Golden Messiah: Jim Starlin steps in

Strange Tales #178-181, Warlock #9-11 (1975-1976)

You know your life has got to be pretty f—ed when the one who has to give you a pep talk is the Mad Titan Thanos. I have never met a hero so plagued with self-doubt as Adam Warlock. The depths of his self-recriminations exceed even those of Peter Parker, who honestly has better grounds for self-loathing. Besides which, the man has also died and been reborn more times than a Star Trek character.

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It was through the pages of Warlock that we all first encountered the Most Dangerous Woman in the Galaxy, Gamora, daughter of Thanos, before she was a Guardian of the Galaxy or a member of the infinity Watch. I hadn’t realized this until I reviewed my collection. Warlock no. 15 would also be the first time Gamora met Drax the Destroyer–that is, the time that Drax in his rage flew right into her ship and blew it to smithereens. I showed that page to my wife and son, and they reacted the same way: “Damn! Drax has no chill!”

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Writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane had repositioned Warlock as a Savior in his original comic book run. Jim Starlin was another kettle of fish. Sorting through story possibilities in the mid-1970’s, he became intrigued by the character of Adam Warlock. He would guide the strip through its second phase as both artist and scripter, while upending Adam’s role from Messiah into that of the Devil. Oh, he also gave him that funky cape.

Strange Tales V1 #178 (1975_2) - Page 17

Starlin presented a cosmos as psychedelic as the times in which they were published, his ideas broad-ranging while sprinkled with a subtle, warped sense of humor. Some of my favorite stories were penned and inked by Jim Starlin. It was he who introduced Thanos in Iron Man no. 55 in 1972, and transformed a mediocre Captain Marvel into a cosmically aware champion in Captain Marvel no. 29, 1973. The science may be exaggerated, off-kilter, but wasn’t that always the fun in old comic books? As I re-read his old tales, I’ve come to think of him as the Master of Exposition. Starlin can devote an entire two page spread to recaps and backdrop information dumps on all the evil-doings, in a way that’s both entertaining and vital to the tales unfolding.

There have been many blogs about the Magus Cycle already, so I’ll dispense with another in-depth analysis. But let me summarize; an unknown woman summons Adam Warlock. She dies needlessly at the hands of agents of the Church of Universal Truth, which forces him to use his Soul Gem to resurrect her soulless body and interrogate her. The enemy as they say in the old Pogo comic was ourselves. The all-powerful being Adam must defeat is called the Magus–Latin for wise man, magician, or Warlock. The enemy in fact is his own twisted future self. Every action he takes against the Magus, every step forward only seems to lead Adam down the dark path to his evil future.

He is joined in his quest by the ne’er do well troll Pip and, at Thanos’s direction, by Gamora. Equally problematic is the Soul Gem which was given him by the High Evolutionary. In Thomas & Kane’s hands it was a useful tool; in Starlin’s it has become a malignant presence with a vampiric thirst for souls.

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Perhaps reflecting his own personal turmoil after his service in the Navy during the Vietnam War, Starlin’s stories incorporate themes of suicide and self-destruction against an omnipresent congregation. While Thanos engages the Magus, Warlock leaps into his own timeline and erases the path that leads to the Magus, but with that bargain seals his own death in two years’ time. Despite the fact that yes he was absolutely, utterly and definitively erased from history, well, the Magus will be back in one form or another. ‘Cos that’s what Starlin does, what any author does when you think about it–he always comes back to the characters he loves.

http://diversionsofthegroovykind.blogspot.com/2012/02/making-splash-jim-starlins-warlock.html

https://www.vulture.com/2019/04/jim-starlin-creator-of-infinity-war-thanos-hates-marvel.html

https://www.blackgate.com/2015/04/11/the-three-phases-of-marvels-adam-warlock-part-two-the-magus-saga/

Golden Messiah: Adam Warlock Phase One

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I encountered Adam Warlock through the usual venues, i.e. reading comic books after my brothers were done with them. I was too young to have any set parameters; my mind was wide open to the possibilities. The cynicism that characterized the rest of the 1970s wouldn’t set in for another three years.

Apparently I was more taken with Warlock and the original Captain Marvel [Marvel Comics version, not Shazam!] than most readers, considering that he couldn’t seem to hold a comic down. I’d read Warlock’s debut story in a Fantastic Four reprint magazine a couple years after his book ended abruptly in 1973. Back then he was a product of genetic experimentation known only as Him

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I caught the first two issues of that plotline, which brings up another pet peeve of mine–I couldn’t stop missing the FINAL issue in a comic book’s multi-part arc. I reach the cliffhanger, and somehow the following month, I always missed the final part. If I wanted to know how a story arc wrapped, I’d have to gather that from the recap they helpfully provided in the following issue. Either that or I’d have to wait YEARS to track that comic book down at a used book-store.

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What I’ll call Phase One of Adam Warlock’s comic book life was an allegorical retelling of the legend of the Son of God, where the newly christened Adam was cast as the golden-skinned  action-hero Jesus who steps forward to rid a new world, a Counter-Earth of its fallen angel, the Man-Beast and his horde of New Men, beast-men really. The role of the Father was taken by the High Evolutionary, once a man like us but elevated by scientific means unto godhood.

Don’t worry, I have no intention of proselytizing anyone. The Jesus-Father connections are more tenuous than at first appears. If I may, I always saw Jesus as self-assured and unwavering in his purpose, whereas Adam Warlock has always been uncertain of his role and plagued by guilt over the deaths brought to his followers over his crusade.

Reading Warlock comics was often an exercise in frustration since he never seemed to wrap his own storyline up in his own magazine! We were left dangling at the end of Issue #8 when Adam and Astrella Carpenter confronted the Man-Beast revealed as the President in the White House. That chapter would have to be taken up a year later in the Hulk comics, which I was reading religiously [ironically enough] at that time.

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I see now as an adult that it should have been no surprise the Man-Beast took the form of U.S. President Rex Carpenter, a charismatic Kennedyesque figure who persuaded millions to follow him down his dark path. That resurrects a chilling thought, from a lecture I attended by Dune author Frank Herbert. He warned us that Kennedy was the most dangerous President of the 20th Century because we were willing to do anything he asked. It’s likely JFK would have pulled us out of Vietnam had he lived. But people in this country have blindly followed lesser men into Middle Eastern debacles, and let’s not forget our more recent paranoid delusions over immigration, fears fanned by an even less informed mind.

I was too young to appreciate the script’s Savior underpinnings, nor was I too fond of the late Gil Kane’s art style, either. I was used to the blockbuster panels by Jack Kirby. I’m able to appreciate Kane’s naturalistic style; his heroes were muscular without being musclebound. And when the stone actually melts under Warlock’s hand beams, it’s like they are really oozing life. And God, the expressions! He was a master at capturing anger, heartbreak and the awe in each character’s face.

Gil_Kane Artist Gil Kane, 1926-2000

The Savior parallels would be most pronounced in the three-part arc in the pages of the Incredible Hulk in 1974. This would close Phase One of Adam’s life. There is the Last Supper scene, where Hulk is cast as both Judas and Peter. A public trial would follow, and then came that heart-rending crucifixion and Adam’s cry to the High Evolutionary, “Why have you abandoned me?”

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We depart briefly from the Biblical narrative when Hulk leads a revolt to indeed overthrow the evil kingdom on Counter-Earth. It only takes two days for Adam Warlock to be resurrected, and to banish the Man-Beast after he devolves him back to his wolf form. In a final Biblical allusion, Adam ascends into space with a final quote from Ray Bradbury: “Are there mangers on far worlds?” This has a profound effect on a sad Hulk, but not to worry. By the very next issue he’d be back to his raging self again.

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All The Marvel Heroes

All the African American heroes in the Marvel Universe have had their face-time on screen. My family went to see Black Panther the day it came out and were blown away. My wife even had a friendly discussion with the cinema goers in the seats behind us after the movie.

I was at a lucky time growing up, getting in on the ground floor for Luke Cage and Blade’s first appearances in comics. Lucky for me Marvel was reprinting Black Panther’s first adventures with the Fantastic Four at the time too, in Marvel’s Greatest Comics, one of the reprint titles current during the ’70’s. To say nothing of Sam Wilson, the Falcon, Captain America’s partner and War Machine, also proud members of the MCU.

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That said, I was blessed to be on the ground floor, yes. So that means Marvel was ahead of the game on race, si?

Well, not exactly…

Here I’d be referring to my reading’s of their long-running Conan the Barbarian. Perhaps it’s because the source material was a 1930’s pulp fiction series, but it seems, looking back now, that all the black characters in Conan’s world were either natives or sorcerors. I mean the entire black race in Robert E. Howard’s universe were confined to a swampy, serpent-addled land called Stygia. And the ‘natives’ embodied all the traits white people associated with Africans in their worst black-&-white Tarzan movies. ‘Good’ black people? Nope. There was only one ‘good’ black sorceror, and all the rest were on the Tigress, a pirate ship run by Conan’s fiery love Belite.

Give the MCU props for all the modern twists on their heroes, ’cause they have indeed taken a long walk getting here.