Jim Starlin didn’t think any of this would happen.
In 1973, when the Detroit-born comic book creator introduced Thanos into the pages of The Invincible Iron Man, it was not in his mind that this purple alien brute (named after the Greek god associated with death, Thanatos) would mean much to anyone outside voracious comic book readers.
Now, with the latest Marvel movie, Avengers: Endgame, breaking box office records and its villain Thanos propelled into mainstream culture, Starlin seems equally pleased and shocked to see his niche creation become an international celebrity.
“I had always thought he was too weird and esoteric to actually get into the mainstream,” Starlin tells Inverse. “No. I didn’t see him hitting this level of popularity. I just thought he was too off the mainstream to get where he is today. No one is more surprised than I am.”
He adds, “It’s surrealistic.”
Starlin spent the last year in a state of shock ever since Thanos, whom he considers his own child, showed up on the big screen played by Josh Brolin (in heavy CGI and motion-capture) in Avengers: Infinity War. This weekend, the sequel Avengers: Endgame opens in theaters, which stages the Avengers’ rematch against Thanos in a conclusion to eleven years of interwoven storylines.
Infinity War was a big deal. But Avengers: Endgame is expected to be an even bigger deal; Thursday previews took in a record breaking $60 million, and the opening weekend gross is expected to be $1 billion.
While the staggering success can be contributed to fans’ affection for Marvel’s two dozen charismatic superhero icons, Thanos has been a surprise breakout despite being a supervillain prone to monologuing. The big guy is the source of a bunch of weird memes, the object of “thirst” in sexual tweets, a favorite subject by YouTube philosophers, and a guest character in Fortnite, the world’s biggest video game. There’s even a Thanos Build-a-Bear.
Despite being a mainstay in the Marvel Universe since the ‘70s, it was only within the last year that Thanos, in more ways than one, got “hot.” I ask Starlin if he’s ever heard of “Thicc Thanos,” referring to a subset of fanart that puts the character in various erotic poses (Link is probably NSFW.)
“Thick Thanos? No,” he says, patiently. “Should I be prepared for heavily-veined members?”
“Thanos was just a cult character.”
Outside comics, Thanos was introduced to moviegoers in 2012’s The Avengers from writer/director Joss Whedon. The character was played by Damion Poitier in the film’s mid-credits stinger. Oscar-nominated actor Josh Brolin took over the role for a brief appearance in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and has played Thanos ever since.
“Joss Whedon was the one who came up with the idea of putting him in there,” Starlin says, who wasn’t clued in on Marvel’s ambitious plans until the film’s production. In a July 2018 interview with IGN, Whedon also admitted he didn’t actually know what to do with Thanos, but found him too compelling to ignore.
“I love Thanos. I love his apocalyptic vision, his love affair with death. I love his power,” said Whedon at the time. “But, I don’t really understand it. He’s had a lot of power, and he was cool in the comics. And I’m like, Thanos is the ultimate Marvel villain! And then I was like, I don’t actually know what I would do with Thanos.”
When Whedon left Marvel after 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, it became the job of new directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, to figure out Thanos. Regarding their efforts, Starlin couldn’t be more pleased, even if they’ve deviated from his original comic book vision: A tyrannical maniac, infatuated with another character, known as Lady Death.
“Only a fool would consider a multi-million dollar movie is going to stay completely faithful,” Starlin says. “I came into this giving a lot of flexibility from the start. I expected changes. And there are changes, but they are so minor, in some ways I find it hard to distinguish between the two of them.”
The beginnings of Thanos can be traced to a college psychology course Starlin took after his service in the Navy during Vietnam. It was hearing Sigmund Freud’s interpretations on Thanatos, the Greek god, the personification of death, that got Starlin’s creative gears turning.
“The dark and light sides of human nature — I just thought, what about the personification of such an idea? Within weeks I had sketches, and I used some of those early concept drawings to put in my portfolio that got me work at Marvel.”
Starlin says the name Thanos is the “Romanesque” version of the character’s Greek ancestor.
“There was a Greek restaurant on my walk to Marvel back in the ‘70s called Thanotos that always struck me as a strange name for a restaurant,” he says. “It means death. I guess if they wanted to sell the food that way that was their choice.” (Starlin says he never ate there.)
But the character’s essence and core philosophy came from two different things: comic book legend Jack Kirby (creator of Captain America, Black Panther, Iron Man, the Hulk, and more), and the TV show Cheers.
“When I met Jack Kirby,” he remembers, “He told me that the Hulk was stupidity. The harder you beat on him, the stronger it becomes. Stupidity. I thought, if I want to create characters, I have to give them that one-line tag.” Starlin gave Thanos, “uncontrollable appetite,” for “no satisfaction could be achieved.”
While working on issues of Captain Marvel, Starlin sketched some random figures, including one skeletal-like woman in a hood. He didn’t know what he just drew, but he decided to keep it. “And somewhere along the line, necrophilia got into the equation,” he says. “I put some breasts on this hooded figure and it sort of went from there. [Thanos] and Captain Marvel seemed to be the only ones who could see this figure. I gave her a personality where she could transform into this beautiful, icy-looking woman.”
Starlin didn’t intend Thanos to be in love with her or anyone. In fact, in an issue of Silver Surfer that was ramping up toward Starlin’s 1991 crossover miniseries The Infinity Gauntlet — the comic that inspired the movies — Starlin had Thanos ramble about overpopulation in the universe. That was his mission from the start, but “I realized going down that avenue, I was going to put myself into a corner.”
In trying to find a smooth pivot for Thanos, he found inspiration from Ted Danson and Shelly Long’s bickering lovers from the popular NBC sitcom Cheers.
“I wanted to give him a Sam and Diane relationship that was completely dysfunctional,” he says. “Somebody like Thanos, that would be the only kind of relationship he would have. And you can’t get more unattainable than death.” And so Starlin’s mystery hooded woman became Lady Death.
The Russos didn’t include Lady Death into the MCU, and restored Thanos back to his original motivations (overpopulation, balance, yadda yadda) from Starlin’s Silver Surfer. But Starlin doesn’t mind, and he’s enjoyed every second of Thanos’ time in the limelight.
“It is spectacular,” he says. “Thanos was just a cult character. I never dropped progeny, but I think of Thanos and Dreadstar as my two kids. We had this quiet little existence, and then the first Avengers came out and people started going, ‘Who’s Thanos?’ We’ve just been riding our Andy Warhol fame and enjoying the hell out of it.”
“Now that this is over, we’re preparing to go back into bitter obscurity and enjoy that.”