The Birth of Marvel Cosmic: Starlin on WARLOCK, Gamora, Thanos, More Pt.2

Credit: Marvel Comics

Our two-part interview with writer/artist Jim Starlin on the stories from Warlock by Jim Starlin: The Complete Collection concludes today. In this installment, Starlin talks about how he left the book, why he came back to finish the story, and why these stories and characters are so enduring.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Newsarama: Jim, I was curious about the direction of the character, because the series you did ended with the Star-Thief story, and then you have the Annuals for Avengers and Marvel Two-In-One that resolve the story…it’s a bit of an abrupt jump.

Jim Starlin: Well, you know the reason for that, right? We ran out of paper. Quite literally, Marvel couldn’t get paper from Canada, which is where they were printing at the time, and a number of books got canceled. I had left Warlock, but it was supposed to go on – I think Killraven and Luke Cage, Power Man and a couple of other books all got canceled literally because they didn’t have the paper to print them on.

It was a pretty obscure little thing that happened– these were the lowest-selling books at that time, but they were still doing well and, to my knowledge, one of the few times when books got canceled that were still actually making money.

Nrama: But you were leaving the series at that point anyway.

Starlin: Yeah, I’d had a number of problems with Gerry Conway, who had been the last editor on the book while I was there, and I decided it was time to go over to DC for a while. I went back over to Marvel after a spell. I worked in animation for a while, and did Darklon the Mystic for Warren.

Nrama: I was curious about the visual style of the book – there’s these starry backgrounds, but they’re bright and expressive, and you have these aliens that are very absurd – the Church’s prosecutor literally being “lip service,” this pair of lips, and the “1000 Clowns” issue.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Starlin: Yeah, we were into the absurd – there was a series I loved at the time, The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan. That, more than anything else, influenced Warlock, because it was very surreal, very absurd, but it tackled serious subjects. That’s what was the biggest influence on Warlock.

Nrama: And the clowns issue (where Warlock is put in a hallucinary world with clowns whose names are analogues for Marvel editors)…I’m amazed that a middle finger to editorial like that got through. You have this “renegade who tried to buck the system” who’s crucified –

Starlin: Yeah, that was Roy Thomas. I always liked Roy, and treated him with the most respect in that story, and of course he was the only one who really got upset about the story. Len Wein and Marv Wolfman loved it.

Nrama: That also led to the introduction of Gamora into the story – she’s obviously proven very long-lived, and in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Rereading this, I just got the joke about her people being “Zen Hubris.” How did that character come about?

Starlin: Let me think…she came about because I needed a henchman for Thanos, because Thanos wasn’t going to enter the story for at least another issue, and I wanted a character who would be like a herald for this bigger character’s grand entrance. So that was Gamora’s role in that particular issue.

Gamora, of course, got more development in later years, through Thanos stories and Warlock and the Infinity Watch, but in that story, she was just intended as the announcer.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: There’s a feeling to her like the henchwomen in the James Bond movies, who don’t always know how bad the villain is…

Starlin: Yeah, though it’s hard not to know how bad Thanos is! He’s pretty upfront about it. But Gamora was more like a child to Thanos, than a hired gun.

Nrama: The character is introduced, makes a few appearances, and then she’s reintroduced dying in the final two-part story in the Annuals…I kind of got the sense there were things you wanted to do with her that you couldn’t because of time and…literally space issues.

Starlin: Oh, quite literally. There wasn’t enough space. I was going to carry on with Warlock, and then I had serious editorial issues with Gerry Conway his first week in office there.

And I left Marvel, and I didn’t come back to Marvel until Archie Goodwin was there, and I ran into him at a party and he said, “Hey, why don’t you come back and finish up that Warlock stuff, you can do it in Avengers Annual.”

So I did that, and there was more story than the single annual could handle, so we did Marvel Two-in-One Annual right after that.

Nrama: I was wondering how much of that story was planned in advance – the last stories have a feel like, “Our TV show was canceled – hey! Let’s do a reunion movie to wrap it up.”

Credit: Marvel Comics

Starlin: It wasn’t all planned…there was that plan for Warlock to kill himself as part of the storyline I had already done, the scene that repeated itself in Avengers Annual.

But most of the time, I don’t like planning out too far ahead. I like to be spontaneous, make decisions, and go, “Hey! That inspired me! I want to do more with that!” But when I started Warlock, I had no idea where it was going.

Nrama: Going back to Thanos, I want to talk about the character’s appearance in the Warlock series. You’d already done the storyline with the character in Captain Marvel that ended with him apparently being killed off, but when he appears here, it’s in an almost heroic capacity.

You make it clear he has some kind of terrible long-term goal, but he’s Warlock’s ally, helping him against the Magus. And they’re very congenial, and don’t have an antagonistic relationship until the wrap-up story.

Starlin: Right, because Thanos was an unknown to Warlock at that point. Plus “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Even though Thanos eventually kills Warlock. In the more modern stories, Warlock is the closest thing Thanos has to a friend.

Nrama: Thanos doesn’t dance around who he is, but is clear about, “This fits my needs, so I’ll help you,” and he’s the one who defeats the Magus.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Starlin: Right. He’s very pragmatic.

Nrama: The death – or rather, unmaking – of the Magus, that’s got some of your most experimental work. There’s the countdown effect, that four-tier page with the different lines of actions counting down. How’d you come up with that?

Starlin: Those sequences were very cinematically inspired. When I get to a climax, I try to break down the major moments as succinctly as I can. In the end of the first Thanos story in Captain Marvel, that sequence is four panels of an aging Captain Marvel shattering the Cosmic Cube.

The same thing sort of happened with Warlock; I figure it’s the most dramatic moment, the moment we’re studying the most, and that’s why those breakdowns went in that particular order.

Nrama: And another much-analyzed sequence is the bit where Warlock journeys into the future, uses the Soul Gem to take the soul of his dying future self so he can’t become the Magus, and gets this classic line: “My life is a failure – I welcome its end!” And then you show that scene in reverse in Avengers Annual. Did you always intend to come back to that scene, show the reverse of it?

Starlin: I wanted to, yes. But I wasn’t sure when I’d get to do it, because like I said, I quit Marvel in the middle of that storyline, and only through the good graces of Archie Goodwin was I able to come back and finish the tale.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: The post-Magus stories aren’t discussed as much – you have the Star-Thief, the little one-off tale with Pip the Troll. They’re a bit of a step back from these existential tales of cosmic suicide, but I got the sense you were building toward the story with confronting Thanos. I get a sense of, “We’ve just done something big, let’s take a beather.”

Starlin: Well, that’s an advantage comics had back then that modern comics don’t have.

Everyone came back to these comics, paid a quarter, found out what was happening to these characters, and once you finished a big story – which Kirby showed me how to do with his Thor books, he’d have Thor sent off to the end of the universe by Mangog or something like that, and then go back to Earth and have an ice cream soda and kick the Wrecking Crew’s ass, just for fun – and that was what I was doing, except instead of an ice cream shop, it was a bordello.

Nrama: With the Star-Thief story, I was curious as to what inspired that.

Starlin: That story was inspired by Johnny Got His Gun, the Dalton Trumbo novel. Basically, it’s about a WWI veteran who’s been terribly injured – he’s lost his arms and legs and face, and is a very sentient vegetable in a VA hospital.

Nrama: Right, that inspired the Metallica song “One.” And you end that story with Warlock becoming super-sized, which was one of the odder cliffhangers…

Starlin: Right…which Marvel got rid of right quickly! (laughs) I wanted to separate Warlock from the rest of the Marvel Universe, and that was one of my last stories, and right after that, Bill Mantlo and John Byrne brought him back down to normal size.

Nrama: You mention in your last story, the Soul Gem being “one of the six,” and I was curious if The Infinity Gauntlet was planned at that point, if all those plot points with the Elders of the Universe and such were being planted.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Starlin: The Elders having the gems, Steve Englehart sort of established that in his run on the Silver Surfer. The Thanos Quest storyline \was him about collecting the gems from who Steve had holding them.

Nrama: The big synthetic gem in the last story – I hate to say it, but it’s not as stylish as the Infinity Gauntlet.

Starlin: Well, we were working our way up. (laughs)

Nrama: I also noticed with that Avengers Annual story – you open with Gamora dying in Warlock’s arms, having just discovered Thanos’ plans. That’s another missing story – she’s last seen in the Warlock book encountering Drax the Destroyer, and then reappears dying. It feels like there was another story planned –

Starlin: That was supposed to be Warlock #16, which never happened – I had a few pages penciled, but I’ve got no idea where they are. They were loose pencils, and then things fell apart with Marvel.

Nrama: You were collaborating with other artists by the end of the Warlock book – up to then, you were writing, penciling, sometimes inking and coloring the whole book solo, which I can imagine had to be very draining.

Starlin: Yeah – and I was going through some personal stuff too at the time, so it was good to have other people…Alan Weiss is a good friend of mine, and he did a whole solo story that was lost in the back of a cab for years, you can see it in the collected Warlock edition.

Nrama: You did the Avengers and Marvel Two-in-One Annuals to wrap up the story, and with Warlock off in his own corner of the Marvel Universe, it’s a little strange seeing Spider-Man, the Avengers, etc. becoming part of this existential, angst-ridden cosmic epic.

Starlin: Well, I was having to shoehorn the existential, angst-ridden cosmic epic into their series.

Nrama: Good point. It was their book…

Credit: Marvel Comics

Starlin: Yeah, it’s from their point of view. You know, whenever I come back to Marvel, it’s to do a Thanos story for one reason or another. That was my Thanos story for that particular time frame, Avengers Annual. I didn’t stay around Marvel long after that, but I was still busy working on other things, paintings for paperback books, what have you.

Nrama: In that final story, you do the reverse of the “cosmic suicide” death scene from earlier – but it’s a little bit nicer. I was wondering, is that how you’d always envisioned it.

Starlin: I’d probably say “no,” because like I said earlier, I tend to plot things out as I’m doing them. It looks like I planned it in retrospect, but that wasn’t the case.

Nrama: But at least Adam Warlock gets a happy ending in the Soul Gem world, where all his friends are there, and even his former enemies are happy to see him.

Starlin: Yeah, that’s the only time you get to see Adam Warlock smile, at the end of that Marvel-Two-in-One Annual.

Nrama: Of course, for poor Warlock, the peace wouldn’t last. Why did you do the revival of those characters years later for what would become The Infinity Gauntlet?

Starlin: Well, that was self-defense. I’m not going to say who it was, but there was a writer who wanted to bring Warlock back, and I had just been doing the Silver Surfer series at that point, and they were going to let him do it unless I wanted to do it first, so I did it in self-defense. I wasn’t a big fan of this writer’s work.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: It certainly led to your doing many more stories with these characters. What do they mean to you personally, having done something like four decades of stories with them?

Starlin: They’re like old friends. I know their personalities, I have no trouble parsing them from real friends. But they are these characters that I’m most familiar with, and I know what they’ll do and how they’ll interact in any given situations. And I find them much more fun to work with than any other characters I’ve done.

People ask me, “What are you going to do that’s new with these characters after all this time?” But every time I come back to them, they do something new – they have that history, that personality. They always surprise me.

Nrama: Conversely, why do you think they appeal to people so much after all this time? When Thanos made that cameo in the credits to the Avengers film, the audience completely freaked out. I saw a preview, and it was a near-riot.

Starlin: It was the unexpected nature of it, I think. I never imagined people like Thanos and Warlock would be drawn into films. They’re weird characters in weird stories. Luckily, the twisted kids who read those weird stories are now the twisted adults who are making movies. I need to thank Joss Whedon for giving Thanos a new lease on life, or ending life, as it were.

Nrama: Perhaps popular culture has finally gotten to the point where a genetically-engineered man-god and the cosmic annihilator and lover of Death make sense to the mainstream population.

Starlin: Yes. It’s the downfall of society. (laugh) Things have has gotten to the point where everything’s gone so downhill that it’s time for Thanos.

Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?

Starlin: It’s good to be back. I’m having a lot of fun with Warlock and his Titan buddy in Thanos: The Infinity Revelation.

Warlock by Jim Starlin: The Complete Collection is in stores now.

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