5 Aug 2010

Four-Colour Yesteryears: The Magus - Adam Warlock and the Birth of COSMIC Comics, Part I

In Four-Colour Yesteryears we delve back into the past to look at the periods, events and creators that helped shape the medium.

By Rob N

Marvel in the early 1970s was an energetic and vibrant creative force that constantly experimented with new genres and themes in search of the next big thing. Concerned that the basic superhero format had peaked and could soon decline, Stan Lee encouraged a degree of experimentation in the early years of the Bronze Age that remains unsurpassed throughout Marvel’s turbulent 50-year history. By the start of the decade, the old guard of the 1960s were still working in the bullpen, looking very much like the cast of Mad Men. But now their ranks had swelled with an influx of long-haired hippies keen to take things in a new direction, beyond the old fashioned Lee/Kirby designs that had established Marvel as the number one comic book company in the US.

In keeping with the times, the early Seventies was the birthplace of COSMIC, a ‘space is deep’ subgenre of science fiction that was enjoying its moment in the sun in contemporary pop culture. While Jack Kirby had of course toyed with cosmic SF elements in his superhero art, he had always done so as an outsider in a smart sports jacket, with a sensible military grade haircut, smoking a cigar. His take on Cosmic was influence by old pulp SF like E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series, where heroes were always ramrod-straight science professors with Pro Football sidekicks, possessing neat brylcreemed hair and smoking a pipe as they investigated swirling technicolour dimensions and exotic and complicated machines with names like ‘The Ultimate Nullifier’. The new writers and artists on the other hand were weekend freaks, young creative types who embraced the psychedelic music of Haight Ashbury and the trippy stargate sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. They grew their hair long, read William Burroughs, Philip K Dick and Michael Moorcock and some of them quite possibly took drugs. Allegedly.

Jim Starlin was one of the new arrivals at Marvel. Only 23 when he landed his first paid work with the House of Ideas, he quickly made a name for himself by revamping Captain Marvel with his Thanos saga. In this we see the first seeds of what was to become his lifetime obsession with Cosmic SF. But what is 'cosmic'? Wiktionary defines it so:

1) Of or from or pertaining to the cosmos or universe.
2) Infinitely or inconceivably extended; vast.

It is in a sense a form of SF that resembles an LSD trip. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a simpler definition of Cosmic than to basically point your finger at the sleeve art of Hawkwind’s 'Space Ritual' LP. That’s it in a nutshell. Even down to the naked dancers covered in swirling body paint, gyrating in front of a psychedelic oil projector. Cosmic was the sign of the times, and Jim Starlin’s Adam Warlock/Magus saga was about as good as it was ever going to get. Not only was it a personal creative peak for the writer/artist, but it would establish a pattern, shared background and theme for many of Marvel’s epic stories to come.

Adam Warlock was a minor Lee/Kirby character from the pages of Fantastic Four and Thor, originally named Him. Roy Thomas had spun the character off into a short lived series of his own, sending him to Marvel’s Counter Earth (a planet on the opposite side of the sun to our world, and therefore permanently out of sight – an idea presumably lifted from John Norman’s infamous Gor series) as a thinly
disguised Jesus Christ analogy, to redeem a planet created by the High Evolutionary (in surrogate God mode) that was being corrupted by the Man Beast (don’t ask). During the course of the story, Thomas had given the character a new costume and a soulgem embedded in his forehead (a gift from the High Evolutionary) that acted as an all-purpose blaster ray. Starlin was to take the concept of the gemstone much further.

With very little back-story accumulated to date, Starlin had pretty much a clean slate to work with when he began the Magus story in the pages of issue #178 of Strange Tales. Originally one of the monster mags that Marvel had inherited from its previous incarnation as Atlas in the '50s, Strange Tales had gone on to showcase solo stories featuring Doctor Strange and Nick Fury before being cancelled to make way for their own comic books. Marvel had then recently revived Strange Tales as a platform in which to try out new concepts, none of which proved popular enough to warrant more than a footnote of a footnote in the history of the Bronze Age. Issue #178 was to change all that.

Next in Part II: Warlock vs The Magus!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's an accepted fact of writing articles that as soon as your article has seen 'print' you stumble across a great quote that would have fitted in perfectly. Here's a quote from Steve Englehart that neatly fits in with my comment 'and some of them quite possibly took drugs. Allegedly.'

Steve Englehart: “We'd rampage around New York City. There was one night when a bunch of us, including Jim Starlin, went out on the town. We partied all day, then did some more acid, then roamed around town until dawn and saw all sorts of amazing things (most of which ended up in Master of Kung Fu, which Jim and I were doing at the time).”

Nuff said, as Stan would say. ;)

- Rob N