Adam Warlock. Thanos. Magus. 1970s Jim Starlin. Be there. – Warlock #10
With next year’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy, Marvel will throw open the doors to its vast, goofy, glorious cosmic adjunct, inviting curious moviegoers to come in and have a look around. Yes, The Avengers, with its outer space army, wormholes and post-credit cameos had cosmic elements, but Guardians will be cosmic through and through — setting, protagonists, antagonists, lighting and fixtures. It’ll be something new. (We’ll ignore the semi-cosmic The Rise of the Silver Surfer, since it took Galactus, one of the premier Marvel villains who isn’t really all that evil and has deep, tragic motivations for eating planets like Garfield scarfing down a plate of lasagna, and made him a f**king space typhoon.) It remains to be seen whether audiences will lap it up or stare, shrug their shoulders and move on. The first trailer footage that we see (some has already screened for comic-con audiences) will be an early indicator.
It would be a shame if cosmic Marvel sinks like the proverbial lead balloon. Because it really is some great stuff. And we can thank Jim Starlin for most of that.
Starlin’s work on two characters in the 1970s — Adam Warlock and Captain Marvel — created in a sideways fashion a spacious (no pun) new wing of a Universe that had already been very well and fully peopled. And, amazing enough, he made readers care about two dudes who had been uninteresting ciphers up to that point. Even after Captain Marvel/Mar-Vell had ditched his ghastly green and white cottage-cheese-and-spinach Kree uniform for more appropriate primary-colored tights, he was still as uninvolving as a sheet of plywood. And sure, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Adam Warlock/Him character during the course of their legendary Fantastic Four run, but Starlin made readers give a crap, and not really through startling characterization. Adam was always rather dull, an artificial person in the bland, vacant Kristen Stewart vein. It was the milieu that made the man.
Through all this there was the running vein of Thanos, a great villain, one gradually, slowly, correctly taking center stage in the MCU. The Mad Titan with a crush on the skeletal embodiment of death (not the cute Neil Gaiman babe, though they may be one and the same) stood pruney head and broad shoulders above the rest of the cast, which says more about his splendor than others’ lack thereof. Starlin populated the Marvel and Warlock casts with a rich assemblage of insane aliens, and it was a Star Wars Cantina before that cliché was up and running. Starlin was the one man band through most of this, writing and penciling his vision, populating far-away worlds with the likes of Drax the Destroyer, Pip and Gamora. And the Magus, the evil future-past Warlock with Gary Spivey hair.
It was nuts. It was fun.
Take this issue, #10, of the Warlock book. Smack dab in the middle of a larger storyline, it’s inventive even in its presentation. Yes, you have Thanos and Warlock teaming up (thanks to Thanos grabbing Warlock by the lapels Lyndon Johnson style), but it’s offered up in unconventional Family Circus panels (inks by Steve Leialoha):
You also have dense background presented in this unusual, illustrated text fashion. The right is poster-worthy — or worthy of stained glass, your choice:
You even have Mar-Vell making an appearance, to restate the senses-shattering origin of Thanos:
And, of course, the Magus. That hair. Oh, that hair:
The whole comic is a visual treat, richly detailed (at one point Thanos and Warlock find themselves faced by thousands of thousands of enemies, and you can almost count them all) and constantly on the move. It’s wonderful. Just wonderful.
The Starliniverse took on such importance in later years, we sometimes forget that his tenures on CM and Warlock were relatively brief — they birthed so much, they feel like they should have a Peter David/Hulk sort of volume to them. Indeed, it was in the 1990s resurgence of cosmic Marvel that many audiences first found themselves immersed in the starry magnitude of Thanos et al. Starlin had returned briefly to kill off Mar-Vell most grandly, but the Surfer tenure and the Infinity Gems were a full-fledged blockbuster for him. The Infinity Quest/Infinity Gauntlet/Infinity War/Infinity Stooges (I might have messed one of those up) continuum was of declining quality, but they sold big, and for good reason. It was Starlin returning to the Marvel nook in which he was most comfortable — and which welcomed him back with open arms. The Infinity Gauntlet battles were riveting for early teenage me, and I wasn’t alone. I can still almost hear the Silver Surfer rocketing towards Thanos in a last-ditch attempt to snatch the Gauntlet from him. (Partial thanks to Ron Lim’s Surfer for that.)
This comic and others in the Starlin 1970s oeuvre have recently been reprinted in a large Avengers vs. Thanos volume. It’s a cash grab feeding off Avengers interest, but worth a purchase for interested novitiates. I don’t know if Marvel is going to have Stan Lee do his de rigueur cameo in Guardians. Why not Starlin, if he’s so inclined? He’s earned it. And deserves it, even if the Guardians team itself isn’t one of his babies. Maybe a big check would be nice too.