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CSBG Archive

Meta-Messages – Jim Starlin Makes Clowns Out of Stan Lee and John Romita

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In this feature I explore the context behind (using reader danjack’s term) “meta-messages.” A meta-message is where a comic book creator comments on/references the work of another comic book/comic book creator (or sometimes even themselves) in their comic. Each time around, I’ll give you the context behind one such “meta-message.” Here is an archive of the past installments!

No Abandoned an’ Forsaked this week! Instead, you get a new edition of Meta-Messages! Today we take a look at Jim Starlin’s rather aggressive satire of the state of Marvel Comics in 1975 with one of his earliest Warlock stories!

To set the scene, in the early 1970s, Stan Lee became the publisher of Marvel Comics and Roy Thomas took over Stan Lee’s Editor-in-Chief job. John Romita, meanwhile, took over Stan Lee’s Art Director job. In 1974, Thomas resigned and was replaced by Len Wein and Marv Wolfman (Wein in charge of the superhero comics and Wolfman in charge of the black and white magazines). By the time Strange Tales #181 came out, Wein had either resigned or was JUST about to resign (I think it was likely that he was still in charge when the issue was written but had resigned before the issue actually came out). Wolfman then took over the Editor-in-Chief role entirely (Wolfman, too, left in 1976 and was replaced by Gerry Conway).

Those are the basic agreed-upon facts of the situation (with only the exact date of Wein’s resignation unsure).

Now we come to what I am sure is a disputed take on the situation at the time, which was what appears to be Jim Starlin’s view of how things were. Starlin seemed to believe that Lee and Romita were basically company men and that Wein/Wolfman followed their lead. He seemed to believe that only Thomas really stood for creator’s rights and he had been driven out of the EiC role.

These views inform Strange Tales #181 (written by Starlin with art by Starlin and Al Milgrom), which was part of Starlin’s tale of the evil Magus, the Matriarch and the Universal Church of Truth. The Matriarch is trying to brainwash Warlock (especially since she knows that she cant’t kill him since the Magus is Warlock’s future self) into following orders.

To do so, she enlists some of her men to put Warlock into a sort of virtual reality where they try to break Warlock down.

Here he meets Lens Tean (a basic anagram of Stan Lee, of course. Although on this first page the “s” is missing), who is instructing Warlock on following the way that the world is…

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On this next page, Lens makes it clearer that he is, in fact, Stan Lee (including showing the “real” Lens, who is basically an alien caricature of Lee). On this page, we also meet Jan Hatroom (John Romita), who is charge of making everyone look presentable…

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Of course, in Starlin’s mind, doing this makes everyone just homogenized.

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Starlin doesn’t believe in glossing over the imperfections in characters.

On the next page, we meet stand-ins for Roy Thomas, Len Wein and Marv Wolfman. Thomas is being punished for trying to buck the system, while Wein and Wolfman are willing to go along with “the ways things are.”

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Now, either Wein or Wolfman (or both) had to sign off on this issue, so the fact that they were willing to let Starlin pretty blatantly rip on them certainly speaks to their willingness to give Starlin some pretty notable creative freedom, but obviously Starlin differed at the time.

Next is an extended metaphor about how Marvel tried to make creators feel like they were part of one big happy family, while really they were just mostly interested in putting out towers of garbage, only accidentally creating some good content mixed in with all of the trash…

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The rest of the comic goes away from strict commentary, although you can certainly read some metaphors into Warlock ultimately choosing madness itself over being a part of this system.

That is some harsh satire right there. Amusingly enough, Starlin’s biggest conflicts with editorial would not happen until after Wolfman was replaced by Conway. Starlin stayed on Warlock under both Wein and then Wolfman but left the book when Conway was in charge (when Archie Goodwin then replaced Conway soon after Starlin decided to leave, Goodwin tried to get Starlin back but it was too late, although Goodwin at least got Starlin to do those two famous Annuals to finish off his Warlock run).

That’s it for this installment of Meta-Messages! If YOU have a suggestion for a future edition of Meta-Messages, let me know by e-mailing me at bcronin@comicbookresources.com!

33 Comments

Travis Pelkie

June 2, 2013 at 3:59 am

Well, Lens Tean has an extra N, and Jan Hatroomi has an extra A, so they aren’t exact anagrams. But close enough.

There should have been a DC crossover with a Funky Flashman appearance!

I grew up on early 80’s Marvel during the Shooter and it produced the best comics ever until the New Universe and Secret Wars II came about.

But I have to wonder what Marvel could have been like if Goodwin had stayed on as EIC instead of moving over to the Epic imprint.

You could do no wrong with Archie Goodwin as your editor. He was Marvel’s equivalent of DC’s Julie Schwartz.

I think the Masterworks reprint had a text piece from Starlin which explained further. Starlin held the dialogued pages back until deadline so that the editors didn’t have much chance to review the book, or change anything if they did. Apparently that was a widely used tactic. Probably allowing more “diamonds” in the “garbage”.

Jim Starlin definitely enjoyed the anagrams. I remember the credit for one of his Captain Marvel issues as being J.L. Minirats.

“Diamonds among the garbage!”

So harsh. So true.

Wow. Not exactly an exercise in subtlety.

It’s funny, we hear a lot of the same complaints today. Guess things aren’t that different after all.

To me, what completed the scene was the fact that the issue was dedicated to Steve Ditko, who had famously left Marvel in 1966 (and this was some 5 years prior to his return). Of course, that “dimension” was clearly inspired by Ditko’s Dr. Strange work too, which helped.

These sorts of things always make me mad. It comes across to me as arrogance more than satire.

Considering that it is very mean-spirited satyre of the very people that were editing his work, it sure makes sense to see it as arrogance.

Myself, I’m inclined to take it as a visceral letting off of steam. It doesn’t really make much sense otherwise.

It is important to note that it was probably held off until it was too late to make much in the way of editorial changes, though. As well as that this was a time of great editorial instability in Marvel (as seen in the rapid succession of EiC from Roy Thomas to Wein to Marv Wolfman to Gerry Conway to Archie Goodwin in less than two years).

Also, this was before 1982’s “Destroyer Duck”. At the time the perception was that creators were stuck with Marvel and DC no matter what.

Wow – I remember reading this story and not caring for it at all. But now that I understand the references, it makes more sense.

Still don’t care for it, but can sympathize with Starlin’s frustration.

You know, way back when that book came out, I thought that clown getting hit with the pies looked like thomas.Oh they were great issues Starlin put out then.

I read this story as a kid and found the anagrams for Stan Lee and John Romita at the time, but I thought it was a homage.

That is a thing with a good writer and a good story: You can read this one without knowing anything of this “conspiracy theory” and the story works.

Great series by one of the last masters of the art form! Reading these old pages really shows how far down the quality of current books has fallen! In my humble opinion comics haven’t been great and exciting since the Bronze Age!

Read Hyperactive Comics on the Duck!

Great series by one of the last masters of the art form! Reading these old pages really shows how far down the quality of current books has fallen! In my humble opinion comics haven’t been great and exciting since the Bronze Age!

Read Hyperactive Comics on the Duck!

geez . starlin sure holds nothing back when making his view known including what he thought of marvel editoral staff back then when doing this issue. for stan and crew as clowns talk about a little hilerious in his own insulting way.

I had no idea of the subtext here, though I’m sure I noticed at the time that some of the faces were far too specific to be generic characters.

Anyway, this run of Warlock was absolutely fantastic. The Magus storyline, followed by the second epic conflict with Thanos – truly great stuff. I don’t think that Starlin ever did anything again, that I am aware of, to rival this, so some of his Dreadstar stuff came close.

It’s still pretty incredible to think that this came out in the 1970s. To me, the late 1970s and the 1980s were the golden age of mainstream comics. The 90s were garbage and the 2000s haven’t been all that good. The “event comics” are killing things.

Wow, I’ve never much cared for Starlin’s writing or his art, but this lowers my opinion of him even further. It’s pretty unprofessional to put your private grievances into a story this thinly-veiled.

As a satire of Marvel, I suppose this works. As an actual comic book story, it’s painfully obnoxious. I wish Wolfman or whoever was in charge had edited it. That’s what editors are for: To reign in rampant self indulgence like this. Considering how many 70’s stories read as poorly as this one, I think they needed more and better editing, not less.

Was at a Gerry Conway panel at DCC recently and if you heard his side of how it was to be EIC of Marvel during that time – picture in your mind the Precinct Captain of the old series Hill Street Blues but instead with no actually respect by the cops (creators) – you get the idea. There was a reason for why the “House of Ideas” was more the “House of Anarchy” but I wont go into detail. Suffice to say, it was an eye opener! And kinda funny.

But, suffice to say, you were not surprised neither he nor the other EICs lasted long.

Wow. It’s pretty easy to see where Thanos’ sense of entitlement comes from.

Thanks for all the Starlin coverage. I grew up on the post Secret Wars era of Marvel Comics and by then characters like Warlock, Nova, and Captain Marvell were considered lame relics of the70’s and were condemned to the 25 cent box at the local comics store. It wasn’t until after reading about Starlin on CBR that I went back and read all of the infinity story lines through to the wave story lines.

I was in high school when this came out and loved it. I knew what he was saying and agreed with much of it.
The diamond to trash ratio was better then.
I think there’s more X-Men books out now then all Marvel’s output then.
I loved his Captain Marvel, but Warlock was just perfect for a guy in high school who was questioning everything.

According to Starlin, Marv Wolfman and Len Wein thought it was funny in a “cool we’re in a comic!” sort of way. But Roy Thomas, who actually comes off really well in caricature here, was upset by the sequence.

Based on some things Jim Shooter said on his blog about some OTHER incidents, many comics were realeased without anyone ‘signing off on them’, so it is possible neither Wein or Wolfman ever saw what Starlin had done here before it went to print.

Joe S. Walker

June 3, 2013 at 6:02 am

Insufferable self-indulgence, not helped by its being thoroughly second-hand – the art’s Kane mixed with Ditko, the character’s a warmed-up Kirby one-off, the whole clowns scenario is hardly a new invention.

I read most of the Warlock/Magus saga reprinted in Fantasy Masterpieces and loved it. I missed this issue and when I finally got the back issue years later it seemed like a pretty forgettable chapter in the saga. I didn’t get the inside references so it just seemed like one of the duller issues.

Knowing the full context makes it kind of humorous (not for actually being clever but for the fact a creator could mess around like this) but still a lull in the story arc.

Although it should be noted that even without the Marvel backstory as context, the issue is consistent with the themes of the overall arc, which was an attack on institutionalized religion and its threat to freedom and diversity. I originally read it that way and it seemed fine, although oddly long-winded.

Chris McFeely

June 4, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Read this not too long ago in Essential Warlock and, while knowing little about Starlin’s grumblings, picked up on the meta-message of the issue pretty much right away. I’m still not sure what I really think about it.

(I also figured that was Steve Gerber up on the cross.)

This looks like a job for…

FUNKY FLASHMAN!!

..Fetch my cape, Houseroy!

You undoubtedly really really know what your are doing, you’ve included a large number of bases. Love! %KW%
Elizabeth http://dilaw.in.ua/index.php?subaction=userinfo&user=hvwxzbsadtv

[…] mindless society of clowns, I might add, based on the Marvel Comics editorial staff. You can read a pretty in-depth breakdown of the satire here, but basically, Starlin shows us Stan Lee and John Romita trying to enforce a house style on the […]

I always thought that Romita’s paste up heads on Starlin art were a big motivation for the clown metaphor. As in “here’s your new face, you’ll fit in better this way”.

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