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Killraven’s War of the Worlds

Longbox Graveyard #59

In 1973, the future was going to suck.

We had the science fiction to prove it!

Soylent Green told us we’d have too many people, and wouldn’t be able to feed them. Planet of the Apes — going on its fifth installment — said we wouldn’t have many people, but we’d have plenty of mutants and apes. In The Andromeda Strain, a virus from outer space would nearly destroy mankind; in The Omega Man, a biological plague would wipe out civilization, (but spare Charleton Heston). In Colossus: The Forbin Project, a malevolent supercomputer would lord it over a bleak totalitarian future. A Clockwork Orange and THX 1138 promised us stylish but grim days to come. In Westworld, our robot pleasure slaves would hunt us down for sport. Silent Running showed that we’d kill our planet with pollution, and Night of the Lepus augured that mankind (and DeForest Kelly) would suffer if bunnies got really big and really, really mad.

giant bunny stampede from Night of the Lepus

Despite this science fiction close at hand, Marvel Comics creator Roy Thomas would reach back to the dawn of the 20th century for yet another dystopian vision of the future as the basis of a new science fiction series in 1973 — a series that would go on to provide a grimmer vision of man’s future than all those movies combined. The War of the Worlds in issues #18-39 of Amazing Adventures was “based on concepts created in the novel” of the same name by H.G. Wells, about as tepid a line of marketing text as you’ll ever find on the cover of a comic book. Yet the roots of the book were more than faithful to that novel’s concepts — the 19th century Martian invasion occurred exactly as Wells described. It’s just that Wells told us only half the story, not living to see the follow-up Martian invasion of 2001 that flattened earth’s defenses and turned our planet into the private reserve of Martian overlords taking sadistic pleasure in the subjugation of the human race.

for the Martians of Amazing Adventures, subjection = sadism

As Thomas points out on the letters page of the first issue, his series concept harkens to Wells’ vision of life under Martian occupation, with scattered human remnants living in the ruins, and amoral human collaborators serving their Martian masters. But that’s about as much of Wells as you’re going to find in this series — the rest is all mutants, gladiators, monster-haunted landmarks, and deviant super-science. Our hero for this war of the worlds is the escaped pit fighter Killraven, who faces a catastrophic future with a sword, a raygun, and an equally catastrophic fashion sense in a desperate fight for freedom in one the funkiest funny books of the 1970s.

Wow, that’s a bad look.

Even Sean Connery couldn’t pull off that look (though he would give it a try, a year later, in Zardoz).

The early 1970s were a grim time for science fiction, friends! Star Trek was off the air and Star Wars wasn’t yet a glimmer in George Lucas’ eye. Without a template for successful SF, though, creators felt free to try all sorts of crazy things, and many of the craziest ideas of the age would wind up in this comics series. Though conceived by Roy Thomas, he would never actually write an issue of the book, which would bounce around between creators like Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Herb Trimpe, Rich Buckler, and Gene Colan before settling on its signature team of Don McGregor and P. Craig Russell … at which point a fairly forgettable sword and science adventure pulp morphed into a unique, incomplete, and deeply weird minor classic.

The series is essentially an odyssey for the main character Killraven, eager to run down reports that his brother might be alive, and tormented by “clairsentient” visions indicating he might be more than a post-apocalyptic barbarian with a blaster and a blade.

The series employs the familiar post-holocaust trope of ruined landmarks, but Killraven’s landmarks have their own charm, whether it’s the monster-haunted ruins of Yankee Stadium, or slave market in the Lincoln Memorial. The tale moves through an America in ruins, not just from Martian invasion, but also from our own greeds and desires — the storytellers rarely miss a chance to skewer advertising, consumerism, fast food, amoral science, and pollution of the environment as human sins that indicate we didn’t know how good we had it before the monsters came, though stopping just short of suggesting mankind has gotten his just deserts.

No one deserves the terror brought to earth in this series. The villains of War of the Worlds were genuinely vile, bloodthirsty mutants and half-mad human collaborators eager to capture Killraven to dissect him in a lab, or stake him out to be eaten alive by rats as “mural phonics” broadcast his terror to a cringing human slave population wired to feel Killraven’s terror as their own. Especially odious is Atalon, the Fear Master, who lords it over Chicago’s palace of Death-Birth, where he forces human breeders like “Adam-3031” to lick the mud from his boots, then fondles the pregnant belly of his enslaved cell-mate, “Eve-3031,” wherein gestates a child he intends to offer up on a Martian banquet table.

The supporting characters are a mixed bag — there’s the strong guy, the sidekick guy, the chip-on-his-shoulder guy — but over time they do develop personalities of their own, and become Killraven’s own band of merry men. Unusual for it’s era (for any era, I suppose), this run features psychologically complex female characters. The best developed is Carmilla Frost, a rogue scientist who joins Killraven’s “Freemen” in the company of her “Clonal Man” father, Grok. Carmilla is haunted by the scientific research she did for her former Martian masters, and charts her own path of rebellion, but admits she’d prefer the chance to live in a world that allowed her to be “soft” every now and then. She’s also notable for her interracial relationship with Killraven’s right-hand man, M’Shulla, possibly a first in mainstream superhero comics. Carmilla is pretty clearly the brains of Killraven’s outfit, letting Killraven think he’s leading the group, while she instead pulls the strings — just one of several powerful female characters in this series, such as the briefly-glimpsed Mint Julep, a leader of her own rebel band, or Volcana, a medical experiment with otherworldly fire powers, who seeks her lost sister in the Martian torture palaces, and lives for the moment in her aggressive amorous pursuit of Killraven.

Strong and assertive women form a recurrent theme in this series, for good or for ill. The first issues of the run introduce “Martian Sirens” — leggy supermodels like something out of Space Channel 5 who seduce men to their doom (yet mysteriously fail to have any effect on our hero). There’s also the recurring tension between our hero and Carmilla Frost, and wrapped around these themes are stories about masters, and slaves, and slaves who escape to become masters, delving into emotional and symbolic territory a bit richer than many books of the day.

Killraven fights his share of female monsters, too.

No sooner has the book settled into its own narrative groove than it is gone, which should have come as no surprise. The series had too many fill-ins and reprints for a bimonthly book, and dire warnings and pleadings for sales were a staple of Amazing Adventures letter columns seemingly from the start of War of the Worlds. Divorced as it was from the superheroics of the Marvel Universe, the book must have been a tough sell (though a Bill Mantlo fill-in issue late in the run cheated in some Marvel superheroes, to poor effect). So, too, was the book a difficult read, with Don McGregor’s overwrought text sometimes making it seem he was paid by the word … but the team was also testing their limits, creatively, with mature themes and some groovy page layouts that still sparkle all these decades later.

Like a lot of the books I review here on Longbox Graveyard, the miracle isn’t that this book was cancelled, but that it ran as long as it did. It is a difficult series to appraise — it scarcely has a beginning, and it ends without warning or resolution, leaving us with a meandering and mysterious middle. It is telling that the book’s master plot held that our heroes were supposed to be traveling from Washington D.C. to Yellowstone Park, but that the series concludes … in a Florida swamp? There’s a lot of heavy lifting that’s never paid off — like the fate of Killraven’s brother, Carmilla’s true motivations, and the reason that Killraven experiences out-of-body visions through the eyes of his Martian enemies — and that’s a shame, but maybe tying up all the loose ends would have ruined the sometimes dream-like nature of the book when it is at its very best. If the book died before its time, neither did it live long enough to go into inevitable decline. McGregor and Russell would take another crack at the tale in a revisionary graphic novel, and later series under different creators would return to the tale, and attempt to finish it, or re-start it, or rationalize it in some way, but that’s all more commerce and trademark protection than art.

And art is what Killraven creators Don McGregor and P. Craig Russell set out to make with this book, which forgives many sins — the reprints and fill-ins, the dropped storylines, the fractured writing style and pointless side-trips, the abrupt and unsatisfying ending. The three-part “Death Birth” story, especially (Amazing Adventures #27-29), is an effective science fiction adventure pulp, with unspeakably evil villains, high stakes, and meaningful heroics. If Deathlok was an ace concept that never found its footing as a series, Killraven might be considered it’s mirrored twin — a jumbled-up high concept that proved more than the sum of its parts, taking one step back for each step forward through its run, but definitely strengthening along the way.

It’s a shame this crazy War of the Worlds never found its orbit.

  • Title: Killraven’s War of the Worlds (Amazing Adventures)
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1973-1976
  • Issues Reviewed By The Longbox Graveyard: #18-39, May 1973-November 1976
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-plus
  • Read The Reprint: Essential Killraven

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #60 Digital Comics Rant!

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on August 1, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. How could I never have noticed the similarity between Killraven’s original outfit and Zed in Zardoz? Now that you’ve pointed it out, it’s so obvious — and yet presumably a total coincidence.

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    • I blame the sartorial indiscretion of the entire decade.

      That hairy-chested Sir Sean could emerge from his role in a red diaper with his dignity and screen reputation intact speaks either to his bulletproof popularity or an alliance with dark forces.

      And how have we arrive in a new century without a Zardoz comic book adaptation? I should have expected Marvel to do a Super Special on release, and Malibu Comics to do a three-issue limited series in 1991.

      Like

  2. If you’d come to us with a pitch for a Zardoz comic, we’d’ve gone for the rights in a heartbeat.

    The Killraven stuff was one of my favorites of that era. I don’t think it always succeeded but it was just packed with interesting stuff – stuff that wasn’t going on in other comics – and I never missed an issue. Yeah, it was swords and guns and Martians, but it also felt like “grown-up stuff” was happening. A lot of the other Marvel writers were working the superhero mines and trying to find a new Spider-Man or Fantastic Four story, but Don McGregor (like Steve Gerber) seemed to be bursting with ideas in search of a vessel to lay them out. And like they did with Gerber and Defenders, it feels like Marvel just tossed Don Killraven (“Let’s give the fringe book to the new guy!”) and he took it and ran. Interracial relationships, interracial friendships, strong female characters, consumerism, politics, and other things all got an airing in its pages and Don still never forgot the Marvel mantra of having the characters fighting and killing stuff.

    Plus Russell’s art didn’t look like anyone else’s at Marvel and it looks visionary compared to other comics being published at the time, as if he somehow snuck in when Roy wasn’t looking. I think if you check the letters pages, you’ll find some fairly serious discourse from big name letter writers of that era. Comics historian Peter Sanderson, Eclipse Comics founder Dean Mullaney, Harris-and-Dark Horse Comics editor Meloney Crawford, Claypool Comics founder Ed Via and many others were fans.

    And, of course, looking back with the perfect vision of hindsight, it’s easy to see that Don wasn’t going to be long for corporate comics – he had stuff to say that went beyond Spider-Man misunderstanding Hulk and fighting him for 14 pages. He’d be one of the first, if not the first, to break out with his own creator-owned stuff like Sabre and Detectives, Inc.

    (I got to hang with Don, and his wife Marsha, on several occasions in the 1980s, and it was because of those encounters that I started forming my own ideas about creator-owned work and understanding why that was important.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pitching a Zardoz comic to you guys would have required that I watch the movie all the way through (or maybe not). In any case I never got past the big floating head at the beginning. I did used to go over to a friend’s house in the 1990s to hang out and the only entertainment he had was a copy of Zardoz on Betamax, so I’ve seen scenes here and there. “The Penis Is Evil!”

    This 1973/4 period when Roy Thomas was EIC at Marvel (I think, could be off on the dates) does seem an especially “anything goes” era, with books like Killraven, McGregor’s Black Panther, Deathlok, and everything Gerber did seeming unlike anything Marvel did before or since. This, of course, was the time I first started reading comics, and it led me to expect that it would always be this way. You can imagine my reaction as comics from the Big Two have become increasingly tightened down and pre-chewed, their original vision too often limited to some “bold” reinterpretation of continuity minutia or costume redesign.

    I recall that McGregor’s creator-owned Sabre book spun out of some unrealized ideas for Killraven. Very cool that echoes of McGregor’s work carried forward into the founding principles of Malibu Comics.

    I should track down the graphic novel that McGregor and Russell did but I’m not anxious to wreck the dream-like nature of my affection for this run.

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    • Clearly I’m the one who should have pitched a Zardoz comic rather than Paul, because I’ve watched it many times and even own the DVD. I’ve long argued that once you get past the 70s silliness, it’s actually one of the very few SF films that acknowledges the progress of prose SF beyond the 1930s and is pretty sophisticated in its social critique…though you wouldn’t know that from the wardrobe. If anyone out there is holding the rights, drop me a line!

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  4. You must have chosen only the most amazing pages from a series you rate at C+. Because, these pages look like a cavalcade of pure awesome!

    Mother to the dawning galaxies?! Mind = Blown. Licking mud from Martian boots?! These creeps seem even more perversely evil than the nasty aliens in Strikeforce Morituri.

    Russell’s artwork and McGregor’s prose really sing on these sample pages. Perhaps we should look past the silly costume and give this one a shot.

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  5. To say that Killraven was loosely based on War of The Worlds is an understatement. Killraven for all intents an purposes had nothing to do with that book outside of some light back story. Killravens suit is hardcore too.

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    • Yes, the series very quickly departs from its literary roots, but I doubt it would ever have been green lit without that pedigree. I recall being extremely confused when I picked my first (and only) issue off the rack, back in the summer of 1974. The experience was so disorienting I didn’t return to the series until I acquired the back issues in preparation for this article!

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  6. Killraven, despite some of the advanced and downright sad and melancholy stuff going on, epitomizes the word “hoot”. Martian breeding pits? I’m a sucker for such devices.

    In Avengers Forever, we see a timeline where the last Avengers are fighting off the Martians, and Killraven is one of them, along with an old Black Panther and a battered Crimson Dynamo. The series is confusing, but this panel made me glad I picked it up.

    The 70’s were really the last high point for mainstream sci-fi comics. This, Gerber’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and Machine Man are all really good, and it is more than a shame that we don’t see more of these.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Zardoz-the movie where Sean Connery must have lost a bet with somebody.Other than inspiring Kr and my Toreus Rhann,Zardoz was way too weird.And for Killraven-the comic died by story two.

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    • Zardoz proves Connery signed a deal with the devil, given that this film did not end his career.

      And Killraven went well off the rails from what Roy Thomas intended, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it … it is a singular work (and a glorious mess!)

      Like

  8. es, the series very quickly departs from its literary roots, but I doubt it would ever have been green lit without that pedigree.Departed-it violated Wells whole point.The Martians were at an evolutionary end.The invasion was a last attempt at survival.Nobody was back on Mars.So no second invasion and no surviving second Martian force.My blog Sometimes Comics Are Crap goes into this further.The Martians were superior in brains and technology-that why they used tripods to support a weak body-big heads,no legs-just tentacles.They could even hear well.And I think shitty eyesight.And food-those Grock like monkey things-all gone.That why they started drinking human blood.They big mistake.No Kr a hundred years later with his sci fi future.No grock.no eating babies.no skar.No 24 Hour Man.Just Jonathan Raven standing with his brother wonder what an exint Martian civilization looks like.Martian remains in jars.War Machines in musceums.Did Marvel even read the book?Wells wanted to show how a superior forces-Martians-the Brits came take the land,kill some locals,but die in the process of local germs.That was the point,not what would happen if somebody fought back.Germs Marvel-Germs fought back,as Martians drank flu body and shit their brains out,crashes Tripods into walls,streets and each other.

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    • Yes, this has been the “curse” of War of the Worlds as an entertainment property — that deus ex machina ending doesn’t conform well with contemporary cinematic expectations of the heroes solving their own problems.

      And while I’m sure the Marvel guys read the book, I’m equally sure they didn’t feel bound by it — War of the Worlds was just a public domain brand jumpstart to another crazy Marvel SF series. When I was with Malibu we trolled for every public domain “license” we could find — in a crowded marketplace, don’t discount the value of that unaided recall. “Dracula” is a much stronger sell than, “19th century vampire guy.”

      Liked by 1 person

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