While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections and are always worth revisiting...
Andrew B: He speaks with the grandeur of Dr Doom. He schemes with the insane zeal of the Red Skull. And, yes, he’s got a chin like Darkseid. Thanos of Titan has qualities in common with many of the other great villains of comicdom, Marvel or DC. But there’s one factor that makes him different, darker, deadlier. One feature that sets him apart. The nature of his ambition: nothing less than total stellar genocide.
Take Doom or the Skull, for example. Their world-views are unlikely to be shared by anyone currently reading this article (unless they happen to be sporting a funny little moustache and listening to a CD of SS marching songs), but they can at least be understood. Their dark dreams involve the possession of power and the right to rule over a subject people – not too savoury – but at least they envisage a world with people still in it. There is a twisted rationality in their megalomania, a limit to their plans. Doom for one is even capable of a level of nobility – in Fantastic Four #87, for example, he famously lets the FF go free rather than in battle risk damage to “the immortal art” preserved in his castle. On some level, you can deal with Doom, even the Skull.
None of that with Thanos.
Thanos doesn’t care about art. Thanos doesn’t care about people, subject or otherwise. Thanos doesn’t care about life. The total stellar genocide he yearns for entails the extinction of life, every last breath of it. And there can be no compromise with that kind of mentality.
No-one does deals with the Mad Titan.
I first encountered Thanos back in 1975 in issue #9 of Jim Starlin’s short-lived but utterly glorious Warlock series, stepping out of a portal to “take personal control” of our gold-skinned hero’s currently dire situation (that’s Thanos, by the way, not me). Kind of a squat, stocky guy, thighs like tree trunks, unfeasibly wide boots, chin like purple granite (still Thanos). Given his vow to stand with Warlock and fight his evil future self the Magus (don’t ask) to the death, sounded a little like a good guy. Given his propensity to refer to himself in the third person, however, and as the slinky female assassin Gamora, self-introduced as “the deadliest woman in the whole galaxy”, tends to call him “master”, even the callow comics reader that I then was pretty quickly marked Thanos down as the opposite. (Chalk one up for callow comics readers everywhere.)
But I had no idea who this Thanos geezer was, or whether I was supposed to recognise him from other books.
Seemed Jim Starlin didn’t think I’d be the only one struggling. Warlock #10 included a two-page primer in which Captain Marvel (the blond, male one) appeared with his arm around a bunch of panels to break the fourth wall and directly “answer that question” for us, the question being “Who is Thanos?”. “As you may or may not know,” said Cap (suggesting Captain Marvel’s own book was not a guaranteed seller), “I’ve crossed swords with Thanos in the past and so know him for what he truly is.”
And what Thanos truly was, was truly frightening.
He was born in the utopian society of Titan, one of two sons to its gentle ruler Mentor: Eros the light and Thanos the dark. Now, the Titans may well have been a race of “pacific super beings”, according to Starlin, but their naming habits were asking for trouble, weren’t they? If you knew your moniker meant “the dark”, you probably wouldn’t see yourself fitting in very productively with “the light”.
Certainly, Thanos didn’t. And just to emphasise the religious associations of the character – he’s Satan, he’s Cain (and ever wondered why Gamora wears a snake suit and is named after Gomorrah, a city destroyed by God because of its sinfulness?) – Starlin writes that “Thanos finally rebelled against this paradise (Titan)… he conquered and perverted this Eden among the stars… and even made a pact with Death itself to gain his sinister goals.” So, not good.
In Warlock #10, though, we’re reminded that Captain Marvel, together with the Avengers and the Destroyer, did originally defeat Thanos. But now he’s back, and for the rest of the book’s run (to #15) we learn that the experience of defeat has not humbled the dark Titan. In fact, Thanos here is madder than ever. “You could never hope to comprehend the concepts I embrace,” he snarls at Thor and Iron Man in Avengers Annual #7, and that ain’t surprising.
We’re back with what distinguishes him from other Big Bads. Thanos now wants to execute this total stellar genocide idea. The end of all things. The termination of all life. And not just for the sheer nihilistic heck of it. As an offering to Death – not itself any longer, but herself. The returned Thanos is now in love with Death, pictured sometimes by Starlin not as a sexless Grim Reaper figure but as the kind of young lady one might like to buy a drink in a local hostelry. Extinguishing the stars for her, mind, that’s kind of extreme.
But that’s Thanos. Perhaps the most extreme, alien villain in comics’ rich pantheon of evildoers. And I haven’t even mentioned a certain set of gemstones that might feature in a certain little movie heading our way soon. One thing’s for sure, though. It may have taken a while, but it’s Thanos’s big moment now. Whatever the outcome of Avengers: Infinity War, this is the time of the Titan.