Friday, April 5, 2013

Recommended Reading for 4/5: The Infinity Gauntlet

The power of a god is something that many comic book villains have attempted to attain, but usually the heroes stop them just in time to keep them from attaining this goal. But what happens when the villain does become a god? That's the basic premise for The Infinity Gauntlet, a six issue event mini-series written by Jim Starlin and with art from George Perez and Ron Lim from the early 90s. It is definitely my favorite Marvel Comics event story, and is still possibly my favorite Marvel story of all time.

When Jim Starlin, legendary already for his runs on Captain Marvel and Warlock in the 70s, returned to Marvel, he started writing Silver Surfer and immediately returned his greatest creation, Thanos of Titan, to life. Thanos was a mutant alien from Saturn's moon, Titan, and was obsessed with Death. Not death, the end of an existence, but Death, specifically Mistress Death, the Marvel Universe personification of death, and wanted to win her heart. To do so, during those Silver Surfer issues and in a mini-series called Thanos Quest, Thanos obtained the six Infinity Gems, which when combined grant the bearer supreme power over the galaxy. So by the time The Infinity Gauntlet begins, the heroes of the Marvel Universe are already painted into a corner and they don't know it.

The opening pages of The Infinity Gauntlet should be comic book event opening 101. Even if you don't know the players, you know exactly what is going on. Purple guy (Thanos) is clearly some sort of major cosmic badass, as a guy who looks like the Devil (Mephisto) is sucking up to him, having created one word out of stone in 50 foot tall letters to impress him: GOD. Thanos brushes this off and smashes all of Mephisto's hard work, already establishing the dynamic between the two characters. Coupled with a quick recap of the events from Silver Surfer as recounted by the title's main character as he crashes into Doctor Strange's sanctum right after those initial Thanos pages, you're off to the metaphorical races.

One of the great things about The Infinity Gauntlet, especially in relation to so many event comics today, is how much happens in a single issue. This was long before the idea of decompression became the central tenet of major comic book storytelling, so every issue was chock full of stuff. By the end of the first issue the Earth has been alerted to Thanos's coming, mysterious souls have taken over the bodies of some dead humans, various heroes have been seen unawares, and Thanos has talked to Mephisto and Mistress Death. Oh, and Thanos has wiped out half the universe's population with nothing more than a snap of his fingers.

The Infinity Gauntlet had a very precise structure: The first issue established the premise and gave us the inciting incident. Issues two and three dealt with the ramifications and gathered the heroes. Issues four and five were the battle with Thanos. And issue six was the denouement, the resolution of the story. Starlin paced the story perfectly so it didn't feel like there was a wasted page.

Starlin used this series to also bring another of his major characters back from the dead: Adam Warlock. Starlin evolved Warlock from his previous incarnation as the cosmic answer to Hamlet, and made him both a leader and a manipulator. Warlock plans the entire battle against Thanos with a cold reasoning and has no problem sacrificing his allies to triumph. It's an interesting change to the character, and continues his evolution from everything Starlin did before and sets him on the road to where Starlin planned to go with him.

Starlin uses a ragtag selection of heroes who survived Thanos's wiping out of the galactic population as the squad that Warlock, Silver Surfer, and Doctor Strange gather to confront Thanos. I think Starlin had a lot of fun in selecting whatever heroes he really wanted to write. There's an excellent scene where the Hulk and Wolverine, old enemies, sit on a roof and have a conversation. Doctor Doom, the only villain who joins in, is perfectly played as the character with an agenda of his own, hoping to claim the power of the Gauntlet for himself.

The central character of the piece is clearly Thanos. Thanos could easily be presented (and has often been by lesser writers) as a two dimensional maniac, loving death and blood and pain. But Starlin has a fuller view of the character, one that does not paint him in a light that is heroic, but gives him dimension. Thanos so desperately seeks the approval of Mistress Death that he does any- and everything to garner that favor. Throughout the series, while he has the power of a god, he doesn't use it for anything other than trying to get Death to look upon him. There is the clear analogy of a man with a deathwish, someone who seeks the end to his suffering, courting death, and Thanos takes that to the extreme. He also only exacts perverse suffering upon Eros, his brother, and Nebula, the woman who purports to be his granddaughter. He hates life and his own family is the greatest reminder of that.

By the end of the series, Starlin breaks down Thanos. Having lost the Gauntlet, he is confronted by Warlock, and the two have an intense discussion about Thanos's tragic flaw: subconsciously, he doesn't feel like he really deserves all this power. This is the third time in his history Thanos has gained nigh-omnipotence, and each time it has slipped out of his hands. Thanos denies Warlock initially, but he comes around. Looking back on the whole series, the point is perfectly illustrated. Starlin sets up numerous instances where Thanos could have simply squashed his enemies, but instead plays with them in a way that could easily allow him to be defeated. Not banishing Mephisto from his presence, a being who is surely planning against him, is another perfect example.

While the early issues are brilliant set-up, with great character pieces, issues four and five are truly some of the greatest action comics ever written. It's basically a two issue battle between Thanos and first Earth's heroes, and second the avatars of the cosmic forces. The initial battle is not something you got in comics as much at the time: a complete defeat of the heroes, where Thanos takes them apart. Thanos must have become the god of ironic punishments, as he quickly defeats the heroes in ways that fit their powers or demeanor: Wolverine's skeleton is turned to rubber; Quasar has his hands blown off right after recovering from a similar injury, the Hulk is shrunk down to a few inches tall, Thor is transformed to clash and smashed. But Thanos's arrogance is countered in what might be one of the great Captain America scenes of all time. Compared to the heavy hitters, Cap doesn't stand a chance against Thanos. But when confronted, Cap stands his ground, telling Thanos he can't win. Of course, Thanos kills him, but in the end Cap is proven right.

The issues that were crossovers to the main series, while not integral to the story, integrated well with the changed universe. Getting a better idea of all that was going on with Silver Surfer, who had been dealing with Thanos for some time, in his own title, for instance. Or the issue of The Incredible Hulk, where the shrunken Hulk rests on the shoulder of his nemesis, the Abomination, talking in his ear and using his diminutive stature to be the "voice of God" and get the Abomination to do the right thing and wrap up threads in that title's ongoing stories.

In the end, nothing really changes in the Marvel Universe because of The Infinity Gauntlet. Thanos and Warlock are back, along with supporting characters Gamora and Pip the Troll, and the Infinity Gems were now central to the Marvel cosmos, but aside from that, all the deaths are undone, and the universe returns to the status quo. I don't think that this was a story meant to change the Marvel Universe. I feel like most event books today promise to change the Universe forever, but wind up being decompressed or muddled stories that wind up having minimal effect as it is.  The Infinty Gauntlet is simply a great story, one of immense scope, that wouldn't fit in any one comic.

Now, with Thanos's profile increased by his cameo at the end of The Avengers, he is popping up regularly. After being the main villain of the initial arc of Avengers Assemble, he is now featuring in his own origin mini-series, Thanos Rising. The Infinity Gems were also featured prominently in the first arc of the new volume of New Avengers. Thanos one Marvel's great villains, and this is a story that really presents him in all his glory.

The first three issues, and the first few pages of issue four, are drawn by legendary artist George Perez, who brings his usual hyper-detailed style to the art. He craws the crowd scenes brilliantly, and his Thanos is perfectly creepy. The remainder of the series is drawn by Ron Lim, the artist now most associated with the Marvel cosmic line in the 90s. Lim's style is clean, with a dynamism that makes the massive fight scenes easy to follow. I have a great fondness for Lim, especially when he's working on these characters.

The Infinity Gauntlet is available in trade, as well as its two sequels, Infinity War and Infinity Crusade. Many of the Silver Surfer issues that led into the series are available as the trade: Silver Surfer: the Rebirth of Thanos, and many classic Thanos appearances were recently collected as Avengers Vs. Thanos.

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