It’s almost that time, friends and neighbors: Future Biggest Movie of All Time Avengers: Infinity War is right around the corner, and Lewton Bus is celebrating by giving you a solid week of content with INFINITY WEEK. This is all in culmination to our incredible series of articles on the past ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “There Was An Idea…”
But to start things off, Andrew and the estimable Jonathan Hansen thought they’d give the loyal Lewton Bus readers a primer on Thanos and his history in the Marvel Universe. He’s been around since 1973, so this list won’t be exhaustive by any means, but it will hit some highlights and will hopefully inspire some folks to hit up their local comic book store for some of these books!
First Appearance – Iron Man Volume 1, Issue #55
In a sort of beautiful poetry, Thanos makes his first appearance in the Marvel universe in an Iron Man comic, mirroring the beginning of the very Marvel Cinematic Universe which started out with Iron Man in 2008. Thanos isn’t the only new character introduced in this issue. His sworn enemy, Drax the Destroyer, appears, who we all might be a bit more familiar with from the redefining turn given by Dave Bautista in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.
After this spread, we’re introduced to Iron Man getting tuned up by what appears to be two Sesame Street muppets on steroids. Then, thanks to the glory of compressed storytelling, Iron Man ends up on a spaceship and flown hundreds if not thousands of light years away to an alien planet by the end of Page 3. I love old comics.1
Finally, we’re introduced to Thanos, doing two of his favorite activities: insulting someone, and turning nouns into verbs. For now, though, he remains in the shadows. Soon, we learn just how and why Tony Stark has been dragged across the cosmos through a magnificent exposition dump by an imprisoned Drax. We learn all about Thanos’ origins on Saturn’s moon, Titan, and how he couldn’t stand living in a utopia, made weapons, and was exiled for this crime.2 Thanos surrounded himself with a “horde of interstellar malcontents”, attracted by the promise of sacking the universe under his leadership.
In answer to this, Thanos’ father on Titan begged the interstellar cosmic being Kronos for aid. In response, Kronos constructed Drax for the sole purpose of finding and destroying Thanos. This battle eventually destroys Thanos’ army and, indeed, an entire planet. But Thanos proves the stronger, and imprisons Drax, which is where I story then takes us back to that first splendid page. Finally, as Iron Man prepares to break Drax out, we’re introduced to the Mad Titan himself.
If Thanos is giving you serious New Gods vibes, it’s on purpose. When Starlin conceived of Thanos and Drax as characters, he was feeling inspired by Jack Kirby’s latest creation, which had just started coming out a few years before. At first, he saw Thanos more like Metron, chair and all, but editor Roy Thomas wisely gave him the advice to “Beef him up! If you’re going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one!” and Thanos as we know him was born. Well, almost.3
The book ends with Drax and Iron Man escaping and discovering that Thanos has pulled a classic Doctor Doom on them.
Iron Man #55 is an expansive, brisk book that exhibits the considerable talents of Jim Starlin as he got his foot in the door to Marvel Comics. Starlin would go on to practically single handedly created the Marvel Cosmic Universe over the next several decades, and the journey of Thanos would continue as he became an important part of Starlin’s seminal Warlock series.4
But the next book we’ll hit means we’re actually going to skip almost two decades as we jump to the lead-up into the crossover that put Thanos on the map and into the hearts and minds of comic book fans for years since. It’s time to embark on The Thanos Quest!
Road to Infinity Gauntlet – The Thanos Quest
Featuring some of the straight-up best pencil work of all time from master artist Ron Lim, The Thanos Quest is a mind-bending, satisfying science fiction comic book story that reminds you how powerful a medium comics can be. Starlin is in full-tilt mode, using elements from everything he’s created in the Marvel cosmic universe since introducing it to us over the past twenty years in his books.
Thanos Quest features a newly resurrected5 Thanos in thrall to Mistress Death (the physical embodiment of Death in the Marvel Universe, who is a lot less cool than DC’s) and given the mission to carry out her wish: that half the Universe be killed, to restore balance to the cosmos.
Mistress Death doesn’t particularly care how Thanos goes about doing this. His endless devotion to her as well as his penchant for genocide and ultra-violence simply make him the best possible means of implementing this idea. But Thanos is more than just muscle; he is and always has been a tactician first and a bruiser second. Sure, Thanos could just start a’murderin’ and blowing up planets, but this would take hundreds if not thousands of years to accomplish. So instead he concocts a plan to collect what he soon decides to call the Infinity Gems,6 for once they are all collected, they will grant you power over all creation.
In the same way a deep part of our lizard brain loves watching the bad guy pull off their schemes in Richard III and House of Cards, it is a joy watching Thanos pull one over on some of the most powerful (and pretentious) beings in the universe.
Many of the so-called Elders of the Universe7 are owners of the soul gems, though none of them make use of the powers trapped within. Thanos pushes himself through incredible challenges to achieve his ends, all realized fantastically by Ron Lim’s art.
The Thanos Quest is comics of the highest caliber. Not only does the book do a fantastic job setting the stage for Infinity Gauntlet, it establishes Thanos as a fascinating and dangerous opponent for the entire universe. In Starlin’s hands, Thanos is an old school Shakespearean monologuing villain, and he’s never better than here, in a story where he’s the protagonist.
The Russo Brothers have stated that Thanos is basically the main character in Infinity War, and that it will feel like a heist film from his perspective. Given that this hews closely to the structure of The Thanos Quest, it’s almost assured that this comic played a huge role in whatever the Russos have planned for the MCU.
The Big One – The Infinity Gauntlet
This is the big daddy of Thanos stories. It’s crazy. It’s fun. It’s wild. It’s ridiculously epic—I mean, at one point, Thanos punches out Eternity, a cosmic being who is literally the “actual embodiment of all there is,” so yeah… it’s ridiculously epic. It’s a classic amongst classics. This was one of the first big special events for Marvel, and it delivered big moments, shocking deaths, and wild twists, left and right. The fans loved it. It was a huge success. Part of this success is because it’s a good story, well-written, and with great art. Another reason, knowing fandom as I do, is because Marvel wiped out all of those big moments, shocking deaths, and wild twists with the same ease that Thanos kills half the galaxy, and all before the story was even done. No harm. No foul. Status Quo restored, easy-peesy lemon-squeezey.
Lack of long term consequences aside, this is a famous story, and from the look of the trailer, it’s probably the one providing the most DNA to the upcoming Infinity War(s) movie. Which is why I re-read it. And upon finishing, I had three big takeaways/
The first is… Wow, this book really illustrates just how long ago 1991 was. 27 years! Holy crap, that’s a punch to the junk. 27 years, and believe me, you can see it on the page. This isn’t a bad thing, but damn… whenever you return to a book this old, it’s always readily apparent just how much comics have evolved over the years, not just in art and narrative styles either, but in coloring and printing techniques too.
So, there’s that.
Secondly, reading this story really reminded me of what a blank slate Iron Man used to be as a character. The core of him has always been pretty much what we all saw in the first movie. He’s a rich inventor and a “ladies man” except, until fairly recently, it was without all of the color and personality we have now. For decades, he was more of a bland “not peeing in jars and regularly clipping his toenails” Howard Hughes type, like an unironic version of Jonas Venture. In fact, one brief (and as it turned out, character-defining) bout of alcoholism aside, he was mostly your basic Action Man type, a perennial team player, an also-ran d-tier character. The only thing that really differentiated him from the other generic Action Men types out there, in their generic Action Man turtlenecks and blazers, was his sweet-ass mustache. This is much different from how things are now.
In the Infinity Gauntlet story, we never see Tony’s face. Not once. He’s in full armor the whole time, and when he refers to himself, he calls himself Iron Man.8 He barely has any lines to speak of, and the few he does are either generic exclamations, or the obligatory anguished thought bubble. His one “character moment” is a single line of vague flirting with Gamora. Even more strange, he’s not involved in any of the planning. Sure, this is a huge event cross-over comic, and there’s only so much spotlight an individual character can reasonably expect with such a huge crisis and so many characters involved, but still, can you imagine Tony Stark not being at the center of one of these things now?
For me, seeing the character like this, remembering that this is how he always used to be, really highlighted the fact that it wasn’t until Mark Millar launched the Ultimates in 2002, that we actually got to see the arrogant, self-destructive Tony Stark for the first time. It wasn’t until 2004, when Brian Michael Bendis wrote Avengers Dissembled, that we really got the headstrong, anti-authoritarian leader Tony Stark, not to mention the whole “Tony’s face inside the helmet” POV, too. And it wasn’t until Warren Ellis wrote Iron Man Extremis in 2005 that we got the focused-to-the-point-of-obsession Futurist Tony Stark. Even then, we still had to wait until the first Iron Man movie in 2008, when Robert Downey, Jr. took all of those other pieces and gave it his own twist, that we finally got the Tony Stark we all know and love today.
Although, your mileage may vary on the whole “love” part…
My point is, because of all this, it’s a pretty strange experience to see the character treated like such an afterthought, especially when he’s killed by a minor henchman in the background of a pair of panels, his head torn from his body Jango Fett style.
Later, Spider-Man is beat to death by a rock, and legend has it that it was originally supposed to be Iron Man’s head, but apparently that was nixed because it was “too dark”.
Finally, my third takeaway is that Thanos’ whole motivation is ridiculous and fantastic. In a nutshell, everything Thanos does in The Infinity Gauntlet, he does because he wants to impress his one true love, Lady Death, the female personification of the concept of Death.
You heard me.
Lady Death usually presents herself as a skeleton with boobs in hooded purple robes. I know that sounds weird, but for real, her thigh gap is to die for, people. Don’t be jealous. To make it less weird, part way through the story, without any explanation, she becomes a white lady with Michelle Bachmann-esque crazy eyes. So, deal with that. Is it also weird that Thanos is in love with the female personification of a concept? The story goes like this: one day, Thanos sees Lady Death and instantly begins to sing “Lady” by Kenny Rogers, and so he decides to gather the Infinity Stones, bedazzle a giant yellow glove with them, and then use them to murder half of the galaxy, because girls like go-getters.
Too bad for our boy Thanos that Lady Death can’t fucking stand him.
You’d almost feel bad for him, but he’s Space Stalin, so, y’know, screw that guy.
Anyway, Thanos spends the whole first half of the miniseries just working his ass off to impress Lady Death, and she’s not having any of it. Basically, Thanos, Death, and the Devil are all standing on this rock-platform/space-porch that’s floating in space in the middle of nowhere, and Thanos has decorated the thing with huge stone carvings of Lady Death’s face—both the crazy-eyed white lady and skull version—and he looks over for approval, and Lady Death is just like, scrolling through her phone. “Hey, Lady Death! Hey, Lady Death! Look what I can do!” Thanos says, and he turns Nebula into a twisted, brain-dead zombie. “Hey, Lady Death! …Lady Death. Lady Death, look! Look, Lady Death! You’re not looking!” and Lady Death sighs and turns away. Thanos does a Furiosa cry to the Heavens. “Why won’t you love me?” He gets no answer from her, other than crazy Michelle Bachmann eyes. Undeterred, Thanos comes back with, “Check this shit out!” and he ties Starfox into knots, “Taa daa!” but Lady Death just rolls her eyes. Desperate, Thanos kills half the galaxy with a snap of his fingers, and turns to her, “Eh?” he says, nodding, feeling cocky, gesturing around, “What do you think of that shit? You like all that death, right?” But Lady Death is more interested in her nails. “Aarghh!” Thanos screams, throwing himself down onto his bed, sobbing angrily.
Wiping his tears, Thanos then reveals that his favorite movie is Pretty in Pink, by creating Terraxia out of thin air. He loudly proclaims her to be his perfect woman, a female version of himself with “Here I go again” by Whitesnake hair, and notably, no Jay Leno chin. He then pulls a Duckie Dale. “You’ve been replaced, Lady Death!” he yells, Terraxia clinging to him and cooing as they tongue-kiss like Jennifer Gray and Charlie Sheen in the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
But the whole time, Thanos is watching Lady Death over Terraxia’s shoulder. Lady Death just turns away, unimpressed. And it is at this moment we realize even a cold-blooded, murderous space-bastard like Thanos knows what love is, because his heart is breaking.
It’s fantastic. I love it.
It’s also ridiculous. I mean, the biggest bad guy in the galaxy is on a rampage because the female personification of the concept of Death is friend-zoning him. Does it fit that a huge bad guy would be a creepy stalker asshole, yes. Is that what was intended? I’m sure, but this type of behavior rightly carries different, and much more deadly, connotations in today’s world, then it did when it was originally written, so that makes it a little weirdly uncomfortable. It’s also silly. You can’t respect a bad guy like that.
So, I guess I’m glad they’re changing his motivation for the film, because otherwise they’d have to call it Avengers: Infinity Trilby.
Thanos in the 21st Century – Thanos Rising
By 2013, everyone knew Thanos was on his way in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so Marvel Comics rushed to put out some Thanos-centric projects in order to raise his profile, and this was one of them: the story of how Thanos became Thanos.
It starts with Thanos being born. He’s so ugly, his mom tries to kill him.
That’s a great beginning, but it’s also kind of the peak moment of the book, at least as far as surprising backstory reveals go.
I’m a big fan of Jason Aaron’s stuff. I love Southern Bastards. I really love his Thor. I’m going to pick up his Avengers. He’s great, but this one isn’t one of my favorites of his. There’s a lot telling and not a lot of showing. Maybe that’s because it’s only five issues, but even when you’re taking this into account, you’re still left with a pretty familiar tale. Meanwhile, Simone Bianchi is an artist whose work I find brilliant at one turn and muddled and unclear at another, and for me, inconsistent art like just that makes for a difficult read.
In a nutshell, these guys have nothing on Starlin and Perez and Lim, but… maybe that’s an unfair comparison.
All of that aside, this book’s biggest sin is a common one when it comes to prequels. It asks a lot of questions. Did Thanos love his Mom? How did Thanos get his blasters? Why is Thanos’ chin purple? How did he first meet Lady Death? Unfortunately for us, the answers to these questions just aren’t that interesting. Plus, like most prequels, the characters automatically fall into one of two categories: do we already know them, or are they brand new? 90% of the time, the answer to that question tells you whether or not the character survives the story. In Thanos Rising, other than Thanos, pretty much every other character is brand new. Spoiler: they all eat it, mostly by Thanos’ hand. Because he’s evil, y’see. He’s so evil, he kills his own Mom. So evil. Did I mention there’s a little bit of Edgy-Try-Hard going on here too? Because there is. In the end, the problem with this story is that it’s a five issue long prequel that covers… hmmm… let’s say… the first thirty years of Thanos’ life. That’s a lot of 2-D characters for Thanos to butcher in a short amount of space.
This makes it really hard to build up any empathy.
This isn’t a book I’d recommend. It’s not a bad book. In fact, it’s well-written and well-drawn, for the most part. It’s just slow and uninspired, and really unexciting. Maybe the same story with a little more room to breathe would be better? Maybe? Or maybe, like most prequels, this is just a story that doesn’t really need to be told.
Thanos Strikes Back – Infinity
Infinity is a fascinating and disparate book on this list in that it has the least to do with the Infinity Gems and Thanos out of all of them. An event book by Jonathan Hickman that he spread over his two ongoing Avengers books at the time as well as the miniseries Infinity, the book is massive in scope and execution, with Avengers fighting all over the known universe against an unstoppable threat to all life while Thanos takes advantage of an Earth bereft of its Avengers to invade and kill off one of the last of his children residing there.
Infinity, in the context of Hickman’s massive and engrossing run at Marvel (starting with his seminal fun on Fantastic Four and culminating with Secret Wars) feels almost like a pit stop, despite the huge events that transpire. A perfunctory event book made to boost sales while furthering his own labyrinthine plot. Hickman does his best to add stakes and great moments to the book (and there are great moments) but it’s clear that he’s less interested in creating an event for Marvel than he is in his own machinations. He even has a character at the end of the whole shebang laugh off the event as completely unimportant in the context of the larger threat facing the 616-verse (introduced in Issue #1 of his New Avengers).
Why include it, then, do you ask? Well it has some pretty big elements that are a must for MCU fans wanting to know the origins of a lot of the characters and ideas that are coming in to play in Infinity War, most importantly…
The Black Order. The Cull Obsidian. Thanos’ Dreadlords and most depraved and powerful followers.
If Thanos isn’t teaming up with Adam Warlock or a small, concentrated team of Cosmic beings, he’s usually a solo act. Giving him back that army of thieves and killers that he had in his first appearance (see above!) is a fun idea, and giving him the Black Order to execute his will is even more entertaining. Thanos is a basically unstoppable being, having often only been stymied in the past but rarely full-out beaten. But no evil boss character is really fit without some minibosses to throw down with. Giving him generals to go out and fight with the denizens of the Marvel comics universe leads to some great battles between the likes of the X-men and Corvus Glaive, the Black Dwarf and Black Panther, and Ebony Maw and Dr. Strange.
You might recognize some of those folks from promotional materials for Infinity War, albeit with some differences. Corvus Glaive, Proxima Midnight, and Ebony Maw are all present and presumably accounted for in their full glory, but Black Dwarf has received a name change (in the film he will be known as Cull Obsidian, which was originally another name for the group), and Supergiant is nowhere to be seen. That’s okay, since Supergiant is pretty boring, all things considered. Her powers are telepathy-based, and while this is mildly interesting, it’s probably too close to the Scarlet Witch’s abilities showcased in Age of Ultron to be considered of use in Infinity War. Not to mention that Ebony Maw has his own manipulative abilities that are far more sinister and therefore more interesting.
Corvus Glaive is the leader of the Order, and Thanos’ most vile follower. He’s incredibly powerful and adept at fighting, but perhaps his most dangerous weapon is the powerful glaive that gives him his name and endows him with immortality when he holds it in his hands. Also? It can cut through atoms if he so chooses. Corvus is not someone to be trifled with.
His wife even less so. The fiercest hand-to-hand combatant in the Black Order, Proxima Midnight delights in violence and torture on an unprecedented level. Her most potent abilities include energy lances that can poison, kill, and even drive The Hulk to revert to Bruce Banner.
That charge in Wakanda might look familiar…
Black Dwarf, despite being incredibly powerful, is actually the least of the Black Order. He’s the dumb muscle, in essence. The bruiser sent in to break things when finesse isn’t called for. In Infinity, Black Dwarf is charged with attacking Wakanda as Thanos has his generals execute simultaneous attacks looking for an Infinity Stone and Thanos searches for his last son. Wakanda is the only country to repel the invaders9 or does so, initially. After Black Dwarf is bested by T’Challa and Shuri, he returns in shame to Thanos, who beats him for his failure. Thanos would probably leave Wakanda well enough alone after that, but due to the machinations of Prince Namor, Proxima Midnight and the full brunt of Thanos’ army is brought to bear on Wakanda, and for the first time in the country’s history, the Golden City is breached by an invading army. It only took some of the most powerful beings in the Marvel universe to do it!
Finally there is Ebony Maw. He is not a physical threat, like the rest of the Order are, he is a wordsmith. He spins webs of lies and manipulations that can coerce even the most powerful beings in the universe. Thanos, no lover of deception (he’s cunning but is almost always blunt) puts up with Ebony Maw for the sole reason that he is loyal and always produces results where his other generals might fall short. Despite the overwhelming physical power of the rest of the Black Order, Ebony Maw might be the most dangerous member.
The rest of Infinity is concerned with a massive fleet cutting a swath through the galaxy on it’s way to earth made up of universe-ending beings known as Builders. These builders are attempting to curtail the end of the multiverse10 by destroying Earth, the center point of this multiuniversal destruction. It’s a story on the scale of an Grant Morrison epic, closest in ilk to the “World War III” arc from his JLA run.
It’s difficult to recommend reading Infinity on its own. Without the context of the first half of Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers run, the story will feel half-complete. It’s both hugely important to those ongoing stories as well as in it’s effect on the rest of the Marvel comics universe, but on its own, it isn’t a must-read. Dive in if you’re interested in learning more about the Black Order as well as seeing what other pieces the MCU bullpen pulled from to create Infinity War,11 But otherwise, start from the beginning of Hickman’s Marvel work to get the full effect. It’s definitely worth it.
We hope you enjoyed checking out our list of touchstone Thanos comics from his 40+ year history in the Marvel Universe! Believe us, we barely scratched the surface. Jim Starlin continued to use Thanos for years after his epic Infinity Gauntlet and even had another huge event not long after, the outstanding Infinity War (hey, that sounds familiar…) which somehow manages to be even MORE batshit crazy than Gauntlet was.
Let us know what you thought of the list and if you have any questions or recommendations of your own, let us know in the comments! And enjoy Avengers: Infinity War, in theaters this week!
- Marvel heroes used to stop by space all the time. In Daredevil’s third ever issue, he fights Electro and is forced to use his powers to fly a rocket ship around the Moon and back to Earth. You can keep your self-serious Frank Miller DD, friends. I like mine flying rocket ships!
- None of this is going to be relevant to Movie Thanos, I imagine
- Spoiler: Tainted by his encounter with an Earth-man, Thanos discovers the joy of pants.
- For MCU fans, the titular character of that series, Adam Warlock, has made a kind-of appearance in the MCU… the final GotG Vol. 2 stinger features his birthing chamber!
- It’s a long story.
- The first ever gem introduced was the Soul Gem, which was an important part of Starlin’s previous book, Warlock. From there, the other “Soul Gems” were introduced, but Starlin basically decides to retcon his own idea in Thanos Quest to streamline what they’re called.
- Including two familiar faces from the MCU, the Collector and the Grandmaster.
- Back in those days, Iron Man was still portraying himself as “Tony Stark’s bodyguard” rather than the man himself! -Ed.
- as it did the Skrull attack during Secret Invasion
- A very long story that runs throughout all of Hickman’s Marvel work.
- I believe that Infinity and Infinity Gauntlet are the two biggest stories that the writers and directors pulled from, but we’ll see!