Thanos creator Jim Starlin’s comedic assault on the powers-that-be at Marvel in a 1975 issue of Strange Tales was a truly epic moment.
To say that writer/artist Jim Starlin – who created Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet – has had a tumultuous relationship with Marvel Comics would be an understatement of cosmic proportions. Starlin has made several public statements about his disagreements with the publisher and the movie studio, but his comedic assault on the powers-that-be at Marvel in a 1975 issue of Strange Tales was a truly epic moment.
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan in 1949, Starlin had just turned 12 years old when Fantastic Four #1 hit the stands. “I got hooked on comic books early,” he said in a 2018 interview with Vulture. “My father worked for Chrysler and he used to bring home all this tracing paper from his drafting job, so I started tracing things out of the comic books.” Ironically, two of Starlin’s early favorites at Marvel were writer/artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, both of whom also ended up having creative disputes with Marvel. Starlin continued to work on his art throughout a tour of duty in Vietnam with the Navy, and began submitting work to Marvel and DC when he returned from the war in 1971. He was hired by Marvel to draw an issue of The Invincible Iron Man (#55, December 1972) in which he introduced Thanos, and was making a name for himself on Captain Marvel but quit the company in 1974 after disputes over who would be inking his pencils and his artwork being altered by art director John Romita at the request of Stan Lee. Marvel Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas quickly got Starlin to return by offering the young creator his choice of characters to work on, and Starlin chose an obscure Lee/Kirby creation, Adam Warlock. He then wasted no time openly mocking his employers in the pages of their own comics.
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Courtesy of Marvel’s Tom Brevoort’s excellent blog, he recounted in Strange Tales #181 (August 1975), the story entitled “1000 Clowns” begins with the line “a tale of madness and futility” and features Adam Warlock awakening in a bizarre reality where the head clown known as “Lenstean” (a quasi-anagram of Stan Lee) welcomes Warlock to “The Land of the Way It Is”. Promising “eternal contentment”, Lenstean begins Warlock’s indoctrination at the “How to Look Happy Island” where Warlock meets “Jan Hatroomi”, a clear anagram of John Romita who had made changes – particularly on faces – to Starlin’s art. Jan’s job is to “see that everyone appears socially acceptable.”
As Warlock rejects becoming another homogenized member of this insane clown posse, distortions in reality begin to occur and technicians who look suspiciously like new Marvel EIC Len Wein (who succeeded Roy Thomas as editor-in-chief shortly after Starlin’s return to Marvel) and writer/editor Marv Wolfman scramble to stabilize the status quo. Lenstean then shows Warlock a crucified “renegade clown” who “used to be one of the best, but he bucked the system.” Two clowns begin throwing pies at the renegade who looks just like Starlin’s advocate at Marvel, former EIC Roy Thomas. “I tried!”, cries the renegade. “I played the game as long as I could…I just couldn’t take it any longer.” Lenstean explains to Warlock that they have been preparing him to “become part of…the greatest workforce in the galaxy” as he shows Adam legions of clowns building “a giant tower of trash” (a brutal allegory of Marvel’s output) which collapses, but Lenstean assures him that “tomorrow they’ll begin rebuilding the tower.” Amidst the garbage, Warlock finds a diamond (a symbol of his own Marvel work, and perhaps that of Kirby and Ditko?) about which Lenstean says “Oh, that stuff! We just can’t seem to keep it out of our refuse. Someone keeps putting it in while we’re not looking.” It is ultimately revealed that this assault on Warlock is a plot by the Universal Church to convert Adam into becoming their “greatest zealot”, but Warlock overcomes the programming by sheer force of will.
The fact that either Len Wein or Marv Wolfman approved this scathing indictment of Marvel for publication is a testament to the fact that they were trying to give Starlin a great deal of creative freedom, but Starlin quit Marvel again in 1976. He returned a few months later, beginning a cycle of coming-and-going as Starlin quit again in 1986, 1994, 2004, and 2018 for various reasons. But if the past is any indication, fans can expect Starlin to return to Marvel again one day in the not too distant future.
Next: Marvel Legend Jim Starlin Unsure About Adam Warlock’s MCU Future
Source: The Tom Brevoort Experience
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