GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "K" (page two)
 

Essential Killraven  2005 (SC TPB) 505 pgs.

cover by John Romita, SrWritten by Don McGregor, with Bill Mantlo and Joseph Michael Lisner, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman. Illustrated by P. Craig Russell, Herb Trimpe, with Howard Chaykin, Joe Lisner, Keith Giffen, Sal Buscema, Neal Adams.
Black and white. Letters: various. Editors: various.

Reprinting: Amazing Adventures (1st series) #18-39, Marvel Team-Up #45, Marvel Graphic Novel #7, Killraven #1 (one-shot) - (1973-1976, 1983, 2001)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Marvel's "Essential" volumes collects huge consecutive runs of comics between a single cover, but kept economical by virtue of being in black and white and on cheap paper. The effort has proven so successful that, not only has Marvel reprinted huge tracts of their early catalogue this way (Spider-Man has at least eight volumes so far!), but Marvel has also branched out to include runs of more obscure series. And DC's got in on the act with their similar "Showcase presents" volumes.

Which brings us to Essential Killraven, collecting a fondly recalled 1970s series. In fact, one could argue that calling it "Essential" is kind of an understatement: this is the "complete" Killraven, reprinting not only every issue of his 1970s run in Amazing Adventures, as well as a concurrent appearance in Marvel Team-Up (where, through the wonders of time travel, he meets Spider-Man), but it also includes a later graphic novel, and a still later one-shot issue. Heck -- Marvel even thoughtfully reprints a Roy Thomas editorial (from Amazing Adventures #18) that explains some of the creative genesis of the series. The only Killraven story not included here is Alan Davis' even later mini-series -- which was a re-interpretation of the series and so, not part of the same continuity anyway.

Killraven is a science fiction series that takes its cue from H.G. Wells seminal novel, War of the Worlds, in which Martian's invaded Victorian earth only to be defeated, not by man, but by their own lack of immunity to earth germs. The comic -- which was titled War of the Worlds with a full acknowledgement to Wells (Killraven's name was only sometimes used as the title of the series) -- takes the idea that the Martians invade again a hundred years later in 2001 (remember, the comic was written in 1973), having boosted their immunity, and this time, the invasion is a complete success.

The series then picks up almost two decades later, with earth a post apocalyptic wasteland, with most humans kept as slaves by the Martians -- either as servants (scientists or used as hunters of their fellow man), or as gladiators, or as...food. But some humans roam free in small groups, and one group, known as The Freemen, are led by the ex-gladiator Jonathan Killraven, engaged in a guerilla war against the Martians -- battling Martians, mutants, and sometimes fellow humans.

The series kicked off with Roy Thomas (and Neal Adams) coming up with the initial ideas, and Gerry Conway scripting, and Adams illustrating. For the first few pages it starts out interesting, with Adams' legendary art, and telling the early days of the invasion -- and how some of the disaster man brought on himself (humans invent a biological weapon to fight Martians...that backfires). But then Adams has to drop out only a few pages into the first issue (in fact, neither Adams nor Thomas maybe warrant the prominent credit they receive on the cover of this TPB given how little direct involvement they had). Howard Chaykin takes over as artist for a couple of issues and, though Chaykin has evolved into a giant himself in comics, both as writer and artist, his early art work is definitely less accomplished. And Conway scripts, seeming with little inspiration. Marv Wolfman then writes an issue -- without much improvement. Though now at least Herb Trimpe is drawing, bringing a much surer, more dramatic visual look to the proceedings (funnily enough, I don't think of myself as a Trimpe fan, per se...but he does nice work here).

And then writer Don McGregor drops by...and decides to stay a while.

McGregor is one of those writers who often seems to personalize a lot of the projects he takes on, and he immediately starts to reshape the series to his own tastes. He mixes up the character dynamics by bestowing greater personality on Killraven and his comrades, notably the flippant, up-beat M'shulla and the good natured, but mentally handicapped Old Skull (the latter having had no personality, or dialogue, being just one of the crowd, until McGregor took over) and back dating the relationship between them. Killraven had met up with the band of rebels in the first issue, but McGregor has it be that Killraven actually knew them both from his days as a gladiator. It allows for richer, more textured interplay, and an almost family dynamic to emerge. He adds the less-altruistic Hawk and throws in Carmilla Frost, who provides an intellectual counterpoint to Killraven's more physical attitude. The characterization becomes more nuanced, the interplay paramount and far more than just dialogue to pad the spaces between the fight scenes. The comic becomes more philosophical, more lyrical and, yes, more humorous -- all trademarks of McGregor's style.

McGregor is probably a bit of a polarizing figure among readers, his heavy handed pretensions, and his penchant for indulgent introspection, and philosophical ruminations, liable to turn off as many readers as it turns on. Nor is it helped by the fact that McGregor's writing can lack a certain discipline -- a feeling that even he is letting his purple prose get away from him at times. But he keeps a better rein on it here. The 1970s saw a slew of post-apocalyptic sci-fi comics, and there's no doubt that it's McGregor's influence that made Killraven more than just one of the pack.

The series becomes a bit of a post-holocaust travelogue, as McGregor sends the Freemen on a cross America journey taking them everywhere from the Lincoln Memorial to the remnants of the Indianapolis 500 -- ostensibly questing for Killraven's long vanished brother. But also allowing McGregor to provide a running commentary on the American Dream -- and the failure of same. In some respects, the premise is that the Martians merely speeded up a destruction that mankind was already bringing upon itself. Rooted as it is in its milieu of Americana, McGregor gives the series a sense of place and identity....without sliding into parochial jingoism.

There is no clear objective of the Freemen in their rebellion against the Martians -- something which some reviews of this collection note and criticize. But, in a sense, that's the point. This is a story about survival, where the heroes eke out what victories they can against an overwhelming oppressor. There's no convenient Death Star to be destroyed that will turn the tide.

Trimpe stays for a few issues, then after a couple of nicely illustrated fill ins by Gene Colan and Rich Buckler, P. Craig Russell becomes the chief artist. Like Chaykin, Russell is a well regarded modern-day talent who was still feeling his way at this point in his career, and the early issues are unevenly illustrated, but his style and technique improve as the series goes (with the most notable jump being from the final issue of the series to the graphic novel, also by McGregor and Russell).

Along the way, Bill Mantlo pinch hits a few scripts, and does a credible job of trying to channel McGregor's spirit, so that those issues are also rich in lyrical captions and philosophical undercurrents.

The series follows the rambles of the Freemen, involved in episodic adventures, as well as a few multi-issue story arcs, the flavour ranging from action-adventure, to dark horror, to whimsy, with dollops of allegory and parable thrown in. There are two main story threads teased through the series. One involves Killraven having a mysterious ability to telepathically link with the minds of the Martians, and the other his quest for his brother (and another example of a slight inconsistency is that the brother seems to be his kid brother in the first issue, but by the end is his older brother).

When the series was cancelled with Amazing Adventures #39, it doesn't end on a cliff hanger, per se, but those threads are left unresolved, making it unsatisfying.

Fortunately, McGregor and company must've felt the same, because a few years later, when Marvel started experimenting with the new format "graphic novel" -- printed on over-sized pages, with multi-hue colours -- McGregor and Russell reunited for a Killraven graphic novel (which I review in detail here). And though it doesn't bring a definitive finish to the series, it nonetheless ties up some of those dangling threads (being set only a month after the last issue), bringing a satisfying closure so that there is a much greater sense of the series forming an epic saga of sorts. Of course, represented here, the graphic novel loses the vibrant colours (though it is published with grey shades giving it a more textured look than the earlier comics) and some "mature readers" material (one panel of a bare breast, and some profanity) have been edited out.

The fact that Marvel and McGregor and Russell would reunite some seven or eight years later perhaps suggests that Killraven did leave a lingering impression on its readers and creators.

So much so that almost eighteen years after that, Joseph Michael Lisner would co-write and illustrate a 22 page Killraven one-shot that seems like a bit of an oddity. A story where Killraven encounters a woman just revived from suspended animation, it is almost more an excuse in nostalgia to recap the series than an adventure in and of itself. Read on its own, it seems a curious publishing choice, and one wonders if it was an attempt to test the waters for a revival that never occurred (or morphed into Alan Davis re-invention). Lisner's script (with Eva Hopkins) lacks McGregor's complexity, though the art is certainly impressive, reflecting a modern, almost painted look (even reproduced in black and white).

As mentioned, this represents the entirety of the original Killraven saga. And it's not an unassailable success -- it takes a few issues to find its way, the art fluctuates and can be uneven, there are threads (and characters) one suspects McGregor maybe intended to return to, but never did. But it's also rich in quirky ideas, provocative ruminations, heroics and conflicts, and particularly well realized core of characters whose relationships and interplay give the personalities a dimension -- a humanity -- a lot of comics lack. You enjoy spending time with the characters as much as following their adventures. And thanks to McGregor and Russell returning to the series for the graphic novel, it succeeds as self-realized story arc. In fact, on a visceral level, that graphic novel, by providing an appropriate climax, helps reposition the entire series, taking a rambling, on going series and allowing it to metamorphise into a 500 page graphic novel.

A few years after Lisner's kick at the can, Alan Davis produced his own version of Killraven, but this time as a re-imagining of the concept, which I review here.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $


Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds  1983 (GN) 64 pgs.
Inside title: "Last Dreams Broken"

Killraven - cover by P. Craig RussellWritten by Don McGregor. Illustrated by P. Craig Russell. Painted by Petra Scotese.
Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Special Help: Louise Simonson, Laurie Sutton. Editors: Archie Goodwin, Jo Duffy.

Marvel Graphic Novel #7 -- oversized tabloid format.

Mature Readers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics

In the 1970s there was a whole sub-genre of post-Armageddon science fiction comics, usually with humans reduced to subservience under another life form. DC had Kamandi, Starfire, Hercules Unbound and Marvel had Killraven in the pages of Amazing Adventures (originally under the title War of the Worlds). Next to Kamandi, Killraven was the most successful, lasting over four years from Amazing Adventures #18 to its final issue, #39 -- a paltry 21 issues. What can I tell you? Superheroes just seem to rule comics.

Killraven/War of the Worlds, initially billed as being inspired by concepts created by H.G. Wells (very, very loosely inspired) was set in the early 21st Century after earth had been conquered by Martians who used humans as experiments, entertainment, and...food. Killraven and his band of sword wielding Freemen fought a guerrilla-style rebellion against the Martian baddies.

Which brings us to Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds: Last Dreams Broken, a 1983 follow-up -- or wrap up -- to that fondly remembered 1970s series, reuniting Don McGregor, the series' chief writer, and artist P. Craig Russell, who had illustrated the final half of the initial run. Killraven's still looking for his missing brother and he and his tiny band of rebels are scouting outside a Martian launch pad at Cape Canaveral. This was billed as an end to the saga, and with the ominous subtitle "Last Dreams Broken", you know someone's in for a disappointment. But McGregor cleverly works in the idea of various dreams -- Killraven's dream of finding his brother, the Martians' dreams of conquest, the dream of space exploration represented by the Kennedy launch pad -- so that you don't know whose dream will be broken by the end.

I won't give too much away, but it didn't end as downbeat as I thought it might. I'm not saying whether it still ended a little downbeat, or whether everything was happy-happy-happy, but when something is billed as a finale...well, you get nervous.

The original series could be pretty action-packed, but also talky and introspective, and here Don McGregor and P. Craig Russell slow-down a bit, going for mood and introspection and lyricism -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing if it works. And it does. Last Dreams Broken is a captivating read, lavishly illustrated by Russell, complemented by Petra Scotese' beautiful colours. Even letterer Tom Orzechowski gets in on the act, diverging a little from his wonderfully crisp style to play around a little with the word balloons.

Of course Russell's style has changed a little from his Amazing Adventure days: Killraven and the gang are slimmer, less muscle-bound, and Killraven's had a hair cut (I guess '80s mores rebelled against the hippy tresses of the '70s). And Killraven's more introspective.

As for Don MacGregor, what can be said? At his worst, he could be overwritten and almost incoherent in his pretensions. At his best, he brought to comics like Amazing Adventures and Jungle Action a literary style and philosophical ambition, and a maturity even in Comics Code Approved stuff, that's rarely been matched. He makes Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore look like...well, like comic book writers.

Unlike the series, this could utilize the "mature readers" scope of a graphic novel, but does so without seeming gratuitous...and it's actually more restrained than the comic in its violence and horror aspects (the regular comic could be a bit unpleasant, what with the Martians being particularly unkind conquerors).

When I first read this, I had only ever read a couple of issues if the original series (since then I've read the whole run thanks to Essential Killraven), and found it easy enough to get into. But I can't say how well this will read for someone wholly unfamiliar with the premise (though the graphic novel provides some introductory pages, giving some background, so I doubt a novice will feel left out).

Scrutinized closely, there are weaknesses. A couple of characters struggle with choices over the course of the story, but when they finally make their decisions, it's more because we knew they would, rather than because we actually see how events have affected their outlook. Reflecting back, the plot isn't all that complex for a 52 page story...but neither does it seem draggy or stretched out. It may be talky in spots, wrapped up in the characters, but it's good talk, and interesting characters.

This accomplishes what good SF should...removing you from your current time and place and fully enwrapping you in this atmospheric fantasy world, and it was pleasant to revisit with Killraven, M'Shulla, Old Skull and Carmilla Frost.

Original softcover price: $6.95 CDN./$5.95 USA.


Killraven  2007 (HC TPB) 132 pgs.

cover by DavisWritten and pencilled by Alan Davis. Inks by Mark Farmer.
Colours: Gregory Wright. Letters: Pat Prentice. Editor: Tom Brevoort.

Reprinting: the six-issue mini-series (2002-2003)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Published by Marvel Comics

Killraven first appeared back in the 1970s in Amazing Adventures, which was one of a number of comics Marvel (and DC) had in the 1960s and 1970s which were used as a forum for shifting features (instead of starting, and cancelling, a bunch of new comics...keep the same title going, but change what's inside).

Amazing Adventures started out publishing various super hero features, but by the middle of its run had switched over it featuring "War of the Worlds", loosely inspired by the H.G. Wells novel of a Martian invasion of earth. The Martians controlled the earth, and humans existed as slaves, or in little pockets of resistance, such as a band led by Jonathan Raven -- Killraven --, an escaped gladiator from the Martian arenas who fought mutants and high tech Martians, often with primitive swords. Occasionally the feature was re-named simply "Killraven" and, overall, ran twenty or so issues. Not great, but not bad for a SF series in a medium largely dominated by super heroes. In 1983, Killraven was resurrected for a graphic novel sequel, and that was about it. But clearly he made an impression because he's had a couple of returns (I had only read one comic as a kid, and it certainly stuck with me). In 2001 there was a one-shot regular comic, and then came 2002's 6 issue mini-series.

This Killraven reflects a new trend in comics.

Because comics are a continuous medium, every story is generally seen as part of an overall arc. The Iron Man who appears today is the same one who appeared in the 1960s (even though, technically, he'd be pretty old). But things changed when DC Comics literally re-interpreted its whole line in the 1980s; the new stories weren't meant to refer to the older ones. Marvel has tried that itself, such as with John Byrne's critically lambasted Spider- Man: Chapter One, the whole "Ultimate" line, and the various "Marvel Age" series which shamelessly re-write and re-draw early stories for modern "tastes". It's what movies and TV series do all the time. They constantly re-make and re-imagine old properties (The Addams Family movies aren't meant to be a continuation of the Addams Family TV series).

All this is by way of explaining that Alan Davis' Killraven isn't a sequel to the 1970s series, but a re-make. Fans will certainly feel pretty much at home, but they might be surprised by the way Killraven first "meets" familiar characters, and how some of those characters have been re-invented.

The mini-series takes what was an on-going series and tries to reshape it as a single story arc (albeit, an episodic story arc). Broken up into small chapters that, at times, overlap from comic to comic, the impression is that this was meant to be read as one 130 or so page graphic novel (though, ironically it was a few years before Marvel released it as a collected edition). In fact, one could almost imagine this as being Davis' attempt to envision what a Killraven movie might be like -- taking familiar situations and character names from the old comic, but not being too faithful to the source as they are reused for this stand alone adventure. (In fact, there is apparently talk of a Killraven movie...and yet another comic book re-imagining!)

Davis is a fine artist, whose work always reminds me a little of the late Don Newton, or even Neal Adams; I'm still not sure he's on the same level as either man, viscerally speaking, but technically he's faultless. His visuals are moody and effective (the blimp/train hybrid was neat) and, bottom line with Davis, you get good work. As a writer, he keeps the pacing up, and, combined with the art, there's a fair amount of atmosphere at work, aided by the brooding colours. Which, after all, is part of the appeal of SF -- transporting the reader to this strange world (even if our world, in the future). Though like the original series, there's a certain grisliness to some of the concepts (without being a "mature readers" comic).

Though it's not bad, it lacks a certain inspiration. Which is odd since one assumes Davis wouldn't have tackled such an obscure property if it wasn't a labour of love. Maybe it's because Davis is trying to cover pre-established plot points that this series seems a tad perfunctory. He's dotting his "i"s and crossing his "t"s, but not much more. We barely get even a hint that supporting characters M'Shulla and Carmilla are lovers before she's pregnant.

There are conversations about "freedom" meant to give the series a philosophical edge, but Davis fails to bring the same level of character development and philosophical nuance to the thing that Don McGregor did in the original series, where thoughtful ruminations were frequent and the character interplay was paramount. Many of the characters here are barely fleshed out at all, or are defined rather simply -- Carmilla Frost, a scientist in the original series, is here just another escaped gladiator, meaning she doesn't provide the alternate perspective she did in the old comics; Hawk, who was surly and belligerent, is here made more of an out-and-out antagonist, making him a broader version of the original. Old Skull is generally just called Skull (and Killraven is referred to as Raven). In the original series, Old Skull was a big, bald, slightly retarded guy with a mustache; here he's stil bald with a mustache, but more portly than tall, and though he refers to being slow-witted, is actually sage and avuncular.

Even John, a boy who joins Killraven's band, never seems to grow into anything. I focus on him because, of all the characters, he is original to Davis' series (and one almost wonders, assuming Davis read the old comics as a kid, whether he's kind of a surrogate for the author's youthful self -- a kid with, basically, 20th Century knowledge, who finds himself adventuring with these 21st Century freedom fighters).

This new Killraven is an O.K. read but it never quite becomes more than that, and never quite evinces the edge, or depth, of the original. The idea of trying to "re-imagine" a property is certainly intriguing (though it plays heck with continuity). I could imagine it's an enticing prospect to a lot of future comics creators. And I like the idea of taking an on going series that ran for many issues, and encapsulating it in a self-contained story. But too often I think the result can end up being a little homogeonized and bland.

And since the original series is now available in its entirety in Essential Killraven, it too can be read between a single cover anyway.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: ___

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