Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Talking Heads in Space


 Jim Starlin's Warlock: written by Jim Starlin with Bill Mantlo; illustrated by Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Steve Leialoha, Josef Rubenstein, and others (1974-1983; reprinted 1992): Writer-artist Jim Starlin's relatively brief run on Warlock represents one of a handful of the weirdest mainstream superhero comics of the 1970's, in an era when virtually all superhero comics were mainstream -- they were all sold on the newsstands, and all held to sales standards of more than 150,000 copies sold a month, at least.

By sales standards, Starlin's Warlock was a dud -- his entire run spanned about two years, with intermittent later appearances in other titles finishing the initial Warlock saga. But what a weird, ambitious, purple-prosed epic this was. DC and Marvel were a lot more inclined to allow for weird projects in their mainstream universes back then. It's impossible to imagine a story and a hero this odd crossing over with Spider-man, the Thing, and the Avengers today.

Adam Warlock's curious origins began in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four in the 1960's, as a genetically engineered superman who ultimately destroys his power-hungry creators and takes to the stars. Back then, he was known only as Him. Guest shots in Thor led to his own book, written by Roy Thomas, in which Warlock became a Christic figure, trying to save Counter-Earth (oh, look it up) from the Satanic machinations of the malevolent Man-Beast. That book was soon cancelled, with the Man-Beast saga wrapping up in the Hulk's book.

Then along came Starlin, fresh off an odd and abortive run on Marvel's Captain Marvel title, to resurrect Warlock in the pages of Strange Tales. The resurrection would lead to another resurrection, of Warlock's own book. That lasted another 6 issues. It would take seven years for what seemed to be the final stages of Warlock's story to be told in other superhero comics, culminating in a battle alongside the Avengers against the mad space-god Thanos and his plot to extinguish all the stars in the universe. As Thanos is now the lurking villain in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy movies, I'd guess Warlock won't be far behind. His iconic cocoon has already showed up in Guardians of the Galaxy and one of the Thor movies.

Starlin's Warlock is a cosmically subterranean work, obsessed with death and the self-doubt of a somewhat pompous, cosmic man-child who wants to save the universe but isn't entirely sure how. Warlock is also compromised by the Soul Gem embedded in his forehead, a stone of strange power which can suck the souls out of people. Fun times!

Various cosmic shenanigans occur, along with more hand-wringing and soul-searching than you can shake the saddest Spider-man in the world at. There are points at which Starlin seems to be going for My Dinner with Warlock, as talking heads and lengthy conversations dominate the proceedings. Warlock's consciousness seems to be constantly under attack, as is his sense of self. The comic-relief companion Pip the Troll lightens things up for awhile, but this is Jim Starlin's world: Death is the only constant. Well, and resurrection. Possibly followed quickly by more death, more resurrection, and possibly some lengthy conversations about death and resurrection.

Starlin's writing can be painfully clunky and overblown at times, but he's still the best person to write his own stuff. The art, with all its tics, nonetheless strives for, and sometimes achieves, a weird grandeur not often found in superhero comics of any era. Introduced herein is Gamora, Zoe Saldana's green-skinned warrior in Guardians of the Galaxy. Can Warlock and Pip be far behind? And how boring will Marvel Studios make them? I'm guessing we're not getting a Warlock movie in which the characters talk, to themselves and others, for 2 1/2 hours. More's the pity. Recommended.

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