Waiting for the Trade – Thanos

Waiting for the Trade
By Bill Miller
Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos
by Jim Starlin and Ron Lim
Collects Silver Surfer 34-38 and Thanos Quest 1-2.
Why I Bought This: I love cosmic Marvel and few stories in Marvel history are as great as The Infinity Gauntlet. This book serves as the prelude to that one.
The Plot: The short non-spoiler version is Death resurrects Thanos and charges him with killing half the population of the Universe. In the course of going about the task Thanos comes up with a new scheme to seize ultimate power. This is in my view one of the all time great stories so if you haven’t read it before you may wish to skip the spoilers before reading it yourself. That said you’ve been warned.

Chapter 1 – Surfer finds himself on a lifeless planet and decides to let himself sleep for the first time in years. He dreams of Death’s palace, where she is debating the resurrection of an unnamed evil spirit who had served her in the past in order to correct the great imbalance. Suddenly Death is aware of Surfer presence and the spirit blasts Surfer out of the palace causing him pain and making Surfer question if this is just a dream. The dream shifts and he is on an overpopulated planted where the aliens are sacrificing an infant into a volcano. Surfer rescues it only for it to mutate and attack him. He awakens and wonders what it all means only to turn and find Thanos resurrected and admitting to being the spirit in the dream.
Chapter 2 – Thanos takes Surfer on a tour of the universe (including a stop at Earth for some social commentary) via his teleporting chair and explains the great imbalance is that more beings are alive now than had ever lived before. Death wants this rectified and has tasked Thanos with killing half the universe’s population. He asks Surfer to step aside for the greater good, to which Surfer refuses. Surfer then learns that their teleporting has spread diseases/bacteria (that normally die in space/atmospheric reentry when Surfer travels on his board) from one planet to the next. Surfer returns to a utopia they had visited and heals those he can but half the planet is already dead as Thanos had traveled through time as well. However the time travel alerts Chronos, a time-entity in Marvel’s cosmic pantheon that presides over Thanos’ homeworld Titan, that Thanos has returned to life and so he resurrects Drax the Destroyer to stop him.
Chapter 3 – Surfer journeys to Avengers Mansion to get information on Thanos from Cap and we get a summary of the two major Thanos stories Starlin wrote in the 70s: where he conquers the universe with the Cosmic Cube and tries to destroy the universe with the Infinity Gems. Later in space Surfer is bothered by the Impossible Man (a shape-shifting imp who occasionally bothers the Marvel heroes out of silliness/boredom not malevolence).
Chapter 4 – Surfer journeys to Titan to speak with Thanos’ father Mentor. We get probably the most comprehensive Thanos origin ever printed, giving his age to be about 100, and stating he spent 80 years in space honing his craft and gathering followers before returning to the Solar System and appearing in comics in the 1970s. Drax then shows up and wants to accompany Surfer in tracking Thanos. However Drax has brain damage from being killed (Moondragon had telepathically fried his brain in the Avengers about 100-issues prior to this story), he also has Hulk level strength now, which is a big step-up from when he was last alive, so Surfer is less than gung ho for having Drax come along. Thinking back to his encounter with Impossible Man he tricks Drax into watching television at FF HQ and then slips away.
Chapter 5 – Nebula (an Avengers foe who had been presented as Thanos granddaughter and had about five-years of stories as an A-list threat while Thanos was dead) is onboard Thanos’ old spaceship Sanctuary II (basically a Death Star) when Thanos decides to reclaim his property. He denounces any kinship with Nebula and sets her on fire. The members of the crew that served under him quickly switch loyalties, but one of Nebula’s crewmen manages to hide her and tends to her wounds in secret. Thanos decides to allow Surfer to find him and they battle with Thanos seemingly being disintegrated down to his bones. Surfer takes the body back to Titan, while Thanos reveals he had altered one of Nebula’s crew to look like him to get Surfer off his scent.
Chapter 6 – Thanos is back in Death’s realm gazing into a magic well that possesses all knowledge in the universe. He meets with Death and asks for permission to acquire the Infinity Gems again in service to his mission for her, noting that with his current power level it will take him centuries to complete his mission. Noting the gems are in the possession of some of Death’s recent enemies (specifically the InBetweener and the Elders of the Universe, both of whom had thwarted Death in issues of Silver Surfer and Avengers in the two years prior to this story), Thanos gets her to grant permission. Thanos finds the InBetweener imprisoned in a distant dimension by Master Chaos and Lord Order (more cosmic pantheon beings). He frees him from his prison, then takes the Soul Gem from him and teleports away leaving him to face the justice of Chaos and Order. Next he encounters the Champion, who has Power Gem thus making him infinitely strong. Champion lives to fight so Thanos challenges him to a duel and using force fields and his teleporter tricks him into breaking the planet they stand on to pieces. Champion cannot fly and so Thanos barters the gem from him in return to taking him to another planet. Finally Thanos meets the Gardener on his gardening world. Thanos offers to let Gardner live in appreciation for the gardening world he has created with his gem, Gardner refuses the offer even though he knows he is outclassed. They battle with Gardner using his control of plants to attack Thanos but Thanos endures it without moving and uses the Power Gem to accelerate Gardner’s power beyond his control. He takes the Time Gem and departs.
Chapter 7 – Thanos meets with the Collector to see if he would be open to trading his gem, Collector is willing if he can acquire something rarer. Thanos then battles the Runner, who moves at speeds beyond comprehension and batters Thanos into submission. However Runner then stops to gloat and Thanos uses the Time Gem to reduce him to infancy taking his Space Gem, which Runner had been subconsciously using to enhance his speed. He then returns to the Collector and trades the baby Runner for the Reality Gem, which Collector had never figured out how to work, as prior to this story it was believed all six gems were Soul Gems and not divergently powered. This leaves the Grandmaster for last, another A-list Avengers foe and the most powerful of the Elders; he lives his life for cosmic games of chance. Grandmaster booby traps his gem knowing he can’t win a battle of gems against Thanos and instead challenges him to a winner takes all virtual reality video game. Thanos outplays him, but Grandmaster has rigged the game; however Thanos had sent in a robot duplicate ahead of him and in the real world short-circuits the game while Grandmaster is still hooked up to it leaving him catatonic. He then takes the Mind Gem and then combines the six gems into the Infinity Gauntlet using the Power Gem at the base to provide infinite power to the other five so that their range is now universe-spanning instead of just localized as prior users had used them. Thanos returns to Death’s realm and wants to claim her as his queen but she shows disdain for him and he leaves despondent over her rejection.
Critical Thoughts: Let’s begin with Ron Lim’s art because it is fabulous. This is what is cosmic Marvel is supposed to look like. It has quite simply never looked better, particularly the final two chapters (the Thanos Quest books) where the colors are just gorgeous as the pencils. Lim would go on to have lengthy run on Surfer and the three major Infinity crossovers (the first sharing duties with George Perez) and all of it was perfection.
The writing is very, very good. Starlin clearly loves Thanos more than any other character he writes: he took him from title to title in the 70s and his first action on Surfer’s book was this story arc. Thanos under Starlin is a villain with unique motivations (his love of the actual cosmic entity Death), complex schemes and brutal power yet still prone to nuance such as enjoying the Gardner’s garden or mentioning that he believes in keeping his word (or in later example showing his tenderness to his foster daughter Gamora after she was beaten and possibly raped in the pages of Infinity Watch).
At the same time Starlin does have a tendency to ignore the work of other writers when it comes to these characters, which I see as a bit of flaw in any writer’s work in this medium. (This was most obvious in Infinity Abyss, a story Starlin seems to have written for the express purpose of retconning out of his existence work other writers had done with Thanos—although in Starlin’s defense they were some really bad stories.) We see a little of that in this story with his treatment of Nebula, who is barely an after-thought to Thanos and runs from him in terror when he reveals himself to her. Now yes, Nebula’s base power-level isn’t in Thanos’ league but in Avengers her schemes were every bit as complex as his, and with just as high a success rate. In her most recent appearance prior to this story Nebula managed to steal from another of Marvel’s cosmic entities the Stranger, destroyed the entire universe and when it was recreated elevated herself to omnipotence; yet Starlin has her a mere space pirate who runs in terror from Thanos when he confronts her. As a huge fan of Nebula (she may very well be my favorite villain in all of comics, because she was a hell of an Avengers villain during my teen years and that’s the age when you glom onto these characters on visceral level) I find the way this scene is written irksome, but it’s a not deal-breaker if only because A) Nebula is an expert strategist and knows she’s outclassed so what other options does she have, and B) Starlin redeems his treatment of her thoroughly in the Infinity Gauntlet series.
A few other scattered notes: I love the writing in the first chapter with Surfer’s dream. I find the social commentary in chapter two a little heavy-handed and too Earth-centric for what is a universe-wide cosmic tale. Ron Lim also draws a hell of a Cap. I hate the Impossible Man in just about every story I’ve ever seen him and this is no exception. Drax returning as brain-damaged is a hell of nod to prior continuity.
My only other complaint is I wish the Surfer issues up to #50 were also here (or at least in a different trade) because that’s also part of the Infinity Gauntlet prelude.
Grade: A. The art is an A+ and two Thanos Quest chapters are clearly A+ also (Hell they are more like the A+ from Christmas Story that keeps plus-ing around the room, they are that good.) But the criticisms about chapters 2 (social commentary that feels shoe-horned into the tale) and 3 (I really have no use for the Impossible Man) drop the trade as a whole to just a regular A. Of course an A is still a grade of near perfection with a very high recommendation to buy this and read it if you haven’t already.