Downer, Dude, Downer: Jim Starlin’s Thanos Saga, Part Three

So… Jim Starlin. In the Seventies. Captain Marvel. Adam Warlock. And, of course… Thanos.

Starlin Thanos Path of the Living

We’ve taken the story pretty far, looked at Starlin’s various influences, and even discussed the politics  surrounding the creation of the stories. But now it’s time to bring it all home: the conclusion of Jim Starlin’s Thanos Saga.

When last we saw the Mad God of Titan, he’d just popped in to gum up the works in what was looking like Adam Warlock’s inevitable loss to his own future self, the Magus.

Starlin Magus Thanos

click for afro embiggening goodness

So… yes. The Magus’ entire existence depends upon Warlock not deviating from his past, and Thanos shows up at a key moment to disrupt that past. Warlock and his friends fight side-by-side with Thanos against the Magus’ minions…

Starlin Warlock Thanos Battle

embiggen the POWER!

…and it was at about this point that I realized something: Warlock is totally a villain comic. I mean… Our Hero may have noble intentions and all, but… They just killed A MOUNTAIN OF MEN! And later? THIS happens:

embiggen the PAIN!

embiggen the PAIN!

Sure, the Magus may be a murderous cult leader. But when you really look at that team of “good guys,” what do you have? A genocidal space god, the deadliest assassin in the galaxy, a two-bit thief, and a misguided messiah who STEALS THE SOULS of those who oppose him BY THE ROOMFUL! It’s EVIL vs EVIL!

Which, you know… Awesome.

This realization is only reinforced when Captain Marvel pops up for a cosmic PSA explaining who and what Thanos is. I’ll spare you the details, but these concluding panels sum up the tone pretty well:

Starlin Mar-Vell PSA

Seriously, that’s like the space hippie version of “Knowing is half the battle!” It’s supposed to be light and funny, I think, an attempt to make the necessary exposition a trifle less tedious to read (and, no doubt, to write). But Mar-Vell’s casual confidence and heroism stand in such stark contrast to the deeply conflicted and not-always-in-the-right Adam Warlock that the sequence sets my impression of the series as a villain comic in stone.

Maybe that’s why it seems not entirely unfair that Warlock gets one of the most downer endings in super hero history. Because, though Thanos prevents the event that was supposed to turn Warlock into the Magus, the Magus still exists. So Thanos convinces Warlock that the only way to truly thwart destiny, to prevent himself from becoming this being he so hates… is to commit suicide.

Of course, this being a Starlin comic, he can’t just off himself. No, he has to go into another weird Ditko Dimension, pick a life path, and travel to the end of it, murdering himself in the future. Of course, when he gets there…

Starlin Death of Adam Warlock

embiggen the pathos

So, yeah. Downer. But kind of a brilliant one. Because after killing his future self, Warlock goes back to his own time and keeps on living. That allows Starlin to give Warlock proper closure while still allowing him to continue having adventures in the Mighty Marvel Manner. On one such adventure, in the final issue of Warlock’s monthly series, he finally wrestles with the issue of his Soul Gem, giving us a sequence that sums the character up better than anything else I’ve ever seen:

click to embiggen... for FREEDOM!

embiggen the FREEDOM!

Yep. Live Free or Die. That’s Warlock’s motto, and it’s one he lives up to quite literally. Still… “Do you understand me, you Emerald Viper?!” is a conversational gambit I will most likely never have the opportunity to use, but man… I’m keeping it in the arsenal just in case.

But, THANOS! We were gonna talk more about Thanos! Why, for instance, did he go to all the trouble of helping Warlock against the Magus? Well, at first it seems that it’s just to be a philosophical dick:

embiggen the... oh, you know the drill.

embiggen the rejection!

But then, once Warlock’s gone off to kill himself, the truth comes out:

embiggen the CHAOS!

embiggen the THOOOM!

I really must pause here to marvel at how awesome those fight scenes are. First, they talk the most high-falutin’ shit possible. I particularly like how well Starlin outlines Thanos’ twisted philosophy here. Life equals chaos and pain, while Death is a dream of tranquility. Which is certainly true, as far as it goes, but wow.

And then! Then they collide in Kirbyesque battle so powerful IT OBSCURES THEIR VERY HEADS! These issues have what are probably my favorite Starlin action scenes. He’s never been what I would call a really fluid artist, but here he uses speed lines so well that the power fairly radiates off the page. Fantastic stuff.

Now. The end of Adam Warlock is, for good or ill, not the end of Thanos. In Starlin’s final issue of Warlock, Thanos reveals another, even better reason for having helped Warlock:

embiggen the genocide!  ...wait, that's not good...

embiggen the genocide!
…wait, that’s not good…

This sets up the grand finale, and introduces a concept that’s all too familiar to modern-day funnybook readers:

embiggen infinity! (...whoa... deep...)

embiggen infinity!
(…whoa… deep…)

Thaaat’s right. It’s the Infinity Gems. Focal point of The Infinity Gauntlet, Starlin’s early-90s return to Marvel, and several stories in the recent past, including Jonathan Hickman’s recently-completed first year on Avengers. It’s a good idea, I’ll admit, but it’s also where the Thanos Saga jumps the shark for me.

Warlock’s Soul Gem is so awesome because of the personal toll it takes on its bearer (and also because it eats people’s souls, of course). But once the gems become mere weapons in the hands Thanos, the personal drops out of it, and the story’s reduced to little more than explosions and punching. And, as I’ve noted before, that’s not what makes these comics great.

Even Thanos’ plan for TOTAL STELLAR GENOCIDE seems a little off. Sure, I like the motivation: Death ditched him when he didn’t deliver Earth to her, and so now he’s trying to get her attention again. And there is a spectacular splash page of him using the gems to BLOW UP A STAR…

embiggen the pretty colors

embiggen the pretty colors!

…but that’s also the point when I realize… He’s got to kill the stars ONE AT A FREAKING TIME. That’s… going to take awhile. So this is less an evil scheme with an immediate reward and more a new lifestyle choice. This reduces Thanos, so malignantly well-defined in the fight against the Magus, to leering super-villainy here at the end of everything. And that’s really disappointing.

It’s not all bad, of course. Starlin reintroduces Captain Marvel and Moondragon for the final battle, and it’s nice to see them again. And there is this one really weird bit with a Broccoli Man and a guy with a space helmet shaped like his beard:

embiggen the beardiness!

embiggen the beardiness!

But for the most part, it feels less like a necessary conclusion than a sort of spiritless “greatest hits” tour. Precious pages that could have been spent on more EPIC PHILOSOPHIZING are instead wasted wedging in first the Avengers, and then Spider-Man and the Thing, none of whom do anything particularly interesting. They’re tacked on, with no reason to be there other than to sell more copies, and so Starlin struggles to give them a reason to care about what’s going on around them before finally giving up and just having them punch guys with weird heads for even more endless pages.

The story does close the loop on the Warlock story, showing us how he got to the sorry state we saw him in when the younger Warlock killed him. But it’s mostly unconvincing. He finds Gamora dying after an encounter with Drax, but it’s kind of hard to buy into any warmth between them. Warlock barely spent any time with her at all, and she was only there to spy on him for Thanos anyway. The scene where he finds Pip the Troll reduced to a mindless state is more disturbing…

embiggen the... ah, you know the drill...

embiggen the… ah, you know the drill…

But honestly? Even Pip was more like a casual drinking companion than he was an actual friend. So the loss isn’t so keenly felt that Warlock’s wish for death really plays, and what was a rather powerful scene of defeat is reduced to emo whining. We were better off imaging Warlock building something good and having it taken away than we are to actually see his loss and realize that it’s just these characters he barely knew in the first place.

And Thanos himself? Well, I won’t completely spoil the ending. But he does get an appropriately mythic send-off, and an appropriately pretentious final scene:

Starlin Thanos End

And that, finally, is all.

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6 comments on “Downer, Dude, Downer: Jim Starlin’s Thanos Saga, Part Three

  1. The Avengers, Spider-Man and The Thing were all involved because the Warlock series was cancelled, and the only place where Jim Starlin was given the opportunity to present his grand finale was within the pages of Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2. Obviously not an ideal situation, but I guess Starlin made the best with what he was given. If your series of blog posts have demonstrated anything, it was that Thanos and Adam Warlock work best off in their own private corner of the Marvel universe. Once you start tying in the Avengers and Silver Surfer and Doctor Strange and, well, pretty much everyone else, they all inevitably end up playing second fiddle, at least when Starlin is writing them.

  2. Mark Brett says:

    Knew I shouldn’t have edited out that paragraph about the editorial details on those two concluding chapters. My understanding is that Starlin left Marvel after the Warlock cancellation, and came back when invited by Archie Goodwin to write a conclusion in the two annuals you named. So I understand the necessity of inserting the various guest stars into things. But I still lament its necessity.

  3. embiggened humour; I just HAPPEN to be re-reading the mid-70s Warlock saga (albeit in a black and white Essentials volume) and it has retained its magic (where Howard the Duck, Silver Surfer and Killraven didn’t); I agree with the ‘attached’ characters, they were just foils to contrast Adam’s unamusing demeanour, no real relationships there: it seems Starlin’s story was born from one big idea (… everything!) and had it play out, whereas the longevity of other titles started from the dynamics of the characters (SpiderMan, Fantastic Four) and played out big ideas through them …

  4. Mark Brett says:

    “One big idea (…everything!)”

    HAH! I may quote you on that next time I’m discussing this run with someone.

    Also, yeah. I think Starlin was really telling a story with a beginning, middle and end with his Warlock work, and once he reached that end, there was nowhere left for the character to go. Which, now that I think of it, is one of the many reasons I like that run so much.

  5. Fred W. Hill says:

    I read these as an adolescent (I turned 13 in 1975) and really loved them and still think the Magus storyline is a great co(s)mic masterpiece. On the other hand, while I enjoyed the Avengers & MTIO annuals, I felt a bit cheated, thinking Starlin had more elaborate plans for Warlock’s final two years and we only got a very brief, watered down version. In Warlock # 11, the dying future Warlock appeared to have gone through hell, glad to be done with life, but in Avengers Annual # 7, that same Warlock, while mouthing the same words, hasn’t really been shown to have gone through that much demoralizing trauma, other than the deaths of two acquaintances he hadn’t seen in two years. Certainly cause for some grief, but it doesn’t seem up to the level Warlock displayed in his dying scene. Of course, it turned out that being sucked into the soul gem wasn’t quite a death sentence after all.

    • Mark Brett says:

      Yeah, that’s the real tragedy of that book’s cancellation: the dramatic weight of Warlock’s death wish is nil because there was just no room to show us how everything had gone so wrong.

      Thanks for the well-reasoned response. That’s something I didn’t get across well enough in the post, and it bears mention.

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