An "X-Force" To Be Reckoned With - Marvel's Mutant Militia Turns 25
When it was clear that the Marvel movies were leading up to an adaptation of The Infinity Gauntlet (except possibly, now, using the cooler title from that trilogy, The Infinity War), I tended to laugh and remind people of how completely useless the Avengers were. How useless Earth heroes in general were, not just in that story, but in pretty much every cosmic event comic that Jim Starlin has done. They’re distractions and plot padding and sales boosters, while Adam Warlock and Thanos are the real story. You can usually boil down the plot that ‘matters’ to a third or so of the actual length of the story max. And it’s damn impressive how he pulls it off with everyone not really noticing.
Stare at these comics long enough and you notice things that you never did before. Like the three pages where Banner wakes up, transforms into the Hulk, and the Hulk is knocked out; each of those moments is shown in three side-by-side panels with the same perspective that show the visual transformation of waking, of changing, and of falling unconscious. You almost don’t need any other panels for that scene. The nine would do. I do love picking these things apart even if it means you point at something, say that it’s there, and everyone goes “So what?”
Depending on who you talk to, I’m a specific writer guy. For some people, I’m the Joe Casey guy. For others, I’m the Warren Ellis guy. For a few very confused people who love my Marvel Boy piece from a decade ago, I’m the Grant Morrison guy. For some people, I’m the Jim Starlin guy. I get emails when it’s announced that Dreadstar has been optioned or when Starlin is on the outs with Marvel (or back in!). I get asked what I think about Stormwatch or The Infinity Revelation. I mean, I invite this sort of behaviour by writing about Starlin’s work so much; hell, I’m writing a book about his work for Sequart. So, what probably interests me most is where Thanos vs. Hulk #1 fits into his body of work. I’ve discussed this a little bit so far with regards to specific characters, but, in a broader sense, where does it fit?
Thanos vs. Hulk #1 says on its first page that it takes place before Thanos: The Infinity Revelation, which came out several months before this comic. Why is that specificity important to how we are to react to Thanos?
Outside of the purview of these posts, we have now seen Thanos vs. the Hulk with a little Bruce Banner thrown in. The title was justified. So, let’s move on… Thanos vs. Hulk is about duality. Jim Starlin is a fan of duality and binary pairings and this entire issue is based around them: Maria Hill/Iron Man, Pip/Banner, Hulk/Blastaar, Pip/Blastaar, Pip/Heater Delight, Heater Delight/Quasar, Hulk/Banner, Blastaar/Annihilus, Pip/Thanos… Most of these pairings are temporary or fleeting, but they are constant transitions. There are few scenes or moments that could be describe as containing more than two characters that actually matter in any way. The closest you get are scenes where flunkies are present while the two ‘main’ characters discuss matters (or, I guess, the scenes where Pip, Blastaar, and Banner/Hulk are present, or when Dr. Bultar is there).
Tomorrow, issue two of Thanos vs. Hulk comes out and this exercise changes. Another quarter of the story will be revealed and, unless I feigned ignorance or put off reading the issue until February 1, it will change how every post after this is approached in some way. As it exists, this is the final post where I can discuss Thanos vs. Hulk #1 in its vacuum of being a first issue and what that entails before another issue comes out. As Abhay puts it, first issues are monsters. There are a lot of demands on them; less so when it’s a first issue like this one that can rely on a lot of implied backstory. Still, this is the issue where people decide if this is a comic worth buying or a comic that has convinced them to save a further $11.97.
This was the issue of Futures End that I have enjoyed the least. The book feels like it’s treading water, waiting for Brainiac to arrive or for Brother Eye to reveal itself again or something. For a moment there, it seemed like the comic had come into focus and was really beginning to hit its stride. Then it closed out the previous Firestorm story and Cadmus Island and began having more things intersect until… nothing. Nothing has happened. And you could tell that this would be that sort of comic right from the beginning, too. “Never judge a book by its cover.” What a crock…
As I said yesterday, it’s interesting that, at this point in his career, when Jim Starlin does a creator-owned work like ’Breed III, he does all of the art (pencilling, inking, and colouring), but, when he’s doing work-for-hire, he only does the pencilling. When discussing the inking, I said that one of the strengths of Andy Smith’s work in Thanos vs. Hulk #1 is that the finished product looks very close to how Starlin’s line work looks when he inks himself. Smith is excellent at helping Starlin’s pencils look as much like his art when it’s finished. I don’t know if that’s what people think a good inker should do, but, in this case, it’s what I’m glad to see happen. Somehow, Frank D’Armata is even better at replicating Starlin in colouring than Smith is in inking.
I tend to focus on the writing side of comics given my background in literature, but more so than writer/artist collaborations, separating the art from the writing when both are done by a single individual is damn near impossible. I’m able to do it with Jim Starlin usually because he has such a large back catalogue of work solely as a writer that it’s easy to pick out elements of his writing based on that work. However, he uses his art to tell so much of the story that I find myself attributing those things to Starlin the writer rather than Starlin the writer/artist or even just Starlin the artist. What I’m trying to say is that it’s time to begin talking about the art.
Where were we? Ah. Why begin Thanos vs. Hulk #1 with a Iron Man and Maria Hill first discussing Bruce Banner and then reviewing a recording of Pip the Troll kidnapping Banner? Why not directly show the kidnapping? Why filter it through Iron Man and Maria Hill? Assuming that neither character shows up again in the series, it’s a variation on many Starlin opening scenes; a variation that I’m not sure I completely understand myself. But, let’s get talking about it and maybe I’ll figure it out.
As a writer who seems to love asking questions and, then, possibly talking around answers without anything definitive, I just have to ask: why Iron Man? The opening scene of Thanos vs. Hulk #1 is a bit of banter set-up as Iron Man and Maria Hill view footage of Pip the Troll kidnapping Bruce Banner. Maria Hill, as director of SHIELD, is a given. She’s Banner’s boss and there’s no one who can replace her. But, the other party of the conversation is a little more open. So, again, why Iron Man?
What is Thanos? Everyone seems to think he’s a villain, because, once upon a time, he was a villain. There are a few of us who see him in a bit more of a shade of grey than black based on his actions post-Infinity Gauntlet, the last time, up until the end of The Infinity Revelation, that Jim Starlin actively portrayed Thanos as a villain. He did some shady things no doubt and always put his interests first… but he wasn’t a villain per se. More often than not, he was on the side of the good guys even as almost all of them tried to suppress the vomit that kept rising in their throats at the thought of fighting alongside the man who once killed half of the universe to impress a girl. And that makes him what exactly, especially here in Thanos vs. Hulk #1?
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.
Not only is there no fight between Thanos and the Hulk in Thanos vs. Hulk #1, there are no fights period. This is a comic billed as one big fight (if one were to go by the title) and, yet, the first issue is decidedly fight free across the board. The closest we get to violence is when Bruce Banner transforms into the Hulk after awakening as a captive of Blastaar only for the mental impairment device to be activated cutting short any thoughts of violence the Hulk may have had. It’s a strange way to begin a series with this title (a title that came after the fact, I know, but it’s still the title). It’s a strange way to begin a superhero series period.
The similarities pile up… now, we see the group of ‘heroes’ who reject someone with more knowledge of the problem that they face based on odd moral grounds that seem downright short-sighted when staring oblivion in the face. Are we supposed to cheer this decision? Are we supposed to feel good about their placing their own morality and personal views above the lives they have made it their life’s work to protect? What the specifics are don’t matter when the stakes are this high. As I’ve said in the past, they seem very quick to sacrifice their lives if need be, but not their souls. Is that heroic or pathetic?
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