Thursday, June 7, 2012

Marvel Firsts: The Terrible Titan -- Thanos

Iron Man #55 (February 1973)
"Beware...Beware...Beware The Blood Brothers!"
Plot, pencils, and character conceptions: Jim Starlin
Scripter: Mike Friedrich
Inker: Mike Esposito

Karen: With all the hub-bub over the Avengers flick, we thought it appropriate to do a Marvel Firsts featuring none other than that devotee of death, Thanos. Although the mad Titan would become best known for his appearances in Captain Marvel and later, Warlock, his first appearance took place in old Shellhead's title. Not only would it be Thanos' first appearance, but it would be our introduction to Drax the Destroyer and the world of Titan as well. Iron Man seems like an unlikely place for a cosmic tale, and this one-off story has little to do with the Golden Avenger. From what I understand, it was just a case of certain opportunities converging: Starlin got to work on the book, he had all these crazy ideas, and Friedrich went along with it.

Doug: Yes, it is interesting, and unexpected, that these characters got their start here. Although the Avengers would cross paths with many members of the Starlin-mythos through the years, I think what you say about opportunism must be the best explanation for the genesis in Iron Man's mag.

Karen: Our tale starts with Drax the Destroyer held prisoner in some energy bonds. He has mentally contacted Iron Man, who has come under attack from the Blood Brothers. These are two Hulk-sized brutes that are giving Iron Man a real tussle. The twins of terror manage to knock him out and soon whisk away on a small spacecraft.

Doug: It's a great-looking splash page, isn't it? And the Blood Brothers are some ugly dudes, huh? This is a different Tony Stark than we're used to in his present depictions -- this Iron Man seems to be strength-first, gadgets-later. I guess I'd think that a quick analysis of the Blood Brothers should have told Tony that brute force was these guys' forte -- speed and guerrilla attacks should have been the prescription for success.

Karen: The space ship arrives at a hidden base somewhere in the American southwest. Inside, we see Drax angrily yelling at his captor, Thanos, who is hidden in shadows. Drax rails against Thanos, who laughs dismissively and stomps off. Drax then goes into flashback mode and we see how he first mentally contacted Tony Stark, right in the middle of a business meeting. This was during the period when Stark Industries was shifting away from making munitions "to ecological research", of all things. Right as Stark is discussing the stock results, he gets a blinding headache -Drax used too much power. Stark excuses himself from the meeting and suits up, assuming he is under psychic attack. We get a page-long look at how his armor comes together. After all the Iron Man films and the high-tech armor there, this seems rather quaint.

Doug: You're right, but I thought it was great. I always wondered how the armor got on with no seams. I thought it was interesting that Tony commented on parts of his armor that were soft or flexible, then hardened once the suit was all joined. This reminded me of Nova's helmet, which if I recall Richard Rider commented was as light as tissue paper until it went onto his head.

Karen: Continuing our flashback, Drax mentally feeds Stark pictures of the planet Saturn and one of its moons, Titan, which is inhabited by a highly evolved, peaceful people. He shows Mentor, Titan's benevolent ruler, and his two sons, Eros and Thanos. Thanos tried to usurp his father's throne and was exiled for it. He went off and built an army from the dregs of the universe. He returned to his homeworld to attack. Fearful, Mentor turned to "the father of fathers," Kronos. This is real Ditko-Dr. Strange territory here, with Kronos shown as a huge disembodied head floating in space. Kronos decides to help Mentor, and shoots a beam of energy into Titan's dead surface, from which springs Drax! Drax was created for one purpose: to destroy Thanos. He attacks the Titan on a world in another system, and their battle is so fierce that it leads to the explosion of the planet. This wounds Drax and Thanos is able to capture him. And that leads us back into the present.

Doug: This was a great sequence, with elements that reminded me of the creation of Wonder Woman in addition to a whole lot of Kirby! I can tell Starlin was just a youngster at this point, and you can feel the energy of all of these idea percolating in his head. Do you suppose editorial said, "OK, Jim -- we'll give you one issue of Iron Man (which is a poor seller so no one will see this anyway) to get this out of your system." and let him run wild for this single issue? Because it would have been a heckuva lot better even if it went over two issues.

Karen: As I recall, Starlin has said in the past he was booted off Iron Man after the next issue, when he and Steve Gerber put together a story that Stan Lee apparently hated! But yes, I wouldn't have minded seeing this as a two-parter. Thankfully, Roy Thomas handed the reigns of the floundering Captain Marvel mag to him and the rest is history. We cut away briefly to Titan, where Mentor, colored purple here just like Thanos, works with the computer ISAAC to find the Destroyer's location. Back on Earth, Iron Man has been brought to Thanos' base by the Blood Brothers. Shellhead plays possum and then blasts the alien thugs with his repulsors, buying some time. He flies off to where Drax is being held and tries to zap his restraints, but it feeds back and knocks him down. Just as he prepares to rise, a huge boot comes down and crushes his hand!

Doug: I like that Starlin draws shards of metal exploding off of Iron Man's glove upon the boot stomp; with even more debris flaking off as Iron Man tries to rise. That's one powerful foot!

Karen: I know, I had to chuckle a bit when I re-read this part, thinking about how Thor does something similar in the Avengers movie! We get our first full look at Thanos and...he's not nearly as impressive as he would eventually be! Although somewhat bulky, he's positively slim compared to his future self. His face also has not taken on that characteristic cragginess we all know and love. But he's as imperious and boastful as ever, as he glowers at Iron Man.

Doug: Have you read about Kirby's Fourth World as an influence on Starlin's pantheon of Titans et al.? There are so many similarities, including in the appearances of Darkseid and Thanos.

Karen: Oh yes, the Fourth World series was an influence for sure, as were the psychology courses Starlin was taking, which is where he got the names 'Eros' and 'Thanos'. I don't know if it's apocryphal, but supposedly Roy Thomas was the one to encourage Starlin to beef Thanos up, saying, "We'll show DC how to do Darkseid right!" Just as Thanos has the recovered Blood Brothers drag Iron Man away, a thin beam of blue light shoots from Titan to pass through the mountain and strike Iron Man's chest beam. It activates and blasts Drax free. The two of them engage in fisticuffs with the Blood Brothers, getting the better of them. But Thanos threatens them, holding a device he says will blow up the entire headquarters. Drax quickly zaps the device, and old Shellhead clobbers Thanos right in the kisser. But he's stunned when the Titan's head cracks in two! It was a robot. I guess Thanos has been taking lessons from Dr. Doom. The two heroes quickly surmise that Thanos has split and they probably should too -suspecting a trap. No sooner do they come flying out of the hidden fortress than the whole thing is blown to pieces. The allies stand on a ridge as smoke billows out of the mountain. Iron Man says that Drax won't see Thanos for a long time, but the green-skinned powerhouse is not so certain. The two part as friends, as Drax flies off into the night.

Doug: Doesn't this seem like it should have been a Thor story? Iron Man did some Iron Manning, but really a crossover with the more cosmic Asgardians would have seemed more fitting. I could definitely have seen Kirby doing this back in the years when Thor encountered Galactus and Ego the Living Planet.

Karen: This was an enjoyable little story, even if it felt completely out of place here. I didn't read this for the first time until a few years ago, but I wonder what I would have thought if it had been my introduction to the Starlinverse. As it was, the Captain Marvel books blew my mind, although in a good way. Starlin's art here is rough, but some of his trademarks are already present, like his panel layout. The refinement would come later. The Kane-like anatomy he'd later adopt is absent; here, I see an interesting amalgam of Kirby and Ditko -not surprising, since both were huge influence on Starlin. Of course, by starting out in Iron Man, it gave him a good excuse to bring the Avengers into the Thanos story in both Captain Marvel and again in Avengers Annual. And, of course, it gave a reason to put Thanos in the Avengers movie!


Matthew Bradley said...

In a sense, I might consider this the single most important comic book ever created, because it laid the groundwork for my personal favorite Marvel saga, the first Thanos War. I love the whole random element of Starlin getting this one shot to introduce his characters and concepts (much like his then being given another sales-challenged book, CAPTAIN MARVEL, as a vehicle), and frankly am glad that they debuted here rather than in THOR. Certainly back in the Silver Age, THOR and the FF were the forums in which the building blocks of the Marvel Universe were introduced, but I like the fact that Starlin's "crazy ideas" got their start here, in a mag without so much other baggage to carry.

That splash page alone is enough to give me a frisson, with our dramatic first look at one of my all-time favorite characters and the kind of heightened dialogue that elevates my pulse rate. I didn't get this issue until a few years later, after reading several of Starlin's Mar-Vell issues when they first appeared, and to see so much of his vision already fully formed here is quite amazing. And there's always a special place in my heart for writer-artists like The Two Jims (Steranko and Starlin), just as there is for writer-directors in the cinema.

On top of that, this is Iron Man as I knew and loved him, not the smug and bulky Robert Downey Jr. model. And I think Friedrich and Esposito complemented Starlin's incredible outpouring of creativity quite well. In short, this is cosmic, epic, an instant masterpiece, but one that would only be outdone by Starlin's subsequent efforts. Can't wait to read what I gather is your forthcoming take on its MARVEL FEATURE counterpart.

I presume you guys will do something on Bradbury's passing?

William said...

Man, I loved Iron Man back then. He was so much cooler before they turned him into the manga robot that he is today. I loved the simple, elegant design of his armor (which is what he should still be wearing), and the fact that he was just basically super strong, super tough and could fire repulsor rays. Plus he was a real super hero then. That's what made Marvel's heroes different from DC's. They weren't over the top powerful. They had weaknesses and vulnerabilities and they were real, (not things like Kryptonite and the color yellow). Iron Man's armor made him tough back then, but not god-like. The man inside could still be knocked out by a powerful blow from a super-strong adversary.

This issue looks awesome. I have the "Iron Man: Complete Comic Collection DVD" that has every issue of Iron Man from his first appearance until around the year 2003 or so. I'll have to pop it in and check this entire issue out.

Anonymous said...

Just for extra Smarty-pants points, can I be the first to point out that Thanos’ slow-burning, multi-comic an unknown quantity in Iron Man #55, Marvel Feature #12, Daredevil and controlling the Controller in the background of Captain Marvel, before taking centre stage in that classic CM run, kind of echoes the lead up to the Avengers movie, with Fury at the end of IM, the discovery of Thor’s hammer, Stark talking to General Ross, Cap going into the ice, the cube being found at the end of Thor etc, so it was rather nice & full-circle that the Avengers movie ended with the introduction of Thanos.

I like a bit of presaging.


Doug said...

Do you all like the way Starlin shaded Iron Man's nose? Setting it up for the Nose Mask that would come later! That was my Iron Man.

Matthew, in regard to Bradbury -- Karen and I discussed it yesterday, but I don't think either of us has strong feelings one way or another. We certainly recognize the man's contributions to science fiction in particular and to literature in general, but no -- we hadn't planned anything. How's this -- today if anyone wants to diverge into some Bradbury-love, feel free. We can make this a two-headed thread!

Also, the Marvel Feature we have in store for you is actually #11, the Thing/Hulk issue. I do have #12 in my Essential Marvel Two-In-One, vol. 1, so that book is a possibility for the future. Karen, if you have it let me know, please, and we can perhaps make it happen sooner than later.

William -- I understand economically why Marvel switched to the pay-as-you-go digital comics, but those dvd-roms were heaven-sent, weren't they?? I have ASM, FF, Avengers, and IM. I wish I had the other three!

Richard -- you've been gone again. Do you have a pass back to class?


Anonymous said...

Bradbury tribute and intro of Thanos, 2 birds, 1 stone:

Something Wicked This Way Comes


Matthew Bradley said...

Thanks, Doug. Bradbury-love:

dbutler16 said...

Great post! Very cool to read about the first appearance of Thanos et al. It does indeed seem odd that it would happen in Iron Man, but as you've said, it was a case of opportunity. A two parter would have certainly been more appropriate, but Starlin obviously didn't have that much leash!

It also seems strange to see not only Mentor but Starfox purple, and looking quite a bit different from the guy who joined the Avengers.

I thought it was cool the way Iron Man's armor assembled here. It was funny the way he refers to Drax as "old buddy" when he's just met the guy!

William said...

Yes Doug, I too absolutely love those DVDs. Some of the best comics related merchandise ever created. Especially for what you get for your money ($40 original retail price). I still can't believe they ever even made them. I have Iron Man, Avengers, Fantastic Four, The X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man (of course). Unfortunately I have the original release of the Spider-Man set, which was on 11 CD's instead of 1 DVD, and does not include the annuals. It's still totally awesome, but I kick myself that I didn't go ahead an buy the DVD as well when it first came out, but I procrastinated and now it goes for over $100 online. Also wish I had picked up Captain America and Hulk, but they are both really expensive these days also.

FYI, I have every one of the discs backed up to an external hard drive and they work just the same as they do from the DVDs. It's a great way to keep the original discs in mint condition and ensure you always have a back-up of these very hard to replace collections.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I like Doug's idea that Starlin should have been able to do this in the more cosmic-oriented Thor comic rather than in Iron Man. It would have seemed more "in character" there, whereas it feels awkwardly shoe-horned into Iron Man's world.

Having said that, there is something cool about all of this cosmic stuff happening in Iron Man instead. It was classic example of of the shared Marvel universe that I loved so much, where literally anything could happen and everything was connected.

It all worked out pretty well in the end anyway, didn't it?

Matthew Bradley said...

Guess I'm in the minority here on the desirability of the "Starlinverse" debuting in IRON MAN rather than THOR, but think about it. First, since Thor already has such a complex mythology of his own, wouldn't it get rather dense if you tried to "shoe-horn" the Titans in there as well? Second, since Starlin's stuff is more SF than mythology, isn't it more appropriate to have it debut with a character like the high-tech Shellhead than with a Thunder God?

Just sayin' is all.

Inkstained Wretch said...

Regarding Ray Bradbury, he was one of my favorite authors and I read most of his stuff in grade school and junior high. There is a sense of whimsy to his writing that other science fiction authors did not seem to have. I liked his sense of nostalgia too. The short story collections are the best, frankly.

It is sad that he's gone, but he was, what, 91? That's a good long life with a lot of wonderful stories left behind for the rest of us us to share. We should all be so lucky.

Just a few months ago, I finished reading one of his latter-day books, Death Is A Lonely Business (ironic, I know).

As the murder mystery it ostensibly was, it wasn't that good. But as a nostalgic ode the 1940s Venice Beach boardwalk of the 1940s - clearly Bradbury's real intention - it was amazingly evocative. It's a good read if you're looking for something to take with you on vacation this summer.

david_b said...

I've been collecting more 'deluxe format' reprint issues from the early 80s, like the Steranko masterpieces of Cap and SHIELD, so I'm glad to see the Starlin Mar-Vell issues as 'The Life of' series, to be collected next (this issue is among the collection).

For Inkstained reasons, I too love the Marvel Universe.. Thanos and Drax in Iron Man, then Mar-Vell and Moon-Dragon in the pages of Daredevil.., ah, what a small, delightful world this Bronze Age of ours..

This cover did always remind me of the later cover of MF 12, which pitted Benjy and IM once again against the Blood Brothers. That was my first encounter with the BB's, and it was awesome..

As for the DVD's they're super for including the letters pages, which are typically as fun (or more) than the story itself, but wish they were cheaper, and for many of the vintage issues I collect, the nice glossy pages in the Masterworks almost make up for lack of letters pages.


david_b said...

One of my favorite Bradbury quotes has always been..:

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get folks to stop reading them."

Matthew Bradley said...

Gives "Kindle" a whole new meaning.

dbutler16 said...

David B, that quote -
"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get folks to stop reading them." - is, I think, the main point of Fahrenheit 451, not censorship, as many people believe. Frighteningly enough, Bradbury's vision seems to be coming true!

Anonymous said...


book sales are great

Karen said...

William: Great idea about copying the DVDs to a hard drive. I'm going to do that this weekend!

My husband and I have discussed how very different Tony Stark is in the films versus the comics. I like Robert Downey Jr, and he's certainly the main reason the films have done so well with the general public. But the way he throws out wise-cracks, you'd think he was Spider-Man. My memories of Stark/Iron Man are of a guy who was mostly serious, with an occasional joke thrown in. He certainly seemed to be part of the Establishment. In all honesty, he never seemed to me to have a really strong personality. So I don't mind what they've done in the movies, although I suppose it could be upsetting for fans of the character.

Mr.Bradbury's passing is sad news, but he left us so much,and he seemed to lead a very full life. My strongest memory of reading his work is tackling The Martian Chronicles in my early teens and feeling such a sense of loss over the near extinction of the Martians. His writing always managed to evoke a real emotional response. I don't think I can give a writer higher praise than that.

Fred W. Hill said...

From an interview with Starlin I've read some time ago, he says he initially based Thanos more on Metron, the New God character in a chair, but it was Roy Thomas who urged him to beef up Thanos, saying, essentially, "if you're going to rip off one of Kirby's New Gods characters, at least do the good one!" Anyhow, I didn't read this particular issue until Marvel issued a complete reprint (ads, letter pages and everything) in the '90s (I think). My intro to Thanos was in Captain Marvel #27 and that issue really hooked me into the ongoing saga which started in this Iron Man mag. Yeah, a bit out of the ordinary for ol' Shellhead's solo series, but after all this wasn't long after he'd been involved in the Kree-Skrull War as an Avenger and not really more out there than, say, the Cosmic Cube stories in Captain America. Of course, it was Starlin who would make the Cosmic Cube genuinely cosmic.
The art here wasn't nearly as awesome as that in C.M. #27 and later issues or in Warlock, but still very good. Starlin was one of the few artists that synthesized elements from both Kirby & Ditko. I believe even that depiction of Iron Man putting on his armor was similar to one of Ditko's pages from the Tales of Suspense tale wherein Tony ditched his bulky all golden armor for the more flexible gold and crimson.

vancouver mark said...

I also started Captain Marvel with #27, and it immediately became one of my favorite books. Like Black Panther in Jungle Action and Killraven, it seemed even more special and eagerly anticipated by only coming out bi-monthly.
I was able to find #26 soon afterwards in a used bookstore comics bin. But this was a year or two before the first Comicshop opened here, so I could only dream about getting a Captain Marvel #25, let alone an Iron Man#55.

When the first comic store opened here those were two of the first back issues I rushed to find, along with the issues I was missing of the Kree/Skrull war.

That would be an interesting discussion topic: for those old enough to remember life before comic stores, what were the first back issues you absolutely had to buy when the opportunity finally presented itself?

William said...

Yes Karen, it's really nice to have all those stored on one hard drive because then you don't have to keep changing out the discs to read them. Plus, like I said, you can then leave the original discs as back-ups. I picked up an extra 225 GB hard drive at Comp USA for about $40.00, and that's all I use it for is my digital comic collections.

Matthew Bradley said...

Okay, I'll start the ball rolling: for me, the must-haves were the missing pieces of the Avengers/Defenders War and, you guessed it, the first Thanos War in CAPTAIN MARVEL et al.

William said...

Just realized that this story is reprinted in the awesome, must own trade paperback "The Life and Death of Captain Marvel" which includes the entire first Thanos Epic.

Anonymous said...

Hey Guys,
I know it's a little late, but, today I met Jim Starlin at the Albany, NY, Comicon, and, between signings, got a moment to chat with him about this topic and BAB and he said he'll likely check it out.
Anonymous in NY

Karen said...

Anonymous in NY, thanks for mentioning BAB to Jim Starlin. I was able to interview him back in 2008 for my Back Issue article on Warlock and Jim was a great guy, very easy to talk to and quite forthcoming. I'd love to interview him again about Captain Marvel!

Edo Bosnar said...

Just received my Essential Captain Marvel vol. 2 in the mail 2 days ago (took longer to arrive than I expected) and am now slowly going through it (got a ton of work lately that's been cutting into my reading time). Anyway, I just read the IM #55 chapter this morning on the ride to work.
As noted by both Karen & Doug and the many (now slightly over 1 year-old) comments, it's really weird that the Starlinverse was introduced in Iron Man. Doug's point that a 2-parter would have been better for this story is apt, but I also have to marvel at how much story was packed into this single issue. Also, I love Drax - great character and great design.

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