Wednesday, May 04, 2016

To boldly go where that TV show went before!

Wow, I didn't even know it existed until today, but Star Trek Continues! On YouTube! An absolutely wonderful fan-made series of episodes so perfectly in the style of the original series, I'm quite blown away! Somebody really should have told me about this before now, it's been around for a couple of years...

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Death at the Dawn of Time!

This old blog of mine about Combat Kelly and his Deadly Dozen has proved quite popular over the years - I appreciate the comments from the likes of Rod and the guy on that forum who described it as a "good article". It doesn't take much to flatter me.

So I was thinking I should do a sequel, and got to wondering what makes an appropriate sequel to a war comic from the declining years of the genre? Well, naturally, it's the type of character who replaced the gritty 1940s war hero - the bitter Vietnam veteran who comes home to America and finds that public opinion has turned against him! My god, there were a lot of those types in comics in the 1970s! The superheroes who had well and truly taken over nearly every published comic in the USA during the sixties now could hardly move for Vietnam-veteran supporting characters, and any new heroes who were introduced tended to have some kind of Nam-related back-story for them to whine about at every opportunity. The phase didn't last very long - the all-new, all-different X-Men who made their debut in 1975, a brightly-coloured, multinational and brilliantly-written team of superheroes without more than a hint of Vietnam bitterness soon proved to be the most popular comic in the world, and all the others tried their best to follow its lead. But there was just this era in the mid-seventies when Marvel comics in particular were casting around for something to replicate the huge boost they got from superheroes in the sixties, and so they were trying a whole lot of new and innovative ideas. Every other month.

The trend, you see, was for new and different comics to be launched as bi-monthly titles; after you read one issue, you had to wait a whole two months for the next! As someone brought up on the weekly comics of Britain, I've never been able to understand this peculiarly American tradition - even one month seems far too long a gap between stories to possibly retain the interest of the readers, doesn't it? How did they ever get kids to remember to buy the comic if it took eight or nine weeks for the next one to appear on the newsstands? Well, if 'kids' is the right word - by this time, American comics tended to be aimed at teenagers who were looking for an 'adult' kind of read and were scathingly dismissive about 'kid stuff'. So these bi-monthly new ideas were regularly thrown at the wall to see what would stick. Often they were personal projects of the writers, trying desperately to get their ideas into print against the advice of publishers and editors who pointed out that they would never sell in sufficient quantities to make money. The letters pages would usually beseech the readers to do anything within their power to increase sales to a level that would allow the comic to continue - go out and buy as many copies as you can! They would tend to be cancelled pretty quickly, much like poor old Combat Kelly, unless they caught the public's imagination like the X-Men and were promoted to monthly publication...

So, with that historical-context preamble out of the way, I invite you to come back with me to 1975, and from there... Come back with us -- back through the dark corridors of time ... back before the violent dawn of man ... before the raised fist of human hatred swept over the land which so-called "civilized" men call Earth. Come back with us ... to the world of the far-flung past ... to the time of -- SKULL THE SLAYER!

Lovely splash page from Steve Gan, Filipino artist who did just a handful of comics for Marvel USA in the seventies - one of them, though, was the first appearance of Star-Lord, star of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which has brought him a nice cash windfall recently. I'm not sure about the proportions of the dinosaur on the right, though - if that's its leg, shrouded by mist, it looks more like a guy in a rubber suit...

I should say to start with that I don't particularly like Skull the Slayer. I bought the first five back issues long ago out of curiosity after reading Skull's later appearance in Marvel Two-in-One and found it wasn't nearly as much fun as I'd thought it would be. Which is strange, really, since it's the brainchild of Marv Wolfman, writer and/or editor of many of the greatest comics ever made and creator, in the 1990s, of a certain cartoon called Pocket Dragon Adventures. Not to mention that the writing duties were soon taken over by Bill Mantlo, whose virtues I've extolled on this blog before. But the whole thing doesn't quite click, somehow - it's really only worthy of analysis here because of the bizarre "new direction" introduced and immediately abandoned in the fourth issue...

Skull the Slayer #1
August 1975

Created, written and even coloured by Marv Wolfman (colouring comics in those days was still more of a fiddly technical exercise than an artistic endeavour, it's strange to see the writer doing it), drawn by Steve Gan, lettered by the mysterious "Marcos" and edited by Len Wein, who along with Wolfman was the other half of the pair I hold responsible for most of the brilliant creativity that came out of American comics around this time.

In tiny little text at the bottom of each page, other Marvel comics are advertised - the first of these says "Howard the Duck faces the most unexpected vampire of all in Giant-Size Man-Thing #5!" ... which really sums up that era of Marvel just wonderfully, doesn't it? I'm pretty sure the vampire was Dracula, too. Anyway, on with our story!

After that scene-setting splash page, we are introduced to our characters - a military plane takes off with its passengers consisting of three civilians and two soldiers guarding a prisoner, Jim Scully ('Skull' to his friends, if he had any). One of the soldiers, Freddy, is particularly venomous towards Scully, and even pulls a gun on him! (Or, at least, the soldier on Scully's left pulls a gun on him, though Scully was arguing with the one on the right... the speech bubbles seem to imply it's meant to be the same soldier all along). The narrator, who talks in a very hip, up-to-date seventies style rather than the traditional comic-narrator voice, fills us in on Skull's history - a highly-trained soldier, he was captured by the Viet Cong on his first mission, held prisoner and horribly treated for five years, eventually released, came home to find his wife has left him, his parents have died and his drug-addicted younger brother blames him for everything and is coming at him with a knife. In the ensuing struggle, the brother ends up stabbing himself, and Skull is arrested for murder.

It's all very harrowing, but also clearly badly hampered by the constraints of the Comic Code Authority, which still had to give its approval to every comic published in America at that time. The CCA had eased off a bit from the anti-comic hysteria of the fifties, but could still be very fussy about anything that could corrupt innocent little minds (legend has it that they didn't want Marv Wolfman's surname published in comics because it violated an anti-werewolf regulation in their rulebook) and it was still necessary to delicately skirt around subjects like drugs. This whole origin flashback comes across as sadly sanitised and not as hard-hitting as the writer presumably wanted.

Anyway, the plane takes off and flies into the Bermuda Triangle. Never a good idea in comics. And sure enough, it flies through what the narrator calls "a warp, baby -- a hole... a rip in space" and ends up in a primitive world populated by dinosaurs! The plane catches on fire and breaks in half, for no adequately explored reason, with Scully breaking free of the soldiers and ending up in the front half, falling out and landing in a primeval swamp before it crashes. This page is a fine example of the narrative captions that the reader has to decipher...

Meanwhile, the three civilians who were for some reason along for the military plane ride with Scully and his guards - a Dr Corey, Ann Reynolds and a young man who doesn't talk much - have also survived and are sitting around a campfire. Corey speculates that they've been thrown back in time. There's no mention of the soldiers who were with them - one is seen falling out of the plane earlier on, but the other was still in the rear half with the civilians the last we saw of him.

Scully, meanwhile, has got down to business, and taken off his shirt. "If I've figured everything correctly, there won't be any human life for 222 million years," he says to himself - I assume he's just joking rather than making a scientific assessment, but the 222 million years figure is repeated later on in the series as if it's an accepted fact. He gets to work killing a little horse-like thing before going hysterical about the whole strangeness of his situation. He snaps out of it, though, when a tyrannosaurus rex comes for him! With the exception of one page in which Corey, Ann and the still-unnamed youth take stock of their situation, find human bones and are watched by cavemen, the rest of the comic consists of Scully fighting the t-rex in some very nicely-drawn action sequences! Impressively, armed only with a sharp stick and heavy rock, he wins! The rex is driven off a cliff, and Scully celebrates... only to be felled by a stone thrown at his head by another pair of cavemen. End of part one!

There's a full-page editorial in which Marv Wolfman discusses the lengthy process and compromise involved in getting a comic like this published. His original idea, with an ensemble cast of everyday people, sounds even more like the formula that proved so successful with "Lost", all those years later! And poor Marv couldn't get it published because it was uncommercial!

Skull the Slayer #2
November 1975

Three months between the cover dates of the first two issues, but I think it was just an adjustment in how far in advance they were dated, rather than a delay. You'll notice that the first issue in my collection is the American edition (priced at 25 cents) while all the rest are the UK imports (American comics cost you 9p in those days, showing how much better the exchange rate was back then...)

The main creative team, Wolfman and Gan, are the same for #2, but now Marv Wolfman is credited as editor as well as writer. This promotion will have a major impact on the future of Skull the Slayer! Lettering this time is credited to "San Jose" and the colourist now is Michele Wolfman (Marv's wife).

We start with a quick flashback in three panels summarising what's happened so far - the narrator explicitly tells us that we're 222 million years in the past, and strangely the picture of Scully being hit over the head shows a stone tomahawk thing with a wooden handle being thrown at him, although the narrative caption still calls it 'a rock'. Then Scully is brought back to the community of cavemen, who inspect his unusual trousers (the cavemen all wear modesty-covering loincloths, as demanded by the CCA, and strangely manufactured-looking furry boots) and then throw him into a cave, where when he wakes up he meets the other three 20th-century people.

Dr Corey isn't keen to be friendly with Scully, who after all is a murderer, and it takes the usually-silent kid (who finally gives his name as Jeff, which funnily enough was also Scully's brother's name last issue - the coincidence is never mentioned in dialogue until a new writer takes over; I sort of suspect that Marv Wolfman did it accidentally) to get them all to agree to stop fighting and work together. He summarises the situation - Scully's got his issues with the army and his brother and things; Corey feels that white people are out to put him down so he gets in there first with his snarky comments; Jeff himself has a domineering senator father who sent the army to bring him home after he ran away; Ann when prompted explains that her gripe with the world is that she couldn't get a good job because employers assume a young woman will get married and leave to have children within a year. Ann personally hates babies!

The idea of a woman character who doesn't want to get married and settle down is actually quite radical for comics of the time! It doesn't last, though - Ann spends the remainder of the series basically being the standard female lead of 1970s comics...

With the exposition taken care of, Skull goes out and challenges the biggest caveman to a fight, reckoning that'll be the easiest way out of their problems. They're interrupted, though, by a stampeding horde of styracosaurus - strangely described by the narrator as "not dinosaurs". Ann somehow manages to fall down right in their path, so Skull jumps onto the lead styracosaurus and diverts the stampede's direction. Corey is unimpressed by the stunt, but the cavemen seem to think it was pretty cool, and take our heroes to show them something. The full names of our cast are given by the narrator at this belated point, incidentally - Dr Raymond Corey, Ann Farrow (it was Reynolds last issue, but never mind) and Jeff Turner.

The thing the cavemen are showing our heroes, surprisingly enough, turns out to be a man-made chamber, shiny and metallic, with a central chair containing a dead alien! Corey is fascinated by the alien writing on the walls, but Skull is more interested in the nice skull-shaped belt buckle the dead alien is wearing, and decides to take it. He gets past the electrified chair by hooking the belt off the alien with a caveman's spear, and puts the stylish fashion accessory on. The alien crumbles to dust, the cavemen are angry, so the 20th-century humans have to run for it again! Crossing a river they get attacked by a brontosaurus (Corey for the first time explicitly mentioning that it's ridiculous that there are creatures from different eras all coexisting in this world) and Scully once again has to be the action man to save Ann from the thing! He wins, too - the belt has given him super-strength and made him glow!

It's an intriguing issue; although it consists mostly of dinosaur-fighting, it drops hints that future stories could go in any number of other directions...

Skull the Slayer #3
January 1976

Marv Wolfman is still writer and editor for #3, Steve Gan now is credited with pencils and 'Pablo Marcus & Steve Gan' with inks. The artwork is rather more simple this time around; fewer backgrounds and fiddly details. The narrator has gone a lot quieter, too, and the speech bubbles have fewer words, in a larger font. All in all, I get the feeling that this one was a bit of a rush job. Irv Watanabe is the letterer here; 'Michele W.' is still the colourist.

Now reduced to aimlessly wandering around, our four heroes are only kept together by Ann persuading Corey and Skull not to fight each other again. Another stampede of dinosaurs comes at them, and the art really completely fails to convey what's going on. At the end of the previous page they seem to be standing in a huge flat expanse, but then all of a sudden they're, what, dangling over a precipice? Judge for yourselves.

For want of anything better to do, they go to investigate where the stampede was coming from and find a metal pathway, surrounded by skeletons manacled to stakes. Some of them are dressed as pilots and ship captains, some are aliens like the one they found in the cave. Ann has what she admits is the rather ghoulish idea to take the nice-looking clothing some of the corpses are wearing, to replace our heroes' own tattered rags - she, Jeff and Scully do so with nary a qualm, dressing themselves in the stylish outfits you can see on the cover. (Nearly, anyway - Jeff's new outfit doesn't have the gold decoration on the shirt the cover shows him with; it's plain red inside the comic. He does, however, wear a shiny gold headband.)

Corey, who's really no fun at all, refuses to change into a silly outfit like the others, but the subsequent bickering is interrupted when they notice an enormous tower, rising up into the clouds, surrounded by a spiralling walkway. It has more of that alienese writing on it, and Skull says he has "a hunch that if there's any way into this thing, it's probably at the top of the ramp!" - this would seem to involve several miles of walking, so I'm a bit surprised that they don't examine the bottom of the tower in a little bit more detail while they're there, but lets just assume they did that off-panel. The four of them do indeed walk all the way up to the top of the tower (all the way "into the blackness of space", although the more subdued narrator notes that there's still a full supply of artificial-seeming air) and find a door. Inside, they find (and once again, the artist really struggles with his perspective) that the tower is composed of multiple levels with a big central pit - every level is a different time zone, starting with prehistoric at the top and moving down through cavemen, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, knights, and so forth. The 'so forth' is too small to see, but we get the idea.

Then a tyrannosaurus comes along and attacks them - Skull fights it with the aid of his super-strength belt and a little assistance from Jeff, and before long they notice that it's a robot. Skull pulls out the right wire, and it explodes! Meanwhile, Corey wanders off to investigate another door, opens it and screams! The others go to rescue him and find themselves in another level of the tower - ancient Egypt!

That's the end of the issue, and also of Marv Wolfman's time as writer of his creation. The strange lurch into robot dinosaurs and the time tower doesn't really work all that well, I'm afraid - somehow we can empathise with the 20th-century humans better in a primeval world full of monsters than when they're facing minimally-explained strangeness like this. Anyway, the letters page explains that Marv's new job as editor is keeping him too busy, and that Steve Gan is also tied up with drawing Conan the Barbarian. Next issue, we're getting a new writer! A new approach! Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema will, we're promised, be evolving the series in whole new ways!

Skull the Slayer #4
March 1976

"Together again for the fourth time!" trumpets the credits box of #4, referring to writer Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema - I think the previous three were Avengers, Defenders and Captain America, major top-line superhero comics written and drawn by that pairing in the three or four years before this. Englehart is the author, Buscema and Mike Esposito are jointly credited as artists. Irv Watanabe is still the letterer, Don Warfield is the colourist and Marv Wolfman the editor.

We leap straight into the action right away - the only recap we get is Jeff yelling "Skull! This level of the time tower -- it's Ancient Egypt -- and those creeps have Dr. Corey!" on our opening splash page. Skull gets straight to work fighting the Egyptians and shouts for Jeff to help him. Jeff, however, although he mentions that he fought the dinosaur last issue, has now become a coward under the new writer, and frets to Ann that he isn't strong enough. Corey has now become a more enthusiastic fighter, although he carries on bad-mouthing Skull as he does so. Nobody asks Ann to do any fighting, of course. It takes Skull two whole pages to notice that the Egyptians are robots, even though they're clearly made out of plates of grey metal.

The gang are eventually outnumbered and captured, and the robot explains (in English) that they are "the first men ever to pass the perils of prehistory in safety! For that reason alone, my master Slitherouge will wish to see you!"

The master, whose name is spelt "Slitherogue" roughly fifty percent of the time, and I assume that one is correct just because it's slightly less silly, is an alien dressed in pharaoh clothes, sitting on a throne. He, or his throne room, apparently smells really bad. He explains what's going on, in as much detail as we ever find out - basically, it seems that the tower exists for two reasons that he seems to rank equally; to give his robots something to do, and to conquer Earth simultaneously at every period of its history!

The time paradox of this is a bit mind-boggling, really, and if Slitherogue thinks that killing Jeff "thirty centuries before he was born" is any kind of demonstration of how the whole thing works, then I can only assume that he doesn't really know anything about time travel either. Still, the whole merging-his-eyes-into-one-big-central-eye-and-then-firing-a-laser-out-of-it thing he does has to be in everyone's top ten of evil alien powers!

The remaining three heroes are flung into a prison cell overnight. Ann is devastated by Jeff's death, Scully is of course secretly remembering his dead brother but showing no outward signs of distress, Corey is of course denouncing Scully as an unfeeling murderer who doesn't care about anyone else - it's all getting a bit repetitive and one-dimensional by this point. The next morning, they're put to work building the pyramids, guarded by robots but working alongside what seem to be other human slaves. These only show up in the background of a couple of panels, though, they don't otherwise do anything. Scully, though, notices that the robots have a hard time walking through the sand, and don't always pay as much attention to the slaves as you might expect robots to do. Skull knocks one down while its back's turned, and our three heroes run for it.

They get some distance away, but then Ann falls down and screams that she's broken her leg. Scully announces that they have no choice but to leave her behind! He turns and goes, despite Corey's torrent of abuse. He gets all the way to the door "back into the time tower" before deciding that he really should turn back, but by that point Ann and Corey, who stayed to protect her, have been killed by the robots. Scully opens the door and is knocked into it by a thrown rock from one of the approaching robots, falling through the door and a long way down. Then a magical force pulls him through another (closed) door, and suddenly our hero is face to face with Merlin and the Black Knight!

Skull and the Knight have a brief tussle (the Black Knight is an established Marvel character; this might have been intended to be the 20th-century hero during the time he travelled back to Camelot, but it's not mentioned if it is) before Merlin persuades them to sit down and talk. Merlin doesn't have a problem accepting Scully's story; he takes the view that Slitherogue is a demon preparing to attack King Arthur and his friends and suggests that they all team up together. Skull accepts. Elsewhere in Camelot, Morgan le Fey has summoned Slitherogue through time to help her crush her enemies! To be continued!

... but not to be continued by Steve Englehart. The letters page explains that this is to be his one and only issue of Skull the Slayer - "See, DR. STRANGE just went monthly, and... Oh well, who cares about reasons." Kind of a strange way to explain it, if you'll pardon the pun. They admit that at the point of going to press they still don't know who's going to write #5!

This is a weird one - although everything that happens in it is immediately swept under the rug once Englehart's gone, it really looks like the change in direction was meant to stick. Skull's supporting characters are dead, and he's set up for a series in which he presumably bounces around through time, acquiring allies and enemies and all building up to a big confrontation with Slitherogue at the end. Or maybe not? Who knows?

Skull the Slayer #5
May 1976

I don't know why they didn't know who'd end up writing this issue when they put together the previous letters page - at this point in Marvel's history, any time they needed a script at short notice, there was only one person who the editors called: Bill Mantlo. He's the writer of this one, the art is provided by 'Sal Buscema & S. Trinidad' and it's a real family affair for the lesser creators; Bill's wife Karen Mantlo is the letterer and Michele Wolfman is the colourist again. Marv Wolfman is still the editor. Also on the first page, there's an info box above the title for the first time, summarising what the comic is about (and rather spoiling the surprise resurrections to come in a few pages' time):

"JIM SCULLY - five-year Prisoner of War in 'Nam. DR. RAYMOND COREY - frustrated physicist. ANN REYNOLDS - battling to make it on her own in a world that refuses to listen to her. JEFF TURNER - a runaway from the regimentation of life. Four losers lost in the Bermuda Triangle - four losers finding a new beginning in the untouched world of the prehistoric past."

Nice to see that Ann is a Reynolds again, after her brief flirtation with Farrow. But still, readers could be forgiven for flicking to the letters page before they read the comic, just to see what's going on. It's confirmed there that Mantlo is indeed the new permanent writer of Skull's adventures, that he's got a lot of plans for future stories, and that everyone's agreed it would be best "if the strip returned to the original guidelines established by Marv in the first two issues". So it's official - after a whole four issues of this comic, they've admitted that it's gone down a bit of a dead end and needs to go back to its roots. Comics were so much better in those days, weren't they! Nowadays Marvel's policy is to devote the first six issues of any title to a single storyline introducing the characters and setting. Not a single one of these six-issue intros has as much story content as a single issue of a 1970s comic...

Anyway, while Bill Mantlo is understandably keen to get back to the dinosaurs, he has to follow the golden rule of taking over a comic in those days, and play with the toys he's been given, for at least an issue or so. So we start with an army of demons bursting into Merlin's room and fighting our three heroes. After a bit of fighting, Merlin casts a magic spell to push the monsters back through their magic portal, only to suddenly stop moving. Skull realises that Merlin is just a robot, and smashes him to bits. The Knight is surprised by this revelation.

"Elsewhere in the Tower of Time", Slitherogue offers Morgan some new warriors to replace the demons - Ann, Corey and Jeff. He explains that they were just transmuted to energy and can be reformed whenever he wants. He accordingly brings them back to life, and they remember their 'deaths' and abandonment by Scully. Ann's broken leg is now referred to as a twisted ankle; I guess she was just being melodramatic last issue. Anyway, Slitherogue confidently explains that the three of them now want nothing more than to see Skull dead, and so will gladly join Morgan's army.

Back at the castle, the Black Knight is showing Skull around. Everyone else, including King Arthur, is a motionless robot until the Knight turns them back on to fight the horde now attacking them on winged horses - as, he explains, they have all done many times before. Skull is furious, then just confused when he sees that the enemies include his three dead comrades, out for his blood! He gets onto a flying horse of his own, and joins the robots as they go to battle.

While Slitherogue muses that he will make his people pay for abandoning him here on Earth (not the motivation he had last issue, but never mind), Ann, Jeff and Corey have a good try at confronting Skull, who doesn't fight back. The robots finish their battle and go home, including the Black Knight, who reveals himself also to be a robot. Corey has been hit by a stray arrow, and Skull picks him up to take him back through the tower door, vowing to get them out of the tower but insisting that "there's gotta be some changes made around this place!" The implication is that the others have agreed to follow him, but it's not really as clear as it could be.

The bottom of the page promises next time we'll have "a new beginning"; the letters page says they "have high hopes of securing Steve Gan over Sal's breakdowns starting with next issue". This whole thing, presumably written at very short notice, feels half like a fill-in issue just keeping the wheels spinning rather than doing anything, and half like clearing the board. It's probably fair to say that the 'real' Bill Mantlo issues start with #6...

Skull the Slayer #6
July 1976

That terrible inflation of the 1970s starts to bite here - a price rise to 10p! Nowadays you don't get much change from a fiver if you want to buy the latest American comics...

Written by Bill Mantlo, art as promised by Sal Buscema & Steve Gan, Karen Mantlo still lettering, Petra Goldberg this time as colourist and Marv Wolfman the editor. Jeff still has the long straight hair and rugged physique that Sal Buscema gave him, but the art does look a lot more like Gan's from the first two issues, overall. This is where Mantlo gets to branch off in his own direction, and he gets a full-page editorial to explain what he thinks about becoming Skull's new writer! I really like this one, because he's trying to write in the Marvel editorial house style, which he was never good at, but genuinely does sound really enthusiastic about what he's got the chance to do. He's still concerned about getting cancelled for low sales, though...

We start with Skull and his team, away from the time tower and back in the prehistoric world, on the edge of a swamp. They stop for a moment to take stock, and to deal with Corey's wound. Jeff reflects that his father, the senator, made his money selling insecticides, which makes Scully realise "so your old man's that Turner, huh, kid?" - a bit strange, since he already knows Jeff's surname and his dad's profession, and how many US senators called Turner can there be? Still, it's all leading somewhere, and now Scully flashes back to another swamp, training in the Florida Everglades with his arch-enemy Freddy Lancer. Their relationship is not good, to say the least - Lancer slashes Scully with a knife, then gets bitten by a snake and Scully takes his own sweet time helping him. The narrator, finally, is back to his old talky self with this issue (albeit sounding more like the famously wordy Mantlo than the jive-talking Wolfman), and it's like the return of an old friend to the series!

Then we go back to the tower of time for a two-page interlude. The Black Knight is the only one up and about after all the robots have shut down. He goes to find Slitherogue and throws his sword through the alien's chest. "Skull did this!" Slitherogue gasps. "Only he -- an outsider -- could have affected your... programming..." Since Skull didn't really do anything, it's hard to see how he had that kind of effect, but it doesn't matter. Noting that the existence of the time tower is totally dependent on the continued functioning of his own life systems, Slitherogue dies, and the tower blows up. Noticing the explosion from a distance, Jim isn't terribly impressed.

So that's the last we'll see of the tower of time, all those robots and poor old Slitherogue. Now that's how to drop a plotline like a hot potato. So it's time to start out on a few of Mantlo's own, and we travel back to the present day, where Freddy Lancer is fished out of the sea by a 'coast guard cutter', aboard which is none other than Senator Turner!

I'm confused by this page. If they're searching for the lost plane, why are they fifteen hundred miles away from where it vanished? If they're not searching for the plane, why is the Senator on board? Anyway, Lancer fills him in on what happened to the plane, and that he fell out after seeing the dinosaurs and somehow ended up floating around in the present-day ocean. He's quite confident that Scully might still be alive, and vows to get his revenge.

Skull and the gang, meanwhile, have found the tail end of the plane they crashed in - a pterodactyl is helping itself to the remains of the other soldier (remember him from #1?). He's nothing but a skeleton now, which is a bit weird; the action has been pretty much continuous up to this point, so there's surely not been the time for his body to decay naturally. If the idea is that animals have eaten all the flesh from his bones, they've left his clothes surprisingly intact. Anyway, Skull finds a few supplies on board - a gun, which Ann rejects because there's a limited supply of bullets, but Jeff happily accepts, and a medical kit and bottle of booze, which helps to revive Corey. So much so, in fact, that he exchanges a smile and a few friendly words with Skull. There's no doubt about it, our heroes are now a team, just one issue after being all prepared to kill each other!

But we're soon back in action, as the gang are attacked by a canoe full of Incas, and Jeff's attempt at a warning shot killing one of them stone dead really doesn't help matters. With Scully knocked out despite his super-strength belt, Ann gets a share of the action for once, stabbing an Inca who annoys her by clearly considering the semi-conscious Corey a bigger threat than a woman. He falls into the water and the narrator rather undermines the feminist moral by commenting "Good girl, Ann" - in fairness, he does also call Scully a good boy later on - and noting that the bleeding Inca in the water has attracted what Corey tentatively identifies as an icthyosaur, although since he's pretty sure they're supposed to be herbivorous and this thing's eating people, maybe not. Scully leaps back into action for some good old-fashioned dinosaur-fighting, and kills it, glowing and super-strong thanks to his magic belt.

This impresses the Incas so much that they lead our heroes to their city of gold...

This is a great issue - back to basics and a whole lot of fun! Very promising for the future, really, although the future didn't turn out to last very long.

Skull the Slayer #7
September 1976

Written by Bill Mantlo, artists Sal Buscema & S.Trinidad (Sonny Trinidad once again doesn't get his full name in one of these comics...), letterer Karen Mantlo, colourist Petra Goldberg and now the editor is Archie Goodwin. Marv Wolfman has moved away from all that editing and left Skull in other hands, but he'll be back.

We pick up right where we left off, at a genuine city of gold. Corey, who turns out to be surprisingly good with languages for a physicist, thinks the Incas are speaking something distantly related to the language of modern Incas, but that their ancestors probably arrived here in prehistoric land via the Bermuda Triangle thousands of years ago. It turns out that the priests and kings also speak modern English, as a second language used in religious ceremonies, causing that master etymologist Dr Corey to further speculate that an English-speaker ended up among the Incas at some point in the past and was considered a god. There's a lot of scientific speculation and talking in this one!

The Incas' hierarchy is simple enough - there's a king who calls himself Viracocha and wears a gold mask, and a high priest called Villac Umu, who wears a jaguar headdress and is clearly envious of the king's power. Along the way, Scully notes that he acquired his power belt from the dead alien "a few days ago", confirming that not much time has passed for him since #1.

Back in the present day, however, a month has passed for Freddy Lancer and Senator Turner since last we saw them (I love complicated time travel stories!) Lancer seems to have devoted the time to developing a much more exaggerated accent than he's ever had before now - he says 'Ah' instead of 'I', and 'heah' instead of 'here', and so on. It's quite strange. As is the heated exchange between the two of them when they both try to intimidate and bluff each other when they're really both on the same page all along. Lancer has exceeded all expectations and accumulated his own fleet of planes and gun-nut henchmen with the Senator's money, and has resolved to get rid of Skull once and for all! He further explains that he bought his freedom from Vietnam by telling their captors that Scully knew everything, leading to his five years' torture and imprisonment. Lancer is convinced that wherever Scully is now, he will eventually kill Lancer unless Lancer kills him first!

It's almost as if this whole subplot was leading somewhere, but as it turns out, it isn't. We never see Lancer again. Not seen, not mentioned, at all.

I'm sure Bill Mantlo had plans for a whole extensive adventure in which Lancer tracks down Scully in the prehistoric world, but whatever was going to happen, it was derailed and abandoned when Skull the Slayer was abruptly cancelled with #8. I guess we just have to assume that Lancer flew into the Bermuda Triangle, found his way to prehistoric world but could never find Skull because he's arrived a century too late or too early. Or maybe the day after Skull and co escaped in the later Marvel Two-In-One stories! That'd be funny and ironic. Or maybe he and his crew arrived in exactly the right time period but got eaten by a dinosaur. Who knows? Comic readers never will, that's for sure.

Anyway, back with the Incas, the king performs a ritual that abruptly drops the time-travellers into two pits - Skull into one, inhabited by a stegosaurus, and the other three into another with two pterodactlys. The Incas watch with interest to see if the glowing man and his friends really are gods. Jeff's gun has very little effect on the pterodactyls, but Ann gets really fierce with a spear and does some damage. She gets even more excited when she finds a hand grenade, left behind by some soldier who's failed this test in the past! Meanwhile, Scully does a good job of avoiding his dinosaur, then finally gets his unpredictable belt to power him up and make him glow. The high priest takes advantage of the distraction this causes to knock the king into the pit too, hoping to get rid of all his rivals at once, but Skull manages to knock down the wall of the pit, kill the stegosaurus, shield the others from the exploding grenade Ann used to kill the pterodactyl and give everybody a moment to catch their breath.

The high priest is captured, and the king congratulates our heroes on passing the test - just like he himself did, 31 years ago when he arrived here. He's a modern man by the name of Captain Victor Cochran - taking off his mask, he shows them the right-hand side of his face, which looks fine. The other half he keeps hidden under black cloth. To be continued...

There's no sign that the creators knew the comic was going to be cancelled at this point. The letters page even replies to a letter-writer looking forward to #100 with "If all goes well, and you folks keep supporting us... heck, we may even reach issue #200!"

Skull the Slayer #8
November 1976

It's the final issue of Skull the Slayer! But we don't find that out until we get to the end of the story, or maybe the letters page. Bill Mantlo is the writer, Sal Buscema and Sonny Trinidad (now credited by his full name at last!) are the artists, Denise Wohl does the letters, G. Roussos is the colourist (poor George Roussos, who had been working in comics since the early forties, just gets an initial) and A. Goodwin is the editor.

Presumably Mantlo knew the comic was cancelled at this point, judging by the absence of Lancer or any other subplot - the issue just spins the wheels of the Inca storyline without even advancing it very much, which I'm sure can't have been the original plan. On the other hand, there's no attempt to give the story any sense of closure and it ends with a cliffhanger. The letters page admits the comic has been cancelled due to low sales, but sounds hopeful that if loyal readers will not only buy every copy on the newsstands but also continue to write letters to Marvel in large quantities, Skull might just be resurrected.

We open with Cochran showing Skull around the city. The other three are very happy about being treated like gods, but Skull is scowly and unimpressed about the whole thing. He reminds Cochran that none of his adoring worshippers made any effort to pull him out of the pit last issue, and this peace and harmony doesn't seem like it's going to last long. They pull Corey and Jeff away from their worshippers and go to see the amazingly opulent throne room, complete with carvings depicting Cochran falling from the sky - claustrophobic Skull is still not impressed; all enclosed spaces remind him of prisons. This sombre thought is interrupted by Ann, showing off a new costume, and she and Scully happily embrace. They seem to be a couple, all of a sudden, which is a bit weird, albeit a traditional ending to a series like this. So much for the whole feminism thing, I guess.

In the dungeon, the jaguar priest displays his previously unmentioned psychic powers, trying to put his jailer to sleep and then summoning his followers to come and rescue him. They do so, flying a vast horde of pterodactyls, while Cochran tells the heroes his story - basically, he fell into the Bermuda Triangle in 1945 and was hailed as a god by the Incas, but the left half of his face was hideously scarred. He's very bitter about this. But then here come the attackers, and though Scully and the gang fight them off, Cochran gets struck by an arrow and bleeds, proving to the people that he's not a god after all. The priest knocks Skull out with some more previously-unmentioned powers of telekinesis, and things don't look good for our heroes.

And that's where we end.

Well, the letter-writing campaign didn't seem to do any good, because Skull stayed cancelled. Marv Wolfman, though, found himself writing Marvel Two-In-One, the comic in which every month the Thing (of Fantastic Four fame) teamed up with a different guest star from the Marvel Universe. It was a perfect opportunity to catch up once more with Jim Scully and his crew!

Marvel Two-In-One #35
January 1978

Prices have gone up another 20% in the year since we last saw Skull and the gang...

Marv Wolfman is the writer/editor, Ernie Chan the artist, John Costanza the letterer and Michele Wolfman the colourist.

We start with the Thing, on his way back home from a series of rather cringe-inducing stories set in England, stopping off at Cape Canaveral to do a favour for an old air force friend. He's been persuaded to fly a new experimental plane into the Bermuda Triangle, looking for another jet that went missing recently with a cobalt bomb on board - this apparently relates to something that happened in Power Man #45, according to a footnote, but it doesn't really matter. Anyway, naturally enough he ends up flying through a warp into the prehistoric era we know and love.

Nearby, Skull and his team are still in the same predicament we left them in, more or less - they're tied to stone pillars and being menaced by the jaguar priest. He mentions in passing that he's killed Captain Cochran (who doesn't appear in the artwork at all) and will do the same to the others unless Skull gives him the magic belt and tells him how it works. The time-travellers chat among themselves, reminiscing for the benefit of new readers about how they ended up there in the first place, when a really, really big pterodactyl arrives, carrying the Thing's jet plane in its beak.

The Thing emerges - Skull and Jeff recognise him and are delighted when he gets to work clobbering the Incas! He frees the prisoners and they run for it - Skull fights and kills the pterodactyl and everyone has a little chat to establish their personalities, again for the benefit of the many Thing fans who had probably never even heard of Skull until now.

Bizarrely, Corey says he's been stuck with Scully for 'two years'. Really? The eight issues of their comic seem to take place over the course of under a week, and this story seems to pick up immediately afterwards. Unless they escaped the jaguar priest, went away for two years, then got captured again. I suppose that would explain why Jeff and Ann are wearing different clothes now - his shirt is red with black hoops rather than plain red, while she's in a stylish white trouser-suit. But I think we just have to assume the writer's got himself confused with publishing time here. At other points the characters talk as if they've been in the past for 'all this time', but when you're fighting dinosaurs and aliens and things, you could easily describe a few days in those terms, couldn't you?

The gang try to get the Thing's plane up and running, but it's got problems. Jeff suggests getting spare parts from the plane that brought them to the prehistoric world - a journey which of course involves a fight with a tyrannosaurus for Scully and the Thing. For a cliffhanger ending, they all end up in a lake, surrounded by surprisingly hostile-looking brontosauruses.

Marvel Two-In-One #36
February 1978

Of course, the problem with the Marvel Two-In-One format is that each issue had to have a different guest-star. So here comes Mr Fantastic to give his friend a hand! Marv Wolfman is the writer/editor, Ernie Chan is the artist, Joe Rosen is the letterer, Michele Wolfman is the colourist.

Picking up where we left off, Skull makes the intelligent observation that "these brontos may not be meat-eaters -- but I don't think we could survive them learning they don't want us!" The usual kind of adventures ensue, they all fall down a waterfall, Corey and Skull bicker some more, and any readers who missed the last issue are now up to speed with who our characters are and what they do.

The narrator, who in this series has a conventional narrator-voice, explains that the rest of the journey was uneventful (surprisingly enough!), they got the parts they needed and returned to the Thing's plane, getting it up and running without difficulty, and taking off. The plane is equipped with a tracker which they can use to find their way back to the rift and hopefully return to the Thing's time period - but here comes the Jaguar Priest again, with a flock of pterodactyls! And the whole lot of them end back up in 1978 Florida!

Jeff is unaware that Cape Kennedy has been renamed back to Cape Canaveral, which isn't quite right, since that happened in 1973 and Skull's series was 1975, but never mind. The point is that our heroes aren't quite back in the same time as they left, which might have presented an interesting story idea or two if anyone had ever wanted to use these characters again. But they don't have time to think about it, because the priest and his pterodactyls need to be stopped - luckily, Mr Fantastic has come along, looking for the Thing.

He's using his stretching powers to their full extent all through this issue, but the dialogue goes to great lengths to convince the readers that his powers are fading and he's worried about it - that's what was happening to him in the Fantastic Four comic at this point. The Skull characters take a bit of a back seat for the rest of the comic, just needing to be rescued repeatedly by half the Fantastic Four. But everything works out okay in the end, and Skull the Slayer fans get closure at last:

I really love the thought of Reed Richards giving Ka-Zar a call to say "How are you fixed for pterodactyls? We've got a few here that we need re-housing..." Oh, and if you can't live without knowing who the guest star of the next issue was, it turns out to be Daredevil's alter ego Matt Murdock.

That's the last anyone ever sees of Jeff, Ann or Corey. Skull resurfaces in a couple of much later, frankly awful, stories, but nobody cares about those. He's very much a character of 1975, I don't think this is the kind of comic that could possibly work nowadays. I still wonder whatever happened to Freddy Lancer, though...