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Sometimes a hero and other times a villain, Thanos is a creature of contradictions and extremes. He has repeatedly helped save the universe, but he has also destroyed every living being in it, albeit temporarily. He has striven for the omnipotence of godhood, and yet he has also led the life of a simple farmer. In Marvel Comics' Thanos: Epiphany (2004), his frequent ally and foe Adam Warlock said about Thanos, “Lunatic? Monster? Savior? Not my call to make.” Writer/artist Jim Starlin created Thanos and his brother Eros before he started working for Marvel, having been inspired by Sigmund Freud's theories of the death instinct and the sex drive. While writing Iron Man, Starlin's friend Mike Friedrich invited him to plot and draw the issue in which Thanos made his debut (Iron Man #55, 1973). Later in 1973, Thanos became the major villain in Marvel's Captain Marvel series, on which Starlin and Friedrich collaborated. Originally Starlin established that Thanos' father, Mentor, was the brother of Zeus, the king of the classical Greek gods. Editor Mark Gruenwald later altered Mentor's backstory, making Mentor the brother of Zuras, the ruler of Jack Kirby's race of Eternals, who greatly resembled Zeus; Starlin went along with the revision. Exiled from Earth, Mentor founded a colony of Eternals on Saturn's moon Titan, where Eros and Thanos were born. But Thanos was born with Deviant genes (a reference to the demon-like Deviant race in Kirby's Eternals) and had grey skin and grotesque facial features. Believing he would never be accepted by the fellow Eternals of Titan, the young Thanos found solace and guidance from his “imaginary friend” who proved to be quite real: Mistress Death. One of the “conceptual beings” of the Marvel Universe, Mistress Death is the embodiment of death itself. Though others may perceive her as a robed skeleton, to Thanos she looks like a beautiful humanoid woman, and over time he fell in love with her. After Thanos conducted a forbidden experiment in which test subjects perished, Mentor exiled Thanos from Titan. Through bionic means Thanos augmented his superhuman strength and resistance to injury beyond the capacity of any other Eternal. Through meditation and the black arts, Thanos also amplified his natural ability to tap into and mentally manipulate cosmic energies. Thanos eventually launched a nuclear attack on Titan, killing thousands, including his mother Sui-San; away from Titan at the time, Mentor and Eros survived. Later, Thanos returned to Titan and proclaimed himself ruler. Obsessively in love with Mistress Death, Thanos sought to prove himself worthy of her. He utilized the Cosmic Cube, which can transform thought into reality, to turn himself into a godlike entity. Instead of destroying his adversary, Captain Mar-Vell, Thanos self-indulgently toyed with him, enabling Mar-Vell to shatter the Cube, returning Thanos to his original state. This is the first example of a pattern of Thanos always providing the means of his own defeat. Starlin explained in a 2005 interview in BACK ISSUE magazine that although Thanos may consciously lust for absolute power, “subconsciously there's a whole different thing going on there … Every time he's got a hold of ultimate power, he lets it go because he knows it's not what he's going to need.” What he really desires out of life, not even Thanos knows. Abandoned by Mistress Death, Thanos plotted to regain her favor by utilizing the six “Infinity Gems” to destroy all the stars in the universe. Thanos believed that the only threat to his scheme was the Magus, the evil alternate future self of the artificially created superhuman Adam Warlock. Thanos and Warlock joined forces and defeated the Magus in Starlin's 1970s Warlock series. Warlock, Captain Mar-Vell, and the Avengers teamed to stop Thanos' plot to extinguish the stars, and Thanos killed Warlock. But Warlock's spirit transformed Thanos into immobile stone, on the border between life and death. Mistress Death resurrected Thanos, who captured the six Infinity Gems (in Starlin's The Thanos Quest #1–#2, 1990) and affixed them to his glove, “the Infinity Gauntlet,” thereby regaining godlike power. In a new attempt to please Mistress Death, Thanos killed half the living beings in the universe. Thanos' alleged granddaughter, the space pirate Nebula, pulled the Infinity Gauntlet from his hand and used it to undo the universe-wide massacre Thanos had just perpetrated. Warlock finally seized control of the Gauntlet (as told in Starlin's The Infinity Gauntlet #1–#6, 1991). Claiming that as a result of his three defeats he no longer sought absolute power, Thanos worked as a simple farmer on a distant planet. Subsequently, Thanos allied himself with Warlock and Earth's superheroes against menaces posed to the universe by the Magus (in Starlin's The Infinity War, 1992) and Warlock's female counterpart, the Goddess (in Starlin's The Infinity Crusade, 1993). Over his career Starlin has left and returned to Marvel several times. During his absences, other writers have utilized Thanos, usually presenting him as the nihilistic villain of his early stories. Starlin believes that other writers have ignored his efforts at evolving Thanos' characterization. When Starlin returned to Thanos in Infinity Abyss (2002–2003), he revealed that Thanos had created five doppelgängers of himself, who, presumably, had appeared in stories Starlin had not written. Seeking to protect himself against his past enemies, Thanos achieved godhood again and destroyed the universe in a fit of temper. Realizing he was unsuited for omnipotence, Thanos gave up his new power, thereby restoring the universe's existence (as told in Starlin's Marvel Universe: The End #1–#6, 2003). In Thanos's own comics series (2003–2004), Starlin had him seeking redemption for his past crimes. But Starlin admitted that Thanos' new goal would not last long. Though Thanos physically resembles Jack Kirby's Darkseid, Starlin contends that they are very different characters: whereas Darkseid wanted absolute power over others, Thanos originally wanted not to control them but kill them. Starlin regards Thanos as an unstable sociopath, but one who—in the course of searching for his true role in life—can be a force for great evil or great good. Starlin has said that each time he has returned to Marvel, it has been to do a Thanos story; it remains to be seen where Starlin may take Thanos next. Voiced by Gary Krawford, Thanos appeared on television in a handful of episodes of the short-lived Silver Surfer animated series (1998–1999). A Thanos action figure, with an accompanying Death figure, was produced in 2005, and Thanos minibusts and miniatures have also been manufactured.
The Supervillain Book: The Evil Side of Comics and Hollywood © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.