Regular readers of this blog may recall my mentioning my religious upbringing on a few earlier occasions. But for those who don’t know, or have forgotten, I was raised Southern Baptist. My parents were very devout — they’d actually first met at the church we all later attended as a family — and I was inculcated in church doctrine pretty much from birth. The very earliest stories that I consumed were Bible stories.
So you’d expect that the not-especially-subtle Christian allegory at the core of Roy Thomas and Gil Kane’s “Warlock” must have been glaringly obvious to me back in November, 1971, when at age fourteen I first read the comic that’s the subject of today’s blog post. Maybe I was offended, and maybe not, but surely I at least got it, right?
The truth is, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t get it — not at the beginning, and not on my own. Indeed, I may well have remained unenlightened for a whole six months, at the end of which I had the symbolism explained to me by more perceptive fans via the letters column of Warlock #1. Then, I figure, it was oh, yeah, of course, and we carried on from there. (Just for the record, I wasn’t offended.)
A half century down the road, I struggle to understand why I was so obtuse, back in 1971. The best explanation I can come up with (besides the simplest, which is of course that I was just kinda dim) is that one often sees only what one expects to see — and what my fourteen-year-old self expected to see in Marvel Premiere #1, based both on the advance publicity and on the eye-grabbing cover by artists Gil Kane and Dan Adkins, was the first installment of a new Marvel superhero series featuring a renamed and revamped “Him”, a character I’d first encountered a couple of years earlier in an issue of Thor. Hopefully, a really good new Marvel superhero series, but not anything more than that.
Perhaps, if writer Roy Thomas had responded to the creative impulse that led to the Warlock series by inventing a brand new set of characters to embody his allegorical concepts, I might have picked up on what he was up to. I’ll never know, however, because that’s not how Thomas worked, at least not during this era at Marvel. As he forthrightly explains in his 2006 introduction to Marvel Masterworks — Warlock, Vol. 1: “…having long since accepted that any characters I made up for Marvel would belong to the company, I preferred to base ‘new’ heroes, whenever possible, on ones already extant — e.g., Avengers Black Knight and Vision.” And so he delved into the rich archive of imaginative concepts already amassed by Marvel — in particular, those born from the collaboration of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee during the first decade of “the Marvel Age of Comics” — for the raw materials required to fully realize his basic idea of “Jesus Christ Superhero”.* And your humble blogger, who had yet to read most of the older stories Thomas was using as his building blocks, was so fascinated by all this new-to-me Marvel Universe lore that I couldn’t recognize the end result for what it was.
That’s one theory, anyway. Another one, as I said before, is that I was just slow on the uptake. At this late stage of the game, who knows?
But enough about me. Let us now look beyond the cover of Marvel Premiere #1 to witness what Thomas, Kane, and Adkins hadst wrought, fifty years agone…
I’ll confess that I’ve always had some trouble getting a handle on the High Evolutionary as a character. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Human or… something else? Looking back on this story, I’m inclined to believe that my bemusement may have originated with this very flashback sequence (the first of the issue, but not by any means the last) — more specifically, with the problematic fact that although H.E. tells us he’s starting his story “at the beginning“, he’s really not. Rather, he jumps right to the creation of his “race of New-Men“, which skips over a fair bit of ground. We readers really could have done with another panel, or even just an extra word balloon, where our storytellers could clue us in that H.E. started out as a more or less normal Joe — a human scientist who, after inventing the world’s first “genetic accelerator”, went into seclusion to continue his experiments, financing his operations with the wealth from a lode of uranium he conveniently discovered somewhere along the way. As it is, however, if you haven’t read any of the stories in which the character previously appeared — such as his debut in Thor #134-135 (Nov. and Dec., 1966), you’re likely to be as lost as I was back in 1971.**
“…the inherent savagery of the wolf”. Gee, I’d forgotten how prevalent this sort of casual prejudice against Canis lupus used to be, not all that many years ago. I suppose wolves must have been right up there after snakes on the list of “God’s creatures that we fear and hate”…
By the time I finished reading page 4, my younger self was all but certain that the “guest appearances” of Thor and the Hulk which this comic’s cover had appeared to promise were going to be flashback-only — which I considered to be something of a cheat (and still do, frankly). I was disappointed, but not all that surprised — after all, the Kane-Adkins cover of Captain Marvel #17 (which not-so-coincidentally happened to be the inaugural installment of Thomas and Kane’s last major character makeover) had pulled a similar fast one in regards to Captain America.
Naturally, any lingering hope I might have had that the Hulk might show up for real in the story’s present-tense action were pretty well quashed with page 5, which segues from the previous Thor flashback to a recap of the Hulk episodes in Tales to Astonish #94-96 (Aug., Sep., & Oct., 1967)…
That last panel above caused me some momentary confusion back in 1971, as I recall; due to the inadequate introduction given the High Evolutionary back on page 3, I wasn’t sure if he was a human, alien, or what, and so on my first glimpse of this brown-haired guy in a diaper and booties, I thought he might be Bruce Banner.
The mysterious object is retrieved by means of a “magnetic landing-lid“, and brought deep within H.E.’s artificial asteroid for further investigation…
Time to cue up the flashback to the origin of Him, as originally presented in Fantastic Four #66-67 (Sep. & Oct., 1967). I guess that Kane and co. didn’t think that the single panel appearance of the FF shown below justified adding them to Marvel Premiere #1’s cover — although maybe the call was made simply on the basis that their inclusion would make for too crowded a composition…
We come now to the last of our flashbacks, this one a recap of Thor #165 (Jun., 1969) and #166 (Jul., 1969) — the latter of which happened to be the only comic out of all those referenced in “And Men Shall Call Him… Warlock!” that I’d actually read.
I suppose that one could call the devotion of a whole full-page splash to a recap scene something of an indulgence on Thomas and Kane’s part — and fourteen-year-old me (who was already familiar with this part of the backstory, if none other) may well have seen it that way. Sixty-four-year old me, on the other hand, is just as happy that we got to see Kane go to town with his personal interpretation of this classic Kirby slugfest:
In his Marvel Masterworks intro, Thomas explains how, having determined that he wanted to set his “messianic superhero” fable on a different Earth than that inhabited by most of the Marvel Universe’s characters — more specifically, an Earth that had never known superheroes prior to Warlock’s advent — and knowing full well that Marvel editor Stan Lee had an aversion to “parallel worlds of the type pioneered by DC’s stories of ‘Earth-Two'”, he decided to utilize instead the concept of “Counter-Earth”. This is the idea, traceable back to the philosophers of ancient Greece, that our world has a twin, which orbits on the opposite side of the Sun from us, and thus is forever hidden from our view. Of course, as Thomas frankly acknowledges, by 1971 “space probes and other scientific advances had long since taken out what little solar wind remained in the sails of that particular hypothesis”; nevertheless, “it made a handy fictional alternative to an Earth vibrating in a sidereal dimension.” (Other than noting that the first episode of the Superman radio show of 1940 placed the planet Krypton on the far side of the sun from our Earth [!], Thomas doesn’t mention any other works of fiction that had taken inspiration from the Counter-Earth idea prior to his and Kane’s effort; nevertheless, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that he was at least aware of a couple of relatively recent antecedents: the 1952-63 newspaper comic strip Twin Earths [written by Oskar Lebeck and drawn by Al McWilliams], as well as the 1969 film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun [aka Doppelgänger]).
Also according to Thomas, the reason he opted to have H.E. create his new world from a hunk of rock from the original Earth, rather than ex nihilo, was that “I didn’t want to offend Judeo-Christian religious sensibilities if I could avoid it.” That’s reasonable, I suppose — though I’d say it was a felicitous choice regardless, as it makes Counter-Earth feel more connected to its duplicate (and thus to us readers) than it might otherwise.
I’ll confess to feeling some mild surprise, as well as disappointment, when I came to the third-from-last panel above in my recent re-reading of this story. The conflation of the violence-promoting slogan “Off the Pigs!” with the more general counterculural protest sentiments “Up the Establishment” and “Power to the People” seems tone-deaf, at best — and an odd choice for our storytellers to make, considering that subsequent episodes of the series will exhibit a much more sympathetic stance towards youthful anti-Establishment attitudes.
Having done with his lamentations over the poor state of affairs on our Earth, H.E. proceeds to tell Him of his intent to make his new Earth “a far more perfect one than the old. To deny its human race that instinct of gross aggression… which has made a hell, where should have been heaven.”
Increased gravity leads to the “lifeless pebble” accreting additional matter in the form of nearby meteorites, until it grows to the size of its prototype world (and even births its own Moon). Then it’s time to cool things off with some precipitation: “Rains which soothe a planet’s fevered brow, and make of it a place where life can begin!”
The period of time over which H.E. manages the evolution of life on Counter-Earth — “a mere seven-score of hours” — is surely an allusion to Genesis 2:2.
We’ll pause for a moment here just to observe that neither our storytellers, nor (I suspect) the majority of their readers, are likely to have thought twice about the presentation of “this new Adam” (and Eve) as white folks.
This is also a good place to note that Thomas attributes the story’s use of the “killer Instinct” theory of human evolutionary development (a theory the writer identifies as “being then very much in vogue” at the time) to Robert Ardrey’s 1961 nonfiction work, African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man, “which Gil and I had both read”. (Your humble blogger probably doesn’t need to underline the irony of drawing from a book called African Genesis for your take on human origins, and still depicting your early humans as proto-Caucasians.)
But, returning to our story… As the High Evolutionary rests from his labors, the Man-Beast’s ship arrives at H.E.’s spheroid. The renegade and his servitors board the station, and after unceremoniously killing poor Sir Raam, proceed on to the central chamber…
In the allegorical scheme set up by Thomas and Kane, the introduction of the “killer instinct” on Counter-Earth corresponds to the Fall of Adam and Eve in Christian doctrine, with the Man-Beast taking the role of “the serpent” (later identified as Satan) from the Book of Genesis.
From Thomas’ Marvel Masterworks intro:
As Gil penciled an encapsulated version of Earth’s reconstituted history on page 20 of that first story, I had some trepidation about its first panel, which showed the Crucifixion.*** Not because I feared it would give away one of the inspirations for the series—we wanted readers to know that!—but because I feared either Stan or the Comics Code might be troubled by our touching, even briefly, on a religious matter. I needn’t have worried. Neither blinked an eye, and the origin story went through as written and penciled…
I suppose it’s a measure of the excessive caution that had been bred into the American comic-book industry by seventeen years of the Comics Code Authority — or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, by the anti-comics crusade that had precipitated its adoption — that Thomas was so worried about depicting the Crucifixion in a year in which not only would the original album version of Jesus Christ Superstar top Billboard’s year-end chart, but that work’s fellow Gospels-based musical Godspell (whose Christ figure sported a stylized Superman “S” on his chest) had already become a theatrical hit off-Broadway, and the “Jesus Movement” among America’s youth had been the subject of a Time magazine cover story in June. Certainly, if there were ever a year in which it wouldn’t be controversial to include such a scene in a comic book, 1971 was that year.
That would seem to be even more the case, given that the Crucifixion of Jesus is here framed — by the Man-Beast, and by extension, by our storytellers as well — as “the ultimate transgression!!” About the only way to read that statement is as a tacit recognition of Jesus’ divinity; otherwise, it’s hard to see how the state execution of a great religious leader, as awful as it might be, outweighs all the other atrocities recorded in human history, either before or since. (Also, if you ask me, the implication that Counter-Earth has its very own separate incarnation of God-the-Son in the person of Jesus of Nazareth raises more troubling theological questions than that business about H.E.-making-a-world-from-nothing that Thomas was fretting about. But hey, what do I know?)
The Man-Beast remembers H.E. as being an ordinary human being in a metal suit; but ever since his apotheosis in Tales to Astonish #96, the maker of the New-Men has been much more than that. Nevertheless, the Man-Beast hasn’t come alone, and his minions give him the numerical advantage, if nothing else…
According to Thomas, the detail of the yellow lightning bolt on Warlock’s scarlet chestplate, which evokes the costume of the original Captain Marvel, was Kane’s idea; of course, since both creators had offered tribute to that hero in their earlier revamp of Marvel’s Captain Marvel, it’s hardly surprising to see something along the same line show up here.
That last panel above features the Marvel Comics debut of a certain class of objects that would eventually come to be known as “Infinity Stones”. Perhaps you’ve heard of them…
With that final panel — which, at least for your humble blogger, evokes Christmas card tableaux of shepherds in their fields harking to a herald angel, or wise men following a star of wonder across a desert — the opening chapter of the story of Warlock comes to an end. At 27 pages, it’s a remarkably long opening chapter to find in a 20-cent comic book, circa 1971 — an inadvertent aftereffect of Marvel’s short-lived experiment with publishing all their books at a larger, more expensive (25-cent) format. That experiment had lasted a little longer for Marvel’s new “tryout” titles, all three of which were originally released on a quarterly schedule, than it did for the rest of the line (most of which had their one-and-only extra-length issues in August, aka “Giant-Size Marvel Month“); the second issue of Marvel Spotlight had come out as a 25-center in September, as had Marvel Feature #2 in October. By November, however, the 25-cent/48-page Marvel comic was no more (at least when it came to non-annual, non-reprint books), and Roy Thomas was required to plead the case for “And Men Shall Call Him… Warlock!” to be published as it had been originally produced, without cuts (and without splitting it up over two issues) — something which ultimately required Marvel to sacrifice “a couple of precious revenue-bringing ad pages” (to borrow Thomas’ phrase). We can be glad of that, I think, because the story as we have it — even allowing for the indulgence of three interior full-size splash pages in addition to the title page — is remarkably dense; there’s not much, if any fat on these bones. (Part of that is down to the more-than-usual amount of recapping required to set up the actual “origin story” — but only part, I think.)
Even so, it arguably took another issue of Marvel Premiere (#2, released in February, 1972) to complete the tale of Warlock’s beginnings; for, though he technically arrives on Counter-Earth at the very end of MP #1, it’s not until the follow-up that we see his first interactions with the ordinary human beings that are the reason for his mission. In MP #2’s “The Hounds of Helios!”, the superhero formerly known as Him meets the four teenage runaways who will quickly become his disciples, er, “followers” — one of whom christens him with the first name he’s ever had that actually sounds like a name, i.e., “Adam”. (That latter, another inspired contribution of Gil Kane’s, evokes not only the “first man” of Genesis, but also the “second man” — i.e., Christ — written of by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15; for some readers, it may also call to mind the Adam Kadmon of Kabbalistic tradition. I’m not saying that any of that beyond the Genesis stuff was intentional on Kane’s part — but it’s there, all the same.) Warlock also has his first planet-side battle against Man-Beast’s forces, in the person of Rhodan — an evolved rat, of course, as Thomas and Kane continue with Marvel’s by-now-traditional approach to the New-Men by basing the evil ones on our world’s less popular animals. (See also the Man-Beast’s second-in-command, Kohbra.)
Evidently, both of Adam Warlock’s tryout appearances sold pretty well, as May brought the first issue of his own title. Thomas and Kane continued on as storytellers, and they kept the New Testament parallels coming, with variations on John the Baptist, the Temptation of Christ, and Peter’s Denial all turning up before the end of Warlock #2. They also kept up the superheroic action, as the Man-Beast continued his efforts to conquer Counter-Earth, and Adam brought all his powers — which, in addition to his original abilities, now also included those he’d acquired by way of his new forehead-set jewelry accessory (such as the ability to devolve New-Men back into the critters they’d begun life as).
It was all pretty entertaining, especially in the early days, while the feature’s original creators were both still around. Eventually, however, the novelty began to wear off, and the concept’s limitations became more evident — namely, that the methods by which superheroes overcome their challenges (e.g., walloping the hell out of bad guys) aren’t really the same ones as — and may not even be compatible with — those that Jesus of Nazareth deploys in the Christian Gospels (e.g., healing the sick and preaching love and peace).
Ultimately, the most interesting latter-day stories in the original Warlock series (as distinct from the later Jim Starlin-driven revival, which was a whole ‘nother thing) were those that more or less ignored the religious allegory aspect to focus more on the “parallel Earth” conceit, exploring the various ways that Counter-Earth was different from the regular “Marvel-Earth” we were all familiar with… but since there’s a good chance I’ll be writing a post about one or more of those stories in about a year or so, we’ll have to leave it at that for now.
*In the same Marvel Masterworks intro quoted above, Thomas notes that he had two primary inspirations for Warlock: “Jesus Christ Superstar and, in a vaguer sense, Jack Kirby’s ‘Fourth World’ comics at DC.” I find the latter part of that statement fascinating, as it’s hard to see much similarity between Warlock and Kirby’s New Gods, et al, beyond the very general theme of “gods among us”. But I think it speaks to how much space Kirby’s efforts at his new publishing home were taking up in the heads of Thomas and the others he left behind at Marvel — and makes it somewhat ironic that Marvel Premiere #1 was released in the same month as DC’s Mister Miracle #6, which featured Kirby’s blistering parodies of both Thomas and Stan Lee as “Houseroy” and “Funky Flashman”.
**Still, you might be better off than a Marvel Universe newbie of today, who, if they become curious about the High Evolutionary, might consult a handy online reference source like Wikipedia or the Marvel Database wiki — only to discover that, over the past half century or so, the backstory of Herbert Edgar Wyndham (yeah, that’s H.E.’s real name, though I can’t tell you where or when that particular nugget was revealed) accreted to itself a dizzying number of retroactive continuity implants, making it something of a challenge to discern the character’s own main throughline. At this point, H.E.’s personal history intersects with those of the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, the Whizzer (1940s version), Miss America (ditto), Marvel Boy (1950s version), Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew), Werewolf by Night (Jack Russell), Mister Sinister, the Jackal (Miles Warren), and the Elder God Chthon. All this before he ever meets the Son of Odin in Thor #134.
All of which might well make you giddy, if you happen to be the sort of comics fan who (like me) grooves on the notion that “the twenty-seven thousand or so superhero comic books that Marvel Comics has published since 1961” comprise “the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created” (to borrow critic Douglas Wolk’s phrasing from his terrific new book, All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told [Penguin, 2021]). On the other hand, if you’re not that kind of comics fan, it might just give you a splitting headache.
***One intriguing, if minor, aspect of Kane’s rendering of the Crucifixion of Jesus is his drawing the instrument of execution as a T-shape, rather than what we usually think of as a “cross”. Based on the current state of research, the T-shape is probably more historically accurate; it would be interesting to know if the artist were aware of that fact, or if he were simply trying to put some distance between his visualization of the scene and the representations traditionally found in Christian art.