Thursday, March 15, 2018

Starlin's Thanos, part 2 of 10: Chaos Meets the True Neutral

Coming in late? Part 1 is here.

With his run on Warlock, Jim Starlin defined Marvel Cosmic.

Not that Marvel comics pre-1975 had been absent tales of heroes journeying into space to combat alien empires or journeying into metaphysical realms to encounter omnipotent cosmic entities. Marvel had even published two ongoing titles starring extraterrestrial heroes: Silver Surfer and Captain Marvel; but both of those titles were set on Earth. Further, Adam Warlock had been around in comics since his first appearance in Fantastic Four back in 1967 and starred in his own series from 1972-1973 - but even in that title, Warlock was based on Counter-Earth, an exact duplicate of the Earth. Starlin took Adam into space, to encounter not only evil empires but everyday folks and alien bars; further, the metaphysical entities who had previously been seen only in Doctor Strange became cosmic staples, with Starlin introducing the In-Betweener, Master Order and Lord Chaos during his Warlock run.

Warlock had been cancelled but revived in 1975 with Jim Starlin as writer, artist & colourist (inking him were Al Milgrom & Steve Leialoha). Starlin's run began in the pages of Strange Tales (for some reason) from #178-181, then resuming the original title's numbering with issues #9-15. I'm primarily concerned with Thanos in this series, but there are many elements in Starlin's Warlock which reappear in stories to come.

As I said above, Adam Warlock had been appearing in Marvel comics for about nine years when Starlin arrived, but he found Warlock to be a fairly clean slate. As an artificial man, Warlock had the potential for a perspective unlike those of Marvel's human protagonists. Starlin encouraged Warlock's state of philosophizing (a tradition going back to Stan Lee's Silver Surfer) but also gave him an indecisiveness which made it hard to Warlock to know how best to combat his enemies - and, of course, Warlock's worst enemy was himself.

The Soul Gem had been lying on Warlock's forehead since the 1972 series began, but Starlin established it was capable of more than the bursts of energy he normally used it for - it could also draw out souls from people's bodies. The first time Warlock does this, the gem acts of its own volition to absorb the soul of a Black Knight from the Universal Church of Truth; the second time, Warlock himself chooses to absorb the soul of the Church's Judge Kray-Tor. Throughout, Warlock realizes the gem possesses powers he doesn't fully understand and has been subconsciously preventing himself from accessing; Starlin would later make a lot of hay from this idea.

Also present is the adversary for this tale, the Magus, who turns out to be Warlock's future self, sent back in time 5000 years to found his genocidal Universal Church of Truth. Warlock has to somehow prevent himself from becoming the Magus but the Magus knows his every move before it happens: enter Thanos!

It's truly in these tales that Thanos solidifies into the character Starlin would write for decades to come. Readers of Starlin's Captain Marvel knew Thanos was a villain (and in a cute two-pager, Captain Marvel himself explains to the readers of Warlock what Thanos' villainy looks like), but Warlock is completely ignorant of him. Thanos is opposed to the Magus and so allies himself with Warlock, using time travel to undo the Magus creation by sending Warlock to the moment of his death so he'll absorb his own soul, rather than mutate into the Magus. Thanos is seemingly heroic as he engages the Magus in combat to buy time for Warlock, but the Magus realizes his destiny is to prevent Thanos from unleashing genocide - that he was created to stop Thanos' plans; by defeating one evil, Adam unwittingly permits another to exist. The Magus is undone, but the Church remains in a different form.

In these tales, Thanos was accompanied by his chief assassin Gamora, the deadliest woman in the galaxy. Gamora never really received a chance to show how capable she was in this run of Warlock, but there were hints of a stronger character to come - especially when Thanos sent Gamora to spy on Warlock so that she wouldn't realize he was plotting universal genocide. There was also a subplot where Drax the Destroyer appeared and destroyed Gamora's shuttle while en route to combat Thanos but Starlin didn't follow up on it, what with Warlock's cancellation. Adam's supporting cast was further expanded with the loutish, big-mouthed thief Pip the Troll, who latched himself to Adam on his adventures.

This series of stories was the first time Thanos appeared in a non-antagonist role, and although he and Adam Warlock are often thought of as nemeses to each other, they've actually worked side-by-side more times than they've fought against one another. Here, Starlin demonstrated Thanos had goals beyond winning Death's favour or seeking ultimate power for himself. The idea of Thanos as an untrustworthy ally would be mined again and again.

Next Tuesday: Laid to rest.

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