Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

And men shall call him — warlock! Adam Warlock before Jim Starlin

Adam Warlock’s first series wasn’t perfect. Coming out in 1972, however, it was perfectly timed.

I can’t imagine Marvel trying a religious allegory (“My dream casting is High Evolutionary as God, Him as Jesus and the Man-Beast as Satan. Boffo box office, I’m telling you!’) like this in Silver Age. If they had, I’m not sure the Comics Code would have stomached it. If it had debuted 1980s, the religious right might have exploded in fury. 1972 hit the sweet spot. We had rock opera Jesus in Jesus Christ Super Star, flower child Jesus in Godspell, why not superhero Jesus?

Him, as y’all probably know, debuted in Fantastic Four #66 and 67. The FF meet the Enclave, a group of scientists growing a mysterious creature inside a cocoon. Jack Kirby’s original concept was that they were humanitarians trying to help the world by creating the ultimate man. In a parody of Steve Ditko’s objectivist beliefs, this newborn John Galt would regard all humans as parasites and try to destroy us. Lee had Kirby change the ending so that the Enclave are bad guys and their creation, Him, is good, or at least non-evil. Refusing to be their dupe, he blows up their lab, then heads off to find his destiny. That fate turned out be a guest appearance in Thor where he tried to claim Sif as his mate (she and Thor objected).

At that point Him could have vanished into obscurity, or become the kind of cosmic guest-star who pops up once in a blue moon, like the Stranger. Instead, Roy Thomas and Gil Kane turned him into Jesus, or as close as they could get. In the first issue of Marvel Premiere, we learn the High Evolutionary, having evolved into pure mentality in his last appearance, has grown bored and returned to mortal form. Frustrated with the endless brutality of the human race, his ambitious project is to create a duplicate Earth on the far side of the sun. It will develop exactly like the real Earth, but when humans evolve, the High Evolutionary will purge them of the urge to kill and dominate. A new, peaceful human race will make Counter-Earth a Garden of Eden.

The High Evolutionary shares this story with Him, whose cocoon drifted through space to the High Evolutionary’s orbiting lab. After talking to Him telepathically, HE (not to be confused with Him, of course) realizes his guest is the perfect super-evolved being he was never able to create, the son he never had. With Him watching, HE sets about creating a world. In the space of six hours he forms a new Earth, then rests, exhausted, for the seventh hour. Enter HE’s most evil creation, the Man-Beast, who takes control while his creator naps. Cain kills Abel, man turns against man and Counter-Earth re-enacts the whole bloody history of Homo sapiens. A horrified High Evolutionary battles the Man-Beast, a clash of titans resolved when Him emerges from his cocoon and drives the Man-Beast away.

HE decides to destroy his broken world but Warlock insists there’s enough goodness in humanity to be worth saving. The High Evolutionary reluctantly agrees to send his surrogate son down from the heavens to Counter-Earth, equipping him with a green gem to protect him from Man-Beast’s psi-powers (yep, the Soul Gem). HE warns Him that humanity may prove just as deadly a threat. They fear what they can’t understand (wow, news flash!) and when they meet their unearthly visitor, “men shall call you Warlock!”

Warlock crash-lands on Earth and almost immediately makes friends with a group of teenage drifters, one of whom names him Adam as the first of his kind. The kids have walked out on their various parents (hardcase general, corrupt warhawk senator, black capitalist) who show up in time to see Adam battle one of the Man-Beast’s mutates. Then Warlock gives the older generation a telepathic lesson in how badly they and their fellows have screwed up the world. The story comes off very much a product of its time, a mix of relevance and superheroic action, with well-meaning but clunky attempts at Deep Thoughts. The story also establishes that Man-Beast has made one change to Counter-Earth’s history, blocking the development of any superhumans.

Eight issues of Warlock followed in the same vein, mostly written by Mike Friedrich. Man-Beast tries to tempt Adam into sin. Warlock punches a lot of mutates. The American people start seeing Warlock as a messiah. The High Evolutionary grumbles about his son’s naiveté. Presidential candidate, then president Rex Carpenter (I assume calling him King Carpenter is meant as another Jesus reference) seems friendly at first, but eventually decides Adam’s a threat.  Not only does Adam have some kind of mind-control jewel in his forehead, but look how many damn freaks have shown up since he appeared! Coincidence? Yeah, right.

We also meet this world’s Victor von Doom, who exists, but not as a supervillain. Unlike the original, Professor von Doom became firm friends with Reed in college; when the lab explosion scarred Doom’s face, Reed pulled him back from the edge. Later, when cosmic radiation left Sue permanently comatose (Ben and Johnny weren’t affected at all),  Victor was Reed’s rock.

That doesn’t save Reed from turning into a Thing-like monstrosity, the Brute, who becomes one of Man-Beast’s agents, while Victor becomes Adam’s ally. There’s an interesting sequence in Warlock #5 (written by old SF hand Ron Goulart) in which Adam goes up against Doom’s most nightmarish military invention — airborne drones! Little did we know …

The book ended on a cliffhanger in which it turns out Carpenter is the Man-Beast himself. If “Carpenter” was a Jesus reference, that might mean he was the Antichrist to Warlock’s Jesus. However the Antichrist didn’t become a thing in pop culture until The Omen hit big, so maybe the name was just ironic. In any case, the cliffhanger wrapped up the following year in Hulk. Greenskin winds up on Counter-Earth and joins Warlock’s resistance. It doesn’t go well and Warlock winds up, well, crucified—

—but he gets better. Resurrected, he devolves the Man-Beast back into his original wolf form.

Adam warns the people of Counter-Earth that they have a chance to get it right now, but if they give in and turn on each other, the spirit of the Man-Beast will rise again. With that, Warlock leaves them so that he can seek out other worlds where the Man-Beast’s power still turns brother against brother. Of course, what he found instead was the Church of Universal Truth, the Magus and — but that’s another (and much better) story.

In some ways, this series was more definitive for Man-Beast than Adam. In his original appearance, Man-Beast was simply a wolf evolved so far into the future that like DC’s Shark, he was a powerful psi. Warlock turned him into a Satanic corrupter, an avatar of hate. That take stuck better than Adam Warlock, Messiah did.

I’m not sure if this was a series that never lived up to its potential, or that the potential of Super-Jesus wasn’t that great to begin with. Certainly it never reached the levels Starlin did; Friedrich was one of the Bronze Age’s weaker writers, aspiring to depth but hamfisted about it. Still, his writing’s better here than usual, and Warlock was certainly different from the rest of what was on the stands in the early 1970s. If not classic, I’m still glad to have it in the massive Essential Warlock.

#SFWApro. Images by Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Kane, Kane and Herb Trimpe


  1. I think it is a matter of timing. This was in my post-born-again-Christian phase when I was listening to JCSS and Godspell, and I was fairly new to comic books. So it resonated with me enough that I have the two Marvel Masterworks.

    They don’t always age well, dialogue-wise, but that’s true of a lot of comics of that era. So I have a soft spot for them.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Well, yeah it was a matter of timing as it had to have Jesus Christ, Superstar to swipe. That was Roy’s whole motivation. It helped that he was also running the store and he ushered in a lot of projects that Stan never would have done (not that Stan didn’t put the kibosh on a few things, or force Roy to pull back a bit).

    Even then, Roy’s allegory was pretty tame and when Starlin followed, it got far more aggressive in its take on religion, as Starlin exercised a Catholic childhood into a satire of the Church, as an organization, themes he continued for years.

    The material was different; but, it wasn’t unique, as Kirby’s 4th World was also exploring similar themes, but on a broader, more metaphorical scale. Mister Miracle was the closest to a messianic figure, something which Steve Englehart latched onto when he helped revive the character, in the later 70s, making him a more direct messiah.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      ps In an interview, Roy said he purposely tried to keep it as broad as possible, so as not to offend. He also mentioned that he enjoyed the Jesus Christ, Superstar soundtrack, which inspired him to do the same kind of thing.

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