Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its forty-fifth choice, Warlock: The Complete Collection by Jim Starlin, reviewed by Tripwire senior editor Andrew Colman…
Warlock: The Complete Collection
Writer: Jim Starlin
Artist: Jim Starlin
The character of Adam Warlock had already been through several iterations prior to landing in writer / artist Jim Starlin’s lap in 1975. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1967 in the pages of the Fantastic Four, his first actual appearance was two years later, in the pages of Thor. At that point the character (then known as Him) was a golden, socially-inept man child with considerable powers, but not exactly bankable with Marvel’s readership. It was in 1972, when he was renamed and retooled by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane as a messianic figure in Marvel Premiere and then his own title that he developed into something worthwhile. Yet the quasi-religious allegory, high-concept though it was (and certainly very good indeed, if very much of its time) didn’t prevent cancellation. Meanwhile in the Marvel Bullpen, Jim Starlin, having already worked on turning Captain Marvel from a Kree drone into a galactic ubermensch, had quit said hero’s title. Now it was Adam Warlock’s turn to get all cosmic, and in the process become the focal point of one of the key story arcs of the 1970s.
Returning in Strange Tales 178, Starlin immediately set out his parameters within two issues. The character of Adam Warlock would be light years away from his previous predicament, and the key themes of the series would be about the co-dependent duality of the super-hero (Warlock was basically battling his possible future self in the shape of The Magus) spliced with a polemical take on the megalomania of religious institutions. What was remarkable was how Starlin brought us a universe that was both remote yet comfortably familiar – the ideas involved (moral ambiguity and relativism, pragmatism, ambivalence) were not entirely new but were certainly fresh in this context. Whole episodes were devoted to Warlock’s inner narrative – Judgment Day and A Thousand Clowns basically allowing him to figure out who he was, while navigating through Ditko-esque trippy dreamscapes and endless dead-ends.
It was certainly cutting-edge for its time, but then Marvel were fortunate to have editors who would allow such material to be published, at least on its non-flagship titles. Regardless of the somewhat sixth-form nature of the extended tale, not to mention the angst-ridden, self-orbiting gait of its protagonist (thankfully not quite as intense as Spider-Man or that other cosmic hero Silver Surfer) the psychedelic, spacey graphics are superb, and there’s enough humour and sly wit to entertain and edify. The supporting cast (Gamora, and Pip The Troll) don’t outstay their welcome while the villains (The Magus, The Matriarch and that craggy chap from the Avengers movies) are as compulsively nasty and luminous as Marvel got during this period, with the time-travel aspect of Warlock’s saga handled deftly throughout.
Despite the subtext and concepts becoming hugely overused in later series by myriad other creators, the Warlock run brought so much to the table and with so much panache that it is essential reading. The machinations of both of Warlock’s antagonists (the Magus and Thanos) are both ludicrous, clever, and highly inventive. There is a lull with Warlock issues 12-14 (the Star Thief two-parter is conceptually impressive but silly) but once Thanos returns to initiate the climax to the story, everything falls into place (eventually – Starlin had to be coaxed back to Marvel for the last two instalments). For what it’s worth, the last couple of pages of issue 11 of Warlock contain one of the best scenes in comic history.
What is above all exceptional throughout is the premise of Warlock himself – an idealized yet self-aware hero beholden to his soul gem that both enslaves and empowers him, who also understands the need to self-destroy in order to avert galactic catastrophe, even when the subject is broached by his chief nemesis (was there ever a better and more authentically evil villain than Thanos?). His journey’s end is genuinely moving and poignant, despite the dialogue sometimes veering into the usual expository Marvelese.
The fourteen issues in the arc may have not garnered the sales figures or fan praise that they deserved at the time, but the work certainly got mined heavily afterwards, not least by its creator. Jim Starlin, who clearly had an axe to grind with populism, authoritarianism and religion, essentially repeated the trick with Dreadstar in the 1980s, whose themes were more than similar to Warlock’s. And even though there had been a strong element of closure at the death of this classic adventure, there was no question that Starlin would eventually revive everything, something which transpired in the early 1990s. Thanos’s quest for cosmic gems was rehashed ad absurdum in multiple series in this decade, all featuring the word Infinity in the title.
And then there were the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which liberally borrowed from this run, without ever mentioning Warlock himself in any of them. A shame, as this story and his character would’ve made an excellent couple of reasonably challenging movies. It’s worth reading this just to find out how things could’ve been if studios had ever opted for marginally less commerce and a little more art. Fat chance of course, but at least we have this masterwork.
Here’s links to the other graphic novels reviewed so far