Don McGregor’s writing has always been special. Don’s work at Marvel during the Bronze Age was some of the smartest, most passionate and articulate of any writer from his era. Don wrote some of the most realistic action heroes ever. Don’s characters have real emotions, not comic book emotions. They feel physical pain and emotional pain and speak profoundly about all of those pains.
Jason and Daniel for Comics Bulletin: How did you get involved with “Killraven” and what were you told about the book when you took over?
McGregor: I can answer that, I just have to try to organize the sequence of events and recall how the decisions were made. I wasn’t aware of all the factors that influenced the decision editorially to give me “War of the Worlds’ and Jungle Action to write.
Essentially, I was told I would be writing both series at the same time.
If you were working on staff at Marvel, the editor-in-chief would have staff meetings. I don’t recall these happening on any schedule, just whenever new procedures were going to be discussed, or if the company were expanding the number of books done, topics along those lines. During those meetings, for those present, if talent were going to change on titles, or if someone at the meeting was going to be given a series to write, that’s when you would find out about it.
I hadn’t been at Marvel long in editorial (basically proof-reading reprint titles) to realize that there was a mostly unspoken rule, but there nonetheless, that if you were a writer and you worked on staff at $125 a week, you would eventually be able to supplement your income with writing assignments.
I later learned long after– when I was no longer writing either Panther or Killraven or Morbius or Luke Cage– that there wasn’t much belief in my abilities as a writer and that I would be given titles that were marginal sellers at best and in genres that weren’t known to sell well in the comics medium.
Jungle genre titles weren’t doing big business in the ’70s. The head people were trying to track everything. It had certainly been noted that Joe Kubert’s Tarzan had died. If you had the King of the Jungle character fail with talent like Joe, it was apparent to some that jungle titles were going to die.
Thus, Jungle Action– which had essentially been a reprint book, but would now have new material with the Black Panther– was one of the titles given to me during that particular meeting. I had no idea that was going to happen before the meeting.
Now, there was the same general thought about science fiction comics, that they weren’t giant sellers in the comic book marketplace.
In the case of “War of the Worlds,” it was my impression that they did have high hopes for this series, but when it changed creative talents for its first three issues, it didn’t take a prophet to see the writing on the wall, to paraphrase Paul Simon in his song “The Sounds of Silence.”
In this case, the series was basically being written off as a good idea lost.
And so, right after I was told I would be writing the Black Panther, more or less, the next sentence was, “And also ‘War of the Worlds.’”
If there wasn’t much faith in me as a writer, I was no threat in editorial, because I had no designs on trying to become editor-in-chief. I was vaguely aware of the political maneuvering, but it had no appeal for me. I did not want to edit other people’s words; I just wanted to write my own.
So, I was given “War of the Worlds,” and I suspect there was more than one person in the editorial halls surprised at the longevity of the series, but also that it had so much reader reaction, of great intensity. I had this asked of me in various ways during the tenure on those books: “What the hell is going on here? How come my books don’t get letters like this? Your books are dead; you get too many typewritten letters!”
CB: Did they give you a direction when you first came on, or did they just say “We’ve got this War of the Worlds book, Have at it now!”
McGregor: At a staff meeting, I was told I would be writing both War of the Worlds and Jungle Action.
It is my belief that in the beginning, they had strong hopes for the series, but when it went through three writers in three issues, and I think the same amount of artists, it was all but considered a dead endeavor. Now, with Jungle Action, I was told just that they wanted it set in Wakanda with the Black Panther. With “War of the Worlds,” it was a different situation.
Marv Wolfman had written the third issue, and he wanted to tell me what he planned to do with Killraven. I told him I wanted to write my own book. I don’t think that went over too big. I think he thought, and maybe others thought as well, that I thought I was better as a writer. I didn’t even consider what other writers were doing. I didn’t care. That was their business, not mine.
Most of these writers were writing a number of titles.
I wasn’t trying to be high-handed about this. All I wanted to do was take my two little books and find stories I felt were worth the writing. I might not have known what those stories might be, that would be part of a learning process, and how the series transpired, and what organically came out during the writing.
During those times, if you had the comics, it was possible to read all of what went before without too much difficulty. Since “War of the Worlds” was only three issues, that certainly wasn’t a problem.
I never asked anyone what he or she planned to do.
There are many instances where you have other people claiming that this was their idea and not yours. If my name were on the story, I would have to live with it. If I failed, I wanted to fail honestly. If I succeeded in touching a reader, I wanted it to be through my abilities as a storyteller.
I read the first three issues, and started trying to figure out what I was going to do with “Killraven.”
Does that answer the question for you, Daniel?
McGregor: See, when you’re first beginning an existing series or character at the big companies, there are many factors to consider and not all of them are apparent when you are on the outside of the business looking in.
I think we discussed some aspects of that gestation period in the “Black Panther” interview.
There were certain elements I realized as I approached the first issue of “Killraven”. While you may not be specifically told this, you look at the way things work within the company. The first big restriction would be: I CAN’T end the War of the Worlds. They just won’t let me do that.
If you were ever approaching that idea, you have to go through all sorts of protocol to get there and permission to do that. Therefore, I suspect the first ideas I grappled with were that I would need to have some place to go, somewhere to take the characters, an approach where you could lead to some type of ending, some kind of journey with the characters, something you could end without having to deal with a number of other people influencing the decision.
Now, if I came up with a direction independently, I would probably be left alone to resolve a direction I had set for the series. The question was: What?
There was some passing mention of a brother in one of the earlier issues.
The idea of the search for his brother had a lot of emotional possibilities, plus if there was a search to find him, I could explore different parts of the country and the effect that the Martian overrule had on us.
Yellowstone National Park is one of my favorite places. It is so visually diverse. Once I decided that his brother was there, then I could start crafting the individuals who would travel with Killraven, plus work on over-all themes I wanted to explore along with the terrain.
This gave me a sense of purpose. There is something I can try to achieve here!
Changing locales also meant you could continually bring something distinctly visual in each story, something all its own, that sense of one place within the story. Comics are a visual medium, and I was always looking for ways to keep the stories visually stimulating.
Thus, I went from Yankee Stadium to Washington, DC. You have an immediate visual diversity, plus I could explore the essence of those places– what they represented, what they had become, how the conquering of the planet had affected every place that was familiar to us on some level.
Battle Creek, Michigan, for instance, just appealed to me because I loved getting toys in the cereal boxes when I was a kid. Or mailing off for swimming frogmen figures for the bathtub. When I was 5 to 7, I can remember not being able to wait for the mail, waiting for the Navy Frogmen to arrive! Or comics in the mail!
Even now, whenever a package is due, it’s like some kind of DVD treasure or book is going to fill the mailbox. I still find it exciting. I guess it’s safe to say that from an early age I was a total pop culture person and what was in those comics, TV shows, books, movies were as real to me as anything in the real world.
Anyhow, back to the beginning elements I had to think about in starting to write “Killraven.” I suspect there might have been a little bit of the “Atomic Knights” comic series, by Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson, as a slight influence, along with Hitchcock, who also used unique backgrounds to set scenes against. I can’t really answer any questions about the Atomic Knights because I haven’t read those stories in decades. I don’t remember many specifics about the stories, except it was in some kind of post-Apocalyptic scenario and the heroes were all in armored suits. And if I recall correctly, the stories often took place in locales that were somewhat iconic.
I know Dwayne McDuffie said to me, one of the last times we were together, that he’d forgotten I was writing “Killraven” at the same time as Jungle Action. He’d made the observation that normally comic writers had one series they focused their personal energies on.
I was bouncing back and forth between “Panther’s Rage” and “Killraven.”
And that has nothing to do with what’s going on in your real, day-to-day life. Well, maybe it has some impact.
I started writing “Killraven” after beginning “Panther’s Rage.” I know I had the actual idea in my head that “Killraven” would be my “comic-book comic book.” I do recall thinking that. Because I wasn’t going to give the same time and energy to that book as I was to T’Challa.
I think that notion lasted about one issue.
The characters grew and became defined, and then you don’t want to betray them, and you really want to explore who they are and what affects them and what their destinies are. There weren’t Freemen as such when I took over, in the sense that except for M’Shulla they had no names or backgrounds or personalities, they were just drawn figures following Killraven.
The only distinctive one that I recall was the bald-headed figure with a mustache. He became Old Skull. His personality, even his way of speech, a little bit, was inspired by Old Mose in John Ford’s The Searchers. You may not see the resemblance in the characters if you watch The Searchers because Old Skull grows as a character as the series progresses and his relationship with others isn’t much like Old Mose. Old Skull is a much more pro-active character, and very passionate in his loyalties.
CB: And then you brought in Carmilla, who was initially kind of a villain, and her tortured companion Grok, about whom we later found a great secret.
McGregor: I created Carmilla Frost in the very first issue I wrote: “The Mutant Slayers.” I don’t believe there had been any women characters of depth in “Killraven” before that. I suspect I could not write a continuous series over any length of time that did not have women who were integral to the cast.
If you go back and examine any of the Warren horror magazine stories in Creepy, Eerie, or Vampirella, you will find that in most of those stories, the women in them are as important as the men, from “Song of a Sad-Eyed Sorceress” to “The Vampiress Stalks the Castle This Night.”
When I did the Zorro series in the ’90s, having women characters in the series who weren’t just on the sidelines of the stories was important to me. I loved Zorro, but in going over stories with the character, I did not want to be stuck with having to write just barmaids who are rescued by Zorro. It was one of the first things I did, to establish a woman who could match Zorro in personality and sensuality. So many women characters in comics are done with a kind of sanitized sexuality; Lady Rawhide didn’t just play dress up.
Thus, before a single story was written, Lady Rawhide was created! The idea of having to write a monthly book that had no women in it would kill my enthusiasm to come back for the next issue.
I guess you could say if there’s two things I’m serious about in life, it’s writing and women.
Now, when I did the Zorro newspaper strip, I did create Eulalia Bandini because Lady Rawhide was always so controversial, and it would have been a fight every day to keep her, not only in her attire, but in her joy in sex and her humor about sex. But Eulalia really evolved, and I loved the way Tom Yeates drew her, so even though she was initially introduced for one scene, I kept writing her back into the strip, until she was the central motivating force for almost everyone else in the series by the second year.
CB: Your women are always strong. I loved Mint Julep and Volcana Ash in “War of the Worlds.”
McGregor: Yeah, I loved them all. I planned to bring back many of the supporting cast in “Final Lies, Final Truths, Final Battles.” I had written that Killraven would bring the war back to Mars in either my first or second issue. I would have kept my promise in that big finale.
I believe that even those readers who have followed me throughout all the years, from all the different genres, would still have been surprised, maybe even shocked, by a couple of events that they wouldn’t think I would take it where it goes. At least the storyteller hopes so. I’d love to see it become a reality.
By the way, I think Craig Russell said at one point that I’d written 100 pages of the story. I haven’t looked in a long time, but I’d think it was closer to 50 or 60 pages of finished script. But Mint and Volcana were already part of the big climax.
CB: So once Craig Russell joined you on the book, that’s when it really seemed to really take on its own energy. How did that come about? How did Craig come on with you?
McGregor: Craig was wonderful to work with. I was incredibly fortunate to have Craig on “War of the Worlds” and Rich Buckler on “Panther’s Rage.”
I was at the Javitz Center comic convention a couple of years back [NYCC- ed.] and Arvell Jones came up to me. He was giving me a hard time about having him as an artist on the books I was writing, that I wouldn’t choose him to draw the books. I guess a lot of people thought I had some choice in who would draw the books I wrote. But I didn’t have that power. When artists were assigned to those books, that was done in editorial. I had no input; I was just told who I would be working with.
CB: You did seem to get lucky each time.
McGregor: I really really did. Let me clarify the above statement a little bit. Yes, Rich Buckler and I came to know each other in the Marvel Comics offices, and we hit it off right away. We both were passionate about comics, and we had good times together. Rich was the one who found me a place to live in the Bronx when I first moved from Rhode Island.
But I didn’t get to choose Rich to draw “Panther’s Rage.” Rich chose to draw “Panther’s Rage,” and he had enough clout to get editorial to let him do it, or Rich never would have been on the book. Even if I asked for him, Rich was too important to the company to be placed on a minor title like Jungle Action. Rich’s drawing the first three issues of “Panther’s Rage” is all thanks to Rich, letting them know he really wanted to draw this title. We worked really closely together. While I lived in the Bronx, I would go over to Rich’s apartment and get into Panther poses for Rich while he drew. And I would design title pages and Rich would take those ideas and make them work.
The “Killraven” book changed artists quite a bit. I’ve stated this before to both of you that I really haven’t read these books, probably since I was preparing to do the graphic novel in the ’80s. I had the series hardbound, back in the time frame when the comics were created. I browsed a bit through the books recently because I knew you guys wanted to do this interview, but I can’t say I really read the stories.
I did see in the letters page of the issue that Gene Colan drew, “Something Worth Dying For,” that I had written in the next issue box (I hope I recall this right) that Gene was going to be drawing the series from that issue on. Really! If I wrote that in there, then I must have been told that Gene would be the regular artist on the book. I loved Gene’s work. But I wonder what the hell that was all about, because Gene was way too important an artist to Marvel to stick him on “Killraven,” unless, for some reason, Gene needed an extra title for a while, and the other, bigger books, had artists committed to them.
This was the first story Gene and I ever worked on together. We did not become friends until years later. Whenever Killraven came up, he had absolutely no memory of it. Didn’t remember the Serpent Stallion. Didn’t recall Carmilla naked. He would insist, and I know he believed it, that the first time we worked together was on the Hodiah Twist story “The Hero Killer Principle”.
The last time I was with Gene, in the hospice, he still was convinced this was our first story. During the time we were working on that story together, I met Gene’s wife, Adrienne. She told me something I couldn’t believe. She told me that Gene seldom talked about the story he was working on, but he did with Hodiah Twist, because of the unusual things he was being asked to draw, and the ambience and twists in the story, I guess. But then Adrienne told me something I never would have believed if it came from someone talking in the offices. She said he never read a script ahead. He would read the page right in front of him, and have no idea what was to come. Gene would tell me, a number of times, in later years, that if he read ahead it would make him nervous because he’d be wondering how he was going to be able to draw that scene or this piece of action.
I remember thinking: “This is Gene Colan! He can draw anything!” When you looked at Gene’s pencils, there was always this sense of confidence, never a hint that anything even made him flinch as an artist. You’d never see an eraser mark on a Gene Colan original art page. Never see a coffee spill stain. Never an indication of hesitation in his work at all.
When I was proofreading comics at Marvel, on staff, I would often see Gene’s pencils before they were inked. The art was just gorgeous. I often wished the world could see what his art looked like before it was inked, not that he didn’t have some fine, talented inkers on his work. But those pencils were so unique, and so much work went into them that there were times you just wished it wasn’t lost.
I’d often wished there was a way to accomplish that, to reproduce Gene’s pencils with color. It wasn’t until I was working on my own creation, “Ragamuffins,” for Eclipse, that I lobbied for it, and Dean Mullaney found a way to make it work, so Gene’s rendering didn’t drop out under the color.
Craig Russell is totally the opposite, in that Craig loves to see the entire script and know everything in it.
I recall stopping by Craig’s with Marsha, when we were travelling toward Oklahoma, while we were doing the “Killraven” graphic novel. He’d have the entire book numbered. Sometimes, there might be one panel drawn on a page way into the story, a panel I guess that Craig felt compelled to do at that moment in time because he knew what that panel needed.
The more you work with an artist; you become better partners because you have more of an idea of how each other works. With Gene, for instance, once I realized he did not read ahead, and sometimes if a sequence really inspired him, he might run long in the page count, I’d write a note to Gene that if he was behind me, this was where he needed to catch up because we had a big ending coming up.
Please join us tomorrow for part two of the interview, including the amazing introduction of Craig Russell onto the “Killraven” series, racism in the comics field in the 1970s, and much more!