Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Hello Cosmic Part 3: Warlock Day One

In Reading Comics, Douglas Wolk devotes a short chapter to Jim Starlin's run on Warlock during the '70s. It stretched over the pages of Strange Tales, Warlock, Marvel Team-Up, Avengers and Marvel Two-in-One (the last two were annuals, though, which isn't quite so bad). There were also esentially three stories: the first involves the Magus, the second is more rambling and involves a Star Thief plus various subplots, and the final is the what's known as the second Thanos war. Now, the main attraction of these comics is the first story, dealing with the Magus who is Adam Warlock's future self and god.

The copies I have of this work is the 1982 six-issue reprint series Marvel released because of the direct market and a differing audience from the newsstand. This six-issue series was rereleased in 1992 around the time Warlock & the Infinity Watch was launched, capitalising on the success of Infinity Gauntlet. Tracking down either one of these series is probably your best bet if you want these comics (I suggest Mile High Comics as that's where I ordered my copies--and a quick check reveals they have copies of everything except #5 of the 1982 reprint and multiple copies of all six issues of the 1992 one).

At the beginning of his run, Starlin quickly gets the reader up to speed with the history of Adam Warlock: created by scientists, worshipped as a god on another planet, fought Thor, maybe all of that in a different order, I don't know, because it doesn't matter really. Actually, the worshipped as a god thing does, because Starlin uses that to inform much of Warlock's character--and set up the contract between Warlock and Magus. In the first chapter of the story, Warlock first learns of the Universal Church of Truth when a woman is killed for being a heretic and he is unable to save her. The church is a large organisation that is supposedly founded on love and peace--but only to those who subscribe to that belief system and are humanoid. Here, Warlock encounters the church's god, the Magus--and learns that the Magus is him, except with a giant afro.

At first, Warlock is unsure of his relationship with Magus. He recognises and knows they are the same person, but how? Is Magus a part of his soul somehow made external? Are they linked together? Will killing Magus mean his death as well? When Warlock eventually confronts Magus, he learns that Magus is his future self driven insane and sent back thousands of years into the past. And everything he does only drives him closer to becoming the Magus--a fact that Magus repeats over and over again as Warlock does whatever he can to somehow stop Magus. It all happened to Magus this way, so...

Here, Starlin critiques orgaised religion, specifically Christianity, using Warlock as a Christ figure and Magus as a perversion of that. Especially as Warlock has already rejected the role Magus now embraces. Before this, Warlock gives numerous speeches about how people should stand on their own and not follow the word of others--how we should lead ourselves rather than be led by another. Even when the Magus is eventually defeated and removed from the timeline completely, his church is replaced with another--nothing has changed really, other than Warlock not becoming the false savior he fears becoming.

Throughout this, Starlin also does something interesting by having Thanos assist Warlock. It is later revealed that Warlock was, quite possibly, on the wrong side, that he should have become the Magus as planned. Despite his flaws, Magus was ultimately on the side of life and was a threat to Thanos who, as we already know, is devoted to Death. In defeating Magus, Warlock helps Thanos and works against life, which he strives to preserve. He fails to see that maybe the best way to do so is to actually step up and take control. We're never given a definitive answer as none is to be found, but Starlin provides and subtle and nuanced problem here.

When I was reading up on Starlin, I came across an interview where he talks about how Warlock was basically a paranoid schizophrenic version of Jesus. One of Warlock's sources of strength is his soul gem, which is sentient and can absorb the souls of others. Throughout the series, Warlock struggles against its wishes to absorb souls, decrying it as a vampire. Not only that, but when Warlock uses the gem to absorb souls, he gains access to their memories. One of the most terrifying moments of the series is when he absorbs the soul of a member of the church, a judge he sees as corrupt and evil, but upon receiving his soul, he learns that this seemingly evil man was really a good guy who was just doing what he thought right and moral. Warlock, like Jesus, takes the souls of people, but they work to drive him mad--and add to the voices in his head. One missed opportunity that I'm surprised Starlin didn't play with more is when Warlock absorbs the soul of his future self to destroy the Magus. That seems like the perfect opportunity to play with the concept of multiple personalities as then he would have a second, more advanced version of himself in his head.

As well, in the second story, Warlock faces off against an entity called the Star Thief--basically, a human born without any senses, so his mind becomes very powerful and he uses that power to destroy the universe because he's pissed off at humanity for not connecting to him or something--and, at one moment, he absorbs a piece of the Star Thief's soul. However, this isn't followed up really. For the most part, Starlin manages to remain consistent, but in those two instances, there's a lack, I think.

The theme of enlightenment is big in Warlock as the Magus is essentially an enlightened Warlock, one who has realised his potential and embraces it. As he is the villain, we assume this is false enlightenment, but the revelation that Magus is a champion of life throws that into doubt. It raises the idea that maybe there is no true or false enlightenment, just enlightenment, which is a subjective experience. The fact that the Magus sees himself as enlightened is what matters, not if we agree with his analysis of the situation.

The Star Thief seems a different take on enlightenment as he contains a mind so powerful it can destroy stars and control matter, but he uses it for meaningless revenge. Enlightenment here is false and also problematic, suggesting that a more grounded position is better, that we need all of the minor, mundane events to distract and give us things to do or else we'll simply become bored and destroy everything. As well, if he is so enlightened, why would he care about destroying humanity? Wouldn't he realise why they found it impossible to connect with a person who is deaf, blind, mute, cannot taste and cannot feel? Is his brain so powerful yet unable to process the simplest of logical problems?

Tomorrow, I'll conclude my look at Warlock by focusing on Thanos, and possibly also discuss The Death of Captain Marvel.