This is my favorite version of Thanos: scripted by Jim Starlin and penciled by Ron Lim. Lim’s Thanos is fine-lined yet fierce, more controlled and elegant than Starlin’s own rendition of the character. Starlin’s version of Thanos, like so much of his art, always seems to be slightly off-kilter, as if the Mad Titan is trying desperately to burst off the page, two dimensions breaking out into three. (This is not meant as a criticism; Starlin’s dynamism, like Kirby’s, is one of the things that I love about his work.) Lim brings control; he brings elegance. It is a good complement to Starlin’s scripting. His plots, like his drawings, are complex and dynamic; they benefit from Lim’s precision. As for Starlin’s characterizations, particularly of Thanos, they need no help in assuming life beyond the page. They are plenty three-dimensional on their own.
Starlin’s Thanos is, in many ways, the ultimate comicbook villain. He is plenty evil and, as he himself has come to recognize, quite mad. But, especially in Starlin’s hands, Thanos has never been reducible to that single note. He is a complex character who has done lots of bad things, and a few good ones, but who is always more than the sum of those actions. This is what makes for a good bad guy. It also is one of the things that distinguish Thanos from DC’s cosmic villain, Darkseid, who in many ways served as the inspiration for Starlin’s character. Darkseid is mostly one note; He is evil. (Granted, it is an evil is of a totalitarian sort, more complex and frightening than the anarchy of the Joker and his ilk.) Thanos is also a more complex character than his fellow descendant from Darkseid, Darth Vader, who, as it turns out, is at heart just a nice guy led astray by the power of the Dark Side.
Thanos Annual #1 is a precursor to the upcoming graphic novel, Thanos: The Infinity Revelation, which is both scripted and penciled by Starlin. As such, it is meant to survey the history of the character as a way to introduce new readers to what has gone before and to refresh the minds of long-time fans. There are parts of the book that do no more than that. The third quarter of the book especially drags. Rehashing past glories is never easy, even if Lim’s rendition of Marvel’s cosmic pantheon is always a pleasure to see. There is not much to be done about these things, however. The book was meant as an introductory retrospective. That is what it is.
Given the constraints of the book’s marketing and story-telling goals however, Starlin has managed to do something pretty wonderful here. Yes, I came away from this book with refreshed memories of Thanos stories past. Yes, I was left wanting to read The Infinity Revelation. Starlin has succeeded in doing what this book was meant to do. But Starlin has also given us more. He has given us characterization and nuance. He has given us Thanos at his best.
The set-up is a lot of fun. Most of the book consists of a conversation between Thanos and Thanos. One version is the recently fallen Thanos, whose omnipotence has just been ripped away by his loss of the cosmic cube to Captain Marvel. The other version is an avatar of the omnipotent Thanos who wields the Infinity Gauntlet. Over the course of their conversation the reader is given just the kind of retrospective expected in a book like this. The reader is also given something that is not expected, a real glimpse into the character of the villain. Starlin’s Thanos is alternately broken, remorseful, thoughtful, greedy, unpredictable, arrogant, and mad. I found myself reading, not to discover what would happen next in the plot, but in appreciation of this character, this God-like being who is also very, very human.
Starlin has always had a good grasp of the cosmic hero genre, whether he is writing about Captain Marvel or Thanos. He is not afraid to imbue his characters with ultimate power and knowledge, with omniscience and omnipotence. In that sense, they are less god-like than God-like. Superman fits the bill of a hero of the former sort. Thanos, however, is something else again, less god than God. When wielding the gauntlet he is all-powerful. Starlin’s strength in writing about such characters is in his ability to keep them human. Indeed, it is arguably more difficult to make a character human than divine. Starlin, at his best, manages both.
Thanos Annual #1 is not a perfect book. It is limited by its purpose and its design as an introduction to something coming that promises to be bigger and better. It is, however, something to behold, a look inside the mind of an all too Godlike human character, a man burdened by his divinity, a madman challenged by moments of sanity. Thanos: Infinity Revelation is coming. I can’t wait.