Jim Starlin was already considered a master of the cosmic epic when he began “The Magus Saga” in Strange Tales #178. Previously, he had eased into the writer/artist role in Captain Marvel, where he had impressively chronicled “The Thanos Saga.” With the further adventures of Adam Warlock, Starlin was in complete control from the get-go. “The Magus Saga” was undeniable confirmation that Starlin was one of the best all-around artists in comics.
This must have been quite an epic for the reader to follow when it was originally published in late 1974 through early 1976 in Strange Tales #178-181 and Warlock #9-12. (Readers familiar with the saga may be wondering why I’m including Warlock #12. I’ll explain later on.). Each issue had its own theme, its own locale, and its own plot twists, but remained sturdy and true to the whole. Starlin provided the obligatory recaps without distracting from the story. It’s not the kind of story you’re awed by once, to return to every once in a while. It bears several re-readings to appreciate its depth and scope. It may be Starlin’s peak as a complete storyteller, I don’t know. I’ve never read Dreadstar, I never finished Breed, I’ve yet to consider Gilgamesh II, and Hardware Station revisited familiar territory. One thing I’m certain of, I already look forward to reading “The Magus Saga” again.
But it took me a while to ‘get’ it.
Long after I read “The Magus Saga,” and reread it, and studied it, and wrote about it, and reread it again, and studied it some more; long after I had consolidated the notes and scanned the covers and started editing my article on it, I found myself thinking on one thing and one thing only: Jim Starlin’s manipulation of Time.
“The Magus Saga” is all about Time. It’s also about good and evil, and sanity and madness, and melancholy and ambition, but, really, that’s all secondary. Starlin’s utilization of Time is what lingers long after the story has been put aside. This cosmic epic involves time travel, time paradoxes, time streams, time probes, time loops, killing time, running out of time. It is not about changing Time, but changing events in Time.
The story centers on the Magus, Warlock’s future self. Adam Warlock is the star of the series, but even so he is merely caught up in a grander scheme. When the saga opens, Warlock is isolated on a distant planetoid, brooding on his existence. It’s the Magus who brings Warlock to action, who gives him purpose. The Magus wants to make sure Warlock follows the necessary steps that will ensure the Magus’ own existence.
“The Magus Saga” is expertly written and remarkably drawn, but the beauty of it is trying to make sense of it. In Warlock #9, the Magus explains his origin to Adam Warlock. An entity known as the In-Betweener will transport Adam into his realm to begin the centuries-long transformation of Warlock into the evil Magus. When Magus leaves his transformation ‘cocoon’ he finds himself 5,000 years in the past. He arrives on the planet Homeworld, where he is mistaken for a demon and attacked. The Magus is infinitely powerful and easily defeats the inhabitants of Homeworld. The attackers become worshippers, believing Magus to be a god. Magus accepts the status, and forms the Universal Church of Truth. He then builds an army of Black Knights and Grand Inquisitors and has them journey to neighboring planets. They then ‘indoctrinate’ whole civilizations to the Church’s cause. After several centuries the Magus rules a thousand worlds. All is well for the Magus. But the time is drawing near, the time of his creation. The Magus wants to make sure Adam Warlock does not deviate from his destiny.
So he makes himself known to Warlock (ST #178) for the first time because he knows the melancholy man of gold will not come to him. After all, Warlock wouldn’t have a clue to his future existence, and isn’t doing much about his current existence except brooding on a desolate planetoid. At first, Warlock believes he is pursuing a dual personality, but he soon learns from the Matriarch, the appointed temporal leader of the Universal Church of Truth, that the Magus is actually Adam’s future self. The Matriarch has plans of her own. She wants to rule the Church. First she attempts to have Warlock killed so that the Magus will never exist (ST #179). When this fails, she decides to have Warlock ‘indoctrinated’ so that he will join the Church (ST #181). When this also fails, the Magus makes himself known to Warlock (in his true form, not the altered image he projected to Adam earlier) and has the Matriarch sentenced to death.
The Magus explains to Warlock his origin (didn’t I just state that two paragraphs ago?). What I realized in reading the saga a second time was that the Magus had created a time loop. He doesn’t really have a future. Yes, he has a future in development, but once he’s dropped out of the In-Betweener’s realm he’s stuck in the past. His future is all in the past, whiling away the time until he catches up to himself as Adam Warlock, wherein he has to get involved in creating his own existence. But once he does that, where does he go? Does he just mosey on into the future while he’s being created in some dimension off to the side? Or does he just blink out of existence since he’s off starting all over again?
Enter Thanos, lover of Death, another conqueror of worlds, formerly of Captain Marvel notoriety. Thanos believes that the Magus will be a threat to him in the future. He makes an attempt (through the woman he has trained, Gamora, the deadliest woman in the universe) to assassinate the Magus before he can summon the In-Betweener to come and take Warlock to his realm (Warlock #10). When Gamora fails, Thanos joins with Adam Warlock. He has Warlock enter a time probe where Adam will commit “cosmic suicide.” When the Magus learns this, he attacks Thanos. It is during this frenzied battle (Warlock #11) that the Magus realizes Thanos’ motives. Meanwhile, in the time probe, the In-Betweener arrives and shows Warlock five time lines, five possible futures for Adam Warlock. The blackest one is the flow of the Magus. Warlock cleanses that stream, then races across it. As he does this, the Magus, who is still in battle with Thanos, begins to fade from existence. As Warlock reaches a certain point on the stream, he disappears in a flash of light. With Warlock and Magus both gone, the In-Betweener sets about creating a new soul that will no longer harbor the evil of the Magus.
We move one, maybe two years into the future. In an unknown location, two Adam Warlocks meet. One uses the power of a Soul Gem to absorb the other. Time is reshuffled. I mean, time is really reshuffled. Not only does the Magus not exist in the future, he no longer exists in the past. The loop is gone. All that is left is Adam Warlock and his own life up to this point in time. Warlock and his friend Pip the Troll return to reality. Good is triumphant. No, wait, Thanos no longer has a powerful entity to oppose his quest for interstellar genocide. Evil is triumphant. Pip thinks it’s a good time for a drink at the bar. Warlock passes a familiar woman. She once was, and never will be, the Matriarch. And so the epic ends.
And only once have I touched on Warlock’s Soul Gem, which allows him to absorb the life force of people or creatures Adam has accidentally or purposely killed. In fact, there is so much to this saga that I have left out. To note a few key scenes and characters: Warlock’s imprisonment on and takeover of the Death Ship, The Great Divide (ST #179); Autoclycus, the doomed Captain of the ship; Adam’s mock trial to weaken his spirit and strength (ST #180); Gray-Tor, the Judge at the trial, and a victim of Adam’s Soul Gem; and the surreal, clown-infested ‘indoctrination’ episode (ST #181). And there’s philosophy! Drama! Symbolism! Chaos! Order! Confusion! And even some clarity! It’s quite a mental and visual feast.
In Warlock #12, in part a coda to “The Magus Saga,” Warlock is left with the knowledge of all that has gone before but never happened. He still houses the souls of those he destroyed with the Soul Gem, but never killed. He harbors the memories of a quest for an evil future self that never existed. And he knows that some months in his future he will be eradicated by a new Warlock, one that is being created and prepped in the In-Betweener’s dimension, but without any aspects of the Magus (I think). That’s a handful of stuff to brood over all alone on a meteor. However, it isn’t long before Warlock sees stars blinking out of existence. Off he goes to investigate. This adventure will continue in the pages of Warlock #13.
But thoughts still linger.
If the Magus had thought his actions through, he might have had enough sense to back off from his attempt to be in on his own creation. After all, there was no future in it. If Thanos had thought his actions through, he might have decided not to get involved. The Magus was in a loop of his own creation. He wasn’t going to be around to confront Thanos in the future. Thanos created the confrontation by setting it up to occur in the Magus’ past!
On the other hand, both Magus and Thanos were/are madmen. The Magus lost his grip having spent centuries in the In-Betweener’s realm, while Thanos probably drove himself mad using the Cosmic Cube (back in the pages of Captain Marvel). Yet in the midst of all this madness, they shared one focus: power, and the desire to rule over all.
An aside: I have poured over Strange Tales #181 from start to finish, from the typed blurbs touting current Marvel comics at the bottom of pages 2, 6, 10, 14, 16, 22, 26 to the Captain Marvel Hostess Twinkee ad to the Marvel Bullpen Bulletin, in hope of finding some indication that Warlock would not be appearing next in Strange Tales #182, but rather in the relaunch of his own title, starting with #9. But there’s nothing. This must have been one of the most unheralded transitions to star status in the history of comics.
Starlin’s art is exciting and detailed, but try posing like his characters and you might strain a few muscles or snap a few bones. He likes to give his characters, both good and evil, great stature. Their depiction is exaggerated because their actions and movements are important. They are driven. Life, death, and existence hang in the balance. But while we are thrilled by the characters, it’s the epic itself that has personality. We’re moved by it on a ‘cosmic’ level. It’s kind of sad, though, that by epic’s end Warlock remains as troubled as he was at its beginning. His character hasn’t exactly developed. At least his future is his own (I think).
Another aside: On the cover of Strange Tales #179, the CAA label in the upper right hand corner reads: Approved by the COSMIC Code Authority! Wow! Marvel sure had connections!
Finally, time loops do exist in reality, sort of. The first “Starlin comic” I ever bought was Warlock #12, back in January, 1976. At that time I liked Warlock’s look, but I had no idea what he was brooding about on that meteor. Of course, I didn’t know then of his battle with the Magus. I liked Pip’s smitten-with-the-girl-but-coming-up-short story. Boy, at fifteen and unlucky with the girls I could sure relate to poor Pip. Over the summer of 2002 I purchased all of Warlock’s adventures as back issues, so 27 years after reading Warlock #12 I was finally able to catch up with Adam’s cosmic exploits, and his thoughts on the meteor now make complete sense. I could relate, a time loop was complete, and, once again, reading comics is, was, and continues to be pure joy.