Cosmic Existentialism in Jim Starlin’s Warlock

In the 1970s, a brash set of Marvel writers and artists set out to transform the “House of Ideas” from a factory of radioactive superheroes to a new era of “cosmic” consciousness. These creators took brand-new characters, or unpopular ones who otherwise could not carry their own title, and made them the cornerstones of these comics, centering stories around space and time travel, undiscovered planets, parallel dimensions and death rays. While the actual science of these stories was muddied in favor of themes such as existentialism and nihilism, there was also a very clear delineation between these “cosmic” stories and the traditional hero/villain conflicts of Stan Lee’s Silver Age.

These stark tonal differences are especially apparent in the multiple series featuring the golden-hued Adam Warlock. Originally conceived by Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four #66-67 (published in Sept. – Oct. 1967), the character was reimagined as a Christ-like figure by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in Marvel Premiere #1 (April 1972). His first major arc consists of saving a parallel Earth, dubbed “Counter Earth,” from a supervillain known as the Man-Beast. Like a traditional superhero, Warlock is charged with protecting innocents, including a parallel version of Doctor Doom who is using his scientific knowledge for good. Warlock is aided in battle by the potent “soul gem,” an item given to him by Counter-Earth’s creator, the “High Evolutionary.”

Warlock was revived again in 1975 by Jim Starlin, one of the leading figures in Marvel’s cosmic crusade. Starlin has also been credited with creating the “Mad Titan” nihilist, Thanos, and for resurrecting lesser known characters like Captain Marvel. Both of these characters ended up playing a role in Starlin’s run with Warlock.

Starting with the Starlin penned/illustrated Strange Tales Featuring Warlock #178, there is a major shift in how Warlock is portrayed. Warlock is no longer putting his life on the line to protect hip kids on Counter Earth, but is now a traveler of the intergalactic spaceways. That is where Warlock discovers a future version of himself, the Magus, that has been corrupted by the power of his soul gem. As the ruler of an evil religious empire called the Universal Church of Truth, the Magus is as much a repudiation of Warlock’s pious roots as he is a device used by Starlin to explore the meaning of self, destiny and existence.

With Starlin at the helm, Magus seemingly bends time in a way that has multiple Warlocks from different points of time operating within the same plane of existence. This is not a case of a parallel universe or a multiple personality disorder. There is Warlock of the present (the hero), a Warlock of the future (the evil Magus), and then a Warlock of an intermediate future who the present-day hero must convince to commit suicide to wipe the Magus out of all existence, while also enabling Warlock to return to the present reality without the stain of his dark self on existence.

Starlin depicts a character whose struggles are all internal. While the Church of Universal Truth is considered an evil entity capable of wiping out entire civilizations of peaceful people, including the Zen Whoberis (as outlined by Thanos in Warlock #10), Warlock’s greater concern is with how his own deviant behavior nurtures the rise of the Magus. The salvation of other races and the prevention of genocide is merely a byproduct of the Magus’ destruction and can only be achieved when Warlock learns how to subdue himself in multiple planes of time.

The existentialism of Warlock’s struggle prevents him from effectively confronting his foe in traditional superhero fashion. In Warlock #9, Warlock and Gamora, a member of the Zen Whoberis race who is fighting alongside Adam in the name of vengeance for her people, are subdued by an emerald ray “that causes no pain” but still draws “a blood-curdling scream of anguish” from the Warlock’s soul. The hero bemoans his fate, “I was the Godling that saved [the people of Counter Earth] from the sinister schemes of the Man-Beast and gave them the gift of peace… and now I can’t even save myself from myself.”

In Warlock #11 (per the urging of Thanos), Warlock uses the soul gem against the Magus only to discover that he has massacred a room full of his dark self’s followers. This act of aggression only serves to further corrupt Warlock, bringing him one step further in his evolution towards becoming his future dark self. “You spout sanctimonious trivia about honor and goodness … but to gain your own ends you’ve just slaughtered a room full of men,” the Magus tells Warlock. “You’ve at last revealed me to be, not a perverted version of your soul, but rather a true image!”

As for Thanos, his role in the conflict does not become clear until present-day Warlock destroys his intermediate future self in Warlock #11. The Mad Titan appears to have aligned himself with Warlock in his fight against the Magus but the reader is warned in a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall moment courtesy of Starlin’s Captain Marvel (in Warlock #10) that things are not what they seem. “Whatever [Thanos] is planning has got to be pure evil,” Marvel says.

Ever the nihilist, Thanos is actually using Warlock’s existential crisis to “reshuffle time,” in a way where “the forces of life have no hero to challenge Thanos, the champion of death!” Thanos does not see Warlock in terms of “good” versus “evil” but only recognizes the vast power the character wields in the future as the Magus. If Thanos is to succeed at his own personal goals, “total stellar genocide,” he has to manipulate Warlock to diminish his future power, regardless of whether that power is used for traditional “good” or “evil” means.

With Magus destroyed, thanks to the suicide of the intermediate-future version of Warlock, the present-day character is free to exist in a time period that has never heard of the Universal Church of Truth – or so he thinks. While chatting with his companion, Pip the Troll (who serves as both comic relief and a voice of glib pragmatism throughout the arc), Warlock finds that even with the elimination of the Magus, pain throughout the cosmos remains pervasive. “It would appear that if you destroy one false God that men worship, it will not be long before … they find another to bow to,” Warlock says. Pip assures Warlock that as long as he is not causing the pain and suffering, as he did as his future self, then the two of them are free to cut loose and enjoy a drink at the nearest tavern. Warlock then spots the Matriarch, one of the leaders of the Church of the Universal Truth, but only views her as a memory and opts not to pursue her.

By moving the character away from Counter Earth and using the infinite vastness of space and time as the primary backdrop, Starlin has found an effective way to study an otherwise forgotten character in the Marvel universe. It is not unusual for a work of science fiction to use the intergalactic void to make a character more reflective. In the case of Warlock, it was impossible for him to take this journey of self-discovery when he was too busy fighting traditional superhero battles in the world of Lee, Kirby, Thomas and Kane.

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Mark Ginocchio is a graduate of Adelphi University in Garden City, NY, and is a professional writer/editor living in Brooklyn. He created Chasing Amazing, a blog documenting his quest to collect every issue of Amazing Spider-Man, and he has contributed to Comics Should Be Good at Comic Book Resources and Longbox Graveyard.

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