The first major crossover I read was, strangely enough if you know me, not a DC event, but a Marvel one: The Infinity Gauntlet, the story of the mad Titan, Thanos, acquiring the power of a god. After devouring all the issues of the regular series, and all of the crossovers, I was dying to read anything else I could about Thanos, and his nemesis, Adam Warlock, but since both of them had been dead for quite a while before the series, it wasn't easy. But what I was able to find was a reprint of the story that is today's recommendation: Infinity Gauntlet mastermind writer/artist Jim Starlin's original Warlock tales from the 70s.
Starlin began writing Warlock when his title had disappeared from the stands. Warlock had run for eight issues before facing the one enemy no comic hero can fight: low sales.The dangling plot threads had been picked up and tied up in issues of The Incredible Hulk, and then had not been seen for six months. As a character, Warlock had been a not too subtle messianic allegory, going as far as to die and be reborn to save Counter Earth, an alternate Earth. But Starlin had a different vision for the character.
Taking a brief aside here, Warlock is a fascinating example of a question that is currently en vogue with both comic book fandom and the industry at large: what constitutes the creator of a character in a shared universe? Is it the person who first introduced them, or the one who took that character and remolded them into something completely new? When introduced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in The Fantastic Four, Him (as Warlock was called then) was the result of a mad science experiment to create the perfect human being, who realized his creators were evil and abandoned them. In his first series, Roy Thomas wrote him as the earnest messiah, seeking the redemption of Counter Earth, giving him the name of Adam Warlock. Starlin jettisoned neatly all the previous characterization, creating a haunted and flawed character, a space Hamlet, a philosopher who contemplated action and inaction, the nature of good and evil, and above all else, mortality.
Starlin's run on Warlock began in issues of one of Marvel's try out book, Strange Tales, before heading into a resurrected Warlock series. The majority of the run dealt with Warlock's confrontation with the Universal Church of Truth (UCoT) and their god, The Magus. The distrust of organized religion is one of he central themes of Starlin's entire body of work, and this was the first major piece to deal with it. The UCoT converted everyone in their path, whether they wanted to be or not, and imprisoned and executed those if found criminal or degenerate. Their good intentions were a road to a bloody hell, and The Magus was a mad god that Warlock had a personal stake with: he was Warlock, an insane and evil future version sent back in time, who had cut a bloody swath through much of the galaxy.
Evil twins and dystopic futures are nothing new, and weren't even when Starlin was writing these stories. What was new, and has rarely been done since, was Starlin's take on the trope.Usually, the hero stops the double or clone, or averts the event that would create the dark future, and everything ends happily. But Starlin made it clear that The Magus was an inevitability; even if he avoided it for a moment, the circumstances would come around again. Cosmic forces sought the creation of The Magus, and Warlock was presented with only one option: suicide. He would have to travel into the future, to the moment before The Magus's birth, and take the life of his future self.
Most heroes I had read about wouldn't kill anyone, let alone themselves. More than that, Starlin had found other ways to make readers reconsider the title character. When imprisoned by the UCoT, Warlock was submitted to psychological torture. The only way to defeat it was to accept another point of view, which Warlock did, but it was an insane point of view. Warlock had accepted the madness that was the core of The Magus. Even though he had escaped, he was now at least partially insane, and had taken the first step down the path of The Magus willingly.
So we have a hero driven mad and suicidal. Could Warlock have the deck stacked further against him? Of course he could! While he was hero of Counter Earth, Warlock was given the Soul Gem, which augmented and added to his powers. At the beginning of the run, Starlin revealed that the gem was sentient... and hungry. The gem desired to absorb the souls of living beings, and had begun to fight Warlock for control of his mind and body. Worse, it had siphoned off a large portion of Warlock's life energy, meaning removing the gem was impossible. So besides all the other madness, Warlock had a voice in his head not his own telling him to kill.
With two Warlock's running around the title, you might think there wouldn't be room for other characters, but Starlin quickly began introducing the supporting cast that would be with Warlock for the next twenty five years. Pip the Troll was a cigar smoking, hard drinking degenerate who Warlock encountered in the dungeons of the UCoT. Gamora, the deadliest woman in the universe, was an assassin with a personal grudge against the church sent to aid Warlock by an unlikely ally.
That unlikely ally was Thanos of Titan. In a classic, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend,"situation, Warlock allied with Thanos, who sought to stop The Magus. Readers knew Thanos as the nemesis of Captain Marvel, but here he was working with the good guys, even for his own reasons, which was strange. And it was Thanos who provided Warlock with the knowledge and means to travel to the moment he needed to, and there to use the Soul Gem to take his own soul and stop the birth of The Magus.
Now, I know that constitutes a pretty huge spoiler. However, loyal reader, I want you to consider two points. First, these are thirty plus year old comics, so seriously, I think we're past the spoiler warning time. More, though, you see how Warlock experiences the latter part of this story. He knows exactly how he is going to die, but not the exact time of the event. Every moment he's watching for the signs of his now absolute end. Pretty freaky, huh?
With the Magus saga wrapped, Starlin wrote a few shorter tales. There was the tale of the origins of Pip the Troll, strangely comic after the previous arc, but a good pallet cleanser before the next darker tale. Warlock confronted the Star Thief, a massively powerful psychic who sought to revenge himself upon Earth by destroying all stars. In the final issue of his series, Warlock fought a psychic battle against the Soul Gem, and learned a secret; the gem was one of six powerful gems. But after that revelation, the series was once again cancelled*, leaving the tale of Warlock's eventual demise unfinished.
Fortunately, Starlin was given the chance to tell this tale. In Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 Warlock and all his cast were together one more time, this time with the Avengers, Spider-Man, and The Thing at their sides in final battle with Thanos. Thanos had gathered the five other Soul Gems (which would eventually be called the Infinity Gems) for the first time, as well as having siphoned energy from Warlock's during the Magus battles, and was using the power to wipe out stars, dedicating the act and deaths to Mistress Death, the cosmic embodiment of Death whom Thanos loved. Over the course of the two issues, Pip and Gamora were both gravely injured by Thanos, to the point that Warlock had to take them into the Soul Gem. And after being defeated by Thanos, Warlock, badly beaten, looked up to find himself waiting to send him to join them. I won't spoil the final battle with Thanos, or what was waiting in the Soul Gem, but it was an ending that was perfect to what had gone on,
The thing that makes Warlock revolutionary for its time was the philosophy. This was a comic that dealt with weighty issues and didn't shy away from the darker side of life. Comics would eventually come to do this often, but even then, the level of thought and discussion is often left to Vertigo titles and indies. Warlock was the perfect mix of super heroics and thought, captivating readers.
Marvel will be releasing the entire run of Warlock this week in The Essential Warlock. This mammoth black and white volume will reprint the entire Starlin run, along with the earlier Counter Earth stories. Essentials are a great bargain, and this one is something everyone should try out,
*There was apparently a sixteenth issue of Warlock planned, but the art was lost. Check out issue 46 of TwoMorrows Publishing's excellent magazine, Back Issue, to find out more about that.