Earth. 2018. Humanity has fallen. The planet has fallen. The cruel, warmongering Martians, once written about by H.G. Wells, rule a world they have ruined, with humans reduced to Quislings, slaves, or food. There is no future, not if the Martians have their say.
But, as terrifying as their weapons are (mighty war machines, twisted mutagenic experiments, plain old-fashioned viciousness), and as crafty as their nefarious commanders are, the Martians have sown the seeds of their own defeat. They love gladiators, love seeing humans fight against each other in a doomed struggle to survive. And with their insistence on bloodsport, the Martians have trained a man who would see them overthrown in the deadliest of arts. His name is Jonathan Raven. In the arena, he was called Killraven. And while he may have grown up in a world ruled by Martians, he has learned the truth they tried to destroy — the history of the world that was.
Now Killraven and his friends — a motley crew whose core is made up of his fellow gladiators M’Shulla, Old Skull, and Hawk the Slayer (not that one), rogue scientist Carmilla Frost and her mutant companion Grok — will stop at nothing to end the Martians’ wicked reign and rebuild Earth.
Killraven was created by Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, and Gerry Conway. The majority of his original run of stories were written by Don McGregor (co-creator of Erik Killmonger and writer of the legendary Black Panther story “Panther’s Rage”) and illustrated by P. Craig Russell (a prolific, masterful artist whose decades of work include numerous collaborations with Neil Gaiman). This Epic Collection, subtitled Warrior of the Worlds, collects the complete run of Killraven stories from Marvel’s Amazing Adventures anthology and the 7th Marvel Graphic Novel, also published as Killraven: Warrior of the Worlds and titled “Last Dreams Broken.”
In addition to Russell, McGregor, Thomas, Adams, and Conway, the collection features work from illustrators Herb Trimpe, Howard Chaykin, Rich Buckler, Gene Colan, Keith Giffen, and Sal Buscema and writers Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, and Bill Mantlo.
Killraven‘s inkers include Russell, Frank Chiaramonte, Jack Abel, Frank McLaughlin, Frank Giacoia, Yolande Pijcke, Buckler, Dan Adkins, Dan Green, D. Bruce Berry, Sonny Trinidad, Al Milgrom, and Mike Esposito.
Letters were handled by John Costanza, Dave Hunt, Irving Watanabe, Art Simek, Charlotte Jetter, Annette Kawecki, Roger Slifer, Jose Rosen, Karen Mantlo, Denise Wohl, Jean Izzo, and Tom Orezechowski.
Serving as colorists were Petra Goldberg, Glynis Wein, Linda Lessmann, Russell, Don Warfield, Janice Cohen, Phil Rachelson, and George Roussos. The collective Killraven creative team’s work was restored for this collection.
At its best, Killraven is, to put it bluntly, a hell of a comic. Russell, McGregor, and company have crafted a truly desperate battle for their daring freedom fighters to wage. Killraven and his fellow Freemen are smart, cunning, decisive, and do not know the meaning of the word “quit.” But that does not mean their victories will come easy, or without hurt.
The Martians and their forces are as resourceful as they are despicable. When fights break out in Killraven, they go down to the wire. As beautiful as Russell’s illustrations are, he never lets violence become so aestheticized that it loses its impact or its darkness. This is particularly true in the “Last Dreams Broken” graphic novel, which is both Killraven‘s conclusion and one of its highlights.
By the same token, as bleak as Killraven gets (one story, for instance, involves Killraven and company trying to save a young couple forced to mate with each other so that the Martians can savor some delicious human veal) when the opportunity comes for a moment of genuine warmth and loveliness, Russell and McGregor take full advantage of it.
As the run progresses, McGregor pushes Killraven‘s scripting, combining grand prose passages with more sedate (by comics standards) spoken dialogue. The dramatic prose emphasizes the humanity of Killraven and his crew (through its contrast with their speaking styles) and the sheer vastness of their mission (through the sheer force of it). Consider the page below, where Killraven comes to a key realization about the training and experimentation that shaped him into the man he is:
McGregor’s narration, in concert with Russell’s collage work — itself a significant shift in form from his regular illustration style — gives Killraven’s realization an echoing force. It is a moment of revelation and transformation, of deep and permanent shifting. Trite though the phrase may be, nothing will ever be the same for Killraven again — and the aggressive stylization of both text and illustration drives this truth home. It’s a terrific, indelible piece of comicscraft.
There’s a lot that I dig about Killraven. It’s well, well worth checking out. With that said, my recommendation comes with caution: Killraven is a comic from the 1970s/1980s. In many ways, it has aged quite gracefully. Some of its content (the series-long romance between M’Shulla and Carmilla Frost, which features the first interracial kiss in a color western comic book) was genuinely groundbreaking, and for that, it should be celebrated.
However, there are also places where the book falls into the traps of racist language/clueless white writing about characters of color — a guest issue written by Mantlo, where Killraven meets a literal underground community of Black Americans who wear loincloths, wield spears, and spitefully call him “whitey” is pretty damn shameful, no matter how well-meant its message of “we’re all human” may have been. Killraven must carry its failures.
With that said, far more works in Killraven than does not. “Last Dreams Broken” and the earlier stories “He’s a Jolly Dead Rebel”, and “A Death in the Family” are particularly strong entries in what is, by and large, a really damn compelling post-apocalyptic science fiction comic. Go in aware of where and how Killraven fails, and its successes are well worth checking out.
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