Monday, January 14, 2008

Hello Cosmic Part 23: The Finale Part One (Religion)

[The first part of my three-part finale in my look at Jim Starlin's cosmic work at Marvel and where I try to sum it all up. The series will continue after this for two parts where I will look at some non-Marvel cosmic work by Starlin. New posts Monday, Wednesday and Friday. After that, whenever I have new books and/or something to say.]

Okay, I didn't do at least two books by Starlin: the Silver Surfer graphic novel Homecoming and the Rom-less Spaceknights mini Starlin penned. But, I'm okay with that, so you should be as well.

21 posts examing Jim Starlin's work, amounting to... what, 122 comics written by Starlin with another dozen or so discussed written by someone else? There are bound to be some continuing themes/ideas/topics that Starlin addresses throughout. Two come to mind and I'll spend this post discussing the first one a little (while my third post will look at Starlin's storytelling techniques--and I'll demonstrate that I have little understanding of how art works). (Oh, and if I go off on odd tangents and ramble on like a moron that's only because I'm just seeing where this takes me, not writing a proper essay or anything.)

Starlin Topic #1: Religion

Religion is the idea that Starlin examines the most in his work with most storylines revolving around the idea of what it means to be a saviour or god with Starlin's two central characters, Thanos and Adam Warlock acting as foils to one another. Thanos is the man who constantly tries to become a god, while the role of saviour is thrust upon Warlock over and over again and he struggles against it. Actually, Captain Marvel also fills this role in Starlin's run on his title, especially when you consider Mar-Vell's "cosmic awareness," an ability gained partway through the run.

Looking at these characters as gods or saviours also accounts for the fact that they are the only characters that actually accomplish goals or foil the schemes of others in every Starlin comic. I noted numerous times that the regular Marvel heroes were useless in Starlin stories as he shifts the focus from the typical "gods" of the MU to these three characters, the only truly effective people in Starlin's Marvel universe.

Captain Mar-Vell only shows up for a short time in Starlin's work, but, in that time, he is contrasted against other heroes when they all fight Thanos and his attempt to rule the universe with the Cosmic Cube. Every hero is ineffective aside from Mar-Vell who nearly dies in his attempt to stop Thanos and he is only able to do so because of his cosmic awareness, a transcendent state that elevates him beyond other heroes. Not as advanced or complex as Starlin's later work/ideas, Mar-Vell shows the initial inklings of division between the regular heroes who are trapped on Earth and the cosmic heroes who think on larger scales and can handle larger threats.

Adam Warlock acts as Starlin's most obvious religious figure, a position that didn't begin with Starlin as Warlock was seen as a saviour on Counter-Earth, a role he foun uncomfortable. In Starlin's first story, Warlock finds himself facing his future self, a self-proclaimed god with his own religion. The key here is actually Warlock's Soul Gem, which allows him to absorb the souls of others and transport them to an ideal state of being where everyone lives in peace and harmony, an obvious stand-in for heaven. Despite this, Warlock fights against this role and only uses the Soul Gem when it's called for. In this storyline, to prevent the Magus from coming into being, Warlock uses the Soul Gem on his future self, effectively ascending to heaven, although returns briefly in the form of a flaming being (a representation of the pentecostal flames?) to dispatch Thanos. (I want to mention here that I'm surprised Starlin didn't include a scene where the Magus actually uses the Soul Gem to absorb the souls of his followers when they were near death or deemed worthy to further the analogy. That could have also made Warlock's use of the gem more powerful as he fights against his role as harvester of souls and lord of a heaven, basically. Just a thought.)

Even when the Soul Gem is used by others as part of the Infinity Gauntlet, Warlock still exerts control over it and is seen as the residents of the Soul World as the leader, the man in charge, the messiah or god. Strangely, this role doesn't seem to bother Warlock much, nor is he disturbed when he gains control of the Infinity Gauntlet. Starlin subtley suggests that Warlock's time in the Soul World made him more comfortable and confident in his role as saviour. He actively fights to retain the Infinity Gauntlet and the power of god, which goes against the Warlock of Starlin's initial run.

However, once he gives up the power, he returns to his less confident, more spiritually confused self. Is Starlin arguing that the reason Warlock is uncomfortable with his role is that he understands his true place within the universe and that he isn't actually a god or saviour, while when he had the Infinity Gauntlet, he actually was? Same with his control over the Soul Gem and Soul World--he actually did have the power of a god in that reality and felt comfortable. Warlock, perhaps, isn't opposed to filling that role so long as that's his actual place within the larger scheme of things.

If anything, that actually seems to be Starlin's overall message on religion: it's not wrong as long as it's true. The Magus' religion is corrupt because he isn't actually a god; Warlock finds peace in Soul World because he has the power and station of a god there; the Infinity Gauntlet (along with the Cosmic Cube, Cosmic Egg and Heart of the Universe) is removed from play because it's an artificial, and therefore unnatural, means of gaining power, going against nature and the true way of the universe.

That's where Thanos comes into play as he is consistently striving for god-like power and, even when he obtains it, always loses it. Starlin puts forth the idea that Thanos subconsciously knows he's not worthy and always finds ways to lose his power. Thanos ultimately knows his place within the universe and, eventually, learns to forego artificially raising his status through random power grabs, and works to act as a true saviour to the universe by twarting the schemes of others, most notably those of the Magus and the Goddess, both religious-based characters and aspects of Adam Warlock.

A few brief words on the Magus and Goddess: they are the evil and good aspects of Adam Warlock that he expelled while in possession of the Infinity Gauntlet, further giving an impression of Starlin's view of god. An effective god, for Starlin, lacks passion, ruled by logic--or, is that true? Considering the fact that Warlock does not remain god long, it's hard to stand by that characterisation. Although, I find it interesting that Warlock gets rid of those parts of himself while god--and that each then attempt to make themselves god. The Magus does so by obtaining the Infinity Gauntlet, but is defeated when Warlock also touches the gauntlet and manages to overpower the less-than-whole aspect. The Goddess uses the Cosmic Egg (which contains numerous Cosmic Cubes) to actually bring about Judgment Day, enacting the book of Revelations, basically. In that way, the three aspects of Warlock: the Magus, Adam and the Goddess all respresent different aspects of Christianity. The Magus is the Old Testament God, one that rules with power, anger and fear; Adam is Christ in that he is uncertain and questioning, even reluctant; while the Goddess is the embodiment of those Christians that wish for the end of the world so they can ascend to Heaven, the evangelicals--a role strengthened by her followers, all blind religious zealots.

If Warlock is Christianity, what then is Thanos? Thanos strangely occupies a role almost the reverse of Satan. He begins as power-hungry and evil, but eventually redeems himself. He almost seems like a representation of views on Satan, where he was seen as pure evil at first, but then in the Romantic period, his portrayal in Paradise Lost, caused some to see him as an anti-hero, a rebel if you will. Even when Thanos does good, he still retains a certain edge, a certain evilness. And, if you look at how most of the characters in the MU view him, he still is evil, just as the majority of people view Satan as such. (Okay, okay, am I taking this too far? Am I reading FAR too much into this? Probably, but whatever.) Mephisto's appearance, often as a contrast to Thanos, may support this as he's the more traditional devil, the always evil one.

And what to make of Thanos' obsession with Death? Is that a simple metaphor for humanity's efforts to conquer and avoid death to no avail? When Mar-Vell dies, he accepts his fate and embraces it, recognising it as a new reality, a new journey. Warlock also welcomes his death and entrance in his heavenly Soul World. The enlightened characters do not fear death, recognising it as a good thing. Here, Starlin could be hinting at the concept of heaven and, if it really is so great and everlasting, why is death to be feared? But, that doesn't really take Thanos into account. I've suggested that Thanos' obsession with Death is really just Starlin's way of examing the relationship between men and women, particularly when a man actively pursues a woman to no avail, progressively growing more obsessed and making larger efforts (and, in the end, it's when Thanos stops trying that he succeeds). Does that relate to the concept of life everlasting? The more we obsess with fighting death, the less we live? Only when we accept death as a part of our lives and ignore it do we live truly--as well as happily enter the afterlife? That could be it as when Thanos stops pursuing Death, he also makes death a permanent state in the Marvel universe, making it somthing that cannot be overcome (a policy since overwritten) and making it matter. Mostly because if death lacks strength and value, so does life. (Although, note that Thanos and Warlock come back from the dead a few times. Thanos even comes back from the dead, in a sense, after decreeing that no one will ever return from the dead again.)

Other figures act as gods, particularly Galactus and Eternity. Galactus is more a being that sees itself as godlike, which Starlin uses as an opportunity to prove wrong again and again, re-enforcing the idea that people should recognise their place in the universe. Eternity is a little more problematic as he legitimately is the embodiment of the universe, albeit a proud and ignorant one. Ultimately, his role is always restored as the natural one, but we're also given the impression that he isn't the true god of the universe, a position confirmed in Marvel: The End where Thanos discovers an even more powerful being, one that actually manipulates events to make Thanos god and shirk its responsibilities. An absentee god? Gee, what could Starlin be suggesting there?

A lot of creators use the Silver Surfer as a messianic or Christ-like figure, but Starlin doesn't. That's noteworthy just because it works against convention so much and Starlin is obviously very concerned with religion. Why isn't the Silver Surfer used by Starlin in that role? In his run on the book, Starlin mostly has the Surfer act as an innocent, a naif, and then also the recipient of guilt. It's almost like the Surfer takes on the role of the believer, the spiritual searcher, one that's lived a life following a certain faith (that of Galactus) and even when he left that faith, he wasn't able to leave it fully behind. He was absolved of his sins while a member of said faith and kept the absolution upon leaving, but Starlin forces him to leave that aspect of the faith behind, too. The Silver Surfer is the righteous non-believer that still cloaks himself in the morality of his forgotten faith--he's a hypocrite, basically. It's interesting to note that during the initial stages of the Infinity Crusade, the Surfer is one of the Goddess' zealots, but he breaks free through sheer force of will, reaffirming his non-believer status. I really like how Starlin sees the Surfer as someone raised within a particular faith that then left and struggles with not believing, while still holding elements of that faith with him no matter how hard he tries. Is the Power Cosmic then a sense of morality for Starlin? I myself am an atheist, but spent my first 19 years in Catholic schools and also going to church with my mom (a Presbyterian). While I don't believe in any sort of god, I still have a very "Christian" sense of morality in some ways and even find myself lapsing in rare moments of "belief" since I was raised with it and cannot just get rid of it through a sheer force of will.

And... and I don't think I have anything else to say on the subject. I'm probably leaving out/forgetting a lot, but this seems to sum up Starlin's use of religion and religious imagery and analogies in his cosmic work at Marvel. On Wednesday, I'll look at Starlin's use of psychology.