Friday, December 9, 2016

This Evil Aborning!

OR: "What Goes Around Comes Around"

Two years to the month after the 1972-73 Warlock series was ended--a run of just eight issues--writer/artist Jim Starlin brought the character back for a limited series of bi-monthly appearances in Strange Tales. At that point it had been over a year since Starlin had departed Captain Marvel after revitalizing both the character and the dormant book--and Warlock, another character lingering in limbo without much direction to speak of, seemed the perfect character for Starlin to pivot to and infuse with his unique brand of storytelling and artistry.

Unlike Mar-vell, however, Starlin would have Warlock based exclusively in the depths of space, having him take flight from Counter-Earth following the resolution of his conflict with the Man-Beast in the pages of Incredible Hulk and seeking his destiny in the stars. One can't help but note the irony between Warlock and Mar-vell in that respect: Mar-vell, one of the star-spanning Kree but who chose to leave behind his heritage and remain on Earth... while Warlock, created on Earth as the progenitor of a new race of man, decides to leave the Earth behind and explore his existence among other worlds and species. Starlin would be successful in having both of these men thrive in their respective adventures--yet only one of them would be at peace in their new life, having much more life experience to draw on for stability and perspective. Warlock learned much of humanity while he strove to save Counter-Earth from the designs of the Man-Beast; yet his struggle to find his place in the universe would be a difficult one, and in the end he would find little solace and even less fulfillment. It's quite a different course Starlin plots for Warlock, but there is little doubt that he's the person for the job.

And Starlin gets to work almost immediately, following a brisk recap of Warlock's history (both as Him and as "Adam Warlock") that breaks the character from the confines of his ties to the High Evolutionary and the artificial world of Counter-Earth and sets him on a path of a journey into the unknown. But Starlin the plotter has been busy--and the character will begin a set storyline almost immediately, as he comes into contact with agents of the Universal Church of Truth, a vast empire of worlds where doctrine holds sway and heresy is met with swift and deadly force. The men, a trio of religious fanatics who call themselves the Grand Inquisitors, have been pursuing a young girl who is accused of being a non-believer of the "true faith"--and though Warlock came to her defense, the girl is slain before he could prevent it.

The Inquisitors escape--yet Warlock is in need of more information in order to deal with this new and unfolding situation. To that end, he employs his mysterious Soul Gem, which chillingly reveals a function that indeed has it living up to its name.

The girl describes not only the warped teachings and mission of the Church, but also the two figures at the top of its hierarchy: the Magus, a 5000-year presence who is worshiped by those of the Church and who has set it on its path of bloody indoctrination... and the Matriarch, the Church's temporal leader who took the Magus's twisted vision and ran with it, setting policy with an iron fist and making the Church the most powerful force in the galaxy. The twist to the story that Starlin offers up front is made known when the Magus reveals himself to Warlock, and discloses that he and Warlock are actually the same being.

And so the odds are almost immediately stacked against Warlock: He knows that he must face and battle the Magus and his forces--yet he has almost no hope of prevailing since, if this account is to be believed, he will one day become the Magus. And as he soars onward, it isn't long before he's intercepted by a massive space ark bearing the markings of the Church--making it all too apparent that the fight has come to him.

For Warlock, there's no time like the present to begin his assault--but realistically, we have to believe that for the Church to have gained such a foothold in the galaxy, they must know what they're doing and possess the might to sweep aside those who resist them and take what they want. In short, Warlock has underestimated his enemy, as well as this ship's captain, Autolycus.

Now a captive, Warlock is placed in a restraining harness and confined with the other prisoners aboard the ship. And while Autolycus proceeds to report Warlock's capture, Warlock attempts to interact with his fellow captives--and when he succeeds, he finds that he's truly on a ship of the damned, as far as the fate of his fellow "infidels" is concerned.

Yes, that boisterous lead-in heralds the introduction of the one and only Pip the Troll, who would become a mainstay in Warlock's life for the foreseeable future and certainly during Starlin's association with the character, as well as a welcome balance to Warlock's general seriousness and weighty nature. Pip is certainly right at home with this group of captives, since I can think of no one who would be more of an anathema to the Church's dogmatic and rigid policies of belief and devotion.

Meanwhile, Autolycus' transmission concerning Warlock has reached the ears of the Matriarch, the Magus' right hand in matters of Church doctrine and discipline--as well as having, it might be expected, ambitions of her own as far as succeeding the Magus. And being privy to the connection between the Magus and Warlock, this opportunist isn't one to fail to take advantage of the chance she's been handed that will allow her to seize the reins of power sooner rather than later.

It's not clear just how the Matriarch would come by the knowledge of the Magus' origin. From what we'll learn of him, the Magus is an evil man, but he would also have to have grown to be a careful one in terms of safeguarding his position--and anyone with designs to eliminate him would find the information on Warlock invaluable. On another note, has the Matriarch even thought this through? Eliminating Warlock would result in the end of the Church before it even began, since the Magus would never have existed. No Church, no Matriarch.

But the focus of this story, aside from Warlock, is Warlock's conflict with Autolycus, an individual whom Starlin is attempting to give more depth to by showing that the code he lives by is at odds with his duty to the Church. It's difficult at this point to be sympathetic toward Autolycus, given his apparent history as a faithful soldier and the acts he's carried out on the Church's behalf; on the other hand, he could be seen as deluding himself in regard to the Church's stated mission vs. how its policies are truly worded behind closed doors. Regardless, it seems clear that he'll carry out his task, however distasteful he may find it to be.

As for Warlock, his rebellious captives wish to take advantage of his presence in their ranks to finally strike back against their captors. Yet Warlock declines to accept a position of leadership, citing events on prehistoric Earth that demonstrated how the seeds of power often lead to bloody results, and that those who are led are often exploited by those who lead them. His fellow captives react with outrage at his decision, and leave him behind--but not for long.

The lengthy diatribe that Starlin provides to Warlock to get his point across (not seen in these panels) is overly dramatic and inapplicable to Warlock's situation, since his participation here is only for the short term. The prospect of setting himself up as this group's "ruler" would make no sense even if it occurred to him, since he intends to press on and confront the Magus. "That was the way it began and how they say it shall always be! The strong must always lead and exploit the weak!" Warlock imparts a lesson on the dangers of one man rising above others where no lesson is required, since the example he cites is so different from the situation at hand. He's not dealing with prehistoric tribesmen, but with intelligent, committed fighters from different worlds who are looking to Warlock mainly to be a spearhead in their efforts to win their freedom. The scene as presented here doesn't provide the proper context for whatever character trait (nobility? conscience? equality?) that Starlin wishes to establish with Warlock.

Yet, true to his promise, Warlock is willing to contribute to the efforts of the revolt, as he runs interference and prevents potential threats from even coming into contact with the prisoners, while also disrupting communications between Autolycus and his men. The sequence that Starlin lays out is impressively effective, as Warlock whittles down the forces against him.

Starlin speaks figuratively in applying a sense of reason and history to Warlock's name by having it colorfully refer to his fighting style, though "I became a true Warlock!" is perhaps overdoing it a little since the character doesn't practice witchcraft. Perhaps Starlin simply wished to break with Roy Thomas's arguably weak justification for the name, stemming from a loose reference by the High Evolutionary at how Warlock's abilities would be received on Counter-Earth:

Had Warlock arrived on the planet with his memory intact, instead of being afflicted with amnesia, he might well have ended up with a completely different name for himself--yet because his memories were a jumble, the name stuck, thanks to a group of kids who decide to give him a first name, as well.

Toward the end of Starlin's work on the revived Warlock title, however, Starlin decides to be less indirect as to why this character is called "Warlock," though even Warlock seems unsure of Starlin's reasoning:

Practicing warlocks must be delighted to find out that they're now one with the classical elements of ancient Greece, though Starlin's intention is acceptable enough on a purely fictional/entertainment level. It seems apparent that the Evolutionary adjusted the abilities of the being known as Him in some way in order to adapt him to life on Counter-Earth, with the abilities of Warlock's which we've seen here being a by-product of those adjustments. We never do encounter Warlock's "elemental" powers to any extent in his adventures; Thomas, Starlin et al. mainly had him utilizing his strength in fist fights, though following his later resurrection his powers would be further tweaked in subsequent appearances.

Once Warlock has deprived Autolycus of his forces, it's time to take on the man himself, who's been augmented so that Starlin can present him as a credible threat to someone like Warlock. Their struggle is nicely choreographed, with Starlin continuing to paint a picture (through Warlock) of Autolycus as a man in conflict, even with both his actions and words making him a deadly threat who would plunge a knife into Warlock without hesitation. It's only when Warlock is at an unexpected disadvantage with his life in danger that a third party decides the battle for them.

It's an excellent sequence by Starlin that expands on the gem which Warlock wears on his forehead, after having existed this long without much development beyond that of a simple "emerald" as the Evolutionary described it (later rechristened the "soul-jewel")--its primary functions restricted to giving Warlock the ability of levitation as well as to devolve a person (or a man-beast) back to their previous form. Here Starlin unleashes another, more deadly aspect to it, and one which will be integral to the story of the Magus. Curiously, Starlin again waxes poetic where Warlock is concerned, even with the answer already known: "What curse had linked me to such an infamous entity?" Since we've already seen that it was the High Evolutionary who gave Warlock the gem, perhaps a more sensible question for Warlock to ask would be "Why have I been linked to such an infamous entity?"

With the prisoners now in control of the starship "Great Divide," Warlock prepares to depart, though not without giving the former prisoners another stern lecture on self-government. (With the end of Nixon's presidency in disgrace nine months before this story saw publication, Starlin's preoccupation with this subject could be seen as words of warning as to the dangers of making "all the old mistakes over again! Don't set up false lords to rule over you! Rule yourselves!") As Warlock boards his ship, however, he finds he has a wingman--one he confides in completely.

Warlock would have two more issues of being featured in Strange Tales before Starlin moves with him to take another stab at his solo series, Warlock--which, like Captain Marvel as well as Warlock's appearances in Strange Tales, would be published on a bi-monthly basis. As a result, Warlock's conflict with the Magus would take over two years to play out, with Warlock's first series finally coming to an end for good with the four issues that followed. The PPC cuts to the chase and covers Warlock's battle with the Magus and his forces (while finding an unlikely ally in, of all people, Thanos) in a separate post; and if you follow the trail of links, the story that's woven for Warlock by Starlin eventually brings closure to a character who, like his series, failed to find a place in this world.

Strange Tales #179

Script and Art: Jim Starlin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski


Kid said...

In the '70s, Starlin's Captain Marvel and Warlock were two of the highlights of the comics I bought as a teenager. Along with Howard the Duck of course. Ah, the 1970s - wish I could experience those heady days again. It's just a shame that Starlin doesn't draw anymore.

Comicsfan said...

For what it's worth, Kid, he still has his hand in writing, with his recently completed Infinity trilogy--where Thanos (well, for a time, at least) as well as Warlock are present and accounted for. (Warlock also got some time of his own in the Infinity Entity series.) If I weren't so tired of seeing the Infinity concept wrung like a dishrag, I'd probably give it a look! :D

Anonymous said...

I'll second Kid, those were all classic titles from my favorite period in comics. I first ran across this wild and weird Warlock character in Marvel Team-Up, where he and Spider-Man fought the Stranger on the moon!
This blew my young, fragile mind, I wanted to know who that guy was, and years later I hunted down the rest of the Warlock saga and Captain Marvel with an Ahab-like obsession. Starlin's art in those Strange Tales and Warlock issues were his finest stuff, for me anyway. Heavy detail and mood in those issues, and always fun to revisit them. I love good space opera.

Anonymous said...

I have to second M.P., this comic book, i.e. the whole run by Starlin (maybe not the starthief-stuff ;-) is just stellar. It blew my mind when I read it as a kid, and it still really holds up. Incidentally, I have to confess that - on a subliminal level - Mr. Starlin formed my outlook on authority and hierarchy with the little tale form the Neanderthals in the issue you presented CF.
We relly need to be thankful that the stars aligned (Vietnam vet ends up at marvel, cosmic heroes without any guidance are left for him, those in charge let him do whatever he wants).

Anonymous said...

Oh, that was me, Mirko

Comicsfan said...

Mirko, that's an excellent way of looking at Starlin stepping in to salvage both Captain Marvel and Warlock. Definitely food for thought!