Sunday, November 6, 2016

Weird Marvel Tales Volume Five

by Gilbert Colon

Before spanning three issues (October 1978-April 1979) of Savage Sword of Conan (#34, #37, and #39, published this past Wednesday), this Robert E. Howard short story, “The Moon of Skulls,” was originally published in two parts, the first in the June 1930 issue of Weird Tales and the second in July 1930.  

Back in 16th century England, the Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane “learns that a young girl named Marylin has been sold into slavery to a Barbary freebooter named El Gar,” and so “[b]egins [Kane’s] long search for her” all the way to “the grim hills of” Africa’s West Coast and “a dying colony of fallen Atlantis” ruled by “the Terrible One, the Mistress of Doom, the Red Woman, Nakari…who rules the land of Negari!”  

Kane furtively infiltrates “the devil city of Negari” whence this “demon queen” reigns and finds captive “English heiress” Marylin Taferal, now “slave to Queen Nakari.”  She admits to being “misuse[d]” and, ashamed, sounds resigned to her fate.  Kane kindly consoles her by gently explaining that “a providence has watched over you, child…the power that doth care for weak women and helpless children.”  

Moments later, “the demon city’s bloody queen” Nakari – no weak woman she – “returns to her slave,” and when Kane confronts her, he is defeated by her trapdoor.  “Africa’s greatest queen..offer[s]” the subdued Kane “love and…empire--,” because “Negari is fading, her might…crumbling.”  She desires “a strong king beside her [who] who might restore all her vanishing glory.”  Kane is temporarily tempted as he sees the vision of them “creat[ing] one mighty army…sweeping forth upon the world” and contemplates “Europe torn by civil and religious strife, divided against herself, betrayed by her rulers.”  Wondering if by this newfound might he could unify and end the violence ripping apart his own continent, he ponders in his soul, “What man’s heart has not yearned for power and conquest?”  Then thinking of Marylin and coming to his senses, the Puritan cries “Avaunt!,” rejecting Nakari as “Lilith!” and “daughter of Satan!”  

Kane escapes and deep in a dungeon he meets “a son of Atlantis and a priest of forgotten Golgor” who recounts the hitherto unknown history of the Atlantean empire and how Nakari means to make a virgin sacrifice of Marylin.  He speaks of “the SKULL OF NAKURA!” and how the people’s superstitious “brains hinge on” that accursed relic of their “last great wizard,” Nakura.  Though vile himself, to Kane alone he “reveals the secret route by which to reach the Tower of Death,” yet not to “save the child!” or out of “love [of] mankind,” but for “hate-- for hate I will tell you what you wish to know!”  

At this “time of the full moon” – “the Moon of Skulls” – Kane races to “the Tower of Death” and its barbarous scene of “savage dancers sway[ing] and writh[ing]the converging lines of yelling swaying worshippers!” and their “drone of…chant ris[ing] to wilder heights.”  Marylin is tied to “the Black Altar!”  Kane, hopelessly outnumbered by a vast and frenzied heathen horde, takes aim with his one pistol, but not at “the masked priest” about to plunge his “glimmering blade” into her soft innocent flesh, “--but at the SKULL IN THE TOWER.”  The bullet shatters the hell-skull “into a thousand pieces” and “slay[s] the false priest who lurks behind the skull, and…”  

Then ALL HELL breaks loose!”  

The crashing “Twilight of the Idols” finale manages to out-DeMille DeMille’s Dagon-toppling climax in Samson and Delilah, and David Wenzel’s art does not disappoint as suitably savage spectacle.  The last, lost outpost of an antediluvian Atlantean empire, one that survived the Cataclysm after “the oceans drank Atlantis,” could not survive Kane…

The “EPILOGUE:” supplies the calm after the storm.  Kane pleads humility to a grateful Marylin: “Alone I am weak.  Yet oftentimes God hath made me a great vessel of wrath and deliverance.”  Marylin doubts they will ever make it through the jungle and back to England, but resolute Kane is quick to reassure: “We have just seen the passing of an evil race and the fall of a foul empire.  Yet we escaped unscathed.  Therein is more than the hand of man!  Nay, a Power -- the mightiest Power!  That which guided me across the world, straight to that demon city-- to you--and to Negari’s inevitable destruction.”  

[F]or the first time, Marylin smiles,” and they are off to “old Devon.”  FINIS.  

Two issues after part one ran in #34, Roy Thomas personally runs this apologia in issue #36 – “We had planned, after a one-issue hiatus, to present this month the second of the three parts of…‘The Moon of Skulls.’  Unfortunately, space limitations have precluded our printing this second part for another issue or two.  But bear with us, Kane-lovers; we’ll squeeze the story in at the earliest possible opportunity.”  Parts two and three returned in issues #37 and #39, with editorial admitting in #37 that “we had to chop Part Two in twain,” because with space so tight, readers would have had to “wait another several months for a twelve-page hole in SAVAGE SWORD!”  

The stinging disappointment, however, is not the wait between the parts.  At three parts (four if you count issue 39’sPART THREEand “CHAPTER 4” [sic]), one half-expected an epic treatment of an epic 70+-page short story in which Kane travels from England to the Dark Continent and singlehandedly brings down an entire kingdom of ancient evil.  Scripter Don Glut does admirable duty in adapting faithfully, but parceling out the yarn at a wildly uneven pace – part one is 13 pages, part two 7 pages, and the third part 20 pages – diminishes and detracts from the sheer scale of Howard’s packed storytelling.  Marvel (in issue #37) contritely “plead guilty to poor planning.  

The second part wastes seven or eight panels on recap, equaling almost a full page, and that after one full page of backstory (on page 52, excerpted from the oft-used Fred Blosser chronology)!  If Savage Sword of Conan was truly pressed for space, they could have dispensed with this lengthy reprise, especially since part two only came to a mere 7 pages.  This is, after all, a significant episode in the career of Kane who relates it in the REH poem “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” (adapted in Savage Sword of Conan #20).  After having this story spread thin for over half-a-year, readers were able to find a consolation prize in issue #39’s “Portfolio of Robert E. Howard by Rudy Nebres,” dubbed by the contents page as “[a] spine-tingling sextet of REH’s greatest heroes” that included one full-page action pose shot of the Puritan avenger against the backdrop of some looming seductress’ face.  

As in many Howard tales, there is buried an extended digression from the mouth of a prisoner in the dungeon, “the last Atlantean high priest,” who narrates the history of eons-old Atlantis and its priest caste, Nakari, and, most importantly, “Nakura -- the skull of evil” inside which “the people believe…his brain still lives…and guides the star of the city.”  The parenthetical prose is not unlike Yag-kosha’s in “Tower of the Elephant” in which we learn of the primordial days of Conan’s Hyborian world.  The high priest’s monologue captures the mythos-making this genre is known for, a miniature “Hyborian Age” essay enfolded into an adventure narrative.  

The prisoner, victim of “the brutal torture-lust of Nakari,” calls himself “priest of forgotten Golgor,” Golgor being one of the blood-thirsting gods of ancient Atlantis along with “Valka and Hotah, Honen…”  This hellish heathen pantheon is subtly invoked in the Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle #3 adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar when the African Queen and High Priestess La is ready to bury her “sacrificial knife” into her human offering – La chants “KLO YARADA VALKA!,” a incantation not found in the pages of ERB.  Adapter Roy Thomas, in that issue, must have been keenly aware that Howard’s Nakari bears significant similarities to Burroughs’ La, a topic explored at great length in Marvel University’s Sunday Special “SHE-FIENDS of the DARK CONTINENT in the Works of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard: A Monograph.”  Even Kurtz in Apocalypse Now might fear to tread into this African heart of darkness – pipe in the voice of Frederic Forrest’s Chef: “It’s f--kin’ pagan idolatry!”  

A letter-writer in issue #37 begged, “Try to get ‘Hills of the Dead’ into SAVAGE SWORD soon!,” and editorial replies, “Coming up in the next year or so, Mike – but wait’ll we finish ‘Moon of Skulls’ first, huh?  We’re having enough trouble with that one!,” all of which is cause for confusion.  “Hills of the Dead” ran in Kull and the Barbarians #2 and #3 (July and September 1975).  What gives?  Did Savage Sword intend to adapt their own “Hills” in later issues?  Professor Flynn’s theory is they simply forgot all about Kull and the Barbarians.  

Troubled though its production was, this Glut-Wenzel “Moon of Skulls” succeeds in leaving one letter-writer in issue #38 yearning for Marvel to “bring back your KULL AND THE BARBARIANS magazine and give a regular spot to Solomon Kane.”  While that never transpired, everybody’s favorite Puritan wanderer did return after “Moon of Skulls” nine more times in the pages of Savage Sword of Conan, a meager allowance considering that the magazine ran for another 196 issues.  

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