Pop Culture
Jun 22, 2018, 06:27AM

The Weirder Side of The Avengers

Jim Starlin's original idiosyncratic vision that's been blanded into a multi-billion dollar cash cow.

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Let’s stipulate first that Avengers: Infinity War is, if not a traditionally well-made movie, at least entertaining and a success at what it tries to do. Which you’d expect for a film that makes the amount of money it’s made. The point is that it captures far more than anyone might have imagined, the delirious busyness of the best superhero crossover comic-books. Specifically, it looks back in part to the two-part 1990 Thanos Quest story, and to the 1991 miniseries Infinity Gauntlet — the movie’s last image is almost exactly the last image of Gauntlet, though how the film gets there is rather different. Both comics are written by Jim Starlin, with pencil art for the first half or so of Gauntlet by George Pérez (inked by Josef Rubenstein) and the rest by Ron Lim, who also contributes the pencils on Thanos Quest (which was inked by John Beatty).

The villain (or anti-hero, depending on your perspective) of both books and of Infinity War the movie is a mad titan called Thanos, created years before at the beginning of Starlin’s career in the 1970s. Starlin’s work from that earlier era had a different tone, stranger and more psychedelic. It’s not entirely surprising the movie didn’t borrow as much from those first stories with Thanos, though a little odder that none of the nineteen Marvel films so far have really aimed at what Starlin was doing. Disappointing, as well. 

Take a look at Starlin’s early work, the cosmic sagas that introduced Thanos and established him as a major character. They’re good adventure stories, but also much weirder things.

Starlin came to Marvel in the early 70s, having already led an interesting life. As a child he’d gone to a Catholic school in Detroit where he was taught by nuns who belonged to the John Birch Society. Later, after spending time on the wrong side of the law, he’d join the Navy and go to Vietnam where he worked as a photographer in an intelligence unit, seeing the results of bombing runs in Cambodia. After the Navy he went to college, where, in a psych class, he created two characters: Thanos, lover of death, and his nemesis, Drax the Destroyer. One of his early jobs for Marvel Comics, a brief stint on Iron Man, gave him the chance to put them in print. Things took off from there.

Marvel gave Starlin the reins of a book called Captain Marvel, a title not about the Big Red Cheese who says “Shazam!” but an alien soldier and spy named Mar-Vell. The character had floated around the Marvel Universe for years until Starlin’s run. With help from two scripters (Mike Friedrich and Steve Englehart) and a series of inkers (Chic Stone, Dave Cockrum, Pablo Marcos, Dan Green, and Al Milgrom), Starlin crafted a story spilling over into other books (Marvel Feature, Daredevil, The Avengers) in which Mar-Vell was caught up in Thanos’s attempt to use a powerful artifact called the Cosmic Cube to make himself a God, in order to destroy the Earth as a gift to the pale embodiment of death he adored. Mar-Vell ultimately destroyed the cube, and Thanos was presumed defeated.

Soon after, Starlin left Captain Marvel, and Marvel Comics as a whole, when the company kept changing his inkers. He later returned to Marvel when given the chance to work on any character he wanted. Starlin selected an obscure figure named Adam Warlock, a minor Jack Kirby creation who was an artificial human with a propensity to stumble into science-fiction adventures. The most recent of those had seen him die and return to life as an analogue to Jesus Christ. Starlin took Warlock to a far galaxy, where he fought a temporally-displaced version of his own future self, the Magus. As the Magus was the head of a galactic church, the odds were against Adam. Luckily, he was aided by a mysterious figure who turned out to be none other than Thanos. Thanos guided Warlock on a cosmic suicide, thus ending the threat of the Magus — who, we learned, was actually a champion of life who would have opposed Thanos, the self-selected champion of death.

Starlin left Marvel again not long after, returning to tie up Warlock’s story and hand Thanos what seemed a final defeat in a cross-over between Avengers and Marvel Two-In-One. Then in 1980 he wrote and drew the first of a line of original “graphic novels” for Marvel — actually more like softcover version of European graphic albums — in exchange for Marvel publishing a series of Starlin’s in their creator-owned Epic Comics imprint. The graphic novel was The Death of Captain Marvel, a surprisingly powerful read about the cosmic super-hero dying of cancer, after one final vision of his old enemy, Thanos.

Starlin hasn’t lacked for projects in the years since, including that creator-owned comic, Dreadstar, a run on Batman in which he killed off one iteration of Robin, and various others — among them periodic returns to Marvel for a number of books about Thanos and Adam Warlock, such as Infinity Gauntlet. By the time he did that series Starlin was a different creator from the one who’d broken in with his earlier cosmic sagas, now writing clever if cynical super-hero stories that tended to involve Warlock or Thanos manipulating most of Earth’s heroes like an army of pawns while the real story happened on a more abstruse plane. These books were polished, clever, and generally had a few thematic ideas to them. But neither they, nor the Thanos stories Starlin’s continued to produce off and on to the present, have captured the strangeness of his 70s work.

What made those stories stand out was an unusual fusion of Starlin’s personal investment in his material, his craft as an artist and storyteller, new ideas in how to lay out a comic page, and high-concept themes. Add an acknowledged use of consciousness-altering substances and an interest in New-Wave science-fiction writers like Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock, and you get eye-catching work.

You can see Starlin developing as a storyteller on Captain Marvel. The book’s relatively straightforward narratively with a few novel touches, as in a 35-panel page depicting part of a psychic “time-mind sync-warp” battle between Thanos and Drax the Destroyer. Perhaps most striking is one of the few sequences fully written by Starlin himself, in which Mar-Vell’s abducted from his everyday reality to an extradimensional otherland where a celestial entity called Eon leads Mar-Vell through a super-heroic consciousness-raising exercise, leading Mar-Vell to renounce the way of the soldier to become instead a protector. He reflects: “I’ve spent my life fighting for that which I believed in … my world, my leaders … and have been wrongterribly wrong! I wish to change!”

It’s hard not to see Starlin’s experience in the military informing that sequence, but the visual imagination that emerges throughout his run on Captain Marvel is what’s most remarkable. Beyond the staging of his fight scenes and the designs of spaceships and computer banks, Starlin’s games with perspective and panel shapes consistently work, giving visual interest while also moving the story forward cleanly. His sense of pacing and page design becomes more refined while his compositions become both more elaborate and more energetic.

It all comes to a head in Warlock. If Captain Marvel was about the title character growing as a person to confront the avatar of death, Adam Warlock goes progressively more insane as his story progresses. His is a tragedy, in which he drives himself mad and ultimately gives himself over to death. The sequel wrapping up his story provides some measure of consolation, if not a happy ending, but Starlin was playing with dark themes. 

One may argue with the sophistication of the approach, which reads like Marvel Comics fused with Heavy Metal magazine, but the graphic power (drawn by Starlin, with occasional inking work by Al Milgrom and Steve Leialoha) and sheer imagination is remarkable. There’s a baroque detail to the worlds Warlock wanders through, a wealth of texture that sits surprisingly well next to the reality warps and weird zip-a-tone effects. And among these things, rather more than in Captain Marvel, are close-ups of faces twisted in extreme emotions. There’s an intensity to the Warlock stories Starlin perhaps never consistently found again, in the screaming faces and contorted bodies, in the precision of the pacing, and in the sheer weirdness of the plotting.

Starlin’s Golden Age of Thanos stories came to an end with the Death of Captain Marvel tale, in which Starlin worked through his feelings about his father’s own death by cancer. It’s clunky in some ways, but whether despite that or because of it, also quite touching. There’s much less fighting than in a typical super-hero story, as the enlightened protector of the cosmos prepares to leave his loved ones forever. Thanos emerges in a final deathbed vision, a kind of psychic shadow to Mar-Vell, the psychopomp that brings his old enemy beyond the veil. As a story, this isn’t as brain-bending as Starlin’s earlier work; as an attempt to use the imagery of the super-hero story to work out feelings about death, it’s subversive to the form and almost eerie.

Starlin went on, developing as a craftsman, but for the most part I find his later books less engaging. They’re more controlled and polished, but there’s less of a sense of engagement with the material. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that there’s less of a sense of an artist entrapped by  his material. At worst, as in some of the Infinity Gauntlet sequels, there’s more a sense of pushing action figures around. Many of the characters Starlin wrote in the 90s and later were IP that, unlike Warlock or maybe even Captain Marvel, couldn’t be tampered with too much.

It’s ironic, because a key theme of much of Starlin’s 70s work is freedom. Warlock and Thanos are both outside the bounds of order and chaos, both in some ways cosmic free agents. In particular, they’re free to change, and change was key to their tales, paying off a theme central to the Jack Kirby comics that made the Marvel framework in which Starlin was working. Starlin’s still pushing those themes in the later work I’ve read, but it’s less intense without the psychedelia of early stories.

That psychedelic weirdness has never quite made it into a Marvel film. The Marvel movies avoid certain tones you can find in the comics, like the occult horror in some issues of Doctor Strange or the kind of mythic noble awe of Kirby’s take on Thor. Starlin’s cosmic zap isn’t there either, not really, except perhaps in scattered moments, in glimpses here and there over the course of the studio’s output. Instead things are a bit more normal, maybe too much so. Look at Thanos in a Marvel movie and you can see his eyes, because conventional wisdom has it that a lot of acting is done with the eyes; Starlin always left Thanos’s eyes in shadow, or drew in burning lights like stars or glowing embers. 

Take out the weirdness and what’s left doesn’t quite work as well. For example, rather than present Thanos as the romantic nihilist obsessed with a silent cloaked woman who is Death herself, the films have him determined to kill half the universe to “save” the other half, much like Batman’s enemy Ra’s al Ghul. In the comics, Thanos gathered the all-powerful Infinity Gauntlet to win Death’s love; in the movies he creates the gauntlet to kill half of all that lives supposedly to make the survivors’ lives better, when he could have just used the gauntlet directly to improve lives without killing anyone. The motivation’s easier to grasp for the average moviegoer, maybe, but it makes less sense. 

Starlin’s work on minor characters let him tell major stories, because he could be as abstruse, cosmic, or weird as he liked. Difficult to translate that to a movie costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Starlin’s subversion of standard super-hero form is equally difficult to assimilate to franchise filmmaking. Still, the success of Infinity War is as good an excuse as any to read or reread Starlin’s older work. As with any adaptation, however flawed or successful, the originals aren’t going anywhere.


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