Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Killraven - Warrior of The Worlds

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?


  1. I dig Killraven, too, Pete! Sci-fi Conan? Yep! Great writing and art? Yep! Over the heads of today's under-written, over-drawn out fanboys? You betcha!

  2. Killraven is one of my favourite strips of the 70's, up there with Master Of kung Fu and Engelhart and Brunner's Doctor Strange. McGregor's scripts can be overwrought ( have you ever read Dragonflame? )but as a kid I thought they were great.And Craig Russell's art? Genius! That scene with Killraven confronting Carmilla over the Martian babies reminds me of a similar scene in Genesis Of The Daleks: "Do I have that right?" Some pretty heavy stuff for 1970's comics.

  3. One day, I'll score a copy of Dragonflame off ebay. I suspect I'll need a few months to read it!

  4. Killraven, was, as you said, a great unfinished symphony, and it is very clear the McGregor changed his mind many times along tht way. It feels the same as the somewhat great Panther's rage over in jungle action. Neither is a complete classic since, when read together, you can start to see the detours that were either forced upon the creators editorially or were the result of don changing direction. Unfortunately, I keep waiting for the "bladerunner" article where don says, "here's how i originally wanted ti to end..." but i've never seen that with Panther's Rage.

    Killraven was far more openended, and i am rather astonished by some of what got by the code back int he '70's. I think that the little old ladies back in the office simply didn't get it, and were probably overwhelmed by don's prose anyway. After all, they didn't get hthe suggestion fo incest in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing #29 either...

    Great series, great moments in that. You're right, pick up the Essentials.

  5. I could not get into 'Killraven'. Don McGregor's stories were too wordy for me. The guy should have been writing novels instead of comics. Good art though.

  6. The interacial kiss thing is very overated.No one ever talk about the fact this book off track after the first issue.Killraven never amounted much of leader,who going to save mankind.Who care M'Shulla got a piece a bitch

  7. I loved Killraven as a kid but, sadly, rereading it as an adult, it doesn't do anything for me. I still love Craig Russell's artwork but it feels now like Don McGregor really didn't have an awful lot to say but was determined to say it in as many words as possible.

  8. loved Killraven in my youth ever since finding an early Russell issue at a friends house(the one where KR throws one of his stars through the chest of one of the skeleton suited guys- that scene blew my little elementary school mind). the whole concept was gold to a kid in the 70s. it might've been the first "series" i collected, ordering missed issues through Mile High Comics, before the 80s boom of comic stores put over half a dozen stores within 1/2 an hour of my house. While highly flawed early on and also continuity wise, this series stays a favorite. The graphic novel came at a perfect time to appreciate it(ooh! a sex scene!)(but the short hair? ) and the never done GN to complete the series annoys me to this day. All the subsequent KR series have just been missing something....but nice to see Bendis bringing him back however briefly, though i always hated how they tried to make him part of Marvels timeline.

  9. Don McGregor became one of my favorite writers for his work on JUNGLE ACTION (Black Panther). Somehow, though, I never read KILLRAVEN until the 1983 graphic novel came out. By then, Craig Russell's art had evolved into the beautiful thing it is today, and I was blown away.

    Decades later, I managed to track down every single episode of the old series, and read them in sequence. What a shock. It started out so chaotic! Someone really should have told Roy Thomas, it's NO way to start a new series by coming up with an idea, then tossing it into the laps of someone who has no interest in it (or time to do it). His whole time as EIC is littered with that sort of thing. Multiple creative changes followed, with Herb Trimpe being a short-term constant. Then there's McGregor's debut-- I could not believe how BAD he was when he started!!! Good grief. He improved real fast, though.

    Russell doesn't come onboard until halfway thru (just like Billy Graham on BLACK PANTHER), and you can see his work evolve as he goes. Until I saw the issue inked by Jack Abel, I had never noticed that, like Paul Gulacy, he started out aping Jim Steranko-- before evolving in a completely different direction. When he started inking himself, it was really "rough" and crude. Just like that awful DR. STRANGE ANNUAL he redid decades later, and so much better. But with "Death in the Family", his new style FINALLY began to refine itself. Naturally, that's when a deadline was blown, and whoever the editor was never allowed him to ink himself on the book again (until the graphic novel).

    when I finally read the series, naturally, I contined right into the graphic novel (the only story in the series I've read twice), and it felt like it was written the next DAY, instead of how many years later. I'm STILL WAITING for the sequel-- which should be the GRAND FINALE to the whole series. But I seem to be waiting in vain. I recently asked Craig about it, and he said it's very unlkely to happen. Nobody at Marvel has any interest in reuniting him & Don to do it, and he's too busy with other projects.

    Still, I think of Roy Thomas & Dick Giordano's DRACULA adaptation, and figure as long as they're both with us, there's always hope.