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We Need to Talk about Thanos

We’re all friends, right?

Pals, chums, confidantes . . . just between you and me, these comic book movies are a pain in the fucking ass.

Some of them are fun, don’t get me wrong! It seems almost ungrateful to complain about the cultural ubiquity of superhero movies when being sick of Spider-Man movies is really not a critical workplace hazard. I’ve made a few dollars over the years writing about them. The Suicide Squad movie was so bad I haven’t even seen it yet, and I’ll watch anything . . . but that didn’t stop me from pulling down a couple hundo writing a potted history of Task Force X for the AV Club when the movie dropped.

Now, if there’s one thing you should know about The Comics Journal, from its foundation down through to the present moment, it is that the magazine takes comic books seriously as graphic literature. Unlike some other websites I could mention, they don’t run press releases about Hollywood casting decisions as comics industry news.

With all that said, I’m going to talk a little bit about a movie. In a little bit. Let me build to it.

One of the stranger aspects of being away from comics for the better part of a year, recently, was that when it came time to return I didn’t really want to go back. I had always known I would, simply because this is my field. Whether I like it or not. You know how it is.

It was strange to me that I had no desire to return even though it felt like it was time. That’s the premise of this column, inasmuch as such a motley assortment of features could be said to have any kind of guiding principle: six months ago I had to come back to comics, and I wasn’t completely happy about it, but I also knew I couldn’t really stay away any longer. I was hungry. I didn’t really want to return to comics, but I wanted to return to writing about comics, if that makes sense . . .

Being a comic book critic is the one thing I’ve done for the entirety of my adult life, going all the way back to before I was even married. It’s an odd thing to carry around as a core piece of your identity, I will be completely honest. It’s a conversation starter, and not always in a good way. I struggle sometimes for purpose. But it is something I nonetheless take very seriously, and there aren’t maybe a few hundred people on the planet who take it quite as seriously.

I respect the people who do it well because the only way to write well about comic books is to love comic books, and anyone who loves comic books ends up destroyed by them. Does that sound fatalistic? I don’t particularly think it does. If you’re not being destroyed on a daily basis you’re not paying attention. There’s a reason I take breaks.

Being out of the loop for comics meant being out of the loop for comics news, too. I was chatting up a pal on the Tweetz the other day and they mentioned “Ink” and “Zoom.” I had to inform them I had no idea what those things were and it felt wonderful. I’ve read one comic book in the last month – the issue of Love & Rockets I reviewed for this site, the last thing I wrote before a couple unplanned personal weeks intruded. How interesting and novel a sensation not just to read only one comic and consider it a meal, but to read only one comic and consider myself sated for a month.

Now, here’s what I’m not saying: I’m not saying comics today are no good. I’m not saying comics were better ten or twenty or thirty years ago. I’m really not making any kind of value judgment whatsoever. I am very keenly aware, moreover, of just how much I’m missing by dropping out of the medium for an extended period. But not keenly enough that I feel more than an academic curiosity in the matter. It’s not you, it’s me, it’s completely me.

I feel so much happier keeping comics at arms’ length for the moment. Did I mention, I don’t even pick the comics I review here? That’s all Tucker. I enjoy the variety, keeps me engaged. I look at it like playing a game of exquisite corpse with my friend.

Now, here’s the point, because of course I have one: I know comics really well. Better than most – not as well as some, but still pretty well. And right now, after experiencing a period of significant life change followed by the most profound soul-searching, I looked at my life and saw very little place for comics. Perhaps I also saw little place for me in comics. The things about comics that makes me happy are writing about them and the thinking about them that goes with that. The things that don’t make me happy are just about anything else associated in any way shape or form with comics in 2018.

Again, not a value judgment – although, that’s a lie. It is totally a lie, and it is totally a value judgment. Comics in 2018 is a garbage fire outside an asbestos plant and reading one comic a month is about as much of that infernal atmosphere as I can tolerate.

So to clear my head of comic books I decided to spend the afternoon at the movies. What’s playing? Avengers: Infinity War?

D’oh!

Again, no value judgment on the movie itself. This isn’t a movie review. I put off seeing the damn thing for the longest time. I knew I wanted to, but superhero movies are less a sincere enthusiasm at this point and more a – well, I’d say obligation, but it’s not really a bad obligation. I did pay money for a ticket, after all. I enjoy them, they just rarely last longer in the mind than the time it takes to watch them.

This one was different, though. The reason it was different is that this movie was about Thanos, and Thanos is maybe my favorite. Which is a weird thing to be talking about in 2018, it seems to me. Thanos was my favorite comic book character when I was a kid. That was, you know, decades ago. I’m not a kid anymore.

And yet somehow the rest of the world decided to spend a season or three being obsessed with the same things I was obsessed with as a kid. Quite surreal, very unsettling. I went to college. I taught college. Why are we still talking about Thanos? I mean, I love the guy, don’t get me wrong, but seriously – there are giant Thanos standups in Target, where I buy dog food and paper toweling. Thanos! Big purple guy with the ballsack chin! What a world!

I have a Masters degree, a Masters I got by writing something impenetrable about Virginia Woolf, but here we are talking about Thanos of Titan. From my perspective it seems as if we have been cursed as a culture to wallow in the nostalgia of my youth, my specific youth. Is this something I should be happy about? I loved Star Wars and comic books when I was a kid, and now guess what you cannot turn five fucking feet without being reminded of???

It’s fine, it’s fine . . . it’s not like some really weird story that you were obsessed with when you were a kid inexplicably got made into a multi-billion dollar movie franchise or anything. Nothing unusual there.

For Thanos fans, the movie is decidedly a mixed bag. On the one hand, he’s in it for most of the running time, so it you like Josh Brolin doing mo-cap, this is the movie for you. On the other hand it doesn’t really have much to do with the Thanos I grew up reading or who Jim Starlin created. Different enough as to be two different characters.

Well, I mean, they are two different characters.

Everything interesting about Thanos comes from Starlin. The character has never felt right as written by anyone else. The version on movie screens has the same name and appearance but . . . the motivations are different. They changed the motivation and tore the guts out of the character.

Now here’s a nice bit of Latin that I used to pull out to impress my classes: the word translate is a composite of trans and latio, so to translate something is literally to carry it across. Translations and adaptions have to decide what gets carried across and what gets left behind. Hollywood decided in their infinite wisdom that most of the stuff that made Thanos interesting to me was stuff that had to stay in the comics. There wasn’t enough left of my guy to recognize on the screen.

The Thanos who the Avengers fight in the movie is a right nasty character, don’t get me wrong – but he’s basically a really stoic Malthusian who is doing a terrible thing for the good of the universe. A fucking neocon. This is what they spent ten years building up to – Dick Cheney with a big purple ballsack chin?

The Thanos who I loved in the comics, though – he weren’t no fucking neocon. He doesn’t really have a political affiliation other than pure egotism. In Starlin’s stories Thanos does stuff basically because he wants to and for no other reason.

What’s Thanos’ great motivation for the first twenty years of his existence in the comics? He’s in love with Death. The literal embodiment of Death. Anyone who thinks Jack Kirby had the market cornered on literalism with Darkseid needs to remember that Thanos is in love with Death and his brother is named Eros. That’s not his code name, that’s the name his parents gave him. Eros. Thanos collects the Infinity Gems in the comics so he can impress a girl. He kills half the universe to impress a girl. And then when the girl pisses him off you see in a flash it was never really about the girl after all. Thanos was just kind of a dick who wanted to be in charge because he’s an invincible madman with poor impulse control.

That’s not an exaggeration, that’s not me being flip. That is the actual plot of the original Infinity Gauntlet: Thanos says he wants to be God to impress a girl, but really, he just wants to be God because he feels he already is God. He only needs the Gauntlet to make it official – very Morrissey ’86. Then after he loses the power – and it must be stressed, he only loses because he fucks up – he grows up. A bit. He realizes that his plans always come up short because of his own shortcomings, that is, the fact that he’s a self-obsessed bipolar who always fucks everything up through self-sabotage.

Do you see why I felt drawn to the guy? It’s not particularly a flattering thing to admit, but I’d be surprised if I was the only one who identified with Thanos for the same reason. There really aren’t a lot of other depictions of mental instability in comics that come close to actually, you know . . . seeming genuinely unstable.

Thanos in the film doesn’t seem particularly unstable. He seems like just another world-beater. Perhaps movies audiences don’t care that there’s a gaping void at the center of the character? They don’t see it. They don’t really care. They don’t really need to care. I find it relentlessly odd that one of my favorite comic book characters is suddenly a celebrity, but I also recognize that’s not a universal experience.

So what’s the point? What does any of this have to do with actual, you know, comic books?

I started writing about comic books professionally pretty much the precise moment when comic book movies started to take off – the very early 2000s. Back in those days, it already seems weird to say, the biggest concern was that when the superhero movie bubble burst, it was going to take the Direct Market with it. A couple underperforming Spider-Man movies and it could have been curtains, or so the argument went. 

At the time it was very plausible. The last thing I want to do is make the idea sound implausible, or comical, because at the time these were very real fears. There was no model or precedent for what was actually going to happen so we should be forgiven for not having predicted at the time that superhero movies would completely transform the media landscape for decades to come. The idea would have seemed laughable on the face of it.

The reason why it would have seemed laughable is that I arrived in the twenty-first century convinced that superheroes were dead and holding comics back, that the Direct Market was within five years of complete collapse, and that the future of comics was probably something and someone that looked and drew an awful lot like Chris Ware or Dan Clowes looked and drew. I did not anticipate superheroes would be a significant factor in the media landscape during the Gore Administration.

These ideas did not survive contact with reality.

I grew up reading superhero comics by the metric ton, drawing superheroes, daydreaming about superheroes – and actually ended up kind of hating superheroes. I have a lot of emotions balled up in them because that’s how emotions work. And a lot of people writing about comics twenty years ago had a lot of similar emotional investment in the idea that we had to hate superheroes in order to redeem the medium.

A funny thing happened on the way to the future, however . . . turns out that people really like superheroes. Normal people. And I don’t just mean a little. I didn’t really get this until I was chewing on Avengers: Infinity War, but I see now that we, and by we I guess I mean me, had it precisely reversed: it wasn’t that superheroes were holding comics back, but that comics were holding superheroes back.

People really fucking like superheroes. It’s wild.

Now, I should add: I did enjoy the movie. I didn’t enjoy Thanos in it, but the movie itself was fun. The remarkable thing about the film is that it gave me something I once would have sworn up-and-down could never be approximated on film: the experience of a massive summer crossover with a cast of thousands coming out to play for all the marbles. That’s the high you get from a story like Crisis on Infinite Earths, when it’s done right: oh wow, there’s everybody.

When I was younger I thought those kinds of crossovers were destined to remain private pleasures, as superhero stories were once upon a time objects of monkish devotion and not public spectacle. But there it was, big as shit, a more satisfying and complete superhero crossover on the silver screen than I had seen in many a year on the comics page. It made me more than a little sad to realize that something I had believed to be intrinsically the domain of the page had survived so well the translation to the screen. The movie actually did a better job at it than the comics had managed in quite a while. Ask Marv Wolfman: thinking up a story that uses literally every character is not easy. And yet somehow the movies figured it out.

I used to believe there was some element of the genre that was inherent to the medium, and I figured it had something to do with the amount of investment necessary to appreciate extended superhero serials. Then I watched in real-time as Marvel trained the world to preorder movie tickets with assiduousness of lifers stopping by the shop every Wednesday.

What I like about Thanos was the way that Starlin drew him as always fighting against the imposition of panel borders. There’s a purity to his conception as a character so fucking self-obsessed that he exerts his own gravity across the page. Thanos is capricious, or should be. A creature of unfettered ego, and therefore a fun character to read about.

Movie Thanos is just kind of a drip, less Morrissey ’86 and more Morrissey ’18. I guess that’s what people want these days, to believe that the men who implement genocide have good reasons for doing it, even if they are misguided reasons. Do you see now how changing the motivations changes the character? There’s no “good reason” for genocide, movie! Trying to give him a “plausible” motivation only heightens the implausibility of a fantasy story.

In the comics Thanos is darker and weirder but also, strangely, far more palatable, because he’s completely bonkers. (I can say “bonkers” as I am indeed quite bonkers myself.) The stakes with good Thanos stories are both relentlessly cosmic and relentlessly intimate. You spend enough time with the guy and he gets under your skin. There’s a reason they call him the Mad Titan, after all. He’s not a sane creature.

But movie Thanos? He seems sane, just – kind of boring. And since I guess I’ve put it off long enough, I have nothing left but to ask:

Why didn’t he double the universe’s food production capacity? Did it just not occur to him? Not something you need to worry about when all you’re doing is stunting for a skeleton babe at the end of the universe. Score one for the comics.

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22 Responses to We Need to Talk about Thanos

  1. Bertram Yulico says:

    If we needed to talk about Thanos, why did you mostly just talk about yourself?

  2. ADD says:

    Well this is certainly the best piece I’ve read about comics and movies as a thing, ever. You express multiple thoughts here that I have felt myself, Tegan, but not had the words for. And I certainly was one of the people who thought we had to kill superheroes for the good of comics. How…Thanosian!

    Quibbling with your final point, it probably has something to do with the laws of thermodynamics. Killing everyone didn’t need new energy injected from outside the closed universe, but doubling the food supply would? Or something?

    Do I get a No-Prize?

  3. ADD says:

    You must be new to criticism, Bertram. Tegan is plowing fields previously planted by magnificent authorial voices including Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and in comics, Bob Levin and cat yronwode. Maybe you can find the plot summary with obligatory one-dimensional review mini-paragraph you’re looking for at, well, virtually every other “comics” site going.

    Also, there was a shit-ton of insight about Thanos here, so, whatevs.

  4. Joe Gualtieri says:

    Absolutely fantastic piece.

  5. M K says:

    What is this even? This is maybe the third article I’ve read by this writer in which they talk about how they want nothing to do with comics and don’t want to write about them.

  6. ADD says:

    Your reading comprehension needs work, MK.

  7. Tegan says:

    M K, I’m putting that on the book jacket. 👍

  8. Adam Ford says:

    awesomr (as in i am literally in awe) and insightful and evocative as ever, Tegan. This mirros my thoughts about both suprhero movies and tv as well as lord of the rings. once i was punched by bullies for knowing what a balrog was. now the meatheads have balrog tattoos. still not sure how to process that. ada

  9. David Beard says:

    Once every million years, I return to TCJ hoping for the rare, insightful piece that isn’t buried in rhetorical positioning of the critic as more sophisticated than the critical object. The burial process just makes it harder to discern the insight.

    There is insight in here, but it is buried under tangents about impenetrable MA theses; but then, the notion of the virtuoso critic is cultivated in literature programs.

    I mention this because I think there is real insight here that would be good to share with other people, but the essay’s style presupposes a commitment to work through the essay that longtime readers of TCJ will have — but casual readers will not. It makes a certain kind of sense to give TCJ readers what they want and are accustomed to, but it may prevent TCJ from gaining new readers. Those new readers will need to be taught how to read an essay like this, and I’m not sure they will agree that it’s worth it.

    I’ll keep reading, but I was a print subscriber, conditioned to this kind of reading.

  10. Oliver_C says:

    According to Ron Lim, Death looks like a Russian whore cosplaying ‘Eyes Wide Shut’.

  11. CaptainMar-Vell92 says:

    Starlin liked Brolin’s Thanos.

    Unfortunately, Starlin’s characterisation of Thanos as a self-loathing and intellectual nihilist who tries to convince the Grim Reaper itself to love him doesn’t fit with the standards of current Hollywood blockbusters.

  12. Frank Santoro says:

    Fantastic read! Thank you!

  13. Paul Slade says:

    I’m with David. For my money, the three best writers the Journal has ever had were Fiore, Groth and Thompson. Their criticism was not only full of rigour and insight, but also written in the kind of clear, tight, muscular prose that made it a pleasure to read. Some more articles in that tradition would be very welcome.

  14. Jones, one of the Jones boys says:

    Sorry to pile on, but I was planning to make this comment anyway: setting aside any mean-spirited tone, I think the haters kinda sorta have a point, however uncharitably or dopily it might have been expressed. I’ve enjoyed your writing for over a decade (!), and was one of the many people who were mortified to learn of the difference between how you rated yourself and how we do. So I say this from a place of much affection and admiration, but I do think the relentless self-reflection is blunting your critical acuity and effectiveness as a writer.

    ADD makes a fair point that something similar is a longstanding tradition in critical writing, buuuut does everything have to get filtered through a filter of What This Says About Me As A Human Being? Surely there’s a middle ground between that and ADD’s straw-man alternative of comicbookresources.

  15. ADD says:

    I’m sure David Beard’s concerns are sincere and genuine, and he and Jones are compassionate enough about their expression of same, but I am Team Santoro on this (and many other things). The idea that The Comics Journal is interested in moderating its own tastes and forms of expression in the interest of attracting NEW READERS has been a ludicrous proposition certainly since the publication of the second Ken Smith essay. Perhaps since the first, but by the second they knew wholly what they were getting themselves into. Let’s be real here.

  16. ADD says:

    Also, hey, shout out to David Beard, whose research I cited in my TCJ essay A Future For Comics, the publication of which was the high point of the writing-about-comics portion of my existence, and gets extra Blood and Thunder Irony Points for being sure to turn off new readers at the time of its publication.

    Sorry for making this about me, I know that sort of thing can be frowned upon by some in these environs.

  17. Tegan says:

    Concern trolling aside, I should point out: I’m writing these columns in this mood for a purpose. They’re going to be a book, or at least the bulk of a book. I think I have a few more pieces like this in me, I’d kind of like the symmetry of doing a full years worth and then going on to another kind of project. I intend to write for the Journal for as long as Tucker lets me, but I knew going in that this specifically was a style that would have a finite lifespan.

    I have a number of longer writing-about-comics projects I might be interested in starting after this, but this is what we’re in the middle of now. This isn’t strictly in the same mood as GALAXY OF ZEROES, but when the two are both done I think they’ll complement each other well. They’ll be weird mementos of a very strange transitory period in my life.

    But as I’m moving on to other things in my life, I do intend to move past this period of intense self-reflection. Straight-up, it’s kind of unhealthy in such punishing volume. 😜 I think getting three books out of it is pretty good, no? I promise you and I promise myself as well that we’re going to pivot at some point to something different, and I promise you – for no other reason than that some of these have been legitimately draining to write – they won’t focus so intently on the third-person pronoun.

    (I should say: there’s one more book in the vein I’d like to write some day, but maybe I’ll give myself a break before going into another one like these. You can probably guess the subject if you see the pattern.)

  18. Tegan says:

    First person pronoun. I taught college writing???

  19. Jones, one of the Jones boys says:

    Thanks for the gracious reply, Tegan. Apologies if my point came off as concern trolling; it certainly wasn’t intended as such (but of course a troll would say that)

  20. Derf Backderf says:

    You’re right that people sure love superdudes. But to be accurate, they like superdude movies and tv series. Superdude comics? Meh. Not so much. Sales have flat-lined for 20 years, despite the blockbuster success of the films. The explosive growth in comics readership over the past decade has taken place almost completely outside superhero comics. It’s kids series and original graphic novels and the like. You were right to think that work like Clowes and Ware was the future of comics, but you’re wrong to think that hasn’t happened. It has. The superdude crowd just hasn’t noticed. And that’s fine.

    If I want to get a Thanos fix, I’ll pull out my set of Cap Marvel and Warlocks and remember how thrilling and fresh those stories were to read month by month when I was 14. I won’t pay $15 to see some Hollywood hack regurgitate them as watered-down formula.

  21. Conrad G says:

    I thought you were on the mark about how banal these superhero movies are. Some funny and incisive commentary! But I am baffled by your line “Comics in 2018 is a garbage fire outside an asbestos plant and reading one comic a month is about as much of that infernal atmosphere as I can tolerate.” Are you talking about shitty mainstream floppy comics that are dutifully churned out every month? Because outside that cesspool, indie comics are blowing up! Have you checked out the new comics by Tommi Parrish, Eleanor Davis, Aisha Franz? One page of any of those is more fulfilling than a longbox full of Marvel detritus.

  22. CaptainMar-Vell92 says:

    @Derf Backderf

    Jim Starlin was impressed with the cinematic version of Thanos for the record.

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