Monday, May 30, 2011

The Enigma of Adam Warlock

I’ve finally been experiencing the pleasure of reading the full Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on Fantastic Four via the most recent re-issues of the softcover Marvel Masterworks series and though the last few volumes have brought such seminal stuff as the debuts of Galactus and The Black Panther not to mention the classic “This Man…This Monster!” Coming up next, I’ve got the first appearances of Blastaar and Ronan to look forward to, but most significantly for me, the introduction of Adam Warlock. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had questions about Adam Warlock that I’ve never been able to find answers to—admittedly I haven’t looked too hard or I would have read the Jim Starlin stories by now—and hope that perhaps by starting from the beginning, I’ll understand this character and his evolution a bit better.

Characters undergoing wild transformations in comics aren’t unheard of; in fact it’s more or less business as usual at this point. The landscape of modern comics—the super hero genre especially—is littered with figures who bear little resemblance to their original incarnations. Still, Adam Warlock’s four decade-long journey from artificial man to mystical space hero with a significant detour to cosmic messiah and fairly unveiled Christ allegory along the way is pretty unique.

The character that would become Adam Warlock debuted in 1967’s Fantastic Four #66 as Him, an artificial man created by the Enclave to be the peak of humanity. He was more a handsome gold-skinned Frankenstein than anything resembling what he would become, but relevant to this examination, he was a character firmly rooted in science—the Enclave were criminal scientists—and thus right at home in the sci-fi adventures of the FF. Him would resurface a few more times—and Her would be introduced—but he never caught on the way many other Lee/Kirby creations did.

In 1972, Roy Thomas and Gil Kane got a hold of Him and reinvented him as Adam Warlock, introducing what would become his familiar visual cues of a yellow thunderbolt emblem with red and gold gladiator flourishes as a costume. According to an old issue of Back Issue—via Wikipedia—Thomas fully intended to do a super hero version of Jesus Christ, having recently become a fan of Jesus Chris Superstar; Him had some pedigree but little baggage or history, so he made as much sense as existing character. Thomas had the High Evolutionary stand in for a higher power and evolve Adam to godhood, then dropped him on the newly-created Counter-Earth where he served as savior to its people, protecting them from the Man-Beast—a rogue High Evolutionary creation serving as the Lucifer figure—and eventually their creator—the Evolutionary again—who toyed with wiping them out.

Warlock began waxing philosophical not unlike his cosmic contemporary The Silver Surfer, but not about his plight in being trapped on Earth, rather the pressures placed on him by his power and the expectations of those he protected.

The Thomas-written Warlock saga only ran eight issues, but Jim Starlin would pick up the character not long after, writing and drawing a new story that took his messianic routine to the stars. Starlin pumped up the cosmic soap opera by introducing The Magus, Warlock’s evil alternate from a possible future, and weaving in dimension jumping and time travel as well as the established Thanos, but also continued to explore the character as more than just another super-powered bruiser, asking questions about destiny, the corruptive nature of power and what role even a supposed savior had in shaping who he would become. With Magus, Starlin also was not afraid to posit that this might not be the typical “evil twin” scenario comics fans knew well and that instead Adam may indeed by mentally ill and possessing multiple personalities. The Starlin Warlock is—from what I’ve heard—trippy, expansive, of the era and possibly the most well-regarded material that has been produced featuring the character.

This era of Adam Warlock concluded in 1977 with a three-part crossover through Marvel Team-Up, Avengers and Marvel Two-In-One that saw the character give his life to thwart a scheme by Thanos.

Adam Warlock would return 14 years later as part of the crossover event The Infinity Gauntlet, and it was around this time I would be first introduced to the character. In a story written by Starlin, Thanos, recently resurrected himself, gets a hold of the combined Infinity Gems, which grants him near omnipotence, and Warlock along with his allies Pip and Gamora are brought back from a limbo-type existence within the Soul Gem to thwart him. The good guys win and Adam actually gets the Infinity Gems himself for a moment, but they are ultimately split up amongst his chosen Infinity Watch, and they go off into their own ongoing series.

Each of the next two summers—1992 and 1993—would feature another “Infinity” event penned by Starlin, in which Warlock and Thanos would be major players and nearly every Marvel title and character would become involved. In Infinity War, the forgotten Magus gains his own existence out of Warlock’s passing wish to excise himself of all good and evil during his brief time holding the Gauntlet, and creates an army of evil twins of Marvel heroes—fun fact: this is where the Spider-Man character Doppelganger, featured in Maximum Carnage and more recently the Carnage mini by Zeb Wells and Clayton Crain, originated—so that he can try and assemble the Gems. The next year, in Infinity Crusade, Warlock’s “good” side, the Goddess, takes advantage of various heroes’ faith to brainwash them and create a super hero civil war over a decade early while trying to “cleanse” the universe by destroying it.

I vividly recall reading Infinity Crusade with my best buddy Matt Corley when I was 11 years old; when I spotted a few issues of Infinity War not long after, I snatched those up as well. It would be a while yet before I found Infinity Gauntlet in trade and got the full saga (and of course years later I’d pick up Infinity Abyss and Marvel Universe: The End, but those may be stories for another time). I was a kid, so the slam dunk concepts of bad guy duplicates and hero vs hero grabbed me pretty easily—they still would/do—but I always found myself a bit mystified at what exactly was the deal with Adam Warlock. I mean, these were huge Marvel stories that touched every single comic and featured more or less every single character available, but guys like Spider-Man, Wolverine, Iron Man and Captain America were more or less supporting characters—if that—while this orange-skinned dude with a shiny green thing on his forehead was front and center. Surely he was the most important character in the Marvel Universe, right? So why had I never heard of him?

As I mentioned in my post about Thor: Blood and Thunder, there were in fact two Warlock series—Warlock & the Infinity Watch and The Warlock Chronicles—running concurrently in the mid-90’s. At the time, I was curious about this because, again, I really had no sense of who Adam Warlock was, but at the same time, he was starring in more books than Daredevil or The Hulk. Looking back now, it’s interesting and a bit bizarre to think that Warlock, who was such a quirky, boundary-pushing figure in the 70’s would morph into the central figure of some of the most prominent projects on Marvel’s radar 20 years later—and they were written by the same guy! Adam Warlock had gone from being on the fringe of the Marvel Universe, relegated to Counter-Earth or deep space so Thomas and Starlin could dig into the idea of Jesus as a super hero without attracting too much attention, to being right in the thick of things, living on Monster Island, showing up in prominent books and ordering the A-list heroes around in the center of crossovers. If you give the Infinity trilogy and early issues of Infinity Watch a solid read, Starlin is certainly still delving into larger issues of duality, religion and the heart of what makes good and what makes evil, but he’s also writing very commercial comic books, something I can’t imagine he ever thought he’d be doing with Adam Warlock when he plucked him out of limbo decades earlier.

Adam Warlock’s 90’s glory days crashed around the same time the rest of the comic industry’s did. His books were cancelled, he was shipped over to the Ultraverse for a quick crossover/reimagining, then slipped into limbo by the end of the decade. He’d be gone a good six years or so before popping back up in the aforementioned Infinity Abyss and Marvel Universe: The End minis, both written as well as drawn by Starlin, where his primary role is to play counterpoint to Thanos, who has once again gained ultimate power and is waffling on whether or not to embrace his nihilistic tendencies or not.

The most recent Warlock resurrection came about in 2007 with Annihilation: Conquest, and I was actually at Marvel for this one. This time, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning brought the character back—Bill Rosemann told me at the time that he was “one of the last missing pieces of the cosmic puzzle”—bringing things somewhat full circle—if you discount the Him years—with the High Evolutionary being involved and Warlock again being touted as a universal savior whose form is sought by Ultron as a host body. DnA made Adam part of their Guardians of the Galaxy series where he served as one of the team’s many wildcards, in part due to the schizophrenic nature that had long been a part of the character’s makeup and also because he had new mystic-based powers that moved him closer to fitting the Warlock name. This incarnation lasted a couple years before Adam fulfilled his seeming long ago destiny, finally becoming The Magus and getting taken down by his old teammates and later by an evil alternate version of Captain Marvel.

Going back to the beginning, I’m very much looking forward to the next volume of Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four—coming this November—to see the genesis of a character who would be Frankenstein, Jesus, a cosmic explorer, the center of the 90’s Marvel Universe, Thanos’ confidante and an outer space magic man; even for comic that’s a pretty wild resume and I’d like to read it all the way through.


Johnny B said...

Really, you need to read those 70's Starlin Warlocks.

I don't disagree with anything you've written, and think you did it well, but I can't imagine trying to write anything about any character without reading his defining appearances.

Ben Morse said...

I don't disagree with you.

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