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?


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.