Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Sorrows of Young Warlock

Jim Starlin's Warlock: The Complete Collection (1975-77/ Collected here 2014): written by Jim Starlin; illustrated by Jim Starlin, Steve Leialoha, Josef Rubinstein, Alan Weiss, and Al Milgrom: The 1970's were a quirky age of growth for mainstream American comic books, with much of that growth occurring at the margins in a way we just don't see any more. Some of the greatest writers and artists mainstream comics have ever produced worked away on series that were mostly far from the big hitters like Spider-man and Superman

Names to conjure with included Bernie Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Don McGregor, Steve Gerber and many others. And the great series of mainstream comics at DC and Marvel were either limited-run back-up strips (Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson's brilliant, beautiful Manhunter at DC) or strange, genre-bending series located safely away from the normal mainstream universe (Don McGregor, P. Craig Russell and company's sprawling, poetic Killraven). 

And then there's Jim Starlin, a writer-artist who staked out his own peculiar corner of cosmic adventure. The only thing all that similar to Starlin's early 1970's Marvel work on Captain Marvel and Warlock was writer-artist Jack Kirby's gigantic, unfinished Fourth World saga over at DC. But where Kirby was ultimately obsessed with life (really, LIFE), Starlin was obsessed with death (DEATH). 

Having cut his cosmic teeth on Marvel's Captain Marvel in the early 1970's, Starlin would return to fringe heroes and outer-space sturm-und-drang in 1975 when he revived the Adam Warlock character. Warlock made his debut as a naive, genetically engineered superman known only as 'Him' in the pages of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Fantastic Four in 1967. Over the next few years, he'd gain the name Adam Warlock, have adventures on Counter-Earth, and fulfill his superheroic Jesus Christ arc by getting himself crucified and resurrected.

HIM! In his cocoon.
Returned to Marvel publication after a few years off (hey, everyone has to take time to recover from a crucifixion!), Warlock was now being written and penciled by Starlin, who never met a case of cosmic angst he didn't like. And Warlock would soon be the angstiest cosmic hero of all, easily surpassing the Silver Surfer for the number and rate of existential crises suffered during barrages of energy bolts and exploding stars. 

But it's fun. And very heavy metal (though not really Heavy Metal) in its adolescent mixture of self-loathing and super-powered punching. Starlin would bring the cosmically villainous Thanos over from his run on Captain Marvel, first as an unlikely ally for Warlock and then as a more likely antagonist. Nay, nemesis! For while Captain Marvel was a problem for Thanos, Warlock is his full-blown opposite: the Life Equation to Thanos' Anti-Life Equation, in terms of Jack Kirby's Fourth World comics for DC.

People talk a lot in Warlock. Boy, do they talk a lot. Starlin has learned to lighten things up a bit by giving Warlock a comic sidekick -- Pip the Troll -- and a female sounding board -- Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Starlin's fascination with the Church (and specifically the Roman Catholic Church) as an institutional Evil shows up here, to later be expanded upon in his Dreadstar series. And he gives Warlock one of the most fascinatingly twisted enemies to ever appear in an ostensibly mainstream superhero comic: The Magus, about which no more said.

But it's the battle against Thanos that dominates much of this volume, as it should. It's probably good that Warlock got cancelled when it did, thus forcing Starlin to end the Thanos saga in post-cancellation Avengers and Marvel Two-in-One annuals. Otherwise, Warlock's suffering might have gone on forever. Instead, Warlock rallies the Avengers, Spider-man, and the Thing to his crusade against Thanos. It's a smaller scale version of what would happen 15 years later in Marvel's Infinity Gauntlet miniseries: everyone versus Thanos. And Starlin throws in some lovely twists along the way. It's good, clean, angsty cosmic fun in the Mighty Starlin Manner. Highly recommended.

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