Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

12 February 2016

Skull the Slayer

Collects: Skull the Slayer #1-8 and Marvel Two-in-One #35-6 (1975-6, 1978)

Released: April 2015 (Marvel)

Format: pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785193975

What is this?: After surviving a plane crash in the Bermuda triangle, a Vietnam vet, a physicist, his assistant, and a wealthy white teenager encounter a weird world with dinosaurs and aliens.

The culprits: Writers Marv Wolfman, Steve Engelhart, and Bill Mantlo and artists Steve Gan, Sal Buscema, and Ernie Chan

In 1975, Marv Wolfman finally persuaded Marvel to publish a series that he’d had simmering in his mind for years, a series with a bold premise: readers would hate every character, but to distract them, the artist would include dinosaurs.

That wasn’t really the premise. Wolfman’s idea has a former soldier leading a group of plane-crash survivors around a mysterious island in the Bermuda Triangle, where they have to deal with dinosaurs, aliens, and all manner of strange mysteries. But the characters’ unlikeability will remain my lasting memory of Skull the Slayer, a mid-’70s Marvel series with more ambition than continuity or ability, long after I forget everything else but the dinosaurs.

Skull the Slayer coverThe unlikeable roll call starts with Vietnam vet Jim “Skull” Scully. He’s had a hard time of it: years spent in a POW camp, where his jailors tortured him for information he didn’t have, followed by a sour homecoming where he found his wife shacked up with another man, his parents dead from their worry about him, and his brother strung out. Almost immediately, his brother attacks Scull with a knife, and in the scuffle, his brother is killed. Scully goes on the run, and his arrest in Bermuda leads to him being on the plane that crashes in the Bermuda Triangle.

All that should build a lot of sympathy for Scully, but as soon as he meets the other survivors of the crash, his arrogance comes to the fore. He’s always scuffling with Dr. Raymond Corey, the physicist, over dominance in the group. He scorns the peacemaking of Ann Reynolds, Corey’s assistant, and Jeff Turner, the son of a wealthy Ohio senator. He won’t compromise; all his dialogue is bluster, convinced the entire world, down its smallest molecule, is against him. This is the Marvel template: a hero with ability (Scully kills a dinosaur in #1) but brashness that drives everyone away. In the Marvel style, the hero eventually comes to an understanding with (most of) his supporting cast, toning down his rough edges, but before that happens, he abandons Corey, Reynolds, and Turner to their deaths in #4.

Since Scully is the protagonist, the other characters are supposed to irritate Scully and the readers, by extension. The supporting cast mainly gets broad-stroke characterization, and the writers aren’t afraid to lean on stereotypes when they have to. Corey is highly educated and scorns Scully as a murderer; he’s also African-American, and he admits his frustration with racism that has held him back. Corey’s bitterness drips from every word of dialogue, but he lacks any empathy or vulnerability. Sexism has held back Ann Reynolds, but she often assumes female stereotypes — an obsession for clothes, an injury while running that prevents the others from escaping, etc. Turner is a load with a bad haircut.

Wolfman left the series after #3, so it’s possible he could have planned to soften the characters some. Steve Engelhart, however, took over for #4, and he torpedoed any chance Scully had for likeability by having him abandon his comrades during an escape attempt. This was part of a plan to dump Scully’s supporting cast for a more in-depth investigation of the world Scully found himself in, but #4 was Engelhart’s only issue. Bill Mantlo, who guided the series to its limping end, wrenched the series back in the direction Wolfman had aimed it in by resurrecting and reinstating the supporting cast the next issue. Oops!

Knowing someone abandoned you in the hour of your direst need, and that you actually died because of what they did, would put a crimp in any relationship. Reynolds, Corey, and Turner forgive Scully unimaginably quickly, although they do spend #5 trying to kill him.

Given the characters’ lack of charisma, Skull needed intriguing plots and / or great art to succeed. Skull had a very strong similarity to the TV series Lost: in each, the survivors of a mysterious plane crash find themselves on a weird island with little chance of rescue. (I would pay cash money for a sequel to Skull, with Scully tearfully crying, “We have to go back to the island!”) After the plane crash, the mysteries Skull and his crew uncover on the island include:
  • Dinosaurs (#1)?
  • Why are there prehistoric men (#2)? They didn’t exist at the same time as dinosaurs.
  • Where did that dead alien come from (#2)?
  • And why did he have a magic power belt (#2)?
  • Why were all those human and alien pilots (now skeletons) tied to stakes in one place (#3)?
  • What’s the deal with the tower that has different time periods on each level (#3), all populated with robots?

Those are Wolfman’s plots, with Marv piling weird stuff into the pages without seeming to have an idea of how to resolve them or what the survivors should be doing, other than not being eaten by dinosaurs. Perhaps three issues is too little time to be seeing movement in those areas, although the lack of a plan shows why Scully should not have been the group’s leader.

Engelhart wraps up the last plot in that list — aliens built the tower as part of a plot to conquer Earth at all time periods simultaneously — but then Mantlo ends that plot in #6 with the destruction of the tower. It’s unclear whether the aliens are responsible for the non-tower weirdness on the island — why do aliens care about dinosaurs? — but Mantlo moves on to a faux-Aztec society, another pilot from our world, and societal civil war. Wolfman returns to wrap up everything in two issues of Marvel Two-in-One, but it’s clear he’s sweeping up the pieces in case another writer sees something he likes. Most of those pieces ended up in the trash, though. Wolfman didn’t even bother to salvage (or mention) the pilot from our world that Mantlo introduced.

For readers who like drawings of dinosaurs, though, Skull might be something to investigate. (Evidently not enough of those existed in the mid-’70s.) Steve Gan gets the bulk of the dinosaur duty, drawing #1-3 and #6. His dinosaurs are massive, powerful creatures. Sal Buscema’s arc (#4-8) concentrates on different eras of human history; his work is harmed by the bright colors, but his design for the alien Slitherogue is satisfyingly sinister. (Sure, Slitherogue looks like he’s a Yellow Peril villain, but he’s purple, and from outer space, so it’s OK, right?) Buscema’s less-detailed style suffers compared to Gan’s work; Gan’s linework, especially with its emphasis on the hair and sinew of the figures he draws, is more in keeping with the dirty, more animalistic world the book inhabits. Gan’s Scully is a more vicious, feral man than Buscema’s version, giving the impression that Scully might be a man who fits the island better than he does modern society. Ernie Chan draws the MTiO issues like they are, well, MTiO issues, and the more superheroic look is jarring. The rushed plot does Chan no favors, though.

The series is a brief flash of muddled creativity that never clicks. Readers can probably find bits and pieces that entertain them or that they’d love to see repurposed in something more coherent, and the series’ failure shows how difficult it must have been to keep the mélange of character and mystery plotlines going for so long on Lost. Skull the Slayer is an artifact of the fecund ‘70s, but like a lot of the high-concept ideas that came out of that time, its execution means it isn’t worth reading.

Rating: Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (1.5 of 5)

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Blogger Kris Shaw said...

I have this somewhere in my backlog. I hope to read it someday.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Raoul said...

As much as I didn't like the story, I can't deny it has some interesting bits. (The part with the pilots staked in rows to die was kinda chilling.) Hope you enjoy it more than I did!

3:42 AM  

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