doom from another, later tale, unpublished during Howard’s lifetime, called “Delcardes’ Cat” (or, “The Cat and the Skull”); in that story, we should note, Kull already knows of Thulsa Doom, having become aware of him sometime before the tale begins, under circumstances Howard doesn’t relate.
In MotP #16 and Kull #3, then, Thomas has taken characters and plot elements from two different Howard stories, and created a new narrative that bridges the gap between them. In doing so, he’s also helped give the Kull series overall a greater sense of episode-to-episode continuity — a useful technique for encouraging reader investment in the series (at least so far as readers with the sensibilities of your humble blogger are concerned). This was an approach that Thomas had already proven himself adept at in Conan; it would continue to be a hallmark of his work with Howard’s heroes in the years and decades to come.
The first panel of page 3 launches a royal reverie, as Kull’s mind (and the story’s narration) flashes back — first to his youth in Atlantis, and then to his more recent adventures involving the Serpent Men — including the opening sequence of Kull #2, in which the Pictish ambassador Ka-Nu gave our hero “a certain gleaming gem, long since stolen from the temple of the Serpent-Men…”
Yeah, it’s the old “taking credit for the eclipse” con (though maybe it wasn’t so old in the imagined antediluvian era of Kull, said to be about 20,000 years ago). Still, just because you know how to put one over on the rubes via your superior knowledge of astronomy, that doesn’t mean you don’t also know how to do some very real, and very dangerous, magic — as Kull and company will soon discover…
Both Ridondo the minstrel and Baron Kaannub have been seen before this, in Kull #1, where they were shown to be members of a small group conspiring against Kull. Ridondo’s Kull-mocking lay, on the other hand, has been lifted by Thomas from a Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword” — though its usage here may be considered appropriate, considering that “Phoenix” was adapted by Howard from an unsold Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!” — a story in which Ridondo and his fellow conspirators were featured players.
The scene shifts briefly to show us Brule and Tullia leaving the City of Wonders, intent on obeying the king’s request to return to the Pictish encampment outside its walls to summon Ka-Nu. And then, it’s back to the palace,,,
This is an interesting sequence, as it implies that Kull has been having sexual relations on a fairly regular basis with at least one woman at his court. Which might not seem all that unusual behavior for a barbarian sword-and-sorcery hero — unless you’re aware that, very unlike in Howard’s Conan stories, sex and romance play virtually no role in the author’s tales of Kull, at least so far as the hero himself is concerned. The same story in which Thulsa Doom debuted, “Delcardes’ Cat”, even includes the line: “…Kull was not interested in women.”
If Roy Thomas was aware of that line — and it’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t — he appears to have interpreted it to mean, “Kull was not interested in marriage, or any other sort of ‘serious’ relationship with a woman.” Which may or may not have been what Howard meant — but which was probably a reasonable approach for Marvel to take, if Kull the Conqueror was going to capitalize on certain traditional aspects of the sword-and-sorcery genre that were presumed to appeal to an audience of young, heterosexual males.
Marie and John Severin’s rendering of Thulsa Doom’s true physiognomy is a close match for Howard’s description in “Delcardes’ Cat”: “The face of the man was a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire!” [italics Howard’s] The author didn’t offer any specifics as to why his villainous wizard looked that way, if you were wondering; although at one point in the story Doom declares, “Ages ago I died as men die!” — which suggests that he may have come by his bony look in the natural way (so to speak).
“My destiny was tied to that of the snake-men whose power you broke…” That’s about as much explanation as we’re ever going to get for what Thulsa Doom was doing in the Serpent Temple in the first place (beyond his obvious desire to possess the two magical gems that served as the Serpent God idol’s “eyes”). As for the true identity of the deceased young woman also found by Kull in the temple — the one that Doom claimed was his betrothed? Your guess is as good as mine on that one.
For what my opinion’s worth, I’m inclined to think that Thomas originally had more in mind as regards that particular piece of his plot, but it ultimately got squeezed out by the need to compress what was most likely intended to be 40 pages worth of story (i.e., two complete comics) into the final 30-page version we have in Monsters on the Prowl #16 and Kull the Conqueror #3.
Deciding to head straight for the Pictish camp, Kull enlists one of his Red Slayers to accompany him — but the poor schmuck is consumed by a sudden blaze of magical flames before the duo can even clear the city gates. Kull grimly resolves to continue alone…
The preceding phantasmagorical sequence, as well drawn as it indisputably is, seems to me to be another area in which the story could have used a bit more room. (I do like how in the last panel Marie Severin has been careful to show us that Kull’s horse survived its master’s latest travails, by showing us it’s silhouetted form peacefully grazing in the background.)
Finally, Kull arrives at the Pictish camp, where he hopes to return his own serpent gem back into the custody of Ka-Nu, who had after all kept it safe for years prior to his passing it on to Kull…
“What??” Thulsa Doom rhetorically asks in reply. “And then have to prove my power anew, to each and every whelp who can lift a broadsword?” The sorcerer goes on to say that seeing their “tiger” shackled and helpless will keep the Valusians cowed and out of his way while he pursues “more vital interests.”
Back in April, 1972, my fourteen-year-old self was so knocked out by the visual splendor of the preceding page (and while we’re handing out kudos to Marie and John Severin for their pencils and inks, let’s not forget the highly effective coloring, which according to the Grand Comics Database was by Marie, as well) — as well as, perhaps, by the sheer cosmic woo-wooness of Thomas’ “…to be part of everything… is also to be… nothing” — that it didn’t bother me that Thomas had essentially written his way out of a corner by having his now all-powerful villain be defeated not by his absolutely outclassed hero, but by… himself! Oh, the irony! Never mind that all that set-up with Brule severing Kull’s chains was ultimately pointless, beyond giving the brawny barbarian something completely ineffectual to “do” as the story built to its climax.
Re-reading this comic today, it’s a lot harder not to notice the man pulling levers behind the curtain; nevertheless, I still love this scene as a piece of visual storytelling. And the philosophically framed fate of Thulsa Doom is consistent with the metaphysical bent of more than one of Howard’s original Kull stories, if nothing else, so I’m inclined to cut Thomas a break even in that regard.
Besides, we still have the story’s denouement to consider…
The narrative captions completely take over the verbal half of the storytelling at this point, as we’re told as well as shown how Kull subsequently sits silent and heedless of his councilors’ conversation at dinner, thinking only “of the Serpent’s Eye throbbing, throbbing in the sash about his waist…”
The story’s conclusion is a satisfying one, both thematically and dramatically, mollifying any lingering reader resentment regarding the hand-waving employed in the resolution of the main conflict. Or at least that’s how it works for this reader.
In any event, that’s a wrap — for “The Death-Dance of Thulsa Doom!” as an individual episode, for the larger story arc that began in Kull #2, and, finally, for Roy Thomas’ original stint as the writer of Marvel’s King Kull feature. Having written every appearance of Kull in Marvel’s comics to date (beginning with Creatures on the Loose #10 [Mar., 1971]), Thomas would now turn his scribal stylus over to Gerry Conway, who’d begin his run in two months with Kull the Conqueror #4’s “Night of the Red Slayers”. Thankfully, however — for Conway as well as for us readers — the Severins weren’t going anywhere, at least not for a while.
Unsurprisingly, Roy Thomas would return to write Kull’s adventures one day (in fact, he’d do so more than once) — though we’d see the return of another star of Kull #3 — Thulsa Doom, that is — well before then. (C’mon, you knew he wasn’t gone. There was no body! Plus, Marvel still had to adapt “Delcardes’ Cat”, right?) But, as I’m sure you’ll understand, that’s a topic for another post, another day.