The surprise appearance of Thanos at the end of last summer’s Avengers film caused something amazing to happen. While long-time comic book fans knew who the grinning titan was, newer fans that had been consuming Marvel’s cinematic properties like candy took it upon themselves to find out who this mystery villain was. As a result, less than one minute of film fueled Marvel’s publishing wing, and sales of the Infinity Gauntlet trade paperback skyrocketed. Thanos will be a main character in this summer’s Infinity event, which fans can get their first look at on Free Comic Book Day!
Thanos was created by Jim Starlin, in, of all places a Psychology class. Inspired by ideas of repressed anger and obsession, Starlin doodled images of Thanos and Drax in his notebook. Early in his career he was asked to fill in on Iron Man #55. Not confident that he would have another crack at a mainstream comic, Starlin tried to stuff the book with as many ideas as possible, including Thanos. Many have dismissed Thanos as a carbon copy of Jack Kirby’s Darkseid, and Starlin freely admitted that’s where he drew inspiration. Starlin, like any sane human, is a devout Kirby worshipper, but he originally patterned Thanos after another New God: Metron. Upon seeing Starlin’s sketches, editor-in chief Roy Thomas took a shining to the encouraged Starlin to beef him up and make him more of a Darkseid clone (because if you are going to steal a New God, steal the coolest one). What started as a lift from Kirby soon became something wholly unique. Thanos’ name is derived from the Greek idea of Thanatos, the personification of death and oblivion. Thanos would soon live up to his ominous moniker.
Starlin tapped into one of Kirby’s lesser known creations in constructing Thanos’ origin. Thanos is a descendant of an offshoot of Kirby’s Eternals. Thanos was born with the Deviant metagene, effectively making him a mutant in his advanced culture. Thanos’ parents didn’t shun him, but his society did and favored his handsome brother Eros over the genius mutant. With feelings of ostracism, Thanos became an outcast, and soon met the physical manifestation of Death. Death became his mentor and set him on a path of rage and destruction. Thanos was exiled from Titan because of forbidden and vile experimentation and quickly turned his thoughts to revenge. To curry Death’s favor, Thanos turned Titan’s nuclear arsenal on his home world, and eradicated his planet, including his own mother. Mentor and Eros escaped. This origin separated Thanos from the seemingly endless pack of Marvel villains, as he didn’t just threaten devastation and genocide; he pulled it off, and matricide to boot. The origin was so compelling that any comparison to Darkseid was dismissed, instead the focus was on the character’s rich history and the fear he inspired.
Iron Man #55 was chock full of big ideas, that’s for certain, as Starlin jams the introduction of Drax, Thanos, and almost forgotten baddies the Blood Brothers into the issue. This issue introduced Thanos as a Machiavellian threat, a puppet master whose plans are hidden by layers of cunning and intrigue. The specter of Thanos now hung over the Marvel Universe and mentions of the character began to appear in odd places. Thanos was mentioned to Black Widow and Daredevil in the pages of Daredevil and then appeared, in all places, in a back-up story in Marvel’s Logan’s Run adaptation. (Speculator ALERT!)
In the pages of Captain Marvel, Thanos revealed his plan to gain omnipotence and made a play to possess the Cosmic Cube. These issues revealed the complex origins of the Mad Titan and served as the foundation for all future appearances of the character. He continued to be the master manipulator and Starlin and company played up the angle of Thanos as cosmic nihilist. He was in love with Death and obsessed with the idea of oblivion. Marvel artists rendered him in operatic ways, always deep in thought, standing side by side with the hooded figure of his beloved Death, overseeing events that are larger than the heroes or the readers can perceive.
At this point, Starlin and company added a little wrinkle to Thanos. He always left the heroes an opening to defeat him. As the ultimate nihilist, complete victory was undeserved by anyone, so Thanos always led to his own defeat. Thanos’ ego was so big that he loved to toy with his enemies, drawing out their torment to the greatest degree. In the villain’s first major arc (which spanned the pages of Marvel Feature, Captain Marvel, and Avengers) Thanos sent a cadre of minions to take down the heroes as he made his bid for the Cosmic Cube. The Blood Brothers, Super-Skrull, and the Controller were all defeated, but Thanos had many opportunities to destroy either Captain Marvel, or Rick Jones, the young adventurer who had Captain Marvel’s soul trapped within him. Thanos, instead chose to toy with Captain Marvel, allowing Marvel to finally destroy the Cube, sending the defeated Thanos screaming into oblivion.
While not billed as a crossover (this was before they were commonplace), this and Thanos’ subsequent appearances had the feeling more of an event than just a typical comic. The story of Thanos was one of Marvel’s forays away from the original Marvel concepts created by Lee and Kirby. Yes, Lee and Kirby’s creations provided the conflict for Thanos, but his sweeping and majestic back story was something unique. His motivations went beyond simple power grabs as he was a manifestation of complex philosophical beliefs and even more complex self-loathing behaviors. Readers were challenged by a villain who was self-destructive and violent but in calm and controlled ways. Thanos felt like the inevitable end, an oblivion that waited for all of us, and Starlin characterized him as the smile that greeted the end. He was the dark part within all of us that saw the universe as a meaningless mass of chaotic energy that spiraled out of control. The heroes and their engrained altruism served as a perfect counterbalance to Thanos’ hopeless universal viewpoint. One hero in particular stood as a perfect foil to Thanos, a hero that he would forever be associated with: Adam Warlock.
After his defeat and subsequent loss of the godlike power endowed in him by the Cosmic Cube, Thanos’s attention was drawn by Adam Warlock and Warlock’s doppelganger, the evil Mentor. Thanos saw Mentor as a threat to his power and aided Warlock in defeating him by destroying the alternate timeline that spawned Warlock’s double. Already with Warlock was Pip the Troll and Gamora, a deadly assassin already established as Thanos’s adoptive daughter. Gamora added another wrinkle and connection to Thanos’s growingly complex character. A great character spawns ideas that make the fictional universe he resides in richer; Thanos already spawned Eros, Gamora, and Drax. Thanos was not only a villain; he was a fountainhead of story ideas used to bring forth new concepts and characters. The fact that Marvel is soon using Drax and Gamora in the Guardians of the Galaxy film is proof of Thanos’ rich potential. Who knew the random placement of Thanos in Iron Man #55 would yield so much?
The meeting of Thanos and Warlock would yield the greatest Thanos story ever, and one of the most beloved stories in the history of Marvel. Thanos concocted a new plan show his devotion to mistress Death by using the Infinity Gems to power a cannon that would destroy reality (because comics are awesome). Gamora is killed and Pip is lobotomized before they can warn Warlock. Alone, Warlock must turn to the Avengers and Captain Marvel. Warlock was trapped in the Soul gem, but freed by Spider-Man. Warlock turned Thanos to stone before returning to the gem.
Fans didn’t see Thanos again for 25 years, but they remembered him. He became legendary figure of villainy in the Marvel Universe. In the twenty-five years after Warlock turned Thanos to stone, the Mad Titan only appeared once, to guide the soul of the recently deceased Captain Marvel to the afterlife, in the classic graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel. When Thanos appeared, readers knew it was important. He was equated with change and Death, a universal presence that signaled the end or the beginning of something important.
The Infinity Gauntlet is the story that defined Thanos for a legion of new readers. While Infinity Gauntlet was not the first Marvel crossover event, at the time, it was the best. Infinity Gauntlet tells of how Thanos decided to properly show his love for Death by wiping out half the universe. He also succeeds, in unforgettable fashion, in killing almost every Marvel hero. His fight with Captain America lives on in the hearts and minds of all Marvel fans lucky enough to have experienced it. Infinity Gauntlet was a character defining moment that took a villain that was the stuff of legend and brought him back after two decades, and for a time, it had the villain stand victorious.
This was Thanos’s greatest moment, but not his last. Thanos returned in a more heroic role in the Infinity War, where once again he must fight Mentor. Infinity War was also a sales hit and stands as a testament to the mercurial storytelling potential of Thanos, were he makes an equally compelling companion to protagonist Adam Warlock as he does a universal scourge. In the third part of the Infinity Saga, Thanos again plays the role of good guy as he must face off against Warlock’s feminine manifestation, the Goddess, and in a great climax, plays even Mephisto for a fool. Thanos was everywhere now, which took a bit of the edge off the character. Familiarity breeds contempt, particularly in a fickle marketplace.
Marvel was desperately trying to find a place to exploit Thanos’s popularity, and like most ideas from the post-speculator bust, these appearances met with mixed results. Thanos led a team of Secret Defenders for three issues consisting of Rhino, Titanium Man, and Nitro. It’s not clear what threat is too powerful for Thanos but needs Rhino, but the issues are the first in a series of uneven appearance for the Mad Titan. A pretty cool but forgotten team-up with the Heralds of Galactus followed, before Thanos was shunted off into the Infinity Abyss, a series penned by the returning Jim Starlin. The event did not meet the same critical success or sales potential as the original Infinity events, but hardcore fans had the Thanos they loved back, written by the man who created him. Thanos was spun off into his own series, but after low sales and creative disputes that forced Starlin from the company, the book was quickly cancelled.
At this time, all things cosmic were abandoned by Marvel until the right creative voices could be found. This voice was delivered by the writing duo of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and their brainchild, Annihilation. DnA brought Drax and Gamora back into the fold, and in one of the series most shocking moments, Drax finally succeeds in ripping out the heart of Thanos. Annihilation set the standard of what the Marvel cosmic universe would look and feel like. They took the ideas and characters created by Jim Starlin and company and presented them in new ways that rekindled interest in many properties long forgotten. Thanos would return to the fold in Abnett and Lanning's Thanos Imperative, which would be his last comic appearance before his film debut. Brian Michael Bendis then brought Thanos back in the pages of Avengers Assemble post film debut, which set the stage for the next chapter for the character.
Before we conclude, don't forget Thanos traveling to the Ultraverse and merged with DC’s Darkseid in the pages of Green Lantern/ Silver Surfer to become Thanoseid, because one supposes that "Darknos" would have been silly. But these are just trivial bumps in the road compared to a villain that transcended the once accepted definition of what a comic book villain could be.
With Marvel’s next big event, Infinity, promising to include Thanos in a big way, and causal and hardcore fans alike breathlessly awaiting Thanos’s next film appearance, the future is bright for one of Marvel’s most enduring villains, but it may be pretty dark for everyone else if the genocidal cosmic madman has his way.