Monday, April 15, 2013

SIR

Thanos Rising #1

Marvel made a mistake by allowing Thanos to be positioned as their "big bad" for the next cycle of movies. I like Thanos as much as the next guy (probably a lot more) but after Thanos they don't really have a lot of places left to go, do they? I'd prefer - on a purely fanboy level, mind you, I hardly have a dog in this hunt - if they had gone with Ultron, simply because Ultron is such a wonderfully simple high concept that it would be impossible to screw up. Thanos, on the other hand, they will almost certainly get wrong, and once the Avengers save the universe it doesn't leave them with many places to go in future movies.

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.




15 comments :

Eric said...

I rarely comment on blogs but I just wanted to acknowledge that I really enjoyed reading this. My own experience with Thanos largely begins and ends with The Infinity Gauntlet as I'm not really a huge fan of Cosmic storylines however this has convinced me to at least hunt down Starlin's run and give that a shot. thanks!

Brad Reed said...

The metaphor was lost even earlier with his brother, Eros. Ol' Eros has never been much of a character. It speaks a great deal about comic book creators' ideas that while Mr. Stony Faced Death Urge is a major character while Mr. Winning Smile Life Urge is a D-lister with a date-rapey undercurrent.

moose n squirrel said...

Thanks for writing this. Every word of this is right - from the point about the distinctions between Thanos and Darkseid (anyone who dismisses Thanos as a Darkseid knockoff has never read a Starlin-written Thanos comic) to the point that "cosmic" stories aren't some genre-by-numbers exercise but an exploration of inner space as much as outer space. So few mainstream creators after Kirby, Ditko and Starlin seem to have failed to understand the appeal of their stories, and only managed to produce groanworthy, overly literal interpretations of them (I know you have a lot more tolerance for the Abnett and Lanning post-Anniliation run on Guardians, but I just found it to be tedious and dull).

moose n squirrel said...

And to continue - I think in a way that Thanos as a character has been ill-served by being entirely defined by "The Infinity Gauntlet," and in particular by the bizarre misperception of that story as a sort of blockbuster crossover full of superhero pyrotechnics where the Avengers fight a super-powered baddie and take him down. "Gauntlet" was, in typically Starlinesque fashion, a wonderfully trippy headpiece filled with psychedelic imagery and bizarre reality-warping dreamscapes - and, also typical of Starlin, it dispenses with its big-name superheroes in an almost hilariously brusque fashion, with the omnipotent Thanos bumping off the laughably ineffectual remains of Earth's Mightiest Heroes in increasingly morbid and creative ways, like a little kid pulling the legs off a bug. Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Wolverine (memorably dispatched by having his bones turned to rubber!) are of far less import to the story than the Silver Surfer and Doctor Strange (to say nothing of Adam Warlock), and the whole thing is really a story about what happens when a universe-conquering villain finally conquers the universe, only to realize that even that will never make him happy.

"Gauntlet" really is the culmination of Starlin's work on Thanos as a character (he really could have left him retired as a farmer on that planet, and if we never saw him again, it would kind of been perfect), but that's just the end or climax of who Thanos is - it's not the entire story. Marvel, by trotting him out as a rote glowering supervillain for their next chain of blockbusters - and bringing him back in a crossover in which he's apparently going after the Infinity gems again, because that's the only thing their current writers and editors remember or care about him - show how little they understand the character, and how little they understand the old stories they're currently trying to exploit.

Matt Maxwell said...

Thanks for writing this, Tim. Hits its points perfectly, and reveals why we're not likely to get another anything like WARLOCK out of Marvel again.

J said...

Now I want to read Warlock again. Does the Masterwork have the entire run in a single hardcover?

Also, has anyone read that Avengers vs. Thanos trade Marvel just put out? It appears to be all Starlin stories. I've never read the pre-Warlock Starlin Thanos stories.

Matt Maxwell said...

You can get them all in the ESSENTIALS volume, but B/W lineart only. Need to get that color Masterworks sometime.

Brad Reed said...

The Essential Warlock volume also contains the full run of Warlock's earlier incarnation, when Roy Thomas was inspired by "Jesus Christ, Superstar" to create "Jesus Christ, Superhero." They're (pardon the pun) godawful, but they're an interesting artifact of a strange time.

Matt Maxwell said...

Yeah, those are kind of a bonus. Very strange comics, unimaginably so for today, but fairly routine occurrences in the early 70s. It's like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR for comics with some PREZ and FLASH GORDON thrown in. Interesting but hardly essential.

Peter said...

While Marvel might never use Thanos in an interesting fashion ever again and continue to default to these kinds of derivative paint-by-numbers exercises, I actually have higher hopes for the movie incarnation. The grand cosmic metaphors, the self-obsessed venality of evil, a quixotic foe, these are right in Joss Whedon's wheelhouse. Look how he conceived of Loki; remember his greatest arch-villain in Buffy, the Mayor; Thanos is exactly the kind of villain he knows how to use right.

Person of Con said...

"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."
So I'm guessing you WON'T be buying Bendis' Guardians of the Galaxy?

moose n squirrel said...

You like how he conceived of Loki? How did he conceive of Loki, exactly? He was pretty dull and by the numbers.

And I've no confidence at all that Whedon understands the appeal of Thanos or can translate it to screen. Most Whedon villains spend their time doing what most Whedon characters doing - quipping and mugging for the screen, before quipping some more. One gets the impression that they're only villains because they want the screen time.

Peter said...

He made Loki venal, self-obsessed, and fundamentally thoughtless. His Lok was masterfully clever, but fundamentally short-sighted, and driven by sheer ego, without any concern for anything past his own self-glorification. To the point where his regard for his own intelligence prompts him to set in motion a grand design over which he could never even have hoped to exercise control. That you'd call this dull and by the numbers has me wondering if maybe you went into a popcorn induced food coma and just slept through most of the movie?


As to your comments on the variety and depth of Whedon's villain's... well there's little accounting for taste or the lack of it. You call it "quipping and mugging for the camera" I call it "clever, original, and entertaining dialogue." But saying he doesn't create complex, well realized, and varied villains is fairly ridiculous. His rather brilliant body of work is overstuffed with interesting and unique takes on the type and always as fully realized and frequently sympathetic characters: The Master, Angelus, Spike and Drusilla, The Mayor and Faith, Wolfram and Hart, Jasmine, whatever the hell that company is called in Cabin in the Woods.


I actually don't think you could find a BETTER choice to bring Thanos to the screen than someone both familiar with the character, his world, and this much skill at bringing exactly that kind of character to life.

Timothy O'Neil said...

Regarding Loki - I don't know if you can really blame Whedon exclusively since they defined Loki and the Asgardian mythos in another movie. But I was seriously disappointed by the way they took Stan & Jack & Walt's great scheming sorcerer and turned him into a petulant twenty-something who shoots bolts of energy from his hands. Sure, he's good at talking and being duplicitous - that at least was in line with the Loki we know - but in terms of what he can do the picture we got was massively banal. It doesn't give me a lot of hope for their inevitable Dr Strange movie if the best kind of magic we can get is energy bolts and light shows. It also doesn't help that the actor they picked for Loki - while a good actor, no doubt - is considerably younger (and therefore significantly less imposing) than the Loki we know and love.

I am moderately hopeful that the new Thor movie might be better in this regard since it's heading in a hard fantasy direction, and the choice of Malekith as the villain will force them away from the "super sciencey" view of Asgard.

moose n squirrel said...

I'm completely dreading the Dr. Strange movie. I've no faith whatsoever that anyone interested in cranking out another zillion-dollar blockbuster will understand, or even be interested in understanding, what made the original stories work so well back during the Ditko/Lee years.