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Warlock

Longbox Graveyard #21

In issue #11 of Longbox Graveyard I decided that Jim Starlin‘s Captain Marvel wasn’t so marvelous after all. This week, I take to the spaceways with Starlin’s Warlock, and things are better. Quite a bit.

There’s a quantum leap between Captain Marvel #32 and Strange Tales #178 — a quantum leap and five months, if my comic book database’s information on publication dates is to be believed. In that period of time, Jim Starlin apparently developed the pull to go from having left Captain Marvel over a dispute to getting to pick his next assignment (and start drawing it that very night) — and that next assignment proved to be Warlock.

You can see why Warlock appealed to Starlin. He was cosmic (check), under-developed (check check), was ripe for reinvention (check-and-re-check) and had messianic overtones and a budding death complex (ka-CHING!). Add Thanos, stir, and serve, and Starlin could pick up exactly where he left off with Captain Marvel.

Not quite “exactly,” actually … because in that five-month gap, Jim Starlin evolved considerably as an artist. The powers-that-be also appear to have realized that the best way to employ Jim Starlin was to just let the guy go off and do what he was going to do, without saddling him with a lot of name characters or continuity or cross-overs (at least until the Warlock saga was clumsily concluded in Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2, but nothing lasts forever).

Warlock starts with a bang — our golden-skinned spacegod is quickly pulled into conflict with the Universal Church of Life, which we just as quickly learn is headed up by Warlock’s own future self, the Magus. The Magus is even more glam rock in appearance than Warlock, being painted silver and sporting an afro that, yes, reminds us this was 1975, even in outer space. The Church gleefully exterminates non-believers, which might have made them a poor stand-in for Thanos, except that Thanos is cleverly cast as Warlock’s circumstantial ally, for some long-range, diabolical reason that I can’t remember right now (and which was probably made up later in any case).

the very-glam Magus!

So far we’ve got all the best parts of Starlin’s uneven Captain Marvel run — an outer space epic, Thanos, and a spacefaring superhero — but this story is made considerably better, due to the focus afforded by Starlin’s creative control, and by the smart introduction of supporting characters for sex appeal (Gamora, the “deadliest woman in the universe,”) and comic relief (Pip the Troll).

the deadliest woman in the universe (also the greenest)

Warlock, himself, is a bit of a stiff, but seems like a well of bottomless depth compared to grim old Captain Marvel, and when Warlock goes off into his self-important soliloquizing about life, the universe, and his Hamlet-like relationship to everything, we don’t mind so much, because there’s usually someone around to tell him to stop being such a knucklehead and like, you know, take a stand, or something.

Also working in Warlock’s favor is a frothy cocktail of Michael Moorcock character tags. He’s got a magical jewel in his skull (like Dorian Hawkmoon), and that gem sucks souls and has a powerful and evil will of it’s own (like Elric’s runeblade, Stormbringer), which gives the character a stage for internal conflict as he decides whether to let his gem loose and wipe out a bunch of mooks. And like Elric, when armed with such an awesome trump card, it seems the only bad guys worth fighting are either rogue gods or sheer weight of numbers, which Starlin ably renders with page after page of his weirdly wonderful, vaguely reptilian aliens, most of which seem to sport a single eye.

Starlin seems less interested in contorted panel layouts here than he was on Captain Marvel, but he makes up for it with those aforementioned mass alien battles, and with an overall improvement in his art that probably owes more than a bit to consistent inks from Steve Leialoha (Starlin had seven different inkers in eleven issues of Captain Marvel). Starlin does channel his inner Steve Ditko, particularly in Strange Tales #180, where our hero travels, Lewis Carroll-like, down through a trap door and into a surreal sham court of mouthless defense attorneys and monstrous magistrates who have decided Warlock’s guilt before the first arguments are heard.

Warlock goes through the looking-glass

But moreso than Lewis Carroll or Michael Moorcock, the fantasy author I was most reminded of while re-reading these books was Jack Vance, whose Cugel the Clever stories bear a striking and I am certain entirely accidental resemblance. Like Vance, Starlin’s strengths are in plotting and world building, where thinly-developed characters service set-piece situations pregnant with allegory. Warlock isn’t nearly the self-deceiving rogue that is Cugel (that role is reserved for Pip), but he does share some of that character’s babe-in-the woods naivety. He stumbles from one outrageous situation to the next because, well, the author wants it that way, and it’s convenient to explain the wise hero is so much less perceptive than the audience because of his self-absorbed nature.

Which makes it sound as if I dislike Warlock, which isn’t true at all, but as was the case when I revisited Vance a couple years ago, I found Starlin’s Warlock stories were still quite good, just not in the way I remembered. The second time around, I enjoyed Vance’s stories more for their language and sense of humor than their dialogue and narrative, and returning to Warlock I found I far better enjoyed the supporting characters, the bad guys, the big battles, and the sinister church than the tiresome Adam Warlock, who pegs wildly between apathy and rage (which, to be fair, gives him one more emotional setting that Starlin’s Captain Marvel).

Had this been a mini-series (not that we had such things in 1975), Warlock would have been a classic, but with the conclusion of the Magus storyline, the book lost its way. With Warlock having witnessed his own future death in issue #11, and the meter running on that event, it’s almost like the series was just marking time until it can conclude. Issue #12 was a tongue-in-cheek solo story staring Pip the Troll, which is fun enough, but the sense of relief coming off the page when Warlock is written out of the issue doesn’t bode well for the character’s long-term health. When Warlock returns to battle the Star Thief the book feels desultory, like a last place baseball team playing out the string. By the time Warlock fights his way across the universe to confront a villain (Star Thief) who is then defeated by a minor character of no consequence to our hero, the book feels ripe for cancellation. When your most thrilling moment is Warlock fighting a dumbass space shark (I wish I was kidding!), cancellation could not have come as a surprise.

It was a surprise to the creators, though, or at least to whoever wrote the letters page in fifteenth and final issue of the run, who seemed certain he’d be “back in sixty,” though with the final caption on the final page of the story reading, “Fin,” someone seemed to be in the loop about what would happen next. Books did come and go all the time in the 1970s, and Marvel bi-monthlies were always on life support, so with it’s weird outer space stories and lack of recognizable supervillains, it isn’t a surprise the book went down so much as it lasted as long as it did.

Marvel did have an eye toward finishing stories even if their books were cancelled, and Warlock was no exception, leading to a strange coda in a pair of 1977 Annuals — Avengers Annual #7, and Marvel Two-In One Annual #2. Even with two double-length stories to bring things to a conclusion, there’s plenty of shoe-horning here — Gamora is killed off between issues, and to no one’s regret the silly subplot where Warlock has expanded into a giant many thousands of time larger than the sun is forgotten. Plenty of pages have to be turned over to the headlining Avengers, which further cramps the Warlock story, but Starlin turns it into a kind of old home week, bringing in Captain Marvel and Moondragon as well as Warlock, and pitting them all against Thanos, who is yet again trying to blow up Earth’s sun. It’s a lot of fun, actually, to see Starlin take on the Avengers — Starlin draws a great Iron Man, and Starlin seems especially at home writing and drawing the furry blue version of the Beast, who so adequately covers Pip’s comic relief role that Starlin can lobotomize his little troll sidekick and keep the story going without missing a beat.

The result is a fun, old-fashioned superhero beatdown, with plenty of spaceships blowing up and the Avengers in mass combat with disposable aliens that I remembered after thirty years (Qu’lar the Massive!). It’s the same story, really, that Starlin told back at the end of his Captain Marvel run, but it holds together better this time around, and when Warlock dies at the end, only to find himself inside his soul gem surrounded by the blissed-out spirits of every soul he’s claimed, it’s actually kind of sweet, and a better conclusion to Warlock’s tale than you would have thought possible for the last page of an Avengers book. The second part of the tale, in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2, reduces Warlock to a ghostly cameo, and while Starlin handles Spider-Man and (especially) Ben Grimm nicely in the story, it’s still Spider-Man in outer space.

And that was it! The worth-what-you-paid-for-it summary of Starlin’s publication history over at Wikipedia shows Starlin mostly doing various one-offs and fill-ins for Marvel after that, and some work for DC, too, most notably scripting work on Batman. I gather his most ambitious work was for Metamorphosis Odyssey, which started in Epic Illustrated and would evolve into Dreadstar, a series that yet lurks somewhere in the Longbox Graveyard. (And for a peak at some of this work, be sure to visit the always-cosmic Mars Will Send No More).

But Starlin’s cosmic superhero work in the Bronze Age was pretty much over with the end of Warlock, which was a shame, because Starlin’s “Cosmics” were a real breath of fresh air in the 1970s, offering rare reinventions of conventional characters and some mind-expanding plots.

They were among my favorite books as a teen, and they held up pretty well, easily earning a spot in the Collection.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #22 Glorious Bastards

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About Longbox Graveyard

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on November 9, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Yes! What a great saga. Glad to see it reviewed here. Starlin was just warming up for this one on Captain Marvel. The struggle against the Church/Magus is the best part, but we love that resolution at the end.

    And, you can consider this story a warm-up for Metamorphosis Odyssey where, freed from any and all super-hero or continuity muck, Starlin knocks it out of the park.

    We’ve read this story dozens of times so forgive us for pointing out: Thanos allied with Warlock because, for all his evil, the Magus was a force for Life. Starlin makes it clear that Magus was a jerk, but he had Purpose. Magus would have grown so powerful as to easily defeat Thanos, who was a force for Death. The In-Betweener tells Adam, “Life has need of a champion to defend itself against… a powerful advocate of death. The Magus, strange as it may seem to you, is to be the champion of life!” In ‘helping’ Adam, Thanos only sought to defeat the last hope for Life in the universe: the Magus.

    Starlin went beyond the easy good guy/bad guy division here for a deeper interpretation of the duality of the forces of Life, also seen in his use of Chaos, Order, and The In-Betweener as characters. One of our favorite stories of all time, and more influential on our philosophy than many philosophy books out there.

    • Thanks, as always, Mars, for reading and commenting.

      And thanks for pointing out the convoluted enemy-of-my-enemy motivation that put Warlock and Thanos on the same side, if just for awhile. For all that this was an outer space comic book epic that rationale shows some very 1970s-era Cold War bipolar thinking (entirely appropriate, given that these tales are from 1975).

      Now that I’ve re-read and reviewed both Captain Marvel and Warlock I suppose Dreadstar is an inevitability. I’ll have to dig those issues out the Accumulation the next time I can convince myself to face it, with an eye toward filling in my (many) missing numbers in that run. I sense there’s some Dollar Box treasure to be had there. It’s superficial, I know, but I never really tumbled to Dreadstar because I couldn’t work up a lot of affection for a main character in a hoodie with a blonde goatee — but I recall it had a Cat Head Guy in it, and that forgives many sins.

      As you can tell, I think deeply about these things.

      • Cat Head Guy is our hero, dude! We’ve been hooked since his origin in #1.

        Thanks to the glorious recession, most issues of Dreadstar you can get for less than 2 bucks. We see smokin’ deals on complete collections on eBay sometimes, too.

        Finishing up the Paranoia series rocked. It was creepy and funny at the same time. Good dystopia tale. Issue #6 with the big robot eyeball is on our office wall among our eyeball cover collection. Thank you for that gift!

        • Glad you liked Paranoia … getting those books out of storage to send to you gave me an excuse to read them for the first time in twenty years. And the experience was … not horrible. I even laughed a couple times. Of course I have the benefit of knowing what is supposed to be going on so I can follow the story despite the attractive but sometimes-incoherent art. I’ll blog about it someday.

          In the meantime, maybe we should collaborate on a Top Ten Cat Headed Guys in comics list. We’ve already got Wildcat and Oedi … who’s next? Does Catwoman count as a “guy” in this context?

          Weighty issues demanding due deliberation!

          • Catwoman’s in.

            Make it real tough and feature only cat-headed people actually in our respective collections – no googling!

            Pretty sure we have ten in the shortboxes: Oedi (and he had a female counterpart later), Wildcat, Black Panther, Hepzibah (Starjammers), Tigorr (and Felicity, Omega Men), Cheetah, Catwoman. There was Jack Kirby one in Kamandi maybe… A cat head freak appears in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Dr. Moreau issue.) Plus, hot naked catwomen in Genus.

            We don’t have anything with Cat Man unless he’s popped up in Crisis, and no Thundercats made the cut in our shortboxes.

            • Surely there is room for Omaha the Cat Dancer, and Tigra?

              And do we make an animation exemption for Fritz the Cat?

              How about Felix?

              Although this is stretching the point — we have left the realm of “Cat Headed Guys” and entered the world of “Anthropomorphic Cats,” where Tom (sans Jerry), Scratchy (nee Itchy), and the Aristocats reign supreme!

              • This is why we love comic book blogging. We’d never heard of Omaha the Cat Dancer before. Looks like a fun series. We see the collected ‘omnibus’ is up on Amazon. If not for bloggers, may of these indie/underground titles would be totally off the radar.

                • I will confess I broke your rules and dredged up Omaha from memory (no copies of that series in my Collection or Accumulation). It only occurred to me because I’ve been reading a little R. Crumb and Omaha seems pretty clearly inspired by his work.

  2. This is another example of where the slight age difference between us (I’m 46) is critical in where our tastes lie. My “golden age” is just a little bit later than yours.

    And the three years I lived overseas (5th, 6th, & 7th grade) means that although comics were a part of my life as a young person, I didn’t begin “serious” organized reading or collecting until the late seventies (me at about 14 or so).

    So these love letters of yours to early seventies stories, especially the Marvels (I am a DC guy mostly) are fascinating to me, as this is a “blind spot” to me. I have read lot of Golden Age stuff, and a bunch of early Marvel from the sixties. But this era that you keep coming back to, that of books such as Warlock, is bringing to my ayttention books that I never considered picking up or seeking out, ones that were totally off my radar screen.

    So thanks.

    • Many of the Marvel books I most esteem trace to the era when Roy Thomas was Editor-In-Chief. An insight I got from Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (which I review next week) is that during this time, while Marvel’s most-visible, top-line books received editorial scrutiny, a lot of the lower-selling stuff was off the radar. Sometimes books were so far behind that proofreaders had limited time to go over them, or no time at all. Certain creators also deliberately turned in their work late, or at the very last moment, to reduce the chances they would be asked to re-write or re-work something.

      The result was a pretty wild, “anything goes” era at Marvel, if you knew where to look. We wind up with Pip the Troll saying “this is more fun that brown eyeing!” and we have Deathlok pointing a gun at his head and pulling the trigger. We get interracial relationships and weird prose from Don McGregor, talking ducks from Steve Gerber, and Steve Englehart’s Captain America sticking it to the man (and Cap WAS the Man!)

      Not all of those books are from the Thomas era, but that era set a kind of attitude and framework for the way Marvel would work right up through the Jim Shooter era, when everything became more buttoned-down and centrally-controlled (and, not coincidentally, blander and less memorable).

      At the time, the 1970s weren’t a great time to be a comics reader (and I should know because I was there) — books were late, or abruptly cancelled, sometimes lurching back to life and then cancelled again. Books went bi-monthly (usually a kiss of death), or had unexpected fill-in issues. Teams changed without rhyme or reason, with new creators deliberately undoing everything their predecessors had accomplished. Plus the paper quality was crap!

      But … but … there was creativity, and experimentation, and a lot of risk-taking, and from month to month you were never quite sure what you were going to get. All these years later, the delays and the team changes don’t matter so much, because we can cherry-pick just the best of the stuff, or go into a series retrospective (like McGregor & Russell’s Killraven) already knowing that it is going to end in the middle. A lot of the best stuff from that era is now available digitally, or cheaply in the back issue bins (given that Spider-Man or the X-Men don’t figure in most of these books). In a lot of ways, it’s never been a better time to read these old books.

      It’s a big part of the reason I’m stuck in 1978!

  3. My my, aren’t we cynical?

    Anyway, the whole “Giant Warlock” thing was resolved in an issue of Marvel Team-Up, by Chris Claremont of all people, so it wasn’t so much “forgotten” as it was dismissed summarily.

  4. Here’s me putting in my vote for you to dig through that Graveyard and finding those issues of Dreadstar. I only ever had one or two issues, but as a kid I would have killed for more and am curious how they’d hold up.

    • Since posting this article I’ve actually put together a full run of the Epic Comics Dreadstar (I don’t have the issues after it moved on to … First Comics, I think?). Anyway, it’s in the “to be read” pile. Someday.

  5. Since Starlin’s Warlock is one of my all-time favorite runs, I have been meaning to comment here since finding your site. But I’m going to zip through that, just saying your analysis is pretty accurate. I like to think the series might have ended better (Starlin had other stories planned before killing Warlock off, including an encounter with the High Evolutionary and such) had he not been running into editorial interference that led to his quitting Marvel, at which point the book was cancelled. I have always felt cheated that we didn’t get those stories. His resurrection of the character in the 90s didn’t have anything as good as this run, of course, but I enjoyed some of it. First 15 or so issues of the Infinity Watch series, I guess.

    I was moved to comment in part because you mention Dreadstar, which I was also a big fan of back in the day. In retrospect, the best issues were early on. Not much to recommend the book from around 13-26, or whatever the last Epic issue was. Jaw dropping numbers of recap pages. BUT, if you do finally read them all, you will need to track down at least the first 3-4 First Comics issues, since those actually finish the story (last Epic issue ends with a real cliffhanger). I personally enjoyed the First run all the way until Starlin left with Issue 40. He was writer only from 31-40 and to me it’s some of his best storytelling, albeit on the grim side. So anyhow, I recommend you track down the First issues from 27-40, or at least 27-30, in your spare time. Enjoy.

    • Thanks for the comment, and your advice on Dreadstar comes at a good time, as I am due to begin the final push on trimming down my Accumulation this weekend, and Dreadstar might have been on the bubble (but not now).

      Overall, my feelings on Warlock have mellowed a little bit since writing this review, and you are right, when viewed in the context of that era of Marvel, with all the editorial restrictions and etc., the miracle is that the whole series wasn’t space sharks! That Magus story (and even the Pip sideshow issue) stand up very well — this was passionate and committed work and I expect Marvel’s movie studio will be mining it for decades to come.

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