Purple Reign
The Life and Deaths of Thanos

Copyright 2015 Brian Saner Lamken • Posted on 21 April 2019 • First published in slightly
altered form in
ACE: All Comics Evaluated #3, June 2015, by Time Capsule Productions

view this page with graphics ››


     I saw The Avengers for a second time in late summer 2012. While my free ticket helped, I’d have gone anyway because (a) I still could barely believe the movie existed, let alone that it was good, and (2) like many others I had missed some dialogue earlier thanks to the roar of the audience. At the end of the mid-credits teaser, when an imposing figure looked to the camera with a smile on his giant, ridged, sort-of magenta face, the woman one row in front of me leaned in to her friend to ask the magic question:

     “Was that Hellboy?!?”

     Not at her, but at the strangeness of the scene, I laughed. A neophyte mistaking Thanos for Hellboy in a summer blockbuster is pretty much the comics fan’s equivalent of #FirstWorldProblems.

     My introduction to Thanos came at the tender age of 6 through a pair of thick 1977 annuals. It was… intense. He was a monstrous fellow with eyes recessed into shadow and legions of weird aliens under his command and the sheer power to take on Spider-Man, Thing of the Fantastic Four, Captain Marvel, and the Avengers. Plus he was smitten with Death — yes, capital D, death personified — and turned to stone by the resurrected spirit of Adam Warlock, an eerie associate of the good guys killed by Thanos previously. The familiar superheroes were my anchor in a minor epic filled with cosmic travelers who, I’ve come to learn, were largely defined if not in fact created by writer/artist Jim Starlin.

     Starlin had done work in fanzines, notably Doctor Weird, and a variety of isolated jobs at Marvel when he got the chance to plot and pencil Iron Man #55, dated Feb. 1973. Thanos made his debut there, as did his father Mentor, leader of the Titans on that eponymous moon of Saturn, and Drax the Destroyer, the being forged to counter Thanos’ threat. Starlin and scripter Mike Friedrich were assigned the exploits of expatriate Kree warrior Mar-Vell in Captain Marvel with #25; Thanos came along. No-one, Starlin included, had an inkling of the character’s longevity nor of his eventual prominence in the Marvel Universe.

     “I just wanted to tell stories,” he says today. “Fortunately, Mike Friedrich was a very busy writer and was more than happy to let me plot.” Friedrich and editor Roy Roy Thomas appeared “to like” what Starlin was doing, he tells me. “Roy was the only editor up at Marvel at that point. He was literally in charge of about 30 books coming out each month. So most of the time I would stop by Roy’s office, give maybe a two- or three-sentence plot summary, and be off drawing the story that evening.” (Marvel actually published an average of 43 titles per month in 1973, counting reprints and the black-&-white magazine line, all under Thomas’ watch.)

     A wild, six-page sequence in Captain Marvel #28 that Starlin dialogued — wherein Drax battles Thanos on another plane via “time-mind sync-warp” — served as his audition to assume full writing responsibilities with #29’s “Metamorphosis!” in addition to penciling and coloring. “Jim clearly had a vision in his head which, it seemed to me, it might benefit Marvel to have down on paper,” says Roy Thomas. “There was never any doubt that he was a singular talent, and I didn’t try to micromanage that.”

     Iron Man #55 shows a slimmer Thanos than later portrayals, but his bearing, facial topography, and even attire in the issue are inescapably reminiscent of a certain ruler of Apokolips central to the New Gods saga launched by Jack Kirby two years earlier at DC. “As I have said many times in the past, Thanos was not directly copied from Darkseid,” Starlin tells me, pointing out that his original drawings of the character were more influenced by Kirby’s Metron. Roy Thomas suggested bulking Thanos up and going for a Darkseid vibe, per Starlin. While Thomas doesn’t recall doing so, he says, “I see no reason to quarrel with Jim’s memory of the event. I do recall that I liked the general look of Thanos — and the name — from the get-go.” He adds that “time, and Jim Starlin, have borne out my judgments.”

     Thanos has a nifty hover-chair that evokes Metron’s, as do his quests for knowledge, although Darkseid’s most defining trait may be his own search for the fabled Anti-Life Equation. Starlin is surely winking at the comparison when he has Warlock refer to Thanos, in Avengers Annual #7, as “a herald of anti-life” and remark that “Thanos means death… the dark side.”

     Which brings us to the error embedded in decades’ worth of comics and now a multi-billion-dollar film franchise. Starlin has often related how a psychology class he took after leaving the Navy inspired him to sketch characters who represented the dual urges of Thanatos and Eros theorized by Freud — the former a basic human instinct of aggression, leading inevitably to death and destruction; the latter an impetus of love and sexuality, thus leading to life. But Starlin misremembered Thanatos as Thanos. My friend Efthymia confirms Thanos as a common Greek name short for Athanasios. “When I heard [Thanos] was the name of the mysterious villain briefly glimpsed at the end of The Avengers,” she tells me, it was like “finding out that he's called Bob.” The shared root word thnesko (θνήσκω) does mean “to die” — yet where thanatos means “death” the word from which Athanasios, and so Thanos, is derived is athanatos, which means “eternal life”. Fittingly, Thanos the Mad Titan has come to reflect his true namesake as well as the one his creator intended.

     Power enough to bend reality to his will is all Thanos wanted, in the name of pleasing his beloved. And he achieved it more than once — in 1974’s first Thanos War, through possession of the Cosmic Cube; in 1991’s Infinity Gauntlet, by setting the six Infinity Gems upon his gloved hand; in 2014’s The Infinity Revelation, having essentially re-birthed his universe as the chosen instrument of… well, it seems, Whosoever has the standing and ability to make such choices. Each time, consciously or not, Thanos is responsible for then relinquishing that power.

     Thanos’ origin from Iron Man #55 was soon expanded and revised. His father Mentor and brother Eros share his purple skin in that issue, which Starlin tells me “was a colorist mistake” — as of Nov. 1973’s Captain Marvel #29 they have the European pigmentation of their forebears. Starlin reveals Mentor, real name A'lars, to be a brother of Zeus exiled from Mt. Olympus who founded a new race of Titans worlds away with his wife Sui-San. (Later, the Olympian gods in this backstory would be replaced with the Eternals of Olympia, a race of superhumans created in 1976 by Jack Kirby returned to Marvel, which puts an interesting spin on the New Gods influence.) A sequence in Daredevil #105 detailing Mentor’s rescue of Heather Douglas, the Earth girl raised on Titan who became Moondragon, suggests Thanos himself had a pale pink complexion as a child; the context leaves enough room for the brooding little boy in that flashback panel not to be Thanos, luckily, since he is said elsewhere to be centuries old, not Heather’s contemporary, and in fact is seen in Captain Marvel #32 to be responsible for the death of her parents.

     I did say Daredevil #105, yes. Thanos’ pursuit of the Cosmic Cube spilled from the pages of Captain Marvel, on the verge of cancellation when Starlin came aboard, into other Marvel series — including flagship title The Avengers. “Steve Gerber [who wrote Daredevil #105-107] and Steve Englehart [who wrote Avengers #125 and scripted Captain Marvel #33, the conclusion, at Starlin’s request] were both friends and decided independently to cross over with my Thanos tale,” says Starlin. “The three-page Moondragon origin was something I was going to insert into Captain Marvel but didn’t,” he adds. “Gerber saw the pages and asked if they could be used in Daredevil instead.”

     We also discover in Captain Marvel #32 that Drax the Destroyer, whose first appearance suggested he was formed from nothing by the cosmic being Kronos, possesses the soul of Heather Douglas’ father, plucked by Kronos upon his passing. Fun fact: Moondragon was introduced as a cackling villain with the unlikely moniker Madame MacEvil in Iron Man #54, orchestrating a clash between ol’ Shell-Head and Namor the Sub-Mariner. Daredevil #105 rewrites her aim as a desire to find warriors strong enough to face Thanos and his thralls. (Any random sampling of Thanos stories will show that Starlin has singlehandedly kept alive the archaic usage of “thrall” to mean “slave or servant”.) So great is the Mad Titan’s presence, apparently, that an entire issue prior to his debut, one in which his creator had no involvement, is part of the Thanos chronicles.

     It’s a familiar trope that villains who’ve gained the upper hand toy with their adversaries and overlook details crucial to their seemingly fail-safe schemes. Mar-Vell and the Avengers are able to engineer a god-like Thanos’ defeat by shattering the drained, vulnerable source of his power, the Cosmic Cube, in an oft-revisited moment. He returns more than a year later on the last page of “The Infinity Effect” in Oct. 1975’s Warlock #9, the series’ relaunch after a tryout run in Strange Tales, offering the hero his aid.

     Starlin was taking Adam Warlock, keeper of the Soul Gem, on a fantastic voyage as much within his own psyche as through outer space. Like Mar-Vell’s attainment of “cosmic awareness” and that Thanos/Drax “time-mind sync-warp” duel, Warlock’s struggles with his future self, The Magus, were a trippy sight to behold. “Creativity is a mix of whatever’s going on in your life at that particular time,” Starlin tells me. “I’d just gotten out of the service… I had a new job, and I was hanging out with all these new creative people. Something interesting had to come out of a concoction like that.” Visually, Starlin was grafting the body language and bizarre, mystical landscapes of Steve Ditko — to whom Strange Tales #181 is dedicated — onto the dynamics of Jack Kirby, filtered through the influences of successive Marvel legends. “At the beginning I was clearly a mix of Steve and Jack with a little John Buscema, Gil Kane, and Jim Steranko thrown in,” he says. “Since then everything I’ve looked at has had some influence on my work.” Warlock’s too-short revival wrapped with #15, in which the manner of his demise is foretold and Thanos sets foster daughter Gamora on Adam’s trail while pledging “total stellar genocide” as a gift to Death.

     Another year would pass before the Mad Titan’s first grand arc concluded in those 1977 annuals. Warlock marshals the Avengers, Moondragon, and Mar-Vell to action when Thanos acquires five of the six Infinity Gems, planning to focus their energies and what he’s surreptitiously siphoned from the sixth, Warlock’s own Soul Gem, through one synthetic, gargantuan supergem. (They were actually all referred to as Soul Gems at the time, but that’s confusing, so we’ll go with Infinity Gems.) As they await Thanos’ armada, Starlin has Earth’s Mightiest Heroes privately wonder if Adam Warlock is, or may become, a threat as large as Thanos, whether to sow the seeds for later stories or simply add resonance to his sacrifice.

     In the course of Avengers Annual #7, Warlock absorbs the spirits of Gamora and his friend Pip into the Soul Gem from their nearly lifeless bodies. He is soon dispatched by Thanos with curious ease and, dying, confronted by himself; it’s the other side of a scene from Warlock #11, in which he jumps to his own future to prevent his Magus incarnation from emerging. Likewise absorbed into the Gem, Warlock finds peace among his friends, although he manifests on the material plane again in Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 the next month — with the help of Spider-Man, prompted by no less than the cosmic entities Chaos and Order — to eliminate Thanos, evidently for good, turning him to solid granite.

     Thanos got better, in more than one sense, at least for a spell and in his own way. His sole official appearance for over a decade, however, was in the first standalone Marvel graphic novel, Starlin’s unexpected and moving 1982 opus The Death of Captain Marvel. Venturing to Thanos’ derelict ship, Mar-Vell, Eros, and Mentor intend to bring his stone corpse home to Titan, only to discover a mass of Thanos’ followers awaiting his resurrection. (Unofficially in terms of Marvel Universe continuity, Thanos popped up in a 1978 issue of Spidey Super Stories, tooling around in his vanity helicopter.)

     Starlin began writing Silver Surfer with #34, dated Feb. 1990, in a very different era for Marvel and the industry as a whole. He used that series and the two-issue Thanos Quest to pave the road for 1991’s six-part Infinity Gauntlet, starting with Death’s reanimation of her barbarous suitor. Thanos speaks to the Surfer of a “metaphysical danger” he calls the Great Imbalance, overpopulation due to cultural advancement, which he aims to cure by eliminating half the sentient life in the universe. After visiting an enigmatic repository of knowledge in Death’s realm, the Infinity Well, Thanos sets about uniting the Soul Gem and its siblings. Now aware that they each grant dominion over a certain sphere — Mind, Soul, Time, Space, Reality, and Power, the last boosting the abilities of another when employed in concert — he renames them the Infinity Gems, wrests them from their current guardians, and rejoices in becoming his mistress’ equal if not superior.

     Most of the old crew gets together, playing a broadly familiar tune. Having been killed years earlier by Moondragon, Drax the Destroyer is raised from the grave by Kronos. Leaping back into the living world with Pip and Gamora, Warlock assembles not just the Avengers but a platoon of insanely powerful beings, some the literal embodiments of abstract concepts. Enraged that Death will still not speak to him directly because their uneven stations are now reversed, Thanos laments the isolation of omnipotence, his focus careening wildly in scope from pettily torturing his brother Eros and supposed granddaughter Nebula to installing himself as the personification of Eternity. We’re reminded that the best hope for defeating Thanos may be his own subconscious desires, and sure enough Nebula, rescued by Death, removes the Gauntlet from Thanos’ slumped body while he’s off exercising his ineffability. Thanos only appears to die in the final melee, instead retiring to live a simple, secluded life tending farm on a distant planet.

     Thanos and Warlock were no longer cult-fave, fairly deep-cut relics of the Bronze Age, however, and neither were they dead again. Starlin penned a new monthly series spinning out of The Infinity Gauntlet called Warlock and the Infinity Watch, starring Warlock, Gamora, Pip, Drax, and Moondragon as cosmic superheroes and guardians of the Infinity Gems. He also wrote 1992’s Infinity War and 1993’s Infinity Crusade, limited series — drawn by Ron Lim, who’d penciled Starlin’s Surfer run and taken over from George Pérez midway through Gauntlet — that interlocked with Infinity Watch and other Marvel titles. Thanos was pivotal to both, joining Warlock in opposing a reconstituted Magus, avatar of Warlock’s evil side, and The Goddess, nominally the avatar of his good. When understandable skepticism of Thanos’ intentions is expressed by all sides, he replies that he too has a sense of self-preservation, adding, “I’ve already had my taste of omnipotence and found it impossible to keep down.”

     Diverse hands then appropriated Thanos, most reducing him to a villain in search of mysterious objects of vast power. “Sad to say,” his creator observes, “but Thanos is a commercial property, owned by Marvel Comics. Once you leave a character there’s no telling what's going to happen to them.” In 2002’s six-part The Infinity Abyss, Starlin dismissed some of the portrayals published since 1993 as duplicates made by Thanos for use in various schemes or as decoys. He wrote and penciled the first half of a twelve-issue Thanos series in 2003 before spending another decade away from the Mad Titan and Marvel altogether, returning for 2014’s Thanos Annual #1, drawn by Lim. The latter half of Thanos leads into Annihilation, in which Drax’s mission to kill Thanos is completed at last. Perhaps thanks to Death’s banishment of him from her realm back in 1995’s Cosmic Powers Unlimited anthology, effectively rendering him immortal, Warlock is able to place Thanos in a cocoon from which he’s revived in the pages of Guardians of the Galaxy and the Thanos Imperative limited series in 2010. He is not happy to be awoken from oblivion.

     Released a few months after the 2014 annual’s recap of relevant history, The Infinity Revelation might just be Starlin’s way of reconciling and embracing contradictions in Thanos’ documented past, in particular the version of his relationship with Death as seen in 2013’s Thanos Rising. Death, rebirth, duality, and other favorite themes of Starlin’s on view in his Marvel work and elsewhere resonate in Revelation as Thanos and Warlock go through motions both surprising and familiar, meeting alternate instances of themselves. It’s not entirely without action but is as contemplative a Marvel graphic novel as you’re likely to read, The Death of Captain Marvel included. Starlin’s cosmic protagonists are often brought to different planes to do battle or gain crucial insight. The Infinity Revelation half-convinced me that it’s all a fanciful dream of the sleeping Thanos, and the title of next month’s sequel, The Infinity Relativity, is no help.

     Among Starlin’s projects during Thanos’ statue years was The Metamorphosis Odyssey, a set of stories introducing his creation Vanth Dreadstar. Its second book shares a title with “The Price!” from Warlock #10; Captain Marvel #29, as noted earlier, was called “Metamorphosis!” While journey and transformation are hardly uncommon themes in heroic fiction, The Metamorphosis Odyssey could easily be applied to the sagas of Mar-Vell, Adam Warlock, and Thanos all. “Changing and the price you pay for something you cherish or covet were obviously subjects that were heavily on my mind at that time,” Starlin says. If they weigh less now, they don’t seem to have wandered far.

— 30 —