Retro Review: Warlock #11 (February 1976)

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In the earliest years of the Bronze Age of comics, relevance was the watchword, as the wacky sci-fi concepts of the Silver Age underwent a metamorphosis into strange psychological odysseys and journeys to the center of the minds of our beloved characters.  Adam Warlock, once a lower-tier player, found himself suddenly thrust into the spotlight, with stories that still define his character today.  Witness, then, ‘The Strange Death Of Adam Warlock’, as your Major Spoilers (retro) review of Warlock #11 awaits!

Warlock11CoverWARLOCK #11
Writer: Jim Starlin
Artist: Jim Starlin
Inker: Steve Leialoha
Colorist: Jim Starlin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Editor: Marv Wolfman
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 25 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $40.00

Previously in Warlock:  Created by a minor mad-scientist think-tank in the pages of ‘Fantastic Four’, the creature known only as “Him” left our world in search of his destiny.  On an alternate world known as Counter-Earth, Him was dubbed Adam Warlock, given a powerful soul gem which enhanced his perception and his powers, and became a messianic figure.  Defeating the evil Man-Beast, Warlock then found himself at odds with the Universal Church of Truth, an intergalactic religious empire, led by a mysterious being known only as “The Magus.”  Warlock’s clashes with the Church eventually brought him to the most shocking revelation of all: The head of the Church had the power to rival Warlock’s because The Magus was in fact WARLOCK HIMSELF!

Or at least his future incarnation, come back in time to battle himself… and…  Y’know what, just read this first caption. you’ll find I’m not the only one struggling to lay it all out in a linear fashion.

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Thomas Perkins and I were discussing the cosmic madness of Warlock on the Twitter recently, and he reminded me of the awesomeness of this issue, with a big chunk of the fun coming from the fact that Warlock ends up fighting side-by-side with Thanos, the nihilistic scion of Titan.  These days, an alliance between hero and villain is commonplace (indeed, it makes up fifty percent of Marvel’s publishing output), but in ’76, it was shocking to see Warlock working with such allies.  As the Magus and his Death Squad relentlessly attack, Thanos keeps pressing our hero to use deadly force, to annihilate their common foes, with Warlock refusing to give in to the vampiric power of his soul gem.  Then, as things look darkest…

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In moments, Warlock massacres the Magus’ entire army, murdering dozens of (admittedly not innocent) beings with hardly a though.  Trapped between the worshipper of Death and the champion of Life, not sure what side he is on, or even which he SHOULD be on, Adam Warlock is horrified by his loss of control.  The Magus, merely laughs, admonishing his younger self that this sort of mass murder is exactly how he became Magus in the first place!

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Before the Magus can capture him, Thanos takes the offensive, holding off the head of the Universal Church just long enough for Adam and his pal Pip The Troll to escape through the waiting time-portal into the time-stream to complete his mysterious mission (which Thanos and Warlock had been prepared to do when the army of the Magus arrived at the end of last issue.)

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I do love me some classic Starlin dialogue.  There are those who dislike the sweeping, grand declarations and condemn Warlocks musings as pseudo-intellectual claptrap (and, to be honest, there’s a grain of truth to be had there) but for my money, you can’t beat a Starlin monologue for a nice shot of gravitas, and it’s no more unrealistic than the rhythms of Joss Whedon’s Buffy-speak or the awkward three-page conversations of Brian Bendis.  While Thanos and Magus continue to battle, Warlock finds himself in the nebulous netherworld of The In-Betweener, balancer of order and chaos.

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Why’s Warlock so panicked in that final panel?  Because he knows that the Magus was created when the In-Betweener took Warlock into an alternate dimension between Chaos and Order, driving him mad and showing him things that would literally curl his hair.  Luckily, time and destiny being what they are, Adam realizes that things cannot happen before they should, giving him five minutes to change his own destiny, and create a future of his choosing!

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The Magus suddenly finds himself fading from reality like Marty McFly, while Adam Warlock leaps into his own time-stream to make certain that there is no way that he can ever grow into the power-mad fro-wearing lunatic that he knows is hiding somewhere inside his head…

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With one blast from his Soul Gem, Warlock kills his own future self, a suicide-by-proxy that’s more than a little bit disturbing.  (In case one were interested, this scene is a flash-forward to the events of Avengers Annual #7, which came out during the summer of 1977.)  The really impressive part of this story for me is what happens AFTER the villain is dispatched, as our hero’s ally reveals the why of his own seeming conversion to the side of the angels…

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…the realization that the Magus was the biggest obstacle in Thanos ongoing quest to woo the embodiment of death itself into loving him.  This revelation, while foreshadowed somewhat, was a Twilight Zone twist on all that had come before, casting a new light on all Warlock’s adventures since his resurrection and raising questions much deeper than the average comic-book fighty-fighty.  Did Warlock’s sacrifice achieve anything?  Did the Magus’ defeat only create a greater menace?  Is life all a tragic cycle of food and sex and spectacle with no beginning and no end?  All we know for certain is that there are no clear answers, which is kind of refreshing in a faintly depressing way.  In short, Warlock #11 is a prime example of comics’ earliest experimentation with deeper themes and metaphysical quandaries, well-drawn and entertainingly written, landing a well-earned 4.5 out of 5 stars overall.  Last I knew, Marvel hadn’t made a full Warlock collection available, but I’d love to see the big old absolute edition of these stories, especially with that whole movie thing Marvel has in the works…