Berni Wrightson is considered by many to be the greatest horror artist of the modern era. Inspired by the gruesome (and eventually banned) splendor of the EC Comics of the 1950s (Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, et al.), he rose to prominence during the Bronze Age on the strength of his work on Swamp Thing and various “mystery” titles for DC. He later attained further fame by providing illustrations for Mary Shelley’s seminal science fiction/horror novel Frankenstein and for various projects in collaboration with author Stephen King, including The Stand and, most notably, Cycle of the Werewolf.
While he is most frequently associated with the macabre, Wrightson is, perhaps not surprisingly, also a sword & sorcery enthusiast. It’s easy to see the influence of Frank Frazetta in Wrightson’s work, and one can make a reasonable case of attributing the enduring popularity of Robert E. Howard’s Conan to the former’s remarkable paintings. When Marvel acquired the license to produce comics based on the barbarian adventurer in 1970, Wrightson expressed enthusiastic interest in drawing the title, but it wound up going to Barry Windsor-Smith instead. Marvel decided to throw him a bone, however, offering him the inaugural King Kull (another Howard character) story in Creatures on the Loose #10 (formerly Tower of Shadows). Even though he was not particularly a fan of the character, he accepted.
“The Skull of Silence” is a mere seven pages long (the rest of the issue consists of a Jack Kirby reprint from the early 1960s), but it represents the work of an artist on the verge or greatness.
(Incidentally, as far as I’m concerned, this comic has one of the worst-looking covers of all time. I don’t know why they didn’t just have Wrightson draw it. After all, he had provided the series’ two previous ones.)
The story opens with King Kull of Atlantis and his warriors returning home, presumably after a battle. The monarch spots a castle, which he suggests as a good place to seek refuge for the night. He is, however, warned by a wise slave in his entourage that the structure is The Skull of Silence, wherein an ancient wizard imprisoned “silence” itself. Undeterred, Kull approaches the castle gate, ignoring the admonition carved on the seal: that opening it will unleash the evil force locked within.
When Kull throws the doors wide, all sound melts away, and tendrils of, well, silence ensnare him. He fights against it and ultimately manages to drive it away by banging on and ultimately shattering the jade gong next to the entrance. It seems that the “silence” was some sort of otherworldly entity beyond human ken, which somehow possessed the nature of absolute silence, a terrible thing indeed. (I read recently about a group of scientists who had constructed a room capable of absorbing all sound. No one was capable of spending more than forty-five minutes inside when the lights were turned off.)
It’s not much of a story, to tell you the truth, but Wrightson manages to make a silk purse out of sow’s ear, even if things didn’t turn out the way he had planned. In Berni Wrightson: A Look Back by Christopher Zavisa, the artist explains:
“One of the features of the story was a skull [sic] which, when the door is opened, robs all sound. How are you going to do this in a comic book? Since you cannot play with sound effects in a comic book, I figured out a way—slowly drain away the color until the scene ended up being black and white. […] I took the completed job in to Marvel and was told it was fine. Months later, the comic comes out and everything has color on it.”
Thanks to this fiasco, he refused to do any more work for Marvel for years. Can you blame him?
As far as I know, this story has never been reprinted anywhere, which I’m sure suits Wrightson just fine. I think it would be a nice gesture for whoever has the license to Kull these days (if anyone even does) to offer him the opportunity to color it the way he originally intended and publish it in a collection (like DC did for Brian Bolland with The Killing Joke). I don’t think there’s a lot of interest in the character these days, though (the horrible Kevin Sorbo movie notwithstanding), so it’s not likely to happen.