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Comics: Avengers Versus Thanos

By (March 15, 2013) No Comment

Avengers Versus Thanosavengers versus thanosjpg

Jim Starlin, Mike Friedrich, et al (scripts)

Jim Starlin et al (art)

Marvel Comics, 2013

As the end-credits were rolling at the close of last summer’s billion-dollar Hollywood box office smash “The Avengers,” the assembled throngs of comic book fans got a little surprise. For the previous two hours, they’d been breathlessly watching the movie, about the creation of Marvel Comics’ premiere superhero team. Now the day was won, the bad guy vanquished, the movie over – nothing to do but pack up their things and head back to their parents’ basement to blog the night away.

And then it happens. The credits stop, and we see a cringing minion begging forgiveness from a brooding figure. And when the figure turns, we see a face only a mother could love:


And at that exact moment, tens of thousands of comic book fans (of all ages, alas) experienced their very first sexual awakening. This was no ordinary special effect, no generic movie character: this was Thanos. It guaranteed that the next Avengers movie would be even more fan-friendly than the first one had been. The next movie, in fact, would dispense with all this getting-to-know-you preliminary stuff and be exclusively for the fans. Because only fans would care two bits about Thanos.

avengers v thanosjpgThe basic problem is that for all the creative talent that’s been associated with the Avengers comic book for the last fifty years, the team itself has never had a name-recognition villain likely to be known to the non-comics proletariat. Superman has Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Bizarro – names that in one way or another have percolated into the public consciousness. Batman of course has the Joker. Spider-Man has Doctor Octopus. The Fantastic Four have Doctor Doom. But although the Avengers have a roster of great villains – the Masters of Evil, Ultron, Kang the Conqueror – they’re all strictly in-house; non-comics fans have never heard of them.

So there’s no obvious choice for director Joss Whedon when it comes to picking the bad guy for the next Avengers movie – unless he just decides to forego obvious and do what pleases fans. And since it was that strategy that was the driving force behind the aforementioned billion dollar success, that’s exactly what Whedon decided to do: he gave fans a glimpse of Thanos.

Ordinary civilians will need to be brought up to speed. The character was created by the great comic book writer/artist Jim Starlin back in 1973 as the twisted son of a race of quasi-Olympians who live on Saturn’s moon Titan. Unlike his peaceful, benevolent people, Thanos is a bitter, ranting megalomaniac (and, perhaps connectedly, he has purple skin and deep longitudinal ridges running along his chin). He’s immensely powerful, and he gains even more power through his slightly off-kilter love-life: as English Lit. majors might have been able to suss out already, Thanos is in love with death itself, which Starlin visually personifies as a cloaked, unspeaking woman. When Thanos has some time alone with her, he confesses that he’s badly misunderstood:

There will be those who wonder why Thanos ever set out on such a glorious campaign as this! They’ll never understand why, will they, Dark One? Only we two will know why! Some will say it was for power, greed, the wish to command all! They will be wrong! Only we two will know why! A few might say it was for the greater glory of the universe – to build a stronger, united solar system! They, too, will be wrong! Only we two will know why! None will ever known that it was done for a far deeper reason … done for that which I, being more alone than any creature in the galaxy, value more than life! Love!

As originally conceived by Starlin and fleshed out by other talented Marvel writers like starlin captain marvelMike Friedrich, Steve Englehart, and Steve Gerber, Thanos was an intergalactic freebooting marauder, leading a militia of gutter-trash from his home-base space ship and gradually revealing his plans to woo Death by crushing the living galaxy. As one character puts it, “He hates all life. He’s quite mad, you know.”

Back in the ’70s, he was opposed in this aim mainly by two Marvel characters: the Kree warrior and superhero known as Captain Marvel, and the golden-skinned super-powered artificial man named Adam Warlock. In title after title and issue after issue over the course of the decade, these three developed a complicated dynamic in Starlin’s hands, and Marvel has now issued a thick graphic novel comprised of reprints showing that dynamic at work. The reprints are on the whole well-chosen (there are two or three issues of lesser pertinence that could easily have been cut, and there’s one incredibly glaring omission that can only be explained by some sort of copyright arcana), and the color transfers are excellent throughout.

It doesn’t redeem Thanos – not even the burgeoning genius of Starlin, one of the comics world’s greatest figures, could do that. The character is still a one-note caricature of a villain, with none of the conflicted pathos of the X-Men’s Magneto or Batman’s Two-Face (or, for that matter, the character of Loki as played so well by Tom Hiddleston in the Avengers movie). But he rants a good deal, and he leads an army of desperadoes, and throughout this anthology, Starlin consistently uses him to elicit some intelligent and memorable heroics from his good guys. The collection climaxes with a justly famous two-part adventure that Marvel has seen fit to reprint in one format or other no less than four times in the last 15 months (the cover of this volume is taken from that two-parter – rather awkwardly, since it means that a book called “Avengers Versus Thanos” has no Avengers on the cover).

strange death of adam warlockNewer comics fans, familiar with the Thanos from such later productions as “The Infinity Gauntlet,” may not have seen some of this material before (especially the full-color reprints from Warlock’s own comic). Long-time comics fans will savor these earliest appearances of the character mainly because they get to savor the coming of age of Jim Starlin as an artist, moving with amazing speed from the Gil Kane template of his earliest published work to a visual style entirely his own. His surrealistic page layouts and hyperkinetic action sequences blossom right in front of the reader in these pages, and it’s as thrilling to watch as it was forty years ago.

Non-comics readers will still be in the dark, naturally – they’re hardly going to brave their local Android’s Dungeon in search of homework for a movie that doesn’t even come out until 2015. But the faithful get their rewards early.