Monday, 31 October 2011

Mar-Vell, Warlock and an Infinite Saga: Jim Starlin's Cosmic Marvel Universe

I probably came in contact with some of his work long before I was aware of who Jim Starlin was (e.g. Batman: A Death in the Family), but when I became aware I became an instant fan.

It must have been in 1990 or 1991. I had just a year or so earlier switched to buying and reading US comics in original rather than in Swedish translation, and I was still following the superhero scene (which I would more or less abandon for a very long time within a few years). This naturally meant that DC and Marvel were part of my monthly purchases (the latter for the most part, what with my being something of a Marvel man at the core) and Jim Starlin made his comeback at Marvel with his Infinity trilogy, involving characters he had created or made his mark upon in the 70s, like Adam Warlock, Pip the Troll, Gamora, the most dangerous woman in the universe, and, of course, Thanos of Titan (quite conceivably Starlin's crowning achievement). My love and appreciation for these characters and the cosmic story arcs spun around them had me not only follow their adventures as they were released at the time, but also had me tracking down those glorious stories from the 70s, and much more besides. All in all making me a Starlin fan for life.

So, why do I bring this up now? Well, I found it appropriate, as I have been revisiting some of this material of late — from Starlin's first not-so-tentative steps into the cosmic superhero genre (which he helped shape and define) in the pages of Captain Marvel (nicely collected, for instance, in Marvel Masterworks: Captain Marvel Vol. 3 and The Death of Captain (Marvel Premiere): see reviews here and here), where he introduced Thanos, a nihilist, whose only love proved to be death, and Drax the Destroyer, a being animated only for the purpose of killing the former; through his superb Warlock saga (collected in full in Marvel Masterworks: Warlock Vol. 2: see review here), where he continued his cosmic work and built an even more cosmic mythology; to the Infinity trilogy itself and its preludes (collected in Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos, Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, and Infinity Crusade Vol. 1 and Vol. 2: see reviews here, here, and here and here), in which Starlin showed that he was still unparalleled as a writer in the cosmic superhero genre.

Granted that this is not Starlin's sole contribution to comics in general, or even the cosmic superhero genre in particular, but at this particular instance it seemed appropriate to showcase his importance to the cosmic side of the Marvel universe. He built on the foundation created by the likes of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, to be sure, but he made an unquestionable mark by building a strong mythology upon that foundation.

Was it unique? Well, it would be silly not to acknowledge that Starlin borrowed heavily from various sources, including Kirby's Fourth World and Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné. Nevertheless, Thanos is more than a mere Darkseid clone. His motivation throughout these stories, his love and adoration for Mistress Death, makes him a character in his own right. Similarly, Starlin's transformation of Adam Warlock into an idealistic anarchist bound to his vampire-like Soul Gem appears to have roots in Elric of Melniboné and his soul-sucking black rune blade Stormbringer, but Warlock too transcends the similarities, at least to the degree where it would be possible to think of him as another (cosmic) avatar of Moorcock's fictional archetype, the Eternal Champion.

In short, Starlin's mythology is believable, at least in part, because it is not new; because it is made of the recyclable stuff of myth. Yet also because it was done in a new way and did offer us more than that which Starlin drew upon.

In recent years, two writers have emerged over at Marvel, who shows an understanding of the cosmic superhero genre that, perhaps, equals Starlin's. They are Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, and with successful runs on Nova and Guardians Of The Galaxy, culminating in the mini series The Thanos Imperative, they have not only brought back characters associated with Starlin, but have used them in a manner that positions them as natural heirs to Starlin's cosmic narrative tradition.

I am sure I will be discussing both other Starlin material (e.g. his creator-owned series Dreadstar) and the work of Abnett and Lanning in the future, but for now, this will have to do.

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