Friday, October 8, 2010


Pictured: God?!?

As anyone who has known me for any length of time, they will tell you that Jim Starlin's cosmic stuff at Marvel is something I've always had quite a lot of time for. His DC work, well, not so much, but working at Marvel from the 70's through the 00's I've found to be occasionally compelling and always interesting.

The most consistent throughline in his marvel work is the character of Thanos. Initially created as a gestalt of DC's Metron and Darkseid, Thanos develops over time from omnicidal maniac villain to nihilistic power seeker to nuanced character who could best be termed "nominal protagonist" rather than reformed supervillain in Starlin's hands.

Starlin was most concerned with making Thanos cunning, powerful, intelligent, but also flawed. Oftentimes Thanos is undone by his own subconscious drives (characters undone by psychological problems is an ongoing theme in Starlin's work. When Thanos appears in other folks' work, this particular nuance tend to be lost.) just at the point where his triumph should be complete, a point which is made explicit twice in the book we're considering today--The Infinity Gauntlet.

What's curious about Infinity Gauntlet [and be warned, I'm going to recap most of this in detail, but you should still totally read the book, as some of the nuances I can't convey to you]--seen now as the beginning of its own trilogy--is that it's actually the third act of a continuing story that is itself the third act.

I better explain. Y'see Thanos first made his bones, as it was, as a villain in Captain Marvel. Generally, the structure of early Starlin stories works like this--Starlin first puts the character through various psychological paces which Thanos may or may not be behind. In the second part, the character either openly fights against or collaborates with Thanos against some third threat or subordinate threat that Thanos is behind. In the last half, a huge cast of characters is needed to depose Thanos, who is now very close to whatever goal he's been searching for.

In the Captain Marvel version of this, Thanos' agents harass Captain Marvel for a few issues, then Cap fights against the Controller, who is Thanos' second in command, and by the end of the story when Thanos has used the Cosmic Cube to make himself God it takes the Avengers and everyone else to stop him, even if it's the very small act of Marvel smashing the Cosmic Cube that finally does the deed.

In the Adam Warlock version of this Adam Warlock battles the Magus (who is the evil side of himself, and unbeknownst to him designed to function as a counter to Thanos) in full cooperation with Thanos, realizing only too late that he's played into his hands and he's helped to engineer his plan to use to the Soul Gems to blow every star out of the heavens (one at a time, so pack a lunch kids) In one of Thanos' less well-thought-out plans, he decides to start with Earth. It takes the Avengers, the Thing, Spider-Man, and Captain Marvel to take the battle to Thanos, but it's Spider-Man's activation of the Soul Gem that brings Warlock back to life long enough to destroy Thanos.

Thanos returns about 12 years later in the pages of Silver Surfer. This time, Thanos is brought back from Death by Death (well, who else?) to right what it considers to be a great imbalance in the universe--there are more beings alive than have ever died, and things need to be brought back into balance (as one wag in the Silver Surfer letter column at the time said, "I liked Thanos better before he joined the Sierra Club") Recognizing that the Surfer could potentially upend his plans, Thanos outmaneuvers him and tricks the Surfer into thinking he's dead . . .

So he can start act two in Thanos Quest and collect the Infinity Gems (as the Soul Gems are now called) Thanos makes the Elders of the Universe look like chumps (no hard feat, that--I'm a fan of cosmic stuff in the Marvel Universe, but the Elders have always--always--bit hard) on his way to collecting them. He then returns to Silver Surfer for a few issues to antagonize him (and ends up having the Surfer meet Adam Warlock, which comes into play later) and set up the Infinity Gauntlet proper.

Things happen fast and furious. The Surfer crashes into Dr. Strange's house to warn him, Warlock and his crew return from the dead to help head off the threat, and Thanos is still busy showing off to Death, who cockblocks him at every opportunity.

Then, about midway through, Thanos is all , "Oh right, sorry, I forgot to do that thing you wanted me to do" (and you thought you were in trouble when you forgot your significant other's anniversary?) snaps his fingers, and half the universe dies in an instant.

Starlin is pretty good about showing how this has a ripple effect through the MU. Spider-Man's spider-sense goes crazy and in the blink of an eye the streets of Manhattan are half as crowded as they were a second ago. Hawkeye and Sersi fade away in front of Captain America, the Kree and Skrull races blame each other for the disappearances and are poised to return to war. Starlin is really good during this series of providing branching points where books that wish to participate can join in the crossover at various points and locations in the action.

Issue #2 promises in the title that things will go from bad to worse and they do in a hurry. As the various forces opposing Thanos (including Doctor Doom, because you don't up and kill a bunch of Latverians without incurring the good Doctor's wrath, especially not if godlike power is there as a dangling carrot) try to unite, Thanos has a bit of a temper tantrum and blasts Earth out of orbit, sinking Japan, shattering Asgard's rainbow bridge (and isolating the Asgardian gods from the fight) and unleashing progressively worse Thundarr the Barbarian-style climactic destruction on Earth. Meanwhile, Warlock and the Surfer try to amass the cosmic beings to join the battle against Thanos, which, considering they're generally arrogant comsic douches, doesn't go well. There's a good bit in issue #3 as they're setting the stage for the big fight where Warlock goes to Hulk and Wolverine and in very veiled language tells them that if they have the chance, they're ordered to kill Thanos (a line which pays off in a rather blackly comic way next issue) Oh, and Thanos creates a girl version of himself, which is weird even for Jim Starlin storyline and the implications of which hopefully, outside of the dingier corners of the Internet has not been explored, ever.

I've spoken of my love for Issue 4 (the big fight, finally) previously, most specifically its climactic moment, but the entire issue is really great, riveting stuff. Marvel's greatest heroes take the fight to Thanos and nearly die in the first 4 pages until Mephisto talks Thanos into handicapping himself and making the defeat of Thanos possible. Remember when he did unexpected shit like that instead of just popping up to screw up marriages? Yeah.

The fight is thrilling stuff because we're set up to expect that this slim chance will allow our heroes to prevail, and Thanos has been such an utter swine we're ready to see him get pounded into the dirt, so every time we see our heroes get the upper hand, you're all like "YES!"

. . .and then it all goes bad, because this is issue 4 of 6. The Hulk gets shrunk to ant-size; The Sub-Mariner and She-hulk get devoured by insta-cancer; Doctor Doom gets fried reaching for the Gauntlet (hey, how did What If? miss this bit? Seems like a gimmie.); Thor gets changed into glass and shattered; Wolverine buries his claws into Thanos' chest and Thanos laughs and changes his unbreakable skeleton to rubber; Nova gets turned into blocks; Cyclops is asphyxiated; The Vision has his mechanical guts torn out; Spider-Man gets head bashed in by a rock, Cloak gets ripped open from the inside out; Quasar gets his hands blown off: and Iron Man gets beheaded.

Believe it or not, this all going according to plan. The whole battle was a feint, an attempt to occupy Thanos so the Silver Surfer could fly at top speed and snatch the Gauntlet off Thanos' hand. This may seem like an unnecessarily cruel way to accomplish that. Adam Warlock, whose plan this is, has the decency to be upset about it (and more than a few people call him on how emotionally detached he is about the whole thing) and the notion of Warlock as the perpetual outsider is as much a theme as Thanos' subconscious fallibility.

The penultimate chapter of the Gauntlet is the cosmic beings dogpiling on Thanos. Galactus, the Celestials, Death, Eternity, Mephisto and other folks from stories you never read but were probably references in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, and the resultant carnage gets very abstract and weird--a warp opens up on earth and Annihilus comes through; the Celestials smash a convoy of planets into Thanos; Chronos tries to bury him in time; over and over again they try, but they don't get much further than the heroes did, and Thanos finally becomes Eternity and joins with the universe, leaving his physical body behind.

Yeah, that was a stupid thing to do, because he kinda needs the glove on to get his god thing on (not unlike Michael Jackson did) and also the whole "burning his granddaughter up and letting her survive on the brink of death" thing? Well that turns out to have been stupid in retrospect as well, because Nebula snatches the Gauntlet for herself, and exiled Thanos to be marooned in space for about a page, because Our Heroes have decided to enlist Thanos in their mission to stop Nebula. Initially unswayed and not at all welcome (he did just murder everyone one issue ago) Warlock finally persuades him by (as Kenny Powers would say) fucking him up with some truth, to wit:

"Look back on your life, Thanos of Titan, what do you see? A man always seeking ultimate power and losing it as soon as he attains it. Why? Because deep in his soul he knows he is not worthy of it. Three times you have triumphed over incredible odds to attain the ends you desire and three times you have subconsciously supplied the means to your own defeat. You LET Nebula wrest the Infinity Gems from you just as you allowed Captain Marvel to shatter the Cosmic Cube!"

[I should mention that the way he loses the gauntlet is pretty much exactly as he lost the Cosmic Cube--by leaving his physical body behind he became vulnerable]

This shakes Thanos up enough to pledge his support and, the heroes rally for one final battle, which is once again a diversionary tactic so Adam Warlock can break Nebula's hold on the Gauntlet. There's a good debate between Nebula and Thanos about just how far each would go (Nebula was rolled out after Thanos was finally deaded in the 80's--whatever that means anymore--as a threat of equal formidability, but it never came to much) one is a mere seeker of power, and the other is committed to nihilism, and really, the universe is probably better off with none of them having this kind of power. Nebula gets tricked to wishing everyone back to life (which feels like a cheat, but when you consider this whole story is predicated on a magic wishing glove that can do anything, the reset is kinda built in to the story, innit?) and Warlock once again ends up the ultimate outsider (and yet is the ultimate insider) and Thanos . . .well, why spoil it?

This is a great book, and probably is as accessible an entry point into Starlin's cosmic meta-plot as anything. We're not hobbled by dated dialogue or very opaque conceptual stuff and funky storytelling, and the deeper bits are doled out with the whammo blammo stuff in equal measure. In a world where gigantic superhero crossovers written by people with no firm grasp on any of the characters are the norm, I would urge you to take a look at Infinity Gauntlet and have a look at a bit more centered and thoughtful take on the big crossover.

No comments: