Strange Tales #178-181, Warlock #9-11, Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2
Writer: Jim Starlin
Penciller: Jim Starlin
Finishers/Inkers: Steve Leialoha, Joseph Rubenstein, Jim Starlin, Alan Weiss and Al Milgrom
Colorists: Jim Starlin, Glynis Oliver Wein and Petra Goldberg
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Even before Jim Starlin had gotten his creative hands on Adam Warlock back in 1975, the character had already been a god as the messiah of Marvel’s Counter Earth. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and used by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane as a Christ allegory (crucified, dead and resurrected to rid a world of evil,) Warlock already carried a lot of baggage with him. In his first issue, Strange Tales #178, Starlin rapidly recaps Warlock’s history before entangling the character in a tale of fate, destiny, death and religion. A Vietnam veteran, Starlin was obviously working out a lot of issues about culture and religion through Adam Warlock while he began his ultimately too short run on the character.
If Lee/Kirby and Thomas/Kane were telling tales about an innocent childhood of the character, Starlin was dealing with the moody teenage version of Warlock. The core of Starlin’s Warlock run is Warlock’s struggle with the Universal Church of Truth and its god, the Magus. Preaching a universal message of love and peace, the Universal Church of Truth actually only means love and peace for people that look like they do. In other words, humanoids. Starlin reveals this to us when Warlock is captured by one of the Church’s death ships, full of all kinds of odd looking humans. The church is basically running a universal inquisition against anyone who does not share some kind of physical characteristics with its god.
The story of the death ships are just a brief sidetrack on Warlock’s way to the church’s Homeworld, where Starlin is at his satirical and cynical best. The church’s Magus isn’t just another power hungry demigod that Warlock has to topple; the Magus is actually a future incarnation of Adam Warlock, corrupted by power and manipulating Warlock to ensure that he eventually travels back in time to turn into the Magus. It’s this fantastic power trip of a reluctant messiah to become an even worse god that enslaves and massacres whole civilizations. It’s the classic case of a teenager who has been told that he’s going to be an engineer and wants to be a philosopher instead; Warlock rebels against the future that’s been set for him and is determined to follow his own free will.
The idea that Adam Warlock becomes the very villain he’s fighting produces all kinds of dilemmas for the hero but the ultimate strategy to prevent the evil of the Magus may be to kill himself. This sets Warlock down an ultimately nihilistic path where he’s actually forced to team up with Starlin’s now well known creation Thanos. A worshipper of Death, Starlin originally introduced Thanos in an issue of Iron Man and really developed him in the pages of Captain Marvel where Thanos became godlike after channeling the power of the Cosmic Cube. A hero on the path to suicide and a being who is trying to win Death’s love– yeah, that’s going to end well.
Starlin’s art is firmly rooted in that 1970’s Marvel aesthetic but it moves in ways that combine the best of Jack Kirby, John Buscema and Steve Ditko. Warlock jumps around, fighting and kicking that has the power of Kirby, the physical grace of Buscema and the other worldliness of Ditko. Warlock is a character who is more at home in the shadows (both physically and psychologically) even if he looks like a golden god. Starlin’s playfulness with character design (and costume as he quickly modifies Warlocks by his third issue) creates this otherworldly battlefield that elevates Warlock’s struggles because nothing if familiar or comfortable. His Magus, which ultimately is a purple version of Warlock (including the most awesome silvery afro in comics) highlights just how little difference there can be in a hero and a villain.
So you have a hero who doesn’t want to be a god, a villain who wants all life to bow down before him, and a monster who wants to kill everything as a tribute to his love Death. Even as Warlock is fighting against the very moments that will lead him on the path to becoming the Magus, Starlin shakes up everything you thought you knew about this battle as he reveals that the Magus’s true cosmic purpose is to be the life opposition to Thanos’s nihilistic plans. The Magus is a cosmically destined figure who should be the ultimate champion of life. In Starlin’s story, evil and corruption have a purpose in this world. It’s a yin and yang struggle that’s at the heart of Starlin’s narrative concerns.
Warlock #11 (February, 1976) and The Avengers Annual #7 (July, 1977) both illustrate the same pivotal moment in Warlock’s life. In a story called “The Strange Death of Adam Warlock” in Warlock #11, Warlock travels to “somewhere… a year– maybe two years– in the future!” to find his future self, trapped beneath rubble after a battle and dying. Using the vampiric soul gem that he possesses (today it’s called an Infinity Gem,) Warlock blasts his future self, killing himself the the future universe where he would become the Magus, thereby recreating existence without the Magus and his church. Warlock wins but Thanos is still out there without the counterbalance of the Magus to defeat him.
The strange death is repeated over a year later in the Avengers annual but Warlock’s story concludes Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 where the Avengers, Spider-Man and the Thing battle Thanos who plans to use the power of six soul gems (one of them being Warlock’s soul gem) to extinguish the sun. With no Magus, there is no opposing force for Thanos. The Marvel cosmic forces of Master Order and Lord Chaos manipulate events so that Warlock is resurrected for one final battle with Thanos. Finally and quite literally a fiery, golden god, Warlock fulfills his destiny even if he ultimately followed his own path to get there.
Starlin’s original Warlock stories are best if they’re first encountered as a teenager. That teenage rebellion against fate, destiny and having your future laid out for you is what the twenty-something Starlin was telling stories about. He was barely beyond that rebellious stage himself and chafing against some of Marvel’s editorial control, he was using Warlock to fight the powers of authority. When he would return to the character in the 1990s with Infinity Gauntlet, Warlock would become a more philosophical warrior and be mellowed with age. Between 1975 and 1977 though, Adam Warlock and Jim Starlin were Marvel’s l’enfant terribles, kicking and screaming against the powers and fates that tried to define them and maintaining what little sanity they had through their rebellion.