Warlock, by Jim Starlin and Friends
Last time, we looked at Jim Starlin’s Thanos Saga, or at least the portion of it that ran in Captain Marvel. That story introduced the Mad Titan in love with Death, and… Actually, you know what? Starlin himself gave us a recap heading into the grand finale of that story, so why not just take a gander at that? It’s fully embiggenable, after all, and I know how much you like embiggening things…
Heh. The good thing about that particular sequence is that it sets the tone quite nicely for Warlock. Because, batshit as Captain Marvel is, Warlock is even moreso. It’s funnier, for one thing, but it’s also got even more of the prog-rock psychedelia that makes the earlier work worth reading. That’s the whole point of the story, in fact.
I mean, tell me this doesn’t sound like the premise for a mid-70s concept album: Adam Warlock, born from a cocoon to be the SPACE MESSIAH, wanders the universe in search of truth. Along the way, he comes into the possession of a VAMPIRE SOUL GEM that tempts him to evil, and falls into opposition with the Universal Church of Truth, a tyrannical galaxy-spanning religious empire that worships THE MAGUS, a cosmic being who is WARLOCK’S OWN FUTURE SELF!
The Magus, by the way, is a really fantastic villain. His very existence turns the story of Adam Warlock into an epic struggle against destiny itself. A comparative innocent dedicated to personal freedom, Warlock is horrified by his religio-fascist future, and stubbornly struggles against it, all the while fearing that the Magus’ evil may be lurking within him anyway.
Those fears aren’t eased at all by the Soul Gem, so-called because it literally EATS THE SOULS of anyone Warlock unleashes its power against. Much as he abhors that idea, Warlock also has a self-righteous streak that drives him to use the thing anyway, with worrying regularity.
I love that counterpoint, by the way, the voice of the Soul Gem inserting itself between panels. It’s this insidious tempting voice egging Our Hero on, and it goes without comment for ages. It’s just there, then he uses the Gem and it’s gone.
He regrets his actions immediately, of course, and he does eventually learn not to be so quick to judge. Of course, considering that he’s been confronted with a callously murderous future version of himself, you’d think that he’d be a little more cautious about taking souls. But, no. Adam Warlock always has to do things the hard way, fighting to make his own destiny even if it leads him to madness and death. Still, that soul-sucking does make his situation seem hopeless at times.
Whoa… HEAVY. And I don’t say that entirely in jest. It is kind of heavy. I first got my hands on a random issue or two of this book in elementary school, and at that age I just liked it for its weirdness and humor. But I can imagine that it might have really meant something to teenage readers striving to figure out their own identities. It’s super-angsty, sure, but from the right perspective, the Magus is the nightmare of adulthood made flesh.
Also, he’s a totally hysterical asshole.
HEH. I mean, what a dick, right? His sneering contempt for his past self mixes with his megalomania to make him a great cackling mastermind type, overconfident in the extreme because he knows (or thinks he knows) everything that’s going to happen.
(And, oh yeah. Let me just say that “HOW CAN SUCH AS THIS BE?!” is one of my all-time favorite pieces of pretentious funnybook dialogue. Kinda makes all that mockery seem deserved…)
Unfortunately, the Magus’ great failing as a villain, the thing that makes him less of a great bad guy than Thanos, is a lack of depth. After his initial confrontation with Warlock, he becomes a rather one-dimensional (if still wildly entertaining) mastermind type, blustering in disbelief as his plans go astray, and leading a pack of generic minions.
The Magus’ lack of depth somehow seems fitting in this book, though. As I said at the outset, Warlock is a pretty funny comic, leavening its philosophical heaviness with healthy doses of satire. There’s a thread of it throughout the run, but it peaks at the mid-way point. Warlock is captured and sentenced to reconditioning by the Magus’ church, which he endures under the care of…
You’ll note that this story is, appropriately, dedicated to Steve Ditko, whose trademark other-dimensional vistas Starlin’s been riffing on all along. As you can see above, though, he goes whole-hog with it here, filling the issue with impossible space ribbons, rippling dimensional portals, and general madness. Check out that WEIRD-ASS COLUMN OF DISTORTED FACES, for instance. What the hell’s that doing there?! Who cares? It’s awesome!
Of course, the art’s not the only reason that Ditko dedication is appropriate for this issue. In the 1960s, Ditko became a devotee of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. That philosophy is, in part, what lead Ditko to leave Marvel Comics at the height of his popularity and go off to seek his freedom in the creation of staunchly individualist characters with unyielding moral codes. All of which makes him the perfect guy to inspire a story about an attempt to force the ferociously independent Adam Warlock to conform. Warlock’s triumph costs him his sanity, a common belief about Ditko at the time, as well. But, still. It’s the very Ditkoesque triumph of the individual over a mindless society of clowns.
A mindless society of clowns, I might add, based on the Marvel Comics editorial staff. You can read a pretty in-depth breakdown of the satire here, but basically, Starlin shows us Stan Lee and John Romita trying to enforce a house style on the company that stifles creativity and produces only a few diamonds amongst mountains of garbage (Starlin’s work, presumably, being one of those rare gems). In the ugliest segment, we see recently-departed Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas crucified, with pies being thrown at him as punishment by stand-ins for his replacements Len Wein and Marv Wolfman:
It’s one of those “did they really publish this?” moments, a rare instance of a freelancer blatantly expressing his frustrations with his publisher on a work-for-hire job. Even more amazingly, Wein was also the editor Warlock! In that position, he must have seen and signed off on pages that very obviously sent up not only his bosses and the company, but he himself. Makes you wonder how badly the criticism stung, doesn’t it? Starlin would not enjoy the same creative freedom under Wein and Wolfman’s replacement, Gerry Conway, who banished the more outre elements of Starlin’s work…
…from the pages of Marvel Comics entirely.
Starlin would leave the company soon after, only being wooed back by Conway’s replacement Archie Goodwin. If you’re thinking that the Marvel editor-in-chief’s chair was a hotseat for most of the 1970s, you’re thinking right. Only Jim Shooter was tyrant enough to stay in the job for very long, but by then Starlin was long gone. Because Goodwin had only managed to get him back just long enough to finish up the Thanos Saga in a pair of annuals. Speaking of which…
I’ve rambled on and on about Warlock, comedy, and office politics, but haven’t gotten to the guy we’re ostensibly talking about here:
I’ve gone on so long, in fact, that… well… I can’t believe this, but I think I may have to expand this look at Starlin in the Seventies to three parts. What can I say? I enjoyed re-reading Warlock a lot more than I expected. But the finale to the Thanos Saga deserves more space than I can spare it here, so… See you next week.