Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Essential Warlock

Roy Thomas, Jim Starlin, Gil Kane and others Essential Warlock (2012)
Know you this, that Marvel's Adam Warlock comic got off to an impressive start as an ambitious parable of a Christlike superhuman saving an alternate Earth from both its wrathful creator and his errant fallen angel, the wolfish Man-Beast, the proverbial serpent in Eden and source of all this world's ills. It began in obvious homage to Jack Kirby's cosmic scale, written with an assumption of intelligent readership, and pulling no Marvel Shakespearian punches with plenty of lo, yonder, and yet where words may fail of hearing may not soundless rage prevail?

Where such affectations sometimes come off as just plain ridiculous, Roy Thomas makes them work with lines favouring genuine gravitas over mere pomposity - including at least two words I actually had to look up - and with such aplomb that even when the inevitable group of denim clad 1970s teenage sidekicks show up, whilst the integrity of the strip bends a little under the strain of the more prosaic dialogue of I dig and don't crowd me, Dave, the whole remains strong, perhaps even a little richer for the contrast. With Gil Kane's fantastic Kirby-inspired artwork, the earliest issues seem very substantial, even referencing black power and Chicano issues without going all Ben Elton, and generally carrying themselves with the dignity of good quality children's fiction - the stuff an adult can read without wincing or looking like a complete cock. Dammit - the opener is so good you don't even mind that the snake-headed guy is named Kohbra.

Unfortunately, after the first few issues, Roy Thomas and Gil Kane handed over the title to lesser talents and the book lost its distinguishing qualities, recycling the same story over and over - always Warlock's battle against the Man-Beast or his minions, teenage sidekicks serving mainly as hostage opportunities, and with the Marvel Shakespearian now seeming faintly absurd: the orchestra had begun to regret the kebabs consumed the previous evening, but luckily the Cockney Rejects were available to fill in on the second act of Die Walk├╝re - if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Then along came Jim Starlin, alternately influenced by Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Michael Moorcock, transforming Warlock into a weird and wonderful superhero space opera which I suspect may borrow somewhat from Kirby's Fourth World,
except I'm unfamiliar with Kirby's Fourth World aside from a few slightly underwhelming issues of Mister Miracle by which I recognise the villainous Thanos as an obvious stand-in for Kirby's Darkseid. This Starlin version of Warlock was reprinted in the UK in Star Wars Weekly which is where I first encountered it, as one of a number of back-up strips that were slightly more engaging than the title feature. Even with my being no stranger to the nutty stuff thanks to Tom Baker on the telly and 2000AD comic, Starlin's Warlock struck me as particularly weird - vampiric soul gems, a wisecracking troll, an ally who falls in love with death and hopes to win her over by destroying the universe, anatomically bizarre aliens, and the main villain being Adam Warlock's future self just like in The Trial of a Time Lord more than a decade later; all drawn in the spirit of an age of concept albums recorded by bands dressed as wizards.

Returning to these stories forty years after they first appeared, whilst not quite so amazing as they seemed to my twelve year old self - art and script trying just a bit too hard on occasion - they remain nevertheless impressive, and certainly superior to all but possibly the initial Roy Thomas and Gil Kane run. Additionally, I'd wager at least one testicle on this version of Warlock being a significant influence on the young Grant Morrison. All those elements of his early Gideon Stargrave strips not directly inspired by Moorcock seem to have come from Starlin; and whilst we're here, with hindsight even Alan Moore's Roscoe Moscow carries more than a faint whiff of the same.

Unfortunately, once Adam Warlock rejoined the wider Marvel universe in the last few issues reprinted here, it all went back to extended fight scenes with assorted superheroes explaining the plot to one another in Marvel Shakespearian as the Beast exclaimed oh my stars and garters whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. It's a sad end to a story which, for at least a few issues, managed to raise itself up above the standard Marvel landfill of the time.

Reprinting no less than twenty-seven 1970s comics in a single volume as thick as a housebrick and retailing for mere pennies, Essential Warlock is well worth a look - mostly classic material, and the filler at least provides an insight into why X-Men was such a hit when Chris Claremont took over in 1975.

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