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For the month of January 2015, I wrote about Thanos vs. Hulk #1 everyday. Here is the archive of those posts.
This is the second year that I’ve done this. Last year, I wrote about a conclusion. This year, a beginning with what follows unknown. It was much more challenging, because many elements of Thanos vs. Hulk #1 don’t fit into a full context yet. What happens in the two issues that haven’t been released yet will determine how certain creative choices are viewed in retrospect. It was much closer to the experience of doing a review of a new comic than a proper critical study of a work. A month-long review masquerading as a critical study as I tried to find a way to put one quarter of a story into a proper context…
A topic that I have talked around is Pip the Troll. I’m, uh, not exactly sure what to say about the character. In Thanos vs. Hulk #1, he’s a plot mechanism more than an actual character. Pip kidnaps Bruce Banner because Balstaar kidnapped Heater Delight and, as a result, feels bad and ‘tricks’ Thanos into getting involved. While he’s a crucial part of linking all the various threads of the story, he is also completely replaceable with little noticeable difference. Or, that’s what I’ve thought ever since reading the issue. I’ve asked “Why…?” lots of times so far, so why not “Why Pip the Troll?”
Something that’s weird to notice is what characters ‘feel’ like creator-owned characters when it comes to Jim Starlin. Within the Marvel cosmic cast of characters, Starlin’s contributed quite a few, but the ‘big four’ as it were are Thanos, Drax, Gamora, and Pip, I’d argue. The rest of his creations in the cosmic realm for Marvel are fairly minor. Those four are the ones that people know – and three of them have appeared in at least one movie so far. Yet, not all four of them seem confined to the group of character that ‘feel’ like Starlin has ownership/creative possession of. Nor is that group limited to characters he actually created. Does this make sense? Hopefully it will.
Why isn’t Thanos vs. Hulk #1 funny? I guess that depends in a large part on how funny you find Jim Starlin’s writing in general (when he’s trying to be funny), of course. When he’s on, he can usually make me chuckle, even laugh out loud on occasion, so I’m clearly in the group of people who think he’s a decent comedy writer when he wants to be. His previous Hulk stories were certainly funny in spots and his previous Pip stories were amusing in their own way, while his work on Dreadstar had some funny issues, same with Wyrd the Reluctant Warrior and whatever else I’m forgetting (from a certain perspective, Batman: The Cult is a laff riot). Given his history with both the Hulk and Pip, you’d think an issue that features both heavily would be funnier. Or funny. At all. And, yet, it’s not…
Jim Starlin tends to favour two types of big, muscular characters: the very intelligent and the very dumb. There have been a few characters that haven’t fallen into either end of the intelligence spectrum, but they have usually been thinly-drawn bad guys there to pose a physical threat and be eliminated and, then, forgotten. What’s interesting is that, with the less intelligent big characters, Starlin also tends to use them for comedic purposes. A notable exception there is pre-death-and-resurrection Drax the Destroyer who was nothing but a one-note character trying to kill Thanos. Post-resurrection, his intelligence was just as dim, but in a more childlike way where, often, he was the subject of comedic stories (one involving the Hulk to good effect). That’s also been the way that he’s used the Hulk most often in the past.
Yeah… let’s just keep rambling, ramblers… Labels shouldn’t matter to me, really, because what I think and what you think are very different things and have almost no direct relationship. Call what I love good, call it bad, call it whatever, it doesn’t change what it is for me. Yet… I can’t let go of ‘cosmic’ and the way that it’s applied so liberally to books that take place in space like somehow the two are the same. Like using Jim Starlin creations is the same thing as making Jim Starlin comics. Or Steve Englehart comics. Or Jack Kirby comics. Like ‘cosmic’ is about superficial trappings rather than a specific style or perspective. It shouldn’t matter, but it does and I’ve spent a lot of years trying to figure out why.
My favourite Jim Starlin quote comes from The Art of Jim Starlin: A Life in Words and Pictures: “It was said that the stories were cosmic, whatever that meant.” It’s always stuck with me and became a source of deep thoughts and lots of scrambling when I pitched Sequart on the book I’m writing about Starlin’s cosmic comics, The Infinity Effect. Really, what it came down to is: what does ‘cosmic comics’ even mean? And, once settling on that definition (or quasi-definition as will be seen in the book), are all Starlin comics ‘cosmic?’ Obviously, comics like his Batman run aren’t, but, what about things like ’Breed or Stormwatch? Not everything that takes place in space is ‘cosmic’ (hell, I’d argue that 95% of the comics people call ‘cosmic’ these days aren’t) and not everything Starlin does is ‘cosmic,’ so, of those two groups that intersect, what is? Is Thanos vs. Hulk #1?
Pip the Troll’s internal thoughts are presented through both narration captions and thought balloons. It’s the only time a character’s thoughts are related to us directly. Mixing those two methods of communication is an odd choice on Starlin’s behalf, especially when doing so with the same character. Thought balloons are a rarity in comics these days, usually brought back almost as a novelty technique that demands you notice it, like when Brian Michael Bendis used them in Mighty Avengers. With Starlin, they don’t stand out; it seems perfectly natural for one of his character’s thoughts to be shared that way. It’s difficult to see how it works in context, though.
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.