Elric, Arkwright, Warlock

A modest follow-up to this recent post, here’s something that has been on my mind for a while to explore. What are the connections between the frosty, soul-stealing cosmic saviors of Michael Moorcock, Bryan Talbot and Jim Starlin?

Elric, Arkwright, Adam Warlock

From left, Elric by Russell; Arkwright by Talbot; Warlock by Starlin

As noted earlier, I took a liking to Starlin’s version of Adam Warlock in the early 1990s, later tunneling back to discover the pair’s 1970s outing. For many years, this was about all I knew of such things, my comics reading being largely obsessed with Marvel.

Then, maybe sometime around 2002, I discovered The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. (Probably inspired by Warren Ellis’s praise at artbomb.net, which site is unfortunately now so broken that it seems impossible to access anything beyond the homepage.) While this work was incredibly eye-opening… there were yet familiar aspects. Aloof, ruthless superman (with 70s feathered hair), cosmically appointed a universal savior, in which role (unlike an even earlier occupant of that job) he may figuratively save souls but literally steals them… I couldn’t help wondering if this was more than coincidence.

For several years, I gave it little more thought, though, until I stumbled upon The Metatemporal Detective Agency. This novel introduced me to Michael Moorcock’s sprawling fantasy oeuvre, out of which I soon latched onto the character of Elric. Probably, I must suspect now, because here was another character I recognized as familiar and to my liking.

Elric is a sickly (though mean) looking scarecrow with long, stringy hair, but beyond the surface differences he clearly fit much the same pattern. Stealer of souls? Check. Sacrifice to save existence? Check. Usually a tortured, brooding misery? Check! He even has an earthy, cheerful sidekick who does bear a physical resemblance to Warlock’s pal Pip.

More interesting still, Elric’s stories are repeatedly informed by conscious recognition of a similar, larger pattern: Elric is but one aspect of the Universal Champion, alongside various of Moorcock’s other heroes. All of them, per the mythology, are on some cosmic level one being. Hm.

Once more I let curiosity hang back, until recent musings on shifting vs enduring interests, Warlock, and antecedent work. Inspired, I decided to get on with looking up some actual dates and other details.

Short version: Moorcock was there first, and I’m pretty sure that both Arkwright and Warlock are literary descendants of Elric with few, if any, influences among the three characters in other directions. Per the Multiverse wiki, Moorcock’s fiction has a publishing history to make Warlock’s seem boring, but it appears that all of the basics were published by 1970. Revisions and extensions have continued ever since, really, but my impression is that the major outlines of Elric and related mythology were finished and in print before Starlin or Talbot began their work with similar themes.

I don’t have specific evidence that Starlin drew inspiration from Elric, but the commonalities seem too much to be entirely coincidence and Arkwright cannot have been an influence because his very first obscure appearance was in 1976, when Starlin’s first Warlock arc was nearly complete. Meanwhile, I have never gotten the impression of Talbot as much of a Marvelite, so the connections between Arkwright and Warlock seem much more likely to be the result of common influence from Elric than of Starlin influencing Talbot. Particularly as the 70s Warlock stories were, themselves, relatively obscure and Talbot has by contrast gone on record identifying one of Moorcock’s characters as an inspiration. Technically, this was Jerry Cornelius, with whom I’m no more than marginally familiar myself, but presumably Talbot at least knew of Elric and the larger Universal Champion mythos.

Almost anticlimactic, really. There are a few notes worth adding, though, to this conclusion.

  • Though Luther Arkwright was born to ordinary parents, he was stolen away moments after his birth and raised by a superscience conspiracy which at least resembles Warlock’s creators The Enclave, or at least what they aspired to become. Elric’s upbringing was almost conventional in comparison. Warlock’s artificial nativity as a physical adult lacking developed emotions or life experience, however, was published (in Fantastic Four #67) nearly a decade before Arkwright’s debut… but, again, I presume this is coincidence.
  • As for Warlock’s and Arkwright’s more Christlike deaths and resurrections—compared to Elric’s earlier but more fatal sacrifice—I presume that Starlin and Talbot were both drawing on earlier fictions. (The same probably goes for Roy Thomas, et al., who crucified Warlock first, though they deserve mention at least.) Such heroic myths go back a long ways, probably even further than the obvious.
  • Soul-theft, however, seems like it has to involve the other two creators taking a note from Moorcock. Obviously there’s nothing new under the sun, but once I got to know Elric, it seemed very hard to imagine that Starlin’s evolution of the Soul Gem from passive talisman to sentient and soul-hungry parasite was not borrowed from the sword Stormbringer. If any one thing convinces me that Elric is a direct literary progenitor of Warlock, rather than a cousin descended from common ancestry, it’s this.
  • I think there is at least one exception to the Moorcock > Talbot-and-Starlin flow of ideas, though. Both Elric and Luther Arkwright have a female associate named Rose, who has a psychic connection with her alternative selves in other worlds. But Talbot’s Rose Wilde first appeared in the late 1970s, while as best I can tell Moorcock’s Rose Von Bek only debuted in 1991. I’m guessing that this was, therefore, Moorcock tipping his hat back at Talbot, who had drawn so much from Moorcock’s own stories.

Everything else that isn’t explained by Arkwright and Warlock being patterned on Elric is, I expect, simply the inevitable “coincidences” of creators with similar cultural backgrounds working around the same time. Though those coincidences can be quite novel, now and then:

Warlock and Arkwright respond to nominations for leadership roles…

Cranky, borderline insane fantasy supermen agree: anarchy rules, kids! 😉

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation