Today, Drew and Ryan D are discussing Thanos 1, originally released November 16th, 2016. As always, this article containers SPOILERS!
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
Drew: This line is often used to sell a given story as some kind of ultimate showdown, but it always strikes me as thoroughly self-defeating: either one or both of those adjectives simply prove to be false. That is, the answer can’t be as interesting as the question suggests, since the answer necessarily reveals that the question was built on a false premise. Or, if you’re feeling more diplomatic, you might take Superman’s answer to this question from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman: “they surrender.” It’s an elegant solution, but is ultimately far less entertaining than the premise suggests — “they surrender” isn’t exactly the white-knuckle conclusion the question implies, and again, betrays the falsehood of those adjectives.
Such is often the case in superhero comics, where villains are routinely trotted out as unstoppable, only for our hero to miraculously give lie to that claim. It’s enough to make anyone doubt the increasingly hyperbolic claims made of villains. This becomes especially true of big name villains, who continue to be heralded as some kind of ultimate threat, in spite of the fact that they’ve been beaten in virtually every appearance. Thanos is a prime example of this — the seriousness of his threat diminishes with each subsequent return (especially after that time Squirrel Girl defeated him) — leading to even more hyperbolic claims made next time. Cleverly breaking that pattern, Jeff Lemire and Mike Deodato’s Thanos 1 sidesteps the Worf Effect by lampshading the inevitable conclusion in the first issue.
That’s not to say the creative team doesn’t indulge in some absurd hyperbolics, just that they recognize them for what they are. Indeed, they celebrate the absurdity of Thanos, elevating his formidability to mythic proportions. It’s a study in excess, right down to the title page — the only double-page spread of the whole issue:
It may seem gratuitous to include the title page in the discussion of this issue, but I honestly can’t think of a more appropriate passage to illustrate the over-the-top aesthetic at the heart of this series. In short, Lemire and Deodato have cranked the volume of everything to 11, meaning they don’t even have room for subtlety on their title page.
My other favorite example of this is a much smaller detail. As this issue picks up the Champion of the Universe’s storyline, Lemire and Deodato need to quickly set the mood for their space saloon. They don’t have room for the kind of colorful shots you might picture for the Star Wars cantina, so they’ve got to distill the idea of a saloon down to its very essence. That essence, of course, takes the form of swinging doors.
Of course, this makes no diegetic sense — swinging doors are wildly impractical for a space station, and would only add “saloon” ambiance to human patrons (of whom there seem to be none) — but it offers a great deal of meaning to us. We immediately recognize both what the doors and the act of swinging them wide represent. It’s a brilliantly efficient introduction to both the setting and the character.
And holy hell is Deodato drawing the ever-loving shit out of these characters. This issue offers room to flex both his strength with rugged humanoids and chiseled aliens, rendering them all in the high-contrast inking style that’s become Deodato’s signature. I’m a bit less enamored of his use of zipatone throughout the issue — it reads less as texture and more as a lack of faith in colorist Frank Martin (a lack of faith that seems totally unfounded given the strength of the coloring here). Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I find Deodato’s hard-edged shadows much more effective than any of these greytone effects.
But this issue isn’t about the kinds of minor details I might quibble over. It’s about impossibly hardboiled banter and Earth-shattering punches and intergenerational love triangles with Death herself. It’s hard to express my enthusiasm for those elements without sounding sarcastic, but Lemire and Deodato truly do find sincere fun in all of that excess. Actually, Ryan, as our resident professional wrestling expert, I suspect the heady blend of sincere and ironic enjoyment of this over-the-top spectacle is a bit more familiar to you. Did this issue press any of those same buttons for you?
Ryan D.: Aw Drew, I was already going down the pro wrestling path with this review waaaay before you brought it up! And it really fits this time!
The creative team here began the important process of what they call in the pro wrestling business “repackaging.” As you mentioned, Drew, Thanos’s reputation over the years has taken quite the hit — even with the Civil War II murder of Rhodes. Heck, before I heard who would be writing this run, I did not pause for a second out of interest when I heard of a new Thanos title. So, the repackaging commences, and boy — I think they are doing a great job.
It’s pro wrestling booking 101: if you have a big guy who used to be a feared destroyer, but has been used more often lately to make other people look stronger, then that monster needs to be repackaged, rebranded. This means the audience must be reminded of what makes the character so fearsome. The easiest way to do that in wrestling is to put the monster in the ring with a bunch of no-names who can be “squashed” in a matter of seconds. Lemire does this immediately here, giving Thanos the nameless fearsome mercenary forces to destroy with no effort on his part. And I found it to be a treat watching this:
As Drew said, Deodato draws the hell out of this title. I love the use of shadows throughout the issue, but here it seems particularly thematic: we can’t see all of Thanos yet in the same manner that we have yet to see him display his full power. I enjoy the spacing between him and the tank in the first panel, the beat in the second wherein the audience is allowed to match their reaction with Thanos’s, and the kinetic force of the third. Chunky white gutters separate all three panels, which somehow adds weight to the images. It tells such a simple, effective story.
The level of challenge to Thanos builds very logically to showcase his prowess: first troops, then this crawler tank, then a heavy-looking cannon battery, and eventually Glaive. This was a great encounter, especially after Glaive — who knows very well what Thanos is capable of — decides to stand his ground.
That one panel beat of Glaive staring up in realization and resignation before he plunges his own blade into his heart to save himself from the agony of Thanos really sold to me the level of cruelty of which Thanos is capable. It also showcased one of Lemire’s talents: he can create characterful moments which stay with a reader — and it’s these moments which audiences end up remembering just as much, if not more, than the story itself. Whether it’s a film, piece of theatre, comic book, or wrestling match, making a moment which lasts is art.
As far as the spectacle goes, Drew, it’s the little touches that really sell it for me. Aside from the obvious big pieces like the use of gods as main characters and their incredibly high power levels, Deodato utilizes a really interesting choice:
Aside from these characters’ postures, which read to me as bloody Shakespearean with how much time they spend standing in neutral with their hands by their sides and shoulders squared, the page composition speaks volumes. I see nothing arbitrary about those extraneous-seeming panels in the top left of the page — in fact, Deodato uses that cross-hatching quite a bit, especially with establishing shots. The stars are stitched very deliberately into this page, which helps strengthen the sense of scale and scope of this comic. Thanos is a menace whose terror spreads across the stars, and the players in this story will journey across galaxies to end it. And after all — spectacle seldom occurs in isolation, does it?
Thanos 1 may read like watching a pro-wrestling promo package, but as you said, Drew, it relishes in this Broadway, pyro, and ballyhoo. This sense of spectacle counterpoints the very serious, very important tone which I find excruciatingly boring to read in some other space-operas, and I couldn’t be more excited about how the reveal at the end changes the dynamic in upcoming issues. I feel safe with this creative team, and would hazard, Drew, that Lemire might have a different answer to show us regarding the ol’ “unstoppable force/immovable object” scenario. So…just…surrender to that.
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