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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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