(Welcome to Comics Rewind, a weekly column devoted to discovering – or re-discovering – great comics published some time in the past. Here you will find looks back at comics published in every era, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, as well as retrospectives on the work of important comics writers, lists of “essential” comics, and evaluations of important works, as well as works worthy of a second look or a wider audience. Enjoy!)
SPOILERS! Those of you who’ve seen The Avengers at this point will understand why I’m approaching this book this week. It’s timely, don’t you think? The truth is I’ve never been as well-versed in the exploits of the Mad Titan Thanos as I’d like to be, and now I’ve got a nice opportunity to remedy that. There’s really no better place to start than The Infinity Gauntlet. It’s not the first Thanos story, but it is one of the biggest, and the set-up for the Infinity stories that follow. It’s also the story that set the Mad Titan up as one of the most formidable and epic-worthy villains in the Marvel Universe, and it’s a damn fine comic.
The Infinity Gauntlet is a ’90s event book, and that means that it’s predominant feature is BIGNESS. Yes, I know, all event books from the Big Two are big. Otherwise how do you sell them? But the ’90s event books, for me anyway, had a special kind of bigness to them. Those events were books about packing as many muscle-bound unitards into every panel as you could. Whole pages would be nothing but single-panel cosmic explosions. Not a lot of subtlety to be found in a good many of these stories (not that there’s much more now, but still). As cynical as books like these make a lot of people, I love big-ass crossover comics, even the truly insane ones that don’t even make sense in the context of world-ending superhero tales. But I think even cynical readers can agree that The Infinity Gauntlet stands out as something different. It’s got the scope you expect, and the bulging muscles, and the full-page explosions, but it’s also got a bit more.
Mostly what you need to know about this comic tale is this: Thanos is an evil Titan who’s in love with Death (the actual form of death, that is, not the concept). In an effort to win her heart, he gathers together the six Infinity Gems and forges them into one superpowered gauntlet, making him omnipotent, omniscient and as invincible as he wants to be. With a snap of his fingers, half the population of the known universe disappears, including members of the Avengers, the X-Men and the Asgardian citizenry. Desperate for a solution, the heroes of the Marvel Universe turn to one of Thanos’ old opponents – the recently resurrected Adam Warlock – who concocts a battle plan to take the Mad Titan down, but only if Thanos himself is willing to let them try.
Writer Jim Starlin knows how to tell Marvel stories on the cosmic scale. He’s done it time and time again, and this is a perfect example of why they keep going back to him. Even if the early issues are predictable, they’re a very well-done kind of predictable. Starlin ratchets up the stakes with every action beat like a pro, weaving all the threads of the Marvel Universe together into one cosmos-shattering battle that involves everyone from Captain America to Galactus to Eternity itself. But what really got me was the turn this one takes in the final two issues. You’re expecting a major final confrontation, and you get it, but not in the way you might necessarily predict. And even if you did predict it, it’s still a well-told story. So, you know…shut up.
The other, more impressive aspect of Starlin’s storytelling is how he handles the Mad Titan himself. Thanos’ love of Death, his burning desire to impress her in any way he can even when he wields more power than even she could hope to have is tricky storytelling indeed. All-powerful characters are never easy to write (just ask Superman scripters), even when they’ve evil all-powerful characters. It would have been easier if Starlin would have just made Thanos a force of nature, but he’s not. He’s a character. He has layers. He has sensitivities and goals deeper than just destroying the fabric of reality. That makes him far more fun to read about.
And then there’s George Perez, who – along with guys like Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson – is one of the best cosmic artists to ever get in the game.
Stories like The Infinity Gauntlet seem to be becoming a more and more important part of Marvel’s history as we move into the age of The Avengers and beyond. Bigger stories matter more than ever now, but they have to be more than big. They have to pack in character and humor and small moments right alongside all those full-panel (or full-screen) fireballs. The Infinity Gauntlet is a quintessential one of these stories, and even if it weren’t, it would still be damn fun to read.