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

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...

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...

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

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."

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...

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!

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