Thanos: History of a Mad Titan

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?

Marvel films

Marvel films

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.

Metron - DC comics

Metron – DC comics

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.

Darkseid - DC comics

Darkseid – DC comics

Thanos - Marvel comics

Thanos – Marvel comics

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.

 

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

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.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

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.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

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.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

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.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

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.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

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.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

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

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3 Reasons Why Guardians of the Galaxy Works

guardians-galaxy-movie-preview

Marvel Entertainment

My Guardians of the Galaxy experience on Friday was made complete with lemonade and grilled chicken caesar salad (thanks Marcus Cinemas). Eating salad in a movie theater is a supremely odd experience which everyone should do at least once in life. Top that by crashing a family for 3 hours at the same time. It makes for a rip-roaring good time.

Guardians didn’t even need any salad-eating, family-crashing shenanigans because it was perfectly zany on its own. From the bad dancing, to one-liners, to an EPIC soundtrack, I couldn’t stop laughing. Finally, a comedy. I need the DVD stat. Yesterday.

I am not familiar with the Guardians comic book run at all. In fact, I’m not really familiar with any comic book runs so I can’t even be upset if Marvel deviates or completely changes things. I guess I’m also barred from getting into arguments with devout Comic-Con attendees who have all the issues on instant perusal in their mind palaces.

Yet I react like this every time a Marvel movie comes out:

(Except for Daredevil. And the most recent Captain America movies. Ok, let’s throw in the Punisher movies as well. Plus, I have to admit I wasn’t jumping up and down to see The Amazing Spider-Man movies.)

So when Guardians was announced, I wasn’t sure how to feel. We were getting a dynamic duo consisting of a talking raccoon, referred to as a genetic experiment gone wrong and a human-like tree who had three words to his vocabulary. Then the trailer came out and my skepticism bloomed into cautious excitement. And when the end credits started rolling, I had the hugest grin on my face. Marvel had done it again. Although, the after-credits scene puts me back at square one with not knowing how they are going to pull it off and not knowing how to feel.

Here’s why it worked:

1. THAT SOUNDTRACK: I appreciate the fact that there was no crappy music, and by crappy music I mean 85% of what is currently passing for music on the radio. It just made me want to dance and upgrade my life by going back to the 70’s and 80’s to pounce on some good tunes. When the trailer came out, I turned right around and got “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede. I played it over and over and over and I’m still not tired of it yet. That is fantastic stuff.

2. That humor: Guardians was ridiculously funny on multiple levels. It had events playing out in the background with completely oblivious characters, missed metaphors, awkward and carefree dancing, singing for comedic relief at high tension moments, stellar confused looks, human vs. alien perceptions. Since I’m into writing and words, the metaphor jokes slayed me.

3. That Glenn Close. Just kidding, although she was a boss in the scenes she was in. The characters and their journey from strangers to the Guardians of the Galaxy was awesome to watch. The tone of the movie was zany, but this is juxtaposed next to some seriously emotional scenes. Selfish motivations next to vengeful motivations next to a motivation to prove myself with a side of a heroine complex. I enjoyed the way the characters weren’t perfect and they wrestled with doing the right thing.

My tiny hang up is that I wish Nebula and Gamora were more fleshed out. Gamora’s backstory worked to a certain extent, but the writers plopped just enough into the movie to get us to care. I needed more insight into the rivalry. I also wish that villains actually had reasons for destroying entire planets, solar systems, and the universe, but I guess that’s part of what makes them fun. Also, the drama surrounding the main object is a lot more fun when we don’t know what that object is. After we find out, I feel like the movie loses a little steam because everyone is hung up on it.

I definitely won’t be cautiously excited for the sequel.

2017, hurry up already.