A few months ago, I wrote about how Adam Warlock – in Roy Thomas and Gil Kane’s 1972 series – was an analog for Jesus Christ. It was a series that celebrated the life and values of Jesus, while calling us all to act more like him today. It even asked the question “If Jesus could see how we’ve treated our planet and fellow man now, would it break his heart?” After Warlock’s death and resurrection, the series ends with him going off into space to look for more worlds to save. That’s where writer and artist Jim Starlin picks everything up. Starlin seemingly has a very different take on Christianity and uses the series to delve into all of the ways that religion can work as a vehicle for hatred and violence.
What’s interesting, though, is that Starlin’s take on Warlock isn’t necessarily contradictory to Thomas and Kane’s. In fact, it acts as a cautionary tale. When religion only exists in someone’s life to make them feel powerful or to explain away uncomfortable realities like death, it becomes a very dangerous thing.
The sins of the Church
In Starlin’s first pages of his Warlock epic, he introduces us to a scared woman fleeing for her life. Adam Warlock encounters her on a barren planet while she’s being chased by grotesque aliens who are out for her blood. The woman recognizes Warlock and hurriedly asks him for help, saying she’s crossed galaxies to seek his aid. “Help us!” She screams. However, it’s just Warlock, this frightened woman, and her pursuers on this planet. She’s not talking about other people who are dodging these particular bullets – she’s asking for help on behalf of anyone who the Church of Universal Truth chooses to persecute.
The Grand Inquisitors – which is what the aliens call themselves – fight Warlock, screaming “Die infidel!” at the woman as they fire laser blasts in her direction. In the battle, one of the Inquisitors strikes his mark. As Warlock holds her lifeless body, his face contorts into fury as he says “This… Is… Wrong!” The Inquisitors escape, and with the use of his soul gem, Adam questions the corpse of the young woman. She tells him all about the Church of Universal Truth while psychically showing him images of their services. What follows is Starlin’s brilliant and scathing critique of the Christian Church. She describes the Church as a group that uses violent methods to gain converts and power. They serve the Magus, a being that came to earth five thousand years ago and declared itself God. She talks about their indoctrination and executions of anyone who disagrees with their faith – sometimes whole planets at once:
“The basic teachings of the Magus are to say the least… admirable! If all lived by his teachings, the universe would be a place of peace! Unfortunately, those teachings only apply within the Church! Love your neighbor… as long as he’s a fellow Universalite!”
In one of the images that Warlock sees, there’s the same cross-like device that he was executed on in Thomas and Kane’s run, mounted up on a wall. These beautiful things – Warlock’s sacrifice, the call to love your neighbor, and the goals of bringing peace – are all being twisted by people who are seeking power and influence. And so much of the language is a direct reference to something in Christian history.
“Inquisitors” have, unfortunately, been around for hundreds of years, most notably in the Spanish Inquisition from 1478 to 1834. Originally, the Spanish Inquisition was designed to be a way of consolidating theology and eliminating heresy. Heresy – or beliefs held by followers of a religion that directly contradict the tenets of that religion – causes confusion. It’s good to want to eliminate that. Even the term “inquisition” is something you do to inquire information and seek answers. But in actuality, the Spanish Inquisition used brutal methods of torture that brought death and suffering everywhere it went. It was also ultimately a tactic used to unite the powers of the newly formed monarchy of Spain. The Spanish Inquisition was a political agenda driven by manufactured religious reasoning.
Then there’s the word “infidel.” This word simply means “unbeliever.” But again, this term has a barbaric and bloody history. In the medieval period, religious wars were initiated by the Christian Church against Muslims. It was intended to rid Jerusalem and its surrounding areas of Muslim rule. Muslims were referred to in these campaigns as infidels and it was the Church’s goal to eradicate them. So when Starlin “invents” this horrible institution with stained glass windows and twisted forms of indoctrination, he doesn’t have to come up with too much on his own. But this is just one of the ways Starlin points to the dangers of distorting Jesus’ messages of love and sacrifice. The other way of missing the mark is far more subtle but perhaps even more likely.
Don’t you see? It’s all about ME!
The Church of Universal Truth are not the only antagonists of Starlin’s run on Warlock. The Magus, Thanos, and the physical embodiment of Death herself all play major roles in trying to stop Warlock’s fight for justice. The Magus – a futuristic version of Warlock who has let his “godhood” twist him into a power hungry maniac – turns our protagonist against himself. Warlock’s fear that every path leads him to being a religiously-tinted despot means that he spends much of the time in this series soliloquizing and overthinking every step of his journey. He becomes like a modern space-themed Hamlet who is constantly battling his own inner demons to the point of nearly being paralyzed by fear. When thoughts of suicide, or at least thoughts of ending the life of his future self, come into the foray, he begins to grapple with a being who the aforementioned Thanos is busy wooing.
Yes, Thanos and his would-be lover, Death, tie everything together. Not only is our protagonist facing what he could become, but he’s tortured by the methods he might have to use to unequivocally stop his journey to villainy. And just as I said, this leads to Warlock being almost completely immobile. Starlin often shows him floating through space, working himself into moral knots of self-searching:
“I am no God. I wield power, yet, am still only a man. Like all men I have problems, powerful problems, yet still troubles I should be able to resolve as a man. Or can I?”
When he gets going like this, you can usually count on him to go on for a page or two. He often questions his own sanity (again not unlike Hamlet) and when he faces powerful beings, he wonders if they’re actually the ones with all the answers. The Star-Thief (an extremely formidable opponent who shows up for a couple of issues), Thanos, and other big goons seem to be almost immortal. However, they also seem to be quite like the Magus. And so Warlock arrives at his true question: should he allow his untimely death to put an end to his descent into madness, or should he embrace the power he knows will corrupt him and thus cheat death altogether?
That’s why Thanos and Death hold such a powerful sway over this series. They’re the physical representations of Warlock’s two choices. Thanos is a fanatical, religious, and fervent disciple of Death. He seeks to serve and appease her, perhaps in some ways so that he might control her. That’s what Thanos uses his religion for. That’s what the Magus uses religion for. That’s what the Star-Thief uses his power for.
Power and religion end up being synonymous in the tormented Warlock’s mind. But Warlock is ultimately about how it’s the truly noble who face Death with a smile and a satisfied sigh, knowing they lived a good and fulfilling life of helping others. And maybe Death, when faced with a truly genuine faith, isn’t as final as it seems to be. Warlock tells us that a religious life that is lived to be self-serving, or even self-soothing, is ultimately the path to villainy.
The stories discussed in this piece were told in Strange Tales #178-181, Warlock #9-15, Marvel Team-Up #55, Avengers Annual #7, and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2. They are collected in Warlock Masterworks Volume 2 and can be found at all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, Amazon/Kindle, and Marvel Unlimited.