Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #17

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
by Professor Tom Flynn

John Bolton

Confession: I probably should have called this post The Bizarre John Bolton, but, after all, I was the chair of Marvel University’s Hyborian Department. So, by Crom, when you side with a man, you stay with him.

Bizarre Adventures 26: Kull the Barbarian
May 1981
Cover Art by John Bolton

“Of Bolton and Barbarians”
Text by Ralph Macchio

“Demon in a Slivered Glass”
Script by Doug Moench
Art by John Bolton

If you didn’t live in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the 1980s, you were probably unaware of John Bolton. The supremely talented artist — who went to the same technical college as Barry Windsor-Smith, a very good sign — was mainly employed by such English magazines as The House of Hammer and Look-In. But lucky for us across the pond, some of John’s work was included in a 1981 issue of The Comics Journal. Former letter hack and current Bizarre Adventures editor Ralph Macchio saw the illustrations and absolutely flipped out: he contacted the Journal’s publisher, Gary “Jim Shooter Must Die” Groth, and managed to wrangle Bolton’s phone number. The Englishman jumped at the chance to work for Marvel, showing a particular interest in doing a Robert E. Howard character. So Macchio teamed him with Doug Moench — who, coincidentally, had already started a correspondence with Bolton — and turned them both loose on a story about King Kull. 

Moench, a prolific Marvel magazine veteran, came up with the 55-page “Demon in a Slivered Glass.” Now here will be my only gripe about Bizarre Adventures #26. While reading the magazine, the story seemed awfully familiar. Since it’s not mentioned anywhere, it took me a few pages to realize that Doug’s tale is an adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune,” first published in Weird Tales during 1929. What’s worse, Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog had already offered their own take with an 11-page Kull backup in The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #34 (October 1978), a short I couldn’t have been more impressed with. Now obviously, Moench’s much longer version is more grandiose and complete, but at least Roy and Mike were upfront that theirs wasn’t an original.

“Demon in a Slivered Glass” starts off as all of these extended Kull stories do: the king fidgeting on the topaz throne of Valusia as Tu, his chief advisor, drones on about the state of the Thurian nation. Just as Tu is about to relay the most important part of his update, the bored barbarian storms off to his bedchamber. On the balcony of his refuge, the grumpy Atlantean spies a lithe and lovely woman dancing in the moonlight below. He calls out for her and she clambers up the vines to his side. Elsewhere in the City of Wonders, two young lovers embrace in an ancient cemetery — suddenly, they are threatening by a shambling, dark figure. Back at the palace, Kull’s amorous encounter is defused as he catches his reflection in a large mirror: he becomes disgusted, convinced that he is merely a brute posing as a king. After chasing the willing woman away, the monarch smashes the glass in anger, causing his loyal friend and second-in-command Brule the Spear-Slayer to rush into the room. Tu joins them, finally getting the chance to finish his report: it seems that there are restless spirits roaming the graveyard near the royal crypts.

The king and Brule ride off to the cemetery and are shocked to see the rotting corpse of King Borna — the ruler that Kull killed to gain the crown of Valusia — emerging from the crypt. The Pict runs the undead creature through with his spear but it merely plucks out the shaft and swats him away. Kull rushes forward but his slashing sword also has no effect. But the barbarian manages to topple a tall tomb monument, crushing the reanimated Borna to rotten pulp. Later, the Red Slayers, Valusia’s elite guard, comb the crypts, discovering that every last royal sarcophagus is empty. Tu concludes that sorcery is to blame, adding that the only remaining wizard in the city is Sekhmet Tharn, but he has been entirely free of ambition since arriving years ago. Kull mounts his horse and gallops off to Tharn’s strange mansion, perched over the city’s harbor. Sekhmet welcomes the king warmly and, over goblets of potent wine, they discuss the nature of man and the dangers of self-deception. To the king’s surprise, the beautiful woman from the night before strides into the room: she is Jeesala, the sorcerer’s daughter. The temptress disrobes and they embrace, making love on the cold floor as Sekhmet watches approvingly.

Later, Kull jerks awake alone and quickly dresses. He soon comes across the sorcerer and is shown strange visions in an ornate mirror: dinosaurs, mammoths and early men. Then, the mirror clears and displays the barbarian’s image — it slowly transforms into a hulking, beast-like version of the king. Jeesala joins them and her father offers her to the confused monarch. Over the coming days, Kull proudly parades his mysterious new mistress before Valusia’s grumbling citizens, and begins to demand crippling taxes, dealing painful punishments to those that protest. The Red Slayers take notice of the king’s nasty change of attitude and begin a drunken reign of terror, looting and raping. One night, Brule confronts his friend about his uncharacteristic behavior: the loyal Pict is beaten for his insolence. In short time, the abused people of Valusia rebel and march on the palace, hurling flaming torches into the king’s chambers. Sekhmet Tharn gloats in his mansion — the image of Kull frozen in his mirror has changed into the angry man-brute shown earlier. 

The king, oblivious to his newfound greed and hatred, stands before the wall mirror Jeesala recently installed in his chambers, one that matches her father’s: his animalistic form snarls back at him. The beast reaches out and begins to drag him inside — luckily, Brule arrives and shatters the glass, freeing his king. Awakened from his curse, Kull accuses Jeesala of treachery. She reveals herself to be one of the ancient Serpent People, her head turning into that of a venomous viper. She taunts the two warriors, boasting that her father belongs to the same dreaded race and is behind the disappearance of the royal corpses: he has reanimated the dead kings and they are now sailing on Valusia. Kull grabs Brule’s spear and runs it through her black heart, killing the demoness. He then strides to the balcony and confronts the angry mob surrounding the castle, vowing that he is free from the spell that had infected him. Kull leaps down with Brule and they mount horses, riding to the nearest tavern to rally the Red Slayers. Realizing that their true king has returned, the men cheer and follow their leader to the harbor — the former rebels soon join them. 

The undead army pours off their long ships and a raging battle breaks out. While the ghastly attackers are impossible to kill, the Valusians furiously hack away at their arms and legs, finally rendering them all immobile. But Sekhmet Tharn is not done with his plot to overthrow Kull: he summons a tremendous kraken that begins to thrash the pier. The minstrel Ridondo is grasped by one of the monstrosity’s tentacles — before he is crushed, the king splices through the slimy appendage and the singer is freed. The barbarian realizes that the kraken is too powerful and rushes off to slay its master, the sorcerer Tharn. At the wizard’s mansion, he encounters his bestial self, freed from Sekhmet’s mirror. The ape-like terror’s baser instincts prove more than a match for Kull and he is nearly overcome. But the king summons his tiger totem and his ferocious strength is renewed: he cleaves his deformed mirror image with his axe and it falls dead to the waters below. Turning, he flings the weapon at Tharn — it not only decapitates the serpent sorcerer, it smashes his evil mirror. Instantaneously, the sea becomes a razor-sharp tumult of shattered glass and the kraken is sliced to pieces. The Valusian citizens — who had witnessed Kull’s fight with his twisted double — hail the royal barbarian with chants of “Long Live the King!”

Again, the positioning that “Demon in a Slivered Glass” is an original story is a bit galling but Doug Moench comports himself quite well — and this is coming from someone who usually dreads his black-and-white output. Doug’s wordy, often pretentious style actually works in this instance and he captures the cadence of Robert E. Howard’s rich dialogue. We do have a few pages recapping Kull’s “origin.” Just like the oft-repeated opening scene of the character throwing a hissy fit on the throne, how the barbarian became king has been recounted numerous times in both his color and magazine titles. Enough, we get it — and the tale is not very earth shattering anyway. But obviously, the star of the show is the brilliant John Bolton. I’ve seen Bolton compared to Neal Adams and Bernie Wrightson, but I’m not sure about that. John is a much more classically inclined artist and he somehow seems to paint with his pencil and inks. His nearly photorealistic style is simply gorgeous and he has a masterful grasp of action, perhaps shown best in the sword-and-sorcery genre. But heck, you don’t need me to tell you how great Bolton is: just look at all the pretty pictures included in this post. I looked high and low for the two-page spread that reveals the kraken but, disappointedly, I couldn’t find the entire image on the interwebs. A shame. It’s simply spectacular. Plus, while letterers are rarely credited in Marvel’s black-and-white magazines, it’s easy to spot that the great Tom Orzechowski is part of the creative team as well. 

Sadly, Bolton didn’t produce a major body of work for The House of Ideas. With Chris Claremont, he co-created Marada the She-Wolf in Epic Illustrated #10 (February 1982). That story was originally written for Red Sonja, but legal issues around the then-in-production Brigitte Nielsen movie scuttled that plan. He also worked with Claremont on the backup stories in the reprint title, Classic X-Men. Beyond that, there’s not much. But, lucky for this Post Graduate series, his marvelous art does grace another issue of Bizarre Adventures

Bizarre Adventures 32: Gods
August 1982
Cover Art by Joe Jusko

“Sea of Destiny”
Script by Alan Zelenetz
Art by John Bolton

Rowdy Asgardians are enjoying drunken revelry in the throne room of Odin — but one deity is conspicuously absent: Thor. For this date marks the anniversary of a painful chapter in the thunder god’s life and he is paying penance at the Twilight Well …

Years earlier, during another rollicking celebration, Thor hears the prayer of a Norseman named Runolf, the only survivor of Earl Harald Bloodax’s fearsome raiding party. Bloodax’s men were double-crossed and Runolf finds himself alone on their long ship, buffeted by a raging storm. The warrior pleads for the god’s help to survive the deadly waves so that he can avenge his master.  Thor excuses himself to answer the call, but Odin urges him to stay: the fates have already spoken and the man is doomed to die. But the proud and strong-headed son ignores his father’s sage advice and takes the Rainbow Bridge to Midgard.

He alights on the mast of Runolf’s battered boat and commands the elemental forces to cease their heavenly warfare: the skies clear and the ocean calms. But suddenly, a huge sea stallion rears its equine head from the now placid waters. Thor hurls Mjolnir, but the beast shrugs off the thunderous impact. He then launches himself forward to press the attack but soon becomes entwined by the horrifying horse’s massive tail fin and is dragged below the surface. Painfully constricted and losing his breath, the thunder god strikes with one last desperate bolt of lightning: it cracks the stallion in the head and kills the creature immediately. It crashes below the waves and sinks down the dark depths. The mighty one flies to the surface and is shocked to see that Runolf’s ship was swamped when the monster fell — the man floats dead amidst the wreckage. Humbled, he returns to Asgard. Odin admonishes his disobedient son, proclaiming that each year on this day, Thor must journey to the Twilight Wells and relive the event. 

Brief but beguiling, this 14-pager is my first MU encounter with Alan Zelenetz — looks like he came on the scene in the early 80s. He has a strong Hyborian resume, writing a lengthy run of Conan the King, a few issues of Savage Sword and was the main man behind The Official Handbook of the Conan Universe. He also has credits on Moon Knight, the Epic Comics series Alien Legion and other books. His script for “Sea of Destiny” is pretty awesome, full of the pompous, high falutin’ speech you’d except from a bunch of godly Asgardians. The ending is quite somber, though you’d have to figure that Thor would get his comeuppance after ignoring Odin’s advice. At least he wasn’t banished from Asgard for the umpteenth time. Once again, Bolton dazzles the eyes. The sea stallion looks fantastic. The panel where it looks down upon the drowning thunder god from the surface is a high point in the history of comic book art. Too bad he didn’t do the cover as well. But you are always in good hands with Joe Jusko. John’s art for both Kull and Thor is probably the pinnacle for both characters — well, I know it is for barbarian at least. 

The rest of Bizarre Adventures #32 offers nothing else of note. The majority of the stories are comedic — groan — and feature such staffers as Larry Hama, Tom DeFalco, Steve Smallwood, Val Mayerik and Al Milgrom. I actually winced when I spotted the name Greg LaRocque on the Table of Contents page. His name is misspelled as LaRoque, about what he deserves. Ask Professor Joe how I feel about that stiff. What the heck, let’s throw in one more page of Bolton brilliance to tie a ribbon on this Post Graduate.

In Two Weeks!
The Mystery of the Mexican Conan
by Professor Gilbert Colon


  1. A very nice report, Prof. Flynn. Now that you mention it, I also wonder that Howard's story didn't got a credit. Never thought about it, but Moench's tale is indeed plotted after "The Mirrors", even details are the same.

    The art is great. I like b/w here more than Bolton's other Kull tale in colour, "The Blood of Kings", the one with the Werewolves. Bizarre Adventures is also larger in format, which suits the art. This is an ageless comic.

  2. Nice Wild Bunch homage (my favorite line)! Wasn’t too impressed with what little I’ve seen of Bolton’s work on those Classic X-Men back-up stories, but that’s probably not enough to be a fair sampling. Interesting, albeit sad, about the uncredited “remake” of “Tuzun Thune.” Marvel touted so many of its REH adaptations so highly (and obviously had no aversion to adapting some of them multiple times) that you’d think they’d be eager to give this one the cachet of a literary origin. Wonder if it was simply an accidental omission. The panel grab adjacent to the paragraph beginning, “The undead army pours…” looks awfully familiar; could it have been used in house ads? Orz!