I have a mixed relationship with Thanos.
I’m not particularly a huge fan of the character; but, at the same time, Thanos-related material usually signifies broader effects for the Marvel Universe – which means I feel compelled to keep track of what’s going on with the Mad Titan.
My main problem with Thanos is that he’s a tired, shop-worn villain by now, lacking menace or any real interesting dimension. Half the time he feels like a lumbering, over-powered figure fumbling from one evil scheme to the next.
On the other hand, a lot of the mythology around Thanos over the years is where the real interest is: and that’s one good reason to read Thanos material.
That rule applies pretty well to these opening issues of this Thanos title, written by Jeff Lemire.
Because a book about Thanos also becomes a book about all kinds of characters related to Thanos.
In Thanos #1, we get a welcome return of Starfox, for one thing. In fairness, however, Thanos #1 is a very good Thanos book too, which presents an interesting premise and initiates what might be the most interesting character study of the Mad Titan we’ve seen in a long time.
Thanos, we learn from his son Thane, is dying. That sets this series up on an interesting footing. Moreover, Thane and others are aware of Thanos’s condition and have hatched a plot to kill him, which is why Starfox is brought into things here.
As such, there’s a vibe here of a tyrant approaching the end of his reign and knowing that everyone is out to get him in his moment of weakness – something that evokes historical allusions (Herod, for example) or even more contemporary ones.
There is a palpable sense, particularly in the first few scenes, of Thanos being very paranoid and of everyone either turning against him or trying to undermine his authority.
The best part of this issue is at the beginning; where we see Thanos seeking out Corvius Glave in the Black Quadrant, essentially to take back a throne he has had usurped from him. This is a particularly grim sequence, really conveying Thanos’s brutal, unforgiving nature.
Jeff Lemire also does a very good job of scene setting and exposition, so that we really get a taste and sense of where we are and what we’re dealing with. It is grim and evocative; a situation devoid of Good Guys, but simpy evil versus evil in a power struggle.
Mike Deodato and Frank Martin’s cover for Thanos #2 is terrific, striking a potent chord – I’m not sure whether it’s the tongue-in-cheek vibe to the image or a more serious, poetic resonance, but something about it made me both smile and take notice.
It’s also an iconic image/theme from past Thanos mythology, of course (also referenced very nicely in the Avengers: Infinity War movie). The sight of Thanos in an Eden- like setting, playing with a butterfly, is both a total inversion of everything Thanos represents as a character *and* a kind of reflective, end-of-life, nature-loving vibe that fits the idea of the dying man. I love the cover – that’s basically what I’m saying.
Seeing the Titan track down his own father, Mentor, and mercilessly kill him is pretty grim. But all of this is grim: it’s a series about death, centered on a character who thrives on death, and involving a diverse cast of guest characters who are almost entirely devoid of heroism (maybe Starfox is an exception – but even that’s debatable).
There are no heroes here in any of this; and there is a marked absence of light. But that’s part of what is compelling about this series.
Thanos #3 sees the Titan under relentless assault by the Shiar Imperial Guard, which is a fairly fun spectacle.
But what’s particularly good about this issue is the Citizen Kane style structure, where we get interludes of various characters in different locations speaking about Thanos – their experiences of him, their perspectives about him, etc. The way it cuts back and forth between this documentary-style narrative structure and the real-time fight between Thanos and the Imperial Guard is particularly cool.
This also gives us a welcome guest spot for Pip the Troll, who is among those being ‘interviewed’. Gladiator gets a good spot here too, arriving in time to have the privilege of getting in the final blow against Thanos.
Thanos #4 plays with narrative structure even more by taking us backwards to events prior to what we’ve read so far. This centers on Thane, his clash with Corvius Glave, his coming under the spell of Death, and shows us how Tryco got brought into this plot. We also get Starfox and Nebula, which is a good thing. As dark as this whole storyline is, Thanos #4 has some humour amid the bleakness and is generally really well written – and as beautifully illustrated as the previous chapters.
Thane’s situation was reminding me strongly of when Thor was once under the spell of the Valkyrie – who only he could see and no one else could perceive (for anyone with either a long memory or a knack for deep back-issue diving, I’m referring to the Thor ‘Blood & Thunder’ crossover storyline from the early 90s).
Thanos #5 is another K.O, effortlessly managing intrigue, slow-building plot, and nice little character moments – all of it, again, visually absorbing thanks to Mike Deodato Jr’s particular style.
It’s fun to see the likes of Nebula and Eros aiding Thane, while Thane himself is secretly keeping them in the dark about his real motives. It’s also fun watching Eros trying to keep Terrax occupied.
But the best thing here, arguably, is seeing a broken and defeated Thanos in his prison cell – an image, and an idea, that continues to be compelling. And the most fun moment of all is when this apparently subdued and docile Thanos suddenly springs to life to rip the arm off of a guard who comes into the cell to mock him. It’s a good reminder that, however fallen Thanos might be, he still has some grim will and energy left in him.
The big twist or reveal at the end – the Phoenix Force revelation – hits the WTF mark pretty well too. This continues to be a great arc.
In Thanos #6, Thane manages to steal the Phoenix egg from Terrax and manuever himself into location for a decisive assault on Thanos. It’s another solid chapter in all respects; the intrigue is a little less, but the story holds your attention throughout. We’re still kept guessing here and there too, which is a good thing – such as when the Mistress allows Nebula to kill Thane.
Of course, this turns out to be so that Thane can be reborn via the Phoenix power – but, for a moment, I found myself wondering if this story was taking a shock turn.
My only real gripe with this story is that Thane doesn’t fully destroy his father – rather, he allows him to live, but in abject humiliation. What bothered me about this is that it’s classic James Bond villain folly and we can all see it. Thane has the chance to eliminate the threat of Thanos once and for all – and it feels like the reason he doesn’t take it is not because of his own logic, but because the writer wants and needs Thanos alive.
Which is fine – this is a book called ‘Thanos’, after all – but one can’t help but feel that, logically, Thane would decisively kill Thanos here and that would be the end of it.
I’ll grant, however, that this is a relatively small complaint in a book – and a series – that has been wholly absorbing, stunningly rendered, and has generally had very few, if any, weak points.
And with all the hype surrounding Avengers: Infinity War and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this series is no doubt a timely new exploration of who and what Thanos is and has been.