I like Killraven. There, I said it. I know it's not a highly thought of strip these days, ( In practically every review of Essential Killraven I've read, I've yet to read a good one ). But I like it. Whether I completely understand it is a whole other story.
Killraven the strip started in Amazing Adventures, under the auspices of a whole bunch of people, including Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Howie Chaykin and eventually Herb Trimpe. It was a direct sequel to H.G.Wells War Of The Worlds, except instead of a unnamed englishman as the hero, we had an escaped gladiator, one Jonathan Raven nee Killraven. Sort of a Conan of the future if you like. At least that's how it began.
The year is 2018, and the Martians have invaded Earth again, but this time they've won: Humanity is enslaved, reduced to pet's, entertainment ( as is Killraven ) or, in the worst case, food. Our hero escapes the gladiatorial arena, along with his supporting cast of 'Freemen' and heads for the hills, intent on taking the war to the Martians. So far, so average.
Then Don McGregor & Craig Russell take over.
I've read reviews of this comic that basically say: 'If Don McGregor didn't want to write a barbarian strip, then why did he take over Killraven? ' And it's true, McGregor seemingly had zero interest in a Conan of the future. He had something much more original in mind.
Throughout the series, and throughout their adventures, Killraven & his supporting cast ( Sharp tongued & sharp witted M' Shulla, gentle & retarded Old Skull, pissed off at everybody Hawk, clinical & caustic Carmilla Frost & her mutated father Grok ) become a real family, with all the squabbles and back-biting that entails.
Ostensibly their mission is to reach Yellowstone Park ( of all places ) and find Killraven's long lost brother, enlisting aid against the Martians as they go. But really, the series is a parable, a parable of the journey through life. ( Which is why the stories take place in real time. A month between issues is also a month in the Freemen's lives. )
Throughout their journey, the Freemen come across: blind religious faith ( issue 26 ); a twisted version of the birth process, ( the incredible 'death breeders' story where Martians, and human collaborator's, breed human babies for food. Unbelievable that the Comics Code passed this story! ); the overweening influence of the media and the danger of preferring fantasies over reality ( Issue 32 ); the reproductive process ( issue 35's stunning '24 Hour Man' ), and in the best story, the arbitrariness of death ( Issue 34's 'Death In The Family' ):
In this story, Skar, the Freemen's merciless enemy, catches up with them, and succeeds in murdering two of the cast. And two things are clear: This is death, this is real, they're not coming back, like in every other comic. And Skar, like death itself, is random. Killraven can do absolutely nothing to hurt death in the same way.
This is adult comics, for adults, in the best sense of that phrase, in a time when 'adult' comics meant the tits & ass of Heavy Metal.
And the characterization is subtly brilliant: Killraven is a warrior, yes, but he's also a bit of a dumbarse. He never listens to anyone else's point of view, especially a woman like Carmilla. ( In issue 36's 'Red Dust Legacy', she tries to prevent him wiping out a Martian nursery. How many heroes are forced to question the result's of their actions? And how many listen?)
Throughout the series, it's obvious that Carmilla, or even M'Shulla, should actually be the leader, but the brilliance of the strip is that they're never allowed to be.
I understand why younger fans, used to blood n' guts, and pat solutions to simple problems, can't get into this series. McGregor is, at times, ridiculously verbose & flowery, leading the reader to put almost any spin on the material, and making it seem deeper than it, in fact, is.
Even I have trouble with some of the narration.
And Killraven does actually require you to think a little. For instance, the first time I read it, it annoyed me that intriguing characters like Mint Julep and Volcana Ash ( The girl who might've been Killraven's love interest ) disappeared from the story, but soon realized that was realistic too, people do sometimes just vanish from your life.
But bear in mind, this was a series cancelled in mid-prime. The last issue ( ' Mourning Prey ' ), where Killraven realizes that even if he rids the Earth of the Martians, the world has totally changed from what it was, is not the ending intended. Even though it kind of works as one.
Maybe it's best to look at it as one of comics' great unfinished symphonies, like The Fourth World.
Oh, and I haven't even mentioned M'Shulla & Carmilla's love affair; the first inter-racial relationship in comics, or the realistic, and sympathetic, depiction of Old Skull, or the gorgeous, poetic artwork from Craig Russell, just at the start of his career, or......look, just, buy The Essential Killraven, willya?