23 Apr 2018

Working The Boxes: INFINITY GAUNTLET #1-6

In Working The Boxes we highlight any recent back issue purchases we've found buried in comic boxes or discovered on eBay that we think are worthy of further attention.

Matt C: Admission time: until recently, I'd never read Infinity Gauntlet. When writer Jim Starlin resurrected Thanos in Silver Surfer #34 in 1990, I was totally on board with the cosmic awesomeness of the Marvel Universe, and my reading trajectory at that point should have lead me to pick up Infinity Gauntlet at the time. Life, however, had other ideas. As has happened with many of us at some point in our lives, certain things become more distracting (for me, in my late teens, it was rock'n'roll, and related activities), so the need for larger than life characters throwing their weight around the universe seemed to diminish. Sooner or later that need reasserts itself, and after a couple of years of being out of the loop, I was back! In the interim, Infinity Gauntlet, and its direct sequel, Infinity War, had come and gone, and the second sequel, Infinity Crusade, was on the shelves. Reading Infinity Gauntlet did become a mission of sorts for me, but one that remained on the backburner, with issues being picked up at comic conventions at acceptable prices over the years. Once I had the six, they went on the 'To Read' pile, but never really progressed up to the top, until the imminent release of a certain movie made me think, 'I really need to read these comics!'

As it turns out, almost three decades later, Infinity Gauntlet holds up pretty well. It's of its time, sure, and not without its flaws, but the grand ambition and scale of the story - featuring a huge cast of characters - remains impressive, even if it doesn't quite hold together as it reaches its conclusion. The central character is, of course, Thanos, his lust for power clouded by his need for affection from Death (aka Mistress Death, the cosmic personification of the concept rather than the concept itself), which remains forever unrequited. Having collected the six infinity gems, attached to a gauntlet that imbues the wearer with omnipotence, he aims to wipe out half the population of the universe to bring about a cosmic balance, believing he can win Death's black heart through, well, more death. Obviously the Marvel Universe is stacked with heroes ready to thwart the villain known as the 'Mad Titan', and leading the universal defenders is Adam Warlock, a character whose history was inextricably linked with Thanos at that stage, and whose focus on the macro elements of the conflict and a disconnect with the micro means that he will lead lambs to the slaughter if it serves a larger cosmic purpose.

There's a lot of build up to the inevitable confrontation, a lot of explicating and pontificating, which while commonplace in comics of the era, and not entirely unwelcome, it does slow the momentum down, and the spotlight on beings with more godlike abilities means the catastrophic loss of half the universe isn't quite as impactful as it could have been. But the dynamics between those cosmic beings provide plenty of entertainment, with Mephisto - Marvel's version of Satan - acting like Tolkein's Grima Wormtongue, whispering into the ears of any player he feels he can manipulate for his own ends, while Death herself acts as though she's largely disinterested in the chaos erupting around her. Meanwhile, the uniting of the cosmic entities (minus the Living Tribunal, who believes Thanos' bid for power is a form of natural selection and therefore not his purview) to tackle a galaxy-shattering threat is always a welcome sight, with conceptual beings like Eternity, Eon, Chaos and Order (most of them Starlin creations) discussing how and why the Mad God must be stopped and then attempting to use their might to achieve this goal.

Characters like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk all have roles to play, but are less involved as the story progresses, and bar a few moments where they get to shine, their effect on the course of the narrative proves to be minimal, and it really is down to Warlock, the Silver Surfer and, to a lesser extent, Doctor Strange, to save the day. But this is Thanos' story, and he often fits into the category of antihero rather than straight up villain as the finale looms, a relatively softer take on a character who in recent times has become a more unrelentingly villainous force of nature. There are hints that he sees the whole thing as a game, one he realizes he will eventually lose, his trademark grin reinforcing that impression; the journey towards ultimate power is perhaps ultimately more entertaining than reaching the destination.

Famed penciller George Perez makes it through to the fourth issue, more or less, his attention to detail and ability to produce work that conveys a sense of scale proving to be a huge asset early on (particularly via the creation of some unarguably iconic covers), but behind-the-scenes issues led to his replacement by Ron Lim, who had familiarity with many of these characters through his stint on Silver Surfer, and was able to step into Perez' shoes fairly comfortably without much of the cosmic grandeur being lost. It's always preferable to have the same artist see a series through to the final page, but inker Josef Rubinstein ensured a sense of visual consistency remained in place.

Death and Mephisto move out of the plot without a lot of fanfare, which is a shame as their presence felt integral early on, with another familiar face moving ahead to shake things up in the last couple of issues. Although it remains Thanos' story, it would have perhaps been more satisfying if other members of the extended cast, who were instrumental in how the narrative played out in earlier chapters, got their due. In that sense, it's not as effective as it could have been, the often confused motivations of the lead character feeding through into the direction of the story itself. However, few writers have the ability to convincingly deal with such larger-than-life, often abstract characters, and Jim Starlin is definitely one of them; Infinity Gauntlet is generally highly entertaining cosmic mayhem, and has proven to be far more influential than anyone could have anticipated at the time.

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