Disclaimer: This post contains mild spoilers. However, I have attempted not to reveal story conclusions so that these tales may be sought out and enjoyed by readers picking them up for the first time.
Probably best know from an Avengers post-credits cameo that sent nerds into overdrive, while leaving casual viewers scratching their heads, Thanos made his second appearance in this summer’s smash hit The Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s obvious from his looming presence, that Marvel films has big things in store for this character, but who is Thanos and why is he such a big deal?
Thanos is one of the more unique villains in the marvel comics stable. Unlike similar characters, he isn’t tied to any particular book or even to a particular hero. He isn’t even always cast in the role of villain. His only real constant is that he’s almost always presented as an A-level presence with close ties to a rotating cast of space-themed characters.
The character’s unusual nature is largely down to his creator, comic book writer and artist Jim Starlin, who has chronicled his adventures on and off again for the past 40 years. More than anyone, Starlin is the one who has shaped the character into the incredible powerhouse he is today.
His story begins in 1973, with Starlin using a long gestating idea for a villain in the pages of a fill-in job in Iron Man #55. Riffing on designs of the character Metron featured in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga (likely the subject of a future post), Starlin concocted Thanos as kind of cosmic wanderer.
After looking over the character designs, his editor Roy Thomas told him point blank, “If you’re going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one.”
So, Thanos was beefed up from a frail seeker of knowledge to a more powerful physical presence.
Stacking them side by side like this, it’s obvious the two characters look a lot alike, but those similarities begin to disappear when you look at them closer. Darkseid was portrayed by his creator Jack Kirby as the ultimate tyrant, a fascist god with an entire planet under his sway.
Thanos is much more of a schemer. Born on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, Thanos hails from a race of highly-evolved demi-gods known as Titans, ruled by his father Mentor. Having embarked on a failed campaign to usurp his father, Thanos was banished from his home world and wandered the universe, gathering a group of henchmen in an attempt to take the moon by force.
There’s also the matter of his romantic desires, which, shall we see, run toward the unique, but we’ll get into that a bit later.
In this first appearance, Thanos plays the part of puppet master to a group of alien brawlers known as the Blood Brothers.
The story is also significant for introducing Drax the Destroyer. Well known to fans of Guardians of the Galaxy as the gruff warrior who doesn’t grasp metaphors, Drax’s comic book origin differs greatly.
Created by Titan’s chief god Kronos as a means of countering Thanos’ threat, Drax is an interesting variation on the myth of the Jewish golem, raised from the soil of Titan and charged with ending the titan’s life.
In this earlier incarnation, Drax was much more powerful than the simple brawler viewers saw onscreen, commanding such diverse talents as flight, enhanced strength, energy projection, and powerful psychic abilities.
He also sported a much different look, consisting of a cape and headpiece, along with this fantastic championship belt.
After suffering an early defeat, Drax helps Iron Man defeat the blood brothers, with Thanos revealed at story’s end to be a robot stand-in.
That might have been the end of things. Fortunately, Starlin took over as both writer and penciler of Captain Marvel that same year, bringing with him the groundwork he had laid in this initial story.
Created by Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan at the end of Marvel comics’ first wave, Captain Marvel was something of a failed property. He never caught fire like the rest of his superhero contemporaries and for two years he simply coasted along, before finally landing in Starlin’s hands.
Starlin was a perfect fit for the floundering title and set about slowly edging away from traditional super hero tropes, as the book adopted an increasingly cosmic tone.
Thanos was a big part of this, unfurling an elaborate plan to secure the cosmic cube, a small crystalline object possessing near-limitless, godlike power.
In the ensuing story, the Captain fights his way through a variety of colorful henchmen, struggles with his role as a warrior, and eventually attains the status of cosmic awareness.
Thanos remains a strong presence throughout, continuing his role as a shadowy mastermind, unleashing a full-scale beatdown on the Avengers and engaging in a bizarre psychic duel with Drax before finally throwing down with the good Captain.
The story also reveals his unholy obsession with death, not the phenomenon, but the literal incarnation of this force with whom he is in love.
This brought another interesting facet to the character, imbuing him with frightening motivation, while simultaneously making him slightly more human.
In many ways, these read like typical comics of the time, full of never-ending fistfights and overwrought dialogue. Look beneath the surface though and you’ll notice something else going on too, a growing reflection of counter culture ideas.
Starlin’s writing played with vast themes such as eternity and death, while his artwork took on a decidedly psychedelic tone.
Then there was the character’s quest for cosmic awareness, mirroring the new age philosophies becoming popular in counter cultural circles.
These innovations became a part of the industry as a whole, pushing comics into what is often referred to as the medium’s bronze age. It’s something Starlin would expand upon even further in his follow up series Warlock, where Thanos would put in his next appearance.
A quick note if you’re interested in reading these stories, they can all be found in a trade paperback called, The Life and Death of Captain Marvel, which compiles Iron Man #55 together with Captain Marvel 25-34 , and a Captain Marvel-centered Graphic Novel.
It’s a few years out of print, but a likely find on the secondary market. You can also find all of these issues electronically on the marvel app.
A brief disclaimer, if you do go the trade paperback route, save the last chapter for later. It takes place at a much later time and spoils a lot of what happens in the second big Thanos arc.
Next time, the Thanos saga continues in Warlock