Kull the Conqueror #3 (July, 1972)

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.

16 comments

  1. frednotfaith2 · April 23

    Enjoyed your review of this story, Alan! All entirely new to me. Perusing the cover brought to my mind a clip I’d first seen sometime in the mid-70s on a Creature Features program based on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, although I didn’t know that at the time or that the clip was taken from the silent 1925 version of the Phantom of the Opera — I didn’t need to know any of that for the visual of a man whose head was a skull interrupting gala festivities in a castle to impose itself on my mind for decades to come! A bit of online research indicates that Howard came up with Thulsa Doom in 1928, so possibly he took some inspiration from that film for Thulsa Doom, as did Kirby & Simon for the creation of the Red Skull in 1940.
    The Severins’ art is rather sublime and provides, to my mind, a sense of an archaic world, much like Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, but with plenty of fantastic, dream-like imagery. I have hardbound reprints of the first 23 issues of Mad (when it was still in comics format) as well as Frontline Combat, each with several classic stories drawn by John Severin as well as coloring by Marie.
    Thulsa Doom’s “demise” was rather reminiscent of the conclusion to the early Hulk serial in Tales to Astonish chronicling his initial long-drawn out encounter with the Leader, begun by Ditko on art, continued by Kirby and finally concluded by Bob Powell in a sequence in which the Leader obtains a globe which will give him all the wisdom in the universe but it proves to be far more than even the Leader’s gamma-mutated big brain can handle and he falls down dead — well, he did get better much later, unsurprisingly (I first read the entire epic in a Fireside Books collection published in 1978).
    Anyhow, Thomas & the Severins worked up a splendid tale, even if, as you surmise, a truncated version of what was likely originally intended. Must say, I’d fallen asleep early tonight, then had an oddball dream in which I was struggling to walk up a glass wall, my body aching against gravity trying to pull me down to the ground far below, part of my slumbering mind insisting “I can do this” while the other recognizing the absurdity of the situation and then suddenly I’m wide awake again and it’s only about 1 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Well, my woken mind thinks, since I can sleep in as long as I like today and I’ve drifted out of the realms of the fantastic for the time-being, let’s see what other realms of fantasy from 50 years ago Alan might shed light on this week. And here it is, another fun ride into yester-decades with masters of putting fantastic fantasy into comics format. And now back to more slumber and perhaps even stranger dreams.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · April 23

    I vaguely remember in my youth, not caring for the Severin’s art all that much, but looking at it now, fifty years later, I can’t possibly imagine what I had to complain about because their work on Kull is as good as has ever been done. In particular, page 18 where the images stop at a wide right margin while the serpent gems go falling through all that cold and lonely white space is very effective and very chilling.

    As you say, Alan, the story is truncated; compressed and squeezed together in order to fit the shortened page count of Kull’s new home, but wouldn’t it have been glorious to get that additional ten pages of both story and art? Why was the solution to the problem to cut pages, rather than stretch the story over Kull #3 and #4? We’ll never know, probably. The place where the compression seemed most egregious to me was when Shiva’s sudden (and inevitable?) betrayal of Krull immediately made him suspect Thulsa Doom, even though he had just told Brule at dinner that he had no reason to suspect the man of anything. Since Shiva never used Doom’s name or gave away the plot at any point, we can only assume that we’re missing a scene that ties Shiva to Doom and that Krull has info we do not.

    still, that’s comics and all in all, this is a great one. Thomas’ love of these characters really showed and it’s a shame that his duties forced him to give them up from time to time as he was truly well-suited for the assignment.

    Liked by 4 people

    • DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · April 23

      For some reason, my computer glitched and cut me off before I was through (maybe my computer knows something I don’t). I should have included this about a paragraph above, but does it seem to anyone like the denouement at the end where Kull roams around in thought about the gems and their power before throwing the last gem down the bottomless pit, might also be a bit of story compression? There’s a lot of information there on a mere couple of pages and it seems like Thomas might have wished for some additional room to give those ideas room to breathe. Thanks, Alan.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Chris A. · April 23

      I especially liked John Severin’s art in Warren’s short-lived Blazing Combat magazine of 1965-66. You can see all four issues here:

      https://archive.org/details/blazing-combat-1965/Blazing%20Combat%2001/

      Some real industry heavyweights are in there, with Frazetta covers, and stories written by Archie Goodwin, and drawn by Alex Toth, Wally Wood, Gray Morrow, Gene Colan, Al Williamson, Reed Crandall, Joe Orlando, John Severin, Russ Heath, and more. Top notch.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. frednotfaith2 · April 23

    I think as a kid in the mid-’70s, I would have found John Severin’s style “unusual”, but then I don’t recall taking notice of his art back then, mostly due to my mostly getting super-hero comics. As far as I know, Severin never worked on any standard costumed superhero comic, the closest being his work as inker on the Incredible Hulk in the early ’70s,. I’m sure that was by his own choice, as his primary fortes were military fare (of which there was much in the Hulk in that era); westerns and other stories set well in the past, including sword & sorcery; and humor. He had a distinct style, that stood out from Marvel’s more typical Kirby/Romita/Buscema “house” style for it’s superhero fantasy fare. Still, by 1972, seems the old house-style wasn’t as dominant as it was in, say, 1963-67, when Kirby’s style prevailed and there were far fewer Marvel titles.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Definitely a shame that John Severin’s work fell out of style as superheroes became the prevailing genre in American comic books. As much as I absolutely love Jack Kirby, one can argue that it did make the medium too undifferentiated that his style became the default template for artists, just as superheroes dominating it led to an ever-dwindling audience over the next several decades.

      Liked by 4 people

      • jmhanzo · April 26

        I don’t think Severin’s art ever fell out of style, it’s just that American fans are focused primarily on superhero comics and he didn’t care to work on them. As he doesn’t have some big run on Batman or X-Men or Spider-Man or whatever, most fans who only know comics through Marvel and DC wouldn’t take note of his career. I am only familiar with him from his work on Cracked, which really stood out to me as a kid in the 80s.

        The only extended Marvel or DC superhero work I can think of is his ink job on the Hulk, about which he said —

        “GROTH: I thought it was a curious assignment. First of all, the Hulk was kind of a superhero…

        SEVERIN: Yeah.

        GROTH: …which you’ve never touched.

        SEVERIN: He was a different kind of superhero, for some strange reason. I don’t know. It may be that he wasn’t as ridiculous as most superheroes. He didn’t do any wacky things.”

        Honestly, I think it’s a real testament to his talent and career that he was able to work into the 2000s without being forced to draw superheroes against his wishes.

        Liked by 3 people

        • jmhanzo · April 26

          That a great and extremely lengthy interview, BTW, and available free online:

          https://www.tcj.com/the-john-severin-interview-parts-i-ii/

          Liked by 2 people

        • frednotfaith2 · April 26

          In the ’60s and at least to the mid-70s, the Hulk was a weird mash-up of monster, military, weird romance and superhero comics. Moreover, the Hulk’s “costume” was his torn up purple pants which miraculously changed size to fit both Hulk and “puny Banner”, and the number of baddies Hulk fought who wore typical super-villain costume was relatively minimal compared to more standard superhero mags. All sufficient reason it seems for Severin to have agreed to work on the Hulk, aside from maybe Hulk breathing heavy on him.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Okay, so… Creatures on the Loose #10, then Kull the Conqueror #1-2, then Conan the Barbarian #10, then Monsters on the Prowl #16, then Kull the Conqueror #3. Did I get that right?

    At least third time was the charm for the art, and the fantastic team of Marie & John Severin stayed with the character from Kull #2 onwards, despite the jumps from one series to another. Marie & John definitely did an incredible job on this issue… ditto Marie’s fantastic coloring. When I did a blog post tribute to Marie Severin after she passed away one of the examples of her work I showcased was from this issue…

    Marie Severin: 1929 to 2018

    Interesting that Thulsa Doom is defeated by a deus ex machina… but the story doesn’t end, and we see that Kull then has to struggle with the great temptations of power that the mystical jewel offers, finally over coming it. In a way that’s more satisfying than him physically defeating Doom, because it’s a battle for Kull’s very soul, and he finally chooses not to start down the same path that Doom walked.

    Quite a few people have wondered if the skull-faced Thulsa Doom was an inspiration for the arch-villain Skeletor in Masters of the Universe. I did some searching online, but no one can find a definitive answer one way or another. Mattel artist Mark Taylor, who designed Skeletor, did claim the character was inspired by an actual human corpse on display at local carnival…

    https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3476372/skeletor-inspired-real-life-corpse-inside-carnival-haunt/

    Even if it’s merely a coincidence that Thulsa Doom and Skeletor are so alike visually and in background (skull-faced evil sorcerer) it’s definitely an interesting one.

    Liked by 3 people

    • jmhanzo · April 25

      Skull faced villains surely reach back before either Thulsa Doom or Skeletor, no? There’s this guy called the Grim Reaper, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it went earlier than him.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. DAVID MACDONALD-BALL · April 24

    I can recall reading this issue as a UK black and white reprint in the mid-seventies. It was only when I bought the recent Kull Omnibus (Vol. 2) that I finally got to savour the work of the Severin siblings in its full glory.
    For me, this was the highpoint of Kull both artistically and story wise… at least until Doug Moench and John Bolton brought us “Demon In A Silvered Glass ” (Bizarre Adventures #26).

    Liked by 2 people

  6. jmhanzo · April 25

    Just received TwoMorrows’ recent John Severin book in the mail yesterday, so this is a pleasant coincidence. I absolutely love his work, and really enjoy the work of his sister, and their run on Kull is basically a S&S dream team that I rate right next to the work of John Buscema and Barry Smith.

    I’m one of the rare fellas that likes Kull just as much as Conan and as I get older, perhaps more so in some ways. Good stuff, good review!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jmhanzo · April 25

    Here’s something pretty cool from the recent TwoMorrows book!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Joe Gill · April 27

    I had mentioned in other posts that I , like you, liked the Flash and Daredevil. Also that I had a theory that my pre-teen self was drawn to the red outfits that both these Super-Heroes wore. So I had to laugh when I saw the cover of Conan #10 reproduced here. It was the first issue of Conan I ever purchased , beginning a long streak of over 40 issues of buying that comic. This cover too is predominated by the color red. Shakes head. Anyway, I also picked up a few Kull as well and I , like others can’t find enough praise for Marie Severin’s work. Exceptional.

    Liked by 2 people

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