Thursday, 4 November 2010

Nic's Sticky Notes: KillRaven

"...and now, brought to you by special request from the Lovely Mr Lee Grice himself..."

KillRaven – Warrior of the Worlds

Written by: Don McGregor, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Bill Mantlo, Marv Wolfman

Art by: P. Craig Russell, Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Herb Trimpe, Gene Colan, Rich Buckler, Sal Buscema

Published by: Marvel (beginning 1973)

Yes – all those people really did have a hand in it, even though this incarnation of the title was just 39 issues long. Most of these creators were involved for only one or two issues and the “golden age” of Killraven began when Don McGregor took over writing duties from issue 21 and P Craig Russell signed on as penciller a few issues later.

The initial idea was co-plotted and designed by Roy Thomas and Neal Adams (not, in fact, Freddie Mercury’s mum as far as I know, but I could be mistaken…)

The story follows Jonathan Raven (or KillRaven as he was dubbed in the arena), an escaped gladiator who now leads a band of rebels, fighting for freedom against the tyrannical Martian overlords, as they cross a ruined America in search of KillRaven’s missing brother.

The subtitle “Warrior of the Worlds” refers to this being a kind of sequel to H G Wells “War of The Worlds” set on an alternate future earth (Marvel’s Earth -691). So far, so generic science-fantasy (Killraven is a gladiator with a sword in a world of cyborgs) update of classic literature. It is also, as with lots of 70s sci-fi across different media, incredibly, heavily “over-written” by today’s standards.

The story begins as a kind of all action, fast talking, pulp adventure along the lines of “Conan versus the Martians”, but after Mcgregor and Russell took over the comic developed a brooding, melancholy air and becomes something more introspective. Interestingly the character of Killraven does not really change, rather it is his supporting cast and the adventures they find themselves in that have altered, leaving the hero almost at odds with his own story. This is even directly addressed a couple of times by the characters, so leads me to believe it is deliberate commentary on the form. It sometimes works well, and is sometimes forced and awkward, but it is a brave and innovative thing to have attempted. This tension between creative fearlessness and successful storytelling is an issue that will raise its head again and again with this title.

The first issue shows us a world where the Martians have returned, successfully this time, and now occupy earth. We learn that the humans initially attempted resistance, unleashing biological weapons against the invaders but the strategy backfired spectacularly as the lethal pathogens turned on their creators wiping out a significant portion of the population. Secure in their victory the Martians subjugate the remaining inhabitants of Earth, apart from a handful of collaborators, breeding them either for food and sacrifice or for entertainment in the arena if they are strong specimens.

Humans are a hardy breed though and not about to stand for this kind of thing. There is always a band of rag-tag rebels, you know how this works, right? Killraven’s band of Freemen includes M’Shulla Scott (KillRaven’s black lieutenant – yes, the colour of his skin is very important to the message, this was the 70s, remember), the “scientist with a secret” Carmilla Frost, the cynical, bitter native American Hawk, the faithful but slow-witted strongman Old Skull, and Grok - a sub-human creature fanatically devoted to Carmilla.

At various points their paths are crossed by an exotic variety of dangerous females such as Volcana Ash (whose origin sequence has to be seen to be believed!), the human/plant hybrid Mint Julep and the sense defying Mourning Prey who help them in various ways. I’m not sure if this was intentional and was trying to communicate any specific message, if so it is never really developed and I didn’t really notice it at first reading but it struck me just now, thinking back over the story.

The main antagonists are, of course, the Martians, but they do not often appear “on page.”, which actually works well as a means of amplifying their alien menace. The band is primarily pursued by a Martian agent, the cyborg assassin Skar, leading to some beautiful fight scenes. Of course just having to defeat or escape from Skar would be far too easy and the heroes run into conflict with other mutants, monsters, human collaborators and transhuman creatures amongst them the wonderfully named Pstun-Rage, the Death-Breeders, Atalon the Fear Master, the Sacrificer and Abraxas.

Probably as a result of having such a “revolving door for creators”, the whole thing is really a messy grab-bag of scraps and half finished ideas that really shouldn’t work at all. You get the impression of “kids in a sweetshop”, and so what we get is a mad, dizzy sugar-rush of a comic where every individual concept probably “seemed like a good idea at the time”. It is clearly one of the most ambitious comics ever put out, but to realise that ambition it would have needed an Alan Moore or Grant Morrison on the script. It is keen and excited, but not always quite up to the job. Strangely though, it rises above all of this and manages to make something quite astonishingly ground-breaking.

Part of the mystery can be explained, I think, by the fact that this was a low selling book, constantly in danger of cancellation, and so was “beneath of the attention” of many people who would have been much stricter about what was allowed to be included in a higher profile title. This gave the creators a massive amount of freedom (in the end it gave them enough rope to hang themselves and it was cancelled and wrapped up quickly, as can be seen from the ending) and they used it to explore madness, love, violence, philosophy, justice, political satire, psychological trauma and the nature of “true freedom”.

The fact that the creators were open to experimentation and breaking boundaries means that Killraven is where we see the first inter-racial kiss in comics. The fact that you wouldn’t notice this as anything unusual when reading it now shows just what a different world this book was created in and you need to keep that in mind when reading it to understand just how dangerous it was to explore some of the concepts it did.

When this was published, of course, the Civil Rights movement in America was still very much a going concern - it was not quite five years since Martin Luther King had been assassinated when this came out. Imagine if you had read this in a small town in Alabama, by the light from the burning crosses, where everyone's daddy was a Klansman. Bear in mind that there was a recorded Klan lynching in 1981, for which the perpetrators were found guilty in 1987 and executed in 1997 - this stuff is not that far in the past.

McGregor looked to bring much more social commentary and psychological / emotional realism to the story than previous writers. This was accomplished mainly by means of a shift that puts the actual landscape much more at the centre of the story, rather than it just being “backgrounds” that fill in the white space of the panel. Much of the satire, though, relies on readers recognising the settings / locations in relation to what is happening in them. I will admit that much of this was lost on me, apart from the very obvious ones such as a slave market on the statue of Abraham Lincoln (nowhere did I say the script was subtle!), as I just didn’t know the places or their associations with American popular culture in the 1970s.

P Craig Russell’s art is beautiful, even on 30-odd year old cheap paper with the shocking colour repro available to printers then. In places he brings a fine art level of technical skill and his design sense is nothing short of incredible.

The best way to think of his art is “visual music” and it adds a lightness and subtlety to a script that can swing alarmingly from “sound and fury” to somewhat pretentious exposition and otherwise might have been heavy going. It is a very rare artist who has the ability to take a story so stuffed with concepts, dialogue and explanatory captions it is bursting the 32 pages allotted to it and deliver such graceful, seamless pages.

When it came to the idea of “location as character” McGregor was very lucky that in P Craig Russell he had an artist skilled enough to pull off recognisable “future ruined” real locations without them being intrusive. Similarly his “trippier” locations, such as the adventure that takes place inside a holographic dream world where we enter projected visualisations of the Freemen’s hopes and fears are in safe and capable hands.

The sheer imagination on display in the creature and concept design is some of the best I have seen in comics. I really want a purple serpent horse!

Whatever its flaws, though, it was trying to do something new and meaningful and adult with a medium that was elsewhere stuck in “monster of the week territory”, and it should be applauded for that. There are definite flashes of inspiration, but no-one had walked this way before, and so there is the impression that the creators were not always sure how to set about what they wanted to accomplish. To be honest, it does show its age a bit now, but this lends it a kind a eerie “retro-future” quality that has probably improved it.

All in all it is a flawed masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece none the less.

Oh - and if anyone wants to watch a special showing of the all naked version of the Dr Who Xmas special that's Lee's next request, so expect an emergency broadcast by the BBC in about 10 mins when he's had time to have a wee and make a cuppa!

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