Jim Starlin’s run on the character of Adam Warlock for Marvel Comics in the 1970s gave rise to some of the most surreal, existential and, well, cosmic comics ever created. The extended storyline that pitted Warlock against his corrupted future self the Magus and later Thanos, the mad Titan and lover of Death, influenced generations of creators and introduced many characters and concepts that would later be revisited in The Infinity Gauntlet and its spinoffs…and of course the upcoming film Guardians of the Galaxy.
With that film coming later that year, Starlin is revisiting many of those concepts with the upcoming Thanos Annual and Thanos: The Infinity Revelation – and Marvel’s recently reprinted the storyline in Warlock by Jim Starlin: The Complete Collection.
With that in mind, we called up Starlin to revisit his run on Warlock, where he took a character that was oddball even by the standards of comic books and turned him into one of the most complex, tragic figures in the Marvel Universe, and expanded the concepts he’d introduced in the Captain Marvel book to deliver some of the most wildly experimental tales in the company’s history.
It’s a look back at some of Marvel’s most acclaimed and influential stories, and there are things in this two-part interview that have never been revealed before.
Newsrama: Jim, when did you originally create this whole cosmic backdrop? I know some of these characters like Thanos and Drax the Destroyer dated back when you were in college, correct?
Jim Starlin: Junior college, actually – I’d just gotten out of the service, and I took a psych course, where the concept for the characters came together. I just spun off from there. This was around 1970, 1971 – I started working at Marvel in 1972, so this would have been about a year before then.
Nrama: And to understand the time frame – this was before Jack Kirby came out with the Fourth World stuff? Because Thanos is often associated with Darkseid, and you’ve worked with both characters…
Starlin: Well, the funny thing is, in the original drawings, Thanos didn’t look much like Darkseid – if he looked like any New God, he looked like Metron. He was skinny, and was sitting in a throne-like mechanical device. So all these theories of Darkseid and Thanos being two sides of the same coin are kind of off, because Thanos was originally more like Metron.
Though both Thanos and Darkseid, after their initial appearances, bulked up considerably… (laughs) You go back and look at the original appearances of Darkseid that Kirby drew, and he wasn’t much bigger than Superman.
Nrama: I was noting that rereading those original Thanos stories – he’s not this big, big, bigger-than-big Hulked-out version. And in the original New Gods stories, Darkseid is proportionate in size to the other New Gods, and has human-style eyes.
And then the version I think Kirby himself designed for the Super Powers toy line, Darkseid was slightly taller and more muscular, and had red eyes all the time. And that just kept building and building until the current version is like 10 feet tall.
Starlin: Thanos sort of went along the same track – he just got bigger as time passed. The similarity is they’re both galactic tyrants who are into manipulating situations, and are very versatile in terms of the kinds of stories you can do with them.
But like I said, Thanos was originally based more on Metron! Over the years, though, the story’s gotten that Thanos is nothing but a rip off of Darkseid, and that’s just not true.
Nrama: Well, you’ve worked on both of them, and there’s one of the later Warlock stories where Warlock refers to Thanos as a “herald of Anti-Life.”
Starlin: …that’s possible. Which story is that?
Nrama: The Avengers Annual.
Starlin: I think I just threw that in there. I don’t know what I was thinking at that point. Thanos himself, I never went off in that direction. Basically, he was into power, and courting Death.
So the anti-life stuff would have gone along with courting death, but that’s just a throwaway line that might seem more important now than when I wrote it! (laughs)
Nrama: Well, that speaks to how things were a lot more spontaneous in that era of comics – it seems like a lot of things came about because someone, well, just had the idea.
Starlin: Oh yeah, we had a lot more creative freedom back in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, they want concise, detailed plots ahead of time. When I started on Warlock, I got the assignment, and started drawing it that evening! So much of it was done on the fly!
Nrama: You’d done the Captain Marvel storyline with Thanos and Drax, but what led you to move on to Adam Warlock? Because this was a reboot of a canceled book that was bizarre even by comics standards – a few throwaway Jack Kirby ideas combined with – based on what I’ve read in a few places – Roy Thomas hearing the Jesus Christ Superstar album and had the idea to do a sci-fi Space Jesus –
Starlin: Yes, I remember it was Roy wanting to do a Marvel Comics Jesus Christ Superstar with Warlock. (laughs) I quite enjoyed the book when they started it. I was still in the service at the time and was able to find copies, and was hoping to find more when I got out, but by that time, the book was canceled.
I thought they did a great job on that series, at first,, but the premise sort of fizzled out, and with the different writers and artists, it lost focus quickly and was canceled.
Nrama: Yeah, the first few stories were Thomas and Gil Kane, and then there were a bunch of other creators, and then it was all resolved with an Incredible Hulk crossover that took what was barely subtext and made it text…you had a Last Supper with animal men, and a crucified Warlock going, “High Evolutionary, why have you abandoned me?”
Starlin: Yeah, it sort of ran out of steam. So when I came to the book, I had finished my run on Captain Marvel. I’d taken Captain Marvel and turned him from a warrior to sort of a messiah character, or at least a mystical character with his cosmic awareness.
Warlock, he was already at about the same place I’d left Captain Marvel. So where do you go from there? Well, instead of a messiah, he becomes a suicidal paranoid schizophrenic. And it seemed to work pretty well.
Nrama: Had you done any research on that condition?
Starlin: I’d read some books, I’d taken some psych classes in community college. So I had some interest in that, plus all the Catholicism…. I’d grown up very Catholic, parochial school, and Warlock was a way of working a lot of things out. (laughs)
Nrama: In the first storyline, you literally make the church the ultimate force of evil, and Warlock’s got the ultimate Catholic guilt going on…
Starlin: Yes. Very self-motivating.
Nrama: Reading your storyline from the beginning, you start the book off poking fun at yourself a bit with that infographic-style recap with characters commenting on the flashbacks.
Starlin: I had a lot of material about who Warlock was, so I used this narrator – he’s basically a sphincter (“Sphinxor”) from the star system Pegasus, which literally makes him a horse’s ass. And I decided I was just going to have fun with that throwaway character and use him to explain who Adam Warlock was.
Nrama: And there weren’t reprint collections at that point…
Starlin: And at that point, Marvel was having financial problems, and they would say, “You have to do one page for free.” So you could either turn a page sideways and make it two pages, or you could Xerox panels from previous books and recap the story.
Most of the time, those recaps were there just to fill in that page I was giving away for free.
Nrama: Well, necessity is the mother of invention.
Starlin: Exactly. Plus, it was a bimonthly book, so a little recap didn’t hurt.
Nrama: I was curious about the SF/fantasy influences – the flawed messiah thing reminded me of Dune or Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, and the Soul Gem reminds me of Stormbringer in some ways.
Starlin: I was reading some Moorcock at that point, yes – mainly Elric. I think I read it after doing the Warlock stories, though.
Nrama: With Warlock and the Magus – rereading this, it seemed like the ultimate version of Marvel Angst. Bruce Banner’s always worried he’ll turn into the Hulk and destroy things. Spider-Man ends almost every adventure feeling like a failure. Warlock knows that he’s going to destroy the universe – top that!
Starlin: It was basically, you know, a metaphor for killing himself. He was a self-destructive, confused, highly-emotional character.
Nrama: And I’m guessing Pip the Troll was there to avoid that Silver Surfer thing where the angst-ridden monologues threatened to take over the book – Stan Lee always complained about that problem writing the character.
Starlin: Exactly, he was comic relief. Plus – he was Jack Kirby.
Starlin: He was based on Jack Kirby – the cigar jutting out of his mouth, the little guy non-stop talking…he was my tribute to Jack.
And I don’t want to give anyone the idea Jack was anywhere near a degenerate as Pip became. (laughs) That aspect of the character kind of got out of control. He started out as my tribute to Jack Kirby, and then kind of took on a life of his own. Jack never lived a life nearly as debauched as Pip’s!
Nrama: It’s funny, they had Pip as a companion to the Silver Surfer in a late 1990s cartoon.
Starlin: I had no idea!
Nrama: I wanted to ask about the Soul Gem next, because you wound up getting a lot of stories out of that thing, obviously – and if you go back and read the Warlock story where he gets it by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, the High Evolutionary just goes like, “Oh hey, I just happen to have this thing laying around, put it on your forehead…”
Starlin: Yeah, I always got a kick out of that. And as I went on, I realized the High Evolutionary didn’t do him any favors, because he basically turned Warlock into a spiritual vampire!
Dracula was more of the inspiration than anything else for that – it turned Warlock into more of a monster than he’d ever been before.
Nrama: Doing research for this piece, I reread the High Evolutionary’s history, and it goes like, “He encountered the Inhumans, a Cthulhu-type mystic, met Thor, helped create Spider-Woman, happened to have a Soul Gem…” He’s like the Forrest Gump of cosmic characters.
Starlin: Well, when you start doing these things, you have no idea where they’re going to go. The Soul Gem, Roy threw that in as a toss-away, and I used it a lot more and in a darker way than he ever did.
I think it was originally just to let Warlock focus his cosmic powers; Roy was doing Jesus Christ Superstar, so it was supposed to be a positive thing. I wasn’t doing Jesus Christ Superstar, so I went in a much darker direction with it.
Nrama: I have to go back and look, because I don’t think there’s ever a story of how the High Evolutionary got that Soul Gem…
Starlin: I might have to go back and tell that some day! Now that you’ve put that in the air…
Nrama: I wanted to ask about the Magus’ look. You give the Magus Warlock’s Captain Marvel-inspired thunderbolt costume – wish I’d known about that inspiration when I was writing about Cap’s history a few years back – and give Warlock a much more “warlock”-esque costume with that flowing cloak.
I was curious about those two looks – and, speaking of Jesus Chrsit Superstar, if the Magus’ white-fro was inspired by Victor Garber in Godspell.
Starlin: Oh, no it wasn’t. (laughs) It was actually Angela Davis, a black militant of that time. I just saw a picture of her in a magazine and went, “I want that hair.”
I got rid of Warlock’s lightning bolt because…it was a real pain to draw. Didn’t think about it when I brought the Magus back, and so I had to learn to draw that damn lightning bolt in a ¾ shot or a profile again.
Nrama: The cloak must have been a useful shortcut for drawing Warlock, because you could just drape it over his body…
Starlin: Yeah. As he went along, my feeling was Warlock would be shedding anything too ornate. By the time we got to The Infinity Abyss, he was in tatters. That, to me, was where Adam Warlock should be heading, abandoning the material for the spiritual.
Next: Why Warlock’s title abruptly ended, the origin of Gamora, and the legacy of Starlin’s Warlock run.
Warlock by Jim Starlin: The Complete Collection is in stores now.