Metamorphosis Odyssey was the first serial to run in Epic Illustrated, Marvel's answer to Heavy Metal. HM, as great as it was, quite often seemed to put more faith in fantastic art than in actual stories. By comparison, Epic's editor Archie Goodwin was a story man first, last & always, so Epic was different. Metamorphosis Odyssey has spectacular artwork, but it's also a real story, if a slightly unbalanced one. Jim Starlin, by this point, had wowed us all with his work on Captain Marvel & Warlock, his morbid, death obsessed comics making him a superstar, but we hadn't seen a thing yet. Metamorphosis Odyssey was a giant leap forward for Starlin, with stunning, fully painted art, and a galaxy spanning storyline that dealt with nothing less than cosmic suicide & intergalactic mercy killing.
It's the story of the Zygoteans, a race of space-travelling conquerers who are going from planet to planet, raping each one of it's resources, often in a process that takes generations, then moving onto the next world, leaving a dry, empty husk in their wake, like cosmic locusts.
As the story starts, the Zygote's have invaded Orsiros, a world populated by a race resembling our ancient Egyptians. The Orsirosians are sorcerers and scientists, and, in a battle that's lasted 500 years, have been the only race in the history of the galaxy to beat the Zygote's. At least temporarily. Knowing they're fighting a losing battle, the Orsirosians come up with a plan in the time left to them. They construct a mysterious device called The Infinity Horn, then Aknaton, the one Orsirosian chosen to survive the oncoming holocaust, runs the Zygote blockade to visit four worlds.
Aknaton is a fantastic, fascinating hero, clearly alien in his motivations & thought processes, he's also single minded & resolute in the doomed path he's chosen.
After Orsiros falls, Aknaton slips away to enact the Orsirosean's revenge. First he finds Za, the beast with a soul, on a dead, desperate world the Zygote's have bypassed. For a gentle creature like Za, the world he was born into is hell, and I remember being shocked at how gruesome & gory Starlin was here. This really was adult comics with a capital 'A'. The only creature on his planet with awareness, Za is a great, likeable character, and it's a shame that, later, he isn't given more space.
On Earth, the Zygote's have landed, and we, of course, don't stand a cat in hell's chance against them. In three days, they've wiped out Russia, China, Japan, and most of America. Aknaton & Za barely have time to rescue the second being they'll need, a 15 year old girl called Juliet. Juliet unfortunately, is the weak link in the story, being little more than a cipher. This chapter ends brilliantly though, as, in a presage of things to come, Aknaton takes it upon himself to decide Earth's fate for us.
The next stop for our mismatched heroes is the Crab Nebula, to meet the race Aknaton created centuries ago. Not surprisingly, the winged people of this world view the Orsirosian as God. But Aknaton doesn't want a believer, he wants a realist.
Whis'Par is another interesting, likeable character, and being, as she says: 'the child of his power' already knows what Aknaton's got in mind for the Zygote's & the rest of the galaxy. Alas, we don't spend nearly enough time with her either. Leaving his charges on a dead world the Zygote's have ignored, Aknaton goes to locate the last link in his chain, the character who, of course, got his own series from this, and the one Starlin was clearly more interested in than his other characters: Vanth The Cold Man.
Vanth has been fighting a more or less one-man war against the Zygote's on his homeworld of Byfrexia. The warrior who'll protect the others, Vanth is at this point a less well defined character than he becomes, following Aknaton for reasons he's not entirely sure of. Aknaton has set various safeguards for his plan, including hiding the key to The Infinity Horn, and even it's location, from himself. He & Vanth go to Delloran, a planet the Zygote's have bombed into a burnt out shell. There they find the artificial man Aknaton created to guard the key, Joenis Soule, yet another fascinating character who isn't given enough 'screen time'. Joenis, like Whis'Par, is well aware of what Aknaton plans, and subsequently kills himself before facing it.
Aknaton & Vanth join up with the others, but the Orsirosian then leaves them for one last personal stop. In his absence, Whis'Par is finally the one to explain to Vanth what everybody's been thinking, but haven't dared to verbalize: What Aknaton's plan actually is.
Meanwhile, in another reality, Aknaton manages to summon up GOD HIMSELF. And asks Him both to salve his tortured conscience, and agree with his insane plan.
Convinced now that what he's doing is right, Aknaton still has to convince the others, especially Vanth, so grants them a vision of the future, if the Zygote's are allowed to live. This is the first time we've actually seen the Zygoteans. And guess what? They're us.
While this is going on, A Zygote mercenary team locates our friends, who immediately flee hell for leather for Dreamsend, the world that holds The Infinity Horn.
However, The Infinity Horn isn't just a weapon. As Vanth & Aknaton fight against hundreds of Zygote mercenaries, trying to buy time for the others to activate the horn, Aknaton's disciples begin to realize what their destiny will be.
So the Milky Way galaxy, and everything in it, including the Zygoteans, is destroyed. But Za, Juliet & Whis'Par live on, as a new race of beings, composed of the best parts of their species'. Akanton & Vanth still exist too, though in slightly worse off form.
The inevitable sequels followed, with the graphic novels The Price and Dreadstar, as well as Vanth's own solo series, but this one has always been my favourite. It's not by any means perfect though. As they said in the letters pages at the time, Metamorphosis Odyssey feels simultaneously rushed and slow, as if you're missing a couple of chapters. Chapters where Za, Juliet & Whis'Par would get more time in the spotlight. I think Starlin was just so enamoured of Vanth, he just kept pushing him into frame at the expense of the others. Za & Whis'Par, in particular, are superb, realistic characters, but once they're introduced, they're swiftly reduced to a series of background cameos. In fact, they & Juliet all become a kind of greek chorus to Aknaton & Vanth. But this is an important work in Starlin's career, the piece that allowed him to spread his wings, and it is, for it's few faults, a bit of a masterpiece. It made me want to keep buying Epic anyway.
If you don't want to scour the back issue bins for copies of Epic you can read Metamorphosis Odyssey in the above reprint from Slave Labour. I'd go for the back issues though, as this version is printed in black & white quite shoddily, which does Starlin's beautiful painted art no favours at all.
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