Kull the Conqueror #7 (March, 1973)

Back in April, we took a look at the third issue of Marvel Comics’ Kull the Conqueror, featuring the titular hero’s first all-out battle against the undead sorcerer Thulsa Doom (a character who’d actually been introduced in another comic published a few months previously, Monsters on the Prowl #16).  Today, we’ll be examining Kull #7, in which the barbarian king of Valusia meets his evil arch-foe again… for the first time.

That seemingly paradoxical statement refers to the fact that this comic book features an adaptation of the short story “Delcardes’ Cat” — the first and only story by Kull’s creator, the pulp writer Robert E. Howard, in which the skull-headed villain ever makes an appearance.  Oddly enough, Howard only seems to have come up with the idea for Thulsa Doom well into the story, requiring him to go back and write another version in which the baddie gets referred to as a known threat a few times early on, just so that he doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere in the tale’s final scenes (which, as we’ll see soon enough, he kind of does anyway).  Even so, Howard wasn’t able to sell the story during his all-too-brief lifetime; like most (though not all) of his Kull stories, the tale remained unpublished as of the author’s death in 1936, not seeing print until Lancer Books released its paperback collection, King Kull, in 1969.

Got all that?  Great!  Now, on with our comic… 

The story’s artwork is by the sister-brother team of penciller Marie Severin and inker John Severin, continuing a run that had begun with Kull the Conqueror #2, and that included two short tales (appearing in Conan the Barbarian #10 and the aforementioned Monsters on the Prowl #16, respectively) that Marvel published while the Kull title itself was on a nearly year-long hiatus.  (It should be noted that the issue’s cover was drawn by John Severin alone, although Marie did provide the colors; all the “Kull” covers since MotP #16 had in fact been produced by the Severins under this same division of labor.)  The script is by Gerry Conway, who’d picked up the assignment following the departure of writer Roy Thomas (now the title’s editor) with issue #3.

Tu grumbles that the custom forbidding a woman of noble birth from marrying a peasant is “as old a tradition as Valusia itself!”  To which Kull replies:  “What is age, Tu?  Does not a man grow feeble with age?”  Still, when he delivers his judgment the next day, the king comes down on the side of tradition… mostly.  Whereas previous monarchs would likely have sentenced the would-be groom Kulra Thorr to death for his temerity, Kull chooses simply to exile him from Valusia forever.  The would-be bride, Delcardes, thanks her king for his mercy, her Zarfhaanan swain rides away, and the matter seems to be over and done with…

The preceding scene, besides being so brief as to be over before you know it, is somewhat confusingly constructed.  Based on how the action is presented, Brule appears to be just two steps ahead of the prospective assassins, so why does he even bother to be stealthy in entering Kull’s chamber?  And if he received advance warning of the attempted regicide of by way of the lady Delcardes, as he says in the last panel above, then why didn’t he raise a general alarm, bring a few extra guards, or whatever?  Finally, a couple of the assassins are shown to be wearing the uniform of Kull’s own trusted Red Slayers — something it seems should be at least mentioned in the dialogue, if not fully explained.  (For the record, this scene has no direct analogue in Robert E. Howard’s prose story, but rather is original to this version, and thus its flaws must be attributed to whoever adapted the story at the plotting stage — presumably scripter Gerry Conway.)

The scene in which Kull and co. visit Delcardes and meet Saremes is actually the first scene in Howard’s “Delcardes’ Cat”.  The material which precedes it in Marvel’s adaptation appears to be there primarily to inject some swordplay into the proceedings earlier than it would otherwise occur; an understandable creative decision, perhaps, but one which has the unfortunate effect of compressing Howard’s text into even less space than the single-issue, 20-page format already allows for.  (Among the losses in this particular scene is Howard’s intriguing statement, made in regards to Kull’s response to Delcardes’ beauty, that “Kull was not interested in women” — although, given that the Marvel version of Kull had been established as being definitely “interested” in women as early as Kull #3, perhaps Conway wouldn’t have included that line even if he’d had twice as much room.)

Kull rides swiftly to the Forbidden Lake, dismounting at the only place on its shore where “the rocks part and form a sandy bank.”

The observant reader may have noticed what seems to be a problem of scale on the two preceding pages, as the water-spider looks a lot larger in relation to Kull on the second page than on the first.  But before we accuse Marie Severin of being careless, let’s take a look at this sequence’s corresponding passage in Robert E. Howard’s original text:

He [i.e., Kull] burst into the fast fading light and even as he did a great form came skimming across the water toward him — a water spider, but this one was larger than a horse and its great cold eyes gleamed hellishly.  Kull, keeping himself afloat with his feet and one hand, raised his sword and as the spider rushed in, he cleft it half way through the body and it sank silently.

 

A slight noise made him turn and another, larger than the first was almost upon him.  This one flung over the king’s arms and shoulders, great strands of clinging web that would have meant doom for any but a giant.  But Kull burst the grim shackles as if they had been strings and seizing a leg of the thing as it towered above him, he thrust the monster through again and again till it weakened in his grasp and floated away, reddening the blue waters.

In Howard’s telling, Kull fights two spiders, one after another; and if you examine the Severins’ artwork while ignoring Gerry Conway’s captions, that’ is in fact what they’ve drawn.  It’s the script, then, rather than the art, that exhibits carelessness in describing the battle as though it involves only a single monster.

So, does that mean that Conway contributed the script (i.e., wrote the dialogue and narrative captions) for Marvel’s adaptation of “Delcardes’ Cat”, but didn’t actually plot it?  If that’s so, then was Marie Severin the plotter?  Or could it have been editor Roy Thomas?  Another possibility is that Conway did handle both plotting and scripting, but somehow forgot about there being two spiders in the interim between doing his two separate jobs, while the book was being drawn.  (Though, if you ask me, it still seems kind of careless to have written his script without referring to a copy of Howard’s story as he went along.)  These are questions that are unlikely to ever be answered at this late date; still, they serve as a good reminder of just how difficult it can be to ascertain precisely what each individual creator contributed to these half-century old comic books, especially ones that were produced by some iteration of the “Marvel method” (i.e., plot comes first, then art, then script).

And now, back to our story…

One point at which plot, art, and script all diverge from Howard’s text is in having this latest creature first appear to Kull in the form of a human woman; I guess that someone (be it Conway, or M. Severin, or whoever) thought that the original story’s one-monster-after-another bit was getting a little monotonous.

In any event, Kull stabs his toothy foe until they at last succumb — but his last, deepest thrust has unforeseen consequences…

A sword in a tree?  Why, that motif is straight out of Norse mythology (not to mention Avengers #100).  But it’s definitely not from Howard’s “Delcardes’ Cat”, in which nothing like this episode ever occurs.

As regular readers of this blog may recall, your humble blogger is a huge admirer of the Severins’ artwork on Kull; that said, I have to admit that I find myself a little disappointed in their depiction of the parts of this particular story that take place in and under the Forbidden Lake.  In Howard’s prose, there’s a dreamlike, even hallucinatory quality to the recounting of Kull’s experiences which the artwork in these pages doesn’t quite manage to capture; I’m not sure if the problem is more a matter of the grounded realism inherent in John Severin’s detailed inking working against the phantasmagoric, surreal nature of the events chronicled here, or of the storytellers being a little too cramped for space for Marie Severin to be able to really let go.  Perhaps it’s something of both.

Ascending the stone steps, Kull finds himself in a great city, though one that at first appears to be deserted.  But soon he becomes aware of strange whispering, a few yards in front of him — and then, at last, he sees…

At this point, you may be wondering: if there’s no special sword-from-the-tree in Howard’s story, how does Kull convince the lake-men to stand down?  Basically, by convincing them that it’s not worth their while to expend as many of their lives as it’ll take to kill him, and then, afterwards, to kill all his Pictish and Lemurian (i.e., barbarian) mercenary soldiers who won’t hesitate to invade the Forbidden Lake to avenge their king, them not giving a damn about Valusian taboos.

Which may not be quite as visual as the comics version’s yarn about the royal sword and the “Eternal Tree“, but is still pretty badass, if you ask me.

It’s another measure of how unfortunately compressed the whole Forbidden Lake sequence is in the Marvel version, that we get only a single, perfunctory panel of Kull’s return to the mundane surface world astride his “grim steed“, despite the fact that, in both Howard’s text and Conway’s script, it lasts for “eons“.

Saremes doesn’t answer Kull’s query; but Delcardes throws herself upon her king’s mercy, explaining that, yes, she’s deceived him, but only for the sake of her desire to marry Kulra Thorr.  At this point, Brule comes in, asking where the hell Kull has been, while he and his fellow Pictish riders have been searching for them.  “On a fool’s errand, Brule,” Kull replies.  “This cat lied to me –”

We’d seen Thulsa Doom vanish into seeming nothingness in the climax of Kull #3, and there was a clear implication that he was gone forever — but you know what they say about how you shouldn’t believe a villain is dead unless you’ve seen the body (and even then…).

Brule responds to this revelation by stabbing the sorcerer with his sword, but…

Thulsa Doom’s surprise appearance plays out pretty much the same here as it does in Howard;s text, with the most notable difference being that the comics version refers to this being Kull and Doom’s second encounter, while the prose story presents it as their first face-to-face meeting.

Outside of a minor dialogue tweak or two, the Marvel version of “Delcardes’ Cat” ends precisely as does the original story — which is all to the good, as it’s a great ending.  And from where I sit, Conway’s (or whoever’s) decision to stick especially close to the source material here helps bring Kull the Conqueror #7 home not just as an entertaining comic book on its own terms, but even as a (mostly) successful adaptation of Howard’s story.

That’s in spite of the major flaw we’ve already mentioned more than once — the compression of the prose tale’s action and dialogue that, though necessitated to some degree by the comic book’s 20-page format, has been exacerbated by such questionable choices as the front-loading of the adaptation with several extra scenes, and the unnecessary introduction of a whole additional plot element in the form of the sword-from-the-tree.  In addition to making the action of the central portion of the story (i.e., Kull’s adventure in the Forbidden Lake) feel rushed as well as squeezed, this approach means that a good bit of dialogue has been left out as well.  Sure, that dialogue mostly consists of philosophical discussions between Kull and “Saremes” (and, later, between Kull and the lake-king), but it’s a large part of what makes this a Kull story, rather than a tale of Conan, or any of Robert E. Howard’s other, similarly brawny protagonists.*

Even so, this take on “Delcardes’ Cat” works — and to a great extent, that’s due to the titular feline herself, who, though she doesn’t get nearly as many lines in Conway’s script as in Howard’s text, still dominates the narrative with her elegant and mysterious presence.  Sure, it turns out that she doesn’t actually have the powers of either speech or prophecy; nevertheless, she remains “a cat of the old race, thousands of years old“, and very wise; a cat who doubtless would have many fascinating stories to tell Kull and his court (and us readers), if only she were able.

I wish I could tell you that Saremes became an ongoing presence in Kull the Conqueror, lounging about in the backgrounds of court scenes, occasionally being stroked by Kull, or Brule, or Ka-Nu, or maybe even Tu — but, alas, as best as I can determine, such was not the case.  Still, there’s no reason we can’t imagine her being present in such scenes — resting comfortably on a pillow, perhaps, just out of sight beyond a panel border. “Looking” her wisdom rather than speaking it, to paraphrase Brule the Spear-Slayer… much the same way her less ancient kinfolk do, here in our present day.

 

Cover to Kull: The Cat and the Skull #2 (Nov., 2011). Art by Jo Chen.

*In 2011-2012, a second comics adaptation of “Delcardes’ Cat” saw print, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics: Kull: The Cat and the Skull, a four-issue miniseries written by David Lapham and drawn by Gabriel Guzman.  In some ways, this version faced the opposite difficulty from Marvel’s; because, while 20 pages arguably weren’t enough to properly adapt the story, the 88 pages afforded by Dark Horse’s presentation may well have been too many.  While Lapham’s script is able to incorporate virtually every word of Howard’s dialogue (though he inexplicably [and to my mind, inexcusably] excises the final scene), he’s also forced to add in an entirely new subplot involving the secret schemes of Thulsa Doom’s allies, the Serpent Men, simply to fill out his page count; the result isn’t bad, exactly, but in the end, this version feels less like the original story than does Marvel’s, even while technically including more of it.

7 comments

  1. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · December 17

    I confess I have always seen Kull more as a chance for REH to return to the Conan well and mine more material (and subsequent paychecks) out of it than anything else. Kull looks like an older version of Conan, he acts like him and, since he’s already King, he has Conan’s future as well. Granted, I’ve not read the original stories which may demonstrate more differences than the comics stories do, but to me King Kull as a comic, reads exactly like a King Conan comic would have, had Marvel chosen to create one (and yes, I know there was a King Conan comic that came later and it only proves my point). That said, the Severin’s art, as good as it is, does create a completely different atmosphere and tone from BWS’s work in Conan, but Conway’s scripting, not nearly as tight as Thomas’, disappoints on numerous levels. To me (and yes, my mileage has varied), the King Kull books more often come off as “Conan-Lite,” a worthwhile substitute if you can’t get the real thing, but knowing that the real thing is much better.

    Also, I confess to some surprise at the inclusion of a talking cat in this story, when we just finished discussing Shazam and it’s inclusion of Tawky Tawny, the talking tiger. How many talking animals were there, anyway?

    For me, while REH’s original story may be quite good, the compression of the story and changes to the plot here weaken what was only a moderately good tale in the first place. I don’t begrudge King Kull existing, both as a character and a comic, but I wish more had been done with him to make him unique and original on his own.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Stewart · December 17

      “I confess I have always seen Kull more as a chance for REH to return to the Conan well and mine more material (and subsequent paychecks) out of it than anything else.”

      For the record, Kull came first. The first Kull story (also frequently identified as the first true sword-and-sorcery story), “The Shadow Kingdom”, was published in 1929. The first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (which was a reworking of an unsold Kull story), didn’t come out until 1932.

      Of course, that fact in itself doesn’t invalidate your criticisms, Don — it just means that instead of seeing Kull as a pale imitation of Conan, it makes more sense to see him as a rough draft.

      Personally, I enjoy Howard’s Kull stories for what they are. But it must be acknowledged that the traits that make them distinct from the Conan stuff — a relatively static setting, less emphasis on violent action, virtually no sex, frequent metaphysical ruminations — probably also made them less saleable to comic-book readers in the 1970s (just as they had earlier to pulp magazine readers in the 1930s). Consciously or not, Marvel chose to downplay the differences between the two series — as I related in the blog post, the adaptation of “Delcardes’ Cat” includes s couple of examples of that very thing — with the unfortunate result that the comic-book Kull does indeed come off looking more like “Conan-lite” than a more faithful treatment of Howard’s source material would have. It’s a problem that would continue to dog the Kull feature through much of its tenure at Marvel — although that didn’t prevent the company from giving us some really good comics along the way (at least in my view).

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  2. frednotfaith2 · December 17

    Another great write-up, Alan, typed as I am covered in cats — well, one black cat on my lounging torso and a Siamese on my legs. Hadn’t previously read this story — text or comic – and didn’t expect to encounter an alleged talking cat in a R. E. Howard-based barbarian yarn. I rather concur with Don’s observation about Kull rather too closely resembling Conan, albeit as a much older man and ruler of his realm in a world from an even more distant past. I do enjoy the Severins’ art, which on Kull reminds me much of Hal Foster’s Prince Valient strips. It does evoke a greater sense of realism than typical for fantasy stories, even when fantastic elements are part of the story, although it doesn’t allow for the sort of surrealism that Smith, Brunner, or Colan, among others, added to their work.
    In regarding Marie Severin’s career at Marvel, it occurred to me that aside from Kull and her humor work on Not Brand Ecch!, her primary runs as an artist were on Dr. Strange, the Hulk, and Sub-Mariner — the original Defenders, although as far as I recall she never worked on that title! All features that were outliers from standard superhero fare. Don’t know if that was her preference or just the way things worked out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Chris A. · December 20

      *Loved* her pencils on Theodore Sturgeon’s “It” in Supernatural Thrillers #1, published by Marvel in 1972. Some career best backgrounds, in my opinion. Great light and shadow, not to mention textures. The forest and the river were the stars of that story.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. frasersherman · December 18

    I love the art here, though it’s been too long since I read Kull to remember how it compares to the story. May be a while before I go back to it: Kull and his brooding philosophical discourses get tedious fast.
    I think the comparison of “Phoenix on the Sword” and “By This Axe I Rule” (the Kull original) show why Conan took off: more intense, more alive, and the addition of magic to the story.
    Marvel using Thulsa Doom as an archfoe reminds me of how Conan writers, in paperback or in comics, have built up Thoth-Amon as Conan’s nemesis. In Howard he appeared in one story and works in the background in another. As I’ve blogged about (https://frasersherman.com/2016/12/15/archenemies-the-need-for-a-nemesis-sfwapro/) older writers didn’t see the need for an arch-foe that modern storytellers do.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. macsnafu · 7 Days Ago

    I agree that what makes Kull different from Conan is the philosophical aspects that he explores. But that’s probably the reason that Kull was never as successful as Conan, either for REH or for Marvel. Sword & Sorcery fans are mostly looking for swordplay and magic, action, not philosophy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • frasersherman · 7 Days Ago

      I think that’s part of it. But comparing “Phoenix and the Sword” to the unpublished Kull story it was based on, “By This Axe I Rule,” shows Conan has an intensity Kull lacks. Everything’s more interesting with Conan.

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