Friday, September 7, 2018

Mars Attacks!

It was hard to resist picking up the premiere issue of a new Amazing Adventures venture in mid-1973 that featured an adaptation of H.G. Wells' famous "The War Of The Worlds" saga that so successfully captured the imaginations of readers in the late 1800s and, later, radio listeners in 1938, before eventually making it to the big screen in 1951 and again in 2005. Conceived by Roy Thomas two years earlier in '71 as part of a list of ideas for new titles at the request of Stan Lee--a grab-bag of concepts which included "I, Werewolf" (arriving on the rack as Werewolf By Night) as well as new stories for Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, and Red Wolf--Thomas's adaptation of WOTW was more of a sequel, offering a different take on the story of the Martian invasion that didn't end with the deaths of the invasion forces due to their inability to resist the pathogens to which we had become immune.

"What I wanted to do ... was something different. A comic-book which would be a vast, hopefully unending sequel to the Wells classic. A storyline which would pit earthmen in a kind of guerrilla warfare against the Martians, who had returned approximately 100 years after their initial invasion attempt ... and who this time had come, seen, and conquered.

"... As deadline time rolled around ... I had become too immersed with editorial duties to burn the midnight oil over scripts the way I used to with Neal [Adams] on X-MEN and AVENGERS, so I sorrowfully but confidently turned the scripting reins over to Gerry Conway (who now, at 20, has become virtually Marvel's senior writer, doing major titles like SPIDEY, F.F., and THOR)--and now the verdict of comic-book history is up to you.

"As for myself: to me, it's a triumph just to see the book in print after these two long, lonely years [of getting it off the ground]. I'll be watching its progress closely--more closely than that of many other titles ... and I can only hope that WAR OF THE WORLDS becomes the smash hit which I always wanted it to be." -- Roy Thomas, in the issue's afterword

I'm pleased to say that I own the entire run of the AA "War Of The Worlds" series, but apparently I was part of a limited audience. The final verdict on the series depends on how you'd define a "hit," of course, though there would likely be consensus that it wasn't even in the neighborhood of being the smash hit that Thomas envisioned. That might have been a different story if steps were taken to secure a regular writer/artist team for the book that looked down the road and plotted this "war" beyond simply that of Killraven and his band of "Freemen" waging a resistance movement against the Martians and their human collaborators; instead, following the launch issue, it seemed like the company was left with a concept that could just be handed off to whoever wanted to run with it, which does a disservice to those readers who might have been hooked by the momentum established by Conway and the efforts of artists Neal Adams and Howard Chaykin.

Unfortunately, we were all out of luck on all three of those talents. Conway's plate was apparently as full as Thomas's, departing the book after two issues. Adams, juggling several other time-consuming projects, could only complete pages for the initial story's first half, with Chaykin stepping in to complete it; but Chaykin, who, like Jackson Guice and one or two others, never seems to stay on a project for long, departed with Conway. Shortly afterward, Don McGregor, who already had his hands full with the "Panther's Rage" series in Jungle Action, took over the book for the remainder of its run, with a succession of artists such as Herb Trimpe, Rich Buckler, Gene Colan, and Craig Russell all lending a hand to keep the book on track (along with, needless to say, supplemental reprints to pad the book and thereby eliminate the work involved in putting out a full 20-page story).  Russell, for his part, would see the series to its end.

The book never escaped its bimonthly publishing schedule, which only decreased the chances of establishing a regular readership, much less a growing one. So in late 1976, after 22 issues, we were met with a farewell message along the same lines as the one McGregor was delivering for the Black Panther:

"This is the last issue of AMAZING ADVENTURES.

"Those were hard words to write, People. Hard, because there were still battles aplenty for Killraven and his Freemen. Hard, because the Martian overlords had yet to be conquered. But mostly it was hard because a lot of love and effort had gone into the production of WAR OF THE WORLDS... from the very first story by Roy, Gerry, Neal, and Howard right up to the collaborations of Don and Craig.

"And along the way, there's been a lot of love from another source... you, our faithful readers. You felt pity for the plight of the 24-Hour Man, you chuckled along with the child-like wonder of Old Skull, you cried at the deaths of Hawk and Grok. And you wrote to tell us about it. Those letters made all the fury and frenzy--not to mention all of the demonic deadlines--worthwhile. We thank you very much for that, People.

"But love alone, it's sad to say, cannot keep a comic book alive. The sales on AMAZING ADVENTURES were just not enough to warrant the continuation of the book.

"... [T]hanks to all of you. Thanks for caring."

Before the plug was pulled, there were two crossovers with other Marvel characters (as there were with other grim future scenarios, e.g. Deathlok and the Guardians of the Galaxy), with each story stressing that the Martian invasion was only one possible future that may or may not occur.* In August of '75, for instance, the Defenders cross paths with the Guardians of the Galaxy, whose Earth had been invaded by the Badoon--but not before another invasion had run its course.

While Spider-Man, following his adventure in the 17th century, is diverted on his way back to the 20th and becomes involved in Killraven's own struggle.

*That reasoning would seem to be hard to pull off with the Martians. For instance, in the so-called Marvel universe, we're certain that no Martian invasion ever took place in 1901--which means that where Spider-Man and the Defenders are concerned, the Martians would never have geared up for a second invasion one-hundred years later.

Yet the one lure of a sequel to the 1901 invasion that is sure to appeal to science fiction enthusiasts is what helps to sell the "War Of The Worlds" comics adaptation (in addition to its striking cover by John Romita, always dependable to deliver a sales-worthy attention-grabber):  the concept of the Martians returning to make another attempt at conquering our race. This time, do they succeed? And how? The answer comes with the slaying of one who worked on behalf of their cause--and the introduction of a man who become a spearhead for our resistance.

Killraven--the as-yet unknown fighter who returns to exact vengeance against the Martian "Keeper" that had years ago conscripted and trained him to compete in "games" where he would battle other human slaves--has reached his goal.  But the Keeper, who lies at death's door, turns out to be someone not at all what Killraven expects--and he has knowledge of this world's conquerors that Killraven finds difficult to walk away from.

Thus, in just two pages, Conway adequately dispenses with the details of the earlier invasion that was won not by any resistance group or man-made weapon, but by micro-organisms that were indigenous to our world which they had no defense against. By page 12, we're ready to move on to this story's hook--the second invasion, and a struggle waged not by a culture of steamships and an arsenal of rifles and cast-iron Winchester cannons but by jet squadrons and nuclear weaponry. Yet, assuming the Martians spent nearly one-hundred years planning this attack, it stands to reason they would have been prepared for Earth's defenses--while also taking into account the planet's biological threat.

In hindsight, it might have been more dramatic--and perhaps more sensible from a story standpoint--to spread out the facets of the initial stages of this war for two or three issues before pivoting so swiftly to an equally abridged telling of its aftermath, where survivors were either slain or collected to be slaves or collaborators. From all appearances, the Martians were intent on eradicating the human race and claiming this world as their own; why would they have an interest in sparing any of the human species they hadn't yet killed or those who surrendered, apart from those they would reserve as food delicacies? "They seemed to seek out the scurrying refugees--and they fired, again, and again--and again!" The picture Conway paints via the Keeper of the relentless Martian slaughtering is pretty clear. I could buy an explanation of those humans who were resourceful enough to escape undetected, who somehow found sanctuary in hidden locations and such--but the corralling of humans by those who kept their weapons swivelling in continual fire seems like a part of their plan that even Conway hadn't worked out yet.

And those collaborators sprang up in a span of less than a month, which fast-forwards that development much too soon to fit in at this stage of the invasion--even as a device to introduce Maureen Raven and her two sons, one of which we've already met.

Killraven goes on to finish the Keeper's narrative--how he grew and finally escaped his captivity, eking out what food and resources he could find to maintain his survival, while adding to his band of Freeman with others he liberated. In time, he was able to return to the Keeper, whom he now discovers was controlled against his will; and with a "to be continued" series of final panels, this premiere issues concludes.

McGregor would go on to help realize Thomas's guerrilla warfare vision for the book, with Earth assuming the status of a conquered world (which indeed it was) and Killraven and his band of Freemen intent on being a thorn in the Martians' side and inspiring what remained of the human race to rise up and join the resistance.  For those of you who have seen the AMC series adaptation of The Walking Dead, however, the change that comes over the "War Of The Worlds" series probably feels familiar to you, as TWD steadily became less about the threat of the zombies and the catastrophe that befell the entire human race and instead became focused on a select group of people who clashed with other groups of people in perpetuity--to such an extent that the remnants of their civilization, as well as the actual walking corpses that were the primary terror of their lives, were reduced to little more than backdrop to be inserted into the foreground when necessary. Both series came to take for granted the one element that defined and drove them, and made them interesting beyond the typical fare that features character conflict. As if to underscore the point, in mid-1975 the "War of the Worlds" cover masthead was even replaced with "Killraven--Warrior Of The Worlds," before being reverted back six issues later.  "Rick Grimes, Officer Of The Living" has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

Some of the noteworthy art that appeared in WOTW before Craig Russell stepped aboard.
(And are you ready for... Apeslayer?)

Amazing Adventures #18

Script: Gerry Conway
Pencils: Neal Adams and Howard Chaykin
Inks: Frank Chiaramonte
Letterer: John Costanza


B Smith said...

I am ashamed to admit that, discriminating connoisseur that I was at age thirteen, the work by Howard Chaykin in this first (and the following) issue put me right off his art until American Flagg came along - at which point I had a complete blinding-light-of-revelation-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, realised what a prize twit I'd been...and sought out whatever I could of his output.

Stuck it out for another issue or two, but Herb Trimpe's art was losing its lustre in my eyes, and the story just seemed to meander, as if no-one could focus on what direction the main thrust of the story should take.

Comicsfan said...

B., I can also highly recommend Mr. Chaykin's "Tales Of Atlantis" series, beginning in Sub-Mariner #64--sure to be the subject of a PPC post whenever I can get around to it. :)

Big Murr said...

I so hated (and still hate) comic titles that never get the proper editorial love to have a regular creative team. Either established pros who didn't have a spare moment scribbled some weak mess or they used this "lame duck" title (by their own creation) as a way for new, equally lame art hires to get their feet wet. What sales school gave Marvel editors/publishes the idea that strategy generates fans?

With "WotW", when the same artist can't even finish the big premier issue, well, talk about starting the race with one foot in a bucket.

KIllraven and his crew regained all sorts of revitalized status for me when Alan Davis created that six-issue mini series.