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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: [THE MAGUS SAGA] (STRANGE TALES #178-81, WARLOCK #9-11, 1975-76)

Though I rated Jim Starlin's THE PRICE as one of the worst of the null-myths, the writer-artist did have a short period in which he showed immense creativity with respect to the mythopoeic potentiality. During his run on the CAPTAIN MARVEL title he attracted the adulation of fans for giving that rather mediocre hero a new lease on life, not least by introducing a new major villain, Thanos, a demigod devoted to the worship of Death.

The CAPTAIN MARVEL material is straight-out space opera, but Starlin's series of WARLOCK stories-- which I've given the title of "the Magus Saga"-- combined spacefaring adventure with a broad approach to religious satire. He remarked in one online interview that "I’d grown up very Catholic, parochial school, and Warlock was a way of working a lot of things out."




The character of Warlock has a complicated history I'll touch on elsewhere, but in essence, he already had some strong religious associations in his first series, and Starlin took those basically respectful references to Christian belief in a 180-degree direction. Warlock, technically the offspring of Earth, took off to the stars, and found that the cosmos was endangered by a fanatical religious movement, the Universal Church. Starlin continued to imbue his cosmic hero with touches of Christian religiosity; in issue #179, he tells a group of aliens clamoring for his leadership to "rule themselves." Yet this version of Warlock, rather than communing with God-in-Heaven, finds himself opposed to the Church, which is controlled by the Magus, a being who has set himself up as God. Further, in due time Warlock learns that he is the Magus, or, more precisely, that Warlock will transform into the Magus in an alternate timeline. Aided by such dubious allies as the aforementioned death-lover Thanos, his female pawn Gamora and comic-relief Pip the Troll, Warlock must find a way to prevent the Magus from being born.




One of Starlin's other creative breakthroughs related to the hero's powers.  During the character's first series, he received a "soul gem," a jewel he somehow affixed to his forehead, which gave Warlock the power to re-arrange physical matter. Starlin made little use of this power, instead giving Warlock the somewhat vampiric power to consume the souls of those he attacked. This version of the soul gem seems to borrow equally from two creations of prose author Michael Moorcock: Dorian Hawkmoon, who wore a jewel in his skull, and Elric, a swordsman whose blade could consume the souls of opponents. In addition, Moorcock had also portrayed characters who were alternate versions of one another, though Starlin's ecclesiastical satire seems entirely original. In any case, though Marvel had many feature-heroes whose super power, as Roy Thomas once wrote, was that of breast-beating, Starlin's Warlock was rare in showing some degree of emotional complexity.





There were flaws in the saga, of course. From the first Starlin-- who borrowed many visual tropes from Kirby and Ditko-- seemed to display the same "tin ears" as those artists when he wrote dialogue, though not nearly to the same extent. His sense of humor also was something less than stellar, though he outdid himself in STRANGE TALES #181, when the humorless hero, subjected to mental reprogramming, resisted by imagining all of his tormentors as clowns, whose mighty church was nothing but a tower of rubbish-- albeit with a few diamonds thrown in. Not a few comics-fans speculated that Starlin might have also been satirizing the comics-industry-- though, to be sure, the "diamonds in the garbage" metaphor was not original to Starlin and could be applied to just about any human endeavor.



I also rather liked that the Magus' church was run by a "female pope," the Matriarch, who also combined aspects of Judas and Mary Magdalene. Starlin wrote other Warlock stories, but his first venture into the intersection of cosmic adventure and religious satire remains his outstanding accomplishment.

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