There’s A Reputation To Be Made: Jeff, Skull The Slayer, and an Epilogue (Part 3?)

September 19, 2015

Original Skull1

Hey!  Remember that Hawkeye series where we saw what Clint Barton was up to when he wasn’t an Avenger? You know, the series that was more of a crime series with laughs but also a melancholic core?  No, I’m not talking about the acclaimed (though not especially punctual) series from Matt Fraction and David Aja and others, I’m referring to the eight issue series from 2003 by Fabian Nicieza and Stefano Raffaele (and others).

The last few weeks, I’ve discussed the short-lived run of Skull The Slayer, a Marvel series from 1975 in which a Vietnam Vet is plunged into a dinousaur ridden, alien-bespangled Bermuda Triangle and learns that the secret to success is how you dress.  (I also covered the two issue wrap-up to the story in Marvel Two-In-One.)

In the course of finding out whatever happened to good ol’ Skull after his story concluded in MTIO, I ended up reading the first six issues of the Nicieza series and—well, I talk about it after the jump in its proper chronological order but…it’s pretty good!  As long as you accept that Nicieza, no matter how witty he can be, is no Fraction and Raffaele, no matter how Euro- his work looks, is no Aja, and that it’s a crime book that’s more influenced by Carl Hiaasen than The Rockford Files, you might dig it.

As I said, I talk about it after the jump as I wrap things up for Scully and me in this third and final installment about Skull The Slayer.

In a comment to the last Skull post, LAndrew asked me if I was going to cover “the whole Blazing Skull thing,” by which he mean the post-series career of the character (I hope!).  My first reaction was to poo-poo that idea since I didn’t have any of those other issues…until I realized I could in fact take the list of the character’s later appearances as charted on the excellent Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe, run it against Marvel Unlimited and Comixology and see what came up.  (If I was a torrent guy, I could undoubtedly scoop up all those issues in fifteen minutes, but I’m not.)

Anyway, yeah.  Marvel Unlimited has really significant potential as a research tool as it turns out?  I mean, Skull The Slayer isn’t listed at all in the “Browse by Character” option in MU, and all of the issues covered in my last two installments are not currently available on the app…but, except for three issues of Quasar, all of Skull’s post-series appearances are.  So lemme run ’em down real quickly and talk about my conclusions at the end.

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First up is Captain America #420 from 1993, approximately fifteen years after Scully last appeared.  Here, writer Mark Gruenwald and artist Rik Levins bring back Scully back as the new incarnation of the Blazing Skull, a hero who first appeared back in 1941 in Mystic Comics (not on Marvel Unlimited, although…well, don’t get me started but let’s just say if you’re a fan of David Lapham and very old Golden Age comics you should search on it).  After an unsuccessful raid on the Red Skull’s secret lair, Cap is so desperate to track down the villain that he’ll follow up any lead…including, basically, the one where Nick Fury says, “oh, hey, there’s a guy with a skull beating people up in Los Angeles, maybe he’ll know something since all those skull-headed guys get together every Sunday for coffee and check in on each other?”

The Mark Gruenwald run on Captain America was, as you probably know, a very long one (ten years!) and I missed almost absolutely all of it.  So it’s been one of those GIT treats I’ve been saving and promising myself I’d get to.  But, based on Cap #420, I have to admit I’m now reconsidering that promise.  To be fair, I’m also trying to pay attention to the context of this issue: the art is heavily influenced by Liefeld, and Gruenwald had been writing the title for eight years, which may be why it reads a lot like an issue of Marvel Team-Up as it features Cap and Scully fighting for not an especially good reason, and only stop because genuine bad guys come around to beat them both up.  (Oh, bad guys, why didn’t you wait until one of the heroes had beat up the other, and then tried to dispatch the exhausted dude who was left?)  The bad guys, by the way, are members of The Night Shift, a group run by The Shroud, another semi-obscure character from the ’70s.  (In fact, Englehart created the Shroud for Super-Villain Team-Up, the very next Marvel scripting job after his disastrous single issue turn on Skull The Slayer.)

In theory, this is all stuff I should love…or at the very least appreciate, but between this, Gruenwald’s heavy editorial hand on Avengers, and his Squadron Supreme miniseries I’ve started three times and never been able to finish (that art!), I wonder if Gruenwald is to a generation of Marvel comics readers what Englehart was to mine:  a heavy-duty continuity nerd who liked juicing up his stories by making new connections with old characters.  After all, here’s one obscure character who, thanks to recklessly trying to remove an unremovable power belt, has now become the incarnation of another obscure character.

Either because I read Englehart first (undisputed) or because Englehart is actually more entertaining as a writer (probably very easy to dispute)—or, again, this features an art style I don’t like and a writer running out of steam after a very long run—I didn’t love this and my biggest problem—surprise!—is how Gruenwald handles Skull’s characterization.

As I mentioned back in the very first installment, part of the problem with the original series was how slight the characterization was for Scully and his crew, so it’s hard to imagine that problem could be amplified.  But once you take away Scully’s persecution complex, his trash-talking, the people he crash-landed with, the fratricide, and his “man out of time” factor, what’s left?  If you’re Mark Gruenwald, the answer is “his power belt, and the fact he talks like Ben Grimm without the wisecracks.”  (Again, this was one of the funny bits about the character’s appearance in Marvel Two-In-One:  faced with writing two self-pitying jet pilots, Wolfman chooses to differentiate them by The Thing being annoyed by everything Skull says.)

In recounting his history to Cap, Scully is comparatively chipper:  “[…] I couldn’t for the life of me get the stupid belt off! A somewhat reckless attempt to remove it left me looking like what you see now—a walking x-ray.  The Doc [Doctor Druid] keeps trying to help.  But so far it looks like I’m stuck this way.  If you can handle the riffraff from here, I’m gonna run.  The police don’t like my looks, for some reason.”

So there’s not really anything of the character from the original run there, which makes me think Gruenwald would’ve been perfectly happy to slot any previous character with a “skull” in their name or shtick as the new Blazing Skull. And if Gruenwald went on to prove me wrong with later appearances of Scully/Skull in later issues of Quasar, I won’t find out until those issues pop up on MU or Comixology or something. But between you, me, and the tree, I suspect that didn’t  happen.

HawkSkull1

Anyway, from there we got to the first six issues of the aforementioned Hawkeye, which turned out to be quite the pleasant surprise: although this six issue crime story doesn’t wrap up especially well, the first five issues are a hoot as, down in Myrtle Beach, Clint sticks up for an exotic dancer only to end up embroiled in a decades-long conspiracy.

As I mentioned above, neither Nicieza nor Raffaele are in the same weight class as Fraction and Aja but not only is their handling the comic book equivalent of a good summer beach read, it’s fascinating to see the many superficial similarities between the two series: for example, F & A are served much better served by their book’s design-heavy covers that more acccurately reflect the interiors than the bright, generic covers of Hawkeye in costume on N & R’s series.

HawkSkull2

As for Jim Scully, I’m a little bummed I knew he’d be in here because it’s a neat little surprise when he pops up:  the fat, balding thug messing up Peppermint (the exotic dancer in the beginning of the book) is in fact the man formerly known as Skull The Slayer, past his prime and working for the local big-shots in Myrtle Beach.  Thanks to the irremovable power belt, he still has super-strength and limited invulnerability, so he remains the biggest threat to Clint throughout the book, but he and Clint are both rational people, more alike than different, and their confrontations usually end up with the duo talking, rather than fighting:  “Jim Scully–Time magazine cover, right?”  Clint says in an early encounter.  “Viet vet, framed for murder, whole Jurassic Park-Bermuda Triangle trip, came back stronger than spit…”

HawkSkull4

“You don’t get it,” Scully says a few pages later after Clint calls him a flunky.  “You don’t know what it’s like to have a shot at–I don’t know–a shot at being better–and lousing it up.”  Clint, who in Nicieza’s hands is a former fuck-up who does good mainly as a way of honoring Barney, his dead (at the time) brother, replies, “You really don’t know who you’re talking to, do you?  I’m the poster boy for second chances.  Eighth chances, too.”

Which brings us to X-Men issues #16-19 by Victor Gischler and Jorge Molina from 2011, during the period where the book functions basically as a team-up title.  Here, the FF and the X-Men team up after receiving a distress signal from a former flame of Cyclops who’s ended up trapped in the alternate dimension on the other side of the Bermuda Triangle.  The teams join forces and find not just Lee Forrester but also an impending invasion by the Scorpius, and an unscrupulous industrialist who is more or less the bad guy from Pixar’s Up, and most pertinent to my review, Scully in full-on Skull The Slayer gear.  And here, as they say, is where my troubles began.

recap

Gischler, who seems like a decent guy from what little press I’ve read of him, has yet to write a comic I’ve liked. That’s an especially painful admission considering these four issues are explicitly an attempt to return Scully to his dinosaur-fighting roots.  You’d think, given the choice, I’d pick these issues of X-Men over Cap #420 or Hawkeye (2003) #1-6 for the books I’d recommend to someone who, like me, really dug the original title and character.

But, sadly, that’s not the case at all. Separate and apart from the way Gischler ignores Scully’s previous appearance in Hawkeye (which, to be fair, ignores Scully’s previous appearance in Cap and Quasar from what I can tell), X-Men #16-19 also refers to the character as “Mike Skully” [sic and sic], seems to get everything wrong about the previously introduced Scorpius race (at least visually), spends more time on Lee Forrester in Jungle Girl garb than anything Skull might be doing, and somehow manages to dull up the whole concept, even as it ups the number of dinosaurs and super-powered aliens.

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For me, the fat, balding Jim Scully in Hawkeye is truer to the tone of Wolfman’s original issues: a character who originally embodies America’s feeling of having lost its way in the ’70s, we find Skull having truly lost his way, as some of us do, in middle age.  It trumps the Blazing Skull of Captain America, as generic as a crossword clue, or Gischler’s strangely error-ridden reboot, which turns Skull into little more than the mechanical men he fought in issue #5 and #6.  At the end of X-Men #19, he’s wound up and ready to march back into battle.

WeirdSkull1

And now in Weirdworld, Jason Aaron and Mike Del Mundo’s Secret Wars tie-in where a bunch of nearly-forgotten Marvel Universe oddities including, in issue #3, Skull The Slayer.  Bless their hearts, so far Aaron and Del Mundo’s  Skull The Slayer has nothing in common with the original other than a name and a modified origin that has the pilots shout “Doom save us…” before the plane taking him to trial collides with a floating island.  It may change but for now this Skull is an unstoppable barbarian with a goofy helmet, not even a funhouse mirror reflection of the original as much as a funhouse mirror reflection of a funhouse mirror reflection.  Like the protagonist and other characters in Weirdworld, there’s a sense this Skull has lost his way and it’s fun to think Aaron and Del Mundo were using the series to riff on comic book characters pulled and stretched into shapes from their purpose.  But for now, considering they’re the ones doing the pulling and the stretching, it’s more fun to think about than to read.

You know, when I started this overview, I thought I knew where it was going but, just like fat, balding Scully, fat, balding Jeff lost his way.  This was going to be a piece about potential lost and overlooked, and how such a situation wouldn’t be such a bad baseline from which to re-conjure good ol’ Scully.  One of the highlights of my nerd career happened about five or six years ago, when I got to accompany Adam Warren across the floor of San Diego Comic-Con.  And at one point, I asked that dumb fanboy question of whether there were any work-for-hire properties at Marvel he wanted to try his hand at…I think because I’d been telling him how impressed I’d been at his Iron Man: Hypervelocity miniseries?  I don’t remember my question very clearly, but I do remember his answer:  there was this obscure old character from the ’70s, he said to me, Skull The Slayer?

I think it’s likely this last installment would’ve been me geeking out about what an Adam Warren Skull The Slayer would be like, while also talking about my own pitch, one where Scully discovers he’s still inside the Borgesian Time Tower, has been in it all along, years of his life wiled away in a simulacrum, and how much this simulacrum of his life reflects the simulacrum of life shining out at us from our monitors, our smartphones, and our TVs: an existence spent being fed black lotus entertainment.

But.  After reading three different revivals in three different decades,  part of me feels like our power-belted Lazarus should maybe remain dead, after all? When I was young, I loved the way superhero universes picked up discarded concepts, dusted them off, and set them skittering across stories.  I don’t mean to sound overly morose (my trademark!) but as I age, I think I might identify more with the put-aside, the forgotten.  Aftere all, if we are lucky to live long enough, we earn the distinction of becoming the Man Out of Time. It would be lovely–and perhaps even helpful–if there was room in the universes of the Big Two for not just the active, hot-headed antihero Man Out of Time, but also his real-life reflection.  Like a real reflection, it too is capable of being genuinely alluring, shimmering as it does before it vanishes for good.

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6 comments on “There’s A Reputation To Be Made: Jeff, Skull The Slayer, and an Epilogue (Part 3?)

  1. Dan Coyle Sep 19, 2015

    You should read those last two issues of Nicieza’s Hawkeye, a Black Widow team up story. I actually prefer his to Fraction’s, at least after Fraction’s first year. Heresy and pure evil, I know.

    • Jeff Lester Sep 19, 2015

      I’d enjoyed those first six so much, I actually planned to polish off the last two but the artist change made me put it down and then other commitments got in the way. I’ve got them saved in MU however, so I’m hoping to get to them somewhat soon…probably before the next Baxter Building?

      As for Fraction’s run, I’d like to take a swing at it once it all gets collected. The stuff in it that I like, I like a lot. But the stuff I don’t like I appear to have far less tolerance for than just about anybody else. I’m curious to see if that’ll change once there’s a little distance from all the hubbub.

  2. John Q Sep 20, 2015

    Nice to see I’m not the only one who found the Nicieza Hawkeye a decent read. At the time, it seemed everyone I knew hated it.

  3. LAndrew Sep 21, 2015

    I’m glad I could bring the phrase “funky force field belt” into your life, Jeff. 🙂

    For all that these latter appearances are insane and drift ever further from the character’s initial idea, there’s something about the idea of this rogue continuity backwater constantly being reincarnated into current continuity in various failed reconfigurations that never pan out, that he doesn’t remember except for a vague irritability at not fitting in. Not exactly a man out of time, but a man never in the right time.

  4. I’d honestly never heard of Skull before your offhand mentions on the podcast, and really enjoyed this overview. I’d read your take on the guy, or whatever amazing thing Adam Warren would cook up.

    “I wonder if Gruenwald is to a generation of Marvel comics readers what Englehart was to mine: a heavy-duty continuity nerd who liked juicing up his stories by making new connections with old characters.”

    Got it in one.

    I wonder who followed Engelhart in that tradition. I’m tempted to say Busiek or Waid, but that feels wrong for some reason… maybe because I can’t recall either of them indulging in the “finishing other people’s dropped storylines” or “following pet characters” that Engelhart and Gru were so partial to. I guess Busiek did a little in his Avengers run, by returning Carol Danvers to a more Ms, Marvel-y baseline, that more or less directly leads to where she’s at today…

    • LAndrew Sep 21, 2015

      I think it’s pretty solidly Busiek–his AVENGERS is pretty much exactly that sort of thing, especially AVENGERS FOREVER, which is more continuity maintenance than story in most respects.