Friday, March 8, 2013

My Enemy, Myself


Artist/writer Jim Starlin had three well-known successes during his time with Marvel Comics which stood out from his other excellent work for the company, and probably remain memorable to readers to this day: Captain Marvel, Warlock, and Thanos. The first two of course are notable in that he's credited with infusing these already established heroes with new life as well as a wider playing field in terms of scope and characters; while Thanos, making his debut in Iron Man, would evolve into a formidable foe in the pages of Captain Marvel but would also become involved in the affairs of Warlock and the Silver Surfer (or, perhaps more accurately, they would become drawn into his affairs).

Once Mar-vell's involvement with Thanos was finished, due to the Titan's apparent death, so, too, seemed Starlin's involvement with the captain. Yet his work on Captain Marvel surely raised the bar on the quality of stories for the character, and writer Steve Englehart and artist Al Milgrom took the baton that was passed (courtesy of a dispute Starlin had with Marvel) and gave a very good run of their own on the book. Starlin would deal Mar-vell into other stories at other times--but he next tried his hand at resuscitating Adam Warlock, the evolved creation of Earth scientists who had met his end in an issue of Incredible Hulk after his own title had failed to catch on with readers. With all of space to play with, Starlin was free to indulge his penchant for the abstract and provide Warlock with concepts and adventures to fit the character's curiosity about the universe (which he seemed well-suited to roam) as well as himself. For Warlock seemed to be constantly searching for his place among the stars--and the course that Starlin was charting for him would be as unpredictable to Warlock as it would be to us.

Yet, even though Warlock is somewhat self-assured in his actions and has something of a moral center, Starlin nevertheless puts him on shaky ground when he returns to his own title and confronts an evil, future version of himself--the Magus, who controls the empire of the Universal Church of Truth which has enacted a brutal and ruthless religious doctrine throughout the stars.



The Magus was, in effect, an attempt by the entities of Chaos and Order to create a champion of Life to counter that of Death--and so they sent their servant, the In-Betweener, to abduct Warlock and bring him to his realm, where they would make him aware of "dark secrets" in order to enable him to face Death's servant:  none other than Thanos, who was preparing a plan of "total stellar genocide." Yet Warlock emerged, insane, as the Magus--with only the desire to build a despotic empire and crush his opposition. Remind me never to recommend Chaos and Order to any of my friends for a makeover.

Warlock tries to head off this plan when he learns that he and the Magus are one and the same. But the Magus is way ahead of him, and saturates him with radiation in order to lead the In-Betweener to him. And just to make sure that Warlock is sufficiently distracted, he launches an all-out assault against his former self, and his new ally, Thanos:



Thanos, of course, isn't helping Warlock out of the goodness of his heart. He realizes that he's outclassed by the increased power the Magus has emerged with, and knows that it's in his best interest to aid Warlock in defeating him in order to have a much better chance of success with Warlock as his eventual foe. To that end, he goads Warlock into using every tool at his disposal to deal with their enemies--even making use of his dreaded Soul Gem.



Though when Warlock uses the gem to decimate the opposition, the Magus decides that two can play at the game of messing with Warlock's head:



Thanos then intervenes to tangle with the Magus, while he sends Warlock on a daring plan: to travel in time and take steps to eliminate the Magus before he even comes into being. Disturbingly for Warlock, that might well mean taking his own life.

Unfortunately, there's one little problem that everyone seems to have forgotten about:



Nor do things look so good for Thanos, who finds himself sorely beset by this ultimate foe of Death's champion:




But as the In-Betweener approaches, Warlock slips away and confronts himself in the near-future, in order to conclude the process of wiping the Magus from existence.




The scene is made all the more chilling in that it's made clear that Warlock, despite his actions, has only a few months to live. (Despite the caption that tells us he's been transported one or two years into the future. Hey, even Starlin can understandably get lost in the shuffle of his own story.) It's also clear that Warlock will see his life end in failure and despondency, destined never to find his place in existence. But he follows through, and ends the life of his future self.  And while Warlock is profoundly affected by the encounter, you won't see Thanos losing any sleep over it.



This story nevertheless ends rather light-heartedly, all things considered, with Warlock at least having made sure that his evil self as well as the Universal Church will never come into being. And it's quite an impressive first step for Starlin with Warlock, managing to make this character his own in just a few issues. And he's not through yet. Warlock has yet to confront Thanos's mad plan to extinguish all life, and Starlin will throw in the Avengers and Captain Marvel in the first part of a 90-page epic that will see the fall--and rise--of Warlock before it's all over.


5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Starlin's work on this series and in the Avengers and Marvel Two-in-One annuals seemed to me to a high point in comics, in both writing and art. For me the death of Adam Warlock and Thanos (that time, anyway) signalled the death of the Bronze Age of comics, and how I thought about them. Starlin's Warlock was a tragic hero, in the sense of Hamlet or Achilles, full of self-doubt and self-recrimination, yet in the end, he somehow trancended himself. The art, I think depending on the inker or how much pressure they were all under, was more than not amazing. Warlock's journey through the underworld of the Magus' throneworld was a tour de force, and the Avengers annual was so good, even my my brother liked it, and he hates comics. I believe the inker on the annuals was Joe Rubenstein, and he did a fantastic job.
After Starlin's run it seemed like a lot of the magic went out of Marvel comics, but whether it was because of Jim Shooter, wresting order out of chaos, stamping out creativity as some have accused him, or whether it was just me growing up, I don't know. Was it becauase it became part of a big corperate entity and all those characters became company property? I know they always were, of course, but the chaos of th 70's seemed the breed a courage and creativity in guys like Starlin, Englehart and Gerber that now with the new stuff just seems crass, stupid, and needlessly sexual and violent.
I read that book (you know) and I'm still not sure what to think. Maybe it was because they gave Starlin a great deal of liscence with these characters, and my guess would be Starlin was working out some personal issues with these characters (he's said as much).
Either way, it seemed like a turning point with me and comics, and I wouldn't feel anything like that wonder again 'til Alan Moore and (later) Grant Morrison came along.

Anonymous said...

p.s. that inbetweener was a real jerk, wasn't he?

Comicsfan said...

Homer or Shakespeare indeed might have enjoyed writing a character like Warlock, though the Bard tended to dwell overly on introspection--and Warlock's musings were always best when interacting with other characters and situations. (Though Starlin's Warlock certainly indulged in a fair amount of introspection, no doubt about that.) I suppose, where solo characters are concerned, there was no getting away from occasional thinking-out-loud scenes concerning the circumstances of their lives, which was true of Mar-vell and Warlock (and particularly the Silver Surfer, whose grim, pessimistic musings virtually drove a stake through his first title). Yet Warlock was different in that respect, since he never really had a life before his creation as an adult in the Beehive on Earth, and his first real purpose in life was to fight for the existence of Counter-Earth and its people. He had no real experiences to fall back on to give him perspective on his actions or decisions--and watching him confront the seeming futility of his life struck a chord for the reader that evoked much more sympathy for him. And I think Starlin picked up on that and handled it quite well.

Longbox Graveyard said...

These were very entertaining comics, with the Warlock/Magus arc possibly the best thing Jim Starlin ever did for Marvel. It is a shame that Warlock comes off the rails so dramatically after this story. Starlin's Pip the Troll solo story was a forgivable diversion but I still shudder to think of the Space Shark.

Comicsfan said...

With Strange Tales and his work here, it certainly seemed Starlin excelled in stories for Warlock that were more epic in scope than in more standard series fare. (Which may have been true to an extent for Mar-vell, as well.) To be fair, though, Warlock was being published bi-monthly, and had already been dropped for two years before being picked up by Starlin--perhaps Marvel had no real plans to continue with the character in a solo series, particularly if sales didn't increase to any noticeable degree during Starlin's run. In that case, Warlock's "what do I do now?" musings in his last issue may have been indicative of Marvel's own questions about the character's future in his own book.

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