12 Aug 2010

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

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

Click here for Part I.

The Magus story began with a brooding and soul-searching Adam Warlock reflecting on his recent experiences, having exiled himself to a desolate planet out in the fringes of known space. His moment of introspection is savagely interrupted when a young girl appears, hunted by a small group of assassins. Adam intervenes but fails to save her life. Using the power of his soul gem he reanimates her corpse long enough to learn that the killers were loyal foot soldiers belonging to the Universal Church of Truth, a baroque theocracy that controls a vast empire of planets. Adam listens to the dead woman as she describes the activities of the Church that resembles a futuristic Spanish Inquisition regime. At the head of the church is their God – the Magus – a mysterious Wizard of Oz-like figure who speaks only through his high priests. Swearing to avenge the girl’s life, Adam is once again given a purpose as he flies through deep space in search of this mighty empire.

It doesn’t take him long before he encounters a battleship belonging to the church that easily overpowers him. Inside are thousands of prisoners – alien life-forms who don’t conform to the approved standard of this religion (that being the human bipedal form made in the image of the Magus). Adam helps them break free and in doing so gains a companion for the remainder of his quest – a light-hearted, wise-cracking troll called Pip – and learns that the gemstone on his forehead possesses the power to drain a man’s soul. This it does when Adam fights the ship’s Captain, Autoclycus, who turns out to be a noble man that sincerely believes he is bringing peace and order to the universe. Adam is horrified to learn that having unwittingly ‘killed’ the man, the essence of his victim’s soul now lives on inside his vampiric gemstone. Sadly for Adam, as time goes on, the stone forces him to kill more and more people in order to feed itself.

Jim Starlin was undoubtedly a fan of Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibon√© stories as the similarities are hard to ignore. Adam’s brooding intensity and his symbiotic relationship with his soul-stealing gemstone mirrors Elric’s own fatal destiny with his sword, Stormbringer. Like Elric, Adam grows to despise the stone set into his forehead (another Moorcock similarity, as Moorcock’s Dorian Hawkmoon character also had a sentient gemstone set into his forehead), but is unable to rid himself of it. When, eventually sickened by the way the stone uses him as a vessel to kill people, Adam does try to remove it, but finds that the stone has absorbed part of his own soul as a safeguard and that he cannot exist without it. Warlock’s brooding and doomed manner is counterpointed by his companion, Pip, in much the same way that Elric’s intensity is lightened by his supporting character, Moonglum of Elwher.

By now Adam has learnt the truth about the Magus. The God of the Universal Church of Truth is in fact Adam’s future self who travelled back in time to found the religion 5,000 years ago. Not only that, but the Magus has manipulated events to ensure Adam will try to confront him, for it appears that Adam is doomed to follow a path that is already set in stone. He will attempt to stop the Magus, but in trying will set in motion the events that will ultimately create the Magus and establish his 5,000 year legacy of conquest. Adam comes to realise also that the Magus has created a peace of sorts. The empire stands for order and life, a point that will weigh heavily on his conscience very soon.

Having made his way to the capital of this Theocracy, Warlock encounters the Matriarch – a sexy femme fatale who runs the church in the Magus’s name. She tries to tempt Adam into supporting her ambitions, pointing out that they could replace his future self and rule a vast empire together. Adam resists and incurs her wrath. He is captured again but this time his enemies try to brainwash him. Hallucinating, he undergoes a psychedelic fantasy, infamous in the history of Bronze Age comics for being a less than subtle satire of Marvel itself. In a memorable sequence, Adam finds himself in a Ditko-like universe populated by miserable clowns modelled on writers and editors who worked for the House of Ideas. They toil unceasingly, building huge piles of stinking rubbish because that’s the way things are always done at the publishing company. As Adam watches, the mountains of garbage eventually collapse, undermined by a few diamonds in amongst the muck. “Someone keeps putting it in there when we're not looking,” says one of the editorial clowns, obviously annoyed that Marvel’s quality control can’t totally eradicate originality and good writing from its drone-like processes. The story goes that the satire was obvious to anyone who worked within Marvel, but that Jim Starlin used to deliberately submit his finished pages so close to the deadline each issue that there simply wasn’t time for the editorial department to tell him to change anything. By the time the likes of Roy Thomas noticed, the comic had already been printed.

Eventually Adam’s own force of will overloads the brainwashing machine and, combined with the intervention of Gamora – a slinky, sexy, green skinned assassin, dressed in what can only be described as a skin tight, fishnet body stocking, and looking all the better for it – he is free. Gamora has been sent by her master, an enemy of the Magus who shares Adam’s wish to destroy the God. Her orders are to decide whether Adam stands a chance of preventing himself from becoming the Magus. If he can, she is to help him. If not, she is to kill him. Her master turns out to be Thanos – Starlin’s arch-villain from the Captain Marvel series. Thanos is in love with Death, quite literally, and his opposition to the Magus adds a complexity to Adam’s dilemma. For despite all the horror and suffering the Magus has inflicted over the last 5,000 years, he has, or (more importantly) will stop Thanos from committing universal genocide. Again we see the similarity with Moorcock’s Eternal Champion saga, as the Magus and Thanos represent the polar opposites of Law and Chaos and Life and Death. It is no longer as simple as stopping the villain, for the villain it appears is preserving the life of the universe from an arguably greater threat. Should Adam defeat the Magus if in so doing he gives free rein to the nihilistic ambitions of Thanos?

Now the Magus shows himself for the first time, confronting and taunting Adam and his allies. Everything is pre-ordained claims the demigod, as he has seen all this happen before when he was still Adam Warlock, struggling vainly against his future self. As the stakes grow more serious, and as all the dominoes seem to fall into place, Adam begins to suspect that the only way he is going to break this cycle is to do the unthinkable, and kill his (near) future self before he can become a world conquering monster. But that of course will mean his own death. What happens next is that rare thing in comics – a satisfying conclusion that plays out beyond the confines of the Magus story, to the end of Starlin’s short-lived run. Due to the changing fortunes of the title, the last two parts of Starlin’s epic appeared in the guise of an Avengers annual and a Marvel Two-In-One annual (see the checklist at the end of this piece).

Starlin’s run was unusual as it was an early example of a proper ‘auteur’ work in Marvel comics. As both writer and artist, and with minimal editorial control exercised by others, Starlin had a degree of creative freedom that other writers and artists could only envy. The series was to establish his reputation as an author of cosmic storylines that he carries with him to this day.

Jim Starlin’s Warlock saga (the central Magus story begins with Strange Tales #178 and concludes with a coda of sorts in issue #12 of Warlock, though arguably the entire run should be read as a whole for reasons that only become clear with issue #11 of Warlock):

Strange Tales #178 to #181
Warlock #9 to #15
Marvel Team Up #55 (of minor, inconsequential interest)
Avengers Annual #7
Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2

The complete collection is available as a reassuringly expensive Hardback reprint: Marvel Masterworks Warlock Volume 2 (RRP £45.00), for those who sneer at the possibility of a double dip recession.


Andrew Wahl said...

I really enjoy it when Paradox kicks it old school like this. I enjoyed this two-parter and it's got me eager to reread these issues. Good stuff!


Matt Clark said...

We just need to convince Rob to delve into his back issue collection more often!

I've got several of these issues in my rather ridiculously over-sized 'to read' pile and after this article I think I'll have to go track down the missing issues.