So I had planned to do our regular round of funnybook reviews this week, but then I read this one book, and plans changed…
Thanos: The Infinity Siblings
by Jim Starlin and Alan Davis
I should preface this review by saying that the only reason I bought this book (a 112-page hardcover OGN that retails for $25) is because Comixology had it on sale for 99 cents.
I don’t mean that to sound as dismissive as it probably does. I have a lot of respect for Jim Starlin, and I always enjoy Alan Davis. But I liked Starlin better in the old days, back when he was unabashedly trippy and weird, and apt to resolve a conflict with four pages of surrealist imagery representing an epic battle taking place only in the combatants’ minds. I still enjoyed reading him in his less philosophical Batman / Infinity Gauntlet period, but the sheer prog-rock insanity of those earlier comics was gone, so I just sort of drifted away over time. I haven’t read a Starlin comic in forever, and I think the last Thanos book I read was probably the afore-mentioned Infinity Gauntlet.
So I wasn’t all that interested in dropping 25 bucks on a hardcover graphic novel, no matter how pretty I thought it would look. For 99 cents, though… Hell. Even if I hated the writing (which I was pretty sure I wouldn’t), it’s worth 99 cents just to look at 100 pages of Alan Davis art. And now that I’ve actually read the comic, I’ve gotta say… That’s the best 99 cents I’ve spent in a long time.
Alan Davis’ work here is his usual gorgeous best. There’s great storytelling, cool weird character designs, and lots of pretty pretty pictures, including a few epic two-page spreads (this one slightly edited to avoid SPOILERS).
But that’s not the best part. Because Infinity Siblings is completely batshit-crazy, as epic a prog-rock comic as anything Starlin’s ever produced. And he doesn’t pull that off with surrealist mind battles, but with an insanely complicated time travel plot wrapped around the machinations of amoral gods whose near-infinite lifespans give them the benefit of operating in the long term. The EXTREME long term.
So, yeah. That’s Eros, aka Starfox. He’s Thanos’ brother, usually presented as a devil-may-care sort of good guy. He has the ability to stimulate the pleasure centers in other people’s brains, which makes him very persuasive, a charming hedonist who’s mostly just out for a good time. Thus, he’s “Sex” to Thanos’ “Death,” a god of primal, fleshy life who functions as a sort of passive foil to Thanos’ nihilistic urges.
I’ve always liked the guy, but to be honest, he’s never been much of a character. There was a She-Hulk story that treated his mental powers as a metaphor for date rape, but they backed off that in the end, revealing that he usually functions more like Cupid, inspiring love and attraction in others rather than for himself. Which is, of course, problematic in a different way. Because Eros isn’t a worshiped-by-humans kind of god, given to meddling in the affairs of humans because of that relationship. He’s… just this guy, you know? A powerful and very long-lived guy, to be sure, but… Making people fall in love because you think they’d be nice together is a bit… creepy?
And that seems to be Starlin’s real starting-point here. He opens the book with a narration that you eventually realize is from Starfox, talking about himself.
It’s a nice juxtaposition of the two brothers, in which we discover that Eros isn’t a good guy so much as he’s an amoral guy who has allowed himself to be guided in life by good guys. First it was his father, Mentor, who tried helped him understand the emotions of normal people, but who also – out of the best intentions – enabled him by telling him what was right. Then it was the Avengers, who pointed him at evil and said, “Punch.”
Ugly. But fascinating. Starlin maps Eros’ turn from sociopathic ne’er-do-well to epic schemer in flashbacks spanning 2000 years. This idea of a heroic character confronting the evil of his own future self is nothing new for Starlin, of course.
But here, we don’t get the guilt and anguish that accompanied Adam Warlock’s discovery that he was doomed to become a shit-heel in the future. Eros is too busy becoming that guy to worry about it too much. And besides… He’s not emotionally equipped to feel bad about it, anyway.
In the end, it’s hard to say which of the brothers is actually worse. Probably Thanos, who does after all seek universal annihilation. Though Eros is entirely self-motivated, and capable of atrocities if they’ll help him get what he wants… That at least sets him somewhat in opposition to the guy who wants to kill everything, and that puts Eros nominally on our side. But at least Thanos isn’t constantly looking for a sucker. He’s generally honest about who and what he is, and that’s… something… in his favor… at least?
But figuring out who’s worse really isn’t the point here. Ultimately, Infinity Siblings is the story of two utter bastards manipulating events and each other across thousands of years, and the fact that they’re doing it to save the future from something worse than either of them doesn’t make them any better. They don’t care that they’re saving untold billions of lives. They’re both completely motivated by self-interest. Eros is doing it all in the hope that he can ingratiate himself to Thanos, so his brother won’t kill him for letting their father die. And Thanos is doing it because he wants to prevent his own future death at the hands of an unknown enemy.
(You might notice that Future Thanos is a bit different. Which… Yeah. That’s a whole other side of the story that I won’t spoil here. Though if you know the Marvel cosmic pantheon, you probably have a good idea).
At any rate. The story jumps around through time and space, the plots getting thicker and more complicated with every turn of the page. There are double-crosses and ancillary deals and secrets and lies. Characters go from manipulator to puppet and back again. Kang the Conqueror plays a major role, as does my personal favorite Starlin supporting character, Pip the Troll. And Thanos ends up either emotionally shattered, or the real master manipulator of everything. Depending on your perspective. Or, rather, his.
What I like as much as the complexity of it all, though, is the scope. These immortals (or near-immortals) are a patient bunch. It takes Eros 2000 years to return to Titan, but he never gives up on the journey, pausing along the way only to embark on a course of self-improvement that turns him into the scheming bastard he is in this story. He even, as we’ve seen, sets himself up to go on that journey. I mean, he’s already lived it, so it’s not much of a sacrifice (in fact, he’s really just ensuring his own existence). But, still. That’s dedication.
And upon arrival back in our time, his scheme to save Thanos (and, coincidentally, the universe) involves Thanos launching an attack on an alien world… 100 years in the future. And there’s no time travel involved in that. Thanos just goes about his business for a century, then turns up in the right place at the appointed time. Which is kinda nuts. But when you’re as long-lived as these two, that’s just the kind of decision you make.
Or at least, it’s the kind of decision they make in this story. That represents character growth for Thanos, though. In my experience, he’s never really been a “patience and forbearance” kind of guy. Or at least, not on that scale. That’s something he learns here. He’s playing the long game now, and it gets longer as the story progresses.
I’m trying not to spoil too much (and trust me, as much as I’ve revealed, I’m only scratching the surface), but the length of Thanos’ long game is sort of an issue here. There’s a moment when he makes a deal with someone, at a certain key point in the future, and afterward we get this:
Why is he laughing? I have no idea. Though that’s not the last time we see Thanos in the book, it is his final scene, chronologically speaking. Or at least, it’s his final scene before he becomes Future Thanos. You know… With the skull for a face and all. I know. It’s confusing. Time travel. Whatcha gonna do? At any rate… He’s hatching yet another scheme on that page, but it’s a scheme that’s not dealt with in this book. Which should be fine. This is just the first part of a trilogy, so I’m sure this plan will come to fruition later. Except… I’m not sure the other two books will actually see print.
What it comes down to is, Starlin’s pissed off because Marvel editorial has approved a storyline for the regular on-going Thanos monthly comic that’s very similar to what Starlin’s doing in these three OGNs. A storyline which will see print before all three of his books are released. Now, I’m not reading that Thanos monthly (though I hear Donny Cates is doing a nice job), so I can’t say how accurate any of that is. Hell, it may even be the next creative team who’ll be doing it. I dunno. But it means Starlin’s leaving Marvel, and the fate of the other two books is kind of up in the air.
(Update: Apparently, Starlin had finished writing all three books before he quit. And the second book, The Infinity Conflict, is set for release in November. As for the third… we’ll have to wait and see.)
And, hey. As long as we’re talking conflicts and controversies surrounding this book, let’s go back to the one I opened the column with: I got this 25-dollar OGN for 99 cents ON THE DAY OF RELEASE. Now, I am of the opinion that digital comics should probably cost less than print comics. There’s very little cost to the physical production of the digital comic, after all (less than it costs to crank up the printing press, at least). And you’re not even paying for an actual digital copy that you own. You’re paying for access to a digital copy that’s only good for as long as Comixology is in business. So, yeah. Knock some money off that price tag, to make it worth my while.
But 99 cents is… a bit extreme. It’s SO extreme, in fact, that a lot of comic shop owners are pissed off about it. And they have a point. How many people who were considering the 25-dollar hardcover decided instead to go for the ridiculously cheaper option? And how many retailers were blind-sided by it, placing their orders (their non-returnable orders) months ahead of time, not knowing this was going to happen? I can see why they’re mad.
Marvel, for their part, says they have no control over Comixology’s pricing. They sell to them at the same price they sell to everybody else, and if Comixology (or, let’s be real here, Comixology’s corporate parent Amazon) decides to make something a loss-leader… That’s their business. They say they’re trying to work something out, but who knows how that’s going to turn out?
It’s a thorny problem, and I can’t help but come down on the side of the little guy. In spite of the fact that I’m one of those cheap bastards who took advantage of the digital sale. Granted, my local funnybook store ordered light and sold out before I got there, so I never had the option to buy it from them in the first place. And, let’s face it, I wouldn’t have paid 25 bucks for the thing, even if they did have copies on the shelf. So I don’t really feel bad about my choice.
In fact, I’m really glad I made it. I had more fun reading Infinity Siblings than just about anything else I read last week. It had some pretty stiff competition, too. But this book… Holy crap. It ain’t high art, but it is really great pulp. Gloriously, brilliantly, stupidly over the top in a way that just left me agog. Characters emote and bluster and speechify on a grand scale. Thanos is, as always in Starlin’s hands, an indomitable bad-ass, a creature of such arrogance and supreme will that it seems nothing can stop him. By the end, I was giggling at the sheer what-the-fuck audacity of it all. This is Starlin at his prog-rock best, and lord knows I love that.
Would I pay 25 bucks for it, knowing what I know now? Mmmmm… Probably not. But I’d pay ten. Maybe even fifteen. And if I can get the next installment in that price range come November, I definitely will.