The Thanos Saga, by Jim Starlin and Friends
Of all the comics I read for the Super Villains list we did back in the summer, Jim Starlin’s Thanos Saga is maybe the one I had the most fun with. These books originally came out when I was a kid, but they didn’t get regular distribution in my area. So I’d stumble across an issue here, an issue there, and the sheer unadulterated weirdness of them never failed to blow my young mind. I have forever wondered what went on when I wasn’t reading.
Mostly, I discovered, it was space opera. And punching. Lots and lots of punching. Endless pages of punching, in fact, punctuated by philosophizing and exposition. I remember it all being far trippier than I found it on this reading, but that may just be all the far weirder comics I’ve read in the interim. Because, let’s face it, after Grant Morrison, Starlin seems almost prosaic. He was the very necessary first step toward that headier material, though, and I was stunned at how much the little bit of his work I read as a kid affected my tastes and creative efforts later. I was forever drawing weird-looking guys with beetle brows and giant pointy ears, for instance, and that’s probably down to stuff like this:
But now I’ve gotten far, far ahead of myself, discussing my personal relationship with the work before I’ve even described its crazy prog-rock goodness. So let me back up.
Most of what’s been marketed as “The Thanos Saga” took place in Starlin’s Captain Marvel run. It starts slow, with some rather bog-standard period super-heroics involving weird-but-dull villains like the Controller and the Blood Brothers, while Thanos himself stays in the shadows. This is much like the way Jack Kirby introduced Darkseid, which is perhaps the least-obvious similarity between the two (but more on that later). Starlin’s working with writer Mike Friedrich on these early issues, on-hand I assume to show the inexperienced young writer/artist how to craft a story in the Mighty Marvel Manner. So the focus is on exciting action and soap opera, with lots of unwieldy exposition explaining what’s clearly apparent in the art. Most glaring, though, is the jokey, fake, overly wordy dialogue. It was the Marvel house style at the time, but it’s terrible stuff. Stan Lee did it well, of course, which is why they copied it, but it feels incredibly labored in less capable hands. I found myself skipping whole pages in an effort to push past it.
Starlin’s own dialogue (when he’s finally cut loose to script his own stories) is far more heavy and serious, and I suppose no more realistic. But at least it has a classical feel, and thus doesn’t set my teeth on edge quite so much. That starts in Captain Marvel 28, which is the real turning point in the series. That’s when things finally get really nuts for the first time, and the book becomes what people think of when they think of Jim Starlin comics. While previous issues just had boring spandex punch-outs, here Thanos and Drax the Destroyer do battle… IN THEIR MINDS!
Ooh, yeah. That’s the stuff.
Drax is one of my very favorite sub-third-tier characters. Created by cosmic powers for the sole purpose of killing Thanos, he’s this unstoppable engine of rage who just won’t freaking quit. And what a look! Green skin, red eyes, purple suit, skull cap, buccaneer boots, tiny skull clasp on the cape… Classic! Just a great crazy-ass character.
And a great crazy-ass scene, too. The distorted bodies in that final panel are cool, but that’s just the beginning. The fight continues over two pages in which each panel is a different surrealist set-piece before culminating in this:
BOOM! Warpy heads! Floating eyes! Giant mouths! A planet-crushing hand! That funny little Wolverton-esque alien guy! And not that we’d know it for another five or six issues, of course, but those pictures of the car wreck, the flying saucer, and the Las Vegas clock? That’s the SECRET ORIGIN OF DRAX, in incredible short form!
SUCH IS THE POWER OF THE TIME-MIND SYNCH-WARP!!
The fun doesn’t stop there, though, because at the end of issue 28, THIS happens:
OH HOLY SHIT YES! Look at that thing! Seriously, LOOK at it! It’s got a giant eyeball and arms made of water! AND WHY IS ONE OF ITS FACES WEARING A MASK?! That is completely insane and great, and it leads into Captain Marvel 29, which I think was the first Jim Starlin comic I ever read. My tiny mind was well and truly blown, and for my money, it’s the still best issue of the run. In it, we learn that the creature’s name is Eon, and that it was created specifically for one single purpose: to give Captain Marvel a new super power.
(Well, okay. Actually, it was created to, as it says above, create an antidote to the cosmic poison of Thanos. But, you know, same difference.)
And how does it go about bestowing this new power upon Our Hero? Mostly, by being a psychedelic dick.
He puts Mar-Vell through the ringer, confronting him with the horrors of war, and of his own self-doubt, to finally gift him with the power of COSMIC AWARENESS!
What is COSMIC AWARENESS, you ask? Well, it’s basically… Zen as a super power. Having defeated inner conflict, Captain Marvel can now expand his awareness beyond himself, to become one with the universe, which… Well…
Uhm… Yeah. Later writers treat this as a sort of sixth sense, but for Starlin, it really does seem more like a martial arts style heightened awareness of his surroundings and capabilities. That’s right: by rejecting war, he gets EVEN BETTER AT KICKING YOUR ASS!!
And that’s just the hero. On the other side of this equation, you of course have Thanos, one of the best bad guys ever. Sure, he’s a rip-off of Darkseid. Kirby’s villain seeks the Anti-Life Equation, a mathematical formula that will destroy free will (“DARKSEID IS,” and all that). Starlin takes anti-life far more literally, and establishes that Thanos is in love with DEATH ITSELF.
It’s a telling difference. For Kirby, an American Jew who fought Hitler, life equals freedom, and so that’s what his ultimate villain seeks to destroy. For Starlin, who came of age in the psychedelic era, death is just… death, and the ultimate evil is to kill in the name of love. I like both takes, but honestly… While Starlin’s work is more metaphysical on the surface, Kirby’s is far more lyrical. And that’s why Darkseid is a better villain. It’s no wonder that when Roy Thomas saw Starlin’s initial proposal, he reportedly said, “If you’re going to rip off the New Gods, you might as well rip off the best of them.”
Now don’t get me wrong: Thanos still rocks. I mean, he’s IN LOVE WITH DEATH! A COSMIC ENTITY was created just to MAKE CAPTAIN MARVEL ABLE TO KICK HIS ASS! He’s also got a guy who was CREATED SPECIFICALLY TO KILL HIM! A guy he fights WITH HIS BRAIN! And later, he also throws down with that guy’s daughter in all-out MIND WAR!
It’s all such grand, ridiculous bullshit, drawn with verve and showing all the right influences for an artist of that era. Jim Steranko obviously affected Starlin’s layouts and ball-tripping acid sequences, for instance. And we’ve already discussed the Kirby’s influence on the story. But for every Kirbyesque moment…
…there are two or three straight-up lifts from Steve Ditko. It seems to me, in fact, that Ditko is maybe the biggest artistic influence on the young Starlin. Look back over the artwork above, with its gaping black mouths and distorted figures. And look especially at the cosmic stuff. There’s crisscrossed Ditko planets all over the place, looming faces, giant eyeballs, and patterns that I’m pretty sure were copied directly from back issues of Dr. Strange:
There’s some pure Starlin moments there, too, of course. The EVIL RAINBOW coming out of Thanos’ mouth? And that panel where the attack on Rick Jones is depicted as a ROW OF GLOWING ORBS WITH THANOS’ FACE IN THEM? And the GIANT MOUTH FILLED WITH FIRE? Insanity! Pure insanity!
This, I’ve found, is the best way to enjoy Starlin’s Seventies work. Embrace it for all its eye-tickling, brain-melting, ridiculous prog-rock glory. Go along for the ride. Let it wash over you, and carry you through the sequences that maybe aren’t quite so good.
Because… look. Very little of this high-minded freaky stuff pays off in any meaningful way. In the end, the Avengers get involved and it turns into bog-standard spandex space opera. I mean, sure. Thanos does turn into a being of pure energy…
…and that’s pretty prog. And there’s a great freaky aging sequence later that also features one last example of Mar-Vell’s indomitable SPACE KARATE…
…but underneath all that stuff, the Thanos Saga is really just an excuse for guys in tights to hit each other. Starlin could have just as easily had Thanos and Drax throw punches for three pages instead of that glorious craziness he did give us, and the story wouldn’t have turned out very different. But that would have been just as boring as the rest of the punching that comes along later. It’s the bizarro stuff that makes these comics worth reading at all, and the story frankly just gets in the way of all that great weirdness.
Of course, speaking of great weirdness…
Thanos returned in Jim Starlin’s other great prog-rock funnybook of the Seventies: Warlock. Though that book has some of the same problems in the end, Starlin’s themes and general overall grand philosophical weirdness play out a bit better. But we’ll look at that next week…