Death Becomes Him
Penciller: George Perez
Inkers: Josef Rubinstein and Tom Christopher
Colorists: Max Scheele and Ian Laughlin
As I sat in a packed theater in the spring of 2019 watching Avengers: Endgame, I was surrounded by a person in a Spider-Man costume and another in Captain America regalia. It was at that moment that it truly hit me just how far into the mainstream superhero fandom had come.
As I discussed this in the introduction to this project, there was a time not so long ago that superhero comics were not only shunned, but derided. Now, people are going crazy for a TV show featuring Scarlet Witch and Vision, and my sons play with a life size infinity gauntlet toy. This is, of course, all down to astonishing quality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, and as obvious as this is, the MCU wouldn’t be anything without the comics that came before.
It’s become sorely overused to say “I wish my so-and-so-year-old self could see this,” but if we could travel back to the 1991 and tell 14-year-old Paul that his most anticipated comic of the summer would be the become the basis of the a whole series of big-budget movies he would have scoffed. Hard. Fourteen-year-old Paul was so excited about Jim Starlin and George Perez’s Infinity Gauntlet miniseries he actually wore a large rectangular promo button for the book, enduring side-eyes and the occasional derisive, “What’s THAT supposed to be?”
Fast forward three decades and THAT is the basis for Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, two of the highest grossing films of all time. Is that vindication that I feel? Not really. I don’t need everyone to love what I love. There’s some pride there, but more than anything it’s just surreal.
Infinity Gauntlet was the first big comics “event” I got to experience first hand. These days there’s almost never not an event going on (which sort of undermines the whole point of them), but at that time they were rare. DC actually did events more often, averaging an one every couple of years starting with 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. Marvel had only had two line-wide events with their own miniseries before Infinity Gauntlet, 1984’s Secret Wars and 1985’s Secret Wars II.
Adding to my excitement was the fact that I’d already been reading the Silver Surfer book that built up writer Jim Starlin's story of Thanos’s obsession with Death (an actual character in the Marvel Universe) and his quest for the Infinity Gems, so I was excited for the payoff.
AND, it was being drawn by George Perez.
By 1991, Perez had already established himself as one of the greatest superhero artists ever. The South Bronx native had grown up a comics fan, drawing influence from a range of artists including Curt Swan, Neal Adams, and Barry Windsor Smith. Intriguingly, he also counted his Infinity Gauntlet writer - who was also a talented artist - among his heroes. In a 1982 interview he said, “As far as someone whose style totally changed mine, Jim Starlin."
Perez broke into the comics business as an assistant to artist Rich Buckler, but it wasn’t long before his talent for inventive, eye-catching page layouts and polished figures landed him gigs on flagship titles Fantastic Four and Avengers. Perez was a fast artist, but in his first stint at Marvel he worked himself into the ground, and destroyed his marriage and his reputation in the process.
When his contract was up, Marvel let him go. So in 1980 Perez headed for DC, working on Justice League of America as well as a new title with writer Marv Wolfman. It was this second book that would push Perez's career into the stratosphere. His and Wolfman's New Teen Titans - which aged up the original sidekick characters of Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy, and Beast Boy; and introduced Raven, Cyborg, and Starfire - was a huge hit.
Perez would work on the title for four years before moving over to Crisis on Infinite Earths. This and Titans cemented Perez as an unparalleled talent when it came to depicting lots of characters and lots of details. His pages were packed, made for the eyes to linger on.
After Crisis, he took on a reboot of Wonder Woman, writing and drawing the title to critical and fan acclaim. That brings him to Infinity Gauntlet. Despite Perez's long history in comics, this was actually the first time I encountered his art (as I detailed in essay #6, I was late to arrive to DC Comics, so I wouldn’t read Crisis or Titans until later). I was gobsmacked. The level of care on each page was astonishing, and I became an instant fan.
Infinity Gauntlet's story bears little resemblance to Infinity War and Endgame. Yes, Thanos is central, and so are the Infinity Gems, and so is the infamous population-halving snap. But the character motivations and the plot to foil Thanos are almost completely different.
In the movie, Thanos doesn’t kill for the sake of it. He’s convinced himself that halving the population will allow those who are left to thrive in peace, because they won’t have to compete for resources. In the comic, his motivations are borne of obsession; he performs the act of mass murder in an attempt to win Death’s affection (it doesn’t work). The Thanos of the MCU is a “sociopath with a messiah complex,” as Infinity War directors Joe and Anthony Russo described him (The Wrap). The Thanos of the comics is a nihilist who is constantly thwarted by his own insecurity.
(It should be noted that Jim Starlin created Thanos, so he should know his motivations better than anyone. But it should also be noted that this doesn’t necessarily mean the comics version is better).
In the movie, the heroes use time travel to gather the stones and foil Thanos, but in the comic storyline they try a head-on attack before giving way for the cosmic entities of the Marvel universe and finally Nebula and Adam Warlock.
But there are also commonalities between the two stories, and not just in the broad strokes. Though it’s clear that the MCU writers and directors pick and choose what elements they want to use, they also do a good job of honoring their source material with nods and winks. So the Hulk falling through the roof of Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum is a tribute to the Silver Surfer doing the same in Infinity Gauntlet #1. Both stories featured a valiant-but-failed a tempt to wrest the gauntlet off of Thanos’s hand. In both, Captain America makes an inspiring stand against the mad Titan. Drax, Gamora, and Nebula all have roles. Infinity Gauntlet ends with Thanos living in isolation as a farmer, which also happens in the films.
So the natural next question in this comparison becomes: Which one do I like better?
Infinity Gauntlet was a huge moment in my nascent comic book fandom, but was ultimately a disappointment. Perez worked on the book while also trying to manage a DC event, War of the Gods, and the workload proved too much. He was replaced with Starlin’s Silver Surfer artist, Ron Lim, for the final three issues of Infinity Gauntlet. I liked Lim, but the style shift was jarring, and it coincided with the story spinning somewhat out of control.
Greenberger, Robert. “The Ultimate Team Player: A look at the career and art of George Perez.” Comics Scene (vol. 1) #7. January 1982.
Hornshaw, Phil. “’Avengers: Infinity War’ Directors Explain Why Thanos Didn’t Double the Universe’s Resources.” The Wrap. August 1, 2008. https://www.thewrap.com/infinity-war-directors-explain-thanos-double-universe-resources/
McAvennie, Michael. “Running the Infinity Gauntlet.” Comics Scene #19. June 1991.