Note: This thread was initially begun at the old Classic Comics board and has been reposted here. Responses posted prior to the switch-over are no longer present. ______________________________________________________________________________________________
The Metamorphosis Odyssey and Beyond
A review thread for (arguably) Jim Starlin's greatest cosmic epic, as well as the stories that followed. Eventually, this will be followed by a sister review thread devoted to the Dreadstar ongoing series (which I've not yet read).
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter I: Aknaton originally published in: Epic Illustrated #1, (Spring 1980)
Had anyone ever tried a sci-fi comic on this grand a scale before? We've seen all powerful elder races before and intergalactic battles that claimed entire galaxies, but to have a protagonist literally shape and/or create life on other worlds in order to sew his own band of allies -- to essentially be their god and creator, as well as a mortal being who had already foreseen his entire future up to the moment of his inevitable death -- I mean wow. Add to this some truly breath-taking art and writing, and it's clear this was a labor of love and obsession for Starlin -- the kind of high point a creator is damned lucky to find once in his/her career. And here it was.
A few favorite lines from this chapter:
"These wisps of the past, while they linger, gently soothe his troubled soul. They are forever gone, but it helps that they once were. They aid him in dealing with the razor sharpness of his reality. They blunt the searing pain of his loss and control the hatred which travels within him."
"At last death became an accepted part of their future and a major factor in their plans...Orsiros would fall. The Orsirosian prepared to die but refused to die alone."
"Massive forces were forged into matter, new concepts were embraced, old beliefs were twisted and new and forgotten gods were called upon..."
- Though Vanth Dreadstar does not yet appear in this first chapter, nor is his home planet named, we do witness Aknaton create life on "an outer planet of Vega," where he also "left a sword of icy fire, knowing that someday one would come to claim it."
- Not sure how Aknaton slipped past the Zygotean blockade around Orsiros, not that it matters much.
- The Zygotean practice of conquering and assimilating worlds feels vaguely prototypical of Star Trek's The Borg.
plot synopsis in one sentence:
Orsiros is an advanced world in which beings resembling the Egyptian Gods live for vast expanses of time and enjoy tremendous technological advances, they grow concerned with an invincible conquering race known as the Zygoteans and watch them conquer planet after planet, they prepare defenses, hold them off in their first attack, realize the Zygoteans will eventually return and win, and so send Aknaton, a powerful elder, gifted with the powers of the other elders, as well as the Infinity Horn, a powerful and devastating weapon capable of wiping out the Zygoteans, and Aknaton plants seeds on several worlds for heroes to ultimately rise up, returns to Orsiros, and flees again to reap what he sewed 100,000 years later when the Zygoteans return and finish the job of destroying Orsiros.
AWESOME concept, and AWESOME execution, but we still don't know anything about who Aknaton really is as a character, nor who his comrades will be, so the series still has some proving to do.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter II: Za! originally published in: Epic Illustrated #1, (Spring 1980)
We'd learned in the previous chapter that Aknaton planted his third seed when, "On a harsh world of the Alpha Centauri system populated by cannibalistic brutes he introduced the potential to care." The second chapter elaborates upon this moment by introducing us to Za!, the first being on this planet afforded the opportunity to experience compassion because he lacks his racial taste for meat on a planet where the only meat available is his own race. Instead feeding upon blue crystals that provide more meaningful sustenance, he grows stronger than his peers (ten times stronger, to be specific) and is able to stand apart from the unending violence and experience limited wisdom, compassion, and a sense of alienation in contrast.
It's interesting to note that it's not until he experiences the loss of a loved one, possibly intended to resemble the loss Aknaton feels for Orsiros and his lover there, that Aknaton appears to him, bestows knowledge upon him, and asks him to join his plight.
Questions are also raised by all this:
1. Why does Aknaton know that "the stars have need of a monster with a mind and a soul?" Did he select his comrades based upon a plan he devised, or did this come from his ability to see his own future -- did he see that he had made these selections and then, in one hell of a time paradox, make his decision based upon having seen what his decision was? Or perhaps he was able to use his ability to see the future to take a trial and error approach, viewing various possible answers before arriving at the right conclusion of which participants would be needed? Of course, the backstory in the first issue implied more of one inevitable future as opposed to a myriad of possibilities.
2. Did Aknaton also plant the seeds for one of these beings to eventually be born without a craving for meat?
3. If so, how could he have done so when he had no idea when the Zygoteans would return to conquer his planet? He couldn't have known in advance that he'd need someone like Za! to be born exactly 100,000 years later, nor could he have counted on Vanth Dreadstar arriving on his own homeworld just then to take up the sword. I accept that there's much about Aknaton's abilities and understandings that we don't know, but this dimension feels fuzzy to me.
All that being said, I'm impressed by so much in this installment, from Starlin's fascinating explanation of how Darwinism might play out on a very different kind of world, to the level of pathos he develops for Za! by making him the one compassionate being amongst mindless and compassionless brutes, and finally to the dark frankness of Aknaton, introducing himself to Za! by explaining that, "I, the creator of the Hell that is your life, ask you to help me in this labor, man-monster." Of course, a being that can foresee future outcomes to the extent that he can specifically and deliberately affect the genetic make-ups of beings one hundred thousand years into the future probably knows exactly what to say to make Za! come along with him. Most likely, there's no free-will involved, and Aknaton can engineer his assistants' reactions just as precisely as their genetics and racial evolutions.
Fascinating fascinating stuff, and the art and writing remain uncannily strong.
- None for Vanth Dreadstar
- Is his name Za! or Za?
plot synopsis in one sentence:
We learn about the development of Za!'s race as one of meat eating mammals on a planet with no other meat, how this drove them to consume each other and thus never evolve beyond basic survival instincts, see Za! born without the craving of meat and see the impact this has upon his development, watch him discover his strength, fall in love, lose his loved one to cannibals, and be approached by Aknaton, ultimately agreeing to join him.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter III: Juliet Originally published in: Epic Illustrated #1 (Spring 1980)
As Aknaton selects his party across the span of this first handful of chapters, I'm paying careful attention to the sequence of those selections. They do not follow the sequence in which Aknaton planted his seeds so many centuries earlier, so it stands to reason that Starlin has a different logic in mind as he arranges the order of these stories. Thus, while I'm still not sure why Za had to come first, I find placing Juliet's story second incredibly meaningful.
I mean -- it's Earth.
The end of our planet; all life and civilization as we understand it.
And yet, this story is so much larger than our small reality on this planet, little deserving to be placed either first or last in the sequence of "origin" stories. Starlin's choice to place it second seems to deliberately make its placement seem anything but deliberate; an after-thought. "Earth? What makes that planet so special? The whole universe is about to end."
While this is my favorite art we've seen yet in this story, so authentically capturing what the moments before Earth's full occupation would look and feel like (no panic in the streets -- just confused people hovering around a radio, yet each lost in their own world of calm and morose bewilderment), the writing let me down this time. Aknaton and Za's rescue of Juliet felt somehow hokey in its timing and action-oriented nature. Aknaton even challenges an occupying soldier to a one on one duel (though he chides himself for it later). Furthermore, while Za's story painted him as a thoroughly important and unique individual among his people, we are given absolutely zero information about Juliet other than her age and gender. Juliet asks Aknaton what makes her so special, and while it's appropriate for Aknaton to be withholding secrets this early in the epic, we've been left with absolutely no sense that she does have special worth. Is Starlin planning to capitalize on this, to exacerbate the self esteem issues of a teenage girl on a cosmic level, or is this just carelessness? Whatever the case, something dropped out a bit for me in this chapter, as a result.
That being said, I enjoyed this further elaboration upon Aknaton's philosophy in undergoing this mission. As he explains it:
"...but there are different shades of death. There is the slow and degrading death of Zygotean enslavement or...a quick, clean darkness that engulfs foe with friend."
While he's speaking specifically about putting Earth out of its misery in this line, it clearly is intended to apply to his larger mission of using the Infinity Horn against the Zygotians. Of course, that then begs the question of why Aknaton waited until their forces came to his own planet to put this plan into action. If he and his people believed in waiting until the last moment and enjoying every second remaining before the inevitable end, isn't it hypocritical to deprive the other races in the galaxy of that same luxury?
Or am I assuming too much? Perhaps Aknaton is not planning to take out anyone other than the Zygotians with the Infinity Horn at this point. Some degree of "safeguards" against its cascading devastation effects were alluded to in the first chapter.
- None for Vanth Dreadstar
- Why is the final page colorized? Is this just because the story on the reverse side is also colorized, or is Starlin somehow trying to highlight the power and destruction in watching Earth get obliterated by Aknaton's hand?
- It still seems like a race as advanced as Aknaton's could do something more to stop the Zygotians. Do they have key supply lanes, stockpiles, or even a limited number of invasion fleets that, if caught in destructions like the one staged in this chapter, would ultimately disable their ability to conquer others? Heck, couldn't a star faring empire master time relativity manipulation through faster than light travel and use that to somehow disrupt the work of the Zygotians? Can't we at least be offered some more substantial suggestion that such things have been explored and ultimately ruled unfeasible?
plot synopsis in one sentence:
Earth is being invaded by the Zygotians, Juliet, a 15 year old girl in Covert, Kansas, watched her family get annihilated, and is then saved from the Zygotians by Aknaton and Za at the last moment, Aknaton foolishly tries to take on a Zygotian one-on-one, is wounded, chides himself for being so foolish, and then activates Earth's own defense systems to destroy the planet, sparing it a slower death by Zygotian hands.
A good chapter with a great concept behind it, but the actual writing and characterization in this one fell flat a bit.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter IV: Whis'par Originally published in: Epic Illustrated #2 (Summer 1980)
Momentum begins to build. In addition to meeting Whis'par, the third recruit of Aknaton, we're finally given a more specific sense of where this is all going. Juliet, Za, and Whis'par make up a trio that, together, will build a "child" that will gain the following traits from them:
Juliet -- "a strong, ambitious breed with the gift of youthful innocence still intact"
Za -- "the proof that something beautiful can grow from the nightmare of reality"
Whis'par -- "generations of environmental harmony and the wisdom that comes with it."
All creating some unstoppable cosmic hippy with which to defeat the Zygotians. Additionally, there's suggestion that it's somehow critical for the being to harbor whis'par's doubts as well.
What I find interesting here is that Aknaton did not approach Juliet and Za until they had already experienced a sense of great loss similar to what he, himself, has experienced. I had assumed this was part of his selection criteria. And yet Whis'par has experienced no such loss. Her life seems interrupted only by Aknaton's needing her. I suppose one could argue that Za and Juliet might not have been ready to come with Aknaton until they had lossed everything they held dear, while Whis'par's people revere Aknation (correctly) as their god and simply do his bidding.
On that note, Aknaton as God, surrounded by a small band of dedicated followers for whose existence he is responsible, somehow felt prototypical of Gaiman's Sandman. I think it was his seriousness, internal darkness, manner of speaking, and even his being clad all in black. I wonder if Gaiman was aware of this series.
Finally, one has to ask how in the world Juliet's youthful innocence is still intact after watching the death of her parents and grandfather(?) firsthand.
As for what I thought of the chapter as a whole, it's really two stories merged into one -- Whis'par discussing her being selected by Aknaton with a fellow native of her planet, and Aknaton finally explaining his plan at a later point. The first story did little for me either through visuals or writing. It's just two talking heads speculating. Similarly, the second part isn't particularly compelling beyond finally revealing where the story is headed and, perhaps, finally giving us a chance to sense some more of who Aknaton is as a person and leader. Starlin's choice to gradually color the chapter as Aknaton began to explain the hope he still had for a better future was an interesting choice, but it felt more forced than appropriate.
- Aknaton says the following about Vanth:
"I've a man I must locate on a world called Vega...to remain a living trio you'll need protection. Protection only the one I seek can provide. Neither he nor I shall be part of that new beginning I spoke of...but the death he carries in his hands will assure its coming."
Going back to the importance of how Starlin sequences these origin/recruitment stories, saving Vanth for last suggests that Starlin saw a greatness/potential in the character beyond that of the others right from the start. I wonder if Starlin had considered that Dreadstar's story might continue beyond Metamorphosis Odyssey at this early stage.
- Aknaton's plan for defeating the Zygotian forces at this point appears to include Vanth's powers, a "child" born from the trio already selected, and the Infinity Horn (I assume) used in unison. Perhaps Vanth and the union of the three are the safeguards needed to keep the Infinity Horn's power in check.
plot synopsis in one sentence:
Whis'par is selected by her people to go with Aknaton (who they revere as their god), she expresses concern and doubt about this, Aknaton explains his plan and intends to visit Vega to recruit the trio's "protector" next...
Half of the story is uninteresting talking heads, and the other half is necessary but largely uninteresting exposition. I'm beginning to really LIKE Aknaton, as we're finally given a chance to watch him talk and interact with others, but this chapter was definitely a cut below what Starlin has offered prior to this point.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter V: Vanth originally published in: Epic Illustrated #3 (Fall 1980)
It's clear from the start that Starlin has big things in mind for our "protector" character. Whereas each previous recruitment/origin story was told from the perspective of the recruit, Aknaton presented as some omniscient deity, Starlin reverses the perspective in this story, telling it from Aknaton's perspective as he seeks out information about Vanth from another (powerless, initially, to even locate him) and admiring him from afar with each new piece of information we learn. Vanth, "The Cold Man," is presented with an almost mythic back story, beginning with the slaughter of his parents while still an adolescent, his exodus from society, and his return as an avenger/hero in classical monomyth style, yet even as Aknaton asks to learn about who Vanth is as a person, all we learn of is his flawless reputation, freeing him up to make a dramatic cameo at the end of the chapter, omnipotently standing above the fray as Aknaton is now dependent upon him for his very survival.
Message received: Vanth is the true center of this series, not Aknaton.
In fact, if Starlin is truly interested in following the monomyth cycle, then Aknaton is the guide who must ultimately perish in order for Vanth to fulfill his destiny on his own. Having only read the final chapter previously, this certainly seems to be where the story is going, but I could be wrong.
In terms of quality and enjoyment, this is yet another chapter that puts providing valuable information ahead of telling a great story with great art. Still, with a build-up like the one Vanth received in this story, I'm damned anxious to finally meet the character in the next chapter.
- Origin of Vanth Dreadstar (only known as "Vanth" here), including his parents being slaughtered by snow bears when he was an adolescent, his vanishing and taking refuge at a holy place known as the Ice Demon's Lantern after that, occasionally being seen roaming the hills naked after that, his return to society in order to nearly exterminate the snow bear species, his being run off in response by the people who depended upon the snow bears for food, and his dramatic return, outfitted with offworld technology, when the Zygote fleet arrived to invade the planet. We also learn that he has the strength of twenty men, discovered the great caverns that his planet ("Byfrexia" to the natives, Vega to us) ultimately used to conceal their airforce, became leader of their resistence, and outfitted their ships with photonic drive, allowing them to outmaneuver the "Zygs" and hold back the invasion far longer than had been expected. Finally, he carries a special sword with him, rarely uses it, and at those times, it just seems to appear out of nowhere.
- First cameo appearance of Vanth Dreadstar, both in flashback, and in the final panel.
- If Aknaton didn't expect the Byfrexian resistance to hold out this long, then how was his plan going to work out? Wouldn't Vanth already be dead or captured? Heck, hasn't Aknaton already foreseen the future? So why was this a surprise, then? Perhaps he knows the basics (including the part Vanth plays in the future) without knowing all the fine details.
- The Zygs had one clean shot before Aknaton and Lawt would know they were there. Why in the world did they fire at the random Byfrexian instead of the last remaining Orsirosian? And why does the head bounty hunter praise the guy who did it for his aim??
- It's becoming very unclear just how powerful Aknaton is or isn't. We've seen the tremendous things he's capable of, and I assumed his injury in Chapter 2 came from hubris and carelessness, but he seems as vulnerable as any normal person in this chapter, as bounty hunters working for the Zygs surround him, and he thinks "It can't end like this!?"
- Speaking of which, AGAIN, hasn't he foreseen his own future???
plot synopsis in one sentence:
Aknaton arrives on Vega, meets a random resistance fighter working for Vanth (the intended "protector"), we're given Vanth's origin story, Aknaton and the fighter are ambushed by bounty hunters working for the Zygs, and just when all hope seems lost, Vanth arrives.
Neither brilliant, fun, nor particularly exciting, but I like the epic build-up for Vanth. Here's hoping he's worth it.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter VI: The Meeting originally published in: Epic Illustrated #3 (Fall 1980)
The build-up in the previous chapter was palpable. Starlin did all he could to whet our anticipation for the arrival of Dreadstar, and, including this chapter later in the same issue of Epic Illustrated, reader expectation was inevitably high. So what do we get?
A fantastic tease, really. The promise is technically kept. We DO see Vanth Dreadstar in action, we watch him kick butt in the most fantastic of ways, and we even learn about how the sword works and is responsible for his own powers. Starlin gives us everything we think we want to see, and yet the true most important qualities of this mysterious legend -- his personality and his face, both remain largely eclipsed in this story. "Nah-ah-ah," says Starlin, his finger wagging in smug arcs. "We've got many more issues through which to come to understand this central character; you're not getting him all at once."
Beyond that, though, this is a fun, action-intensive issue that continues to build mystery and bate us about Vanth. Finally, we have more than just an amorphous plan to keep us reading.
I also like how pointedly Starlin finally addresses how a being as mighty as Aknaton can so easily be bested by a handful of mercenaries...kinda'. The explanation:
"It's true I'm no match for you in one-on-one mayhem. My forte is mass extermination."
Additionally, we're told that
"Orsirosians have always been too cerebral to be efficient hand-to-hand combatants"
Still, it seems like a being who can wield the powers Aknaton can and who can fly through space unshielded beyond light speeds could just nuke everything within 100 feet of him and somehow shield himself and Vanth in the process. He's had 100,000 years and the most advanced technology known in the cosmos to prepare for this mission, after all. Did it never occur to him that, if he didn't pick up Vanth first, he might run into serious peril at some point and need to defend himself?
- 1st full appearance of Vanth Dreadstar (still no last name given at this point)
- His sword can absorb various forms of energy (including solar and from energy weapons) and then uses it to instill him with his powers (super strength, and possibly other things) or to project powerful energy beams. Even Aknaton is surprised that the sword is a part of Vanth and can simply be absorbed into his body.
- The only real characterization we're given for Vanth thus far beyond his "Move it, Baldy!" comment:
Aknaton: I brought this blade to your world centuries ago knowing that someday one such as you would become its master.
Vanth: Hope it was worth the wait.
So the question this leaves me with: Is Starlin cashing in on the antihero craze in his characterization of Vanth (this particularly feels like Marvel's Wolverine), or is Vanth the prototype for the antihero craze (Wolverine included, since he'd been around for half a decade by this point but may not have been substantially characterized yet).
Aknaton is rescued by Vanth, Vanth kicks butt, Aknaton explains how his sword works and that he was the one who placed it there for someone like Vanth to discover, and he begins explaining his plan to defeat the Zygoteans.
All in all a darn good issue. While there's definitely some teasing at play, and the story is devoid of some of the higher concepts we saw in the first few chapters, it definitely succeeds in its own right.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter VII: Delloran Revisited originally published in: Epic Illustrated #4 (Winter 1980)
One of the finest installments yet. Though there's still little we actually know about Vanth (and, I begin to wonder, perhaps little he knows about himself), Starlin kicks into overdrive setting him up as a contrast/foil to Aknaton. Actually, it's really more complex than that. On many levels, both Starlin and Aknaton work to show us that the two are similar and share a similar destiny, and yet Vanth has strong negative reactions to Aknaton's actions -- he brings a moral perspective to Aknaton's moves in this game of chess that can either prove to be the missing piece Aknaton needs to fulfill his final destiny or a weakness that may threaten to undo all they are working for. Starlin won't tell, and the drama is palpable, both in dialogue and in art.
And speaking of art...WOW. This is the most gorgeous, striking, and utterly expressionist that we've seen Starlin's art get in this series. Add to this some truly vibrant and purposeful coloring -- alternating the cool blue of death with the hot yellow/orange of rage, and anyone reading this series in a black and white volume is TRULY missing out here.
Finally, there's Joenis Soule -- a character who easily could have received his own book with which to explore all his complexity, and yet this is the only issue we'll see him in. A synthetic immortal cursed with compassion and conscience, forced to remain on the scorched carcass of the world he'd grown to love, with nothing to do in all that time other than consider the whys of the situation. He's the most authentic and sympathetic character we've met, and yet, faced with the inevitability of all that is transpiring in the universe, he chooses to end it all. Striking, terrifying, and it sets a very foreboding challenge for Vanth -- can he be stronger?
Yeah, AMAZING installment.
- Vanth is still doubting whether or not he should trust Aknaton at the beginning of this issue, and yet he so willingly abandoned the resistance on his own planet, inevitably allowing it to fall to the Zygoteans OFF CAMERA? I mean, there's not even a nagging doubt about this afterwards? His only concern seems to be whether or not Aknaton's plan is on the level, but he never actually looks back to the world that was depending upon him and revering him as its savior just last chapter.
plot synopsis in one sentence:
Aknaton takes Vanth to Delloran, a scorched and devastated planet that once housed an advanced society, we meet Joenis Soule, an artificial immortal created by Aknaton's people in order to guard the Infinity Horn, he expresses his philosophical quandaries about what is transpiring, hands over the weapon, and promptly kills himself, Aknaton warning Vanth that he must be stronger than Joenis, all while pointing out that Joenis' was a tough act to follow.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter VIII: Sunrise on Lartorez originally published in: Epic Illustrated #5 (April 1981)
And with sunrise comes a dawning realization.
This is the big moment, of sorts. We spent the first seven chapters chasing Aknaton around in his mad dash to execute his final plan, but now, with him conveniently departed long enough for the cast to get to know one another, we're also given a chance to absorb what Aknation isn't telling us -- his plan.
Za seemed to already know or suspect it, Whis'par is the one to explain it to Vanth (as well as us), and Juliet is as much a non-entity as ever, but, like Vanth, we should have seen it coming, and yet it comes as a shock: Aknaton's plan is to destroy everything rather than allow the Zygoteans to rape and pillage it all. It's shocking, dire stuff. Aknaton made it clear early on that he did not see himself as some benevolent force, and that becomes evident now. These aren't the good guys; they have no amazing impossible odds plan to save the day, and yet -- do we agree with them? Is Aknaton right?
Whis'par does much to convince us he is, even while calling him and his plan insane. She finally explains (as I'd hoped someone would) that the Orsirians spent eras working out plans to stop the Zygoteans and, even after being able to look into probable futures, determined that destroying everything was the best possible outcome. She explains (as I'd hoped someone would), that the reason Aknaton waited until Orsiros fell was that it was the last check on Zygotean expansion and, without it, things would turn far worse very quickly. She concludes by telling us that, "the time has come to make sure of Orsiros' final gift of mercy to a dying galaxy;" a tidy echo to Za's earlier sentiment that Aknaton "saved me for a better death."
And yet, this is a truly difficult to swallow cliffhanger revelation. If this series hadn't been wowing its readers prior to this point, I'd have to believe that this installment would have done the trick.
- Vanth is sensitive about his height
- Vanth is attracted to/excited by death, and this is what drew him to Aknaton and compelled him to follow the Orsirian.
- The teasing at the beginning of the chapter feels both out of character for our protagonists (certainly Za, the brute with compassion, seems out of place teasing the newcomer destined to be his protector) and unnecessary. Perhaps it was simply Starlin's attempt for keeping Vanth solitary and morose while the rest were beginning to bond. Again, I'm left to wonder if Vanth is the basis for the Copper Age antihero, or merely an emulation of it. This feels much like Wolverine amidst Claremont's X-Men.
- I'm certainly seeing the point made earlier that Aknaton looks like Doctor Strange below the neck. And, in fact, his attire, seeming to contain living stars within it, feels borrowed directly from the look of Eternity.
plot synopsis in one sentence:
Aknaton leaves the group for a while in order to attend to other affairs that must be done alone, Vanth is left alone with the group and is soon teased by them, he pulls his punch in taking down Za and retreats to another location, Za begins to imply to Juliet that he suspects this is a suicide mission, and Whis'par explains to Vanth that the objective is to destroy everything so that the Zygoteans can't cause more pain and suffering.
Bold territory, though most things prior to the final revelation dragged on a bit much. Similarly, while the art captured the sense of a desert dawn quite well, it was...well...ugly to look at. Even some of the characters looked uglier in the light of day. Maybe that was the point.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter IX: Absolution originally published in: Epic Illustrated #6 (June 1981)
It's becoming more and more evident how right MRP was when he noted visual similarities between Aknaton and Dr. Strange. In this installment, the similarities become almost impossible to ignore, especially as Aknaton conjures a being infinitely more cosmically advanced than himself. It almost makes me wonder if this series had once been conceived of as a story for Dr. Strange. Could that character, under the right circumstances in an Elseworlds sort of tale, evolve morally into the being Aknaton now is? I'm beginning to wonder.
And yet, how interesting that Starlin draws this questionable "God" in such a limited way. Though striking and somewhat awe inspiring at first, his dimensions seem less and less impressive by the fourth page. Even his crossed arms on page three imply a sort of vulnerability. This is a man who has drawn Eternity, and yet he chooses to portray this God who, by his own assertion, is dying, and by Aknaton's reasoning, may even have been a delusion, as so limited in stature and grandeur. It's an interesting choice.
As for the story itself, I wrestle with this one. MRP was also ahead of the curve in noting last issue that the subtlety was now gone, and Starlin was beginning to take a more direct approach. I would agree that the debate this issue about the ethics of destroying the universe lacks subtlety entirely. It's a great concept (channeling God for the first time and discovering that he has no answers for you), but we're beaten over the head with it, and I'm bothered by the fact that Aknaton reconciles his doubts so easily by the close. And, along those lines, at the end of the chapter, when he decides to convince his band of followers that his cause is just by having them look deep into his eyes, this just reads as a "drink the Kool-Aid" moment for me. This is serious brain-washing cult stuff here, and I don't think Starlin is doing this consciously. Aknaton may be a flawed protagonist, but it seems like Starlin is doing everything possible in this chapter to make him come off in the right.
- "God" (or was it Aknaton's subconscious?) warns that Vanth is far more powerful than either he nor Aknaton suspects, and is quite capable of thwarting Aknaton's plan.
Plot synopsis in one sentence:
Aknaton decides to summon God in order to get his perspective on whether or not what Aknaton is about to do is just, "God" appears and is dying because all his followers other than Aknaton are now dead, he holds back on offering any easy answers at first but then rephrases the question, suggesting that it's not a question of whether Aknaton has a "right" to destroy the galaxy and more a question of whether he has a responsibility to do so, and both he and Aknaton clearly decide that he does, so Aknaton returns to his band, reconciled in what he must do, while Vanth approaches him in anger over learning what the plan really is, and Aknaton beckons the band to look into his eyes to learn the true extent of how terrible the Zygoteans really are.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter X: Requiem Originally published in: Epic Illustrated #7 (August 1981)
Once again, the subtlety is absent. The origin of the Zygoteans, while clever in a certain respect, feels like an in-your-face derailment from the main action and ethical dilemma of the series. Okay, The Zygoteans are just like us. The haves and have nots, the raping of the environment, the numbing of mind and body, and the pursuit of unattainable happiness through those means that leads them to expand out and rape and pillage other worlds. Fine. Rod Stewart could have done it more tactfully.
Still, the art is brilliant.
But is this story actually going somewhere? We spent the first chapter getting the back story, the next six watching Aknaton assemble his team and further his plan, spent two more chapters wrestling with the philosophical aspect of the plan, and now the waiting while on the cusp of executing the final plan just feels like wasteful space filler. Did we really need a face for the Zygoteans? Did we really need to know why they did what they did, or the cliche unexpected pointing of the mirror towards ourselves as we strived to glimpse the monsters? I just feel like the story has been building up to more than this, and yet here we are, with so few chapters left to go, feeling like Starlin has nothing left up his sleeve except the final climax, and he isn't ready to play that hand yet.
The Orsirinians were the proto race that populated the galaxy.
For a long while, the Orsirinians and Zygoteans were arch enemies, engaged in battle with one another.
plot synopsis in one sentence:
Aknaton provides the origin of the Zygoteans (once advanced and ideal, but the haves conquered the have nots and created a consumer culture that demanded constant expansion outward while not actually satisfying any emotional/intellectual needs), and our protagonists are identified (presumably) by a Zygotean scout ship.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter XI: Nightfire Originally published in: Epic Illustrated #7 (August 1981)
There's some evidence to suggest that, after the initial burst of talent recruited to launch Epic Illustrated successfully, the title was beginning to want for content by this point. Not since the story was first getting started have we seen two chapters in one issue, and they've never been back-to-back at the centerfold before. An interview with Barry Windsor Smith and a lackluster Neal Adams story aside, this issue has nothing else to boast. The next issue will have even less to boast of, and #9 throws all of its might into selling a new Weirdworld story, which, to be blunt, reeks of desperation. Is any of this particularly important to understanding The Metamorphosis Odyssey? Probably not, but I wonder if the series would have stretched out over a few more issues if the editor wasn't so hungry for content at this point.
As for the story itself, things are finally moving again. We have action, some minor philosophy and interpersonal tension between Vanth and Aknaton, and we arrive at the group's final destination, so things are truly moving along.
As for Vanth's brilliant strategies (as they are implied to be by Aknaton), I'm not impressed. Doing a 360 degree flip to fire on your pursuers and entering an opened shuttle bay in order to destroy a massive ship? The first is a cliche in space sci fi, and the second doesn't seem all that clever. I find it hard to believe that the most advanced species in the galaxy, after spending centuries studying the Zygoteans and how to defeat them, would never have considered such an idea. And don't tell me it's because they're not fighters. Aknaton read off the coordinates of their pursuers pretty effortlessly for Vanth (another seeming inconsistency in his and the Orsirinians' characterizations).
Don't get me wrong. Vanth would have made an AWESOME stand-in for Han Solo, but he's hardly the most brilliant strategist of all time who, as Aknaton so tactlessly pronounces, "...could have destroyed the Zygotean menace centuries ago" if he'd been in command of the Orsirinian fleet.
The art is brilliant in this one once again, especially as they fly through the open shuttle bay, and we're finally getting truly evocative glimpses of Vanth's face.
First appearance of the "Light Cutter," Vanth's space craft which has been stripped for speed and is armed to the teeth, making it practical only for short term missions.
This is not the first time it's been foreshadowed that Vanth has the potential to prove as evil and dangerous as the Zygoteans. Is Starlin going somewhere with this, or was it an abandoned direction for the character? It's been a while since I read the final chapter (no spoilers please, as I've forgotten so much of it), but I don't recall this internal conflict coming up there, nor any implication that it had previously occurred.
- Somehow, Vanth's wording on, "If I'm to act, it must BE NOW!" (page 6) feels a little too Orsirinian, lacking in the "small, fast and dirty" nature that is self-ascribed to Vanth.
Two Zygotean fighter ships attack, Vanth forbids Aknaton from using his magic (fearing this is what alerted the Zygoteans to their presence), he outmaneuvers and destroys them, correctly infers they came from a larger ship, waits for it to send out reinforcements, flies directly into the open shuttlebay, and blows it up from the inside, Aknaton praises his tact and asserts that all of this could have been averted had the Orsirinians had someone like Vanth ages ago, but he responds by pointing out that someone with his experience and that kind of power could prove dangerous.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter XII: Dreamsend originally published in: Epic Illustrated #8 (October 1981)
Only one chapter remaining, and it's funny, but I've only now come to realize that Starlin has spent more time on Za and Juliet on his synopsis pages than he ever has in the actual story. His summary of each character takes up nearly a third of each story synopsis, and yet they've had almost no presence in the actual comic, other than being a few more tools gathered for the final masterstroke. At least Juliet gets a line and some prominence in this chapter, even if it doesn't do much to convince us she plays an important role in all this. She still comes off as a highly unremarkable everywoman. Is that Starlin's point? Are we all Juliet, possessing great gifts and not realizing it? Or are we the Zygoteans, committing and permitting the creation of great atrocities and not realizing it? I don't get the sense that this ambiguity is intentional nor well honed. It's just sort of there, almost like an afterthought.
I find it interesting how far Starlin goes to deconstruct his gods in this series. First, Aknaton was presented as a kind of god, then it was his race in general, then it was Ra, and then even Ra, the Orsirinians' god, wasn't really god. He takes that further now, demoting the Orsirians from any kind of pedastal, first by showing how much more clever Vanth was than they were in his dealing with the Zygoteans last issue, and now in learning that the Orsirians did not, in fact, create all humanoid life in the galaxy (as was previously claimed) -- that the Kalloombrians even preceded them and, before we start looking to them as a sort of higher being, we're told that they too fled the Zygoteans. Heck, even Aknaton's visions of the future fail him here, in this penultimate moment. In the end, Starlin leaves us with no gods and even strips us of the final certainty that Aknaton's plan was at least the best solution. Vanth casts serious doubts on this as they proceed forward. Way to knock down all remaining idols and kill all remaining Buddhas that we've met.
- Vanth and Whis'par have had some unspoken impact upon one another as a result of their conversation in chapter VIII. - I believe this is only the second time we've seen Vanth draw his sword.
- A moment earlier, the Zygoteans couldn't come through the tunnel more than four at a time, and Vanth was holding them off. How, then, do we see at least twelve Zygoteans already through the tunnel and about to charge (with seemingly endless ranks still behind them and off camera)?
Our protagonists arrive at the temple of an ancient and now absent race that is older than the Orsirians, it is being guarded by a small group of Zygotean troops, they head to the Infinity Horn with the knowledge that more Zygoteans have arrived in pursuit of them, Juliet expresses doubt about dying for this cause, Aknaton explains that she, Za, and Whis'Par will live and create new life too, and he and Vanth prepare to hold off the pursuing Zygoteans while the three prepare to use the Infinity Horn.
Solid issue over all, and the excitement is certainly mounting, but I still feel like this epic was missing some meat in the middle.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter XIII: Doomsday! originally published in: Epic Illustrated #9 (December 1981)
Even though we knew it was coming, watching the Milky Way die is truly something...and Starlin's art attains even new levels of amazingness in depicting it. This is truly his Magnum Opus, filled with amazing scripting, plotting, art, arrangements, coloring, and dialogue as the biggest event you can possibly have the audacity to portray in comicdom is finally executed. Heck, watching Aknaton's arm get blaster off on page #2 was a clear heads up that things were about to get REAL.
And, as a final capstone to Starlin's theological deconstructions, we learn that the founders of the galaxy that will replace this one have belief, but it's "belief in the potential of tomorrow. Believe in the power and beauty of life. Belief in the cleansing power of death." Of course, as Starlin breaks out into his fascinating description of the 15 levels of existence, he does describe an all powerful god at the top level, and yet he characterizes this god as a force rather than an intellect, reaching out and destroying in its attempts to expand out into the infinite, only to be checked by the natural balance of existence. Interesting.
One thing that hadn't really clicked for me until the beginning of this chapter -- this is a pro-terrorism story. Aknaton and his band don't like the way things are going, so the answer is to destroy everything, including themselves. Granted, it's not being done to send a message or extract a ransom, but it's still a willingness to kill and die in an indirect manner that maximizes civilian casualties in order to protest against a government you oppose. I'm not sure I have a problem with that. After all, this is art, and, after all, this was a long while prior to terrorism taking on the modern and routine shape that it has in non-contested regions of the world. Still, I might have liked to have Aknaton or Vanth spend half a second considering what this moment will means for any one of those Zygotean minions, or for a family making the best of things on some far off world, the Zyg invasion centuries from coming to their doorstep.
My favorite lines in the chapter:
Juliet: I wonder if this is going to hurt.
Za: Probably...change usually does.
Juliet: Thanks for the encouragement, Za. Well, here goes nothing!
Whis'par: No, Juliet. Here goes everything.
All three smile. They've come too far to do anything else.
I still feel these characters were underdeveloped throughout the series, but this is a darn fine farewell for them.
And what really does happen to them, anyway? At first, we were led to believe the entire universe was going to be destroyed and replaced, but it was just the Milky Way, and "about a million years" later, that section of the universe is still dark. Are they slowly sewing the seeds of life there? Will we find out?
- The Milky Way is destroyed
- Vanth and Aknaton end up on Caldor, the fourth planet of the Chalfalon system, about a million years later, having been in a kind of suspended animation.
plot synopsis: Za, Juliet, and Whis'par blow the horn, the Milky Way is destroyed, they become spirits of a sort and go off to do something or other, and Vanth and Aknaton end up on Caldor about a million years later.
Metamorphosis Odyssey, Chapter VIX: Aftermath originally published in: Epic Illustrated #9 (December 1981)
Once more, Starlin's art is gorgeous, his concepts and dialogue out of this world. Furthermore, Starlin takes his deconstruction of our gods one final step in unmasking Aknaton's confidence and sureness that what he'd done was right. His final confession, and his planned suicide of sorts, are incredibly powering, as is Vanth's unwillingness to show sympathy to him in those final moments. They are, after all, too similar -- both powerful and brilliant, both capable of tremendous death, and both hoping not to have to wield it. Vanth, placed on this new world with an awesome new responsibility, is assured that he will gain companions, and yet Starlin's final narration warns us that, at least within, he will always walk alone.
Truly though, the sheer weight and consequences of what has just occurred absolutely surge, unpronounced, through each panel of this limited, small scale transaction between two small people a million years in the wake of the destruction of a galaxy. There are no flags and fanfare, no parades, no explanations of all that transpires in the falling action, not even a resolution for all our protagonists. Instead, we end in a small, uncertain, tragic, and lonely place -- left without even the certainty that what was done was right. There's just a sense of finality: it is done. Time to move on...to something.
What a way to end things.
- Za, Juliet, and Whis'par are now "gods" (does Starlin mean it this time?), beings of pure thought and energy with a mission that we are not privvy to. Perhaps they are to guide the humanity that rises up towards a better tomorrow where the previous galaxy had no such gods? Perhaps Aknaton has created the god he always felt the universe lacked in its previous incarnation. Maybe that's what this all was really about.
- Vanth kills Aknaton in a moment of rage and quickly learns that Aknaton intentionally goaded him into doing so because he could not live with the guilt.
- Vanth is given the new purpose of directing the people of Caldor (and the entire sector) towards a prosperous future and away from the potential of becoming the next Zygoteans. Should he fail, Aknaton instructs him to find the Infinity Horn and start again, though he cautions that Vanth will no better live with the guilt than he did.
So the final question I'm left with in watching Aknaton die so terribly, pleading "I'm sorry" to an unresponsive Vanth with his final breath -- is this the future he'd hoped for/glimpsed? Did he see all this coming and choose it anyway, or was there a revelation/transformation for him here somewhere? I'm assuming the latter, as his conversation with Ra earlier on seemed to convince him that he could do this without guilt and with total confidence that it was right.
Aknaton and Vanth wake up about a million years later, Aknaton explains what happened and goads Vanth into killing him, Aknaton explains that he could not live with the guilt and gives Vanth the charge of protecting over the humans in this sector better than he and the Orsirinians did in the Milky Way.