Don McGregor on "Killraven,” Part Four: How Much of Yourself to Put Into A Book

A column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks, Daniel Elkin

Welcome back to part four of our four-part interview with Don McGregor! In this part we discuss topics including the Killraven graphic novel, Yellowstone National Park, amazing comics art and the difficulty of creating innovative layouts.

Read part one of this interview here, part two here and part three here

CB: So how did you end up getting the offer to do the graphic novel?

McGregor: The answer is Archie Goodwin.

Archie was the first editor I ever had at Warren. The first story to be published in Creepy was edited by Archie and drawn by Tom Sutton. I thought it was always going to be like this. Tom drew everything I asked for in "The Fade-Away Walk,” POV though sniper-scopes, continuity shots, reverse angles.

The Fade Away Walk Don McGregor Marvel Killraven

I was lucky to have Archie as an editor. His comments were always about how to make your story better and not about the story he would have written. And he always came to me with courtesy and a clear idea of what didn't work.

One of the early stories I did for Warren touched on abortion. I wasn't living yet in New York City, I was still in Rhode Island. But I already realized there was areas comics did not touch. As a writer, a storyteller, you learned simply by realizing what you did not see or read in the books. Anyway, I touched on abortion and then ran away from it, figuring it was enough to get the subject into the story. I had a frightfully silly ending. Just God-awful! Right now, just thinking about it makes me cringe.

Archie called me and asked why I would do this to my story. We discussed it and he was absolutely right. I told him to send the story back I would rewrite it completely. I will always love Archie for saving me from having to live with that story. I would still be so embarrassed. Archie never took your work and changed it without you having a clue that your story was being altered. He called you. He let you rewrite it.

Archie earned the respect of so many talented writers and artists, in fact I would think with most anyone he ever worked with.

Switch to the '80s: I'm at a party, I believe for Forbidden Planet, in the Village. I didn't normally go to those kinds of functions, so I'm not sure exactly why I ended there, but I did.

You know this, Jason. We first met when you went to the San Diego Comic Con. I was staying with my daughter, Lauren, and son-in-law, Gilbert, in San Diego, but I only had a select couple of people I wanted to meet with outside the con.

CB: Yes.

McGregor: You and Charlotte Fullerton, Dwayne McDuffie's wife.

So often I would contact those people separately and just meet with them. But this time I am mingling in with the crowd at Forbidden Planet and Archie came up to me and asked, "Don, Craig is interested in doing 'Killraven', would you be willing to come back and do it?"

My first question, immediately, was, "Who am I answerable to? You? Or Jim Shooter? If it's you, Archie, sure, let's do it! I'd love to work with Craig." Archie was so skillful. He then calls Craig and tells Craig I'm interested in doing “Killraven” and would he come back.

CB: That is slick!

McGregor: Very early on I told Archie that I couldn't end the War of the Worlds in one graphic novel, of 40 some pages, I think it was, but I could resolve the situations that were set up for the ongoing plot-line about Killraven and his brother and what Killraven's focal point was in the War and those kinds of elements. That was fine with him.

I revamped a lot of material, and jettisoned others. I took out Yellowstone National Park because I'd already used it as a locale in subsequent years in Sabre. Have you guys ever been there?

CB Jason: No I never have.

CB Daniel: I haven't either, which is crazy because I don't live that far from it.

McGregor: It's one of my favorite places in the world. And given the visual diversity of Yellowstone it opens up all kinds of backgrounds to have the story unfold. You can travel from geysers shooting up into the sky to mud fumaroles that appears as if you've entered a bubbling cauldron of hell. Travel a little ways and you can descend into an area that looks virtually as if you are walking on the austerity of the moon surface, all bleached color, arid and dry. Drive somewhere else and you a gazing into deep, steaming pools with rich colors that are so vibrant and vivid. Travel to another area in the Park and you are on snowy slopes. To another and there are colorful formations that tier and rise and slope with imbued hues.

I guess it's too delicate a place to allow film crews in there because it's perfect in terms of memorable visuals. For all those reasons and because we don't need heavy equipment, the place is MADE for comics!

Years later I would place a lot of the Zorro stories I did for Jim Salicrup's “Papercutz” in Yellowstone and started with Zorro on skis, an avalanche behind him, sword-fighting villains. I had that scene in mind before I ever wrote my first Topps's Zorro's Renegades. I told you, I need to know I have a place to go. I also liked the idea of taking Zorro to Hawaii. His time period was one of big events on Hawaii.

Anyhow, since I had used Yellowstone in Sabre, it was no longer a viable place to set the Killraven graphic album. The next issue of the series would have been at Cape Canaveral. I had been playing with the idea of a Phantom of NASA. The Freemen were already in the general area, and I would bring Killraven's brother to them. And the phantom material mostly disappeared, though there is a faint hint of it with Jeanette. I loved the idea that an older woman pursues Killraven and that she's not shy about it. It's just so not ever done in comics, and I had a good time writing her. She was an unusual character to add into the mix.

CB Jason: Completely unusual, right.

McGregor: So I loved the idea of that. And I loved being able give a conclusion to the series that we had been building toward in the original run. Working with Craig was once more a fun and wonderful treat. There are so many visual elements in that book that I truly love. When Craig got the collage that reveals Killraven's central importance to the resistance, it's one of those moments where script and art all come together and Craig and I both have some of our favorite images in there. I see Buster Keaton in front of the cosmic psychic revelation.

CB Daniel: Yeah I was so lost in the book right there.

McGregor: If you see it in the graphic novel form Craig's art is really beautifully reproduced

But here is another time that Archie was considerate and honored his word. When the blue-lines (or make-ready copy or whatever they called the early form of the book) came into his office he called me and asked if I wanted to go over it. Of course I did. I came in, took it with me and proofread it.

And there were some serious mistakes that had been made, a couple that screwed up the continuity terribly. It would have been embarrassing to have this book come out after all those years with these things done wrong. I came in with all the corrections, but Archie was out that day. I was assured by his assistant that everything would be done.

Except that when Archie called again and I came in to see the book, the corrections hadn't been done. The book was ready for print, but all the mistakes despite all my work were STILL in there!

Archie honored his word. He said that I went out of my way to correct the book and came in with the corrections. He had them go onto the black plate and make the changes. I'd have a hard time thinking of how many others would have done such a thing. It's a costly addition, but the mistake had been made in the office, and Archie felt then it was the company's responsibility to fix it.

So, unlike "A Death in the Family,” I can hold that book, and really have only fond memories of it. Doing things like that endear Archie to me to this day.

CB: That's a beautiful book. and it amazed me at the time how good it is. Yet reading it now it's even better than I remember. One of the things that's a huge difference is that Craig's art has just improved dramatically in the six or so years in between Amazing Adventures 39 and the graphic novel.

McGregor
: Well, look at the growth of his artwork, stylistically and in storytelling from issue to issue of "Killraven.” Daniel, you were making a comment earlier about when Craig came on board the series. Within four issues, editors and writers were making note of how strong and beautiful his art was. There were writers who came up to Craig and asked him why he was staying with the low-selling McGregor book. “Come on and do a book with me. I'm doing a top selling title, not some rinky-dink thing like ‘Killraven.’”

But Craig never abandoned me or the book. He stayed through it the entire time, and he could have jumped anytime. Because everybody wanted him, you know. It was just an honor being able to work with him and all. Again, like I said working with him and Billy on those books were almost like we were doing an independently within the establishment. Those two guys certainly made it possible for me to tell those kind of stories. Editorial may have doubted the books and what I was doing, but they didn't. We were all encouraging each other to see how good we could make each issue.

This becomes something a freelancer has to dance within their heads, the question of how much time are you going to put into a book. Or a page. If you're a comics writer, if you spend one hour on a page, or if you spend one day on page, you get paid the same amount of money. So a lot of people are going to write is as fast as they can and jump to the next project. As a writer, if you do a double-page spread and put in four words, it's same amount of money as if you wrote two separate pages with a number of panels and a number of words. Do you take the easy way out? Or do you keep what’s important: What that next page is in the story about the pacing, or what the reader gets for their money for that single issue? Whenever I did a double-page spread, I swear they'd take me forever, but I did them if they expanded the locale and where everyone was and if it flowed to allow an entire idea start from beginning to end in a textural fashion.

I believe I should be paid well for what I do. I work hard at it; I have passion for it. I have never disrespected the medium, but … I can't write it just for the money. I've been given this chance to do what I wanted to do since I was five years old, and we reach too many people to throw it away. If I fail, at least I hope it will be an honest failure.

CB: Right. If nothing else, you're always honest with your failures.

McGregor: I hope so. A couple years back, Dean Mullaney and I were talking (It may have been at his IDW booth with Bruce Canwell) and he commented that he couldn't think of many comic writers who had people still responding so emotionally to stories done even decades ago. And that the stories still speak to those people.

It's my impression that when you read a book that it affects you so powerfully, especially if the voice of that book speaks to you, often in profound ways you can't fully define yourself. I think it can be dictated by where you are in your life at that point in time and what it gave to you. For some people it's still the "Killraven" and "Black Panther" series that they embrace with fervor as if the books came out yesterday.

I don't know if this affects what books become someone's favorite or not, but the fact that I didn't just write one genre or love one genre and approached many of the separate titles in the way I felt individually caught the essence of what I thought the book should be, could also have been a factor. For many Detectives Inc. is their favorite. I remember thinking after a passage of time had gone by that some readers were so ferociously fond of Denning and Rainier, even though "A Remembrance of Threatening Green" was only 46 pages long. And there was only one other story to follow, the one with Gene Colan, "A Terror of Dying Dreams,” to have them relate to the twosome and their friendship.

Still in the private eye vein, but approached entirely with a different tone, for others it was Nathaniel Dusk.

Then, for other people, it's Ragamuffins. Going back to Dean Mullaney for a moment, I know Dean has written about this, and told me that his favorite book of any he published at Eclipse is Ragamuffins. The only page of art he has from the books he did is the cover from Ragamuffins.

I had the concept for Ragamuffins, and also Detectives Inc., long before I had Sabre. But by that time people knew me for costumed heroic characters and had already forgotten many of the horror stories I'd done for Warren, or what I did on "Morbius, the Living Vampire.”

And for others, their favorite series is Sabre. I knew we had to establish if indeed a market existed where the comic book stories could support a comic. Since about 95% of the people working in comics in New York thought I was crazy to even think such a thing at the time, I knew I shouldn't start with Ragamuffins, or even Detectives Inc. It had better be in a proven genre. But if I was going to do that, then it should break all the boundaries of what I could at the establishment companies.

When I was shopping the idea around, I recall one of the strongest reactions was: "Don, who's going to buy a book about a black guy with a lot of guns?"

It was a surprise to me how quickly it could change. Once Sabre and other independent books were a success, some distributors were already trying to dictate to the fledgling independent companies on what genres they wanted. They'd state that if it were a costumed hero book they'd buy this many copies, but if it was a private eye book like Detectives Inc., well, then before even seeing it, before it was done, they would buy less. So, once again, there are restrictive forces saying what will be supported in the comics and what won't, even before you get out of the starting gate!

For other people, it's Zorro and Lady Rawhide. Fortunately, a number of people have followed me from place to place, genre to genre. Some of the comparisons make my eyebrows rise, kind of like Groucho Marx. Someone wrote to me that Grant Morrison had written in one of his books, comparing me to Jackson Pollock.

Some time or other when Frank Lovece and I were talking, he told me compared me to Stanley Kubrick, and said "Killraven" and the Panther were my 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Detectives, Inc. my Full Metal Jacket.

I'm not even going to debate that. I know which ones I feel are better. But, hey! If there are those who will compare me to Kubrick and Pollock, I'll take it, man! With thanks. So I think it's just amazing the different reactions that people have, and then there's the people that absolutely hate the books. "This is terrible! God awful stuff!"

As a human being you wish everyone would love what you do; as a writer you know it ain't never going to happen in this world. And that's a good thing, in the long run.

CB Jason: You definitely tend to polarize people, Don. I think I know why.

McGregor: Okay. Explain that to me, Jason. Why do you think that is?

CB Jason: You know what it is? I think it's because you have passion to get along. You don't like to follow the conventional wisdom; you'll make your own mind about things. I think people don't know how to react to intense passion that follows it's own insights.

CB Daniel: You put so much of yourself in your writing. These really long passages that my visual image is you just pounding away at the typewriter while you're writing it. That can either bring somebody along with you, or really push your stuff away I think. 

McGregor: Yeah. You know, it's almost as if they're getting caught up in the tidal wave. Each series has its own challenges. In series like "Killraven,” and even more with the Panther, the challenge is to try to make a story work on more than one level. And not to trivialize complex issues filled with subtleties. I hope I can imbue them with something human. And I'm trying my damndest to get some suspense into it. For me, part of that kind of writing is to get you to forget for five seconds that the characters have to come back next issue and for just the instant you are caught up in what is happening to them. You're convinced, that's it, they're history, they'll be burying them deep in the earth.

And to keep an element of surprise, that you never expected the story or the characters to go here or there. It's all part of the storytelling challenges. Hopefully, caring about it, giving it everything you've got, will speak individually to many of the readers when they experience it. They can make up their own minds. "Well, Don, that was great, but this over here, you're out of head, I don't buy this for a minute!"

In fact, as we're talking about this, I guess that summarizes how I feel when I'm seeing clearly: Make up your own minds.

CB: It's a pleasure to talk to you and hear these stories.

McGregor: Oh, and for the finale to this interview I thought I would never get out of: I was told by a salesperson that because I had put in the line from Carmilla to M'Shulla, "Would you stop thinking with your cock …" that it hurt sales in some states.

But the Killraven graphic novel still sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 55,000 copies. It was the second bestselling graphic novel Marvel had outside of Jim Starlin's Warlock book, at the time.

Read part one of this interview here, part two here and part three here

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