Columnist Fred Van Lente pays tribute to the comics mainstay, who turns 76…
By FRED VAN LENTE
Happy birthday to Don McGregor, one of the most justly heralded mainstream comics writers of the 1970s and 1980s, who is perhaps best known for his acclaimed Black Panther run in Jungle Action, where in his first issue with artist Rich Buckler he introduced T’Challa’s memorable arch-nemesis Killmonger.
But I largely prefer the non-superhero curiosities of 1970s Marvel. My favorite McGregor strip is definitely Killraven, a true dog’s breakfast of various creators and influences. As Roy Thomas explains in the Amazing Adventures lettercol of his first appearance, Thomas was a huge fan of HG Wells’ seminal 1897 science fiction novel War of the Worlds. Toward the end of that book, Wells’ unnamed narrator comes across a bunkering AWOL (human) soldier who imagines the future for Earth under the Martian yoke: Terran quislings would help their new squishy, tripod-mounted overlords hunt and enslave those homo sapiens who refused to bend the knee.
In Wells’ book, the aliens are soon laid low by Earth microbes against which they have no natural immunity; but in the Marvel Comics version, they get vaxxed up with Martian Pfizer and return in 2001 to finish the job. By the time 2018 rolls around, the aliens have total dominion over what’s left of the planet, run amok with crazed robots and genetically engineered monstrosities. In addition to free-range humans raised as snacks, the Martians also train Terrans for gladiatorial combat.
One such fighter, Jonathan Raven, a.k.a. Killraven, proves especially troublesome to tame, and escapes the arena to gather a small band of Freemen together to battle the aliens and their assorted mutant, cyborg, and human hench-creatures.
Killraven is delightful post-apocalyptic science fiction barbarian insanity, a mash-up of Spartacus, Conan the Barbarian and Planet of the Apes. The latter’s influence is so prevalent, in fact, that when Marvel UK ran out of issues of their more-popular-than-in-the-USA Planet of the Apes comic, they just redrew and re-lettered Killraven stories to turn him into “Apeslayer,” and the sentient simians started tooling around in tripods for some reason.
Though Killraven’s first adventure was written by Thomas and the first few pages drawn by Neal Adams (with the remainder by my pal Howard Chaykin in his first-ever Marvel gig), the strip really didn’t take off until McGregor took over writing duties a few issues later, in mid-1973, ably backed first by Herb Trimpe on art, then in a career-making turn by the great P. Craig Russell.
Here are the TOP 13 episodes of the strip’s initial run in chronological order, until all its storylines were resolved by some idiot saying that a zombie virus accidentally brought by Howard the Duck caused the Martians to flee the Earth in terror.
Oh, wait. That was me.
1. Amazing Adventures #21: The Mutant Slayers! McGregor takes over writing chores on the War of the Worlds strip with astounding confidence for someone of his age, much less thin professional writing resume. His characterization is sharp, his dialogue sparkles, and he immediately introduces one of the more important members of the supporting cast, Carmilla Frost, a human scientist who betrays her Martian masters for mysterious reasons of her own. Carmilla’s brainy cynicism makes her a great foil for Killraven’s barbarian chauvinism throughout the series. She leads the imprisoned Killraven and his friends to freedom — into the ruins of Yankee Stadium, which is crawling with hideous bleacher creatures. Hey, some things never change, huh? (Mets fan here.)
2. Amazing Adventures #22: Washington Nightmare! Killraven and his Freemen arrive at the District of Columbia, where Martian sympathizers have set up a slave auction block at (IRONY ALERT) the Lincoln Memorial. (Un-fun fact: Slavery was in fact legal in D.C. until abolished by President Lincoln, something he had tried and failed to do as a congressman… hey, I wrote a comic about him too) Herb Trimpe crushes the art here, with all sorts of weird mutant monsters.
3. Amazing Adventures #23: The Legend Assassins! The Martians have Killraven in their clutches, and seriously consider eating him, but that would be a pleasure restricted to too few. So instead they decide to tie him up and leave him in the White House basement, where Rattack, a former Secret Service agent turned Vermin cosplayer, will have him devoured by rats while it’s broadcast on the Martian neural internet. That goes about as well as you’d expect. Herb Trimpe, the unsung hero of Killraven, continues to kick artistic ass all over the post-apocalyptic place.
4. Amazing Adventures #25: The Devil’s Marauder. The best Killraven stories are post-apocalyptic American travelogues that make me want to run a Gamma World RPG campaign around (or, possibly, a Fallout campaign once the physical game comes out later in the year — I pre-ordered, natch). The Martians have retooled the Indy 500 to speed-test their tripods on, because of course they have. Guest artist Rich Buckler introduces the series’ best villain, the Javert-esque cyborg Skar, or, as I like to call him, Ol’ Hole-In-the-Face.
5. Amazing Adventures #27: The Death Breeders. Killraven and friends sail an ice skiff across frozen Lake Erie dodging giant mutant lampreys toward Chicago, which has been turned into a “Death Breeder” facility by the Martians: Pregnant women are chained in maze-like pens and their babies given up as Martian delicacies. If that sounds super-intense for a 1974 comic with a Comics Code seal on it, that’s because it is! Great comics, featuring the debut of the strip’s signature artist Craig (no “P” yet) Russell.
6. Amazing Adventures #28: The Death Merchant! Killraven and his Freemen assault the Death-Breeders’ Chicago fortress to stop the sacrifice of an “Adam” and an “Eve’s” baby. Killraven discovers he has the power to read Martians minds the hard way when he kills one and experiences the alien’s death himself. More importantly, in this issue Russell starts to experiment with the dense, cinematic layouts and ’70s-style illustrated text pages for which he and this strip would become known. It’s a work in progress here, but it gets better — much better!
7. Amazing Adventures #31: The Day the Monuments Shattered. The head honchos of Death-Birth finally catch up to Killraven and his Freemen in Gary, Indiana, which has a giant arch and extensive cave system for some reason? Was McGregor thinking of St. Louis? Anyway, it’s a cool fight interrupted by a giant mutant monster, but this issue is most noteworthy because the simmering romance between M’Shulla and Carmilla Frost results in the first (intentional) interracial kiss in comics history. Though this was almost seven years after Star Trek did the first one on TV, so don’t sprain your arm patting yourself on the back, there, comics.
8. Amazing Adventures #32: Only the Computer Shows Me Any Respect! This is the old standby of heroes-trapped-in-a-maze-of-their-own-minds, courtesy of the “mural phonics system” in the Nashville theater where they’re camping out. Between Russell’s trippy visuals and McGregor’s pseudo-Beat poetry text pages, it’s a very good example of this sub-sub-sub-sub-genre.
9. Amazing Adventures #34: A Death in the Family. Though this list is in McGregor’s honor, the real star of this, one of the best Killraven entries, is the P-less Craig Russell. The latter half of the issue is a bravura action sequence as the killer cyborg Skar catches up to our found family of heroes, resulting in not one, but two deaths of reoccurring cast members. Mainstream comics were just starting to have real literary pretensions in the mid-’70s, and McGregor’s text pages and flowery captions, more often than not, can be entirely skipped over in favor of the art. One quiet-moment Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. page notwithstanding, it’d take the writer/artist Frank Miller to really show mainstream scripters that they could shut up sometimes and let the art do the talking. Still, in a note to 13th Dimension editor Dan Greenfield, McGregor told us that he worked in full, tight scripts with Russell, so he can take a lion’s share of credit, too.
After a six-issue stint of being called Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds (an awesome title I can’t believe no one else has used since), the strip goes back to being plain old War of the Worlds for the remainder of its run. Throughout the history of pop culture, new IP has always struggled to rise above established favorites, sigh.
10. Amazing Adventures #35: The 24-Hour Man. A strange, sad little done-in-one science fiction story about a guy who has to find and have sex with a woman so he can impregnate her with himself before the day is up, because that’s when his current body dies. She gives birth to him after nine months, and then he lives out his whole short lifecycle trying to mate again. Also, he has a symbiotic giant slug to help him out. This, frankly, sounds like it sucks for everyone involved.
11. Amazing Adventures #36: Red Dust Legacy. One of the most impressive things about the Killraven strip is that McGregor had the bravery as a writer to render his revolutionary leader hero in a not-always-sympathetic light. Killraven is a driven anti-Martian hater to the point of being a complete fanatic that alienates (pun intended) his fellow Freemen. He discovers early on in the series that he has the mutant ability to read the Martians’ minds, but walking a mile in the other man’s shoes — well, tentacles, actually — deepens his prejudice rather than ameliorates it.
This issue begins in a Killraven psychic vision of Martians warring astride giant war turtles on the surface of the Red Planet (amazing), which leads the Freemen to a birthing facility filled with thousands of alien fetuses. Killraven has no problem mass-murdering the embryos, which is a bit much for the rest of the cast—and may even turn out to be a manipulation by the Martians themselves to foster anti-human prejudice in their own people. Clever, powerful SF.
12. Amazing Adventures #39: Mourning Prey. The Killraven strip abruptly ends, as too many unique and wonderful series too-often do. The outsize ambitions of the creators slam into the often capricious and unpredictable whims of their employers and the marketplace at large. The most infamous example of this would be Jack Kirby’s DC Fourth World saga, which barely scratched the surface of its invention before meeting the executioner’s ax. But still, this series ends with a beautiful (if not terribly original) done-in-one about the Freeman being stalked by a half-butterfly, half-human creature in a swamp, with gorgeous art by P. Craig Russell, whose addition of his initial “P” fully expresses his signature style for the first time in this strip.
13. Marvel Graphic Novel #7: Last Dreams Broken. In speaking of great series ending too soon, one of my favorite TV shows of all time is Deadwood, which abruptly ended with a whimper in its third season, most likely because it was extremely expensive to make, leaving a bunch of storylines abandoned and unfinished. Then, fourteen years later, the original cast and creator, David Milch, came together to make Deadwood: The Movie for HBO, which was less of a climax than a Very Special Episode that I, and every other Deadwood fan I know, found deeply unsatisfying. If anything, it betrayed Milch’s roots in standard TV, trying to recapture old magic rather than propelling the storyline forward to a true ending.
This graphic novel is Killraven’s Deadwood: The Movie. Coming out seven years after the end of the original strip, it does tie up one dangling thread from Amazing Adventures:
The overarching plotline of the War of the Wolds strip ostensibly involved the Freeman traveling across the United States to Yellowstone Park, where Killraven’s brother, Deathraven, was being trained/held by the Martians. (Did Killmonger have a brother named Deathmonger?) Except that apparently the Martians have destroyed map technology, because the group only gets as far west as Gary, Indiana, then inexplicably turns south, and winds up in Cape Canaveral, notable for being much further from Yellowstone than Washington. D.C., where they started.
Deathraven is a pretty good sport, though, because he obligingly shows up in Florida to murder Killraven and his friends just as they are about to join a crotchety former astronaut to blow up the Martian stronghold there. Oh, and he turns out to be a werewolf. The Martians seem pretty proud of themselves, as if lycanthropy was their idea.
Though Deathraven is defeated, we do end on a hopeful note as Carmilla discovers she is pregnant with M’Shulla’s baby (whom I completely forgot I later named). P. Craig Russell’s art has now come into full maturity, and the colors by Petra Scotese are absolutely spectacular, so you definitely should check it out this Very Special Episode of Killraven for that reason alone.
MORE From FRED VAN LENTE
— The TOP 13 Gardner Fox ADAM STRANGE Stories — RANKED. Click here.
— The Sad, Confused Legacy of STAN LEE. Click here.
13th Dimension columnist Fred Van Lente is a comics writer, historian and playwright, who has chronicled the relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the play-turned-podcast King Kirby, written with Fred’s wife Crystal Skillman.