Friday, 15 November 2013

Essential Warlock volume 1

Essential Warlock volume 1 contains material from quite a number of series, namely Marvel Premiere #1-2, The Power of Warlock #1-8, Incredible Hulk #176-178, Strange Tales #178-181, Warlock #9-15, Marvel Team-Up #55, Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2. That's an awful lot of titles!

As previously noted, Marvel Premiere was yet another try-out series that launched and re-launched a whole variety of characters. Warlock was then given his own title but it only lasted eight issues. In those days Marvel had a policy to wrap up outstanding storylines wherever possible and so a conclusion appeared in the Incredible Hulk. Then a new Warlock storyline was begun in Strange Tales, which had originally been one of Marvel's anthology series that spawned variously the Human Torch solo tales, Doctor Strange and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. This is one of the earlier cases where Marvel's numbering gets somewhat confusing. In 1968 Strange Tales was transformed into a solo Doctor Strange title which carried on the numbering from #169 onwards. However in 1973 Strange Tales was revived... numbered at #169 again. The revived title had carried a few horror strips such as Brother Voodoo and the Golem before Warlock appeared for four issues. Subsequently Strange Tales would once more become a home to Doctor Strange. Meanwhile Warlock got his own series again, now simply entitled Warlock, which carried on the old numbering and lasted another seven issues. With the second cancellation once again a storyline was concluded elsewhere in series more familiar here, through first a team-up with Spider-Man and then a two-part conclusion teaming up first with the Avengers and then adding both the Thing and Spider-Man to the mix.

The Marvel Premiere issues are written by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. Both carry onto The Power of Warlock where Kane is succeeded by Bob Brown and Thomas gives way to a mix of Mike Friedrich and Ron Goulart. The Incredible Hulk issues are then written by Gerry Conway and Tony Isabella and drawn by Herb Trimpe. The Strange Tales, Warlock, Avengers and Marvel Two-in-One issues are all written and drawn by Jim Starlin. The Marvel Team-Up is written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by John Byrne. Because of the large number of titles and creators, a separate post has been created for some of the labels.

Adam Warlock has been associated with Jim Starlin for so long that it's almost a surprise to be reminded of the character's long history before that. Originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for a story in Fantastic Four, the artificial being known only as "Him" then appeared in Thor but not too much more was done. Then came all the stories collected in this volume - but Starlin doesn't arrive on the character until about half-way through. This volume contains first the saga of Warlock's adventures on Counter Earth and then Starlin's cosmic saga of conflict with the Magus, Thanos and other foes in between. Both sagas followed a similar course of being launched in a try-out anthology then migrating to their own title early on, only for that title to be cancelled before the storyline could be completed and the wrap-up having to come in another series. Perhaps mindful of this, Starlin's saga does establish a looming end point in Warlock #11, but even then it wasn't enough to allow the series to last just long enough.

The two sagas have also had different track records when it comes to repeats and latter day exposure. The Starlin stories had an aborted reprint run in about 1980 in the second series of Fantasy Masterpieces but the title ended before it could get through them all. Then a few years later they were collected in a six issue series called Warlock Special Edition on higher quality "Baxter" paper, the prestige format of the day. This series was reprinted (minus the Editori-Al introductions) in the early 1990s under the name Warlock, and then there was a Masterworks edition in 2009. But from what I can see the earlier saga has had far fewer reprints. The Incredible Hulk stories were included in a Treasury Edition in 1979 but the whole saga had to wait until it was all collected in a Masterworks edition in 2007, and then came this Essential in 2012. Unintentionally this has had the effect of reinforcing the prominence of Starlin's work on the character at the expense of earlier creators.

The first story is a clear, self-contained saga of the type the American comics industry was experimenting with in the early 1970s. And this one had pretty strong ambitions as Warlock heads to the newly created world of Counter-Earth to rid it of the presence of the Man-Beast and other renegade New Men. It's impossible to ignore the religious themes that are present right from the first issue. The High Evolutionary became the ultimate being, immortal and one with the cosmos. He creates a world in a very short space of time - seven-score - and intends it as an ideal utopia but a dark force infects the world in the form of on of the creator's previous creations now fallen. This being influences the humans upon it, starting with the crime of murder. The Evolutionary contemplates destroying the world as beyond redemption, but Warlock argues it can be saved and so heads down from the heavens to cast out the darkness. He even rapidly becomes the son the Evolutionary never had. "I am only... what I am" says "Him" to the High Evolutionary upon their first encounter. There may be the odd individual piece altered of the parable but overall it's pretty clear who is who.

Once he came to [Counter-]Earth from [the] heaven[s]... Warlock soon accumulates followers. His first four are teenagers Jason Grey, David Carter and twins Eddie and Ellie Roberts. They are the children of a businessman, a Senator and a Colonel. At one stage he sees them deny him to save their own skins [but it's an illusion created by the Man-Beast]. However Warlock can't save everyone and early on Eddie dies when thrown from the top of a tower by the monster Triax before Warlock can reach him. There's an early encounter with a prophet who identifies Warlock as the saviour of the world. The head of the dark forces takes Warlock away to tempt him, offering him power over men. Warlock's power is enhanced by the faith of his followers. Porcupinus, one of Warlock's later followers, is told he is the base upon which a house of good will be built. Later Warlock is captured whilst presiding at a grand supper. The ruling official asks the crowds to decide his fate and the punishment is death on a cross. Whilst on the cross Warlock asks his [adoptive] father "Why have you abandoned me?" but gets no answer. The body is wrapped and placed in a cave. On the third day Warlock rises, more powerful than before and proceeds to drive out the vile force in the world. He warns his followers of the danger from the evil still within man, then ascends into [the] heaven[s]. Could the series be less subtle?

However it's not until Incredible Hulk #177 that the point is made explicit when captions describe the Man-Beast as "the Satan of this Counter-Earth... the Lucifer of the fallen New-Men". Okay one of the curses of resolving a storyline in another character's title is that some narrative short-cuts have to be taken to bring readers of that title up to speed, but it still feels lazy to be so explicit about the parallels.

Still the story offers a strong adventure that takes the existing superhero concepts but pushes them with the twist of a world which has had no heroes until Warlock arrives, making the hero a scary prospect for some and an inspiration for others. Warlock is a powerful innocent who sees the good potential in Counter-Earth and quickly saves it from the High Evolutionary's intention to destroy the world. Once on Counter-Earth he soon acquires followers and faces the good and the bad of humanity. Counter-Earth's development has been interfered with such that no heroes have come forward. This has the odd result that Victor von Doom, his head encased in an iron mask after a lab accident, is now a noble friend and colleague of Reed Richards's. Doom is one of the few who never loses faith in Warlock and gives his life to save the world. Reed Richards also appears but he never received his powers and broken because Sue has been in a coma since that fatal trip to the stars. However the Man-Beast has manipulated him so that he turns into a Thing-like monster called the Brute.

Warlock himself is a complex character, wanting to do right but horrified at the consequences, especially the deaths of Eddie Roberts and later Victor von Doom. At one point he retreats into his cocoon to revitalise and escape but is coaxed back by his followers. He faces the mixed reactions of those around him with stoicism, especially when new US President Rex Carpenter goes from a supporter to ordering his arrest then backing down then stepping up - in part because of reacting to public opinion, but also because the Man-Beast is possessing him. However Warlock's powers aren't always clearly spelt out. He can fly and has a high endurance, but his main powers come from the "Soul Jewell" the High Evolutionary gave him, the first appearance of any of what were later called the "Soul Gems" and now the "Infinity Gems". The jewel here gives him the power to blast energy, rearrange molecules and even de-evolve the Man-Beast and other New-Men back into the animals from which the High Evolutionary evolved them.

It took two and a half years to tell the story, including an eight month gap between the cancellation of The Power of Warlock and the wrap-up in the Incredible Hulk. For an early 1970s comics readership that either made it a truly great epic or an annoying never-ending story. Unfortunately the cancellation of the series suggests the audience reaction was the latter. The trouble was that the extended storyline that could later be collected together in a single edition was a concept ill-suited to the American comics market at the time (although in Europe the album format was already strongly established) and many such attempts didn't last long enough to tell the full story. Fortunately the conclusion in the Incredible Hulk doesn't really disrupt the flow when read here, though multiple references are made to the Hulk making an earlier visit to Counter-Earth and it might have helped to see that, and there's a real feeling the conclusion is what was planned all along.

It can be risky to draw so explicitly from one religion, but here it's done in a way that's both respectful to the Gospels and doesn't actually make statements about the existence of God and the Devil. (And on top of everything else some other Marvel stories have been rather more explicit in that regard, particularly Ghost Rider.) However Warlock himself is not a pacifist like Jesus Christ; instead he's willing to take action and even has followers assembling weapons. Perhaps the superhero genre just doesn't allow for such a basic convention to be ditched. Still the saga works well and shows it's possible to do things differently.

Jim Starlin's run takes the character out into space and into a realm that is dark and surreal. Some of the scenes are very strange, particularly Strange Tales #181 where Warlock is strapped into an artificial reality helmet and subject to a bizarre realm of clowns. The reality contains many great starscapes and imagery as Warlock journeys through the heavens, including the bizarre scene in which he returns to the Solar System only to discover he has grown too large to interact with it. There's also some horrific concepts, such as the revelation that the Soul Gem (now named as such) on Warlock's forehead can steal souls and has locked Warlock's in so he cannot escape it, or the nature of some of the foes.

During this run we get the first appearance of a number of cosmic characters who would go on to prominence in either later Warlock stories and/or Marvel's cosmic stories more generally. The Inbetweener first appears in issue #10, and his comments suggest he's been brought into existence solely for the purpose of taking Warlock away to become the Magus. Nevertheless he's subsequently been opened out into a broader cosmic character and concept. His creators Master Order and Lord Chaos are mentioned at this stage but don't make their first appearances until Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 right at the end of the saga. The Gardener first appears in Marvel Team-Up #55 and would go on to become first one of the great cosmic entities who would turn out during special events such as Secret Wars II and later one of the Elders of the Universe. The saga also establishes that the Soul Gem is one of six, with the Gardener and Stranger each owning another, then in the final story Thanos combines the power of all six for the first time. At a lesser level we meet for the first time Pip the Troll, Warlock's sometimes comic sidekick, and Gamora, known as the deadliest woman in the whole galaxy. And completing the appearances of the future Infinity Watch, although she is a pre-existing character, we also get Warlock's first meeting with Moondragon when he unites with the Avengers, though the two don't get much time to discuss things individually.

The stories also introduce one of Warlock's best known foes and see him first clash with another. The Magus is an interesting concept, the hero's future self turned villainous. I'm not sure just how original this was back in 1975 (this was around the time Avengers revealed that Immortus was Kang the Conqueror's future self and for a bonus added an intermediate self who had resumed the Rama-Tut identity, with Kang fighting the other two). But it certainly makes for a strong sense of despair as Warlock faces the darkness he will become, and also seems powerless to prevent his transformation into a foe who knows his every move, right down to the very words he is about to speak. Visually it's fortunate that Warlock changes his costume early on in the storyline as the Magus wears the original one albeit with different colours, a distinction lost in black & white. Otherwise the only physical difference between the two is the Magus's hairstyle. In a twist on the earlier saga, Warlock is now cast in the role of a heretic facing an all-powerful church, with his future self as the church's deity. There's little exploration of the actual faith of the church itself beyond the revelation that the judge Kray-tor genuinely believes in the faith and sees Warlock as a dangerous heretic. Instead the focus is on the structure of the church, with the church's head, the Matriarch, plotting for power for herself, and the hypocrisy in preaching peace whilst at the same time engaging in military expansion to spread the word to already peaceful worlds. It is a dark vision and it's odd that the ultimate saviour turns out to be Thanos. The Titan doesn't even hide that he has some greater scheme in the works, though he won't divulge the details even to his ward Gamora, and that both the Magus and Warlock may threaten that plan. He proves a highly resourceful and dependable ally when fighting the Magus, and an equally dangerous foe in the climax.

After the defeat of the Magus the series gets rather bitty for its last four issues. We get a tale of Pip going to free a beautiful woman and biting off more than he can chew, then a two-part tale in which Warlock faces the Star Thief, a human who lacks sensory input and has instead developed huge mental powers who now seeks to blot out the stars as revenge on Earth. The story is resolved when the Star Thief's nurse escapes his charge's power and shoots him dead. In the process we get the odd scene where Warlock returns to the Solar System to discover that, due to the uneven expanding universe theory, his body has expanded at a much faster rate and so he is no longer able to interact with his home planet which is now about the size of his fingernail. It adds to the sense of loneliness and frustration in his final issue, but it's rapidly done away with in the Marvel Team-Up issue with a comment that warping through space has partially undone the process and something unexplained during a teleportation cancels the effect completely. Oddly none of the other characters who interact with Earth in any way seem to have been affected. Perhaps the aim by Starlin was to keep the character under a degree of control by making him unable to interact with the regular Marvel universe, but it's an odd piece of pseudo-science and it's easy to see why it was scrapped at the first opportunity. I believe it was later explained away as an illusion but that issue isn't included here.

Warlock's defeat of the Magus involves the bizarre move of stepping into another plane where he sees his potential future paths and purges and destroys the one that leads to the Magus. Then he steps into his own future and uses the Soul Gem to take his life. This has the effect of wiping out the Magus's timeline (with the comment that only Warlock, Pip, Thanos and Gamora will remember it having been at the epicentre of the change) but also results in a hero who now knows he doesn't have long to live, predating Starlin's work on another terminal hero in The Death of Captain Marvel by several years. Warlock is even more contemplative in the last issues as he faces his oncoming end and learns that in the process he will become hated and everything and everyone he cares for will be destroyed in the process.

However the series ends and this isn't quite how the saga is wrapped up - for instance we never see Warlock kill the High Evolutionary despite this being predicted. Once again the storyline was concluded in other titles, with Marvel Team-Up restoring Warlock to human size and also establishing the existence of other Soul Gems. Then came the grand spectacle, spread across two annuals.

With seven Avengers plus a guest appearance by Captain Marvel plus (in the second annual) the Thing and Spider-Man there's not much room for individual character focus. We get a monstrous scheme of Thanos's to destroy the stars using the power of the Soul Gems combined, and the Avengers and Warlock race to stop him. In the process Gamora and Pip are killed by Thanos and Warlock suffers the same fate, going down after barely a page of battle. It is at this stage that his younger self arrives to take his soul, whilst Iron Man and Thor drive off Thanos and destroy his weapon, and the Avengers annual ends with Warlock being reunited with Pip, Gamora and many others in the world inside the Soul Gem. However all is not over as Thanos regroups his forces in the Marvel Two-in-One annual, and attempts to use the one remaining Soul Gem to destroy the Sun. Spider-Man and the Thing turn up, with Lord Chaos and Master Order manipulating things from behind the scene, and the climax sees Warlock's spirit briefly return to reality to turn Thanos to stone. The story ends with the funeral of Warlock and his friends as they experience peace and tranquillity within the Soul Gem, whilst Thanos is left in sorrow, forever denied his beloved Death. Invariably there are some short cuts taken and we're denied the promised spectacle of Warlock bringing about his own destruction, but we get a pretty solid action adventure that ties in with what had come before, wraps up all the characters and gives a real sense of closure to Warlock's saga.

Overall this was a series that tried to do things differently and it that it succeeded massively. Warlock is at heart a good man driven by the horrors all around him, and terrified when he realises what he has already become, let alone what he will one day be. He will help others but has no desire to be a leader or a worshipped hero and instead is ultimately searching for himself. The spiritual elements are more prominent in his first saga but it's appropriate that it ends with Warlock rewarded in the afterlife, showing he has achieved his purpose. The novel in comic form was a difficult thing to achieve at the time but the resulting stories both work well when read in this form, finally allowing Warlock's saga to achieve its purpose like its star.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...