Thursday, November 08, 2007

Hello Cosmic Part 5: The Death of Captain Marvel and The Thanos Quest

The Death of Captain Marvel has me conflicted. On the one hand, I didn't actually find much to it beyond the novelty of killing Captain Marvel with cancer. On the other hand, shit, it's still pretty damn good. The basic plot is that in the last issue of his series, he fought Nitro, a deadly biological weapon was released near him, he sealed up the container and he developed cancer. Now, eight years later, his powers are unable to keep him alive--which they had been doing and, ironically, are the reason why no one can cure his cancer when, logically, the great minds of the Marvel universe should be able to. They even gather together to do so, but the cancer has mutated so much to overcome the influence of Marvel's nega bands that it is impossible to cure--that, and the nega bands also prevent any cure from having much effect.

Starlin throws in the odd fight scene because it's a superhero comic, but it's really just one long story about Mar-Vell dying and how people react. Rick Jones is angry, Spider-Man can't deal with it, a Skrull presents Mar-Vell with a medal for being such a worthy foe, and there are a bunch of other people, too.

The bit that hit me the most (and I loved as a kid the most) is the actual process Mar-Vell goes through when he dies. Mar-Vell, bed-ridden and surrounded by friends, dies in his sleep, except to introduce what happens in his mind, Starlin, over five panels, slowly morphs Mar-Vell's face into that of Thanos. Thanos, last seen as a statue basically, comes to life and finds Mar-Vell in bed alone. He doesn't like seeing Mar-Vell weak, so he gets him up and in costume and they fight in a weird netherzone. And then, all of Mar-Vell's dead enemies attack him, including a version of himself. He then confronts Death and embraces her/it--the trio (Mar-Vell, Thanos and Death) go into the light--and, in the real world, he dies.

It's unusual (especially then) for a hero to die in such a way, which is what a few characters say. One of the reasons why this story is so powerful is that very reason: superheroes don't die from cancer or something so, sadly, normal and ordinary. They die in spectacularly stupid, grandoise ways that make for interesting reading, but little emotion often. One thing that Marvel has done right is not resurrecting Mar-Vell--although, they kind of did that during Civil War, eh? I know, I know, death isn't permanent in comics, but this one always seemed like it should be that one tha never gets undone.

The question that occurs to me is the nature of the fantasy at the end. Was it all created by Mar-Vell's mind? Is that what actually happened? Did Thanos really come and usher Mar-Vell's soul into Death's realm? Interesting choices.

The Thanos Quest is probably my favourite Thanos story. This is Thanos at his most focused, devious, intelligent and passionate. During Starlin's run on Silver Surfer, Death brought Thanos back to life so that he could correct what she sees as an unbalance: at the current time, more people live in the universe than have died combined. She wants the number of the living to be less than the number of the dead as the latter is cumulative--so, she has charged Thanos with the task of killing half of the universe's population. Sounds simple, eh?

The two-issue prestige-format mini begins with Thanos gazing into the infinity well and getting the idea to obtain the six Infinity Gems (Thanos names them that after determining the function of each, ony one of them being the soul gem). He gets Death's permission to do so and off he goes to confront six beings more powerful than himself in the hopes of walking away with the most precious items in the universe. A fool in love, you know?

In his trip to his first destination, Starlin sets up just how good Thanos is. He travels on a flying chair, basically. On one page, there is a panel of him flying through some weird dimension taking up a slim column of the left side of the page. The rest is nine panels, all straight-on shots of Thanos from the next up. In the first, third, fifth, seventh and ninth panels, he's normal. In the second, his face is warped; in the fourth, he is crystaline; in the sixth, he melts; and, in the eighth, he shatters. His narration reads:

"My trek takes me through strange myriad dimensions. / Inconceivable realities. / Different planes of existence exert different influences. / A spiritually and physically taxing experience. / For a lesser being this would be a fatal endeavor. / But Thanos endures as always. / Reality, like all outside influences... / ...has minimal effect on my being. / I always hold true to my self. / For I am Thanos... / ...a unique being in any reality."

Right there is the moment where we learn that Thanos will succeed. It also sets up the idea that Thanos really is someone to fear. Starlin plays with this idea in future projects, revealing why Thanos can (and does) lose if he's so powerful.

His first target is the In-Betweener, a prisoner of Lord Chaos and Master Order and possessor of the soul gem. Thanos pretends to betray Death and help free the In-Betweener (who plans on killing Thanos right away), except the In-Betweener finds himself powerless outside of his cell as Chaos and Order were kind enough to allow his power to work while imprisoned, but nowhere else. Thanos takes the gem and leaves the In-Betweener to suffer the wrath of his captors.

Thanos is then confronted by Death (always speaking through a thrall) about his seeming betrayal, but convinces her of his intentions. Except, he's lying. His goal in obtaining the Infinity Gems isn't to be Death's servant more effectively, he's hoping that the power of the gems will put him on par with Death, making their love possible.

His next stop, the Champion--who he beats the shit out of and angers to the point where the Champion destroys the planet they're on. Thanos then trades passage to another planet for the power gem--and then uses his tractor beam to simply toss the Champion in the direction of a planet, as he never promised a soft landing.

The last stop in this issue is the Gardener, another Elder of the Universe. The Gardener knows why Thanos is there and tries to kill him, but Thanos counters and kills the Gardener, using the power gem to turn the Gardener's own abilities against him by increasing them beyond control. Thanos takes the time gem and prepares to collect the final six.

In the second issue, Thanos takes on the Runner, possessor of the space gem. The Runner is basically a gold guy who runs through space. Knowing that he can't match the Runner's speed, Thanos allows himself to be seemingly defeated and baits the Runner into pausing to boast--which allows Thanos to use the time gem to turn this immortal Elder into an old man (he may be immortal, but not ageless) and then just take the space gem. He then turns the Runner into a baby and gives him to another elder, the Collector in exchange for the mind gem, which the Collector thinks worthless--only because it requires imagination and thought, which Thanos argues the Collector has none of. To further show what an utter bastard Thanos is, just as he leaves, the Runner returns to his proper age and beats the shit out of the Collector.

That leaves only the Grand Master, possessor of the reality gem. The two enter into a wager where the winner of a virtual reality game will gain all of the gems. The game is basically a one-on-one shooter where the Grand Master resorts to cheating to defeat Thanos. Except, it's not Thanos--it's a robot and the Grand Master just lost and is left mindless.

With all of the gems, Thanos is now a god and we get six pages of splashes, each devoted to a specific gem. The time gem's page shows Thanos' head at various stages of aging; space has Thanos' face made up of various element in space; mind has Thanos' head open at the top and various men tied to the inside of his head, imprisoned; power shows a silver Thanos roaring with anger and a weird energy pattern in his eyes and mouth; soul has his head made up of the bodies of hundreds of humanoids; and reality contains those five images plus more.

He returns to Death's realm triumphant and ready to take his place by her side. He creates a throne identical to hers and speaks of his newfound power and the reasons why he risked so much to obtain them...

And she still won't speak to him directly. Now, he is as above her as she was him before he had the gems. It would be improper for her to speak to one so powerful directly. Thanos' response is to shred the thrall that speaks for Death and sulk away.

We are left with him at the infinity well, reflecting that he could force Death to speak to him directly and to love him, but that would be meaningless. He's ponders how he could have miscalculated so greatly and the final panel is him shedding a single tear with the narraion, "Who could have guessed that becoming God would prove to be such a hollow victory?"

This is Thanos at his best and worst. His best is how he is able to confront six beings, all more powerful than him, and defeat each and every one of them, often using their own arrogance or thoughtlessness against them. He plans every strategy ahead of time and executes each with precision and skill. Is it any wonder that whenever the Avengers try to take him on, they're completely useless?

He's at his worst, because his ultimate goal isn't power or victory over his enemies--his ultimate goal is the love of a woman who will never love him. He has tried numerous times in the past to win Death's love and failed. This time, he goes beyond anything he's done before and wins the biggest victory possible, only to be rejected again. Here we see Thanos' biggest flaw: he pursues Death's love the way he attacks his enemies. He creates a logical strategy and executes it--but love isn't logical and can't be attacked like that. He never succeeds because, while driven by passion and emotion, he always acts with intellect and cold reason.

Or, it could just be that Death is a bitch. Here we have a guy who basically worships her, will do anything he can for her, risks it all to prove himself and she won't even speak to him. The guy becomes God to prove himself and she doesn't even have the decency to say a single word to him! That is some cold shit right there. It reminds me of the situation where you have the geeky guy (and Thanos is a total geek) who likes a girl, so he does all sorts of nice things for her, helps her study, does everything he can to be a decent guy so she'll like him--but then she goes out with some asshole. Mainly because most people don't want to be with someone who just kisses their ass. But still, a subtle criticism of both men and women there, I think.

This all leads into one of Marvel's best "event stories" of all time, The Infinity Gauntlet, which I'll discuss tomorrow.