Monday, January 24, 2011


One would not think that Marvel: The End, featuring an invasion, the assumption of divine power by a committed nihilist, uncounted multitudes dying and finally culminating with the entire universe being destroyed would classify as "the feel-good comedy of 2003," but beleive it or not, it is.

As with all great works, however, the reason for this is more metatextual than anything. To set the stage for that, let me give you a bit of a history lesson:

By 2003, the Jemas/Quesada era that came in with a wave of optimism and innovation was starting to break and roll back. Quesada, content to play "good cop" to Jemas' "bad cop," hung back on the sidelines, only occasionally starting work on books he had no intention of finishing. Jemas, apparently long past his ability to control his impulses, seemed to be well past the point of "lovable rebel/provocateur" and now seemingly lived to do things that pissed off Marvel's fans--shitcanning Mark Waid on Fantastic Four (not something I was against in principle, but what it was due to be replaced with was no better) the whole U-Decide mess, re-doing Thunderbolts as Fight Club, and Marville, a book so apocalyptically wretched it's just one of those things No One Talks About Anymore.

Jemas was fond of pronouncing things in the style of an Old Testament deity, with a little Stone Cold Steve Austin thrown in. "It was fucking stupid to kill of Cyclops if you're not gonna keep him dead" was a classic one, and one that actually led us to this here book.

Because Marvel: The End, unlike the rest of "The End" books, is an actual part of continuity, not some imagined "final issue," which is pretty much what the rest of "The End" books have been. But those books existed to give beloved creators a chance to write a "last word" on their own terms. Marvel: The End exists to ram through a editorial edict: Dead characters should stay dead and will no longer be coming back, we really mean it, no backsies.

I'll leave a space for laughing right here.

But yeah, that was the whole thrust of this. It was left to Jim Starlin to actually weave it into something a story, and really--let's give credit where it's due, it's much more thought out than say, "Mephisto erases Spider-Man's marriage because that's the thing we're doing now." Starlin even manages to work in some elements he'd carried forward from his last mini-series, Infinity Abyss, and gets some decent mileage out of his main character, Thanos (who else did you expect?) once the plot gets going.

Of course, this being a 2003 Marvel comic, the plot doesn't get going until issue #4 or so. But it works to Starlin's advantage, because the real story he wants to tell is much more interior than the usual whammo-blammo stuff you'd think you were getting.

So, now that we've wasted enough time with the metatextual stuff, let's cut right to the heart of this thing--a cosmically-powered pharaoh named Akhenaten shows up and declares that he's ruler of the world because he's basically God and stuff, and generally puts everyone on notice that he will not to tolerate any dispute to that. After everyone spends a few pages shitting themselves (Akhenaten is SO POWERFUL he makes George W. Bush drop his bag of pretzels. HE DROPPED HIS BAG OF PRETZELS, people. Shit just got real.) the various good and bad guys start coming up with ways to send him packing.

Doctor Doom remembers he has a time machine and goes to kill Akhenaten (seriously, it's that abrupt) before he can become a threat, but unfortunately, Akhenaten figured someone might do this so he travels back and kills Doom before he can kill him in the past and.

Meanwhile, Thanos and the Defenders (and Captain Marvel) try a more subtle approach, which ends up getting the desired result. Thanos steals Akhenaten's power and becomes the de facto god of all things. How this is different from when he used the Cosmic Cube to make him God or the Infinity Gauntlet is that every time Thanos pulls this stunt, a new deus ex machina to make him deus is required. It's tradition, like how Ric Flair never hits the flying bodypress no matter how many times he goes up on the top rope.

The Defenders aren't strictly necessary for this--neither are the legion of other superheroes that show up. Chad Nevett says in his frankly excellent series on Stalin's cosmic work that the huge casts of superheroes are little more than a smokescreen for the stories that he's actually interested in, as nearly without fail they show up, do very little of consequence and get blasted off the field in fairly short order. That little storytelling move is done like, three times in the course of The End.

Anyways, by issue #5 the real crisis is laid bare. Thanos has the ultimate power, but learns to his horror that he's been given a poisoned chalice: He has absolute power over everything in the universe, but the universe is slowly being undone. Thanks to the ridiculous amount of resurrections that have happened in the Marvel Universe, a fundamental flaw has crept in that is about to wreck everything.

Oh, and it all started with Wonder Man. I knew he sucked, but knowing about he's responsible for the destruction of the universe frankly justifies everything bad I have to say about him. What an ass.

Knowing this, the Not God But Really Guys It's Supposed To Be God handed off the resolution of the whole mess to Thanos, as he was ideally suited to the job. To quote:

"I now clearly saw the oblique nature of the trap I had blundered into. What better way to handle a cosmic dilemma than to pass of the responsibility of dealing with it to an unsuspecting fool? A megalomaniacal fool with delusions of grandeur."

But even then, that's not the whole of it. We're led to believe that Thanos was the ideal person for the job because he'd been trying to destroy the universe for the past thirty years, so blowing the whole mess up and doing a system restore was, for him, a lazy Sunday. Only, instead of killing everything to impress his girlfriend or relish his power, he has to destroy everything to save everything.

And so, by the end of Issue 5, the universe is gone. Thanos gets pissed off that everyone (and I mean literally everyone--Starlin draws crowd scenes that come very close to requiring the creation of a Perez scale) is attacking him, pulls the universe into himself, and kills it and everything else dead.

The End.

Oh, wait, one more issue. Well, with everything gone, all that's left is for Thanos and Warlock (who was conveniently outside the universe at the time of the cataclysm. Y'know, like you do) debate whether or not to restart the universe or just keep things as they are. Of course, Thanos has already made his decision, Warlock just goads him into admitting it, but not before we have the laugh line of the decade from Thanos:

"Death will now be permanent. Never again will there be any miraculous resurrections. No fooling or bargaining with the great divide. Heroes will no longer be recycled. From this point on, when they fall, another will have to take their place."

Yeah, laudable goal this, and a good thing, too--by maintaining an ever-evolving cast of characters it keeps things fresh and keeps the possibilities open. And so Thanos reboots the universe and everything's back to normal (even Thor's ridiculous 2002-ish costume with the nipple chains. My God, what the fuck were they thinking?) except Thanos died.

Only he didn't, beause look at that, coming soon: Thanos #1. Kinda KICKS THE ENTIRE POINT OF THE SERIES SQUARELY IN THE NUTS, doesn't it? Then again, the Quesada/Jemas era was marked by its arbitrariness, its illogic, and its inconsistency (just like every other editorial regime that comes in with Big Plans until reality sets in and forces compromise, lest you think I'm picking on them) so it's small surprise it was almost immediately undermined.

For all I pick on it, The End isn't a bad book--it just hasn't aged all that well. It didn't make much of a ripple at the time either, I don't think. Line-wide continuity had been de-emphasized to such an extent that someone coming along and clapping their hands and saying "Okay people, this is what we're doing now" probably scarcely caused anyone to look up. Reprinting it now, eight years since it was current and seven years and eleven months from the time the edict was rescinded, is a bit curious, but Marvel seems to be on a Starlin-reprinting kick lately, is all I can suggest.

But it's a pretty good book, as it's basically a long character study of Thanos, who takes us carefully and logically through his heel-face (or more accurately heel-tweener) turn and actually makes the whole "too many resurrections" thing feel like an organic plot element rather than the execution of an order (This is maybe 6 years before Blackest Night uses the same element as a plot point) and it's a brisk read. That, plus the idea of a line-wide "event" in the Quesada/Jemas era of Marvel--exactly the thing they were working so hard to get away from--is bound to be interesting if for no other reason than historical curiosity.

In short, this book is for hardcore Starlin fans more than anyone else, but taken on those merits (especially if, like me, you happen to be a hardcore Starlin fan) much enjoyment can be taken from it.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

You know, I remember being really excited about the "End" line back when it was first announced - we all take for granted the fact that these damn things will never have a proper ending, but we can at least see what a real conclusion might be like, right? And then, aside from the Hulk one (which was more about PAD driving yet another coffin nail into his own run, though it worked very well as a coda to his big finale) they were all garbage. Hilarious at times, because only Chris Claremont could stretch a story called "The End" to 18 issues, but still.

Kazekage said...

The worst one for me is Iron Man: The End which should have been a grand slam for me, but just did not get off the blocks for me.

. . .and did anyone think Claremont could condense his thoughts to less than that? His first cut of his ending would have probably been as long as his original run. :)