Cosmic villainy

thanos1September is Cosmic Zap month here at Doctor Xaos Comics Madness. Time for villains! Or rather, the awesome beings who are entities as much as persons or perhaps more so.

Cosmic villainy’s a tough creative bar. You need a tricky balance of a rock-star level unmistakable personality, the necessary alien/unguessable agenda, taking the whole question of he-can’t-be-beat/must-beat-him up to 11, and, in tune with the spirit of the age … about something. Loaded with overwhelming meaning. … Oh, is that all? Must fuel up with some music then.

I’m OK with acknowledging Galactus as the starting point, although if there is some mind-melting precursor to consider, let me know. I thought perhaps about Dormammu, but as with a lot of these guys, I don’t think he ever managed to get off the ground. His first appearance was great, but after that, I don’t recall much insight or excitement. Was Dormammu ever about anything, did he have an agenda that could possibly be interesting? All I recall is invade/rule/invade/arrghh.

galactusSo, Galactus. Originally, I intended to ask the question, why is he so sterile? With Thanos occupying the primary position in my memory, Galactus seemed impassive, abstract, and boring … until I did some re-reading, specifically of those three introductory issues. Boy was I wrong. The blend of actual god / ultra-super-future human / actual person is astounding.

  • He’s more human in physical scope than I’d remembered, and although yes, much of what he does treats the FF like gnats, he can’t simply ignore their presence. At one point he does get knocked off the roof and has to use anti-grav.
  • His godlike morality. specifically how irrelevant even the broadest human version is to it, is a matter of scale, not presence or absence. Get up onto his scale with the Watcher and his priorities, conflicts, and (by contrast with our scale) need to negotiate appear.
  • Community and flexibility: There’s no doubt that he and the Watcher are but two of any number of these titanic figures who operate at a galactic scale, and I note that each goes against his respective designated “I Am” identity, despite those identities seeming, at our scale, so absolute and abstract.

I suppose it makes sense to discuss Darkseid before Thanos, but again, memory betrayed me. I’d remembered him more as he’d re-appeared in the 1980s, more connected to the consolidating, we-are-too-a-“universe”-too that DC kept insisting on. Now I think that this later Darkseid was more like Thanos, rather than the other way around. The original Kirby Darkseid is “a guy” in comparison, not the absolute ruler but a rising political player, and a bit conflicted in what he wants to do about this son of his – fascinating and full of great potential, yes, but not the iconic force he wants to be, not yet.

thomas captain marvelBut let’s set the stage for Thanos first. The hero was Mar-Vell, Roy Thomas’ possibly over-clever invention to retain “Captain Marvel” somehow under the aegis of Marvel (man, what is with that, it goes back to court cases in the early 50s). You can see some of the Fawcett character’s tropes tossed in, the hero who replaces the boy and vice versa, in this case the much-used Rick Jones (“Faaaan-tastic!”), and then you make the hero a Kree warrior guy who happens to be named “Mar-Vell,” so (hands spread wide) what else could we call him? Notable for pinning a lot of otherwise disconnected and spitballed material together, especially the Negative Zone and the Kree-Skrull War. I still can’t believe they milked the latter essentially piece-of-shit plotline or setting element so hard, but if you’re going to talk about shared-setting material coming together across multiple authors, that’s probably the one thing that did it. I can’t say it really works. Mar-Vell is never well emotionally grounded, and I never could figure out why the schtick about Rick relied on the idea that the Negative Zone is boring.

thanos draxThen this nascent shared-setting, the material later fandom would laud as the heart of the Marvel Universe, gets handed to Starlin of all people. The art and writing are … OK, to start. He brings in a villain he’d introduced in some Iron Man or Avengers work, somethin’ in there: not much more than a big purple Skrull-ish militaristic menace drawing upon some Darkseid imagery. Then he decides the Cosmic Cube is involved too (oh, is that all?). A few visuals show things are loosening up, like Mar-Vell’s costume getting shredded, so he can deliver a hairy-chested ass-kicking (you thought Byrne invented those, didn’t you?) to the previously-unmatched Super-Skrull … Plot? Well, sort of. The kind that needs a few paragraphs of explanation every few pages. Pretty easy to get confused, and wait, why was I supposed to give a shit about Titan again? Then the acid kicks in with the woOOoo duel between Thanos and Drax, so this big purple guy is kind of a lot more interesting now … wait. He’s in love with Death, like the actual entity Death? And wants to become God because he wants to annihilate the Earth for her? … This uh seems a little different from the Kree-Skrull war … And did you ever really look at your hands?

starlincaptainmarvelLike all good trips, that’s just the start to cresting toward the peak. Mar-Vell’s supposed to be (yawn) fighting some damn minion, that Controller guy or whatever, but meets Eon … decides war is wrong … confronts the soulless husk of his lover Una (which is totally ewww actually) … becomes cosmically aware … and blond (?) … fights his inner demon (PLU-TOW! KER-TOOM! KAK!) … looks like the universe, facially, sometimes … For all my flipness, it’s actually pretty harsh stuff, and resonant for those who’d grappled over and over with how being a soldier was or wasn’t moral relative to war.

There’s a book connection that I’d like to track down one day: Dan Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior, published in 1980 – but I think his counseling and publicity preceded the book by some while, so whether that ties into Starlin’s work here, I don’t know. The content is significantly similar.

And then after that it’s mopping up minions, and finally defeating Thanos who does not handle Cube-induced godhood well, and whose crush on Death is a little … idealistic if he thinks she reciprocates it in any way he can understand. The Avengers get to come along and get bashed about once in a while so we remember this is a Marvel comic book too.

I think of this material as gonzo Thomas by way of Steranko – wonderfully full of events, ideas, and occasional character moments, but still convinced it’s about the named/title heroes except that they don’t do much, tied down a little by an excess of shoehorned continuity, full of lengthy explanations, and too easily distracted. The plot freely trades between excellence and complete irrelevance (the Blood Brothers? Rick’s totally uninteresting girlfriend?). Mar-Vell doesn’t really utilize the Aware stuff, for instance; it comes off as not-very-good spider sense. Snippets make the difference – getting turned elderly, bald, and toothless, then shattering the Cube anyway, for example. Hold onto that thought for a moment.

warlock15… and then … well, it’s time for Warlock. I wish I could see the conversation which started that: “Hey, can I do something with that Warlock guy?” “Didn’t I crucify him?” “Yeah, but I have this idea …” Talk about your blank slate, having been the Jewish Messiah and then the Christian Jesus, and now … wand’rin’ about the spaceways with that surfer ‘do, a big red cape, and a gopher skull (or something) on his chest. The apprenticeship is over – no more Thomas template, no more homages to Ditko. Starlin is flexed now, and for whatever reason, crazy free, completely uninterested in his nominal editorship (Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, transplanted from DC), and he decides that he could well do this Metal Hurlant thing on his own. Time to bring Thanos back too!

Here, the matured Thanos is himself not understandable without his own villain, and guess who that is. If there is anything to bitch about in the crowning Warlock run of Starlin’s cosmic zap, it’s that the Magus never got a whole issue of his own in which to wreak ordered, life-affirming, light-glowing, atrocious havoc.

warlock magusI hope it’s redundant to explain the whole metaphysical Warlock deal, right? You’ve got this golden-skinned ex-messiah soul-gem wearing guy who wonders who he is and what all his power is for … and he discovers his future self is going to be the autarch of the worst, most oppressive, most extensive, most authoritarian religious institution in history. He has no idea how he, himself, could possibly turn out that way. But see, the point is that Adam is alive, practically the embodiment of idealistic and ferocious love for life, and this is what life does: it establishes hierarchies, complicates, ritualizes, proliferates, extends itself, impacts the environment, and above all, inflicts pain. Life may be “wonderful” in an abstract or metaphysical sense, but give it time – agony, suffering, oppression, and horror are on their way.

All this could well have received more dramatic expression, and in retrospect the Magus got short shrift in story terms. He fascinates me with the hints of his internal life and experiences, especially since they haven’t seemed to deprive him of Adam’s likeable dark humorous streak.

To Adam … remember, there’s no escape from the In-Betweener!

To the green lass … return to your master, whoever he may be, and tell him the Magus is now aware of him and will deal with him in due time!

And, to Pip … if I ever see your face again, I’ll step on it!

Originally in Metal Hurlant, 1980/81

1980/81

It’s as if, just as Adam was able to tell his own editors and publisher to fuck the hell off an issue or two ago, now the Magus is doing the same to his own author. “Yeah? You think you can keep this guy from turning into me? Ha!” Maybe that’s why he never got that issue of his own … So powerful, so much fun, and so meta that he’d simply take the whole damn thing over, fro and all. (You do realize that the original Ron Post is a partial homage to the Magus, right? Uh-huh.)

thanos2Right, so here you are, trying to kill yourself in the future before you become this horrible person in the farther future, and what better way to commit “cosmic suicide” than team up with this over-wide tinpot dictator guy who happens to be in love with actual Death (still)? The guy who’s into “everything must die and let’s hurry that up” is the only force that can help cancel the Magus’ future existence, although not, note, able to take him down face to face. (Yes, the Magus punches out Thanos. Think about that for a second.) Even better, the Cosmic Cube debacle seems only to have improved him, as he’s really good at time-travel games now – e.g. having bred a green-lady assassin in the future because he needs her now – and he does a lot less ranting and boasting in favor of not-half-bad philosophical smack talk.

I like to think this album nicely features the Magus and Thanos:

Much hijinks ensue such that Adam’s cosmic suicide comes about, including abstract entities and funky panel layouts not seen since Ditko took a hit of something (not LSD? well then, maybe getting laid, maybe contradictory libertarian tracts, something that rocked his head anyway) and got strange with Doctor Strange. It’s still full of page-long explanations and the occasional ass-pull (like why Thanos even still exists after the Mar-Vell story), but they read better somehow. There’s a space shark. The soul gem turns out not to be Stormbringer after all. Tragic near-liaisons with Thanos’ assassin-lady and the Magus’ high priestess are involved. And the ending is even more fun as the whole soul-gem subplot turns out to be one of the most surprisingly nice-and-decent … if problematic (yes!) story outcomes in comics and science fiction.

I have no idea whether I’ve managed to set up my case: that Thanos is now a character in a story. He exists exquisitely placed for Adam’s problem. He does not exist as an independent entity, in a “universe.” He’s part and parcel of this story, these conflicts, and the decisions this particular hero must make. It’s made more fun because the most dangerous villain is actually the hero, so you can draw Lit Crit diagrams about protagonists and anti-villains and inversions all day if you want. Put it into the larger context of politicized and psychedelic SFF and into the even larger cultural investment in trippiness at the time, and you’ve got yourself a genuine Cultural Phenom to talk about.

This is why cosmic villains are awesome: they force the heroes to be not standard heroes, and for the story not to be a comic-book super-story. Power-Bob can’t punch’em inna face, or at least, not finish them off that way.Yet the awesomeness is also perhaps too much. The story is, in addition to being so grand, so topical and so personal that it’s almost automatically relegated to the status of an artifact. You can’t read the story as if it were “a comics storyline” in any context similar to say, “Days of Future Past” or whatever it was that Daredevil did last week. I wince when someone talks about how cool Thanos is. He’s not “cool.” He’s not on-tap for villainy-of-the-week. To make him a character inhabiting the Marvel ‘Verse is to lose him entirely, so he’s just the Purple People Eater once again.

This is also why cosmic superhero comics carry in them the seed of their own destruction. They’re meta or deconstructive by definition, and that leads to all kinds of difficulty with decent plotting, solid endings, story possibilities in the future, and the marketing of a ‘Verse.

Links: Cosmic (multi-post tag at the Long Box Graveyard)

Next: Dark Omen

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on September 17, 2015, in The great ultravillains and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Seeing the vision that Starlin had of organized religions (see Dreadstar’s Lord Papal for another example), in hindsight is not so strange that he had the (Counter-Earth) “Jesus” (who died on the cross in “Incredible Hulk” of all places, and returned to defeat “the beast” after a few days) look at what his “Church” (and himself) would become in the future…. and decide to kill himself to avoid the creation of that Church!

    And, by killing the “Messiah”, Warlock is finally able to find Heaven…. mmmmm…

    (By the way, did you read his Metamorphosis Odissey – The Price – Dreadstar cycle?)

    Lacking the references of the american culture of the time, I still wonder… why the afro? There is some cue to be found in the hair of the Magus?

    About the “Cosmic Entities”, probably the earlier one is the Observer. He was at the time of his first appearance only a guy who lived on the Moon, not something so “cosmic”, but as you say, even Galactus was simply as guy who did eat planets at the time of his first appearance (and he even used machines to strip the planed and make it edible…). Probably the first guy that was totally really “cosmic” in the later sense was Eternity in his first, majestic apparition in Doctor Strange (the way he was presented by a series of stories about his mystery, the way he was depicted as the entire universe, as all-powerful and remote, so that no mortal apart from the Ancient One ever found him. And “nobody can speak in the presence of Eternity”. He was by far a more possible “Christian God” than Galactus (but Eternity was much lessened by later authors that tended to depict him as a sort of cosmic crybaby that anybody can call at any time just to kick his ass…)

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  2. I read only some of the Dreadstar comics from the early 1980s, but didn’t ever manage to follow the whole story. I plan to catch up on post-70s Starlin some day.

    All I can think of regarding the Magus’ attention-grabbing hairstyle is the brief fad for sparkling silver or gold afros in theater and TV at the time, and the way that the Magus acts a little campy and stagey. It’s almost like the future Church is going to be a huge and spectacular Broadway production. Perhaps unrelated, this is also the time that white people with wiry hair finally started growing it out into fuller styles, without greasing it down, a sight not seen in many decades, perhaps as much as a century.

    I do like seeing the completely cosmic beings like Eternity and Eon in the stories, but they aren’t as interesting to me as the characters who more or less ascend to the level of perceiving such beings, but are still human in their strange ways – Galactus and Thanos obviously being the standouts, and as I see them, not at all eligible for the term “god” unless one thinks of that term as merely very very powerful.

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  3. If I remember correctly, Ron was of the opinion that the term Afro wasn’t used much back then. But in my experience, certainly by the very-late 70’s it was common enough to inspire the term “Jewfro” – I had several friends at the time whose hairstyle received that label. I’d guess there’s more Middle East than Africa in the hair of The Magus … but just a guess, connecting up the whole Jesus/religion thing is almost TOO neat (and maybe problematic, but – here, in this blog, I guess I should say “Yay, also problematic!”).

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    • The culture moved swiftly in this period. “Natural” was late 60s and possibly before – might even have been associated with US or the more general sentiment represented by that organization. My experience with it typically came from black acquaintances who felt strongly that it not be appropriated, and I think of it as spoken with a certain inflection all the up through the mid-late 80s.

      I haven’t studied the matter, but I’m pretty sure that by the time of the Warlock story I’m talking about (’75), “afro” or even “fro” was well-established as a more mainstream term for the hairstyle. But instead of one term replacing another for the same phenomenon, I think it’s a matter of different terms with distinct regional and subcultural meanings.

      Whether the Magus’ hairstyle codes black or blackness or anything of the sort, will probably be someone’s Master’s thesis investigation some day. I was just thinking though about how many white characters in TV and movies suddenly featured dandelion fros though, right about then. Godspell, right? So it might not. It might also simply mean outrrrrrageous, especially given the silver frosting. The Magus carries his soundtrack with him even more than Thanos does, and you can bet that soundtrack has a four-woman backup vocals team and a horn section.

      (Both Adam and the Magus have SF skin colors, but as you guys know, I think all characters are strongly ethnically tagged, not always coherently but in some way or ways.)

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      • Yeah, “back then” is pretty vague – I should have realized you were talking about an earlier phase with Natural. At the moment, and with the Godspell reminder, I’d say the hair codes “Jesus.” Ethnicity … eh, you know, here I kinda hope it’s NOT important. Then again, as you say, Ron, theses (thesis’s?) may demand to be written.

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        • I think you’re right. In retrospect, I really should have run with the Godspell angle a bit more. “Jesus fro” really was a thing, which I now remember I knew. And I was in a production of Godspell myself, in 1983, although not in the lead, but which was more than a brief school or community one-off. It’s a hell of fun musical, but I’ve never liked it as a play, as it’s basically candy-ass Sunday School yap. The look certainly took though.

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  4. The only Thanos I’m super familiar with (and, as it happens, really dig), is the one from early in the Ultimate FF run, the Godwar miniseries, with its ersatz Forever People who are actually cooler than what they’re pastiching. Not to mention the Acheron, with their stardrakes and drakelighters, whom the MCU’s “Chitauri” are clearly based directly on.

    Ultimate Thanos is self possessed, calm even when things are going to shit around him- none of the standard supervillain flipout in defeat. He’s better than that. He’s better than you. Even if you think you’ve won, he got what he wanted. Your victory, your perception of victory, is meaningless to him. And all he really wants is Order. Is that so bad?

    I mean, secretly, he’s a total coward who wants to bring everything under his sway because uncertainty terrifies him, but you’d never know it while he’s calmly crushing whole star systems under his bootheel and repurposing all life to the Acheron cause.

    I feel like I’ve ranted this rant before, so apologies if I’m being repetitive.

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    • I haven’t seen you talk about it before whether here or elsewhere, so it’s good to know. I think Thanos’ cowardice, or romanticism perhaps – who can tell the difference? – is a key element. To bump it back to the 70s story I’m talking about, there’s a lot less introspective dialogue, but that element is still there. In fact, that’s probably the biggest distinction between the Magus and Thanos – the former literally fears nothing, not even anything about himself. Only in the very last second just before his defeat does he suddenly realize maybe a bit of self-doubt would have been a good idea.

      Bonus psychedelic points for the word “self” in that paragraph being entirely literal – in fact, the protagonist.

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