GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

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Marvel Masterworks: Warlock 2007 (HC) 278 pages

Written by Roy Thomas, Mike Friedrich with Gerry Conway, Ron Goulart, Tony Isabella. Pencils by Gil Kane, Bon Brown, Herb Trimpe, with John Buscema, Tom Sutton. Inks by Tom Sutton, with Dan Adkins, Jack Abel.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Roy Thomas.

cover by Kane Reprinting: Marvel Premiere #1, 2, Warlock #1-8, The Incredible Hulk #176-178 (1972-1973, 1974)

Additional notes: intro by Roy Thomas, covers;

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics

Adam Warlock is perhaps the perfect epitome of the "cult" character -- one who has drifted around the fringes of the Marvel Universe, off and on, for decades, periodically getting reimagined for some "new direction" in the character's life, occasionally starring in usually short lived series, garnering some critical notices, but never quite achieving mass commercial success.

I first came upon Warlock in reprints of a Jim Starlin written and illustrated epic in the pages of Fantasy Masterpieces (backing up Silver Surfer reprints). A provocative, genuinely mind blowing saga, Starlin's epic (what I dub Warlock vs. the Magus) stands even today as one of the all-time great comic book sagas. I later read the rest of Starlin's original run on Warlock, which culminated in Warlock's death (and a seeming permanent death...it was almost two decades before he was brought back, by Starlin again) and if the whole of Starlin's run wasn't as strong as that initial epic, it was still good. But for years, I was curious to read the original, pre-Starlin Warlock stories. Particularly as it was clear that, even before Starlin, the character was intended to be an unusual, ambitious property.

And now, all these years later, Marvel re-presents the original Warlock saga in one of its ridiculously expensive, Marvel Masterworks volumes. This collection skips over the original appearances of the character -- first introduced in a Fantastic Four story, and then cropping up in a few Thor issues -- starting instead with Marvel Premiere #1, the beginning of a new direction for the character. It begins with another recurring Marvel character, the High Evolutionary, who has decided to create a perfect world by recreating the earth on the far side of the sun, but without evil. Warlock happens along and starts hanging with the H.E. as this occurs -- only to witness as the Man-Beast (one of the High Evolutionary's failed past experiments) interferes and introduce evil into the creation of this Counter-Earth. His experiment ruined, the H.E. plans to destroy Counter-Earth until Warlock intercedes and asks for the chance to redeem the world.

And by this point, it should be obvious what's happening here: Warlock is nothing less than the Christ story reimagined as a super hero epic. This isn't a subtle sub-text, or something readers can debate -- it simply is. Not only is it obvious to the point of heavy handed, but creator Roy Thomas clearly addresses the theme in his introduction to this collection.

So Warlock goes to Counter-Earth, acquires a group of hippy followers, battles the Man-Beast and his minions, and certain Biblical scenes are recreated -- Warlock being tempted more than once, and finally culminating in a martyrdom and resurrection.

It all sounds pretty grand and ambitious and mind blowing...

If only it were.

The problem is, both Thomas and chief writer Mike Friedrich seem to tackle the concept in a purely gimmicky sort of way. What's missing is any sense that the parallels and themes have any real meaning. When Stan Lee did his earlier Silver Surfer series -- another character likened to a comic boook Jesus -- you could really believe that Lee was sincere when writing the Surfer's anguished monologues about the state of human kind, and though the Surfer was a little too prone to fisticuffs for him to quite pass as a pacifist Jesus, he at least paid lip service to non-violence and the like. But with Warlock, we get very little sense of an underlining philosophy or meaning. Warlock's goal is to "save" or redeem the world -- but it's not clear how. He acquires followers, but more through the power of his presence than the power of any ideas he expounds upon. He spends most of his time just battling monsters and the like. There's some token criticism of war...but nothing that would really shock a hawk. There's even an irony that, though the series was written during the hippy era, and ties into that with Warlock as the leader of his own band of long hairs...the comic is easily as dismissive/critical of the youth/hippy movement as it is of the establishment! Though given comics' youthful readership, Thomas and Friedrich could claim that was showing how radical they were, not wholly pandering to their primary market.

Characterization is equally vague, of Warlock, of his followers -- it's hard to care about them, Warlock included, or even get much sense of who they are.

One kind of wonders if, after coming up with the "daring" concept of doing the Christ story as a super hero adventure...most of those involved really weren't sure what to do with it, spending a lot of time just kind of treading water and spinning wheels. The first issue is recapped so often throughout the series, it smacks a little of padding.

It's ironic that in his intro to this collection, Thomas quotes a long ago letter writer who criticized the series because of its obvious Christ parallels and the writer, being an atheist, says the story has no meaning. Thomas, who sometimes seems to have a thin skin when it comes to criticism, then mocks the letter writer, by saying it's only a "comic book." But that maybe reveals what's wrong with the series. First off, you can't very well freely admit you based your story on the building blocks of a major world religion then, when someone calls you on it, suggest they're reading too much into it. Secondly, why do it if you don't intend it to have some genuine deeper philosophical resonance? For that matter, the first issue opens with a caption proclaiming it an "important new series".

The series starts to improve a bit as it goes, as new elements are added that take it a bit away from the messiah metaphor, as a new president rises to power with an ambiguous agenda, and the idea of Counter-Earth paralleling the regular Marvel Comics' earth is played around with a bit, such as having Counter-Earth's version of super-villain Doctor Doom -- here a good guy -- befriend Warlock. And we even get a hint of the melancholic Warlock Jim Starlin will later write as Warlock bemoans: "(I bring) only death to those who would follow me!" Though even here, plot threads and characterization aren't really developed especially well -- and the issue-by-issue plots/adventures aren't really memorable as stories. To be fair, it's obvious some sub-plots are being teased along, as certain later revelations really were foreshadowed in earlier issues. Indeed, I don't know if it's true, but re-reading this, I wonder if they should get credit for an attempt at clever subtlety -- to whit: Warlock meets a girl named Astrella who seems to introduce herself as the sister of a street preacher named The Prophet, yet given a subsequent revelation about The Prophet, it seems unlikely, and later Astrella is identified as being related to someone else. It seems like a mistake in the narrative. BUT...re-reading some of her scenes, you can read her statements as considerably more ambiguous than they at first seemed (and by extension, Thomas and Friedrich as more clever).

Despite the, slight, beginning of a rise in quality, the series was cancelled in mid-run, leaving it to be finally wrapped up in the pages of the Hulk a few months later -- issues also included in this collection.

Funnily enough, the Hulk issues are by far the strongest. Maybe it's because writers Gerry Conway and Tony Isabella were just a little more on their game, or maybe by filtering the story through an established character like the Hulk, they were able to find an emotional "in" into the premise that the regular Warlock issues didn't have. The Hulk issues themselves had long ago been collected together in an old Hulk treasury-size reprint collection (indicating they were considered pretty good, even on their own).

Though this draws attention to an obvious omission in this collection. Since Warlock's adventure took place on this parallel world, it was fairly isolated from the regular Marvel continuity. But there was an earlier Hulk comic where the Hulk briefly arrived on Counter-Earth. It's referenced in passing earlier, but becomes rather important in the climactic issues, as suddenly we are introduced to supporting characters such as good guy beast-men (when all the other beast men were evil followers of the Man-Beast) who hadn't previously appeared in the Warlock issues! If Marvel had thought to include Hulk #158 in this collection as well, it would've made the climax seem a little more logical. Indeed, I'd say the reprint editor was basically asleep at the switch not to have realized its importance.

Gil Kane draws most of the first half of the saga, and Kane is of course regarded as something of a giant in the field, and his work is dynamic and energetic. But though I like Kane, I find that there can also be a certain rawness to his work, or coldness. And the work here can often seem a bit rushed and hasty. So, strangely enough, as much as I like Kane, and as much as his work on the series was seen as a selling point, when the less dynamic Bob Brown takes over -- well, there's still an appeal to the art. Brown is maybe less effective at the action scenes, but maybe more effective at the talky scenes. And funnily enough, Herb Trimpe, an artist I never considered myself a "fan" of, per se, delivers some particularly well composed, dramatic pages in the final Hulk issues, again adding to the sense the Hulk issues are the collection's best. Read all these years later, I even wonder if there's a sub-text or cultual reference in Trimpe's issues, as a supporting character is introduced, a Dept. of Justice lawyer, who looks oddly quirky and realistic, as though Trimpe was modelling him after a real person -- but I don't know who, or if. (Trimpe also throws in an in-joke with a license plate THX-1138...which is the title of an early George Lucas film). The overall result is that, despite a succession of artists, the art always has something to recommend it, even as none of the art is entirely "great".

Ultimately, by collecting the entirety of the saga, including the Hulk conclusion, this volume at least has the appeal of being a graphic novel, with no dangling plot threads or anything (though since Warlock, High Evolutionary and the Man-Beast had all appeared before, the first issue does have to recap a lot of Marvel lore!). But ultimately, the original Warlock saga is more notable as an audacious experiment than as an ambitious success. (And if you do pick it up, it wouldn't hurt to try and track down The Hulk #158).

In a way, it's perhaps ahead of its time. The whole idea of trying to reinvent the super hero saga by setting it in its own "reality" removed from the mainstream (where Warlock really is supposed to be the only super hero) and exploring ideas of super hero as religious messiah would become more common in later years (sometimes with equally problematic results) -- and in just a couple of years, one can only imagine what writers like Steve Gerber, Don McGregor, Steve Englehart, and Jim Starlin would've done with the material had they been given a crack at it.

Actually, in the case of Starlin, we know -- and he produced some of the most acclaimed work of his career with his 1970s Warlock stories (not so much his later return to property in the 1990s). Though Starlin rather reinvented him, turning Warlock into a brooding, melancholic figure and, ironic for a character that here is a religious metaphor, Starlin's initial Warlock epic was a biting criticism of organized religions. If Marvel releases a Warlock, vol. 2, it will be Starlin's material that will get the collection (a run of comics that have been reprinted a few times over the years, but never to my knowledge in a single volume). But Marvel might have been better to reprint everything in one of their bigger-but-cheaper Essential volumes, because other than as a curiosity, I'm not sure these original issues really justify the cost of this prestigious hard cover.

Cover price: $87.95 CDN./ $54.99 USA.


The Watchmen
is reviewed here


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