And just like that, Thanos was everywhere.
Once a figure designated for Jim Starlin's use, The Infinity Gauntlet event and 6-issue mini-series made Thanos a top Marvel villain. But at the same time, Starlin was deconstructing Thanos into a character who would never serve as a menace in a story like The Infinity Gauntlet again.
In retrospect, it's remarkable that a plot which had been running in a low-profile series like Silver Surfer could rise up and become a major publishing event, earning a reputation as one of the best Marvel super hero crossovers ever told. Aside from Steve Englehart referencing the Cosmic Cube saga in an issue of Avengers, Starlin's Thanos epics seemed to exist in their own world, only barely infringing on the larger Marvel Universe. No longer.
Through the course of The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos attempts to use his newfound omnipotence to finally win Death's affections back, first by fulfilling his promise to her and eliminating 50% of all life in the universe (with a snap of his fingers). The remaining heroes, led by a resurrected Adam Warlock, attempt to stop Thanos, but even after he willingly reduces his power level, he easily mops the floor with them. Finally, Thanos loses the Infinity Gems to Nebula, who undoes all of Thanos' mischief.
In the midst of this, it becomes clear that Thanos' earlier defeats occurred because on a subconscious level, Thanos did not truly desire ultimate victory. And so, Captain Mar-Vell and Spider-Man were each permitted a chance to thwart him. In The Infinity Gauntlet, the Vision notes this quirk of Thanos' personality early on and during Thanos' fight with the heroes he almost loses while battling Captain America - until he realizes he was about to surrender and instantly rallies.
Now that this subtext has become the text of Thanos, Thanos is instantly a much more difficult character to write. Creators other than Starlin frequently want to replay another Infinity Gauntlet-type story - but now that Thanos knows he doesn't truly want ultimate power, why even bother telling another story that goes through the motions?
Some fans find Starlin's characterization of Thanos insulting; after all, Starlin has revealed that his pet creation can only be beaten if he wants to. It sounds like a schoolyard mentality. But then, following The Infinity Gauntlet Starlin wasn't particularly interested in having Thanos square off against the heroes for another curb stomp; now that Thanos realized he didn't actually want true power, he was free to find a new destiny. Infinity Gauntlet ends with Adam Warlock wielding the gems while Thanos has abandoned his old costume and taken up existence as a farmer - but Starlin had new ideas for the character.
The Infinity Gauntlet was drawn by George Perez and Ron Lim (when Perez failed to make deadlines), inks by Tom Christopher, Joe Rubinstein and Bruce Solotoff. Among the comics who tied into the event were Mark Gruenwald & Greg Capullo's Quasar, Terry Kavanagh & David Ross' Cloak and Dagger, Roy Thomas, Danni Thomas & Dan Lawlis' Doctor Strange, Peter David & Dale Keown's Incredible Hulk, and Ron Marz's Silver Surfer. Starlin had given up writing duties on Silver Surfer for the sake of The Infinity Gauntlet (bringing Ron Lim with him), but Ron Marz quickly proved to be sympatico to Starlin's concept of Marvel cosmic tales, and the characterization of Thanos in particular. Marz would frequently aid Starlin's tales in the years to come and remains one of two Marvel writers to touch Thanos whose work Starlin seems to approve of (Keith Giffen being the other).
The number of tie-ins for The Infinity Gauntlet was modest, but Marvel wasn't blind to the sales success the event had been; next time - and yes, there had to be a next time - the tie-ins would escalate. But for the moment, Starlin was writing Warlock and the Infinity Watch, a new series teaming Adam, Gamora, Pip, Drax and Moondragon as the guardians of the Infinity Gems. And who took the sixth gem? Starlin kept that secret for about two years...
Next Thursday: They Bite.