Review: Silver Surfer: The Rebirth of Thanos trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

[Guest review by Doug Glassman. Spoilers ahead for The Avengers movie.]

Shortly after Avengers came out, I sought a copy of Infinity Gauntlet, the likely source material for the film’s sequel. Upon reading it, however, I felt that something was missing. It opened as if it were the third act of an epic, with characters returning having been killed off-screen. As it turns out, there was a huge chunk of story missing … and thankfully, Marvel has collected this in Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos. Though the title has been out in hardcover for some time, it was recently put out in paperback just in time for readers to get ready for Thanos’s entry onto the big screen.

Collected here are two major stories: “Rebirth of Thanos,” which was told in the Silver Surfer series, and “The Thanos Quest,” a two-issue miniseries. The Silver Surfer isn’t one of my favorite characters. My favorite moments featuring him are smaller cameos, such as his epic fight with Cable in Cable and Deadpool or his turn as a gladiator in Planet Hulk. Perhaps the Surfer’s greatest issue is that he suffers from Superman Syndrome: the difficulty of coming up with a threat great enough to be serious for such a powerful hero. Jim Starlin sidesteps this problem in two ways.

Firstly, Starlin spends a lot of time humanizing the Surfer. In the first few pages, for instance, he gets to sleep for the first time in years. Unlike Superman, who can go from sleeping to flying off within seconds, the Surfer travels such great distances that he can’t afford to rest. His irritation at being saddled with Drax the Destroyer (who is basically Space Hulk) is palpable, and the Surfer gets rid of Drax not through strength, but through intelligence and patience.

But the key to Rebirth of Thanos is its title character. Thanos may have begun as Marvel’s rip-off of Darkseid, but his death and resurrection turned him into a new kind of conqueror. Where Darkseid wants to be worshipped, Thanos simply wants to be seen as an equal. The only problem is that he wants to be an equal of Death. If you saw The Avengers with a Marvel fan and they cheered when Thanos’ advisor says that he’s “courting death,” well, this is why. Marvel and DC both personify Death as a woman, but while DC’s Death is a perky Goth, Marvel’s death is a hooded, often skeletal figure who only speaks through others. In fact, Death’s refusal to speak directly to Thanos ends up as a major plot point at the end of “Thanos Quest,” and one that leads into Infinity Gauntlet.

Darkseid and Thanos also differ in how they relate with others. Darkseid is, for a lack of a better term, “personable.” He’s constantly surrounded by underlings, and even when they want to rebel against him, they fall back when he’s ready to launch a plan. Thanos, meanwhile, is very much on his own by his own choice. After his resurrection, he goes after Nebula, a dangerous warlord claiming to be his granddaughter. Where Darkseid would try to convince her into an alliance, Thanos just blasts her forces.

Thanos also has a cold sort of reason about him. His plan to “balance the scales” by killing half of the universe’s population is presented as not just a logical choice, but the only possible solution to the ills of existence. He takes the Surfer to the modern, polluted, and overcrowded Earth and tries to make his case that the entire universe would be better off if the Surfer helped him in his genocide. Starlin takes what would have been just a silly supervillain scheme and pushes it up a level by putting in the hands of an immensely powerful and incredibly intelligent planner who fully believes that he’s slaughtering populations for love. The cruel trick he pulls on an overpopulated, predator-less planet is just the start.

I’ve written about the difficulties about villain-driven series before, and how characters like Carnage and Venom couldn’t carry their own title. Thanos’ miniseries demonstrates that he can hold his own as a lead character. In his quest for the Soul Gems (rebranded the Infinity Gems in this title), he goes up against six of the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe and outwits them. He accomplishes this by going in a very specific order, using each new gem to enhance the ones before them. When he uses the Gems in turn, you can get a sense of just how powerful the Infinity Gauntlet itself is. Starlin then goes the extra step and demonstrates the Gauntlet’s sheer might, and the threat is made all too real.

Ron Lim provides the art for both stories. Starlin and Lim are considered one of the best writer/artist teams in comic book history, and Rebirth of Thanos demonstrates just why this is. Lim consistently provides lush backgrounds and intricate panel layouts, allowing him to convey action-driven, large-scale stories with great clarity. He also adds to Thanos’ design through the removal of his eyes. Thanos had always been presented as having a huge brow, but the only time he has eyes in Lim’s artwork is when he has a manic gleam. Otherwise, they’re hollow sockets, a fitting touch for a lover of Death. Lim even makes background characters interesting. Death is accompanied by a rotting corpse and a humanoid rat, and I wanted to know more about both of them. (Perhaps they’re visitors from Discworld?)

If you’re interested at all in Infinity Gauntlet, then you must read Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos. This is Act I of the story, and I wish Marvel could find a better way to get word out about it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Thanos Omnibus in the future, but for now, pick this up for a fantastic supervillain’s rise. An extra story from Logan’s Run is collected as well, and it shows off just how far Thanos has come from.
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