Hickman’s Infinity

Fair Warning: Spoilers are to follow.

Infinity.

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the events in that miniseries—and, ostensibly, future ones still to come, whether simply unread in my case, or as yet unpublished—I found that, perhaps, it was an unintended coincidence.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).

I Lay My Head on the Railroad Tracks, and Wait for the Double E

It’s Thursday! Which means it’s time for me to write about Wednesday!

A light day, a heavy day–depends on how you read it, I guess.

First, our title list–

  • Harbinger: Omegas #1
  • Miracleman #9
  • Moon Knight #6
  • New Warriors #8
  • She-Hulk #7
  • The Superior Foes of Spider-Man #14
  • Thanos: The Infinity Revelation

 

It was originally lighter, but Miracleman was an in-store
last-minute add, and Superior Foes was added only a few days ago. So I thought I was going in for 4 titles and a graphic novel, though, in the end, I may as well have been. I still haven’t gotten my copy of Moon Knight #1 from my friend (too far off!) and, while I read digital copies ages ago, I’ve only got
#2 and now #9 of Miracleman, so those are also going to hang out and wait to be read (though this is the one with the infamously graphic birth scene–of all of the scenes in this story to be most upset about, I feel like that isn’t the one…)

Harbinger: Omegas is the first in a three-part miniseries while the full Harbinger title is on hiatus (after #25), though it’s already being continued in Armor Hunters: Harbinger (also a 3-issue mini-series!) but then, that one is focused on the Armor Hunters plotline, and this is a Harbinger-focused story. Unlike the AH tie-in, this one is setting things back up after #25, peeking in at Harada and Kris and Peter and their own concerns, however large or small they may be. It’s a set-up issue, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for anemic or otherwise unsatisfying, but it is mostly set-up.

New Warriors continues to let Yost admirably juggle a cast that is built up to include his version of Kaine Parker as Scarlet Spider, but that does not center on what was once Yost’s own solo character/book. Haechi struggles to deal with his newfound powers in the setting of the Terrigen Mists unleashed during Inhumanity, with Sun Girl as the lone human in the group determined to set family (including the kind created by superhero teams) above all else, with Inhumans and the High Evolutionary taking a curious tack to dealing with the endless violence and kickstarted evolution of Earth. Aracely (who has managed to retain her personally-chosen codename of Hummingbird) still flits around as the amusingly unfiltered (but  spacey) character she has most often been, but is still not focus enough to reclaim what was being determined for her in Scarlet Spider. Only appropriate–the current plot doesn’t have time for internal meanderings or sudden vision quests. Speedball nudges Kaine about her, though, allowing a completely reasonable reminder of intriguing events, and Kaine’s feelings about this entire mess, without derailing–the character touches being definitely the best part of the book.

Jennifer Walters gets to start a new plot, having decided what to do with “The Blue File” in previous issues after it led to numerous injuries. One of the other tenants in her building has come forward seeking legal advice with a shrinking invention. Naturally, Jen calls in Henry Pym, the acknowledged master of any and all size-changing technology (via the clearly named Pym particles). It’s a bit weird, in that she was pretty recently working with Scott Lang again, but then Pym is the expert and discoverer/inventor.¹

Pulido thankfully returns to art duty, and it allows for a mostly fluffy story that has the mix of legal worker and superhero that a Jen book should focus on, since it addresses the things important to her (at the core at least–certainly they aren’t The Only Things™). It steps pretty firmly away from the continuing plot of the Blue File, but I actually thought that “anticlimactic” conclusion made sense for the characters, even if not the readers. Plowing through friends and associates and risks to them doesn’t seem like something Jen would allow, I must say.

I just recently started on Superior Foes of Spider-Man after seeing how strong its reviews were and catching a few recommendations. It’s following a new Sinister Six that is…well, anything but sinister (or even six). Speed Demon (formerly the Whizzer), the newest Beetle (Abner having gone hero), Overdrive (I’m totally unfamiliar–mostly because he appeared first in 2007, apparently), Shocker, and Boomerang. Most of them are punching bags in actual Spidey continuity, though Amazing #72 was reprinted in The Origins of Marvel Comics, which I grew up reading into pieces (oops–it’s worth a bit now, though not much), and it had the Shocker as a reasonable threat, though not an A-lister, for sure. There’s a solid core trait for each of them (Boomerang is wildly duplicitous, Shocker has become a bit of a doofus and a coward–encouraged by his portrayal in She-Hulk recently, in fact, Speed Demon is a coward, etc) but there’s both a pathetic streak and a head-shakingly consistent set of bad decisions that drives them all in a wildly tangled set of jobs and threats built around false leads, mistakes, accidents and bone-headed selfishness. The latest issue continues the trend Spencer lead the book with–there’s no sense that this particular plot is going to cleanly wrap up as a contained arc, but rather that this is a progression of connected events. It’s another mostly-Boomerang narrated “episode”, which remains welcome, as Myers is an amusing kind of jerk. Just slightly sympathetic, but inevitably such a tool that it doesn’t go too far into sympathy.

And then we have our big release for the day–or, well, year.

Thanos: The Infinity Revelation.

Jim Starlin first returned to Thanos with this year’s Thanos Annual, which was a big chunk of what got me back into comics. It had a projection of Thanos ca. the Infinity Gauntlet discovering what had spurred him on after his defeat at the hands of Captain Marvel during the Cosmic Cube affair–his first major strike, the last before he became forever entangled with Adam Warlock–and signaling, hinting at what was to come.

In the interim (since Thanos 1-6), Thanos has been tackled by Keith Giffen (who rounded out the eponymous series with issues 7-12, some of the last comics I bought previously, about three years ago), Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, Jonathan Hickman, Jason Aaron, and a variety of others. As is standard (and has been since the changes Starlin wrought in 1991’s The Infinity Gauntlet) the complexities of the character, and any shifts in personality, motivation, attitude, and so on, are ignored utterly in favour of shoehorning the character into a preconceived notion of what he is (and was–20+ years ago). The aforementioned 1-6 had him seeking atonement, with all of his previous stories under Starlin leading him to save the universe, unquestionably. For selfish reasons, of course–but without any of the fabled love of Death or desire to destroy or kill or maim (though he has no objections to such things, of course).

When Starlin took the character back up after the poorly received Infinity Crusade (even amongst us fans, it tends not to go over strongly), he did so with The Infinity Abyss in 2002, which told us that Dan Jurgens’s story in the fourth volume of Thor (from 1999, and involving Thanos), was not one involving Thanos at all, but a failed clone.

Because Starlin is one of the authors who–though he says he doesn’t read the other stories–tries to acknowledge continuity, even if it does mean retconning a nonsensical event as above (this is all vaguely ironic: the man establishes the character, people ignore his continuity, and then people get upset that he acknowledges continuity, if in a negative way). This time, he manages to sidle away–he mentioned feeling a bit bad about the “it was a failed clone” bit, so this time he has Thanos explain his mental state for recent events.

But this is a Starlin-Thanos story, unquestionably. It’s strange and wild, but it’s character-focused in spite of that. Some familiar visuals from decades past re-appear, but it’s about how what came before informs what is and will be–it’s definitely an opening chapter (which was not a secret anyway), but it’s a very complete one. Thanos is intensely powerful, but the pursuit of power, the show of force–those aren’t the entirety of his being. He enjoys them, but the simplistic, even two-dimensional, view of his character is inaccurate.

I admit some wariness of where the story goes–not because I don’t see how it got there, or feel that it did not properly lead us there, but because I’m not sure what’s to come, or how much I will like the decision to go this way. It’s a wariness of a believably constructed movement, though, not of an inherently poor choice. But, that remains to be seen–Starlin’s writing and art are largely up to par, if a few interesting word choices can be somewhat unexpected, Thanos is still most definitely Thanos, as no one else seems to know how to write him. The wariness most certainly will not sway me from picking up the next chapter in this latest saga.

Today’s title is, of course, from Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”, and relates to my recent viewings of Freaks and Geeks and not much else. Having paused my writing of this entry for some rounds of Orion: Dino Horde last night, I managed to release my irritation with Ben Stiller and his brief part in the show, which was unexpected and a reminder of how painfully unfunny and irritating he is. Oh well.

¹I became even more confused when she and Patsy reference Eric O’Grady–seemingly unaware he is incredibly dead, as of Secret Avengers #23–and still don’t mention Lang. Poor second Ant-Man… Also, if your instinctive response to Pym is the same as many people, read this.

Guardians…

Well, I decided that perhaps I ought to see Guardians of the Galaxy. I had a number of issues with it: James Gunn is Troma alumni (watch out for the Lloyd Kaufman cameo, if you do see it!), but he also scripted the abysmal Dawn of the Dead remake (which failed mostly with regard to its script and its direction, so…). Anything surrounding it made explicitly clear that the nature of the characters–in all senses–was going to be ignored. Now, if you haven’t heard this before, let me address it clearly: I do not take issue with liberties taken with character history and storylines, so long as the reasons do not reek.¹ Something interesting has to be done to justify those changes–either it’s an absolute inability to address the history that brings a character to the modern incarnation (Rogue…) or it’s an expansion past a good ol’ Lee/Ditko/Kirby “This is how this guy got powers” explanation that doesn’t deal much with character. Making Max Dillon a humiliated loser nobody isn’t really out of range for 616 Electro (nevermind that it was crossed with 1610 anyway). But Lady Deathstrike’s rich motivation and background was traded for…well, literally nothing. In X2, she’s a cardboard bloody cutout–a nothing, a non-entity, and most obviously a stand-in for Sabretooth, as she doesn’t even retain anything of her factual origin. So, from here, we have some kind of trickle-through-the-cracks bits and pieces of SPOILERS. If you’re the kind of person that would be upset at someone telling you about how a movie opens, or about the nature of characters in it that don’t involve surprises or twists, or that kind of thing–stop reading. Accept that I think honestly the movie kind of sucks, and be annoyed or pleased or whatever reaction you may have to this news. So, seeing the obnoxious approach taken to Drax, Gamora, and Quill (to say nothing of Thanos–let’s not even get into what a shitty version of him this movie has) was just off-putting. Saldana and Bautista, to make matters worse, were not up to the characters they did have (poor shadows of their origins, or even current incarnations, that they are). The Deadliest Woman in the Galaxy is shockingly, miserably helpless at almost all turns, soft and sentimental in ways that it once took her a good bit of time to reach. Drax is some kind of weird amalgamation of the red-tattooed modern version and the post-second-resurrection doofus version. Milked for some really forced humour (“He doesn’t understand metaphors and takes everything completely literally.”), it just falls flat, and Bautista’s awful delivery does not help things. And of course there’s Quill. My first experience of Quill was when Giffen wrote him into the Kyln, for the post-Starlin latter half of the intended-to-be-ongoing Thanos series. He was a very interesting character, for his hinted history and his surly reluctance. Here, he’s no longer an ex-hero (or a still-hero), has no clarified reason for being, and is a colossal goof. The movie opens on him as an adult dancing through a mission stupidly. There are some real clunkers of dialogue in there, too (again, Saldana and Bautista make any weaknesses in the script uncomfortably glaring), and it just enforces the problems I have with the changes to the universe. The militaristic Kree disavow Ronan (you know, the Supreme Accuser, their judge, jury, and executioner) and sign peace treaties (!). The Nova Corps is bafflingly regarded: Quill insists they are the only ones to be trusted with dangerous things, but we see basically no reasons to justify this. They don’t have the Nova Force, the Worldmind (see also: Kree Supreme Intelligence) is nowhere to be found. They seem to be a bunch of more literal space cops. Guys in uniforms with guns trying to enforce the law. Huh? Why are they magically better at this than anyone else? Why should they be trusted to be capable of handling anything dangerous? And what the fuck was with Sanctuary? Once an enormous, technologically advanced ship, it’s now…a bunch of rocks. Thanos’s Metron-inspired chair is also now a bunch of rocks (what the hell?!) Thanos was ruined. Utterly ruined. Incompetent, power-backed bluster, rather than the brilliant and devious mind of The Thanos Quest, he’s not even interesting. He’s all threats and nothing interesting. It’s furthering the rather clear truth that he is wasted in these movies. There was no alternative, of course–anyone that thinks you can or should treat Thanos as a background villain doesn’t really get the character, at least as he appeared for his first 30-odd years (before Starlin’s absence allowed him to be stolen away for increasingly ridiculous and stupid plots that bear no resemblance to the characterization that precedes them). The reality is that Thanos should never have been inserted into the MCU. They are incapable of doing him justice–not as a knock against writers, directors, actors or others, but as a knock against the fact that Thanos stories are not Avengers stories. Not even when he appears in Avengers books. It is point 2 from a previous post on the subject of Thanos that elucidates why this movie is an affront to the character. Thanos has no control, no plan, no nothing in place for what transpires. Is it, as some say, “ridiculous” that Thanos is so powerful and devious that the Avengers or the Guardians or anyone else can’t stop it? Maybe. But the truth is that it’s because he’s significantly apart from the “core” of the Marvel universe. Chad Nevett addresses this most wonderfully in his Hello Cosmic blog entries, such as this on The Infinity Gauntlet:

As well, I’ve noted before how the regular Marvel heroes are useless in Starlin’s stories and here is no different. Issue four, as I said, is them getting slaughtered. Up until that point, they do nothing and after, at best, they distract Nebula. Starlin doesn’t just use Adam Warlock, he demonstrates why Warlock is better suited for these problems than the heroes we usually read, and why his stories are unique. Yes, Captain America is great, but having determination and grit means shit against Thanos, because Thanos is out of his league. In the same way, you wouldn’t have Adam Warlock fight the Red Skull, because the fight would last the amount of time it takes Warlock to use the soul gem on the Nazi bastard. Starlin uses stories like The Infinity Gauntlet to create a hierarchy of power within the Marvel universe and demonstrate that, yes, stories must be geared towards and come out of characters. You can’t just take a character and toss them into any story for the hell of it.

This is the reality. Thanos doesn’t belong in these movies, and I know I’m just going to be more and more depressed and/or irritated as this shit goes on, because they will not ever do him justice. Because, like most people, they don’t understand the above at all. Alas. Oh, and for anyone who hears Gamora’s speech to Quill in the movie about how Thanos treated her, I heartily recommend “Yule Memory”, a short story from the 1992 Marvel Holiday Special. It contains this panel, which should speak volumes about how fucking stupid that change was: ¹For instance, X2‘s conversion of Stryker reeks of cowardice. That the original story–God Loves, Man Kills–dealt with Claremont’s favourite approach to the discrimination the mutants faced (a religious facet) seems to have been too scary to write or film or whatever. So they sucked the scary possible zealotry and re-fashioned it into, “Well, he’s kind of nuts.” Boo. Stupid.