Amazing Adventures #18-39
Marvel Comics, 20-30 cents, 1973-76
Hot on the heels of a fury of fantasy heroes such as Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, Roy Thomas looked for further ways to expand this non-powered concept of heroes. Taking H.G. Wells’s noted novel War of the Worlds and morphing it into a post apocalyptic action series based on the Martians second visit to earth, they’ve totally subjugated mankind, made them slaves, as well as use humans in genetic experimentation to further their goals of dominance.
In the introduction, he creates Killraven, a spectacularly successful arena fighter who’s a rebel with a secret even he doesn’t know. He gives the adventure proceedings a new coat of paint as it were, unique from its fellow fantasy comics brethren.
The first issue, written by Thomas, has some good establishing art by Neal Adams. Good with depicting action and distinct likenesses, Adams immediately gives the series an oomph that would have been difficult for a lesser artist. He makes the first story very successful, establishing the cast and world in a visually exciting manner. Sadly, Adams isn’t available afterwards, but Howie Chaykin steps in admirably. While he isn’t the draftsman Adams is, his forte with fantasy based themes, as well as exotic costuming make this a still interesting read. Continuing in this schizophrenic creative vein, Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman step in for scripting chores on the next two issues, keeping the action going from what I assume is Thomas skeleton for the series. Regardless, the proceedings are still on track, probably saying more about the method of Marvel comics production and its in-house talent pool at the time than anything else. Don McGregor takes over as the series regular writer next issue.
The next four issues feature new regular artist Herb Trimpe. While McGregor’s prose displays an inspired attack, the strip goes more into irony and commentary on the human condition. Whether it’s deadlines, or budget(?), Trimpe’s art gets more and more rushed from the first issue, and by the last two, story content is reduced to 15 pages per issue, with golden age monster reprints filling the book(ugh!). While he’s not able to get past flat, stereotypical characters, the divorce from Marvel reality helps enormously, and the series becomes more a treatise on mankind according to McGregor’s philosophy. The mere 20 cent cover price makes it a bargain compared to the majority of Marvel’s output of super schmucks. Hope the new to comics Rich Buckler’s art next issue can elevate it…ooh, Klaus Jansen inks, too!
Well, after the totally underwhelming run of Herb Trimpe on art, newcomer Rich Buckler does a fill in on issue 25, and the possibilities of the book begin to show a bit as it starts to evolve. While Buckler’s figure work is a bit wonky, his emulation of both Kirby and Neal Adams add an excitement to the proceedings that wasn’t there before. The next issue is another fill in by Gene Colan, of all people; he gives this episode a dark melancholy that helps demonstrate McGregor’s story emphasis. This schizophrenic approach to visuals,-(hey, who’s got time to do a Killraven issue?), and the continued use of a mere 15 pages to tell a one off, really hurt McGregor’s strengths in trying to make his point. On one hand, he’s got bigger fish to fry, but can’t do it in 15 pages AND perform the dynamics that Marvel comics demand (editorially, I assume).
Then in issue 27, Craig Russell arrives. Two things happen that make this story work so much better than than the entire previous run. One, Russell’s art is fully ensconced in the romantic and social depths that McGregor’s writing has desperately needed a visual partner for, and Russell’s chops are up to the task. Second, he is able to turn this into a two parter, utilizing 30 pages to tell the entire story, and give it the space and length it needs to be convincing. Killraven’s band here is also given the room necessary to develop their one dimensional depiction so far, and begins turning them into genuine people. The best story of the bunch thus far, both in writing and in physical depiction.
McGregor and Russell totally fooled me here. While last issue provided a satisfactory end to the Death Birth Citadel story, this next issue picks up mere minutes from the end of the last, making this project not one of several short stories, but evolving into a continuing narrative, really without a concrete end from issue to issue. I notice as well that Russell not only does pencils and inks, but has been doing the coloring for the last two issues as well. If creators were trying to transform this into quite possibly the most ambitious workload as possible, this comic is able demonstration of it.
Russell’s art complements McGregor’s prose perfectly. While it can be argued McGregor bites off more than he can chew in his socially conscientious narrative, Russell’s art is equal to the task, providing the needed checks and balances, elevating a mere post apocalyptic tale into what can be said is as close to a work of art as Marvel could ever publish.
But commercial publication schedules will have their way, and this one provides more casualties than just McGregor and Russell, as issue 30 provides a frickin reprint of the Herb Trimpe story we just read a few issues ago, Killraven not an old enough property to have enough history of reprints to choose from, so this one is bookended by some character pages by Russell along with a couple of pages of the main villain reiterating what we pretty much knew. Whoop, wait, the character pages provide a couple of tidbits fleshing out some facts hereto unknown about the characters. But otherwise, ugh, pass.
Issues 31 and 32 get things going again, solidifying the continuous narrative McGregor is pursuing, with little advancement in plot, but it doesn’t seem to matter. At this point, Killraven’s story with his crew isn’t about the quest, but more about McGregor’s disillusionment with humanity and its self destructive path. One that the Martians have not only finished, but provide a inevitable exclamation point for. #32 emphasizes this, putting Killraven and his buds into a prewar amusement park that caters to the dreams of the freemen, showing in its conclusion the futility of man’s selfish goals in the first place. These nihilistic threads are balanced by Russell’s exquisite art, giving hope in the form of beautiful fantasies for the freemen. By this issue, he has mercifully given up coloring and handed over inks to the excellent Dan Adkins.
Of course, after two mere issues of overwhelming craft, we fall victim to another fill in. This one written not by McGregor, but Bill Mantlo and drawn by the ever present Herb Trimpe. This issue stands out as a sore thumb scheduled as a fill in, the editor knowing by now this will be the norm. However, astute readers will notice this one should have appeared after next issue. The story itself? Well, let’s just say this. While it was originally published in ‘75, it lands with a thud as perhaps the most graceless way to offer a sliver of continuity with a writer that had little idea of the narrative McGregor is working toward here. Also, even in 1975, this had to come off as fairly racist in its idea and execution. Now it seems little more than a horrible embarrassment in the annals of comic publishing history.
While #33 is pretty jarring in its near complete train wrecking of the series flow, with #34, our intrepid duo manage to right the ship again with perhaps the end(?) of the current storyline, and their ultimate battle with the toughest villain of the series. McGregor provides dramatic sacrifice for his characters, and Russell gives the proceedings a convincing display of an epic finish. War of the Worlds comes full circle here, transforming its narrative of basic action comic into something mainstream comics hadn’t seen before.
And here you have it. The final five issues of Amazing Adventures featuring Killraven complete his saga, in a more or less satisfactory manner. The deadlines for the book have at this point convinced McGregor and Russell to limit themselves to more modest, single issue stories, or perhaps McGregor has decided that format suits his needs better. The aim of each issue seems better off for it, primarily since this was a bimonthly comic.
#35 features Jack Abel inks, perhaps the best work I’ve seen by him, no doubt guided by the tight pencil work of Russell. Sonny Trinidad embellishes #36, and #37 has Abel back again, all to satisfactory ends. Each issue’s themes work very well in the 18 page chunks, suggesting McGregor has a bit more of a handle on how to approach his stories. There’s also a nice balance between attempting to tell a story, with the metaphorical flourishes still there, just reigned in somewhat by conventional story standards, and perhaps the better for it. At last, the series, while not as ambitious now, has started to gel somewhat.
#38, being one of those shoehorned in fill ins, features for some strange reason another script by Bill Mantlo, I guess because he did the first fill in. While not as offensive as the first, retreads a theme McGregor has already covered, and is clunkily drawn by Keith Giffen (in his first published work?), whose Kirby influences only hurt his cause, both in terms of the utterly graceless figure drawing, and some pretty insufferable page layouts. Once again, you can pass on this one.
#39, the final issue, has McGregor and Russell depicting what they seem to know would be their last; they made sure they got it done in time for publication, with Russell inking his own work, but in a more simple, flowing style, showcasing what would later become his signature traits. McGregor, for his part, realizes there’s absolutely no way to tie up or finish his plot threads, and avoids them entirely. While visually looking a bit rushed, it’s nice they were at least able to go out on their own terms.
In hindsight, it seems inevitable this series wouldn’t make it commercially, as I can’t imagine the young male audience (for the most part, I presume), having the patience for the all over the place storytelling, and the artistic level set up by the creators here far too labor intensive and prose heavy to keep it them entertained, as well as on schedule. While Killraven never quite grabs you on a personal level (its characters being pretty much vehicles for McGregor’s main interests), the series remains a piece of Marvel Comics history that shows an experiment, that while never standing a chance under the systems it inhabited, at least a demonstration of what could be in commercial comic books.
A smoother read of this series would be pretty much the first couple of issues for set up (#18 & #19), skipping to #25 & #26, the semi successful fill ins, #27 is where Russell comes on board, skip 30 with the reprint, read #31 & #32, skipping the abominable issue #33 fill in, picking it up again at #34-37, skipping the sad issue #38 fill in, and end with the somber finish of #39. This order of experience will give you an uninterrupted, more pleasing read of the series, unencumbered by the commercial necessities of deadlines and interruption of mainstream hack work.