Although Jim Starlin spent the latter half of the 90s away from Thanos, the character himself lingered on. Previously, creators had been wary of dealing with a character whom they saw as Starlin's pet - but now that The Infinity Gauntlet had made Thanos one of Marvel's biggest villains there were many who wanted a shot at him. Unfortunately, creators other than Starlin (or Ron Marz) tended to fall upon the same old tropes Starlin had already thrown out in The Infinity Gauntlet - that is, they wanted Thanos to be worshiping Death and seeking power for himself.
Thanos appeared all over the place, even in Incredible Hulk/X-Man 1998 Annual, but there were a few appearances which were particularly notorious: in 1997, Mark Waid & Andy Kubert used Thanos as the main antagonist in their first year of Ka-Zar. Pitting Thanos against Ka-Zar, a non-powered jungle hero, irritated many of Thanos' fans. The other came in 2000's Thor #21-25 wherein Dan Jurgens & John Romita Jr. sent Thanos on yet another quest for cosmic power, this time using Thor's foe Mangog as his lackey (further upsetting Mangog fans, as the villain had previously been a threat powerful enough to end Asgard on his own).
At the same time, Starlin slowly crept back to Thanos. Peter David and Chriss Cross had begun a new Captain Marvel series, using Mar-Vell's son Genis as the new Captain Marvel, bound to Rick Jones as his father had been. The series went over well, and for their 11th issue, Jim Starlin came to play (along with Al Milgrom as his inker again). The story involved Genis meeting a version of Mar-Vell from another reality, giving him the chance to finally meet a version of his father. Bringing in Starlin for this tale continued to demonstrate how he was considered the definitive Mar-Vell creator. Shortly after, there was a sequel.
Back in his Incredible Hulk run, Peter David had written a run-in between Rick's wife Marlo and Death, herself - mostly to set-up one of his infamous puns ("a brush with Death"). David now brought Marlo's connection to Death into the fore of Captain Marvel via a two-part story in issues #17-18, drawn by Starlin & Milgrom. In this tale, Death is revealed to be hiding within Marlo's body while a being called Walker pursues her; to stop Walker come Thor and Thanos as Marlo's defenders. This was the first time Starlin had ever participated in a Thanos story he didn't write himself but David's Thanos was fairly on-point, serving as a chaotic neutral figure.
It was from this that 2002's Infinity Abyss was born. The title drew obvious lines back to Starlin's Infinity trilogy of the 1990s, but this time Starlin was writing and drawing the series (Milgrom again inking). Although Spider-Man, Dr. Strange and Captain Marvel participated in the story, the real stars were Thanos and Adam Warlock. As a cosmic tremor is felt, Warlock once again emerges from a cocoon (establishing a precedent for Starlin rebooting Adam every time he would return to the character). A cosmic custodian named Atlez is dying and Adam must defend Atlez's successor. Assisting Adam are his former Infinity Watch allies Gamora, Pip, Moondragon and, of course, Thanos.
The villains of the story are the Thanosi, clones Thanos made of himself and designed to combat different superhumans (Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Professor X, Gladiator and Gladiator, to be precise). Thanos reveals his Thanosi included earlier models who he pit against Ka-Zar, Thor and the Avengers (referencing Steve Englehart & Jorge Santamaria's Avengers: Celestial Quest) but the doubles were faulty and tended to lapse into mindless destruction, so Thanos abandoned the project. It's a not-so-very-thinly disguised attack on how other creators had used Thanos. Even Gamora is allowed to criticize other writers' use of Thanos as, overhearing a Thanosi talk about worshiping Death, raising armies and gaining cosmic power, she notes Thanos has evolved past that point.
Jim Starlin continued to solidify his interpretation of his creation Thanos, the former tyrant now cosmic pilgrim. But other Marvel writers continued to oppose his wishes.
Next Tuesday: False Conclusions.