Jim Starlin’s new graphic novel, Thanos: The Infinity Revelation, begins before the beginning; it begins with the nothing that is at the heart of all things. The narrator, perhaps Thanos himself, reminds us that “not even nothing lasts forever.” The terrible beauty of nothingness is, we are told, inevitably “desecrated by the advent of self-awareness.” And so this story, like all stories, has its beginning; it has its beginning in the small step from nothing to something, in the thinking of the first thought. Cogito, ergo sum.
Starlin, we might be lead to believe, has been reading philosophy, perhaps a little Hegel or a bit of Heidegger; surely, Jean-Paul Sartre. Or perhaps it is Buddhism that he has been contemplating. In any event, Starlin seems deeper here than he sometimes did in the old days, when Freud appeared to be his sub-conscious, and surely also conscious, source.
Once nothing has become something, things begin in earnest. The story opens with a conversation between cosmic characters, characters that appear as gods in the works of others but who are only bit players in Starlin’s melodrama. The Living Tribunal, the personification of cosmic justice, stands flummoxed before the events that Starlin’s story reveal; Infinity and Eternity are shaken and unsure. Their desecrating self-awareness is lost, adrift, mystified.
Even Thanos is worried. When he first appears he is slumped in his throne, his massive body barely able to hold up his too-small head. He is pondering riddles, worrying over questions without answers.
There are few comicbook creators who could pull off an opening like this. Jack Kirby was one. Jim Starlin may be the only other.
So, the Mad Titan begins another quest. This time the quest is not for the love of Mistress Death, whose approval Thanos no longer needs. This time the quest is not for power, nor for omnipotence and control; Thanos is too world-weary to crave godhood. I would say that this time the quest is for understanding, but that makes it sound too coolly rational, too philosophical. Perhaps it is better to say that this time the quest is to find peace, to resolve the nagging questions in Thanos’ stony heart, to ease that pang of nothingness that lingers in every moment of self-awareness, in every true thought.
Along the way, Thanos teams once again with the mysterious, and likewise mad, Adam Warlock, himself freshly reborn from the nothingness of death. Thanos seeks détente and conversation with Drax the Destroyer, and with Rocket Racoon and Groot. He battles with Death’s faithful watchdog. He commits abominations in the heart of the Badoon Holy of Holies. He overpowers and outwits the Silver Surfer, the Gladiator, Beta Ray Bill, Quasar and Ronan the Accuser on an ancient planet filled with ancient secrets. He walks a narrow plank into a trans-dimensional nexus, a bridge between worlds.
Throughout, things are disorienting to the reader, as to Thanos himself. Drax wears his purple, high-collared, skull-adorned costume in one scene, his red tattoos in the next. Warlock’s costume changes form panel to panel. Continuity as we know it in the Marvel Universe seems out of whack. Is Silver Surfer even now a herald of Galactus? Does he still ride the spaceways at the beck and call of his hungry, world-destroying master? Thanos’ quest becomes our quest, to relieve the questions if not to find the answers.
There is action here, battles large and small. There are alien technologies set against galactic vistas. There is cosmic power unleashed for good and evil. There are mad dreamscapes where reality is bent and broken. Starlin is a master at the creation of other worlds, of other realities, of otherness itself. He has the ability to animate his figures, to make them seem to move on the flat page, whether they are engaged in battle on a bizarre alien world or engaged in thought in a dark corner of the mind.
Sometimes, I will admit, things do begin to drag. Starlin is nothing if not self-referential. His characters, like real human beings I suppose, spend an awful lot of time thinking and talking about things that have gone before. This was barely tolerable in the Thanos Annual #1 that preceded this graphic novel. It is even less tolerable here. But this is a minor matter.
What is important is that beyond the action, beyond the absurdist landscapes and the starry, starry nights, there are words, panel after panel of thoughts, page after page of conversation, not small talk, but serious, real, human-yet-cosmic conversation. The dyad of Thanos and Warlock stands at the center of this tale. These two do not stand as enemies, not as friends, not as teacher and pupil, not as savior and lost soul but, first and foremost, as interlocutors, as two humans standing face to face before mysteries profound. Their conversation is central to all that happens.
The cosmic metamorphosis, the universe-altering event, that unfolds in Starlin’s story looks on the surface like any other crisis across infinite worlds, like the same sort of cosmic reordering that comic book readers have grown accustomed to over the years, the same sort of galactic show-down with god-like powers that Starlin himself has given us so many times before. But, as is sometimes the case when Starlin is at his best, the revelation here is personal before it is cosmic. The personality, and the madness, of Thanos and Warlock shape reality itself; the universe, like the nothingness that came before it, is desecrated by their self-awareness. And as it turns out, the greatest transformations in this story occur not among the stars, not in the above and beyond, not in the court of Infinity and Eternity, but in the characters themselves. For a cosmic-themed comic book like this one, that is truly a revelation.