Unearthed: Strange Tales #178, featuring Warlock

Welcome to Unearthed, the series that bring classic comics to the attention of people who might not have seen them before. Today we’re looking at one of my favorites, Warlock, written and drawn by Jim Starlin!

Here’s the cover of Strange Tales #178, a comic which hosted numerous characters over its run. Man, remember when comics could run into the multiple hundreds? I miss those days.

Here’s the cover to the Warlock collection, from which I’m pulling these screengrabs. Starlin’s art is always recognizable by the way he renders musculature, particularly the biceps, which always have a teardrop shape.

Note also the pose, which is difficult to identify. The way Warlock is clutching his cape is odd, even if it is extremely well-drawn. And his expression seems out of place with the attitude of his body. But that’s Starlin for you!

This is just a really cool shot.

And here’s one more for good measure. Excellent foreshortening! And not since Steve Ditko have you ever seen hands so expertly rendered!

Anyway, check out this splash page, in which again, Warlock’s expression is unlike your usual superhero. Note again the unusual biceps. But most of all, the framing mechanism of this strange character in the lower left asking the reader the question “Who is Adam Warlock?”

Here’s a close-up. What the hell is he sitting on?

Before you ask, this Sphinxor had never before appeared in a comic, and to my knowledge, never has again. And the fourth wall-breaking address of the reader — along with the invocation of Stan Lee — makes this a very unusual way to open a comic… especially one with the over-indulgence of gravitas it traffics in. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sphinxor goes into a four-page recap of Warlock’s publication history, which we don’t really need to go into. It’s not as interesting as what’s ahead.

Also, Sphinxor has traded in his previous couch for this thing. Why? What’s Starlin thinking with this? Regular chairs not good enough?

Here, Starlin does something that only really works in comics: he plays with time and space, dividing up a wide landscape into panels that also provide a forward-going temporal sequence.

He also dramatizes the scene with some breathless narration, which I always appreciate.

Warlock happens upon the scene and the space woman begs his aid. I should add here that another Starlin trope is his use of wrinkles on clothing seams. Seems excessive, but hey, if you can, you should!

This splash page is a classic homage to the kind of Frazetta-era barbarian-with-heroine-in-peril pose typical of the 70s.

A fracas ensues, but what I’d like to call your attention to is Starlin’s use of vertical panels. It’s not just a novelty here: see how the panel itself lends the action a sense of movement that really emphasizes the force employed. Brilliant!

Part of the fun of this comic is the bombastic narration, which is on full display in this first panel. But note also the way Warlock’s “NOOOOO” begins in panel two and leads the reader’s eye to panel three. Another very clever use of the format to join two panels in time.

Here Warlock soliloquizes. He’s failed to prevent the death of the space woman, and sets up a haunting ability of the gem he wears on his forehead.

This is the Soul Gem, one of the Infinity Gems. Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will know it as the gem that the Black Widow died to retrieve. Here it’s on its own, and Warlock is using it to bring this woman to temporary life.

She tells Warlock the story of the Universal Church of Truth, a ruthless organization bent on domination. How he hadn’t already known of it we’ll just have to gloss over. Excellent use here of the color palette to really drive home just how horrible the Church is.

Okay, we’re just going to be quick about this next bit: Warlock’s interrogation is interrupted by the sudden appearance of this character who calls himself Magus. Very psychedelic in appearance here.

A hallmark of this early Warlock series — and indeed, pretty much everything involving Warlock after this — is its exploration of philosophical themes. Heady stuff for a teenager, which was my age when I first encountered it. Very similar in tone to Michael Moorcock’s work, which feels like a companion to Starlin’s work.

Notice the background of panel two, which greatly resembles the kind of extradimensional realm Steve Ditko would draw for Doctor Strange.

Without belaboring the point, Magus is Warlock’s future self. Don’t worry about it; it just gets weirder from here.

The issue ends with some classic Shakespearean musing and posturing, and a final shot of Sphinxor just sitting there for some reason. But stay tuned, True Believer, there’s so much more ahead! Please join me on Wednesday for issue 179 of Strange Tales, featuring Adam Warlock!