This week's Avengers: Infinity War is in many ways inspired by the 1991 comic book series The Infinity Gauntlet, written by the man who created Thanos, Jim Starlin.
Drawn by George Perez and Ron Lim, The Infinity Gauntlet pitted the heroes in a futile battle against Thanos, for a tale that was both epic and strangely intimate,; equal parts massive battles and existential angst – where the heroes went up against impossible odds, and the villain proved his own worst enemy.
The Infinity Gauntlet proved one of the most enduring superhero tales of the 1990s, spawning numerous sequels, spinoffs, knockoffs, and of course Gauntlet-themed merchandise (anyone ever get the bottle opener?).
Starlin generously took time out of his busy schedule earlier this month to recall the process behind The Infinity Gauntlet, to clear up a few misconceptions, and to explain how Thanos and Death are like a certain classic sitcom couple.
Newsarama: Jim, I know you came up with the character of Thanos very young, and the name came off mis-remembering the name “Thanatos” –
Jim Starlin: No, it didn’t! That’s all wrong!
Nrama: I literally just read that this morning!
Starlin: I know, it’s not just you! [laughs] People were asking me about that. No, “Thanos” is strictly the non-Greek spelling of it. I knew the difference – when I lived in New York, there was a Greek restaurant two blocks down the street from me called “Thanatos,” believe it or not. I don’t know where the story came from, but I’ve just heard it the last couple of weeks! But he was always “Thanos.”
Nrama: So, where did the name come from?
Starlin: That was from a psych class I was taking at Oakland Community College back in Detroit after I got out of the service – the Freudian concept of Thanos and Eros, the darker and lighter side of human nature. Actually, I only learned about Thanatos later on when I moved to New York and saw the restaurant!
Nrama: And so, when you had those two concepts, Thanos and Eros, what really shaped the character itself, particularly Thanos’ love of Death?
Starlin: The character Thanos – I immediately got more interested in the dark side of human nature than the lighter side. So Thanos got developed more quickly than Eros did – it’s only been recently I’ve done anything with Eros.
Basically – we had a lot of free rein when we were working at Marvel back in the 1970s, because they were going from something like eight books a month to 27. So, Roy Thomas was just overwhelmed with books to edit, and he let me go with whatever I wanted. I’d come in and tell him what I wanted to do, and he’d say, “Go for it!”
As for the Death part of it – I came in and I drew this splash panel for one of the stories, I think it was my second Captain Marvel story (Captain Marvel #26), and it had Thanos and Super-Skrull and Death. At first, the character of Death was just a hooded figure I threw in there, and I thought, “Well, who the Hell is this?!”
By the time I got the end of the issue and realized, “It’s Mistress Death.” Somewhere along the line, Thanos’ nihilistic tendencies, which were already at the forefront, really became his driving force. I went back and gave the hooded figure some breasts, and Mistress Death kind of went forward from there.
Nrama: Jumping forward - you inherited the Soul Gem from previous creative teams working on Adam Warlock, and you allude to there being more gems in that last two-part story you did with the Annuals –
Starlin: With the Avengers, yes.
Nrama: But at that time, there was no intention of there being a Gauntlet or anything.
Starlin: Nah, I develop on the fly as I go. [Laughs] I figured I needed more stones or something in that story, so they could blow out stars. Later on, while working on the Silver Surfer series, I’m not sure what brought them back to mind, but my Catholic upbringing – parochial school and everything – had me fascinated with the idea of someone being omnipotent.
I kind of got behind the idea, “What would it be like if that was a horrible, nasty guy who became omnipotent?” And that’s what led to The Infinity Gauntlet.
Nrama: At that point, Marvel had shown interest in bringing back Thanos, and you jumped at the chance. But prior to the company talking to you, did you have any plans to bring back the character?
Starlin: No – it’s sort of... it goes like this. Even back at the time I was doing the Warlock series, it was pretty clear that if I was going to come back, I was going to do something with Thanos. The character was sort of popular, and I had really enjoyed the run.
So, when Craig Anderson, the editor of the Silver Surfer book, asked me to come take over the writing on that title, I immediately thought about bringing back Thanos. And Craig was had no problem with it – he was a really good editor to work with, and one of those with the attitude, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” So, we got along just fine.
At that point, the Ron Perelman group had just bought Marvel, and they were trying to squeeze every cent out of being public that they could – it seemed like every X-Man had their own book, or at least a miniseries. So, when sales on Silver Surfer went up when Thanos appeared, they said, “We want more, and we want it to be something special.” So, that’s where The Thanos Quest came from. And sales on that were really good, and that led directly into The Infinity Gauntlet.
Nrama: A question: To clear up some more statements from the past, had there been talk of bringing back Thanos with a different writer, and was that part of your decision to work on the character again?
Starlin: No – to clarify, it was Adam Warlock that they were talking about bringing back with someone else, and I didn’t care for that, and that’s how he wound up being in The Infinity Gauntlet.
Nrama: Okay. So, with Thanos Quest, was that always designed to lead into The Infinity Gauntlet?
Starlin: Not intentionally – the way I wrote it, Thanos Quest was originally designed to dovetail back into the Silver Surfer series. It was only after the sales came in that they said, “Hey, we want more of this.” So, that’s when we went off and started putting together The Infinity Gauntlet.
Nrama: And – this is, again, from my research, which has turned up a few mistaken impressions so far – my understanding is that, as a large-scale crossover, it was a little tricky when it came to getting permission to use certain characters.
Starlin: Oh, you’re right on the money with that one! [Laughs] The X-Men editor, in particular, didn’t want us to use any of his X-Men, and it was Tom DeFalco, I think, who finally bustled him into letting us have a couple. So, that’s why it’s only Wolverine and I think Cyclops who are in the story.
Nrama: Did you have a different experience dealing with the editors of other characters, such as the Spider-Man books?
Starlin: Okay, this was, I think, only like the second big crossover at Marvel. And back then, they did it in a very sensible way, which was that the main story would get written, and then the crossovers would spring off that, as opposed to trying to get the crossovers to tie into everything that’s going on in the current books, which is what they do these days and why the crossovers never make any sense.
There was a little bit of confusion on The Infinity War miniseries, because every editor wanted their characters in there, and there were some characters who had just started, and I had no idea who they were. I think Cloak and Dagger were two of them... oh, and there was one called Sleepwalker, and I had no notion of who he was. They had to send me Xeroxes, and I was able to work him into the background of a panel, and that was good enough that they let me go off and do things on my own.
The actual crossovers, coordinating with the other writers and such... I didn’t do anything with them. I wrote the miniseries, and then they found the spots where they could work in their characters. I think we maybe changed a few moments in the script later on to accommodate those appearances, explain why they were in the story, but it wasn’t anything like the mess that comic book continuity is these days.
Nrama: So, let’s talk about the experience working with George Perez and later, Ron Lim. Obviously, it had to be a bit of an adjustment changing artists midway through the story, but overall, what was the collaborative process like?
Starlin: Yeah, they were working off full scripts, so George’s departure didn’t throw me off too much – he left with issue #4, and Ron came on and worked out famously, and much to our surprise, the issues actually went up in sales, which we didn’t expect.
Nrama: Did you find yourself altering the scripts any towards Ron’s style?
Starlin: No, Ron and I had been working together on the Surfer, and Ron was always very good about what he was doing, and George and Ron’s storytelling sensibilities were very much similar in many ways. George has a bit more of a layout design going for him than Ron did, but it all worked out very nicely. I could tell which page Ron took over, but many people I talked to couldn’t!
Nrama: Now, I want to talk about a character you didn’t create who has a major role in The Infinity Gauntlet, and who’s gotten more attention from her cinematic appearances – Nebula, the quote-unquote “Granddaughter” of Thanos. She does not have it very easy in this series, and I was wondering about your thoughts on the character – and also, if her being zombified and such was perhaps your way of having some fun with rejecting that concept.
Starlin: [Laughs] Yeah, the idea of Thanos having any progeny never struck me as something that made a lot of sense. I’m not sure which book she appeared in where she first claimed to be Thanos’ granddaughter. I didn’t like the idea, and maybe I did sort of take it out on the character in the story. I do treat her very shabbily throughout.
But at the same time, she becomes a much more interesting character than what she was at that point, because of all her suffering. And I guess it paid off for the character, because she’s going to be in the movie!
Nrama: Well, they got a lot of mileage tying her into Gamora in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies as adopted daughters of Thanos, and now the new film also has the characters from Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run –
Starlin: The Black Order, that’s what they’re called?
Starlin: Well, hope he makes a buck or two off that! [Laughs]
Nrama: I was surprised they didn’t bring in Thanos’ self-created mate, Terraxia.
Starlin: Oh God, I hope they don’t! She was there just in a vain attempt to make Mistress Death jealous. She was the girl you date to make your ex-girlfriend jealous – kind of a one-line joke, actually. I never really thought much of her beyond that.
Nrama: Well, reading The Infinity Gauntlet when I was fairly young, that was one of the first times I recognized a bit of self-parody within a serious story – the endless spin-offs and knockoffs. But they’ve brought everyone else back, so…
So much of the series involves Thanos being unable to please Death. You go back and look at the series, most of the superheroes aren’t even necessary – it’s Thanos’ inability to feel worthy that drives and even resolves the action. You talk about your Catholic upbringing a bit – did that have anything to do with that depiction, or that relationship?
Starlin: Well, I always thought of them as comics’ most dysfunctional relationship. They’re like Sam and Diane from Cheers in cosmic form – an impossible union that Thanos keeps trying to make work. You’ve probably seen relationships like that in real life – I know I have! This is just a tip of the hat to that sort of bad romance.
Nrama: And the series ends with Thanos self-exiled, his old outfit a scarecrow, and if there’s a punishment, it’s much more what he’s inflicted upon himself. I could imagine that might have been a bit controversial at the time.
Starlin: I don’t remember any snickering about it, anything being kicked up about it at the time – I just figured that Thanos was... way back when I met Jack Kirby, he told me the Hulk was stupidity, the harder you beat on it, the stronger it becomes. With Thanos, I came to think of him as hunger and dissatisfaction. No matter what he did - and this has been the case pretty much the entire time I’ve worked on the character - his modus operandi was that he’d find a goal and set out to get it, and no matter what he finds, it’s not what he wants.
Way back from when he was in the Captain Marvel series – he drops the Cosmic Cube! [Laughs] If you’re omnipotent, you’re not going to leave the thing that could be your downfall just lying around! But he does! He allows both Warlock and Nebula to grab ahold of the Infinity Gauntlet!
This is not a man who is dying to be God. He’s achieved that goal, and now he allows it to be taken away from him – or gives away, more likely.
Nrama: And you had Warlock and the Infinity Watch spinning out of this, then The Infinity War and The Infinity Crusade, and you’ve gone back to the Infinity well a number of times. What keeps drawing you back?
Starlin: Well, the character of Thanos keeps drawing me back. I mean, he’s probably one of the most complex characters in comics. He’s different; he’s not a hero, so he doesn’t have to stay in that little spectrum of characterization that a hero does.
He’s a great place to vent whatever I’m reading – things like Nietzsche or Castaneda, or whoever. He’s just a good way to vent out wherever I am in my life at that time. I always going back and visiting him – he’s like an old friend. Him and Warlock both.
Nrama: We’re almost out of time, so I wanted to ask if you’ve had a chance to see Avengers: Infinity War or the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and if so, what you thought.
Starlin: I went to the premieres of both the Guardians movies, and got to know some of the stars. I’m going to the Infinity War premiere, and I hope it’s good, and I look forward to having a good time and drinking some good booze.
I feel pretty positive about everything I’ve seen so far. Gamora is my Gamora. Drax is not, but they came up with a combination character that I just find delightful – he’s kind of like my “Dumb Drax” from The Infinity Watch along with the newer guy’s design – which I have to admit I kind of like more than my original design! [Laughs]
Nrama: Anything you hope to see from your books on screen?
Starlin: I think I already saw it in one of the trailers – Thanos snapping his fingers!