There are three pairs of big man/little man combos in Thanos vs. Hulk #1. That seems like it should mean something. Starlin has a tendency to pit larger, more muscular characters against smaller, leaner ones, but that’s not exactly what happens here. We have Hulk/Bruce Banner, Blastaar/Annihilus, and Pip/Thanos. These pairs aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, they’re how things tend to shake out more often than not. And, in each case, you could argue that, in this comic, the smaller individual is the one with the power, overtly or covertly controlling the larger individual in some way.
Starlin tends to challenge authority in his work. Governments, religions, the powerful... all are suspect and, usually, brought down at the hands of a seemingly ordinary, regular, or powerless figure. Part of that naturally stems from interesting, dramatic stories tending to come out of the antagonist being more powerful (at least superficially) than the protagonist. If the hero is more powerful, then he’s not a hero, he’s a bully. It goes deeper than simple storytelling logic: it’s about challenging the status quo where the powerful are the biggest and strongest, and their power is absolute. What’s funny is how Thanos’s place in that dichotomy has been very fluid and variable depending on the story being told: next to the Avengers, he’s a powerhouse villain; next to Death, he’s simpering and pathetic. Here, he is seemingly beyond Pip in every way, yet it’s Pip that manipulates him into involving himself in Annihilus’s kidnapping of the Hulk. And the way that Pip does that is by using his seeming pathetic, weak status to make Thanos think he wants one thing when really he wants another. Weakness as the source of power.
Banner’s power stems from two things: the space that he and the Hulk occupy is his, and he genuinely doesn’t care if he lives or dies, while the Hulk is obsessed with survival at any cost. The former doesn’t come into play in a large way, except with how Banner is calm and at ease, sitting patiently, while the Hulk is always moving, concerned about what his presence in that space means. The Hulk sees the unfamiliar environment as a threat automatically, and Banner is at home. The latter points to a truism I’ve often heard about relationships: the person who cares less has the power. Because the Hulk cares about his survival, his courses of action are limited to that which won’t jeopardise that survival; Banner is not only not afraid of the Hulk, he’s not afraid of death anymore (and, as some would argue, he possible embraces an end to his existence on some level), leaving him in a stronger position. He is in control (or at peace with) both his environment and himself, and the Hulk is not.
The Blastaar/Annihilus relationship is a straight forward master/flunky type of relationship as depicted here, except that Blastaar towers over Annihilus, who is downright tiny. From what I’ve gleaned online, this relationship is somewhat new as Blastaar has, typically, been an enemy of Annihilus. But, Annihilus has the people of the Negative Zone with him, giving him power that Blastaar does not have. It’s a case of an outside source providing the power, while previous instances have come from the holder of said power, not externally. And, Annihilus looks to increase his power using the Hulk, suggesting that his power is neither earned nor natural; he has to look outside himself.
Despite his subversions of superficial power structures, many of Starlin’s stories do come down to tests of power in some manner or another. In this issue, he sets up numerous outcomes where all of the players have their own specific power base, leaving the field wide open.