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The Reread Reviews — Marvel: The End #1-6

by  in Comic News Comment
The Reread Reviews — Marvel: The End #1-6

For the third instalment in this series, it’s a Jim Starlin book from his most recent stint at Marvel. As always, I’ll probably spoil everything, so keep that in mind.

Jim Starlin is another writer whose work I’ve looked at in great length (I’m trying to get these guys out of the way quickly), but, for those unfamiliar with Starlin, I’ll give a brief overview. Starlin is best known for his work on the cosmic characters at Marvel, first Captain Mar-Vell and, then, Adam Warlock. During his work on the former, he created Thanos and Drax the Destroyer, while during his work on the latter, he created the Magus, Gamorra, and Pip the Troll, all characters he is closely associated with and has worked on extensively. He worked on Marvel’s cosmic characters in three stretches. The first, in the early to mid ’70s were the runs I’ve already mentioned (with a brief return to the characters in 1982’s The Death of Captain Marvel). The second, which lasted from 1990 until 1994 is the one most of you are more familiar with as Starlin began working on The Silver Surfer, which led to The Thanos Quest and The Infinity Gauntlet, which led to Warlock & The Infinity Watch, The Infinity War, The Infinity Crusade, and Warlock Chronicles. Between these two runs at Marvel, Starlin pretty much defined the cosmic element of Marvel’s universe, but he also returned for a shorter, third run that lasted for 18 issues from 2002-2004 with The Infinity Abyss #1-6, Marvel: The End #1-6, and Thanos #1-6 before leaving Marvel (again) to work on creator-owned books and, eventually, for DC (where he’s, surprise surprise, writing their cosmic characters). This third Marvel period is lesser known, but picks up almost immediately where the second ended, ignoring most of what happened between. In this week’s Reread Review, I want to look at the middle book of the trilogy, Marvel: The End, written and illustrated by Jim Starlin with Al Milgrom inking.

In my look at Starlin’s work, I did a post previously on Marvel: The End, enjoying it quite a bit. A few choice quotes from that post:

Despite the fact that the words “The End” are in the title, this series is 100% in continuity. Usually, when Marvel publishes something with “The End” in the title, it takes place in the future and provides a potential ending for the series/characters. Not here, because Jim Starlin just takes shit like that as a jumping off point and then does something to make Joe Quesada’s crazy promises make sense.

In this case, Starlin provides a solution to heroes returning from the dead, namely the fact that doing so destroys the universe.

[…]

I really like the fact that Starlin managed to make the story, partly, about fulfilling an editorial mandate about no more resurrections (since not adhered to). I wonder if he was asked to do that or just decided to take it upon himself. […] Really, the book should be called “Thanos: The End” as that’s what it is in the best sense–the end of Thanos, but in a conclusion that is completely satisfying.

You’ll notice that I skipped over much of the series to the final issue or two, but that’s because those early issues, in the best Starlin fashion, don’t do much beyond set up the final events. That’s not to say that those issues are bad (far from it), they just don’t matter, in a way. Starlin is a master of the filler stories in that they don’t seem like filler until you look at the core of the story and realise how much of it is unnecessary. It never fails to impress me.

I emphasised the connection to Quesada’s editorial mandate and Starlin’s method of constructing his story since, honestly, those are the elements I found most interesting — and still do. But, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the actual plot of this series here as well.

The plot of Marvel: The End is rather simple with the first half acting almost entirely as filler material meant to put Thanos in place for the final three issues. This is the interesting storytelling trick that I noticed Starlin employs on books like these. Go back and read The Infinity Gauntlet or its follow-ups, or, even, his original Captain Mar-Vell and Warlock stories where they fought Thanos: the only characters in any of them who actually accomplish anything are the cosmic characters that Starlin wants to emphasise. The regular Marvel heroes we all know and love? Useless morons who are, at best, used by the other characters as distractions and pawns. At best. By the end of Marvel: The End, the only people who know any of it happened are Warlock and Thanos–and Thanos is “dead” (he apparently isn’t as he shows up a short time later in his own solo series). Starlin clearly understands that those characters have their niche and times to shine and, well, these stories aren’t those. They’re not cosmic characters, they don’t play on this scale, and they’re very, very small in the grand scheme of things. While everyone loves that Captain America stood up to Thanos in The Infinity Gauntlet #4, let’s not forget that he still died and his bravery was completely meaningless.

Really, what this means is that Starlin tells decompressed stories that are essentially “written for the trade,” but fills up the quiet spots with engaging plots that, really, don’t accomplish anything other than entertain the readers. And it works. How many of you ever noticed that he does this?

In Marvel: The End, the Living Pharaoh, Akhenaten comes to Earth boasting immense power and says he’s in charge. He cures cancer and AIDs. He destroys all weapons. He kills the X-Men and any others who oppose him. His involvement in the plot isn’t really important beyond him being a tool for Thanos to discover where he’s getting his power–and, even then, Thanos was already tracking that energy source, so the Living Pharaoh is literally in this comic for the sole reason of making the “Thanos tracks an immense energy source” plot interesting to read. Along with that is a subplot of Doom travelling back in time to kill Akhenaten before he’s abducted by aliens and made the Living Pharaoh, and that subplot serves no purpose in moving the story forward at all. Doom watches, learns, travels back in time, fails. No impact whatsoever, but it runs steadily through the first three issues and is, honestly, entertaining.

What I’m trying to get across is how genius Starlin is at constructing plots and making them interesting. He tells these meaningless, totally worthless subplots with such skill that you don’t notice that the first three issues are really just “Thanos tracks an energy source.” If you look at those issues in a way to determine how the plot moves forward, that’s all that happens. And yet you don’t notice. There’s a lesson there for other writers, I think.

Thanos had actually been tracking this energy source since Infinity Abyss #1, but got sidetracked by a bunch of his clones trying to destroy the universe (clones, I should add, that were actually combinations of Thanos and various characters like Dr. Strange, Professor X, Iron Man (how that worked, I still don’t know), Gladiator, and Galactus–YES! a Thanos/Galactus clone!), which I find interesting. Starlin manages to draw this plot out over two mini-series with lots of “filler” and, unless you’re looking at these books in a very critical manner, looking for his patterns, you just don’t notice. Wonderful.

The final three issues serve two purposes: the final fall and redemption of Thanos; and to fulfill Quesada’s crazy promises. Those are two pretty heavy goals, but Starlin pulls them off.

Thanos (along with the Defenders and Captain Marvel) find the energy source that Thanos calls the heart of the universe, and Thanos takes control of it from the beings who were using it to power themselves. Whenever Thanos achieves power, it’s a step up: the Cosmic Cube was surpassed by the Infinity Gauntlet, which is now surpassed by this power. As Thanos notes, for the first time, he has access to an immense power source that isn’t external to himself as, once he takes hold of this power, he becomes it. The power is him — and Thanos is God. It may seem like we’ve been here before with Thanos — and we have — but Starlin goes in a different direction, pushing things as far as he can.

Events unfold as they usually do: various cosmic beings become aware that Thanos has more power than all of them combined and decide that this cannot stand, so they organise a posse (including the Marvel superheroes that Thanos brought back to life by making it so that the Living Pharaoh’s scheme never happened) and attack Thanos. Thanos, of course, is so powerful that they fail, but, as a result, in a rage, he destroys the universe. Take a look at the cover to issue six — that happens (albeit it’s nothing but black in the comic instead of white).

(Quick tangent time! This series reminds me of that old comic chestnut of automatically attacking anyone who takes over, because they have to be evil. Take the Living Pharaoh here: he shows up, eliminate disease, war, hunger, and poverty. And the heroes want him gone why? Or, Thanos becomes God and everyone decides that that can’t happen? Okay, in the Thanos’s case, he’s got a pretty bad track record of abusing his power, but this knee-jerk reaction bothers me and has ever since watching an episode of the Spider-Man animated series from the ’90s. It was during their adaptation of Secret Wars and, in one episode, the heroes come across Dr. Doom and this village/kingdom he’s ruling. The subjects are happy and living fantastic lives with no wants or complaints. So what do the heroes do? They go “Oh, fuck Dr. Doom, he’s an evil asshole!” and mess the whole thing up! Even as a kid, I could see that they were just jealous that Doom was actually making things better, while all they ever did was stop a mugger or two. I hate superheroes sometimes.)

Part of Thanos’s rage comes from learning that he’s been duped. The previous wielder of the power he now possesses wanted him to take over, to become the new God (I love the religious mockery that Starlin works into his comics), because the universe is dying and nothing can stop it. The constant deaths and resurrections of heroes and villains has messed up the balance between life and death, which has screwed up the basic construction of the universe itself. This is where Starlin turns to Quesada’s editorial mandate…

The editorial mandate (or Quesada’s “crazy promises” as I called them in that post) I’m talking about is how in 2001, Quesada instituted a “dead is dead” policy, and Starlin takes it upon himself in this series to actually explain why the resurrections of heroes and villains are bad — and, then, takes it a step further by making it a universal law that no one can return from the dead. Now, since then, the rule has seemingly disappeared or, as Quesada explains, it was never meant to be set in stone to the point that Starlin implements it:

Eric, nothing has changed. While “dead is dead” is the sound bite that was used, there was a lot more to that statement than just that. I wasn’t advocating that we never bring anyone back, but rather that before we do, our creators think long and hard, not just about how a character gets resurrected, but also if he or she is going to be killed off. What I wanted to prevent was what I saw becoming way too commonplace within Marvel storytelling.

“Dead is dead” was a statement meant to have my editors and our creators think harder before doing these kinds of stories and to think way ahead as to where these events will be taking us. I do think we’ve done a good job for the most part with respect to this. Yes, characters have come back and yes some have died, but I do believe that these stories have taken on a certain level of gravitas because of this policy.

It was a big deal at the time with many fans pissed off that Quesada would dare to make such a proclamation — mostly in cases where their favourite character happened to be dead at the moment (I remember Psylocke and Colossus fans being particularly vocal in this regard).

So, Jim Starlin, here, seemingly uses that mandate as inspiration, first having the cycle of deaths and resurrections doom the universe, but, after Thanos destroys and remakes the universe, it’s impossible for anyone to return from the dead. He consciously creates the universe anew with that stipulation. That the editorial mandate has been somewhat overturned could provide fodder for another story in the future, perhaps.

The fall and redemption of Thanos is a big part of this book, which should have been called “Thanos: The End” as it features the character reaching his logical conclusion. He obtains the power he longed for and sees that his quest for it, as always, was faulty. In a rage, he destroys the universe and finds himself completely alone. That is, until Adam Warlock (who was outside of the universe at the time) arrives and the two talk. The discussion is illuminating as Thanos rationalises everything he’s done, and Warlock pushes him and pushes him until Thanos can’t escape the mistakes he’s made and what he needs to do to make things right.

At which point, Thanos’s ultimate quest reaches its end: Death, the object of his adoration and lust and love since his first appearance, comes to him and says, “Thank you, my dearest,” speaking to him for the first time, and kisses him. After that, what else is there for Thanos? He’s seen the pointlessness of his lust for power, realised his dream/desire to have the love (or at least acknowledgment) of Death… all that’s left is for him to recreate the universe without him in it. And, so, Thanos is no more (until Thanos #1 by Starlin…).

Another element of Starlin’s construction of the story is that it’s all framed as Thanos addressing the reader (we learn in issue six that he’s telling Warlock what happened), and, yes, it’s melodramatic and over-the-top, but it’s epic! His Thanos is bombastic and self-important, but oh so entertaining with speeches like this (the first page of the series):

Not only does Starlin write this, but he also draws it, and it’s gorgeous. I’ve always loved his work (although his art over at DC recently has suffered from horrid inking), and his best work is always when he’s writing and drawing the entire books. I’m not sure what to say about Starlin’s art, which is in a realistic style, but also uses a lot of odd panel layouts at time. I love his trick of having panels break to suggest waking up or a shattering of reality. Issue five of this series has two double-page spreads that I would love to own the art for, with the posse swarmed around Thanos, one spread facing Thanos with beings behind him in space, while the other shows Thanos from behind and the beings in front of him. It’s a wonderful effect.

Or, there’s the way that he draws Adam Warlock here (well, since returning to Marvel with Infinity Abyss), as older, crazier-looking, with a receding hairline. The change is just so odd and unexpected, but works to give the character more weight, a sense of advancement — perhaps matching Starlin?

Marvel: The End is one of my favourite Jim Starlin comics for Marvel, ranking up there with his Warlock material and The Infinity Gauntlet. It accomplishes so much, demonstrating Starlin’s unique manner of constructing stories, fulfilling and explaining an editorial mandate, and acting as a goodbye to Thanos that is everything a fan could want.

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