Balladeer’s Blog’s examination of another old, old, OLD Marvel Comics hit continues. This one was written AND drawn by Jim Starlin. (The overrated and over-praised Alan Moore only writes, doesn’t draw.)
FOR PART ONE PLUS A RECAP OF ADAM WARLOCK’S FICTIONAL HISTORY CLICK HERE
Strange Tales #181 (August 1975)
Title: 1,000 CLOWNS
NOTE: Jim Starlin dedicated this issue to Steve Ditko, “Who gave us all a different reality” and it’s drawn largely in the style of Ditko’s early Doctor Strange stories.
Get ready for “Adam Warlock Meets The Prisoner.” The title 1,000 Clowns is obviously a reference to the Herb Gardner play (and later movie) A Thousand Clowns. Gardner’s play dealt with a happy non-conformist forced to try to fit in with “normal”, conventional society for family reasons.
The title and the theme of nonconformity may come from Gardner’s play but Jim Starlin writes this installment of The Magus almost as if it’s an episode of the 1967 Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner (previously examined here at Balladeer’s Blog). Adam’s resistance to conditioning by the Universal Church of Truth puts one in mind of the Prisoner’s resistance to the Villagekeepers. The surreal, off-kilter presentation is also reminiscent of that program.
Synopsis: Adam Warlock has come to after his lapse into unconsciousness caused by the trauma of his Soul Gem’s theft of Kray-Tor’s soul at the end of last issue. He has awakened into a bizarre alternate reality with walkways and small islands of matter floating in an endless sky. Bizarre symbols and designs ornament the skyscape like imagery from an acid trip.
Warlock’s cosmic senses cannot determine up from down in this mad realm so, unable to fly away he must walk along the treacherous floating pathways trying to understand where he is and how he might escape. Soon, he encounters a cadre of clowns led by a figure called Lenteans, or “Lens” for short.
Lens the Clown tells Adam that he is not in an alternate dimension, he’s in the same reality he’s always lived in. He’s seeing it in its “true” form, Lens tells him, without the distortion of his “aberrant”, “antisocial” worldview. The Head Clown further explains that our hero is in “The Land of the Way It Is.” So we get a little funky R. Crumb feel along with all the other influences so far.
Lens informs Warlock that he had been “ill” up until now, but the clown doctors have made him well, allowing him to see the world the way it really is. We readers, but not Adam, get shown a technician – the real Lenteans – operating high-tech equipment and referring to the way Warlock is causing distortion of the “reality” that Lenteans is trying to impose on our hero. Obviously some form of attempted brain-washing is going on, but Adam remains unaware of that fact.
Lens adds to the “more sub-references than a dozen Dennis Miller monologues” feel by saying he will lead Warlock along the Road to Joy like we’re in some bizarre variation of Pilgrim’s Progress.
The first stop is a floating landscape called How To Look Happy Island, where Lens informs Adam that he can shed “those dark aspects that set you apart from your fellow clowns.” A clown artist gives Warlock a painted face and rubber-ball nose to make him look like any other clown.
To underscore the metaphorical point for the reader (presumably pre-teen or teenage comic book fans) Lens does the patronizing “conform … conform” sales job by saying “Isn’t that much nicer? Now you can go anywhere and look like everyone else. You’ll be much happier being part of society. It’s much better than being an outsider, a criminal or a madman.”
Adam removes the fake nose and uses his cape to wipe off all the clown makeup to regain his real appearance. He tells Lens that no matter how much being what he really is may disturb others he will not wear a disguise. He would not be happy living that kind of lie.
NOTE: This story’s appeal to precocious, socially awkward young readers learning to deal with the way “normal” society treats people who are different should be obvious. These vintage Marvel classics would still be great for introverted but very bright kids.
Lens replies that if Warlock wants to make things hard for himself to go ahead. We readers are then treated to another scene of the “real” technician Lenteans conferring with another tech about how our hero’s resistance is causing the illusion’s distortion to get worse.
Meanwhile, near the Sacred Palace, home of the villainess called the Matriarch, Rhagor – one of the super-powered Black Knights of the Church – is walking home after just having gotten relieved on guard duty at this planet’s equivalent of Midnight.
Gamora, who made her very first appearance EVER in the previous issue, pounces on Rhagor and drags him into an alleyway to be questioned by her and Pip the Troll, Adam’s recent ally. They want to know where the prisoner Adam Warlock is being held.
Despite Pip’s usual comic -relief attempt at being a Tough Guy, it’s obvious that the Black Knight Rhagor is terrified of Gamora, NOT him. Peeved, the Troll shoves his blaster into Rhagor’s gut, only to have the gun break apart against the Black Knight’s super-hard skin.
While Pip curses over the destroyed blaster, Gamora – using her original weapon, the God-Slayer Knife – intimidates Rhagor into telling her what she wants to know: Adam is being held in the Pit, a sub-basement of the palace where unbelievers are “reconditioned.” Satisfied, Gamora permits the trembling knight to leave and he runs away as quickly as he can.
Pip observes how frightened Rhagor was and notes that his green-skinned female companion has clearly been downplaying herself since they met at the space pilot tavern in our previous installment. Just as last issue was the heroine’s first appearance, this is the first time she is referred to by name as she tells Pip she is Gamora, the Most Dangerous Woman in the Galaxy and the scourge of the Black Knights, many of whom she has slain over the years.
Meanwhile, back in the illusion that Adam still believes to be a different dimension, Lens the Clown now shows him a floating island where punishment is dealt out to clowns who transgress.
He points to a clown bound to one of the high-tech cross-ankhs that serve as the main logo for the Magus’ Universal Church of Truth. Two other clowns are throwing seemingly limitless custard pies at the face of the hapless prisoner.
Lens informs Warlock that he wanted to show him the fate of those who refuse to conform. In another Prisoneresque exchange of dialogue Lens says “That is a renegade clown on the cross down there. It’s a pity. He used to be one of the best, but he tried to buck the system. He began to think people were more important than things. He even began to question “the way things are.”
The bound clown, who is supposedly either Steve Gerber OR Jim Starlin himself, just as Lens is Stan Lee and the artist clown was John Romita, addresses Adam: “I TRIED! I played the game as long as I could … just couldn’t take it any longer … but YOU wouldn’t understand!”
In Prisoner fashion, Warlock wryly replies “Then again, maybe I would.”
Lens, seeing that our hero is getting angry, tries to calm him down by telling him that what is being done to the rebellious clown is being done for his own good and the good of “the system.” Warlock ignores Lens, grabs a custard pie in each hand and then shoves the pies in the punishment clowns’ faces so hard they are knocked out.
We cut back to the technician, non-clown Lenteans for an interlude that fills in any blanks the reader has not figured out yet. Lenteans is looking at his two unconscious assistant techs, who really were k-o’ed by the furious Adam Warlock. Lenteans observes aloud that the attempt to reprogram Warlock has gone completely off the rails.
Adam himself is seen standing nearby with what we would today call a Virtual Reality Helmet enclosing his entire head. The Matriarch, the worldly leader of the Universal Church of Truth, arrives to pressure Lenteans to succeed in brainwashing Warlock.
Lenteans reacts in typical trembling lackey style, addressing her as “Your Holiness” and trying to placate her. Their conversation clarifies what is happening. They are trying to break Warlock like they’ve broken so many before him with will-numbing drugs and a sensory input helmet.
The Matriarch realized last issue that she dares not go through with killing Adam and thereby simultaneously killing his other self the Magus. She wants to rule the Church’s thousand-world empire alone now, without the Magus over her, but, now that we know the Magus is Warlock’s FUTURE self, killing him might prevent the Church’s empire from ever coming into being.
Therefore she wants to just control Adam. The programming is meant to make him see things the way the Church does, and to make him a thorough zealot, willing to obey the Matriarch alone.
Lenteans explains to the scheming Matriarch that the mental conditioning is being distorted by Warlock’s overly strong free will. Instead of seeing Lenteans and his assistants as heroes of the Church guiding him to a new life, they appear to him as clowns and all their arguments are twisted by Adam to fit his own viewpoint.
The Matriarch replies with some of her best dialogue so far. It shows how well Starlin brought her character to life so I’ll quote it verbatim:
“Clowns … how amusing. It’s pretty obvious to me that you’re approaching this problem from the wrong angle. You’re not dealing with a weakling, Professor Lenteans. This man won’t be threatened into doing what’s right. Convince Warlock it would be harder to stand with us than against us. The fool is easily taken in by a challenge.
“Explain the galaxy-spanning projects the Church is working on. Show him the good he can do by joining us. Portray the Church as the poor struggling underdog against the cosmic giant Anarchy. Succeed in this, and he is ours. I’ll check back with you later. I’ll be expecting to see results by then.”
(The Matriarch leaves the Pit, climbing the stairs to return to her throne room, musing aloud to herself as she goes) “Well, THAT should assure success! With the threat of my displeasure hanging over his head Professor Lenteans will shatter Adam’s ‘overly strong free will’ in record time. Before the day breaks that golden gladiator will be my ever-obedient servant … Still, in a certain way I’ll be sad to see that happen … Clowns! What a mind …
“But once he’s under my control it won’t be too difficult to enslave Warlock’s other self the Magus, also. After all, his very existence will depend upon my golden slave staying healthy. I’m sure the Magus would be more than happy to do my bidding, knowing that if he didn’t I’d order his alter ego to go kill himself. I only hope it never comes to that, for if killing Warlock eliminates any chance of the Magus existing, my kingdom will never come into being, either. Well, my fine lady, it’s all or nothing this time! So roll the dice and to hell with tomorrow! … Clowns …”
Again I’ll point out that I know these are only comic books but in those few words Jim Starlin provided very clear villain motivation PLUS a feel for her daring, wild nature as she cheerfully gambles with everything she has. Most action movies today don’t provide villains this memorable. No, not even Marvel movies since their cinematic villains have been pretty dull renditions of their comic book counterparts.
Back to Gamora and Pip, who are closing in on the Sacred Palace. Gamora jokingly tries to dissuade Pip from coming along, reminding him that Trolls are among the favorite targets of the Palace Guards and Black Knights because of what the Church considers Trolls’ “decadent, degenerate nature”. Undeterred, Pip stays right behind her as they approach the palace gates.
We rejoin Adam and Lens. Again, we see Warlock’s adamantine will imposing his own interpretation over the “heroic” Church image that the Matriarch ordered Lenteans to depict. Instead of those lofty, galaxy-spanning projects that Lens wants Adam to behold he instead sees an army of clowns constructing … a tower of garbage. “But it’s a GREAT tower of garbage” Lens replies.
No matter how high the clowns make their towers of garbage they eventually collapse, killing all of the worker clowns. The next day more clowns come along to build up the towers of trash, only to have those towers, too, ultimately collapse, killing the clowns. And so it goes, over and over again in a metaphor that needs no explaining.
Finally snapping over this latest display of madness (“But it’s the only madness they have” Lens replied to our hero), Adam threatens Lens with violence if he doesn’t show him a way out of this hellish dimension. The clown replies that the only exit is through the Doorway of Madness.
Back to Gamora and Pip, who have penetrated as far as the Pit itself, where hundreds of technicians work to reprogram or plainly torture other captives just like Lenteans and his crew were working to indoctrinate Warlock.
Pip now wields a stolen power-charged staff like the Black Knights of the Church use. Gamora uses her super-strength and God-Slayer Knife, taunting the technicians about their feeble combat skills compared to the Palace Guard and Black Knights she and Pip fought through. The over-eager Pip knocks out the last Tech standing, angering Gamora, who wanted him conscious for questioning. Now she and Pip must search every indoctrination cell to find Adam.
Returning to Warlock and Lens, our hero complains that the clown has been leading him along the floating pathways for hours now. Lens apologizes but says that if they kept the Doorway of Madness any closer it might prove too much of a temptation for some of the weaker clowns.
At last they reach the Doorway of Madness: a wardrobe. Sure, why NOT throw in a Narnia reference at this point? Lens tries to talk Adam out of going through the doorway but Warlock insists, saying “Better the freedom of madness than the imprisonment of this insane world.”
With that Adam kicks in the doorway and is welcomed to the Realm of Madness by a creature calling itself the Madness Monster. As our hero’s words before kicking in the doorway may have indicated, any subtlety is thrown aside now. We’re firmly into the obvious, awkward type of comic book allegories that most of this story had avoided until now.
As Warlock battles the silly looking Madness Monster even his Soul Gem is useless against it, because it has no soul of its own and is merely part of everyone else’s souls. As the fight goes on the Madness Monster spells out to Adam that it is all the foul things he’s never let himself fully contemplate, etc.
As the M.M. overwhelms our hero and holds him helpless in a headlock the dialogue gets a little better. I can’t help but wonder if Starlin originally wanted to call this creature the Morality Monster but got overruled by editors since this would, after all, have some young readers.
At any rate, Warlock stops struggling and gives in to the Madness Monster’s embrace, accepting its soothing assurance that it is not truly evil but is only what Adam (or anyone else) makes of him. We get more of a feel for the Neitzsche/ Aleister Crowley type of points Jim Starlin may have been trying to make before it got censored.
Warlock surrenders to all the foul thoughts and deeds he refused to entertain before because of his simplistic notions of right and wrong. He specifically refers to “the gossamer veil of false morality” being lifted from his eyes and recognizes that the foul creature is “neither demon nor angel, merely a different point of view.” (Cue what were probably some outraged parents back then if their kids quoted these Beyond Good and Evil style lines to them.)
Having yielded now to all the mad, vile concepts he used to reject outright on “moral” grounds, Adam is freed from the Virtual Reality helmet, which bursts open. Warlock is greeted by Gamora and Pip, who tell him they were about to free him but it turns out it wasn’t necessary.
The technician Lenteans says no one has ever managed to short out the helmet through pure force of will before. Adam explains that doing so came with a price and admits that he is now as mad and perverse as the Magus.
The Magus takes that as his cue and now appears to Warlock, Gamora and Pip on a big viewscreen to taunt Adam. He says that it is now time to abandon his “Wizard of Oz” disguise, in which he seemed to have skin as green as the Soul Gem. Adam, Pip and Gamora are led by the Magus’ mocking voice to a side room “behind the curtain” as it were.
There they see the Magus in his true form, seated upon a high-tech throne. He is all greyish/purple colored, has a big White Guy Afro for a hairdo (hey, it was the 70s) and wears a purple version of Adam’s old lightning bolt chestpiece. The Magus says it was necessary to deceive Warlock – his past self – into thinking his Soul Gem had spawned the Magus to keep him misled.
The time for that deception is over. The Magus says they have gone too far down the road of his creation. There is no longer any danger of Adam altering his (The Magus’) past/ Adam’s future. He tells Warlock that he has lost and there is absolutely nothing he can do to change what’s about to occur.
And we end on that cliffhanger for this time around. Next time, things get as Timey Wimey as the Kang/ Rama Tut/ Celestial Madonna storyline from the Avengers back then.
FOR PART FIVE CLICK HERE
I WILL EXAMINE THE NEXT CHAPTER SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK FOR UPDATES.
FOR MY EXAMINATION OF THE 13-PART BLACK PANTHER STORY TITLED PANTHER’S RAGE CLICK HERE
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