Friday, 8 March 2013

Essential Killraven volume 1

Like many latter day readers I first knowingly encountered Killraven thanks to his encounter with Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up #45 (although I'd previously seen him in Avengers Forever but that series contained so much continuity some of it passed me by). Not long after I read that issue his entire series was reprinted for modern audiences to experience.

Essential Killraven
volume 1 contains Amazing Adventures #18-#39, Marvel Team-Up #45, Marvel Graphic Novel #7 and Killraven #1. Amazing Adventures was the second series by this name (the first became Amazing Adult Fantasy) and was an anthology series that carried several strips in succession, including the Inhumans, the Black Widow and the Beast, though by this stage it carried just a single series (apart from a few reprints of short stories to fill up occasional page gaps). Marvel Graphic Novel was the umbrella branding for Marvel's graphic novels of the 1980s with the early releases individually numbered for reasons that presumably made sense at the time. Killraven #1 was a 2001 one-shot from the Marvel Knights line, which at the time was for more mature themes than the standard Marvels (although it's since been redefined for limited series that are often outside regular continuity), and is the most recent issue yet printed in the Essentials. The volume also contains, tucked right at the back, the letters page from Amazing Adventures #18 where Roy Thomas briefly describes the genesis of the series

The earliest issues are plotted by Thomas, with Neal Adams co-plotting on the first, and scripted by Gerry Conway, but then after one issue scripted by Marv Wolfman and a fill-in by Bill Mantlo, who also writes the Marvel Team-Up issue, the rest of the run and the graphic novel are written by Don McGregor. Neal Adams draws the first half of the first issue and is then succeeded by Howard Chaykin then Herb Trimpe then individual issues by Rich Buckler and Gene Colan. However the series then finds its best known artist in P. Craig Russell who draws most of the remaining issues and the graphic novel. There's a fill-in by a returning Herb Trimpe and another by Keith Giffen, whilst Sal Buscema handles the Marvel Team-Up. Finally Joseph Michael Linsner both writes and draws the 2001 one-shot. That's quite an extensive set of credits, and so I've put the labels in a separate post.

Although the series is collected under the banner of "Killraven", the actual (sub)title on issues #18-28 and again from #34-39 is "War of the Worlds". For the series takes as its starting point the classic H.G. Wells novel of that name (which, if I understand US copyright law correctly, has been in the US public domain since 1954 although it won't enter the UK public domain until 2017), and then presents the consequences of a second Martian invasion that occurred in the year 2001. The series itself starts in 2018 after many years of Martian occupation that have devastated the planet and its inhabitants. Although drawing some concepts and part of the backstory from Wells's novel, this is not the most obvious sequel imaginable. In some ways, it resembles more a futuristic Conan.

Whether or not this was intended to be the future of the Marvel Universe or just a future is a point left unanswered - the only time I have seen it even addressed is in What If? #1 when the Watcher introduces the concept and notes the possible alternate futures, but even then the only clear point is that it takes place in a different future from the adventures of Deathlok without committing to either being the actual future or not. When Spider-Man shows up in Marvel Team-Up #45 the point is touched upon but not really explored, doubtless because such a concept is beyond Killraven's knowledge and comprehension whilst Spider-Man is more concerned with surviving and making it back home. Or it could be an alternate reality altogether. With the exception of Spider-Man's brief visit there is no mention of the wider Marvel universe until issue #38. The story flows in such a way that this can be ignored, but on wider reflection it is a mystery as to why Earth's superheroes with all the advanced powers and technology at their disposal both failed to stop the initial invasion and then did not make any noticeable sign of resistance. Then in the penultimate issue of the regular series Killraven is drawn into an audio-visual psychic projection generated by the dreams of a former Mars astronaut. The projection takes him into a distorted vision of the 1970s Marvels, with Gerald Ford as Captain America and many heroes following a great leader with a "glib and silvery tongue" named 'Howard'. Truly this is a nightmare and doesn't answer all the issues. Obviously once the real 2001 came around and the Martians failed to appear in what was now the present day regular Marvel continuity the answer was clear, but I wonder just how many in the 1970s actually foresaw the comics industry surviving for so long that this would ever actually become an issue?

Something else I'm wondering about is just when did fiction presenting a next generation future stop expecting such great technological advances? Although the devastation of the invasion and occupation reduces the effect, there are glimpses of how the world of the 1990s saw technology move on, such as the television being replaced by the "mural phonics system" - a form of virtual reality though rather more advanced than the actual versions that were available in the real 1990s - or the car by the "transbelt conveyer" or even teaching has been shifted to watching tapes with teachers doing little more than changing them over. Today some writers might predict bold inventions but few would show a world of the next generation where the technology has so completely taken over from devices and methods so standard today. At the same time the knowledge of the characters is limited - Killraven himself was barely a baby when the Martians invaded but the older characters generally either remember little or never knew much in the first place about the old world. This leads to some interesting moments when in searching the archives of the White House the rebels find the reels containing the Watergate tapes (clearly the story assumes Richard Nixon would have gotten away with it) and use such historically important items as nothing more than party streamers to celebrate the New Year. Later we find humans worshipping "the Devourer" at the site of a giant McDonalds' golden arches, utterly unaware of their original purpose. In another issue, a man is defending a great treasure in a warehouse - free gifts from cereal boxes.

But it's the Earth occupied by the Martians that is the even scarier place. Much of the planet is in ruins with only a few recognisable landmarks reminding us of what the cities used to be. Many mutations thrive. Some are existing animals that have been effected by the pollution of war, some have been bred deliberately, and some are mutated humans. But even the non-mutated humans have been split, with many scientists serving the Martians, whilst other humans have different tasks. Killraven is one of many gladiators providing amusement, but worst of all are the hordes of "Adam"s and "Eve"s, stripped of their individual names and their memories and made to breed babies for the Martians to eat. How this stuff got past the Comics Code Authority astounds me. The series may have been inspired by Wells's novel and in particular a chapter with a very pessimistic prediction of life under the Martians, but the world portrayed is several stages removed from the inspiration.

Most of the volume is taken up with the survival and exploration of this world by a small band of rebels called the "Freemen". The concept isn't the most original but the series it most immediately reminds me of (Blake's 7) came along a few years later. Killraven himself is a complex creation. Just a baby at the time of the invasion he was later taken from his mother and trained to be a gladiator but also given special treatments by a scientist that left him with limited telepathic powers to reach into Martian minds, though it's not until the graphic novel that he actually manages to use this power for more than information gathering. It's implied that this is the power that will ultimately destroy the Martians but it's not actually put to such use. Otherwise we have the standard determined leader, limited by the gaps in his knowledge but firmly driven by his desire to defeat the Martians. The rest of the Freemen look suspiciously like they were assembled through a box ticking exercise - there's a black, a woman, a not entirely human member, a native American and a simple strong man. M'Shulla is another escaped gladiator and at times more level headed, though it is cringing when he is called "Mud-brother" by Killraven, even if it is a general term of endearment between gladiators. Carmilla Frost is an escaped geneticist who worked on cloning, with Grok a product of one of her experiments failing. Old Skull is another former gladiator who isn't the brightest of individuals but is very loyal. Hawk is a native American with grievances about the way his people were treated in the old world. Despite the violence they encounter, there's only one occasion on which any of the Freemen actually meet their deaths. Otherwise they ally with a number of other characters throughout the story, though only Volcana Ash, a woman with the power to generate and project heat, truly stands out, not least because she is the closest Killraven has to a romantic interest although it is largely unrealised. Otherwise the main romance comes between M'Shulla and Carmilla, including what was apparently the very first serious inter-racial kiss in US comics.

Much of the latter part of the series is taken up with a lengthy journey across what was the United States, trying to reach Yellowstone Park in the hope of finding Killraven's brother. However none of the Freemen seem to have a clue about the geography, not even Hawk who is old enough to have memories of many years before the invasion. With the original series running in real time (although the later graphic novel and one-shot ignore this) it's quite a lengthy quest, punctuated by a series of encounters with strange foes and unusual situations in various locales. This episodic format allows for emergency fill-in issues to be slotted into the running but it also means the series really does meander, not helped by various production problems. Issue #30 is one of the most awkward issues to reprint as it consists of six new pages framing reprints of material seen earlier in the volume. Here we just get the six new pages without explanation about the missing material. Continuity throughout the series is generally good in spite of changing and fill-in writers but it never quite reaches the level of a truly integrated epic that makes it especially rewarding to read in collected form.

With issue #39 the series ends fairly abruptly, although the cover is generic enough to cover the series as a whole. Within the story we get just a tiny panel at the very end of Old Skull winking and saying "Th... Tha... That's all, folks." Otherwise things are left mid flow. Killraven and the Freemen are still wandering across America, trying to find Yellowstone Park and his brother. The Martians are still ruling the Earth and there's no sign of any developments towards a grand struggle to overthrow them. Instead we leave a small band of rebels still wandering about and causing a nuisance but not much more. The series came to an end in 1976 with the final issue, according to Mike's Amazing World of Comics, hitting shelves on August 24th 1976, midway between the two Viking probe landings that did much to dispel popular beliefs about life on Mars (although this had already begun with the images sent by Mariner 4) and reduced its use in fiction. A lot of ongoing fiction has had to reconcile earlier appearances of Martians with the new knowledge, or just overlook it altogether.

The graphic novel was published seven years later but made no attempt to address the Martian issue. It did, however, contain a brief account of the "One Night War", explaining how the attack came suddenly and quickly overwhelmed the humans. The story is a continuation of the series as Killraven finally encounters his brother, who has changed from being the younger sibling to the older one, but overall there isn't much incident to the story and good as the artwork is (harder to judge when the colour is muted rather than separated off), it can hardly have justified the $5.95 price tag in 1983 when regular Marvel issues sold for just $0.60. The story delves into the characters somewhat, with decompression long before the term was coined, but the only grand incident is the eventual encounter between the Raven siblings and the twist had been set up back in issue #36, although I wonder how many readers in 1983 easily remembered the details of a single page seven years earlier. The High Overlord is also killed here but it's almost incidental to the main story and shows the attempt to settle as much as possible in the space available.

The 2001 one-shot is completely inconsequential, being told by a new writer and artist and not advancing the story from what was seen previously. Its presence here largely serves to make up the page count despite being much newer than anything else published in the Essentials so far (and also because there isn't much other material featuring the original Killraven). The story tells of Killraven discovering a young woman from the 1970s in suspended animation, the sole survivor of a group who protested the state of the world. Her story simultaneously evokes the idea of just opting out of society, mass suicides as a form of political protest, pacifism as a solution to dealing with violence and the belief that the turning of the millennium would bring some glorious utopia. Instead she finds herself awakened nineteen years later than planned, in a world that has forgotten her group's protest and where violent confrontation is the order of the day. Her beliefs and commitment are not openly mocked but the contrast between the wide-eyed optimism of the mid 1970s and the grim reality of the 21st century is all too clear.

Overall I found War of the Worlds/Killraven to be a series with a very fascinating concept behind it that was rather let down in the execution. Although the individual issues are generally well written and drawn, the strip doesn't really know if it wants to be an extended novel in comic form or a more general adventure series, and it gets pulled in both directions. Had it been originated in earlier years then it would have been more unambiguously a general adventure series against a backdrop, rather than trying to develop ongoing storylines across many issues. A decade later then it would almost certainly have been a limited series, allowing for a clear structure with a firm ending to work towards. But it came at a time when comics were going through a highly experimental stage and many creators were pushing at the restraints of the existing formats. At the same time as he was writing Killraven's adventures, Don McGregor was also writing the Black Panther in Jungle Action and produced one of the first integrated epics that was almost designed for tradepaperbacks, similar to work Jack Kirby had started at DC with the Fourth World comics. But Killraven never quite came off the same way and the latter day additions to the saga may have wrapped up the quest but left the overall situation intact (in part due to the appropriation of the series as the backstory to the Guardians of the Galaxy). This volume is unfortunately not one that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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