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.
So, 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.
But 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.
Then 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?
Like 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.
… 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.
I 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!
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.)
Right, 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
Posted on September 17, 2015, in The great ultravillains and tagged Adam Warlock, Captain Marvel, cosmic zap, Dan Millman, Darkseid, Galactus, Jim Starlin, Magus, Mar-Vell, Mephisto, Rick Jones, Ron Post, Roy Thomas, Thanos, Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.