Jim Starlin: the Bronze Age of Comics Goes Hollywood

JimStarlin2008

“Jim Starlin 2008” by Pat Loika – Flickr: Jim Starlin. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The rise of Marvel Studios and its recent purchase by Disney has accelerated the Silver Age of Comics[1] adaptations. Spider-Man is mid-way through his second trilogy of films. Other franchises are well-established and likely to continue on well into the future: Iron Man, Avengers…you know the roll-call.[2]

This Friday (August 1st), with the arrival of the Guardians of the Galaxy film by Marvel, we will begin to see the first serious foray into the Bronze Age and the mind behind some of the characters and concepts: Jim Starlin.

Starlin is behind the creation of Drax, Gamora and the villain Thanos in the film. Bill Mantlo (of Micronauts and ROM fame) created Rocket Raccoon; Star-Lord was created by Steve Englehart but re-conceived by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. All of these creators and creations stem from the Bronze Age.[3]

Starlin holds a special place in the firmament of these creators. He is the most successful incorporating a certain 70s zeitgeist into his work. For the kids reading, we’re talking about the end of the Vietnam war, genocides in Cambodia, Charles Manson, the end of the hippy dream, Nixon in the White House, etc. Starlin’s themes? Mass death, insanity, existential crises, transcendence, inter-generation alienation and Jesus freaks. His work was a veritable Dark Side of the Moon in comics form.

Surprisingly, he was building his distinct body of work from the get-go.

Starlin, like any other young creator just breaking into comics in 1973, was not given the plum jobs. He was drawing fill-in issues for middling titles. Yet in his first three-issue fill-in stint in Iron Man, he introduced two of his most enduring creations:  Thanos, a megalomanical lover of death and Drax, a cosmic case of bad anger management whose raison d’etre is to destroy Thanos. Starlin had conceived of the two while attending a psychology class following a discharge from the US Navy.

Following this,  he was assigned his first regular gig to draw Captain Marvel, another poorly-selling book limping along in its mediocrity. Captain Marvel was a character only created and sustained to maintain copywrite over the name “Captain Marvel.”[4] He was little more than a cynically-conceived cypher. However,  Starlin quickly transformed the character. He did it first by re-introducing his two creations, Drax and Thanos, and expanding upon the cosmic concepts established in the title. Captain Marvel (real name Mar-Vell) was an alien, a Kree warrior, sent out to fight crime around the universe and to spy on Earth lest the latter pose a threat to the Kree Empire. Quickly taking over the writing and drawing himself, Starlin had Mar-Vell’s powers expanded, including a “Cosmic Awareness” power that ultimately made the life-long warrior no longer want to fight.  What could be more hippy and post-Vietnam than that, man?

In the Captain Marvel title, Starlin had the space to expand upon Thanos’ character. Thanos, originally a pacifist and animal lover and born into the perfect family on the Utopia of Titan, in his adolescence grows morose and obsessed with death. He begins to court the cosmic manifestation of Death, a gorgeous woman eternally and maddeningly out of reach. He will do anything his harsh mistress demands of him. He imagines what might please her. He attempts to murder his own family and partly succeeds. Ultimately he will commit genocide against his own people and attempt to attain ultimate power through various means.

Drax meanwhile, continually thwarted in his mission to bring down the crafty Thanos, goes insane with frustration and becomes a maverick force of destruction to be manipulated by various Powers-That-Be.

And that was Starlin’s opening act. His second assignment would be the work that would truly define him.

Warlock-10

Warlock was a dog’s breakfast of a character born from an average Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four tale. He starts off as a genetically perfect human dubbed “Him.” Years later, re-imagined by Roy Thomas and designed by Gil Kane and dubbed Warlock, he is now a “cosmic Jesus Christ Superstar”[5] whose veiled parallel life to the Gospels becomes more apparent as the title progresses. Soon Warlock is bound to a high-tech cross and wonders why he has been forsaken. Alas, the concept wasn’t working. The title was on the verge of cancellation. Then along came its saviour.

Starlin’s first act was to take Warlock the saint and screw him up; make the perfect man a failure and an obsessive. He also picked up the thread that Warlock, despite his adult appearance, is essentially an adolescent, his rapid physical aging an artificial process from his experimental origins.

Starlin lays the groundwork of  Warlock as a screwed-up teen in a re-contextualizing intro of his first story. [6] In earlier pre-Starlin issues,  Warlock had decided he needed a girlfriend and decided to take Thor‘s with an ensuing fight with the Thundergod over that. Another flashback to the character’s origin as a scientific experiment and the “patricide” upon his birth as the underground lab where he was “born” explodes, killing his creators.  Finally, his transition to an angst-filled loner amongst the stars looking for his purpose, his mission in life.

Starlin also puts new focus on a previously minor plot point: the giving of The Soul Gem to Warlock by an entity named The High Evolutionary.

Then Starlin gets rolling: a pretty girl in a skin-tight space suit seeks Warlock out on a remote asteroid. (What’s he doing there? Hanging out and moping, I’d guess.)  In hot pursuit are minions of the Church of Universal Truth who seek to slay her due to her impiety. Warlock vows to protect her for no other reason I can tell except she’s pretty and humanoid and her pursuers lumpy reptilian beasts.

Warlock wins the fisticuffs with the interstellar gang except against a baddie named Borgia who is too strong. Thus, like Bilbo and the Ring or Elric and Stormbringer, he must invoke the evil power of his soul gem to defeat him. Despite this distasteful choice, Warlock’s  enemies still get the drop on him and manage to kill the girl with a laser blast. Wails of anguish as Warlock laments what a screw-up he is. However thinking quickly, he realizes that he can use the power of the soul gem to re-animate the girl, and learn more of her tormentors. Lazarus-like, the girl rises again and explains the deadly methodology of the Universal Church of Truth and how they have spread their faith around the universe using the weaponry of the Purification Fleet against those who don’t convert.

This history lesson is interrupted by the appearance of Magus, the head of the church, who yells at and basically freaks out Warlock by revealing the two are the same guy, only Magus is Warlock’s future version! Magus soon disappears in a de rigeur burst of Joker laughter.

The issue concludes with a Warlock thought-balloon soliloquy: “How does one defeat himself without destroying himself? ‘Tis madness to go on, yet if I cease the struggle, madness shall surely prevail!” The prince of Denmark couldn’t have said it better. Except he could. And did. Anyway…

In Warlock,  Starlin created a perfect avatar for the over-wrought adolescent male: adult in power but with immature impulses and emotion, prone to overly grand gestures, narcissistic and moody. With the Magus story-line, Starlin sets up a brilliant teen angst: by fighting his future adult, evil self Warlock taps into a teen’s fear of the future and the compromises to his idealism (don’t trust anyone over 40…) . In possession of the Soul Gem, Warlock has that evil seed literally planted in (on) his (fore)head.

The Soul Gem gradually gets stronger and vampiric, thirsting for souls. The Soul Gem absorbs the souls of its victims and they remain active in the gem. Their voices can still be heard by Warlock. And the voices multiply. Soon Warlock’s head is filled with a cacophony of voices of his enemies and tormentors. He begins to become insane and schizophrenic. He contemplates suicide to release himself from his torment. (Who didn’t feel like that at 14 years old?)

It was the story-line Starlin wanted to pursue: the gradual insanity of Warlock which would culminate in his suicide. End of the title. Unfortunately, Starlin’s editors would have none of that because the book was selling better again, not gangbusters but enough to justify its continued publication. It had “buzz”.  Better sales meant greater editorial scrutiny, however, which didn’t suit Starlin’s agenda at all.  With marginal titles, creators were given largely a free hand because there was nothing to lose money-wise. Starlin elbowed even more creative freedom by deliberately submitting Warlock just before deadline (even though the book was completed 3 weeks in advance) so the editors had no choice but to accept the book as a fait-accompli. Starlin became a victim of his success and quit after his newly-awake editor tried asserting control. The book itself didn’t survive much past his departure. It was one of the first in  a massive wave of cancellations of titles in the mid-70s because Marvel could no longer afford their printing bill.

Starlin was pissed at Marvel for a few years over Warlock and worked for rival DC in the meantime on prestigious titles like Batman.

What lured him back was a new project by Archie Goodwin called Epic Illustrated magazine. Epic Illustrated was another attempt to copy what was selling in the market, this time the object of flattery being Heavy Metal magazine, essentially an English translation of Métal Hurlant magazine in France. The formula of Epic and Heavy Metal was high production values, magazine format, outside the Comics Code[7] with a heady mix of sci-fi, fantasy and scantily-clad women in the serialized story-lines. Epic Illustrated wasn’t as raunchy as Heavy Metal but it did lure in top creators from Europe and the Americas with this: Creator’s Rights. For the first time, cartoonists working for Marvel and published under the Epic imprint would wholly own their creations.

This development towards the Creator’s Rights at Marvel wasn’t just an aping of European practice however. Marvel and DC had both been embarrassed in the late 70s and early 80s with sensational stories of creator exploitation. Seigel and Shuster, creators of Superman, were living in poverty while Warner Brothers raked in millions from Superman: The Movie. Jack Kirby, the genius behind many Gold and especially Silver Age creations at Marvel (Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men, Thor, Hulk et al) wanted his original artwork back to possibly sell at auction but Marvel refused (while surreptitiously selling it themselves through back channels).

There was a whiff of rebellion in the air. Elfquest, an independent creator-owned title was a hit. As was Cerebus.[8] Prestigious creators like Howard Chaykin, Steve Gerber, Gene Colon, Mike Grell, Steve Ditko, P. Craig Russell and many others were drifting towards the few but growing outlets of creative freedom and ownership. Marvel provided a major one with Epic Illustrated and Starlin was interested in creating a space epic purely of his own creation.

Dreadstar_graphic_novel

The tale was serialized in Epic as the Metamorphosis Odyssey but now is largely referred to as Dreadstar after its main protagonist.

Dreadstar revisits some of Starlin’s themes but on a vaster scale: genocide, destruction of the universe, the harnessing of evil forces in the service of good (or at least, less evil), revenge, evil organized religion, and good children growing up bad. Where it departs is Starlin gives himself  a larger cast (whereas Captain Marvel and Warlock were essentially loners with an occasional hanger-on. Gamora, a character in Guardians of the Galaxy, began as a companion to Warlock.)

Each cast member of Dreadstar is tormented in different ways of course: one is the guilty last survivor of his race, one compromises his humanity to learn dark magics in the service of good, one a victim of incest etc. Vanth Dreadstar himself starts out as a peaceful farmer forced to join the army of the Monarchy against the evil church of the Instrumentality after his wife and home are destroyed by the Monarchy forces. He is a fifth column, quickly rising in the ranks, until he kills the monarch himself. Vanth installs his own puppet monarch and sets about ending the war with the Monarchy forces at his disposal. Helping him is a mystical sword that grants him immortality. He is a mercurial figure: at times hunter, soldier, rebel, and mystic. Starlin expressed to me at the Montreal Comiccon that his shifting identity was part-and-parcel of his immortal nature and was intended to continue.[9] Vanth ultimately succeeds in ending the Monarchy-Instrumentality War but by losing it on behalf of the Monarchy. His forces routed, he is forced to escape with his companions into the wider universe, his enemies in hot pursuit.

The story gripped its intended readership. Epic Illustrated was initially a success and it’s fair to attribute a large part of that to Starlin’s steady contribution. But Starlin had larger ambitions.

He approached Jim Shooter, then Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, with an idea for a “graphic novel”[10] format. Essentially these formats would be similar dimensions to Epic Illustrated but with a card-stock cover and with stand-alone stories. (In fact, Starlin had already pioneered the format with another publisher, Eclipse, with his second part of the Metamorphosis Odyssey called The Price.) Starlin wanted to create a follow-up to The Price and call it Dreadstar and create an on-going Dreadstar comic series under a new Epic Comics imprint.

Shooter liked the idea but it was a big shopping list Starlin was presenting.  Shooter wanted something in return: Starlin would create Marvel’s first graphic novel, but it would be a revisiting of Starlin’s most famous body of work: Captain Marvel.

Starlin agreed. For doing an original Captain Marvel graphic novel, his Dreadstar graphic novel and the birth of Epic Comics and the Dreadstar series would be green-lighted. So, Starlin being Starlin, his Captain Marvel graphic novel would be The Death of Captain Marvel.

DeathofCaptainMarvel

The Death of Captain Marvel would become Starlin’s best-selling, most famous and most collectible work. It carried on his theme of Mar-Vell the warrior retiring in peace on the utopian moon of Titan with his girlfriend. But the Kree has grown ill. Indeed, he is diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer which re-ignites his warrior instincts to “rage against the dying of the light.” On his deathbed Mar-Vell hallucinates a last glorious battle to the death with Thanos, his arch-enemy. Alas, Mar-Vell goes out with a whimper, not a bang, surrounded by his superhero colleagues. What struck the fanboy base was the difference of tone to the story. A superhero up to then had never succumbed to something as everyday as cancer. Mar-Vell goes through steps of treatment and denial of his condition. The spark for the story was Starlin’s own father dying of cancer and, in Starlin’s own words, “Death of Captain Marvel”  was “a cheap form of therapy.”

Shooter kept his end of the deal and Marvel Graphic Novel #3 was Dreadstar shortly followed by the launch of Epic Comics in 1983, Dreadstar #1 being its first title.

This would be the highwater mark in terms of Starlin’s impact and influence until now. Dreadstar would have a modest success and other titles launched by Epic Comics would be flops (notable exception being Moonshadow by J.M. DeMatteis and J. Muth).  Starlin would once again have a falling out with Marvel/Epic and move Dreadstar to First Comics. A former champion of creator’s rights, he would later hand over the title to work-for-hire cartoonists to continue.

My personal “jump the shark” moment for Starlin was when Dreadstar is “killed” by his arch-nemesis The Lord High Papal of the Instrumentality  (an albino Magus/Thanos stand-in) and returns as a superhero in bright yellow skintight costume and Dreadstar chest insignia. The murky troubled promise of the Epic Illustrated serializations vanished for me at that point.

It must be noted Starlin is noted primarily for his contribution as a writer and creator, not an artist although he wrote and drew a great deal of his own work. The peak of his visual output was his painterly work for Epic Illustrated, The Price and Dreadstar graphic novels. Outside of those, he is no great shakes. His character design is pedestrian. Figures are mostly naked with lines denoting form-fitting clothing. He used one lithe female body type for all his female characters and two male types: standard superhero and bulky bad guy. His aliens are insect heads on superhero body. His human faces all had deep-set eyes with heavy shadows above them (or way too much mascara). Starlin has confessed he preferred drawing sci-fi stories because he “hated drawing cars and guys in suits.” Yet even his technology is dull. Walls gridded with multi-coloured lights and minimalist geometric sets. His spaceships and ray guns are completely forgettable.

Yet now on the cusp of seeing Drax, Gamora and his beloved Thanos adapted to the big screen, Starlin is once more ascendant. Deservedly so. His compelling body of work combining teen-centric themes of death, insanity, outrageous scope, Ditko-esque trippiness, and Jack Kirby scale featuring moody characters who take themselves far too seriously has come of age. Add a soupcon on Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga (especially Elric’s sword Stormbringer playing a similar role to Warlock’s soul gem) and Frank Hebert’s Dune (and its idea of the flawed Messiah) and you’ve got the heady mixture that makes Jim Starlin’s body of work so compelling, of its time and yet still resonant today.

For a life-long fan like me, this is a very exciting moment.

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[1]The history of comics has been divided into 4 eras: The Golden Era of the 30s,40s and 50s when comic books began and introduced such characters as Super-Man, Bat-Man, Captain Marvel, The Spirit, The Phantom, Green Hornet, Captain America and their creators: Siegel and Shuster, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Steve Ditko among many others; the Silver Era of the 60s which revived superheroes and chronicled the rise of Marvel Comics and their properties: Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk et al; and finally the Bronze Era of the 70s and early 80s which saw a whole new generation of creators take on and introduce characters into the “universes” of DC and Marvel. Creators that rose to prominence included Chris Claremont on the X-Men, Frank Miller on Daredevil, Steve Englehart on Howard the Duck, Neil Adams and Denny O’Neil on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Jim Shooter on Legion of the Super-heroes and later Avengers plus many others.
[2]George Lucas could be credited with getting the ball (or egg) rolling with his disastrous flop Howard the Duck.
[3]Only the character Groot stems from the Silver Age and was a creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
[4]Shazam etc
[5]Roy Thomas’ stated aim for the character.
[6]Starlin often did intros that recapped past events as one of his techniques to produce pages quickly. In those economically-strapped days, artists were required by Marvel to do one page “for free”. This often meant duplicating scenes from past issues as flashbacks or taking one page, putting it on its side and making it a two-page spread.
[7]Comics Code was an industry-created and maintained standard of thematic conformity in Americancomic books.
[8]See my original article: Non-genre Revolution of the 1980s
[9]At this writing, the Dreadstar story-line is unfinished after a discontinued run at Epic and later First Comics.

[10]This was 1982 where the very idea of the “graphic novel” was in its infancy. Indeed, the term itself was widely mocked by fans of the “comic book”. Starlin and Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and what’s considered the first modern American graphic novel A Contract with God were its strongest proponents.