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Comics: The Legacy of Thanos

By (June 25, 2014) No Comment

The Avengers: The Legacy of Thanosavengers cover

Roger Stern (script)

John Buscema, John Byrne (art)

Marvel Comics, 2014


When the end-credit sequence for Marvel Studios’ 2012 special effects extravaganza The Avengers showed the ugly, grinning face of long-time Marvel Comics super-villain Thanos, the movie’s uber-nerdy director, Joss Whedon thereby announced to the world that he had designs on this rather one-dimensional would-be universe-conqueror. And since The Avengers has so far earned well in excess of a billion dollars, that announcement suddenly jumped from being a geek encryption to an obligatory business plan.

Suddenly, in the wake of that movie, Marvel Comics, the frothing seed-bed of stories from which Marvel movies arise, looked back into its archives and began eagerly re-packaging anything and everything Thanos-related. The character was invented by comics legend Jim Starlin and his colleagues back in 1973 and has been laying fiendish plans for the destruction of all life in the universe ever since (he’s in love with Death, so there’s precious little compromising with him). Thanos himself is member of a race of super-powered aliens living on Saturn’s moon Titan, so he’s personally powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with some of the strongest Marvel superheroes. And in addition to that, he’s a warlord, prone to gathering large armies of galactic riff-raff to his vast spaceship Sanctuary II. In short, he’s a useful super-villain: strong enough to warrant the attention of whole teams of heroes, simple enough so that anything he wants will be bad. Plus, as noted, he’s ugly.

legacy of thanos backForty years is plenty long enough for a sequence of comic book hacks to use and misuse such a character, and all of those wretched stories will now be flushed out of their richly-deserved obscurity, given a hideous color re-mastering, and slapped with a “Look! Thanos!” banner. This can be fairly dispiriting to think about, but there’s a silver lining: a handful of Thanos stories over the years have been excellent, and a handful more have been just shy of excellent. Some of these things are very much worth reprinting, and without that billion-dollar movie, none of it might have been seen in color again.

New from Marvel Comics is a volume called The Avengers: The Legacy of Thanos, reprinting roughly ten issues of The Avengers and The Fantastic Four from the mid-1980s, and it may just be the oddest Thanos reprint of them all, since he’s not in it. In a justifiably revered earlier storyline, the mad Titan had been turned to stone, his legions dispersed, his great spaceship Sanctuary II abandoned.

The story in these issues revolve not around the dead Thanos but around the sultry blue-skinned woman named Nebula, who’s recently laid claim both to the remnant’s of Thanos’s old army but also to his space ship, and who does all this with the claim that she’s the granddaughter of Thanos. The resurgence of this threat quickly becomes a subject of interstellar concern, and that conflict, predictably enough, engulfs the Avengers.

These issues are written by one of the greatest of all Avengers writers, Roger Stern (whose entire run on the title really does warrant a big fat hardcover one of these days), who has a flawless knack for digging into the thoughts and motivations of his disparate cast of characters, painting their differences in grounded, believable terms. His melodramas often boil down to trials of morality – it’s The Avengers written for grown-ups instead of for hysterically over-stimulated teenage boys (in a recent Avengers storyline, one of the bad guys gains the telepathic abilities of his foe by sawing open the skull of his corpse and yanking out his brain; adults reading it must perforce feel mainly embarrassment). The bittersweet ruminations of the Avenger Captain Marvel, accidentally stranded half a galaxy from Earth on Sanctuary II, are a good example of the kind of thing you seldom enough find in four-color comics:

It’s no use … even if I knew where Earth was from here, it would take a couple million years to get there under my own power! What could be more humiliating than being shanghaied to some other galaxy by a bunch of interstellar Bowery Boys? I was so certain that my energy powers would let me get the jump on them before they could do anything. So much for overconfidence!

Stern’s writing doesn’t fill quite the whole volume; the last segment is a reprint of the 1985 Annual of The Fantastic Four, written and drawn by avengers2fan favorite John Byrne. The issue represents the second half of a two-part storyline started in that same summer’s Avengers Annual, and the two issues together form something special and exceedingly rare in the world of superhero comics: back-to-back annuals, drawn by the same artist, showing the same story from two different viewpoints. Byrne draws both issues; in The Avengers he’s inked by Kyle Baker, an extremely talented and individualistic artist in his own right; in The Fantastic Four, Byrne is inked by legendary Marvel inker Joe Sinnott. avengers4In some ways, it’s, you’ll pardon the term, illuminating: Baker overlays Byrne’s pencils with a scratchy, slightly unpredictable patina, whereas Sinnott smooths everything out, sharpening and clarifying as he goes. And for a few seconds in the course of the experiment, Byrne seems enthusiastic – he draws the same moment for the cover of each issue, for instance, but seen from opposite perspectives. But he quickly bores with the whole idea and instead falls back on the kind of charlatan practices he so often seems to favor (culminating, notoriously, when he once turned in a several-page fight-scene set in a snowstorm and consisting of blank panel after blank panel). In this case, he simply re-uses the avengers1same panels from one annual to another. The interest derives mainly from watching the differences two inkers can make when rendering the same pencils. Fans who shelled out $3 for both annuals thirty years ago might not have appreciated the art lesson.

As noted, Thanos himself never shows up in The Legacy of Thanos (and Nebula, it must be said, is if anything an even more simplistic character than her supposed grandfather, mainly just seductive poses and gleaming hair styles). Nevertheless, these are fine, fun issues, with Roger Stern clearly enjoying himself in space-opera rompings, and some of the layouts of the great John Buscema (here nearing the end of his professional career at Marvel) are almost effortlessly grand. All of it is so enjoyable that you hardly miss the ugly old bad guy.