Wednesday, February 6, 2019

"Crisis On Counter-Earth!"

Having recently seen how it all started for the "man-god" named Warlock, let's jump ahead to the series that came about as a result of that promising beginning: The Power of... Warlock, given the green light after only two appearances in the pages of Marvel Premiere, with its first issue hitting the stands in August of 1972. Published on a bi-monthly basis, the book reunited Warlock's creative team of Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, with Tom Sutton replacing Dan Adkins on inks--though Thomas, as was his custom during his spree of creating new '70s titles, almost immediately handed off the reins to another writer--in this case, Mike Friedrich.

During its time, the book struggled creatively as well as commercially, with artist Bob Brown replacing Kane who had departed after five issues, while the returning Thomas and science fiction writer Ron Goulart would alternate with Friedrich. But by its eighth issue, or likely even sooner, the writing was on the wall--as well as in one of those dreaded announcement boxes that unfortunately appeared in a few of those '70s books that were cranked out and thrown to the wolves:

"At the possibly most climactic point in Adam Warlock's brief career, the vise of economics has gotten us in its squeeze! This issue, regretably [sic], is the final one for the golden gladiator under his own title.

"Frankly, we don't know quite what went wrong. We believe we've presented you a succession of well-written, well-drawn stories, full of the exciting action we all read comics for, yet with a gentle prodding of the mind as well. But in any case, the newsstands report that not enough of you bought our adventures to make it profitable to continue. If anything should report in that would change this disappointing picture, we promise to begin anew at the drop of a soul-jewel."

Writer/artist Jim Starlin would give the character his own "Marvel premiere" nearly a year and half later with a four-issue try-out in Strange Tales that ran bi-monthly from February-August in 1975, which led to launching Warlock once more in his former series and simply picking up the book's numbering where it left off. (Smack dab in the middle of a new, unrelated storyline, no less. Hopefully new readers of the character who were collecting back issues of The Power of... Warlock were able to follow the paper trail!)

But what to do in the interim?

A few irons were left in the fire before the 1972-73 series folded. But only two are of importance to bring forward: First, the status of the High Evolutionary, who is still keeping tabs on Warlock's progress to bring peace to the inhabitants of Counter-Earth:

And secondly, the resolution of Warlock's confrontation of his primary antagonist--the Man-Beast, who has set out to avenge himself against the High Evolutionary by destroying Warlock and all he wished to accomplish on this world that the Evolutionary had such high hopes for. The fortunes of the Man-Beast have definitely improved in the course of his machinations, which include taking possession of U.S. President Rex Carpenter and thus gaining for himself and his minions the power to alter the course of events throughout the entire world--as Warlock discovers when the deception is revealed in the last issue's final panel.

To tie up the loose ends and resolve not only the fate of Warlock but also that of Counter-Earth itself, on the brink of possible global nuclear war, the story was brought over to the pages of Incredible Hulk in mid-1974, which sees the Hulk once again finding himself on this duplicate of Earth on the far side of the sun--only this time, he'll come face to face with Warlock, who seems fated to meet his end on this world he swore to save.

But we know that Mr. Starlin's project didn't feature a corpse--so what really happened?

When we pick things up in the Hulk's book, it turns out that several months have passed since that startling scene in the oval office, where we discover that things didn't go so well for Warlock. Taken captive by the Man-Beast, he's been subjected for the past two weeks to extensive testing meant to break his spirit, though with no success as yet. As for the Hulk's arrival, an encounter meant to gather information on Warlock's followers from Bruce Banner has failed--but the Man-Beast, in his lofty role, remains confident that his plans will come to fruition, regardless.

(Given the Man-Beast's current maniacal state, his aide off to the side in the office with him isn't likely to point out the flaw in his logic--i.e., if the only survivors of the nuclear conflagration are the Man-Beast and his minions, "the Man-Beast will rule over zip.")

Unfortunately for the Man-Beast, he receives a setback when his prized captive is helped to escape by Memorax--a/k/a the Recorder from Rigel, who has been retained by the Evolutionary to attach himself to Warlock and keep the Evolutionary apprised of the events of his life. Apparently, Memorax has reasoned that he can only do so if he arranges for Warlock to regain his freedom. (Either that, or the Evolutionary instructed him to do so--it's not at all clear.)

Meanwhile, a battle between the Hulk and the Man-Beast's forces takes place later in Washington, which meets with success--which, for the new reader, warrants an update on how we got to this point, thanks to a two-page spread by writer Gerry Conway and artist Herb Trimpe.

Yet the Man-Beast's subsequent testing of a sonic probe implanted beneath the skin of the captured Banner results in the appearance of a very angry Hulk, who breaks out of his confinement and is soon found by Warlock's allies--specifically, those same "New Men" who helped him during his prior conflict on Counter-Earth. Thereafter, he's taken to the man himself, who has only recently gained his freedom. It seems that Warlock's followers have built up quite the operation for his "revolution" in the time that he was held captive, methods that don't entirely sit well with the Hulk given his experience with weaponry--but both the Hulk and Warlock are able to find enough common ground with each other to form something of a bond between them.

Trimpe's last sup... er, last panel in the scene above should hammer the reader over the head with solidify the biblical aspect that has been attached to Warlock and remains with the character, having taken root in and carried over from his series. Signs of that association include the fact that Warlock doesn't kill (or, rather, he declares it so, in the same issue where he slew one of the creatures set upon him by one of the Man-Beast's agents, Rodan); he has "disciples"; and when it's convenient for the story to remind us, he presents a calming and beckoning influence over those who choose to follow his path. And there are still further examples to be found in this story.

As for the Hulk, the Man-Beast has not been as idle as the revolutionaries--using the technology implanted in Banner to track the Hulk to the abandoned power terminal that Warlock and his followers have been using as their H.Q., and then triggering a sonic probe in the Hulk to cause him enough pain to provide sufficient distraction for Warlock and his group and make it possible for the Man-Beast to take them completely by surprise.

But as battles often do, this one will tilt this way and that, depending on which side has the greater advantage. For instance, Warlock's group carried the considerable advantage of having the Hulk as their ally, until the Man-Beast's device nullified that advantage. But with all hell breaking loose, what if that device were to fail to keep the Hulk's rage in check?

On the other hand, what if the Man-Beast has brought another such weapon as back-up? Well, Warlock, for all his power, seems to be in the habit of inexplicably becoming the Man-Beast's prisoner--and with the Hulk neutralized, he again finds himself his foe's captive, though exactly how that happens is unclear. But unlike last time, there may be no one who can save him.

If nothing else, this story has done more to put the the Man-Beast on the map as a consummate villain than any of his other appearances to date. With the real Rex Carpenter and his sister imprisoned somewhere in the West Wing of the White House, he's used a mixture of careful, patient planning as well as his own power to take control of the highest office in the land, as well as to keep Warlock in check--and with the High Evolutionary content to let Warlock battle the villain rather than taking a hand in the matter himself, Warlock has instead fallen into his foe's clutches on more than one occasion--conveniently neglecting each time to use his power to revert the Man-Beast to his original wolf state and thereby dispose of the threat.  (A hero who wins his battles but keeps losing the war may be one of the reasons why this book's sales tanked.)

And now, to cap his successes, the Man-Beast (in the guise of Carpenter) stands poised to execute Warlock, with the mesmerized, frenzied population fully supporting him and Warlock unable to life a finger to stop him. It's Villainy 101 playing out before our eyes--and the gruesome circumstances notwithstanding, it's hard to deny the Man-Beast his plaudits.

Warlock asks a pertinent question: Why has the Evolutionary apparently abandoned him here? Would you believe we never receive an answer? (Though prove me wrong, and I'll turn myself over to the Man-Beast's tender mercies.) (Not really!)

If only the Evolutionary possessed half the outrage and sorrow of the incredible Hulk.

While even the most daunting barriers have fallen to the Hulk's might, however, death proves to be one that he is helpless to breach. It makes for a touching scene, considering that the loss he suffers is that of a friend--and friends are all too often taken from him, in one way or another.

While it occurs to the Hulk that Warlock might be unable to break free of the cocoon, it's curious that he never completes the thought and proceeds to rip it open, particularly since such confinement reminds him of his own situation with Banner. Instead, the story appears to quickly sidestep that option, in favor of jumping to an illogical conclusion for even the Hulk to make: The Hulk doesn't want Warlock to be trapped in the cocoon--therefore, Warlock is dead. The rationale doesn't make sense; and as a result, it diverts the reader from focusing on the grief that the scene wishes to acknowledge from the Hulk.

With the dawn, however, arrives Warlock's group of New Men, who lead the way to another scene which perhaps handles the loss of Warlock for his friends more poignantly.

Meanwhile, the Man-Beast has moved ahead with his plans to destroy Counter-Earth--dropping the facade of Carpenter for his true form, and using the armed might he commands as President to mobilize for war. You may think it's patently absurd for the joint Chiefs of Staff to observe the Man-Beast's authority, simply because it was the Man-Beast who was technically elected to the office of President--after all, Llyra didn't get away with that sort of thing--but fortunately, sanity prevails in this administration, because the Chairmen and his people not only sabotage the control panel that activates the nuclear arsenal, but they also put in a call to another "army" better able to deal with the foes at hand.

But back at Warlock's interment site--what the heck is happening?

There's no explanation given in either narrative or dialogue for Warlock's resurrection--though to connect the dots, I might have brought in the Evolutionary at this point, and proposed that he had earlier taken the precaution of arranging for Warlock's death to trigger his transformation to a more highly evolved form of life. But since no royalties have come my way from Marvel for that idea, we'll have to settle for Starlin's explanation, however vague: "...[S]o powerful was Adam's spirit that not even death could long contain it! So Adam crossed back into the land of the living to accomplish that for which he had given his life!" (All right, that works, too--'tis enough, 'twill serve, as Mercutio might bottom-line it.)

With the threat of the Man-Beast dispatched, and with Counter-Earth's future restored to its hopeful people, all that remains is Warlock's farewell and parting words to those who trusted and believed in him.

Strangely, Warlock has no parting words to the Hulk, who gave his help to Warlock freely and unconditionally, and who felt such sadness at his loss. Instead, it falls to Memorax to wish the Hulk well and send him on his way--and both Warlock and the Evolutionary should be so lucky as to have the sentiments that this unique recording device expresses.

All things considered, Conway's story accomplishes its goal, while paving the way for Warlock to be picked up at some point by others who might want to include him as a guest star or even take another crack at giving him his own series. Over the years, it's been a little bit of both, which perhaps isn't a bad legacy for a Marvel character who so often had the odds stacked against him.

A closing note to the mastermind of the wince-worthy titles for the issues featured here:

Frankly, pal, the rest of us wouldn't mind having the name of your weed supplier.

Incredible Hulk #s 177-178

Script: Gerry Conway, Tony Isabella
Pencils: Herb Trimpe
Inks: Jack Abel
Letterers: Artie Simek and Alan Kupperberg


Big Murr said...

This analysis brought back a bucket of memories over the Counter-Earth days of Warlock. And I recall why I dropped the title before it was cancelled. (I never actually read this wrap-up in Hulk)

The plagiarizing/borrowing/paralleling of Christian tales couldn't be more heavy-handed if it was a slap from ol' Greenskin himself. I don't know how they thought that would be appealing. People who don't practice Christianity would find syrupy and annoying. I can only imagine Christians would find it irritating, if not a bit insulting. Starlin's later stories around the Universal Church of Truth and the Magus were far more thought-provoking, being a more...universal...take on organized religion, rather than specifics.

AND THAT ANNOUNCEMENT. Yeesh. How passive-aggressive can they get. "We did a good job, but you didn't do your part. It's all your fault"

The way I cynically translate that: "We did our long-standing bait & switch strategy of starting a series with an A-List creative team to get you hooked. Then we swapped in any (cheaper) artist or writer who had a spare moment in their schedule to slap something on to a page. And yet, you didn't appreciate that hard work."

Colin Jones said...

I'm hoping for a review of the Hulk issue when the High Evolutionary de-evolved into a puddle of goo...or something.

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