Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Infinity War #1

Movie/ TV Tie-Ins
The Infinity War #1

…or How Thanos saved the universe!

"Chthonic Maneuvers”
Writer – Jim Starlin
Pencils – Ron Lim
Inker – Al Milgrom
Colorists – Max Scheele & Ian Laughlin
Letterer– Jack Morelli
Editor – Craig Anderson
Honcho – Tom Defalco
June 1992

If we are going to talk about Infinity War #1 and how it ties into Marvel’s Avengers Infinity War, part 1, now in theaters, we are going to need to begin with a very long, convoluted history lesson.

That roadtrip begins in 1973 when scripter Mike Friedrich and writer-artist Jim Starlin created Thanos to be the heavy opposite Starlin’s idea of failed anger management in hero form, Drax the Destroyer. The issue they appeared in was Iron Man #55 and Thanos came off as a pretty thin concept in that book. 

Starlin even admits that most of Thanos’s look was swiped or homage to Jack Kirby’s Darkseid at the urging of Editor Roy Thomas:

Kirby had done the New Gods, which I thought was terrific. He was over at DC at the time. I came up with some things that were inspired by that. You'd think that Thanos was inspired by Darkseid, but that was not the case when I showed up. In my first Thanos drawings, if he looked like anybody, it was Metron. I had all these different gods and things I wanted to do, which became Thanos and the Titans. Roy took one look at the guy in the Metron-like chair and said: "Beef him up! If you're going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one!”

Thanos evolved over the years into a being in love with Death, and by that I don’t mean the abstract concept of Death. I mean the actual Marvel universal entity responsible for death and entropy, a figure usually represented by a purple-ish cloaked figure who  appears as either a beautiful woman or as a skeleton. To this end Thanos became a mass murderer, trying his best to appease her. It was an interesting angle for a villain that I believe won’t get brought up in the movie. I’m admittedly kinda bummed by that knowledge. 

During this part of his life he is opposed by Captain Marvel, the Avengers, Iron Man, Drax, Spider-Man and the Thing. Eventually he snags the Cosmic Cube, what the MCU has been calling Tesseract. Note that it is NOT one of the Infinity Gems in the comics, either. The sad fact of the MCU is that it thinks comic book movie audiences are somehow less intelligent than comic book readers and thus it needs to simplify or dumb things down for us. Also Cosmic Cube is about a million times better than Tesseract, no matter how “seventies” you may think it sounds.

One person Thanos didn’t start a feud with was Adam Warlock, a cosmic superhero who had one of the Infinity Gems. Specifically, the soul gem, which Warlock wore attached to his brow. Warlock was a created being, a golden man who struggled with his identity as he wandered the Earth and the galaxy looking for meaning. I'd tell you where he's liable to pop up in the MCU, but...spoilers! He found an arch-nemesis when an evil, purple, afro-haired future version of himself called the Magus appeared. Magus spent his time attempting to kill or capture Warlock and his companions Gamora (for you Guardians of the Galaxy fans) and Pip the Troll. Simultaneously, the Magus also became bent on conquering the universe to pave the way for his future empire.

Thanos stepped in to aid Warlock in his struggle against the Magus. But this proved a ruse, as he was only doing so that he might also gain the power of Warlock’s Soul Gem. Thanos ended up trapping Adam in the stone for a time and facing off against an array of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and their assorted hangers-on. This conflict went badly and Thanos ended up dead AND turned to stone.

So he kind of got his wish to be with Death there.

Most all these plots and stories were written and drawn by Jim Starlin. With the death of Thanos, in what was termed The Second Thanos War, Starlin took a break from comics. He would return for one-shots like the Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel and Cosmic Odyssey for DC, but he was no longer a regular Marvel writer.

And Thanos stayed dead, at least for a time.

Then Steve Englehart brought up the idea of resurrecting Thanos for use in his Silver Surfer storyline that was currently revolving around Mistress Death and the Infinity Gems. Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco was unfamiliar with the character, but after a little research, liked the idea so much that he green-lit the idea for a big summer crossover. Starlin was invited back to write it, and he brought with him a much more layered and philosophical Thanos. The villain was resurrected in Silver Surfer 34, having been brought back to life by Mistress Death and tasked with killing half of all life in the universe.

Starlin charted the Surfer’s first meeting with the deranged Titan Thanos and for the next three issues set the two of them up against each other as carefully as one might arrange pieces on a chessboard. Marvel wanted to really play into the Thanos hype, so they gave Starlin a two-issue series called Thanos Quest showing how he came into possession of the six Infinity Gems.

Thanos tricked Mistress Death into allowing him to obtain the stones in Thanos Quest. Thanos told her that he sought only to fulfill her wish that he kill half the universe, when instead he had far grander schemes in mind. Each of the six gems controlled a single element of the cosmos, those being the mind, the soul, reality, time, space and power. Thanos took them off the Elders of the Universe, who each had one stone, but not full access to that stone’s powers. We the readers left Thanos Quest as Thanos returned to Mistress Death showing her that now he was no longer her servant, but now her equal in power. This didn’t sit well with Death and the stage was set for Infinity Gauntlet.

I bought all of these new Thanos books right off the comic racks and I can tell you there were very few books I looked forward to as much as I did these titles. Starlin wrote a great yarn and artist Ron Lim with Al Milgrom inks conveyed his vision beautifully. I love Starlin’s art, but Lim’s work had become symbolic of the Surfer during the late 1980’s. So, it was a bit of a shock when Infinity Gauntlet came out with George Perez art. After issue 3 of the limited series, Perez would be crushed under the weight of his DC Wonder Woman: War of the Gods title and becoming more critical of Starlin’s scripting of Gauntlet. In the end it was Lim who wound up finishing for him after issue 4.

Sort of a best of both worlds, two artists I love doing a book I treasure.

Infinity Gauntlet is the movie you are probably going to see on the big screen in Avengers: Infinity War. Or close to it, anyway. Part one will be Thanos gathering the gems. Expect LOTS of character death. In the series Thanos killed ALL the heroes, save Silver Surfer and Adam Warlock. With the Infinity Gauntlet’s powers, bringing someone back from the dead is child’s play. I assume the movie version will do something similar. I expect to see even my beloved Iron Man go down fighting. C’est la vie.

Oh, and at the end of Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos “retired.” His experiences with Death had burned him out. In a twist that worked, Starlin allowed Thanos to give up super-villainy and move to an uninhabited planet, where he is shown tending a farm unconcerned with the rest of the universe. Yeah, Dexter…IG went there first.

And I have to do that little bit of spoilering, because that’s where Infinity War, the comic, picks up. On an unnamed planet, in a cornfield, with Thanos’s suit hanging up like a scarecrow…

A figure that is clearly Thanos WEARING this suit walks past it and heads for a futuristic house like structure. It stands outside briefly and then opens the door to find…himself, dressed in a much more utilitarian outfit.

Before Thanos the farmer can fully turn around though, the figure is gone. 

Hiding behind a tree as we see in a subsequent panel. Thanos turns back to his work. It appears he is concerned about something happening off-planet and he confers with a purple computer ball that I’m going to nickname “Thanos-Skeets”.

They launch a probe which flies into some flashing lights in outer space and promptly blows up. To which Thanos surmises…

…that the entire universe is in grave peril.

Which calls for a change in clothes and a recreation of Thanos’ favorite chair/spaceship.

He says goodbye to Thanos-Skeets, implying that the ETA of his return is not a “when” but an "if".

With his disappearance, we turn to Earth and specifically Spider-Man, who has a mutated doppelganger stalker of a decidedly evil looking visage.

And from there we move quickly to Galactus and Nova who are hovering in front of the being known as Eternity, who is the personification of all existence in this dimension. Except the white space they are floating in, which is always one of those brain twister things that I don’t like to concentrate too much on for fear I’ll go insane. The greatest thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents and all that.

Anyway, Galactus is concerned because Eternity appears to have gone catatonic, which is kind of troubling for many reasons. Including where are you going to find a bib large enough when the being representing the entire universe starts to drool on himself?

Not only that, but this was induced by someone that even mighty Galactus can’t determine. But he’s on the case, trading in his giant purple coffee-can hat for a Sherlockian deerstalker.

“Come, Nova! The game is afoot!”
Thanos is also in attendance, hiding behind some stray asteroids that are there because? How?...If Eternity is the universe and the universe is over THERE, then how are bits of rock floating here that Thanos can hide behind so Galactus can’t see him? Explain that! Someone? Anyone? No?

Anyway, Thanos’ doppelganger makes another appearance, but this time the Titan sees him before he pops out, confirming something about the adversary that Thanos has been guess monologuing to himself about.

We go through a laundry list of heroes being attacked by evil looking clones of themselves, starting with Iron Man…

…but while that’s happening, Thanos gets to the heart of the matter, using his chair to teleport directly to the hideout of mastermind behind all these events, an imposing structure that Thanos admires a bit before entering.

He discovers an energy conduit channeling immense energies the sources of which he cannot fathom. While that is going on though we get another hero vs evil twin with Wolverine this time…

That tussle is just starting when Thanos encounters the bad guy who is directing all this chaos. As he turns to face this unseen adversary, uttering the phrase “You?” in a tiny, surprised-emoting font…

...and we then swap to Doctor Doom, who has detected the energies Thanos just followed as well. Sensing that finding the source is too much for his technology to accomplish, he stalks off to seek a much needed upgrade.

And as Doom does, his nemesis Mr. Fantastic encounters his elastic match as his doppelganger attacks him in his lab.

Love the way that Lim can accomplish so much storytelling with no dialogue or sound effects. Truly a great artist who knows how to use his talent to its fullest.

That weapon goes off, and we don’t know who was the victor. But we have little time to worry about it as we shift back to Thanos and his discovery.

The time lost Magus and an evil (Eviler? More evil? What’s appropriate here?) version of Thanos are revealed to be our big bads, although make no mistake, the Magus is in charge.

In charge and quite clearly insane. He thinks of himself as an instrument of divine retribution and his galactic quest for ultimate power something Thanos should not oppose at his own peril. Starlin does a lot with these moments, drawing us into liking Thanos more by juxtaposing him against someone more crazy than he ever was.

Meanwhile the results of two more of our character battles are in…

…and it looks like it’s heroes: 1, and…

…and Magus: 1.

While Wolvie’s playmate vanishes, we check in with Galactus (who Lim’s art always makes look In-freakin’-credible) who says he needs a mage to find the source of Eternity’s ills.

And while we are shown that Spiderman survived his doppelganger encounter, a fairly gross and tentacle-porn moment occurs as Iron Man’s opponent takes the armored Avenger's place in a squirmy shower of whiplike limbs.

What emerges looks like Iron Man, but I’m certain it is a creature completely under the Magus’ control. And speaking of Magus, what’s his deal anyway? The last conflict with Adam Warlock resulted in Magus’ timeline being expunged from existence. And this is one guy who doesn’t look very “expunged”. The story shifts now to Thanos (a guy who should rightly be dead) talking to Magus (a guy who should also be dead) about the why and how of Magus’ existence in the today.

And then talk turns to Thanos’ new outlook on life and the Magus’ own quest for more power than his hands are fit to grasp. This is some quality Starlin writing and for all the hero battles in the issues that follow, these smattering of pages have more conflict and emotion than any of the rest. It’s a credit to the writer and the artist that these intimate moments are touched with a portent of the larger ideological struggles they suggest. 

It’s here, in this moment, that Infinity War succeeds, which is both a tragedy and a triumph. At least we get this villain-on-villain conversation that elevates the story, but at the same time get prepared for a wave of sadness that what follows this issue is a downhill ride that clangs around noisily when it could easily reach this peak again with the other characters involved.

What a simple thing it would have been to have Galactus and Thanos have a similar conversation. Or Thanos and Doom (or Doom and Kang, for that matter). Too often there feels like a need on the author to propel the plot in these books along to the exclusion of these moments. That means physical conflict or writing characters in a manner that, while consistent, leaves out the aspect the readers would truly relish – that bit where villains examine their own motivations. A bit of navel-gazing can end up helping your story immensely, is what I’m getting at.

But alas, we quickly devolve back into fisticuffs… 

Although, this bit where Magus shows his hand in a moment of hubris, is quite good. 

But again, this is more of an implied threat than an actual one, which is why it works so well. As the Magus disappears, Thanos is left to brood about what action he should take.

The only thing that is clear to him…

A conclusion that the Magus appears to have deduced far in advance of Thanos’ visit.

Meanwhile, Reed is contacting everyone regarding the attack on himself and his findings in researching where his attacker came from…

…and when I say “everyone,” I mean Everyone! (the New Warriors? Sheesh! Also, they do NOTHING this entire series.)

In the meantime, Doctor Strange is recruited off-camera after being startled by Galactus, Nova, and the Silver Surfer. 

And even Doc Doom decides it’s time for a little teaming up with someone whose technology rivals his own.

The saddest part of the series is the waste of Kang and Doom, however. Every panel is the same: their word balloons have them working together followed by a thought bubble of each of them stating to themselves how quickly they will betray and turn on the other when the moment presents itself. It is yawn inducing and predictable.

Meanwhile, Warlock and his Infinity Watch are holed up on the Mole Man’s Monster Isle for a bit and have just settled on using it for their new base, when an unexpected guest arrives…

…seeking something quite unexpected.

And with that, the curtain closes on the first issue.

In all, the six issues and tie-ins to The Infinity War run the fence between good and bad. The title has one or two moments that match the intensity and the intelligence of the original Infinity Gauntlet, but it gets bogged down in battles and plots that don’t do much but showcase lots of heroes in action poses. The villain’s motivations are clear, but by the time his final ploy is revealed, there isn’t a clear path to victory for our protagonists. It ends rather unsatisfactorily.

And that ending spawns The Infinity Crusade, a series that completed the decline in quality of the arc the Infinity Gems would take. But more on that book at another time.

For now, it is enough to know that right now, somewhere out there, a non-comic book fan who loves Avengers: Infinity War and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is pulling a copy of The Infinity War trade paperback off the shelf. And he or she is about to scratch their head as they watch Thanos SAVE the Marvel Universe. That brings a smile to my face.