"War Gods of Skartaris"
Warlord (vol. 1) #3 (October-November 1976)
Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell
Synopsis: Morgan and his band of former gladiators liberate a village from the soldiers of Thera, and Morgan offers the somewhat dubious villagers the opportunity to join his cause. Morgan and Machiste disagree on the goals of their enterprise--Machiste wants gold, and the fewer to share it with, the better. He reminds Morgan that despite all his talk of freedom, he's really out to get Tara back. Morgan reiterates his desire to bring freedom to Skartaris, but admits that he's come to love the thrill of battle.
The two are pulled out of conversation when Morgan sights a unicorn and wants to capture it. He makes a bet with Machiste he'll catch it and gives chase. Focused on his prize, he's ambushed by a group of lizardmen, and knocked unconscious.
Morgan awakens in the ruins of an ancient city. He's a tied sacrifice to the god of the lizardmen--which ironically turns out to be his crashed SR-71 Blackbird. Morgan fights, but is only saved by the appearance of the lizardmen's old god--a giant snake-like creature. The snake eats the lizardman priest, and turns its attention to Morgan, who's saved by timely arrival of Machiste, who cuts him free. While Machiste battles the snake creature, Morgan pulls his survival kit from his plane with its .44 Magnum and spare ammo. The creature proves impervious to bullets, but not to the ejector seat from the plane shooting through its skull. Morgan and Machiste briefly explore the ruins, wondering at who might have built them. They leave to resume their quest but we see what they barely missed--a console with a screen showing a map of what appears to be a somewhat altered outer earth with a continent in the middle of what is now the Atlantic Ocean.
Things to Notice:
- Morgan has donned his trademark winged helmet for the first time.
- There's a long recap this issue, due no doubt to the length of time since the last issue--since it was coming back after cancellation. The "He's Back!" on the cover also alludes to this delay.
- A unicorn will cause trouble for Morgan in a future Warlord storyline (issues #72-73).
The title of this issue may be inspired by the 1962 Italian historical drama War Gods of Babylon (Italian title: Le Sette Folgori di Assur, "The Seven Flames of Assur"), or by American International Pictures 1965 science fiction film, War Gods of the Deep. Given the influence sword and sandal films seem to have on the Warlord saga, I would suspect the former, if indeed the similar titles are anything more than coincidence.
The basic plot of the story relies on the "cargo cult" trope. Real world cargo cults have sprang up when tribal societies have interacted with more technologically advanced cultures--most famously in the Pacific in the World War II era.
Lizardmen are a fixture of pulp fiction and comic books. The use of lizardmen to represent human degeneration (as will be made explicit in issue 5) goes back at least to Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal" (1895) wherein Welsh stories of elves and fairies are shown to have their horrific origins in a degenerate, hidden race with reptilian characteristics. Robert E. Howard picked up this idea and used it in several stories, most famously in "Worms of the Earth." The appearance of the Skartarian lizardmen seems inspired by Steve Ditko's design for the Spider-Man villain, the Lizard.
Morgan quotes a sentiment he says he read "on a barracks' wall in Saigon":
“You have never lived until you've almost died! For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know.”The quote is apparently anonymous, but often said to arise from the Vietnam War, and a context similar to the one Grell relates. I have seen it attributed several times to Theodore Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech given in Paris on April 23, 1910, but the text of the entire speech available online doesn't seem to have the lines--particularly in the place I often see people insert them in supposed brief quotations from the speech.
"Metaxa," the name the lizardmen give Morgan's plane, is the name of a Greek liquor invented in 1888, but perhaps Grell coined the name independently.
Grell's use of an "epilogue" in this issue, and subsequent ones, shows an evolution of his storytelling sophistication perhaps, or at least experimentation with style. What they resemble most are the "tags" common to hour long TV drama where there's a brief scene after the primary plot is wrapped up. Fans of the original Star Trek series will recall these as scenes with Kirk, McCoy, and Spock bantering on the bridge before the end credits, often emphasizing the "lesson" of the episode.