The Four-Colour Trip: Marvel’s LSD Years

Words By Cameron Ashley
April 20, 2015
The mid-1970s was a revolutionary period at Marvel Comics, when editorially the company had a hands-off approach to its talent. It’s arguable that this period, helmed by LSD and pot-loving subversives and jaded Vietnam vets, has proven even more fertile than the preceding Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko era. As the world prepares for Avengers: Age of Ultron and beyond, it’s worth considering the influence of these four-colour trippers upon franchises now worth billions.

“Merged with this pulsing flame it was possible to look out and see and participate in the entire cosmic drama.” – Timothy Leary

“How can it be that my home planet before me is no larger than my fingernail?!…I stand an intangible phantom, affecting neither the gravity nor the light of the planet I was born on.” — Adam Warlock

When Steve Englehart joined Marvel in 1972, he was nothing more than an editorial assistant. The company was expanding its range of titles, and with it those that made them, but some long established pillars of the company – chief among them Captain America – were in a creative slump.

Englehart very quickly added scripting duties for The Defenders, The Avengers and Captain America to his workload before leaving his editorial post well and truly behind him. A psych major and army vet discharged as a conscientious objector, he brought to comics his degree, his Lefty social ethics and a drug-fuelled consciousness. Post-Watergate, he had Steve Rogers quit as Captain America. Over a string of Avengers issues, he simultaneously re-tooled The Vision’s origin by expanding the role of the villainous android Ultron even further and elevated the female superhero Mantis, a half-Vietnamese ex-prostitute, to “Celestial Madonna.”

Mantis was created to be a critique of male Avengers’ inability to handle strong, sexual women. “They were like teenage boys,” Englehart said, “which always seemed dumb to me because I was accepting them as grown-up men.” (Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe Harper Perennial 2013, p160). Her ability to thoroughly emasculate is apparent in Avengers #129, where her B-List hero boyfriend, The Swordsman, thinks, “She…told me I was her man and then quit me…she seemed so loving, so devoted, but that was a lie… I—I can’t take much more of this!” Three panels later, the jet he’s piloting is blasted from the sky. By the next issue, he’s dead.

Mantis’ story is so convoluted it’s amazing Englehart managed to tie it together while spending nights tripping (both figuratively and literally) around NYC. Raised and trained by the pacifist arm of a warlike alien species, Mantis is mind-wiped and returned to Earth to become the “perfect human.” As is her destiny, she marries a Cotati alien to mother the “cosmic messiah.” That’s not the end of the weirdness – the Cotati are actually a race of sentient plants, prompting the following line at the story’s climax: “Can you not see that you are fated to marry that tree?”

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Mantis: taking care of business in Saigon while her male Avenger comrades strike ineffectual tough guy poses by artists Sal Buscema and Joe Staton and writer Steve Englehart.

To make this twist either more or less palatable, depending on your point of view, the Cotati brings The Swordsman’s body back to life and infuses his consciousness with it. The whole sprawling epic ends in easily the most progressive double wedding of all time: Mantis to Zombie-Tree-Swordsman and the android Vision to Scarlet Witch. Mantis and Zombie-Tree-Swordsman then dissolve into beings of “purest energy” and disappear into the cosmos.

While the Celestial Madonna epic ultimately vibed good trip, Englehart was unafraid to get darkly psychedelic as we see with his classic run on Doctor Strange. Coming to a cinema near you in 2016, Strange was created in 1963 by Stan Lee and oddball artist Steve Ditko to be the protector of our realm from otherworldly forces. As trippy as the Ditko/Lee stuff could get, it wasn’t until 1974 that the Master of The Mystic Arts hit the peak of weird adventure.

Englehart and artist Frank Brunner created their Doctor Strange run thusly: “We would get together every two months, have dinner, get loaded about 10 o’clock and stay there until 3 or 4.” (p143) It was a winning formula. After spending a few months dipping Strange’s toes back into the mega-weird, they went full-blown crazy.

In the June 1974 issue, an ex-cardinal named Silver Dagger invades Strange’s home. Strange’s girlfriend/sorcerous apprentice, Clea, is kidnapped and our hero is stabbed in the back. To survive, Strange enters mystical artefact, the Orb of Agamotto, and is transported to “unreality,” a space that’s both the materialisation of his own psyche and depiction of the quintessential bad acid trip. Making his way through a host of pop-psychological symbols, from caves to soul-eating serpents to skull-faced castles, Strange receives advice from a hookah pipe-smoking caterpillar, battles versions of his super-hero friends getting loaded on “tea” and realises that his real foe, and his real fear, is death.

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The shifting realities of Guardian of the Galaxy’s Drax the Destroyer by Jim Starlin.

Under stoner dialogue like, “I must meditate to comprehend this cosmos, for only through knowledge can true salvation come, ” Brunner provides superbly trippy panelling and even better splashes. A page where Strange tumbles through space “into the eye of death” is perhaps the perfect pop-art image of grim psychedelia.

Over five wild issues, Strange journeys to the centre of unreality and faces down death itself in order to escape. When he does return to our world, Dagger (who’s spent his time ranting about “God’s Plan” and decapitating mannequins dressed as Strange) is easily vanquished. Dagger learned all his magic from Vatican-stashed occult books and so lacks true enlightenment. He’s the authoritarian and the fundamentalist wrapped up into one balding bad guy. Strange, the bohemian champion of the psychedelic and surreal, tells him, “…I am a Sorcerer Supreme, a man of knowledge, while you are only a man of learning!” Marvel received numerous letters from grateful fans that were “accompanied by bags of Maui Wowie and said things like “I like to smoke a bowl, put on…Pink Floyd and read the latest issue of Doctor Strange.”” (p144)

Writer/artist Jim Starlin created Thanos, Drax, Gamora and wrote the entirety of the Infinity Gem epics on which the cinematic plots of Guardians of The Galaxy and the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War hinge. He was a “Catholic School introvert…turned teenage greaser who joined the Navy, flew helicopters in Vietnam, and returned to the States to fix cars and break into the superhero-drawing biz.”

Feisty and with clear authority issues, Starlin was also supremely talented and most definitely turned-on. After a notable run on Captain Marvel, Starlin chronicled the adventures of Adam Warlock, turning the book into the adventures of “a suicidal paranoid schizophrenic.”

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Classic existential freakout in Starlin’s Warlock: Adam Warlock is mocked by his own evil future self, The Magus, who says things already spoken to him by his own future evil self, The Magus. Comics!

Grown in a lab to be the “prototype of…future humanity,” Warlock is a cosmic superhero with understandably crippling existential angst. He’s the inverse of Doctor Strange – the cosmic guardian more afraid of life than death. With such mega-foes as Thanos, The Magus (his own evil future self) and the essence-sucking Soul Gem affixed to his very own forehead, poor Warlock’s constant second-guessing and eventual death wish spills out over hundreds of brightly-coloured, gorgeously-rendered pages. Featuring dialogue such as, “Who knows what effect this shall have upon my troubled brain, for the multiple realities I now perceive may completely disable me,” Starlin’s Warlock became a comic of such complexity that it frequently required recaps spilling over several pages to sum up its sprawling hallucinatory madness.

Ultimately, the above is a cherry-picked sampling of a period where Marvel staffers sat in the office halls smoking joints to get “inspiration.” (p136) Comics renegades still create there today. They always will. But with so much at stake financially and the editorial grip tight, it’s doubtful such wilful individualism will be allowed on such a scale again. Creator-owned science-fiction and psychedelic comics are on the rise, as those influenced by the works discussed seek the creative freedom that their predecessors enjoyed as well as financial rewards they did not.

Thanks must go in part to the thoughtful mainstreaming of content that Marvel Studios has provided. The uncut, acid-dripping material is still in print and available digitally. It may seem unfashionably overwritten now, but its richness is undeniable. Just check the box office.

Cameron Ashley is the Chief Editor of Crime Factory. He currently also writes the weekly All Star Recommends column for Melbourne’s All Star Comics, one of the world’s great comic shops. You can contact or follow him on twitter at @cjamesashley

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