Heavy, Man, Heavy: Jim Starlin’s Thanos Saga, Part Two

Warlock, by Jim Starlin and Friends

Starlin Warlock Messiah

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…

Starlin Thanos Recap 1 Starlin Thanos Recap 2

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!

Starlin Warlock Magus

(And who has a bitchin’ electric fro!)

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.

Starlin Warlock Kray-Tor

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.

Starlin Warlock Vampire

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.

Embiggen me, baby! Aw, yeah...

Embiggen me, baby! Aw, yeah…

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.

(If you can call Eyeball-for-a-Head and Scramble-Face-Cyclops “generic.”)

(If you can call Eyeball-for-a-Head and Scramble-Face-Cyclops “generic.”)

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…

Starlin Warlock 1000 Clowns

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:

mmm... embiggenable pie...

mmm… embiggenable pie…

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…

(you know, the good parts)

…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:

Embiggen the Mad Titan! Embiggen him, I say!

Embiggen the Mad Titan! Embiggen him, I say!

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.

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4 comments on “Heavy, Man, Heavy: Jim Starlin’s Thanos Saga, Part Two

  1. Brian Cronin says:

    To be fair, Starlin did do the Death of Captain Marvel under Shooter (as well as the first couple of years worth of Dreadstar comics), so I don’t think he had any particular issue with Shooter as Editor-in-Chief. I think he was just sort of done with work-for-hire comics period until DC wooed him back in the late 1980s.

  2. Mark Brett says:

    I wasn’t implying that Starlin had any problems with Shooter. I’ve never heard anything about their working relationship one way or the other. For all I know they got along swimmingly when Starlin did Death of Captain Marvel.

    I was just saying that Shooter was the first guy who was able to make the Marvel editor-in-chief position work after Stan Lee vacated it, and that he had to be a bit of a tyrant to whip that office into shape. That’s not really a value judgment, either. Lots of great comics got published under his watch. And they were as good as they were because he gave guys like Claremont, Byrne, Miller, and Simonson the creative freedom to make them good. It was only in his later years at the company, when he started tightening the reigns, that he lost his touch.

    Which, hey… That tension between creative freedom and editorial control is what Starlin was upset about back in the mid-70s, too. It’s the eternal cycle of work-for-hire comics: periods of great creative freedom that can be erratic, but which produce great stories, inevitably followed by periods of great editorial control that produce average, but more consistent, stories.

  3. You could endlessly debate the good and bad of Jim Shooter’s tenure as editor-in-chief, a still-controversial era all these decades later. Shooter took the company out of chaos and used a firm hand to get it back on track. During his time, Marvel published so many stories that are now regarded as true classics. Yet, at the same time, many freelancers believed Shooter was much too controlling, and was stifling innovation, especially as time went on.

    Y’know, I cannot help but look at this as it applies in the wider arena of politics. You can have well-meaning but weak and/or incompetent politicians & rulers, and the result is total anarchy, with everything falling apart. Or you can have strong, focused but dictatorial officials who, as the saying goes, make the trains run on time, but eventually thwart individuality, especially the longer they remain in power and become more arrogant & convinced of their indispensability. It is an extremely difficult balancing act, achieving a happy, effective middle ground between disorder and dictatorship.

  4. […] Heavy, Man, Heavy: Jim Starlin’s Thanos Saga, Part Two (dorkforty.wordpress.com) […]

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