I’ve been thinking a lot about cosmic comics lately. If I told you why, Id’ be guilty of using this column for self promotion, so I won’t (but if any of you hazard a guess it might have something to do with my new freelance writing assignment, go to the head of the class). “Cosmic,” of course, means “having to do with the cosmos or universe,” and Marvel’s published a glorious array of cosmic stories. Let me clarify what I mean by “cosmic.” A cosmic story is one that deals with forces and phenomena on a grand scale and serves to stimulate a reader’s all-important sense of wonder. Although the cosmos encompasses a whole lot of outer space, just setting a story in space doesn’t necessarily make the story cosmic,. One could have a very prosaic, mind-unexpanding story set in space. On the other hand, one could have a story about the wonders of the universe and never leave your backyard. If a story makes your think about the mysteries of existence, chances are, it’s cosmic.
What I’d like to do for my own benefit as well as yours is muse on what I believe to be Marvel’s all-time top cosmic stories in its checkered 28-year history. Okay? Let’s go.
My candidate for Marvel’s first cosmic story appeared in FANTASTIC FOUR #13, was by the team supreme, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and introduced us to the man on the moon himself, the enigmatic Watcher. This wasn’t Marvel’s first alien story by any means – FF #2 featured a Skrull invasion, but despite their shape changing powers, the Skrulls were pretty ordinary fellows by extraterrestrial standards – their forms, their language, their motives, all pretty much made sense. The Watcher, on the other hand, had more power than any single being Marvel had so far introduced (with the possible exception of Odin) and his behavior, just standing around watching the world go by, was pretty alien in that pre-couch potato era. I’d say the Watcher was the first alien in comics history who truly acted alien, not just superhuman. That’s cosmic, expanding our ideas of what life forms out there might be like.
Marvel’s next major cosmic story, also by Lee and Kirby, appeared in FANTASTIC FOUR #24. In “The Infant Terrible,” an alien comes to earth exhibiting extraordinary power and the FF’s Reed Richards finally deduces from the alien’s behavior that it is but an immature member of its species and risks summoning what he hopes are the aliens parents to come get it. What made this tale so cosmic since, thanks to the Watcher, we already knew aliens could be much more powerful than ourselves? Well, the Infant Terrible showed us that even an infant alien may have more power than the most capable of Earth’s super-people. The mind boggles think of what a society of such vastly powerful creatures must be like. How did they toilet train their young anyway?!? Al right, I’ll admit their familial relationships turned out to be pretty Earth-normal, but still “The Infant Terrible” forced one to think, as all good cosmic stories do.
Next up we have STRANGE TALES #138 (by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) where Earth’s master of the mystic arts, Dr. Strange, met for the first time the awesome Eternity, the personification of al the life force in our universe. This was Marvel’s first “abstract entity,” a being who embodied a concept, and what a concept this was! Other abstract entities would follow – Death, Eon, Chaos, Order, Veritas, and so on – but Eternity introduced us to the idea of impersonal forces of nature as sentient creatures.
And then there’s the most famous cosmic tale of all, the Galactus “Trilogy” in FF #47 thru #50. Galactus was a being who not only had power on the Watcher-Infant Terrible “near-omnipotent” level, but the major activity he was involved in – eating the energy of worlds for survival – forced us to look beyond our notions of morality for the first time. “Lesser” creatures die to provide human beings with food – what if there was a being to whom human beings are lesser creatures? Would he be justified then in using us for food? The story seemed to suggest that no, Galactus is not justified in using us for food, but it did give a person food for thought (ahem) about human eating habits. Galactus was portrayed as being human notions of good and evil: simply a universal force.
While we’re on the subject of Galactus, I’d have to put the Big G’s origin tale (originally told be Lee and Kirby in THOR #162, 168 and 169, but enhanced and expanded a bit in its reprinting in SUPER-VILLAIN CLASSICS #1), on my cosmic master list, too. In the original version, Galactus was revealed to be the sole survivor of a galactic “plague” that had ravaged the known galaxy. In the reprinted version (which both John Byrne and I had a hand in), the plague was revealed to be the actual collapsing of the universe itself. Apparently in the Marvel Universe there is sufficient “missing mass” so that gravity eventually causes the expanding universe to re-contract. The being who became Galactus then was no mere plague survivor but the sole survivor of the death of the entire universe previous to the current one. That makes the Big G older than anybody in the M.U., including Eternity himself! As if this mind-twisting concept weren’t enough, the story also posed an ethical dilemma as sticky as the issue of Galactus’s appetite. A Watcher observes the nascent Galactus while he is still acclimating himself to conditions in the new universe and becomes aware than once he emerges from incubation his hunger will be so great it will take worlds to satiate him. The Watcher’s dilemma: to obey his race’s code of non-interference or kill Galactus before he can be unleashed upon our universe. The Watcher, of course, lets him go. Would we have done the same thing, we can all ask ourselves. Galactus cryptically justifies his predatory existence here, stating that it is “his destiny to give back to the universe more than he has taken,” but what this means may not be revealed in our measly lifetimes.
Know what, folks? I had ten all-time great cosmic stories I wanted to talk about, and in my typically long-winded way I’ve only gotten to five of them as the end of the page looms ominously. Tell you what, I’ll hit the rest of them next month in this space. In the meantime, stay cosmic!