Saturday, April 1, 2017

Against Infinity

Jim Starlin's Captain Marvel: The Complete Collection (1968-82/ Collected here 2016): written by Jim Starlin, Gary Friedrich, Steve Engelhart, and Steve Gerber; illustrated by Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Dan Green, and others: 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). 

Starlin would cut his cosmic, thanatophiliac teeth on Marvel's version of Captain Marvel, a not-particularly-popular superhero from the alien race of the Kree. Starlin would give Cap cosmic awareness (whatever that was) and, most importantly, a new villain: Thanos, the "mad Titan," which is to say, a crazy member of the race of demi-god-like Titans living on, well, Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

Starlin initially intended Thanos to be an evil riff on Kirby's Fourth World demi-god Metron, which explains why Thanos spends so much of his early life sitting in a chair just like Metron in his Mobius Chair, a tendency that seems to have persisted into Thanos' early appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Thanos soon grew into the Marvel Universe's biggest threat. Well, a big enough threat that Captain Marvel would have to enlist Iron Man, the Avengers and others of Marvel's mainstream heroes to thwart Thanos' plans.

In the Captain Marvel volume reviewed here, Captain Marvel and friends battle a number of Thanos' stooges before taking on the big man himself. The original Drax the Destroyer appears for the first time -- he'll be much mutated by the time the world sees him played by Dave Bautista in Guardians of the Galaxy. The object of Thanos' quest this time around is a Cosmic Cube, a doohickey from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's 1960's Captain America comics that confers nigh-infinite power on its user. It's no Infinity Gauntlet, but it's helladangerous.

Besides the assorted comic space adventures and battles inside the mind that Starlin deploys to generally enjoyable effect, Captain Marvel also allows for a lot of superhero philosophizing. Starlin doesn't script a lot of these stories, so that philosophizing hasn't reached its apex yet. But Warlock is coming, and it will. Boy, will it ever. 

An omnibus of the Starlin Warlock and Captain Marvel stories would make a certain amount of chronological sense. The last piece in this volume is a reprint of Marvel's first 'graphic novel,' 1982's The Death of Captain Marvel. It's really a coda to Starlin's Captain Marvel and Warlock. Captain Marvel, retired to Titan for years, discovers that he has incurable super-cancer. Fun stuff!

The graphic novel does illustrate, literally, that with Starlin, less is more. Given more time to render the art in a more painterly style, Starlin's work ossifies into curious, stilted poses at certain points. One of his tics -- posing characters knees partially bent in an anatomically puzzling partial stoop -- becomes distracting whenever it shows up. Given more time to work on the faces, Starlin elongates everything below the eyes, another distracting oddity.

Still, The Death of Captain Marvel is a fascinating piece, especially in its early 1980's context. It's not about fist-fights, which for Marvel remains a rarity. If one has purchased both of these Starlin volumes, leave it to the last -- otherwise, you're going to have the fate of Thanos spoiled. Well, the temporary fate of Thanos. In superhero comics, death is always conditional. Highly recommended.

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