SPIDER-MANDATE: The Lowe-down on "Secret Wars," Tie-Ins and Stacey Lee
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.
One of the things I love most about Jim Starlin is how he’ll do something visually that you don’t usually see in superhero comics. He has certain visual motifs that recur in his works like the energy being silhouettes with a mix of a single primary colour and white. Or even the hulking, bald, thick-ridged villains. Here, he uses another one that he’s pulled out a few times in the past: the single image/panel that’s on every page, eventually revealing its true meaning later in the comic. What I love most about this technique is that you don’t necessarily notice it right away. It’s like a quick flash that builds until it’s revealed. In this case, Bruce Banner in the mental plane where he goes when the Hulk is in charge.
Thanos vs. Hulk was originally intended to be Savage Hulk #7-10. As I’ve mentioned before, Jim Starlin has done three previous Hulk stories. Only one of those were a solo Hulk story (Rampaging Hulk #4), while the other two were a Hulk/Thing story (Incredible Hulk and the Thing: The Big Change) and a Hulk/Thing/Dr. Strange story (Marvel Fanfare #20-21). (He also acted as the artist on Incredible Hulk #222, but I’m sticking to writer credits, though I should really track that issue down to see if it’s one where his influence is strong throughout as I’ve seen plenty of comics that Starlin ‘only’ drew that you could argue were, at minimum, co-plotted given how strong his influence seems on the story. He’s also written the character in non-Hulk specific comics, but those are guest appearances where the focus isn’t on him and Starlin usually made a strong effort to depict the character in line with how he was appearing in his comic at the time.) Starlin’s small bit of Hulk work is one of the little secrets of his career (along with his Dr. Strange work) and it’s nice to see it pop up again in 2014/2015. It also fits into a pattern for his Hulk work by taking place largely outside of strict continuity and featuring a version of the character that suits Starlin’s purposes.
The biggest surprise, for me, of Jim Starlin’s work for Marvel in 2014 is how willing he seems to be to recognise and accept what has been done with Thanos, Adam Warlock, and his other stable of characters. In the past, Starlin has recognised Marvel continuity involving other characters, but has been largely dismissive of anything done with ‘his’ characters, even going so far as to dismiss all Thanos stories not written by him as actually involving Thanos clones. Starlin tends to work best in a vacuum of sorts under most circumstances, and that applies even more when he’s working on the cosmic characters he either created or redefined in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Yet, in 2014, he was perfectly willing to recognise what’s been done with the characters since he last worked at Marvel. Or, so it seems…
Who is Thanos vs. Hulk #1 for? Besides me, obviously. Who is the target audience? Is there one beyond the three groups of Jim Starlin fans, Hulk fans, and Thanos fans? I ask, because, as a fairly devoted Starlin fan (I finished Lady El a week or two back and, if you’ve read that novel, then you know that only the devoted fans press through) I’ve had many chances to observe reactions to the latest Starlin project where it seems like I’m the only person in the room. He’s dismissed as old fashioned, out of touch, repetitive, and… well, not terribly good anymore. I disagree, but that seems to be the general consensus in the broadest terms. Are there legions of people at odds with the online hivemind? Perhaps. Or is there something else?
If you go by the title, Thanos vs. Hulk #1 can’t help but be a little disappointing. Perhaps, in one of the future issues, the two eponymous characters will brawl a bit. However, in this issue, they only share panel time in a single panel at the very end. Originally intended as a story in Savage Hulk following Alan Davis’s arc to begin the title, the shifting of the story to its own series on the part of Marvel to be more a marketing maneuver than anything: get the word ‘Thanos’ in the title! In fact, it’s the first word. What began as a Hulk story (or a story intended for a Hulk comic) becomes a Hulk-is-secondary story.
For the month of January 2014, I wrote about Age of Ultron #10 everyday. Here is the archive of those posts.
Some people seemed to understand what I was doing here; others clearly did not. After a month of trying to find as many ways as possible of examining a comic, of writing more than twenty thousand words on a single issue, of doing it just to see if I could, we have arrived at the end. But, before I leave, one last reading of Age of Ultron #10 where I explain what the comic is really about.
Age of Ultron #10 felt familiar the first time I read it. My first instinct was that it was a conclusion to a story much like Secret War. When people called Age of Ultron an ‘event comic,’ I’d smile to myself and say, “Nah, it’s just another Secret War.” Secret War wasn’t an ‘event comic,’ it was this weird little mini-series that began before Brian Michael Bendis took over Avengers and killed the title. It’s the real beginning of his run on the Avengers franchise and Age of Ultron is the real end. Or, maybe prologue/epilogue?
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.