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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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