By Alan Zelenetz & Tony DeZuniga, with Tom Vincent & Michael Heisler (Marvel)
Following on from the creation of the comicbook Sword and Sorcery genre in the early 1970s with their magnificent adaptation of pulp superstar Conan the Barbarian, Marvel naturally looked for more of the same, and found it in Robert Ervin Howard’s prototypical wild warrior hero King Kull whose first adventure The Shadow Kingdom was published in the fantasy pulp Weird Tales in August 1929. Two more tales followed before Howard abandoned the character, but nine others and a poem ‘The King and the Oak’ were published posthumously, long after the troubled author had committed suicide.
The S&S genre had undergone a global prose revival through the paperback marketplace since the release of soft-cover editions of Lord of the Rings (first published in 1954), and by the 1960s the resurgence of two-fisted fantasies by such pioneer writers as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline and Fritz Lieber, whilst many modern writers such as Michael Moorcock and Lin Carter kick-started their careers with contemporary interpretations of man, monster and mage. Without doubt though, nobody did it better than the tragic Texan whose other red-handed stalwart included, Bran Mac Morn, Solomon Kane and El Borak as well tough guys in a variety of other genres such as Steve Costigan, Dark Agnes and Red Sonya of Rogatino.
Marvel Comics tested the waters in early 1970 with a little tale called ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ (in horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4) whose hero Starr the Slayer bore no small resemblance to Conan. It was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by young Englishman Barry Smith, a recent Marvel find, and one who was just breaking out of the company’s Kirby house-style.
Thomas was a huge fan of the prose genre and took great pains to adapt novels and short stories to the graphic medium, even transferring other Howard tales into the canon by replacing his admittedly formulaic leading men with the surly Cimmerian (as Howard himself had done rewriting his unused Kull tale ‘By This Axe, I Rule’ into Conan novella ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’).
Marvel found solid ancillary supporting features with Solomon Kane, Bran Mac Morn and, most successfully King Kull: a wandering Atlantean mercenary who took the throne of a mighty kingdom by force of arms only to spend the rest of his life battling supernatural threats to it and guarding his own back from greedy, ambitious courtiers.
His comics publishing history was as chequered as his prose one; debuting in spectacular manner in Kull the Conqueror (29 issues from 1971-1978 with artistic contributions from Ross Andru, Wally Wood, John and Marie Severin and Mike Ploog among others), a black and white mature magazine Kull and the Barbarians (3 issues, 1975) and a revived, revised, comicbook version from 1982-1985. He even stared with Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up #112
This sleek and glossy, lavishly oversized gem (285mm x 220mm rather than today’s standard 258 x 168mm) comes from 1989: an eerie, lyrical and poetic tale as the aging King battles his greatest foe and defeats her in characteristically barbaric and unflinching manner…
Kull is dying, sweating and straining on his deathbed as infected wounds seem set to carry him into the great beyond. Gathered for the deathwatch are his most trusted advisors and as they individually reminisce about the gore-spattered gladiator who became Valusia’s greatest monarch, we share their recollections to discover the kind of man he was.
Oblivious, unaware, Kull’s body thrashes and writhes. He struggles on, his soul trapped in an ethereal realm, dancing an erotic duet with the darkly seductive angel of death who has come to take him to the gods…
This eldritch crossing of the final Rubicon is beautifully illustrated in the grand, ostentatiously humanesque manner of the Filipino artists who became such a mainstay of DC and Marvel during the 1970s and early 1980s. Tony DeZuniga was one of the first to break into American comics and his work is always of the highest quality, especially here, enhanced by the glowing, lush hues of colorist Tom Vincent.
Once upon a time Marvel led the publishing pack in high quality original graphic novels: mixing creator-owned properties, licensed assets like Kull and movie adaptations with Marvel Universe tales and even new series launches in extravagant squarebound packages based on the European album model. To me it seems these slim tomes always shine with some intangible extra oomph – perhaps it’s simply the bigger pages with more art on them?
Still readily available, this is a magnificent moody yarn that will delight any fan of the genre and should easily convert a few die-hards too.
© 1989 Conan Properties Inc All Rights Reserved.