Thursday, July 02, 2009

Jim Starlin's 1975 Warlock series

I thought I would make my recent twitter posts on Warlock into a proper post.

Mitch -- a commenter, guest-blogger, and blog-reader turned real life New York City friend -- lent me 13 issues of Jim Starlin's Warlock run: Strange Tales (Featuring Warlock) 178-181, Warlock (basically the new name of Strange Tales) 9-15, Avengers Annual 7, and Marvel Two-in-One Presents Thing and Spiderman Annual 2. It has been an eye opening read -- as you may have noticed from my twitter comments about it.

For one thing, we are deep in Grant Morrison territory. I hardly keep up with all of Grant Morrison's many interviews or critical coverage, but I feel like the Warlock influence kind of fell off the radar a bit. One amazing thing about the comic book industry is that powerful creators have an amazing ability to control how we see what they are influenced by because so much is out of print and there seems to be some unspoken rules about how DC and Marvel behave toward each other. DC Comics will put out Batman: The Black Casebook which will give readers a chance to see all those Batman stories referenced in his Batman run, or they will put out Kirby's New Gods Omnibi right before Final Crisis, but I wonder what happens to those influences that are repressed for whatever psychological or financial reasons; I wish Marvel could have called me to write an intro to a collection of Starlin's Warlock when the Invisibles was coming out so I could have pointed out all the parallels. Would that have made them money, cashing in on Morrison's fame, or been promoting a DC book at Marvel? I read New Gods to get a sense of where Morrison was coming from on books like Final Crisis, but -- while I enjoyed the Kirby in its own right -- Warlock seemed to strike more to the heart of what makes Morrison tick, in part because of the way it filters the New Gods.

Starlin's Thanos is Darkseid -- Thanos actually refers to himself as "THE DARK SIDE", and Warlock accuses a cosmic being of being a force of "anti-life" as opposed to the life Warlock is fighting for. As often as possible Warlock visually and tonally invokes the Silver Surfer -- floating the space, a poor man's Space Hamlet, dealing with his own sense of self doubt and the meaninglessness of existence, but it is the New Gods that it really wants to revise, as if to reclaim Kirby back at Marvel. 

On my Facebook feed Joe Johnson Turner points out that

By the time Morrison's JLA run, Darkseid's appearance has become far more Starlin-esque than Kirby-esque. In fact, the more that I think of it, Darkseid could not become so integral to the DC Universe until filtered through Thanos. Just as one cannot read Machen's "Great God Pan" or "Novel of the Black Seal" without the filter of Lovecraft, we cannot approach Darkseid except through the eyes of Starlin.

I will be honest here and say that while I was aware of Thanos, I have not actually read much with him in it (though I will order Starlin's Infinity Gauntlet stuff soon). I DID notice at several points in Kirby's New Gods his Darkseid felt inauthentic to me, introduced to the character via Morrison and JLA cartoons. Kirby's Darkseid laughs, which does not seems quite right, and at one point is shown wearing a disguise, which seems beneath his majesty. There is also an origin story showing him rising to power from a whelp, which just goes against Morrisons very persuasive "DARKESIED IS" rhetoric. Darkseid is better I think as a force of nature rather than a guy with a story I think. I am very curious to track the progression Turner describes.

Kirby's machinery, exuberance, and structures run all through Morrison -- and specific characters, like the Lump (which Morrison uses in his Batman run) -- set the stage for say, The Shining Knight vs Guilt or something equally internal. But it feels to me like Morrison is getting a lot of his content from Warlock. "I'm here to commit COSMIC SUICIDE!" says Warlock: just the kind of gorgeous sci-fi nonsense Morrison loves so much, as for example, he describes a creature are rising from "beneath the universe" in his JLA run. It is the little twists on old phrases, something weird added that makes it seem more impressive but does not really make any sense when you stop and think about it, but there is the fun.

Characters like Warlock's "In-Betweener! His realm, that space between fact and fantasy!" -- who is on his way toward Warlock because he has been bathed in a specific radiation which calls the InBetweener by his enemy -- who will drive Warlock to being evil by submerging him in the forces of Order and Chaos, such inclusive forces as I am made to think that this is all a fancy way of saying Warlock will become evil by going though LIFE, like you do, just sort of sped up. This character has a lot on common with, say, the Archon's in the Invisibles -- Morrison, you will notice is obsessed with the "in-between" spaces of anything, cracks in the cosmic structure or whatever, things neither here nor there. Starlin's In-Betweener -- a checkerboard of black and white -- even looks like the Archon spaces, always only black and white. This he did not get from Kirby who carves up the cosmic world into the stark binaries of New Genesis and Apocalypse: characters may be exchanged between those worlds, as Scott Free and Orion are, but the structure remains the same. Kirby explored ambiguity on the human level, in say, The Glory Boat, but Morrison takes that through Starlin to make his cosmic spaces deeply ambiguous and weird. Kirby wanted to do the comic book thing and raise human conflict to the cosmic scale. Morrison does the same, but refuses to keep them so seperate: the cosmic stories keep threating to become literal expansions of his characters very human lives (The Phoenix burns away 150 years of rotten but amazing future so her widowed husband can get laid again). Warlock literalizes the "villain is a reflection of the hero thing" in a huge way, as Warlock's bad guy, the Magus is literally his evil future self. The whole book thus becomes a psychomachia Carl Jung would have a field day with -- Warlock must confront his evil self, but they cant kill each other because the destruction of one is the destruction of both. One of the recurring patterns in the art is to have Warlock's face split down the middle and then, nearby, sometimes right next to it, Magus's face split showing the other half. 

(This image is not from Warlock but is from a Starlin comic and is the kind of thing I am thinking of)

Magus tries to get Warlock to follow the path that will create the Magus, and ultimately he ends up absorbing a good deal of the Magus and confronting another version of himself, in the stunning The Strange Death of Adam Warlock, a book that I loved reading and am having a hard time summarizing now. 

It made me feel the way I did as a kid watching Clark Kent and Superman fighting in Superman 3: I knew it was a big deal, didn't exactly get it, and LOVED it. Warlock also has a soul gem -- a kind of evil vampire force he is bonded to -- that sucks the life out of people who then sort of live inside Warlock. In other words -- a mechanism for making any external conflict INTO an internal one. He eventually goes into HIS OWN SOUL GEM where he is reborn.

Or, as in the end of the Invisibles, characters themselves find out about the metaphor. Archons? No, that was all a ruse -- it is really a story about saving people from the barriers the put on themselves, as embodied by Archons. Warlock does this kind of meta-thing too. The pit of despair (run by an evil clown) is called "The Land of the Way it Is" which is the kind of abstract made concrete Morrison loves, but, as Mitch pointed out, the brainwashing space Warlock is in is supposed to recall the Marvel bullpen, as cued by the head clown using the phrase "true believer." It should be a more scary place but Warlock's mind is so powerful he is refiguring his tormenters as clowns. One of Morrison's great contributions to comics is to make semi-serious sci-fi stuff out of editors retooling universes as characters in the comics. It used to be funny to do a meta-thing with Spiderman bumping into Marvel comics or whatever, but Morrison gives us the Terrible Time Tailor in Seven Soldiers, among many others, men who "weave the tapestry of the universe" or whatever, forces of terror, regulating continuity and destroying joyful silliness like Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew, who struggle to get back to visibility. Morrison's rhetoric is from Warlock and Kirby "The way it is" is fused with Anti-life in Morrison to be combatted by Morrison's principle of Imagination (fused with Kirby's Free Will).

A few odds and ends worth rounding up.

Warlock 181 credits read "Len Wein: Editing. Al Milgrom: Inking. Tom Orzechowski: Lettering. Jim Starlin: Insanity."

Very subtle, but one panel of Warlock has the panel itself breaking apart like Quitely did in All Star Superman.

Matt Fraction on his blog years ago pointed out that a key image in Casanova 4 came from Strange Tales 178 [EDIT] -- this parallel was unintended: Fraction discovered it after the fact.

In conclusion, if you like Morrison and Kirby, you will love Warlock. 

(I do not any critic has improved on the conclusions of the Reading Rainbow Reviews)


Stephen said...

That final panel reminds me of the stuff from Tezuka's Buddha that McCloud uses in Understanding Comics to show some typical manga effects rarely used in Western comics...

(I have read a couple vols. of the Tezuka, but the effects are most noticeable to me when McCloud highlights & isolates them...)

Jason said...

Moore and Veitch did a pretty good (well, I liked it anyway) "Warlock" pastiche in an issue of Supreme. Issue 49, I think.

Claremont must've been influenced by Starlin as well ... hence, an alien New Mutant called Warlock coming to earth, pursued by his father, Magus.

Dylan said...

Dang. So I guess I need this in my life now, huh?

scott91777 said...

Until just now I thought you had been Twittering about WARLORD... not WARLOCK

Anonymous said...

i have been OBSeSSED with this stuff lately, so its nice to have some one else thinking about it. I'm also on a big Shakespeare kick and I keep thinking of Warlock as a sci-fi revision of the shakespearean tradgedy, where you've got a hero-villain like Macbeth or Richard III and a hero that comes out of exile (macduff or richmund) to thwart him. Except here, the hero Warlock is in a sort of temporal exile from the future corrupt hero-villain he will eventually become. Amazing.


Geoff Klock said...

mitch -- Hamlet is very much fighting himself for all of Hamlet of course, and the external figure of his internal fight is a dark version of himself: Fortinbras, a brute to be sure, but also a man whose father (like Hamlet, he has the same first name as his dad) was killed in battle (by hamlet's dad) and now is forced to take orders from his Uncle-King when he is the one who should probably be king.

Anonymous said...

You're on the money re: "The Land of the Way it Is", Geoff. Didn't the final page of Marvel Boy trail the intended sequel as "The End of the Way That Was"?

deepfix said...

Coincidence?....Thanos appears from '73-'76 during Starlin's run on Captain Marvel and Warlock. In '78 Starlin works on Legion of Superheroes alongside Paul Levitz for a few issues just as DC is tentatively putting Darkseid's toe into the DC universe (not that those issues involved Darkseid.) In the early '80s, Paul Levitz pens the first definitive post-Kirby appearance of Darkseid in the DC Universe during The Legion of Superheroes "Great Darkness Saga." By the late 80s Darkseid appears in The Cosmic Odyssey by Jim Starlin who afterwards returns to Thanos in the pages of Silver Surfer. He spends the early 90s further developing Thanos's character just as Grant Morrison is about to return Darkseid to power in JLA...

By the way, thanks for the quote.

deepfix said...

I'm about to read this article:

I understand that it deals with how Starlin is really much more Ditko influenced than Kirby. I wonder if this explains the more philosophic "world-weary" aspect of Thanos--as if he were Darkseid as invisioned by Ditko?

Streebo said...

The panels of Shang Chi are from his debut in Marvel Special Edition #15 written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Jim Starlin.

Anonymous said...

No sooner do you mention Warlock than Morrison himself confirms what you say. From his interview on i09 about Batman and Robin 2:

"I don't have many comics in my tattered, bath-damaged 'collection' that date before 1972 when I became a 'fan' and a collector. My era of comics is the 'dark age' of the 70s and 80s, not the so-called 'silver age', so contrary to popular belief, I don't have any particular emotional attachment to 60s comics, other than John Broome's Flash stories which enchanted me as a small child.

I grew up with Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil, Len Wein, Engelhart, Starlin, Gerber, McGregor so my comic-writing style can be traced back to some combination of O'Neil' 'relevance' and Starlin 'cosmic'. Silver age, not so much."

James said...

Glad you turned this into a post, Geoff - it's a great read.

There's a Marvel Masterworks coming out collecting these issues. Not keen on that format, but it'd be a convenient way of checking it out.

There also seems to be a prior volume collecting pre-Starlin stuff, but since Marvel doesn't even acknowledge it on their site (that I can find) I guess it can't matter too much.

deepfix said...

And, the more I think about it, where would Dreadstar fit in all this. The big hole between the Captain Marvel/Warlock/Thanos era and the Cosmic Odyssey/Silver Surfer/Infinity Gauntlet era was mostly taken up with creator-owned Dreadstar which featured a villain the size of Thanos and latter day Dreadstar in The Lord High Papal.

I need to stop thinking.

Dougie said...

I'm surprised no-one has mentioned the ways in which Starlin's Warlock resembles Moorcock's Elric (who, of course, appeared in the Marvel Universe courtesy of Barry Smith's Conan). In a metaphor for addiction, this morally ambiguous sorceror-king is dependent upon the soul-absorbing magic sword Stormbringer for physical vitality; he is the pawn of cosmic forces of Chaos and Order; and as an albino, has an unusual skin colour. Also,not only does he kill everyone he loves, he ends the universe itself (like Starlin's Vanth Dreadstar).

Shadow Mood said...


Starlin's Warlock run (all the issues you list in your article) will be release in Hard Cover format in Marvel Masterworks Warlock Volume #2 on 7/8/09.

Joe Gualtieri said...

Lovely post Geoff. You're spot on about how neglected Starlin's influence on Morrison is (Shining Night being one of the more obvious spots though).

I have to disagree though about Darkseid-through-Starlin, at least in Morrison. The DCU conception of Darkseid from The Great Darkness Saga through Byrne's Fourth World probably does owe a lot to Starlin, but Morrison's sloganeering Darkseid is much more in keeping with Kirby, and in an interview pre-Final Crisis waxed on about Kirby's dialogue, particularly for Darkseid.

Dougie, Starlin's version of Warlock is clearly based on Moorcock, who's another influence on Morrison (I really need to read some Jerry Cornilius).

James, the pre-Starlin Warlock is a mess. Started by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, it's part of a certain kind of populist re-evaluation of Jesus that took place during the 70s. The problem is Thomas and Kane both abandoned it quickly, as did every other set of creators, so over eight issues plus the three Hulk issues that wrap the series up, there's little consistency. It's utterly fascinating, but frustrating at the same time.

I cannot wait for the Starlin Warlock Masterwork. I've desperately wanted a collected version since I first read it back around '94.

Christian said...

"The Land of the Way It Is" is almost as great as "In the World That's Coming!" from Kirby's OMAC series.

Tom Scioli said...

I've recently read the first and last issues of the pre-Starlin Warlock. It's not nearly as good as what Starlin did, but still weird and awesome. Maybe the issues in between are boring, but the first and last make for some crazy reading.

deepfix said...

Just read Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey for the first time since I was 10. It is sooooo obviously influenced by Michael Moorcock's Elric novel Stormbringer. As we know from the Invisibles and Gideon Stargrave, we know that Morrison was also quite the Moorcock fan (Stargrave being a pastiche of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius).

I think, whether or not Starlin influenced Morrison or not (which is still my thesis), they were at least coming from the same places.

And if you google "Grant Morrison Jim Starlin" this blog entry is the sixth listing. Just saying.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that Starlin is influenced more by Steranko than anyone else. He shares Steranko's love of cinema-style drawings.

Anonymous said...

Starlin was influenced by both Kirby and Ditko. His Warlock v. Magus is a vision of Jesus fighting against the Catholic (or Universal) Church, a metaphor for what would happen if Jesus came back now and saw what was being done in his name over the years, with Warlock ultimately saving the world through his death. Very rich, with some swipes at the comic book industry in the process, with cameos by Roy Thomas in the realm on insanity and seeing the comic book industry as a tower of trash with a few diamonds hidden away in it.
And of course, it has the theme of death and suicide, almost a constant in Starlin's work.

Anonymous said...

Was the reference to Spider-Man Annual 2 a joke? Starlin"s Warlock didn't appear there, did he?