It’s hard not to think the name was chosen to recall prior stories—inevitably those of Jim Starlin, ie, The Infinity Gauntlet, The Infinity War, The Infinity Crusade, [Adam Warlock and] the Infinity Watch, The Infinity Abyss, now The Infinity Revelation, and soon The Infinity Relativity. If nothing else, the man has had a virtual lock on Marvel comics with that word in their title, now most clearly and brazenly excepted here.
Of course, I originally intended to ignore the story—I knew the Thanos beats, and they rung so falsely that I decided it fell into the territory of the vast majority of non-Starlin Thanos stories: stuff I ain’t readin’.
But I found myself lured to Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers (and New Avengers and Avengers World)—and that meant that, unless I excised issues written by Hickman on the basis of what was written, I was going to go tromping off grudgingly into Infinity, like it or not. As both books tromped onward in their lead-up to the events in that miniseries—and, ostensibly, future ones still to come, whether simply unread in my case, or as yet unpublished—I found that, perhaps, it was an unintended coincidence. The concept of infinity (specifically through the infinities of a multiverse) was central to what was occurring.
I’m left to wonder, somewhat, if the inclusion of Thanos (and the title, or maybe as a result of the title, or maybe many things) was editorial mandate or in some way just as grudging for writer as me for reader.
Whether it was or not, the read was intensely frustrating. I’ve been asked by a few friends of late to recommend the works most apt to explain my love of the character, which has highlighted (though it’s largely instinctive) the problematic nature of every other writer’s approach to the character. This, though, was the most frustrating of all, because it was a glaring stain on what was otherwise an interesting and enjoyable story. I liked the Builders and where that went—I thought the concepts there were very well-realized, thoroughly engaging and interesting. To add insult to injury, the badly-written Thanos was in what felt like a shoe-horned plot—totally unnecessary distraction from what really mattered. The moment where they find the wearied, beaten worlds raising up the “A” in honour of the only ones who felt able to stand against the builders—and Hawkeye holding his bow with the Centaurians—was inspiring in the best of comic book hero ways.
I just took a few moments to re-read Starlin’s most recent work on the character, to confirm for myself whether he’s stumbling in that absence or not (the answer was “not”). This Thanos is so radically different from the one employed by Hickman (and everyone else, for that matter), that I’m left with the same impression I had on leaving the theater after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy: whatever good here is marred by the chasmic loss of what was to what is.
Retcons are a fact of comic book life—as are continuity errors, mistakes, and writers who just don’t give a toss. But fundamentally altering a character within the stream of continuity without expectation is nonsensical. It fits a pattern that many have stated, and I, too, have put forth: if you aren’t going to use the original material, why do you steal it’s visage?
In other words: this isn’t Thanos. So why do you call him that and make him look this way?
There’s a very clear manner to his speech, visible in every famous Thanos story up through the early to mid 90s (indeed, almost every story, with only two notable and unpleasant exceptions¹). Starlin’s stated explicitly that one quirk is the absolute absence of contractions: you will find that Thanos always “does not” and never “doesn’t”. There’s more to it—he reads like someone with a dictionary in his head. This isn’t to be confused with the kind of person who carries a thesaurus and intentionally trades out a word based on syllable count (with little understanding of the nuanced differences between the two words in question), as it’s rarely, if ever, uncomfortable.
Hickman somewhat manages the latter, but fails distinctly at the former. And this is indicative of exactly what the problem is with almost everyone who writes the character and isn’t Jim Starlin: Thanos is on a different plane. While he’s most definitely not devoid of petty emotions (his jealousy, rage, and otherwise un-characteristically vulnerability-hiding arrogance in The Infinity Gauntlet, for instance), his over-arching motivations are not so simplistic. Vengeance as long-term plan for shows of brute force is not his nature. Everything he does is planned and schemed—he’s not an invading tyrant, he’s a strategist in the extreme.
And so we now watch numerous plot elements fail:
- He has children scattered throughout the galaxy. Oddly, this end goal (the fact of his having offspring) is completely out of keeping with the character’s obsessions with death and “chaos” (when chaos was added to this mix, I’ve no idea, as chaos is the antithesis of what he seeks). Most confusingly of all, this description is the one that everyone else relies on to describe the character (up to and including his cameo appearance at the end of the Avengers movie). Why a character obsessed with death would do anything that risks the creation of life is unfathomable.
- The implication, which, on reading the book, is extraordinarily unpleasant, is that his conquering involved rape. It carries the implication of warlord-like brutality, shows of power for their own sake, and a different kind of moral unpleasantness than even a willingness to kill half of all life with the snap of his fingers. It’s also somewhat more chaotic; the response of a person to being killed is never in question (they die). The risks of childbirth, vengeance—anything, are not in keeping with his “actual” character. It simply doesn’t make sense (in addition to being disgusting²).
- His motivation is to kill his children, and he does so by demanding “tribute” of all possible lives in a given society that fit the age group. This is, again, a sloppy, violent action, a show of brute force with little to do in the way of scheme, plan, or intelligence.
- He employs a core set of generals, who are all sociopaths and psychopaths of immense power. This is not a set of instruments or tools he can control—except via, again, shows of force. Contrast this (down to the origin story of Proxima Midnight) to that of Gamora: from child rescued as last survivor of the Zen-Whoberi, raised as his own adoptive daughter with whatever facsimiles of love and affection he can manage (enough that even a pre-pubescent Gamora moves to defend her foster “father” from an attack) to “child who watched him murder the child next to her.” Gamora was loyal to him because, in all honesty, he earned her loyalty. She abandoned him as a result of his final goals and their ties to death. But he knew he could rely on her up to that end. After that, his associates were used without their knowledge (see: most of Earth’s heroes) or with careful examination and understanding to assure that their goals were mutual enough that he could rely upon them and trust their actions and motivations. Any risks after a goal was achieved were planned for.
There are points here and there that Hickman manages better than others—the way Thanos is finally defeated is reasonable, in a sense: there’s no way to have acquired advance knowledge of how to deal with his son’s powers, when he had not yet undergone terrigenesis. But that’s contrasted with the absurd sloppiness of marauading around with an invasion force and just going “screw it, give me all of ‘em.”
That character is most definitely a threat, but that character is not interesting. The coldly manipulative nature of Starlin’s Thanos, coupled with his varied motivations and glimmers of remorse: he’s an actual sentient being in that.
To everyone else, he’s just an incredibly powerful and threatening warlord. That’s not creative or interesting. It’s not even the same kind of threat—really, it suffers from “Venom” syndrome: “What if we took them up against someone who’s just more powerful in all ways and has a counter for their most valuable skills?”
It’s boring. It’s an idea, with no realization behind it. Some yammer on about how the gauntlet is a “lazy plot device” or how “stupid” it is that Thanos is his own worst enemy, but that’s because they’re grafting the “Venom” approach onto the Starlin character. The point isn’t who can beat who, or who’s stronger—those are brought up, because it would be absurd to think Thanos would do anything he does and everyone would shrug and go “Really? Oh well.” And if they can’t do that, and they could beat him, then the explorations of power and his character would never be achieved. The idea of a character who seeks and can, even has, gained omnipotence and found it and himself wanting is fascinating. Someone who gets omnipotence and is beaten by the skin of the heroes’ teeth could be exciting, but not really fascinating. More to the point, that character exists in a thousand colours, shapes, names, and forms.
Galactus is most interesting because he is a cosmic force, a necessity, an inevitability, and simply above and beyond the insectoid life-forms that the rest of us are to him. If he cackled madly and joyously relished destroying worlds for fun, or even did so with menacing stoicism, he would be boring.
But, unfortunately, that’s the character that everyone wants Thanos to be—they cheer for his appearance in the Avengers in the way that everyone clamoured for Venom in Spider-Man movies. It’s not insincere, but it’s about an idea, and not a character, because there isn’t one there: “Oh boy! Thanos is the biggest, coolest threat!” Venom didn’t work (and likely wouldn’t work) because the story there is so thin. The most you can hope is that he looks “cool” and comes off “badass”—because that’s all people actually want out of him. Mostly because there isn’t anything else. And so they want the same from Thanos—but this becomes frustrating because that end result necessitates abdication from any attempt to realize the character that he is. Thanos the roving, power-mad, philosophizing curiosity is lost to “Thanos the really powerful, and totally rad badass”.
And that’s a real shame. Use another character. Make a new one. Use Thanos for Thanos—not because “badass”.
¹Those would be his infamously hilarious story in Spidey Super Stories (where he robs a bank and also has a bright yellow “Thanos Copter”) and the occasionally praised—for reasons I’m not sure of—backup feature in an issue of Logan’s Run, which was pretty terrible.
²There is, of course, inevitable debate about how one can create a hierarchy of moral awfulness once one reaches murder, rape, or mass forms of either. However, this is fiction: in much of fiction, death does not have the gravity of death by necessity. Death is inescapable, even in isolation. Even violent death is not sufficiently preventable, as it can occur without machination or voluntary action. Beyond this, much of fiction is built on conflict, and essentially the entirety of super hero comic-dom is built on power and force—some form of violence—as means to stop things. Soldiers, war, martial arts—fiction in such realms would become ludicrous with an excision of death, when physical conflict is central. And we would not particularly want to play games or read stories or watch them in cases where we are always led to hate or feel disgusted with all acts of violence perpetrated by all characters (there are exceptions, notable because they are exceptions—if the norm, well, it simply wouldn’t ever be the norm).