Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Jewel in the Skull

CREATOR/S: Adapted by James Cawthorn from the story by Michael Moorcock

YEAR: 1978

PLACE: Manchester

PUBLISHER: Savoy Books

ORIGINAL PRICE: £2.95 and $7.95

PRINT RUN: 10,000 (Source: Savoy Books)


JitS COVER (2)

The Jewel in the Skull © Michael Moorcock 1967, this adaptation © James Cawthorn 1979. Image used with permission.

British SF writer Michael Moorcock’s The Jewel in the Skull (1967), the first in The History of the Runestaff series, is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the breakdown of civilization has cleared the way for adventures in the fantasy mode: feudal social structures, giant bats and heroic quests against an evil empire. The hero of Jewel in the Skull is Dorian Hawkmoon, captured by the Dark Empire and forced to travel to the land of the Kamarg on a secret mission. Count Brass, Lord Guardian of the Kamarg, refuses to bend to the will of the Empire, so to ensure his compliance Hawkmoon is meant to kidnap Brass’s daughter. Hawkmoon rebels against his orders and helps Count Brass defeat the invading army that the Dark Empire sends to crush the Kamarg. The last part of the novel recounts Hawkmoon’s journey east into Persia and his quest to find the sorcerer Malagigi, who can supposedly remove the titular Black Jewel that was implanted into Hawkmoon’s head to ensure his obedience to the Dark Empire.

Despite the publishing information within Cawthorn’s book indicating that the first printing was in 1979, 10,000 copies of Jewel in the Skull were produced in 26 October 1978. That actual first edition was misprinted and thus pulped almost immediately, though some copies still survive. The second edition, then, that is labelled as the first edition was only published in April 1979. Aside from Moorcock’s strong general influence on the underground comix of the 1970s, another connection between Cawthorn’s Jewel in the Skull and the underground is Savoy’s choice of distributor, Big O Publishing. Big O had originally been the distribution arm of Oz, the countercultural magazine whose editors were tried for obscenity in Britain in 1971 (the magazine notoriously showed a pornographic depiction of children’s comic character Rupert the Bear) (Butterworth [21 Aug 2014]).

As is common in post-apocalyptic narratives, in Jewel in the Skull the names of places are eroded versions of the place names used in the present; one thinks of ‘Cambry’ (Canterbury) in Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker (1980). In Moorcock’s novel the River Thames is now the River Tayme, London is Londra, America is Amarehk, and Great Britain is Granbretan – the home of the Dark Empire. This post-apocalyptic Dark Empire is “a cancer that will infect history and will set it on a course that will […] lead to the destruction of the entire human race” (116), a provocative rewriting of the British Empire not as a civilizing force but a terrible juggernaut driven by power-hungry and immoral bullies. This critique of imperialism and the edifices it erects is powerfully conveyed in the 1978 The Jewel in the Skull, a comics narrative of the story found in the 1967 novel. Scholars of adaptation studies lament the widespread proclivity towards judging adaptations on their faithfulness to the source text: “from newspaper reviews to longer essays in critical anthologies and journals, [discussion] of adaptation has been bedevilled by the fidelity issue” (McFarlane 8). In the case of The Jewel in the Skull, evaluating the comic’s “fidelity” to the 1967 novel is a particularly unhelpful critical position. It was created by artist James Cawthorn, who had a long-standing friendship with Moorcock since 1956; the two of them collaborated on various fanzines, stories and non-fiction books (see the interview with Cawthorn at the back of his version of Jewel in the Skull). For Savoy Books, Moorcock’s and Cawthorn’s versions are two different tellings of the same story, one that was collaboratively conceived (Butterworth [19 Aug 2014]).

So, I’ll say a little about the construction of certain incidents in each text, the effects they produce and the interpretations they afford… without trying to establish whether or not Cawthorn’s version is ‘faithful’ to Moorcock’s. Let me start with the scene when the Black Jewel is implanted in Hawkmoon’s forehead by the Granbretan scientist Baron Kalan. The Jewel is a surveillance device allowing the Dark Empire to see everything Hawkmoon sees on his mission to the Kamarg. Further, should Granbretan suspect that their secret agent is betraying them, the Jewel can be activated remotely and made to eat Hawkmoon’s brain. The machine that creates and embeds the Black Jewel “consisted almost entirely of delicate red, gold, and silver webs” which “caress” Hawkmoon’s skin, but to complete the implantation process Kalan tells him to move further into the red, gold and silver strands:

Hawkmoon obeyed the Baron, and the webs rustled and began to sing. His ears became confounded, the traceries of red, gold, and silver confused his eyes. The machine of the Black Jewel fondled him, seemed to enter him, become him and he it. He sighed, and his voice was the music of the webs; he moved and his limbs were tenuous strands.

There was pressure from within his skull, and he felt a sense of absolute warmth and softness suffuse his body. He drifted as if bodiless and lost the sense of passing time, but he knew that the machine was spinning something from its own substance, making something that became hard and dense and implanted itself in his forehead so that suddenly he seemed to possess a third eye and stared out at the world with a new kind of vision. Then gradually this faded and he was looking at Baron Kalan, who had removed his mask, the better to regard him.

Hawkmoon felt a sudden sharp pain in his head. (58-59; italics not in original)

In Moorcock’s novel, then, the embedding of the Black Jewel is a sexualized process. Caressed, “fondled,” and then entered by the machine, becoming one with the machine, the implantation is unsettling precisely because it imports the language of seduction and lovemaking into an act of invasion and coercion. The autonomy of his selfhood is transgressed and Hawkmoon’s voice is mingled with the noise made by the machine. His limbs become “tenuous strands,” the same word previously used to describe the device’s dangling tendrils, and the “tenuous” nature of his limbs suggests they might dissipate into the air. Just as the Dark Empire is co-opting his body, turning it into a weapon fired at the Kamarg, Hawksmoon feels his corporeal identity has been dispossessed: he “drifted as if bodiless.”

JitS Fig 1 (2)

Fig. 1. The Jewel in the Skull © Michael Moorcock 1967, this adaptation © James Cawthorn 1979. Image used with permission.

Cawthorn’s Jewel in the Skull is a shorter version than the prose novel, and the above narration is condensed into a single panel (see fig. 1). Given that many of Cawthorn’s panels are highly detailed, this one stands out for its expressionist elements (the near-indistinguishable image of Hawkmoon) and its unusual composition: we see the Black Jewel being constructed on the left by the strands of machine, but the strands are superimposed over Hawkmoon, on whose forehead the Jewel is constituted. In other words, the same event is shown simultaneously from two different angles in the same panel, a compositional move that suggests the machine’s transgression of selfhood – is the subject of this panel the Black Jewel or Hawkmoon? Perhaps this panel foreshadows the question that the Jewel’s implantation impels: if everything Hawkmoon sees is transmitted back to Londra, and if he consequently obeys the Dark Empire to avoid destruction, is his identity still integral and autonomous? The machine is remaking who he is and his selfhood is in flow, like the viscous lines used to depict his visage.

Cawthorn’s rendering of the Dark Empire is most impressive and telling in the full-page panels that imagine the monumental architecture of Londra. Immediately after the Jewel is implanted Hawkmoon is led to meet the King-Emperor in his palace: “He was conscious of the jewel in his skull but of little else. The passages widened until they covered the area of a good-sized street. Guards in the masks of the Order of the Mantis were thick along the walls. Mighty doors, a mass of jewels making mosaic patterns, towered ahead of them.” (60) Given that Hawkmoon’s attention is diverted to the jewel, Cawthorn could have depicted this scene in a similarly nightmarish style to that used above: the masked guards and the towering doors could all have the shimmering unreality that might befall someone’s perception as they rapidly attempt to process the embedding of a lethal surveillance device in their forehead. Instead, we have something simple and fascinating, a full-page panel dominated by one of those mighty doors whose surface glistens with a mosaic of jewels (see fig. 2).

JitS Fig 2

Fig. 2. The Jewel in the Skull © Michael Moorcock 1967, this adaptation © James Cawthorn 1979. Image used with permission.

In the background of his panel we see the bustle of people in the far distance carrying out the work of the imperial metropole. There could be a comparison between the figures and the door here: just as the multitude of small, easily missed courtiers and bureaucrats make up the machinery of the Dark Empire, so too does each tiny gem contribute to an enormous whole, and a beautiful, impressive aesthetic of order at that. Beneath the mosaic, at the bottom of the door, are the soldiers of the Order of the Mantis: their menace is conveyed by their sheer number, an unbreakable, inhuman barrier. They, too, are part of the mosaic of empire, and carapaced in their armour and insect masks the soldiers glitter like jewels. In the foreground, on their way to the King-Emperor’s throne room, Count Meliadus points the direction to Hawkmoon – and is Hawkmoon, about to undertake a covert mission to the Kamarg and marked by a jewel, any less a part of the imperial order than the guards? Is he going to do Granbretan’s bidding and obey the trajectory laid out to him by Count Meliadus? The richness of Cawthorn’s page comes from the fact that, by making the patterned door the central and unavoidable point of focus, all sorts of symbolic readings become viable – and the reader is invited to connect the visual elements together and relate them back to a critique of British imperialism (its expensive and overbearing architecture signifies vanity and pomposity; the imperial order coerces the human individual into its mechanisms, and diminishes his or her right to stand apart).

I particularly like the dog lying on the ground to the left of Meliadus and Hawkmoon. In Moorcock’s version, it is unclear when the audience with the King-Emperor takes place; in Cawthorn’s version, the long shadows would suggest late afternoon or evening. If you’ll pardon the phrasing, this tired dog is the most humanizing element on the whole page, and it speaks to the recalcitrant messiness of life that the imperial pageantry seems to have no space for. The King-Emperor casts Hawkmoon as “part [of] the destiny of the greatest race ever to emerge on this planet” and expects his “great loyalty” to the Dark Empire’s expansionist project. Granbretan’s “noble purpose” is world conquest, “by virtue of our omniscient intellect and omnipotent might” (62): like the members of the Order of the Mantis who stand “rigid” (60) in a position of salute in the throne room, Hawkmoon slots into the unyielding role allocated to him. In Moorcock’s telling, the audience with the King-Emperor is the start of an “irritation” in the hero’s mind, perhaps “a sign of Hawkmoon’s humanity returning” (62) and his rebellion against the Dark Empire’s control. The lying dog seems to operate along similar lines: it is the element that Granbretan cannot boss about, it is the canine who flops down at the end of day and upsets the planned symmetry and sterile order of the palace and the Dark Empire. There are shades of Pieter Bruegel the Elder here, and the dogs in the background of Bruegel’s painting Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-67), who (in W. H. Auden’s words) “go on with their doggy life” in some “untidy spot” (29) during Herod’s murder of infants from the New Testament; for Bruegel’s canines, an event which human history will register as epochal is of secondary concern to the here and now, to the warp and weft of everyday prosaic existence. In Jewel in the Skull the sleeping dog who catches the eye right before Hawkmoon’s (and the reader’s) first meeting with the King-Emperor confounds the tidy grandiosity of the moment; Hawkmoon’s subsequent rebellion will spoil the King-Emperor’s self-important claims to posterity too, throwing off his supposed role as an agent of the Dark Empire.

These enormous panels make Cawthorn’s The Jewel in the Skull worth one’s careful attention. Whether in battle scenes or imperial architecture, Cawthorn’s use of panels filling up whole pages (and double-page spreads) is a direct engagement with the scale of Granbretan’s claims, and, as the story unfolds, the limits of its imperial reach. Given the United Kingdom’s straitened economic condition in the 1970s and the rapid disaggregation of the British Empire after 1945, these images are in accord with the historical context of the book’s production. Cawthorn’s The Jewel in the Skull necessarily excludes some of the dialogue and actions in Moorcock’s version of the story, but the scale of the panels and the level of detail within them allow an intricate and thoughtful reflection on imperialism in ways that were unavailable in the earlier prose novel.


September 2014



Auden, W. H. “Musée des Beaux Arts.” 1938. Poems. Ed. John Fuller. London: Faber, 2005. 29. Print.

Butterworth, Michael. “Re: Inquiry about The Jewel in the Skull.” Message to the Author. 19 Aug. 2014. E-mail.

—. “Re: Inquiry about The Jewel in the Skull.” Message to the Author. 21 Aug. 2014. E-mail.

Cawthorn, James. Interview by David Britton. The Jewel in the Skull. Adapted by James Cawthorn. Story by Michael Moorcock. 1978. Manchester: Savoy, 1979. N. pag. Print.

Hoban, Russell. Riddley Walker. 1980. Expanded ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. Print.

McFarlane, Brian. Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Print.

Moorcock, Michael. The Jewel in the Skull. 1967. Frogmore, Hertfordshire: Mayflower, 1974. Print.