There are a handful of people that you could elevate to the class of ‘comic book giants’, those that have made a lasting impression on the art form and the industry with their incredible creations, along with their indelible art and writing; there are even fewer that you could say have shaped the face of pop culture as we know it.
However, with the creation of the Mad Titan Thanos in February 1973, in the pages of THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #55, writer/artist Jim Starlin – even though he may not have known about it at the time – was going to come up with a character that would go on to form the backbone on central threat to the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although, curiously enough, he didn’t learn that his maniacal and homicidal behemoth was even going to feature in the Marvel Studios films until days before he reared his head in the post-credits scene to 2012’s MARVEL’S AVENGERS, directed by Joss Whedon.
As fans gear themselves up to witness the final battle between the beloved heroes that have featured over an eleven year, twenty-two film span and Thanos – resting after his cataclysmic efforts in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, Leonard Sultana (The Convention Collective EIC) talks to Starlin about his history with Thanos, his impressions of the Russo Brothers, as well as screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, his relationship with both Marvel Studios and Marvel Comics, and his satisfaction with the final result of AVENGERS: ENDGAME, which he saw as invited Special Guest to the premiere, held in Los Angeles on Monday 22nd April.
He does keep the conversation relatively spoiler-free, with one or two nuggets of characters that may or may not make an appearance in teh film – if you want to go in completely fresh to AVENGERS: ENDGAME, please bookmark this page and come back to it only once you have seen the film. This is a great conversation, I think, and I hope you enjoy it…
THE CONVENTION COLLECTIVE: So, my name is Leonard Sultana from The Convention Collective, and I’m talking today to comic book legend, Jim Starlin. Jim, it’s a pleasure to talk to you, sir.
JIM STARLIN: Pleasure to be here. Always good to chat about Thanos and other things!
TCC: Well, I mean, first off, it’s an honour to get the chance to talk to you – although I can imagine there hasn’t been a day for the last few years that you haven’t been asked to talk about, or think about or reflect on Thanos and the Infinity Saga…
JIM: I’ve had a little downtime here and there!
TCC: [laughs] …but with that in mind, what’s your honest knee-jerk reaction when you hear the words ‘Thanos’ or ‘Infinity Stones’ today? I mean, is it one of pride, is it one of relief? Is it one of like, sheer frustration?? “I did other things, you know!”
JIM: No, it’s a mixture of the more positive stuff to tell you the truth. You know, Thanos and Dreadstar are my two favourite children and, you know, Thanos – being the firstborn – he’s really outshining all the rest of them at this time, making it hard for the latter ones like Gamora and Tip and Drax to get in the spotlight. But you know, they’re all sort of coming together here. This looks like just about anything I did is eventually coming to the screen here; it seems I just heard the other day that Shang-Chi is on his way to become a Marvel character in the movies!
TCC: Indeed! You’ve spoken about how good your relationship with Marvel Studios and Disney has been, and the way that they’ve really embraced your characters…
JIM: And they’ve treated me very well.
TCC: Absolutely. And it’s something that’s been most gratifying for us fans who may have felt that comic book source material and the creators have been shortchanged by the Hollywood machine over the years. Was this relationship with Marvel Studios always this way, or was that respect born over time and who made the first move?
JIM: It was born over time and, as Thanos first appeared at the end of the Avengers movie, I only heard about it two days before online and so I did a midnight showing to see it and was pleasantly surprised when I saw it. I said, “Oh god, he looks good!” He didn’t have a lot to do at that point. But basically along the way, the studio’s have reached out to me and our relationship has gotten better as my relationship with editorial with Marvel [Comics] has disintegrated, so it’s been a mixed bag, but you know, I’m feeling good about it. I’m not quite sure how fans can feel like they had been shortchanged by this, you mentioned that earlier…
TCC: Well, I think with the way that the creative talent has been almost sidelined in the glare of the big Hollywood machine and all of the attention going to the movies, while the comic book sales and indeed comic book crew has felt a little bit marginalized in the glare of all the attention from the films,I think that’s pretty much where I feel that fans have felt that maybe there should be some kind of residual attention going back to the comic books perhaps.
JIM: Well, I don’t know about anybody else but I personally feel that I’ve got more attention that maybe I even wanted on this thing! Yeah, basically I can understand the outlook as I think about it because this is a money-making world we’re operating in and the movies generate a lot more income from the parent company than the comics do and many more people are exposed to what’s up on the silver screen than they are in the books because now people don’t read as much as they used to so I can understand it. It probably is unfair, but, you know, that’s the way life is, and I’ve come to accept it.
TCC: Okay, let’s talk about that interest in your characters, especially with all the things that are happening with Marvel Studios and indeed, with the Infinity Saga being the backbone of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. When was the first time you knew that was happening, and what was your reaction?
JIM: I think Joss Whedon did some interview shortly after the first AVENGERS movie, while he was still sort of like the creative force up there, from what I understood, and it became really apparent that Thanos was not going to just ‘pop up’ in the next AVENGERS sequel; they’d already announced that it was going to be Ultron. And I thought, “Okay, well, you know, I might have a ride here for a while on this one!” And my fifteen minutes of ‘Andy Warhol fame’ may extend out to a good sixteen or seventeen minutes instead!
TCC: I think the next reaction you would have had was when you heard that Marvel was planning to adapt the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY into films… I can imagine your reaction if it was anything like those of us who were in Hall H in San Diego that year when Kevin can finally presented that concept title card, that I can imagine it was one of pure shock!
JIM: Yeah, and that’s more that timeframe than when Marvel Studios and I started actually, you know, engaging. We, up until that point, it had been sort of through Marvel editorial. Like I said, that wasn’t working too well there so, you know, the studios actually started communicating with me directly and that sort of changed everything: we started getting invited to premieres and, y’know, this turned into a fun game!
TCC: Well, at the time of this recording, I haven’t seen AVENGERS: ENDGAME and I do want to go in as fresh as I possibly can. But here I am talking to you! And you have seen it – you saw it at the premiere in L.A. – so I don’t want to shortchange anyone that’s listening to this, we’re posting after the film’s release…
JIM: …I’ve got real good about avoiding spoilers! [laughs]
TCC: [laughs] …but let’s get into one or two mild ones. Because I’m a big advocate for the phrase, ‘the books are the books’, they are on the shelves for eternity, nothing can ever touch those – so the films work independently as adaptations. So what has been the biggest surprise about what Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely have done to the story, away from your original creation? Any characters or scenarios that you didn’t see coming?
JIM: Actually, what surprised me is how close they have stayed to the books. Only an idiot would figure that something that they’ve written or drawn would be adapted exactly the way it was on the page. So I came in here, having some experience with movies and other directions, and realizing that there’s going to be changes, and you learn to live with them. And basically, I was very surprised by how much of the spirit, and a lot of the actual content of what they did, came from the books. I have been nothing but pleased with what I’ve seen.
I understand why Mistress Death was not included because Marvel movies]at this point is a little leery about starting the show off the abstract entities from the Marvel Universe, which I think will change with a couple more DOCTOR STRANGE movies [are] out of the way. But for now, I’ve been quite pleased with what I’ve seen up on the screen. Markus and McFeely did their research, even the points where they changed things, like Thanos’ motivation for the ‘snap’ is actually out of SILVER SURFER #34, from what I remember. It’s a sort of a con job that Thanos is doing on the Surfer before he went off and revealed his real plans.
So, y’know, these guys did a really nice job on adapting what they had and working around and forcing it into the different universe that the Marvel cinema has.
TCC: You can really tell that Marcus and McFeeley are real fans of the original source content, and that’s very gratifying for us as audience members, especially us comic book fans, to see that love and all the kind of callbacks appearing up on screen. And I do find Thanos especially fascinating in the scope of the MCU, because where you stand on his justifications, for what he’s doing in these films, it kind of feeds into your own politics and your own worldview, and I find it interesting that some sympathize with his motivations, if not his methodology. What’s your thoughts on that?
JIM: Well, you know there are creating their own mythology in the Marvel Universe. There are some changes that, y’know, the finances of movies dictated a lot of things, like half the characters from the Infinity Gauntlet belonged over at Fox or Universal so they had to do some changing around that way. A lot of those characters were indispensable to the ending inside the comic books, but they didn’t exist here in the movies and so adjustments had to be made and plus they were, in effect with this last movie, they were concluding twenty some odd films that came out of ten odd years and, y’know, it’s a juggling act that I think they did really well because the final movie is spectacular and an emotional roller coaster that surprised even me and I was given a lot of the story before it ever appeared on screen. Y’know, we went down to Atlanta last October and everyone was surprisingly open with me about what they were up to and I’ve been having keep my mouth shut for the last year or so. And I’m glad now to be able to chat a bit!
TCC: I can imagine there was that moment when you told the storyline, you thought, “Okay, I really want to see that on screen. I cannot wait to see how you’re going to pull this off!”
JIM: Yeah, I mean, that was right from the beginning because when they ran us through it, McFeeley took us down this hallway up at Marvel and it had all the concept paintings up on it, and he just sort of ran through things on me and I was just blown away by where they’re going. And the final product is so much more spectacular than the paintings that, even though I knew a lot about it, there was still a lot I didn’t know… and I just had a fun ride for this whole thing, the other night!
TCC: Excellent stuff! I do have a couple of questions from one or two of our readers, so we’ll touch on a couple of those. Because Thanos is one of the most compelling characters in all of fiction, I’ve been asked by Lewis Head, one of our readers, to ask who or what were your inspirations for Thanos when creating him, what were the touchstones that you referred to?
JIM: Okay, two different fronts: his actual conception came out of a psych class that I was taking in junior college after I got out of service. We had a guest lecturer to come into talk about the Freudian concepts of Euros and Thanos, the lighter and darker side of human nature – I gravitated toward the darker side, of course, because that’s the way I am! And basically, by a week or so later, I started doing some concept drawings and, as you mentioned earlier, they bore a striking resemblance to Metron to begin with, basically, because I thought he was a much more fascinating character than the New Gods and Darkseid was. Patterning Thanos after Darkseid was never on the agenda.
Somebody joked about that and I think it actually may have been me, down the line somewhere and it sort of became this canon that [Thanos] is based on it but if I was ripping off any characters, it was Metron and even then, looking at where he was and what my drawing skills were compared to the great Jack Kirby’s, the comparison is asked to be pointed out I think, rather than anything that would actually stand out there. So basically, he was put together and Roy Thomas needed a quick fill-in issue or two of IRON MAN because George Tosca, the regular artist, had to go into some elective surgery and so Thanos got sort of squeezed into the schedule! And no one had any idea that this little one issue was actually going to amount to a whole Cinematic Universe; in fact, after the next issue I did was with Steve Gerber on IRON MAN, Stan Lee hated it so much he fired me and Steve! [laughs] But fortunately, there was other work to be had.
TCC: Well, another question for you to kind of ties into what you’ve just said there, from Andy 1973: how inspired was INFINITY GAUNTLET by the likes of SECRET WAR, in terms of that huge spectacle event series?
JIM: You know, we were never meant to be a mini-series. I was doing the SILVER SURFER and I came on to the book when it’s very low in sales and at that time this group led by a guy named Ronald Perlman had bought Marvel and they were trying to squeeze every cent they could out of the readership to, y’know, make it work for them. This is the time when every X-Man had his own book, or at least a mini-series for a while!
And so the SURFER sold well and he said, “Well, we want to do something special, give us some kind of mini-series kind of thing that we can do at a better format. And so we did THE THANOS QUEST and we were supposed to go back into the SILVER SURFER. But THE THANOS QUEST that sales are so good, they said we want something really spectacular. And I said, Okay, well, how about you let me use these other characters in your universe and we’ll have Thanos take them on.
And the powers-that-be, up way up the top, said, “Oh, yes, yes, that should sell a lot.” Then we got into the actual mechanics of getting it to work and not many the editors up at Marvel wanted their characters brought in on the SILVER SURFER project! The X-MEN editor, in particular, said, “No, no X-MEN and the editor-in-chief Tom deFalco eventually had to say, “You gotta let them use at least two of them!”, and so that’s how we got Wolverine, and I think it was Cyclops, into the series. So it was it was kind of a mixed bag:
SECRET WARS was there beforehand, now that think about it, but we came at it from such an odd direction that I wouldn’t say that it actually had much connection, in fact most of the books didn’t want to connect up to it, like they did with SECRET WARS because the writer of that, Jim Shooter, who was the Editor-In-Chief, so everybody had to do it! Which was kind of funny because when we did INFINITY WAR, which is the mini-series that came afterwards, everything changed, every editor who had a character they wanted them in that book because those books that had tied up markedly. And so on the second mini-series, I was working with characters that I had no idea who they were! There was one called Sleepwalker that hadn’t even come out yet – and they wanted him in the book! And so we have him walking by in the background in one panel!
TCC: A year ago, there was that very public breakdown in the relationship between yourself and Marvel editorial. And a year is gone, it’s a fair chunk of time: tempers may have cooled. Has there been any further resolution in that arena?
JIM: No. I’m working with one editor up at Marvel to proof-read the scripts and that for the final THANOS book which will be coming out later on in the summer, but now I’m done with Marvel editorial – they’re in my rearview mirror!
TCC: Fair enough. Admittedly, the conflict did come about with that storyline, which was going to be following the eerily similar storyline that was planned by Donny Cates. Did you actually have any opportunity to read what Donny came up eventually came up with? And what did you think of his approach to the character?
JIM: I have held off on doing that until I finish my final edit on the INFINITY [ending], I plan on reading it, Donny and I get along quite well, we’ve met several times since this thing has come up. He had nothing to do with it – it was synchronicity – and so I have nothing but good things to say about him. I read his book, GOD’S COUNTRY, and loved it and I look forward to reading his THANOS’ after we get down to the point where there’d be no longer any conflict with me.
You know, I changed a lot of things in the latter part of my story to avoid being too much like his story, but we’ll see once I get everything done and now sit down and grab one of those collections and look through it.
TCC: Fair enough. I have nothing bad to say about Donny as well, I’m a big fan and I’ve spoken to him as well. He’s a top bloke.
So now that your relationship with Marvel Comics may have cooled and the one with Marvel Studios has grown and grown, could you see possibly yourself contributing directly to the MCU in future instalments? Do you have any ideas that perhaps Kevin Feige could run with?
JIM: Um, I’m going to hold off on answering that question, seeing that most folks haven’t seen this new movie yet!
TCC: Fair enough! Well, lastly, to wrap things up, let’s do a quick word association if that’s okay with you – you can be as spoiler-heavy as you like! Okay, if you just want to respond okay with the first word that comes into your head when I say… “Drax.”
JIM: Ahh… Satisfying!
JIM: Missing in action!
JIM: …the same!
JIM: Ahh… really curious.
TCC: “New Gods.”
JIM: [clearly referring to the original comics] Loved it! Loved KIRBY’S NEW GODS. “Jack”? God! Yeah, Jack Kirby is God!
TCC: “Stan Lee.”
JIM: [mishearing the phrase] “Family?” Dysfunctional!
TCC: “Kevin Feige.”
JIM: This weird, baseball cap-wearing… genius.
TCC: I think we’ll go with ‘Genius’ on that one, then! In that case… “Russo Brothers.”
JIM: Two of the nicest guys I’ve met in a long time, them and Markus and McFeely – you know, they’re not what I would have expected.
TCC: So we’ll go with ‘unexpected’, we’ll go with that. And last but not least, the word that first comes into your head when I say… “Endgame.”
JIM: Satisfying. Very, very satisfying.
TCC: Well, I’m looking at six hours, and then I’ll be in a cinema [seeing the film] myself. I’m looking forward to this film so much – and it’s been a pleasure talking to you, Jim Starlin, thank you very much indeed for your time.
JIM: You have a good one. Take care.
Thanks to Kelly Mitchell of PAL Public relations for setting up the interview, and to Dan Berry for making the initial enquiry which lead to us holding it in the first place. Cheers, everyone.