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Thanos: Love & Death

Longbox Graveyard #131

Today, my esteemed Super-Blog Team-Up pals and I are looking at our favorite comic book villains, and when it came time to pick subjects for our co-blogging project, it took me about a second to call, “Thanos!”

Then I had to ask myself why I’d picked Thanos.

Thanos & Gamora, by Jim Starlin

and here, Thanos may be asking HIMSELF why he picked Gamora!

Thanos is certainly fashionable, having headlined a score of comics series, and making a memorable appearance in the post-credits scene of 2012’s Avengers … but here at Longbox Graveyard I am stuck in 1978, and my affection for the Mad Titan goes back well before Thanos’ recent stardom.

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The easy answer is that I was an alienated teenaged boy in the 1970s, and alienated teenaged boys have a natural affinity for death gods who kill lots of people and sit on a throne of bones in their awesome Palace of Death. So, there’s that. But my attachment to Thanos ran deeper than his heavy metal trappings — and besides, plenty of people besides me like Thanos, and they’re not all alienated teenaged boys!

Thanos, by Jim Starlin

So there has to be something deeper going on with old purple-puss. And I think what sets Thanos apart is his motivation. Comics are full of megalomaniacs motivated by revenge, ego, greed, or a warped sense of justice, or even by trivialities, like being enraged over losing their hair. I think what fascinates me about Thanos — and what makes him great — is that when Thanos goes off on one of his periodic rampages trying to kill everyone in the universe, he isn’t doing it out greed or madness or a lust for power.

He’s doing it for love!

Thanos & Death, by Jim Starlin

It wasn’t always thus. When Thanos made his first appearance, in the peculiar Iron Man #55, Thanos was just another outer space Hitler. Supremely confident, our villain introduced himself as Thanos the First, soon-to-be-emperor of Earth.

Thanos, Jim Starlin, Iron Man #55

Iron Man would have none of it, and in concert with Thanos’ arch-enemy, the Destroyer (also introduced this issue), Shellhead quickly put paid to Thanos’ plans. That single-issue space opera might have been forgotten, had not Jim Starlin brought Thanos back when Marvel tossed him the keys to Captain Marvel several months later.

Thanos by Jim Starlin

But there was one very important addition for Thanos in his sophomore appearance, in the pages of Captain Marvel #26 … that ominous hooded figure to Thanos’ right! Thanos has given himself a promotion, saying that he will now shortly be Emperor of the Universe (!), but more importantly, he says that he “recognizes death as (his) only comrade.” It sounded like a metaphor, but it was so much more. If all Thanos wanted to do was spill blood while grinding the universe beneath his heel, he likely would have been consigned to the dustbin of history long ago. No, what makes Thanos a classic villian are not the things he does so much as the reason he does them — love.

There’s that word again — love!

It is a literal love of death that drives Thanos.

Thanos & Death, Jim Starlin

This is important, because it makes Thanos — for all his cosmic scope and scale — a relatable and even human figure. Outside of the occasional game of Risk, few of us will ever try to conquer the world … but all of us know what it means to be in love. Thanos’ love is twisted, dark, and evil, but it is still recognizably love, and when people are in love … they do crazy things.

Thanos by Jim Starlin

That root of human motivation serves to further illuminate another reason by Thanos is endlessly fascinating. In many way, Thanos is — us! It’s all right there, in the page of Captain Marvel #29, where Mar-Vell attains enlightenment in a brisk twenty pages, guided by the space god Eon, who narrates Marv’s battle with his “inner demon” …

Captain Marvel's inner demon, by Jim Starlin

Thanos is our hero’s “… cancerous other self. He is your hostility, your battle lust, the side of you which loves destruction, perpetuates hate and seeks death! He is your personal Thanos!

Ah ha! The circle closes! No wonder Thanos feels so personal (and small wonder that Starlin recalls conceiving of the character during a college psychology course). The way Thanos loves is obsessive, twisted, and wrong, and is just one of the many obsessive, twisted, and wrong things that lurk in the hearts of even the best of us.

Thanos, by Jim Starlin and Ron Lim

Finally, Thanos’ unrequited love of Death affords him one more critical component that all classic characters must have — a weakness! To love is to expose yourself, to trust another person with your deepest secrets and longings. In courting death, Thanos has chosen … poorly.

Death and Thanos, by Jim Starlin

… and it is not just that Death refuses to return Thanos’ love, delighting instead in manipulating and tormenting him. Plenty of people are stuck in dysfunctional relationships — and this makes Thanos that much more relatable — but more important is that this mass murderer has a wounded heart. He is a slave to love. Again, this is something to which we can all relate … and is infinitely more interesting that a vulnerability to glowing space rocks, or the color yellow!

This most cosmic of villains has the most human failings of all. That’s the reason I so love Thanos — there’s a little Thanos in all of us!

Mr. & Mrs. Thanos, on holiday

Thanos & Death — holiday snapshot!

And while I could go on about Thanos all day, I’m going to hold myself to a thousand words, both so I do not further try your patience, and also so you’ll have time to explore some of the other villain-focused articles that are part of today’s Super-Villain Team-Up. Please mouse on over to any or all of the articles below — and tell them Longbox Graveyard sent you!

(And when you’ve explored all of Super-Blog Team-Up, please be sure to share your thoughts on Thanos in the comments section, below!)

IN TWO WEEKS: #132 The Coming Of … The Falcon!

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on May 21, 2014, in Super-Blog Team-Up and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Super work. Thanos’s love connects him to all of us, (although I too was an alienated teenager, especially in my pre-16 teens) and that does not cease throughout his history, although i can’t say that for sure about the most recent uses of Thanos.

    I think it is his notions of romance that prevent some of his cosmic villain talk from being too corny on occasion. Of course, Thanos acts and speaks in grandeur, He has chose to love Death!

    We should do a Thanos crossover here sometime. I hear The Infinity Gauntlet calling my name…

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  2. As someone who regularly introduces himself as 1537 The First, I relate to Thanos entirely.

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  3. Great post, Paul! Over at the BAB we’ve done our share of Thanos reviews. He’s a great character, and the Starlin-verse is all-around awesome, isn’t it? All that is generally more in Karen’s wheelhouse than my own, but I’ve been converted!

    Doug

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    • I am intensely curious to see how this character develops on film these next several years. I gather we will get a face-full of Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy. Thanos can be cartoonish but I expect he will translate well — he is effectively set to become the Darth Vader of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All he has to do is stand apart and look menacing (which will require some heavy shadows, because purple … is not menacing).

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  4. Yep, you pretty much nailed what makes Thanos so cool and compelling. And yes, I’m also curious about just how he will be characterized in the film franchise. Hopefully he’ll be more than just a generically evil cosmic conqueror (i.e., I mean I hope he’s a lot like his Bronze Age iteration as conceived by Starlin).

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    • The key with Thanos is to stick with the core: interstellar genocide in the name of love. That’s it. As he’ll only be popping up in a movie or two, this shouldn’t be hard to do.

      The comics … have been another story. Published dozens of times a year, year after year, the continuity piles up on itself and the story starts to get murky. Even as early as his appearance in Warlock — a very good run — Thanos was getting complicated, with time machines and secret assassins and plans-within-plans that didn’t quite add up. Later we find Thanos intriguing against Death, rather than worshipping her, and we get into all the trivia about the various Infinity Gems, and what they can do. None of these things vastly improve on the core mythology — it’s just more for the sake of more. Infinity Gauntlet is just a big wrestling book (and I liked Infinity Gauntlet).

      I hope they stick with the core.

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  5. I liked Infinity Gauntlet too; it was cool to see Thanos and Adam Warlock working together (eventually) and Warlock actually asking Thanos for advice on how to handle omnipotence after ending up with the Gauntlet. I know Thanos also helped Warlock and Silver Surfer fight Thor when he had the “warrior madness”, but I haven’t actually read those issues.

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    • Not remembering much of that. Maybe I need to re-read Infinity Gauntlet. Then again, I am also approaching the age when I can hide my own Easter Eggs, so maybe I DID re-read Infinity Gauntlet, but can’t remember!

      I need an Infinity Gauntlet of my own to help me keep this stuff straight.

      (But I’d probably forget where I put it)

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      • I think it was the last issue of Infinity Gauntlet where Warlock asked for Thanos’s advice; Thanos had faked his death and Warlock tracked him down. The “warrior madness” stuff was a couple years later…I think it was a x-over between Thor, Warlock & the Infinity Watch, Silver Surfer, and (maybe) Dr. Strange.

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        • Dean Compton

          The scene where Warlock asked for Thanos’s advice was in Infinity Gauntlet #6, which as you said, is the last issue. Blood and Thunder is the name of the storyline where Warlock, Silver Surfer, Thanos, and The Infinity Watch battle a mad Thor. That happened in 1993.

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  6. I can’t wait for Thanos to appear in the Avengers sequel!

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  7. Reblogged this on johnsonreginald3 and commented:
    Thanos: Love and Death

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