Monday, January 29, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Killraven

(or "Turn And Face The Strange Ch-Ch-Changes")

Looking at 'Killraven' as a concept, it shouldn't surprise any student of comics that the original concept came from Roy Thomas. The man is a loyal fan of classic pulp fiction and Golden Age comics, having championed Conan, the Justice Society, and (in his various stints on Doctor Strange) H.P. Lovecraft. So, "The Martians from 'War of the Worlds' come back after getting their shots," well...yeah, that's a Roy Thomas concept, alright.

That pulp influence shows throughout the storytelling engine. Killraven himself is a sword-wielding, brash, tough-talking former gladiator in the Martian slave pens, who's escaped with a battle-hardened band of his comrades and wanders the Martian-ruled former United States seeking for a way to overthrow the cruel tentacled tyrants. It's set a few decades in the future, so you can have flying cars and ray-guns to go with your swords and horses; the ruined USA is your setting, with each issue taking on a sort of travelogue motif; the dialogue and tone are all very much in the 'Conan' vein, with Killraven and his first lieutenant, M'Shulla, faux-bickering in the manner of Conan and his trusty ally of the month (I'll admit it, all of Conan's buddies blur together in my mind. The 'Essential Conan' is out of print, too, so I'll never be able to get them straightened out...)

This probably isn't going to win the Pulitzer Prize anytime soon, but Thomas has laid us down a template for fast-paced, pulpy fun. But he was also editor-in-chief at the time, and that's something that cuts into your writing duties...so he took the idea of Killraven, and after only a couple of issues (which also included Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman taking a hand), it passed to Don McGregor.

McGregor, though, wasn't interested in telling the stories Thomas designed the engine to run. He was more interested in using the ruined USA as a vehicle for social commentary on present-day culture, and although the Martians remained the series main villain, they faded a bit into the background as the setting became more of a character in its own right. New characters were introduced like Carmilla Frost, who were a bit more introspective and suited to McGregor's style, and Killraven himself seemed a bit out of place in his own title. (Indeed, his constant arguments about Frost's "overthinking" seemed at times to be arguments with the writer as much as with his comrades-in-arms.)

Was the sudden shift in tone successful? It's difficult to say. Certainly, there's still a strong core of Killraven fans who think that McGregor's melancholy pieces are more interesting than Thomas's initial broad strokes, but I can't help but wonder what the series would have been like if Thomas had picked a writer whose vision was more consistent with his own. Because tone is one of those subtle things, but changing the tone of a series can be every bit as big of a change as killing off a supporting character. After all, if you're not interested in writing fast-paced pulp adventures of a brash, tough-talking gladiator, why did you sign on to write 'Killraven'?

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

John Seavey, very much studying your comments on the big Joe Rice thread with interest!

But have you considered that without the shift to someone like MacGregor, Killraven would've just ended up being Kamandi-Lite? (Which probably was what it was greenlighted on account of...)

I'm only playing Devil's Advocate. The only MacGregor book I ever felt attached to was Jungle Action. "Panther's Rage" -- man, at the age I read it I was really getting some different information from what was in the Hardy Boys, you know?

I think with the Storytelling Engine idea you've hit a certain nail on a certain head, bravo! I don't agree with many of your specific analyses, but I'm interested to see what you'll pick next. And if you're taking requests...

The original X-Men, please! To my mind, there you have one of the most meticulously set-up Storytelling Engines of all time. And then, if I may be so bold? A follow-up Storytelling Engine on the All-New, All-Different X-Men. An examination of the world's only truly successful reboot, if you will. Fertile ground.

If you post on either of these, I'll put up a responding post on my blog! How could I not? It's irresistible! But now, forgive me John, I don't want to be pushy. I'm just overexcited, is all. Actually I'm downright shocked (and pleased!) that you've chosen such off-beat titles to examine. Killraven. You're weird. What's next, Morbius?

I'll be around, and reading, regardless. Cheers!

Signed (since Blogger doesn't seem to be working),

Plok (Pillock)

John Seavey said...

X-Men is on the agenda, but I don't yet own the relevant Essentials, so I need to buy and read them before I write about them. (I've got the Claremont era, 1-7, but I don't have the older Lee/Kirby stuff, and I want to do Lee/Kirby before I do Claremont.)

The Claremont stuff will probably be a two-parter, since I think you're really looking at two different storytelling engines; one prior to issue #200, when Xavier was in charge, and one after #200, when he was off in space. So it'll be two columns there.

As to the weird, I go where the books take me. :)

Brendan H. said...

Just discovered your blog courtesy of "Comics Should Be Good", and man, I'm a new fan. All the Storytelling Engines are well thought out, and the "Meaning of Lobdell" had me laughing out loud. Keep up the good work.

NINE9INCHE STUD said...

just ended up being Kamandi-Lite? (Which probably was what it was greenlighted on account of...)
And it did.If you though that Don MacGregor,did a good on Killraven ,then you must not be paying attention.The book,what might have quality,became pointless,mindless crap.Carmilla Frost was a cunt,M'Shulla,was a ballbusted fag,Grok,was waste,Hawk was crazy and nothing went anywhere.The seeries could been something a combination of Conan-a warrior,leading armies against the bad guys,but nothing ever got close that-ever.Read it again and ask yourselves question-did Killraven ever accomplish anything other than shouting you Martian Master you?Did he lead an army of freedom fighter or gather anyone beyond,his Blake Seven Five neat guys revolution ?the Storytelling Engine -there was no storytelling engine-just write and draw crap issue to issue and get no place real fast-until cancellation.
Leastways,the newer series went someplace.Beginning,middle and sort of end.

NINE9INCHE STUD said...

Looking at 'Killraven' as a concept, it shouldn't surprise any student of comics that the original concept came from Roy Thomas. The man is a loyal fan of classic pulp fiction and Golden Age comics, having championed Conan, the Justice Society, and (in his various stints on Doctor Strange) H.P. Lovecraft.
Roy Thomas,should have guided Killraven through the vstory like George Lucas did with Star Wars-story one-hero begins his journey.Story two-hero find things about himself and who the villians are.Story Three-hero find answers and conclusion to himself and villian-defeats a few major bad guys-goes onto whatever was next for the heroes to do.
That pulp influence shows throughout the storytelling engine. Killraven himself is a sword-wielding, brash, tough-talking former gladiator in the Martian slave pens, who's escaped with a battle-hardened band of his comrades and wanders the Martian-ruled former United States seeking for a way to overthrow the cruel tentacled tyrants. It's set a few decades in the future, so you can have flying cars and ray-guns to go with your swords and horses; the ruined USA is your setting.
Take this premise,run with to fullest potention,not what Don MacGregor did-he just ran around pc soap opera nonesence until Marvel said enough the comic isn't selling call a day.
Killraven should gotton separated his parents,raised by Martian,got trained as a gladiator,set his band of rebels,escaped and began to build a larger,more five neat guys resisance force-turned into an army.Took over a major city-say New York and used that as a staging force to take down the Martians.
Then after a few years,Killraven spend time opposing other Martian nexts in other cities.There is your series.Fuck all interacial shit between Carmilla Frost and M'Shulla,fuck the clonal man mystery,fuck the 48 hour man,and all that hippie shit that went no place.
McGregor, though, wasn't interested in telling the stories Thomas designed the engine to run. He was more interested in using the ruined USA as a vehicle for social commentary on present-day culture, and although the Martians remained the series main villain, they faded a bit into the background as the setting became more of a character in its own right. New characters were introduced like Carmilla Frost, who were a bit more introspective and suited to McGregor's style, and Killraven himself seemed a bit out of place in his own title. (Indeed, his constant arguments about Frost's "overthinking" seemed at times to be arguments with the writer as much as with his comrades-in-arms.)
And this because Don MacGregor was a hippie,pot smoking.liberal hack,not a writer.
A better,more qualified and talented writer would took the engine Thomas began and expanded it-a hack shoves out of place shit into an idea and destroys it.
Got it-remember it.

brian said...

It's interesting that you feel McGregor kinda did a hack job hijacking a storyline he didn't really want to write. Have you ever read his indie comic Sabre (it was on Eclipse)? It is Killraven with a black guy basically.