Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review # 1: "Avengers vs. Thanos"

"Who's that guy?"

Last spring, that turn of phrase may have been the most-heard at the end of any film being shown at a movie theatre. After earning a reputation for effective teases at the end of the credits, Marvel inserting the shadowy figure of a purple titan with a crooked chin into the production list for "The Avengers" had a lot of people who stuck around wondering who had just graced the screen. A few got as far as getting the answer "Thanos," but that just led to another question:

"Who the hell is Thanos?"

That's what Marvel attempts to answer with the release of "Avengers vs. Thanos" in trade paperback, a release that - despite its name - doesn't feature the superteam very much at all. What it does focus on is the villain, based on Greek mythology, who has left a major-if-understated mark on the Marvel Universe in his relatively few appearances.

Despite jumping through the pages of "The Avengers," "Iron Man," "Captain Marvel," "Warlock" and other publications, this book is written practically in its entirety by Jim Starlin. While Starlin is arguably most well-known for writing the death of the second Robin (Jason Todd) in the Batman books, he likely deserves more credit as Marvel's "King of the Cosmic." His work in Marvel's version of outer space is incredibly imaginative, crossing over into the realm of bizarre. However, while a lot of his ideas are really "out there," he has a knack for making them fascinating.

An important thing to know about Marvel's cosmic universe is beyond alien worlds (including "Titan," the moon of Saturn where Thanos first rose as a tyrant) out in the stars lurk mysterious, powerful entities that represent the forces of life themselves. There's "Eternity," who essentially IS time and space, "Master Order" and "Lord Chaos," manifestations of "Love" and "Hate," virtually every deity worshipped on earth, and of course... "Death."

And it's that last one where things get interesting with Thanos, who debuted in the pages of Iron Man as an imposing, but actually rather uninteresting figure. He's searching for the "Cosmic Cube," essentially the "Tesseract" from the Avengers film and using goofy means to do so, like employing a man with mind control discs to manipulate the girlfriend of Captain Marvel's alter-ego Rick Jones. Part-way through the early storyline, we see that Thanos is hanging out with the cosmic manifestation of Death, but it isn't until later that we learn something important - Death is a woman, and guess what Mad Titan is in love with her?

Suddenly that line at the end of "The Avengers" about taking them on would be like courting death a lot more interesting. With that twist, Starlin goes into overdrive. Thanos becomes an instrument of creativity and curiosity as the reader begins to wonder what makes this guy tick. It's always difficult to get a grasp on his motivations, for good or ill, and he makes anything more compelling the instant he's on-panel. The peak of this series catches us in the middle of obscure-character Adam Warlock's battle with the villain Magus (with a helpful explanation of their backstory included) and it permanently and wonderfully ties Warlock and Thanos together. It culminates in an all-out battle involving The Avengers, Spider-Man and The Thing which ends memorably. Neither character would play a major role in the story until years later in "The Infinity Guantlet" which I'm sure I'll get to writing about someday.

Gotta admit that Starlin's ideas are certainly out there, but they're strange enough that it somehow makes what's on the page accessible. His character work with the likes of Thanos, Captain Marvel (a series and character he saved) and Adam Warlock (along with his merry band of Gamora - "the deadliest woman in the galaxy" set to be played by Zoe Saldana in the upcoming "Guardians of the Galaxy" film - and Pip the Troll, who's found new life in Peter David's "X-Factor") is top notch. The writing quality dips now and then, particularly when he's not writing. That that doesn't happen often and there are still some excellent scribes handling the word work like "The Avengers'" Steve Englehart. The art from several different pencillers ranges from fantastical to disturbing, which is exactly what one would want from stories like these.

I would recommend this trade to fans of Sci-Fi. For a casual fan, though, this gets pretty deep and isn't a set you can polish off in a couple of hours. This is usually the case with older comics which were a lot wordier before this century. But if you want to learn more about Thanos, this covers practically everything and is way more immersive than his wikipedia page.

Rating: 9/10

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