Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Starlin's Thanos, part 1 of 10: The Mad Titan and the Cosmic Cube

Next month the motion picture Avengers: Infinity War will debut, featuring as its antagonist Thanos. Thanos is considered one of the best Marvel super-villians, not only because of the amount of sheer physical power he can wield against Marvel's heroes, but also because of the strong characterization behind him. Principally, Thanos is an author's pet - that is, he flourishes best under the pen of his original creator, writer/artist Jim Starlin. Few other writers even attempt to mimic Starlin's view of the character.

Over the next few weeks I'm going to be running a 10 part revisit of Starlin's work on Thanos with brief looks at what other authors did with the character during the period covered. We're at the beginning, which means we start with Thanos' first appearance: Iron Man #55 (1973), plotted & penciled by Starlin with a script by Mike Friedrich and inks by Mike Esposito.

On the face of it, audiences in 1973 would not have found Iron Man #55 a particularly remarkable comic; it was a fill-in issue and Starlin was still a young name in the industry. Further, although Iron Man had a solid reputation as one of Marvel's earliest Silver Age heroes, his series had fallen on hard times in '73 - there was even talk of merging his book with another low-seller, Daredevil. In comics of the day, there were many ambitious fill-in issues where the creators would try to insert their brand-new mythologies into the Marvel Universe; no one would think Drax, Thanos or Titan were destined to be among the most successful additions to the Marvel Universe of the 1970s - but that's how it turned out. Ofttimes it is less-visible comic books like Iron Man which are able to sneak something truly ambitious into the mainstream - so it was with Iron Man #55.

Thanos was not yet fully formed in his first appearance - most noticeably, his costume had blue gloves & boots and he bore shorts and bare arms - but the background was there: Thanos was introduced as "the mad Titan," born on the titular moon of Saturn to the wise old Mentor, but bearing a lust for war his father didn't share. Thanos is pursued by his implacable foe Drax the Destroyer and aided by his minions the Blood Brothers; further, Titan's moon-sized super-computer ISAAC puts in its first appearance. We also meet Titan's deity, Kronos, Mentor's omnipotent father, making him Thanos' grandfather. Although Kronos' personal connection to Thanos and cosmic might would suggest he'd be a major player in Starlin's tales, Kronos is consistently an impotent afterthought throughout his appearances; as will become clear when Starlin begins using other cosmic entities (Eternity, Living Tribunal), Starlin doesn't hold them in the highest esteem. As a fill-in story almost any super hero could have been summoned by Drax to deal with Thanos, but the use of Iron Man would prove helpful to Starlin later on as Iron Man was a very well-connected hero.

But the Thanos storyline finally found its home - and true critical praise - in the pages of Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was a widely-disliked comic book at the time, as Marvel had only created the character so they could control a valuable trademark - while fans of Golden Age comics resented Marvel for pilfering the moniker of the beloved Fawcett Comics super hero. Many fan publications of the time held Captain Marvel in withering contempt, even after Roy Thomas & Gil Kane revamped the character into a red/blue costume with Rick Jones as his sidekick (Rick exchanging places with Mar-Vell as an homage to the Fawcett hero).

Starlin's first true Thanos epic involves the villain (now clad in his familiar blue costume with orange gloves/boots/fringes and eyes which glow from within his sockets) searching for the Cosmic Cube, an all-powerful device which had previously been a Captain America staple; Captain Marvel is involved because Rick Jones had been present in the Cube's previous appearance. Quickly, Mentor, Titan and ISAAC were reintroduced to Captain Marvel, with Mar-Vell's foe the Super-Skrull serving as a lieutenant to Thanos. In the course of battling Thanos, Mar-Vell becomes 'Protector of the Universe' by decree of the cosmic being Eon and he discovers Thanos' weakness - although Thanos claims otherwise, his power is linked to the Cosmic Cube itself.

Starlin's first Thanos epic ran from issues #25-33 of Captain Marvel and ultimately cast a large shadow over the character, to the point that Starlin is widely considered the definitive Captain Marvel creator, despite leaving after issue #34. Over the course of the series Starlin gained more control over the narrative, beginning with Mike Friedrich as scripter, until Starlin took full control of plotting & scripting as of issue #29; from then on, Starlin would plot & script his Thanos stories solo. Starlin was inked by Chic Stone, Dave Cockrum, Pablo Marcos, Dan Green, Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson. In the course of the story Starlin revamped the hero yet again, making minor alterations to Mar-Vell's costume, changing his hair from silver to blond and granting him the power of 'cosmic awareness'; the powers and costume which Starlin gave the hero would be the status quo authors would continue to revisit again and again in the decades which followed.

Comic books in 1973 did not crossover with the kind of frequency titles of today would. Even so, the Thanos epic was so strong it did get picked up in other titles while the main story was told in Captain Marvel. Over in Steve Gerber's Daredevil, Gerber connected the somewhat-shifty telepathic heroine Moondragon into Starlin's mythos with an origin flashback in Daredevil #105 (drawn by Starlin) revealing she had been raised from childhood on Titan by Mentor (causing a continuity hiccup when it was revealed Thanos killed Moondragon's parents - meaning he wasn't her peer in age). Starlin also drew Marvel Feature #12 with writer Mike Friedrich, featuring the Thing and Iron Man facing Thanos' agents the Blood Brothers (introduced in Iron Man #55). Finally, Steve Englehart tied into the epic in Avengers #125 (art by John Buscema & Dave Cockrum), a very natural crossover as Starlin was using the Avengers in the pages of Captain Marvel and the epic was big enough for the Avengers to battle Thanos' invading fleet between the panels of Starlin's tale.

At the time, there had been one one tale quite like Starlin's Thanos arc: the Kree-Skrull War storyline which Roy Thomas wrote in the Avengers (1971-1972). That epic had involved a massive line-up of Avengers, the Inhumans and Captain Marvel. Likewise, Starlin's Thanos epic teamed Captain Marvel with the Avengers, plus Drax, Moondragon, Mentor and Thanos' heroic brother Eros. Strangely, although Eros is Thanos' brother, he is always a side character to stories about Thanos. He would even join the Avengers in the 1980s, but Eros has never had the kind of popularity his brother enjoys.

Everything which is important to Starlin's crafting of Thanos can be found in the pages of the Captain Marvel epic: he worships Death itself, with Death appearing to him in the form of a beautiful woman; he is pursued by the dogged Drax the Destroyer, who is single-minded to the point of madness; Thanos seeks instruments of vast cosmic power so that he can control others and claim lives in the name of Death; Thanos is undone when he allows his foes access to the very thing which empowers him (in this case, the Cosmic Cube, which he abandons).

Starlin has admitted Thanos was inspired by Jack Kirby's DC villain Darkseid, who debuted three years earlier. Both beings worship death and destruction, both are physically large and imposing, both are prone to melodramatic soliloquies; as time goes on, Starlin's Thanos will become more distinctly unlike his inspiration.

Starlin remained on Captain Marvel only one issue past the Thanos epic for issue #34, in which Mar-Vell was exposed to nerve gas while battling the super-villain Nitro. Put a pin in that one, we'll speak more of it later.

At this point, the idea that Thanos subconsciously allowed himself to lose was nothing more than a subtext - but his defeat here would pave the way for the eventual revelation in Infinity Gauntlet that he did not actually want ultimate victory.

Next Thursday: Chaos meets the true neutral.

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