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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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Longbox Graveyard Podcast: Marvel Comics — A Space Odyssey

I’ve always had affection for Marvel’s “cosmic” heroes, and now Hollywood is catching up with me, thanks to the pending big-screen debut of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Cosmic Comic Heroes, Jim Starlin

 

Listen in as we journey out into the cosmos, Marvel heroes style!

Click here to listen!

Blown Away!

Longbox Graveyard #123

Welcome to another installment of The Dollar Box, where I look at special or significant comics with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This month’s issue is Captain Marvel #34, a Jim Starlin effort (with a script assist from Steve Englehart) published by Marvel Comics in the summer of 1974. This isn’t the most memorable or important issue in Starlin’s Captain Marvel run, but it has an energetic visual style, with a superior use of sound effects, and does conclude with what would prove to be a pivotal moment in Captain Marvel’s life — his death!


Created only to protect a trademarkCaptain Marvel was always a tertiary book at Marvel, suffering through a series of unmemorable (yet accidentally brilliant) stories by rotating creative teams before the series was handed to a young Jim Starlin, first as penciller with issue #25, with with full creative duties by issue #27. Over the brief span of ten issues (which I previously reviewed here) Starlin would redefine Captain Marvel, transforming him into a cosmic warrior for peace and balance, and setting him to battle against the Death God Thanos of Titan, in the first of many such great outer space sagas that would become Starlin’s stock-in-trade.

By issue #34, though, that arc was in the rear-view mirror, and Captain Marvel — and creator Jim Starlin — were ready to move on to the next phase in their lives.

The first several pages of the issue were basic stuff for a 1970s Marvel Comic. The previous story was briefly recapped, then some long-simmering subplots were serviced, as Rick Jones — Captain Marvel’s earthly companion, with whom our hero must trade places if he is to escape the Negative Zone — caught up on a private life that was sidelined by a certain war for the fate of the solar system. Rick whined a bit about being Marv’s sidekick, broke up with his girlfriend, then departed on a music tour with his manager and an unenthusiastic new partner …

… and that’s where things got weird.

Weird, at least, by the standards of your usual 1970s Marvel fist opera. It wasn’t the set-up that was unusual — it was another off-the-shelf Marvel set piece, with Rick and his companions fatefully crossing paths with a villain intent on stealing a deadly nerve gas. But the entire tone and style of the issue was over-the-top and doom-driven, and also loaded with fannish Easter eggs, including a cameo appearance by Carol Danvers (who later would become one of the more significant female characters in the Marvel line as Ms. Marvel, before assuming the title duties of Captain Marvel, herself).

The plot was also enlivened by the first appearance of Nitro, one of the most gleefully-silly villains in Marvel history, a crazy man who’s entire repertoire involved blowing himself to atoms. As befit a man with such a one-trick resume, he entered the scene with a special kind of recklessness …

… and then went after what he wanted in a dynamic page that served notice that on a visual level, at least, this wouldn’t be your usual kind of superhero fight.

At this point I should note this issue was a personal turning point for me as a comics fan. Probably every comics fan has “that” issue — the one where the form came alive for them, when they first flipped to the credits page to see who it was that had written or drawn a story. For twelve-year-old me, soldiering through a visually indifferent summer of comic books in 1974, this issue left me “Blown Away” (which just happened to be the title of the story). Having come to comics too late to see Jack Kirby at the top of his game (or to see Jim Steranko infuse Kirby’s work with his own particular cinematic aesthetic), the way Starlin drew this otherwise-unremarkable action opened a doorway in my consciousness.

It blew my twelve-year-old mind.

Forty years later, it’s still pretty sweet. Sure, all we really have here is Captain Marvel — a throw-away character who had just had his Elvis Year thanks to Starlin’s run — slugging it out with a dumb supervillain for a half-dozen pages, but the contest is carried off with exceptional style.

There is real visual power behind the blows traded by Marv and Nitro, and the action seems more visceral and personal when Nitro curses like a street-level thug.

That “FOOM” sound effect gets an potent workout, too, as Nitro blows himself up in ever more explosive fashion …

… before meeting his own end with one last FOOM, thanks to a deft bit of trickery by our Kree soldier-hero, Captain Marvel.

Alas, the fun was ending just as it was getting started. Captain Marvel #34 was Jim Starlin’s last issue on the series. Jim knew it, even if the audience had no inkling, though it was spelled out plainly enough (if backwards) on a mysterious road sign …

… and with the freedom of a man quitting his job, Starlin did the unthinkable. He killed Captain Marvel.

Sort of.

(Actually, he did.)

Cliffhangers where heroes (appeared to) die were no unusual thing in comics, then or now, but this conclusion seemed to have an unusual degree of bite. Having finally defeated Nitro, Captain Marvel struggled to seal off the ruptured canisters of Compound 13 that the villain was trying to steal — a gas that we’d previously been told was the ultimate nerve agent.

Marv pulled it off, but just barely, and even Rick Jones, watching from the Negative Zone, seemed to sense that this wasn’t a routine cliffhanger. The next issue box assured us there will be a next issue, but this did seem an unusually “final” final image.

In issue #35, of course, a new creative team picked up the pieces, and contrived to restore Captain Marvel to life, and his book would continue on through another thirty-odd mostly-unmemorable issues before its cancellation in 1979.

But the events of this story would prove unusually far-ranging.

In 1982, Jim Starlin was back at Marvel, and the publisher was experimenting with a new, full-length graphic novel form. The first installment in the Marvel Graphic Novel line would be The Death of Captain Marvel, where Starlin revealed that Marv had an incurable cancer brought on by … his exposure to Compound 13! So it turns out that Starlin really did, kinda-sorta, kill off Captain Marvel back in issue #34 of his own book — it just took eight years for it to stick!

And stick it did. Captain Marvel’s death has proven one of the more significant character deaths in the Marvel universe, touching a number of other costumed heroes, and proving almost singular in offering a genuine end to the story of Captain Marvel. The character would appear again in flashbacks and brief life-after-death cameos, but his big 2008 “Secret Invasion” resurrection was a fake-out, and now the trademark-protecting mantle of Captain Marvel has been taken up by Carol Danvers (the former Ms. Marvel) in the latest incarnation of this particular title.

But all of that was in the distant future, back in the summer of 1974, when this particular comic opened my eyes and made me a comics fan for life. The cover price was .25, but a copy in decent condition will run you about five bucks now. That seems a small price to pay for a well-crafted issue with such a cool secret history, but I’d never tell you to purchase a comic on the basis of its events forming some permanent part of a comic book universe. If Bucky can come back from the dead, then no one is safe in eternal rest … though ol’ Marv has been there, more-or-less without interruption, for going on thirty years!

May he rest in peace.

This article original appeared at StashMyComics.com.

IN TWO WEEKS: #124 Ret-Con: Roy Thomas And Earth-2

Welcome To The Wonderful World Of Cosmics

This week’s F.O.O.M. Friday rockets ahead to F.O.O.M. #9, with a Jim Starlin cover and a subject focus that blew my twelve-year-old mind back in 1974.

F.O.O.M. #9 cover by Jim Starlin

I liked Silver Surfer and (especially) Captain Marvel before receiving this issue of Marvel’s in-house fan magazine, but it was the first time I thought of these characters as belonging to a specific genre.

The mag even coined a term for this new comics genre with a clever bit of wordplay:

Welcome To The Wonderful World Of Cosmics

I loved thinking of these stories as “cosmics,” rather than “comics” — it made the stories seem so much bigger, and more consequential. This clever bit of branding helped bind me to Marvel’s cosmic heroes for decades to come … and it is an obsession that continues to this day, as one look at this list of the many “cosmic” subjects I’ve tackled here at Longbox Graveyard will attest!

The articles in this particular issue of F.O.O.M. weren’t especially memorable, but that cover is as fresh today as when I plucked it from my mailbox almost forty years ago. Yeesh! I’m getting as old as The Watcher!

See you back here next week for another F.O.O.M. Friday!

The Power And The Prize!

Longbox Graveyard #110

Welcome back to The Dollar Box, where I look at single-issue stories or short runs of comics with an original cover price of one dollar or less. After reviewing a Nick Fury story and a Spider-Man book that cost all of twelve cents each, this time we soar into the stratosphere with a book that cost an astronomical twenty-five cents when it was published in 1968 — Silver Surfer #3!

Previously here at Longbox Graveyard, I looked in detail at The Silver Surfer, and concluded that the series went off the rails after the first four issues… but those first four issues are very good, and I think issue #3 is the best in the run. Many fans point to issue #4, featuring a battle with Thor as the high point of the series, but I prefer this cosmic tale in issue #3 — “The Power and the Prize!” — as it showcases the Surfer at his melodramatic Silver Age best.

Written by Stan Lee, with pencils by John Buscema — at the top of his superhero game here — and adequately inked by Joe Sinnott, this tale opens with the Surfer exiled to earth by his former master Galactus. Finally having enough of man’s prejudice and violence, the Surfer steals a page from The Day The Earth Stood Still and lashes out with his Power Cosmic to bring our world to a halt.

This gets everyone’s attention, of course, but also attracts the gaze of Mephisto, making his first Marvel Universe appearance. Mephisto is Satan in all but name, and upon seeing the Surfer he is reminded of the martyrs that humiliated him in the past, and immediately determines he must bring the Surfer to his knees.

Mephisto decides to strike at our hero through Shalla-Bal, the Surfer’s lost love. In Devil-like fashion Mephisto tricks Shalla-Bal into pledging herself to him that she and the Surfer may be together again, setting off a direct conflict between Mephisto and the Surfer in Hell itself, battling for love and souls.

Stan Lee’s script is cartoonish and over-the-top and even a little corny at times, as was much of his Silver Age work, but it fits especially well with the Silver Surfer, who is a kind of doomed, star-crossed Shakespearian character prone to long, emotional soliloquies about his shortcomings and longings. These characters really chew the scenery as they fight through Hell, with Mephisto trying to tempt the Surfer with wealth and women and power, and the Surfer nobly resisting and battling various demons from the pits.

It’s all very exaggerated and overwrought, almost like an opera, and not a little surrealistic — at one point Mephisto shrinks the Surfer down to the size of the palm of his hand, and swallows our hero, only to reject him because he cannot abide the Surfer’s goodness. Finally Mephisto demands that the Surfer swear him allegiance, or he will send Shalla-Bal back to Zenn-La, and the Surfer refuses, knowing this will trick Mephisto into sending his beloved to safety, even though it will break his heart.

It’s high adventure for the highest of stakes, made more personal for the relationships at the center of the story, and it’s full of powerful visuals from Big John Buscema, who seemed to especially relish drawing the devilish Mephisto, with his grasping talons and Satanic expressions and flowing cape. Stan Lee really cuts loose, too. Arguably the greatest Marvel story of all — Fantastic Four #48-50 — pit heroes against God in the form of Galactus, and here we have a similar level of ambition, as our hero battles Satan himself.

This issue represents all that I think is best about the Silver Surfer. Modern readers may find the story a little childish but I think as a fantasy it holds up well, and if you’ve attuned your ear to the rhythm of a Silver Age story, this is superior stuff. The art is tremendous and you get to see the first appearance of a major Marvel villain with Mephisto. The only downside is that the Surfer never says, “To Me, My Board!”

An original copy of Silver Surfer #3 in “Fine” condition can easily run a hundred dollars or more, so readers desiring to own this fun tale in print are advised to track down one of the many affordable reprints — but if you find an original for cover price, be sure to send it to me!

This article original appeared at StashMyComics.com.

IN TWO WEEKS: #111 The Pedigree Collection

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