Thanos Rising #1
This comic is a fantastic example of "getting it wrong." Thanos isn't a character who gains anything from high-concept streamlining. Thanos is complicated. On paper it's easy to dismiss him based on the fact that he was specifically designed to ape the look of Kirby's Darkseid. He's another giant cosmic demigod with a gravel face who wants to conquer the universe. Except . . . he's not, not really. Similarities stop at the superficial level. I will posit - and this is not an uncontroversial assertion, I recognize - that Thanos is a far more interesting "character" than Darkseid. By which I mean, Darkseid really isn't much of a character. When he created the New Gods Kirby was working on a level of elevated and stylized iconography: Darkseid was his name, he was the "dark side," the forces of war and ignorance and fascism incarnated in the body of a shrewd, calculating, and even occasionally droll tyrant. He's a fantastic villain, but not a particularly deep character. I don't believe he was really meant to be.
Thanos, on the other hand, is a far more ambiguous symbol. If Darkseid stands in as a metaphor for a locus of multiple dangerous and terrifying grand historical concepts, Thanos embodies something far more intimate. Thanos is a surly adolescent, forever constrained by the limitations of his Oedipal obsessions, fixated on the concept of death and defined therefore by a strange mixture of curiosity and lust. Darkseid is a fantastic villain precisely because he is so resolutely petty - he rules an entire world with ironclad discipline, embodying everything fearful in political and ideological repression. Other people matter to him on a profound level because domination matters as a goal for Darkseid in and of itself. Conversely, Thanos could not care less about domination, although he is often styled as a "conqueror." He has shown little interest in ruling the universe. He is not a tyrant, he is - or at least, he envisions himself to be, a capital-R Romantic in the vein of a Shelley or a Keats. Even when he wielded the Infinity Gauntlet and was, for all intents and purposes, the literal ruler of the universe, he didn't give one iota's thought to ruling or dominating the untold trillions of lives under his control. Rather, he was concerned with his own private passions, a slave to his emotions, unable to transcend the limitations of his self-obsession. He cared about being able to assert his own will with impunity, to live without restrictions, and to gain recognition from the object of his erotic fixation.
Jim Starlin's run on Warlock in the mid-70s are some of my all-time favorite comics. I've bought those stories a few times over the years, most recently in a handsome Marvel Masterworks hardcover. I know them by heart. And I love Thanos for the way he intrudes himself into Adam Warlock's story. Warlock, facing his evil twin, is placed in a hopeless situation, with the knowledge that his eventual turn to evil is completely inevitable, and that there is no way he can possibly defeat his older, wiser, and far more powerful doppelgänger. Thanos inserts himself into the story to disrupt the Magus' plans, not from any benevolent impulse, but out of a practical desire to stymie the Magus - he would prefer not to live in a universe ruled by the Magus, as simple as that. He is the consummate egoist. Literally nothing that exists outside his own life is legitimate or even legible to him. He is obsessed with death because death is the sensation of transcendent absence. If Darkseid is Foucault - motivated by domination and carceral reasoning, surrounded by literal Sadists in a world where every act of violence has been sexualized and ritualized - Thanos is Derrida, transfixed by unseen and unrevealed lacunae, motivated by a curiosity to see between and to dismantle the binaries of life and death and discover that which lies hidden between. Nothing is real to him except for himself and his own negation - death - so is it any wonder that his motivations themselves are shrouded in shades of grey? That's the only conceptual realm in which he can reside, even as he sets out to create a universe in which his inescapable solipsism is the only law, and his spirit will become indistinguishable from the spirit of death.
These are the kinds of ideas which can really only exist in the fragile pages of an almost-canceled comic book starring a completely obscure character. If Marvel had known just how much money they were going to (eventually) make off Adam Warlock and Thanos, there's no way that they would have let Starlin write such densely weird stories with the characters. But then, if Starlin hadn't been given more or less free reign to produce his stories, no one would care, and Thanos - if there had been a Thanos at all - would have been yet another cosmic potentate, a Kanjar Ro, a Mongul. This is comics' paradox in the era of big money: at the heart of every successful character there lies a unique and idiosyncratic vision (sometimes multiple visions), and these visions must be effaced if the characters are to achieve their potential as lucrative entertainment properties - even if it is inescapable that these idiosyncratic visions will always remain the source of the characters' appeal. Spider-Man had already been so thoroughly pasteurized by generations of talented creators that he was an apotheosis of his own iconic potential long before he set foot on movie screens. Same with Batman, and Superman as well. Thanos, however, is a far more fragile proposition. There is a reason why every attempt at using Thanos by anyone besides Starlin has always seemed slightly off. Thanos is the product of the distinctive worldview of a highly idiosyncratic creator. You can try to synthesize what makes him unique by listing Starlin's own ingredients - a little bit of the 60s counterculture, replete with a dash of Eastern mysticism and New Age Carlos Castaneda-isms; a strict Catholic upbringing seasoned by sexual conflict and morbid fascinations; the heavy influence of military service in Vietnam and subsequent disillusionment. Kirby served in World War II so it should come as no surprise that his cosmology was essentially Manichean: he didn't glamorize war, but he presented a world where the inevitability of war was the greatest tragedy, and one in which the unbending strength of evil remains the greatest threat. Starlin fought in Vietnam, and therefore his signature villain is a nihilist, someone who will go far to avoid a fight he judges to be unproductive, but who will turn and fight to the death for no reason greater than his own personal edification and self-regard. (There's a great bit in the otherwise forgettable "Blood and Thunder" crossover where Thanos goes to Asgard and ends up in a fight with Odin not because he needs to fight Odin - rather, he needs Odin's help - but because he wants to prove he can kick Odin's ass.)
Jason Aaron is not the man to bring forth the hidden facets of Thanos' character. When presented with such a rich and conceptually heavy figure, he gives us the standard narrative of a sociopathic youth. Let's back up and think about the fact that not merely is Thanos a rich character, but his milieu is even more interesting: he is a mutant born in a society of gods, the son of the ruler of the Titanian Eternals. (Thanos and his race of Titans were created in 1973, three years before Kirby introduced the Eternals to Marvel, and later retconned into being an offshoot of the Earth Eternals.) Thanos hails from a race of supermen who have built a technological Utopia in a moon of Saturn. The best Aaron can imagine to do with this setting and this backstory is to give us the story of Lil' Thanos as a burgeoning serial killer. I don't necessarily blame Aaron: he is a competent writer who is resolutely hamstrung by a severe lack of imagination. He doesn't strike me as someone who has done much in the way of serious reading, because all of his storytelling touchstones appear to be other comics or movies or popular fiction. This actually works to his advantage in telling the stories of a character like Wolverine, because Wolverine is himself such a pastiche of received modes of hard-boiled mens's adventure, action, and noir storytelling that his best stories usually function themselves on the level of high pastiche. But Thanos isn't Wolverine, and writing an overly-literal interpretation of Thanos' childhood and development is one of the most fantastic examples of a creator completely missing the point that I have ever seen. I don't doubt that Aaron knows a fair bit about criminals and sociopaths, but that is hardly to the story's favor. We don't need to read a psychological thriller about a young murderer-in-training, we need to see gods and monsters whose every thought and deed is dripping with metaphor.
That's what cosmic is all about. Cosmic isn't about telling crime stories or action stories or thrillers in an exotic setting. Cosmic is about heightened reality, a form of storytelling defined by the absence of familiar referents, riven with symbolism, and steeped in fanciful mythology. Kirby got that, and he helped create the very idea of cosmic storytelling in comics because he understood that one of the best ways to tell "real" stories in childrens' comics was to put those stories into outer space and other worlds, and thereby to make them about everything that they couldn't be about if the stories had been stuck on the planet Earth. Starlin understood this too - in fact, he devoted much of his career to developing fantasy in comics as a springboard with which to talk about all the weird stuff in his own psyche. Jason Aaron isn't much of a fantasist. Thanos Rising is a story about Thanos, yes, but it's not a very good one: it's a very mundane story about a young killer such as you have probably seen and read many times before. Aaron would probably point to its familiarity as a feature, with the observation that the ways in which sociopaths grow up are often very similar, and that the most truly unsettling facet of these narratives are the ways in which the characters transform under the influence of their banal context to become monsters. (See Derf Backderf's My Friend Dahmer for a perfect distillation of this principle in action.)
This is all well and good, and certainly, the outlines of Thanos' story were all put there by Starlin. But Starlin knew better than to dwell on the sordid details of Thanos' upbringing: he wasn't a real character, after all, he was a metaphor. I know I said above that Thanos was a more interesting character than Darkseid - well, guess what, I lied. Neither of them are real "characters." They're lines on paper. They're symbols. Darkseid is a rich metaphor, as is Thanos. I think Thanos is a tad richer for the simple reason that, because the baseline of his character is so steeped in adolescent angst, he can always be placed in the position of needing to grow up in some manner - as we saw throughout the 90s, after the Infinity Gauntlet, when Thanos was left to his own devices without an overriding need to dominate the universe, and became almost a kind of pilgrim. Keith Giffen wrote perhaps the best non-Starlin Thanos when he picked up on this aspect of Thanos' behavior following Starlin's own short-lived return to the character in the early 00s. The point is, there are so many interesting things that you can do with this guy, and telling the story of how he was born and became a child serial killer is probably the least interesting of all possible options.
But then, as I said, we can't blame Jason Aaron. He was given the opportunity of writing a story that would be poised as the character's introduction to the wider world of non-comics readers. In a year and a half when the Guardians of the Galaxy movie hits theaters you are going to be able to walk into your local Barnes & Noble and find a table of Guardians of the Galaxy paperbacks and hardcovers for sale. One of those will be Thanos Rising. The book will still be on sale the following summer when Avengers 2 hits theaters. I am certain that this is exactly what Marvel wants: a nice, simple story intended to summarize a complicated character in advance of his spotlight turn. The problem is that what we are left with does little to illuminate the character's most fascinating and complex facets. It does not bode well for Marvel's ability to give us a cinematic Thanos who bears more than a cosmetic resemblance to the real deal.