After a disappointing issue #3, Kull: The Cat and the Skull returns for a slam-bang finish with Issue #4. David Lapham finally got the story back where it needed to be — back where Robert E. Howard wrote it — and delivers one of the coolest moments in the Kull series, the unveiling of Thulsa Doom.
I fully understand that adapting Robert E. Howard’s The Cat and the Skull for comics is not easy. Howard is said to have changed his mind on the course of the story mid-way through writing, which resulted in a disjointed story that splits into almost three distinct parts: the mystery of the ancient cat Saremes, the adventure under the forbidden lake and the reveal of Thulsa Doom. Because of this, The Cat and the Skull would make a great three issue mini-series, but is a stretch for a four issue mini-series.
It is obvious that David Lapham had to pad out the story with the inclusion of the serpent man plot and the intrigues of Igraine and Delcardes. That wasn’t so bad when he was adding a slice here and a slice there in issue #1 and #2, but the last issue was filled with almost nothing else, revealing that issue for what it truly was — filler.
Fortunately, Issue #4 gets back to the meat. Back to Howard. And back to a good story.
In Issue #4, Kull finally makes it to the bottom of the forbidden lake to encounter the underwater kingdom. There, in true esoteric Kull style, he gets a lecture on the nature of existence (“You are at the center of the Universe, as you always are. Time, space, and place are illusions in the mind of man , which must set limits and bounds in order to understand.”) and hears a prophecy of doom. His own barbaric nature that protects him from the taint of civilization also spells the end of his kingdom.
After the underwater philosophy and physics lesson, Kull returns to his castle to see at last the true architect of the Saremes plot, the skull-faced sorcerer Thulsa Doom.
Lapham and Guzmen did a fantastic job with this issue. In this entire series, I have been impressed with how fluently they handled both the action scenes and the esoteric discussions on the nature of time and space. They do it again here, with Kull’s journey under the water being a beautiful example of comic book art. I love the silence of the scenes when Kull is in the water, punctuated by the return of sound when he breaks the surface. Colorist Garry Henderson deserves big props as well for his handling of those scenes. A good colorist can make or break the art, and Henderson is a good colorist.
And yes, Thulsa Doom looks awesome. And yes, he has a skull head. With flaming eyes. That was what everyone was wondering about the grand reveal at the end. How would they handle Thulsa Doom? Would he be properly skull-faced or just a human with protruding bones? Rest assured, when the mask comes off, it is Thulsa Doom underneath. It’s pretty damn cool.
At the close of the issue, Assistant Editor Brendan Wright is honest about the future of the Kull series at Dark Horse: if people buy and read it, then they will make more. If not, then it is bye-bye to Kull of Atlantis. Nothing is certain in the comic market these days, he says, and it is up to us.
I agree with that to some extent, but the onus is not all on the reader. It is up to Dark Horse to make comics good enough that we want to part with our hard-earned gold pieces. Kull: The Cat and the Skull was about 2/3rds great. I like the work Lapham, Guzmen, and Henderson have done with Kull, and I would love to see them tackle another story, but they need to be careful not let the filler take over the plot.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the ’90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.