The oral history of The Infinity Gauntlet, Marvel's game-changing comic event
30 years ago, Marvel redefined comics and superheroes forever. Here’s how.
Across the summers of 2018 and 2019, the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached its zenith.
The two-part story of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame successfully delivered the payoff to more than 20 superhero blockbusters, chronicling Thanos’ quest for the Infinity Stones and then sending the core Avengers through time to undo the damage that had been done.
While Marvel’s movies had plenty of original ideas in their own right, Marvel Entertainment's chief creative officer Kevin Feige has always credited the company’s comics as inspiration for its films. With Infinity War and Endgame; in particular, no source material had a bigger impact than 1991’s The Infinity Gauntlet.
The six-part miniseries, written by Jim Starlin and penciled by George Pérez and Ron Lim, released its first issue in July of 1991 after months of buildup in the pages of The Silver Surfer and The Thanos Quest, a two-part series that saw Thanos collect the Infinity Stones. The Infinity Gauntlet was a massive crossover event featuring the Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Adam Warlock, and various cosmic beings as well as members of the Avengers and the X-Men, all of whom team up to take on Thanos after he snaps away half the population of the universe.
The series was a success, with massive sales, several sequels, and a storytelling format that influenced future Marvel crossovers. In recent years, it’s become bigger than ever thanks to its influence on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Now, on the 30th anniversary of this storyline’s release, Inverse talks to its creators to find out how the story took shape, why it still resonates, why it became Marvel’s biggest cinematic story, and how this bold comics crossover changed the industry forever.
The Birth of the Mad Titan
While other major crossovers in Marvel history had been the product of several editors and writers teaming up, The Infinity Gauntlet was primarily the product of one writer: Jim Starlin. While editor Craig Anderson and artists George Perez and Ron Lim played key roles in crafting the series as well, the idea of a Thanos-centric crossover came from Starlin, who created the character nearly 20 years earlier.
Jim Starlin (writer of The Infinity Gauntlet, creator of Thanos): Shortly after I got out of the Navy, I was taking advantage of a veteran’s education program. One of the classes I took was a psych class. We had a guest lecturer one day, who came in to talk about Freudian concepts, and he touched upon the notion of the Eros and Thanatos of human nature. Of course, I latched on to the darker part of that, and that’s where Thanos came from.
I had some drawings of a character that looked very much like Metron from The New Gods. And when I got to New York and was working for Marvel, I talked [editor-in-chief] Roy Thomas into letting me use Thanos in one of the Iron Man stories I was doing. Thomas said to “beef him up,” and, as a result, everyone thought that I ripped off Darkseid for Thanos. The truth is, I ripped off Metron!
Starlin’s Return to Marvel
Throughout his long career, Starlin worked for several different publishers. By the late 1980s, he was working on Batman for DC Comics. In 1990, though, Starlin came back to Marvel and begin laying the groundwork for The Infinity Gauntlet.
Starlin: In the late ‘80s, I was writing Batman over at DC, and I killed off Robin in “A Death in the Family” by a vote from the readers. That turned out to be the most successful book that year by a long shot. Unfortunately, we had not informed the licensing department over at DC that we were going to kill off Robin; and when we killed him, they still had all these lunchboxes and pajamas with Robin on them. They got very upset and somebody had to [take] the blame, so I got the finger pointed at me. Within a month or two, all my work at DC had dried up.
I went over to Marvel and talked to [editor] Craig Anderson and he had this Silver Surfer book that wasn’t selling very well, so he asked me to take it on.
Ron Lim (artist on The Silver Surfer, Thanos Quest, and The Infinity Gauntlet): I was doing The Silver Surfer with Steve Englehart before Jim came on, and when I heard Jim was coming back I was blown away. I grew up reading Jim’s stuff and he was one of my favorite artists when I was a kid. When I heard what he wanted to do with Thanos, I was just blown away.
Starlin: I gained a reputation as being a “cosmic” storyteller at Marvel, but part of that was just self-defense. I hate drawing horses and cars, so doing stories in space was the best thing for me. As a writer, I learned a lot from watching old Star Trek episodes. I remember an interview with Gene Roddenberry where he was talking about a story where these aliens were black on one side and white on the other. He was able to do this story about bigotry without preaching to the audience. I thought, when it came to cosmic stories, this was a way for me to tell the stories I want with the messages I want — without seeming like I’m at a pulpit.
This is why I love telling stories with Thanos. He’s a character based upon Freudian and Jungian psychology. Like, the fact that he’s in love with Death is a pretty glaring psychological concept, as is the sibling rivalry with his brother, Eros. Thanos also has an Oedipus complex and he’s a whole bundle of neuroses and different psychological aspects that you can run on all day with. That’s what makes Thanos so interesting, and that’s why I brought him back when I began work on The Silver Surfer.
Matt Forbeck (author of the 2014 edition of The Marvel Encyclopedia): In the comics, one major difference in the story of the Infinity Gauntlet is that Thanos is in love with the personification of Death. This wasn’t used in the movies and it probably wouldn’t quite work in a movie, but it’s an important part of the comics. While he still believes the universe is overpopulated, Thanos actually kills off half the universe to impress Death.
Tom DeFalco (Marvel Comics editor-in-chief, 1987 to 1994): Everything Thanos does, he does out of love — he just happens to love Death.
The Infinity Stones
The first Infinity Stone debuted in 1972 in Marvel Premiere #1. First, it was called a “Soul Jewel,” then a “Soul Gem.” Later, it was established that there were six Soul Gems, each with a different power. In 1990’s The Thanos Quest, Thanos gathers all six gems and renames them.
Starlin: Back when I did The Avengers annual #7 in 1977, I needed a bigger power source for the story, so I had Thanos collect the Soul Gems to condense them into one big stone to blow stars out with, but they were just a throwaway that I grabbed at. I think Steve Englehart was the first one to use them again elsewhere inside The Silver Surfer book, and he gave them off to the elders before I took over.
When I started working with Ron Lim on The Silver Surfer, the sales went up markedly. This was when Marvel was owned by the Perelman Group, and they wanted to squeeze every cent they could out of every reader they could; after the rise in sales on The Silver Surfer, they wanted to do offshoots. First, we did The Thanos Quest, where he collected the Gems. Until then, they were known as the Soul Gems, but I wanted them to represent all of reality, and the soul was just a single aspect of it. I didn’t want to go more than six, so I broke the universe down into those six categories: soul, mind, reality, time, space, and power.
Originally, I just thought I was building up to a big crossover in The Silver Surfer, and I figured I’d bring in the Avengers. But Thanos Quest did so well that they wanted to do more, and so The Infinity Gauntlet became its own miniseries.
The Infinity Gauntlet
Following the events of The Thanos Quest, in which Thanos collected the Infinity Stones, The Infinity Gauntlet begins with Thanos already possessing the powers of a god. Now, with near-limitless abilities, Thanos seeks to impress Death by eliminating half of all life in the universe, which he does with the snap of his fingers in the first issue of the miniseries.
Starlin: The basic concept for the story stemmed from the fact that I was raised Catholic. I thought, “What if God wasn’t this benevolent being? But instead, what if he was this mad psychotic creature that would raise havoc in the universe?” I wanted to make Thanos into a mad god, and the Infinity Gems were the way of doing it.
When developing a story, I always like to keep things loose. I gave Craig a vague notion of where the series would go, breaking it down into six issues. I told him that, in the end, Thanos loses out. I worked out the story on three-by-five cards on top of a piece of plywood at home and moved them around. With all these concepts and all these characters, that was the only way to do a complex story like this. I had no idea that Thanos would be sitting and contemplating his future at the end, and I had no idea that Nebula was going to grab the Gauntlet. That was the fun part of writing stories back in those days — you had the freedom to veer off to the left or right, which is something you don’t have these days.
From the beginning, though, I knew it would include “The Snap.” I remember exactly how that idea came about. In a lot of restaurants in Europe and Africa, patrons would snap their fingers at a waiter, and I always found it very disdainful and impolite. To me, the snap was an act of disdain and contempt, so that was always going to be there.
Though Ron Lim was Starlin’s regular collaborator on The Silver Surfer, Marvel wanted a bigger name to tackle the artwork, so they went with artist George Perez. But when Perez became too busy, juggling both this arc for Marvel and War of the Gods for DC, he had to leave The Infinity Gauntlet. Lim took over beginning halfway through issue #4.
DeFalco: Ron Lim and George Perez are just two great artists who can draw anything! For Perez, I’m sure when he heard that there were going to be 1,000 characters in this story, I’m sure he thought, “Oh man, I was hoping for 2,000!” And Ron Lim, he’s just always so excited and thrilled to do things where he can cut loose. Those guys are just so enthusiastic. It was hard to contain them!
Starlin: Ron Lim was going to be the artist from the beginning, but Craig Anderson or Tom DeFalco talked George Perez into coming over and doing it. Ron was still going to be doing The Silver Surfer, so I figured that’d be okay.
Lim: They told me about The Infinity Gauntlet, but they wanted a superstar to draw it so they hired George Perez. But when George had to leave, I guess it made sense to have me do [the series,] because I did everything leading up to it. It felt like normal to be back on the story with Jim, but it was also nerve-wracking because I was following George, which was not something I wanted to do.
George was another artist I loved growing up, and he was one of the major influences on my art. I don’t think any artist does those crazy, overpopulated comics quite as well as he does. There were so many characters! So, yeah, following him was nerve-wracking, but it also got me to do the best work I could. And, fortunately, Joe Rubinstein remained as the inker, so he helped [me to] keep the look the same.
Starlin: Everyone was afraid, with George leaving the book, that sales would go down markedly, but the book gained its own momentum. By the time Ron was doing his issues, the sales were going up. We did better on our later issues than we did in our early issues, which is unheard of in a miniseries.
Assembling the Heroes
Following Thanos’ snap, Adam Warlock and the Silver Surfer assembled an epic team. They gathered surviving heroes from Earth and combined their might with Marvel’s cosmic beings in the hopes of taking down the Mad Titan.
Starlin: I was told to make a big crossover between everybody. This was only the second big crossover that people had done at Marvel — the other was Secret Wars — and everybody had a bad taste in their mouth from Secret Wars because it was the first time. And it didn’t work too well, with everyone working together.
When it came time for The Infinity Gauntlet, the X-Men editor, in particular, didn’t want us to use any X-Men whatsoever. In the end, Tom DeFalco had to step in and say, “Hey, you got to let him use some of the X-Men,” so I was allowed to use Cyclops and Wolverine. Most of the other editors were pretty cool about us using this character or that character, so I tried my best to keep the core of Marvel intact with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, and the Hulk. For other big characters, I had them disappear in the Snap, which was a way for me to eliminate characters that I didn’t really want to work with on that particular story.
Starlin: I chose particular characters for a reason. For the Silver Surfer, the whole story came from him, so I thought the core of the story was with the Surfer, Warlock, and Doctor Strange. With Warlock, I included him as sort of a self-defense measure. I’d killed him off a few years ago, but another writer at the time wanted to bring him back. I won’t say who it was, but I didn’t like this writer’s style, so I snatched up Warlock before he got his hands on him. I also wanted to have that mystical element to the story, which is why Doctor Strange plays an important part.
Spider-Man is always a good character to include because he provides that more human perspective. With Wolverine and the Hulk, I had this idea for a scene where the two are on a rooftop discussing the fact that they’re both monsters.
Starlin: Finally, there’s Cap. He’s just this noble character, so after all the heroes fall by Thanos, I wanted this scene where he’s the last one standing. He’s the last one to defy Thanos, and Thanos shows a bit of respect to what is, really, this pathetically weak character compared to him.
Lim: The Cap standoff in issue four, man. I love that scene! When I read Jim’s script, I thought that was such an awesome moment. It’s such a fantastic scene and it would be recreated in Endgame later. It’s just a great moment!
In Issue #4 of The Infinity Gauntlet, the heroes go head-to-head with Thanos, but they ultimately lose, getting scattered all over the universe. In issue #5, Thanos faces off against celestial entities like Galactus and Chronos, defeating them as well. Thanos then grows arrogant and abandons his mortal body, feeling that he no longer needs it. The tide then turns when Nebula — whom Thanos has punished throughout the story — grabs the Gauntlet from Thanos’ body, undoing all the destruction that he caused.
Starlin: I never liked the idea of Nebula. She was the daughter of Thanos, but Thanos loves Death, so Thanos would not be procreating. It really bothered me that after I left Marvel, Thanos was dropping progeny all over the place, so my annoyance with the whole concept of his offspring got taken out on her. Thanos burns her and she’s horribly scarred — she’s treated very badly in the book. Years later, when I met Karen Gillan, I even apologized to her for treating Nebula so badly.
Starlin: But, anyway, after Thanos had defeated everyone, I needed some way to show that Thanos — even if he does occasionally acquire omnipotence — always gives away his power or allows it to be taken away. That goes back to the psychology of the character, because, as Warlock explains in the comic, Thanos knows he’s unworthy of that power. So Nebula grabs the Gauntlet, and that was a way to bring the character back from the horrible state I put her in. It also allowed the twist of having Thanos help to defeat her, with the heroes, because she’s unstable.
That’s another aspect I enjoy about Thanos, is that there’s good and bad in the character. He’s saved the universe over the years just as often as he’s menaced it.
After defeating Nebula, Thanos fakes his death to escape. But Warlock, who now carries the Infinity Gauntlet, knows the truth and tracks Thanos down on an inhabited planet. It is here that we see a very different Thanos living as a simple farmer. The ending is very much like that of Avengers: Infinity War — except, in the comic book, Thanos is contemplating his defeat rather than his victory.
Starlin: In the end, I didn’t want to destroy Thanos. I wanted to give him a chance to digest what he’d done. He’d become God, but then he allowed it to slip through his fingers. I wanted him to sit back and recalculate his life and leave it a mystery as to whether he’d be a villain or stay in the garden for the rest of his life.
Lim: I got to draw a very different Thanos at the end there. Usually, Thanos is drawn as a regal character — he’s very strong, and I hardly ever draw him slouching. In the end, though, he’s defeated and it’s the first time we see him out of his costume. I got to draw peasant Thanos.
The Legacy of Infinity Gauntlet
The Infinity Gauntlet enjoyed tremendous sales and several sequels followed. But, in time, it faded in popularity. While Thanos and the imagery of the Gauntlet — particularly Perez’s first cover — remained memorable, sales on the trade paperback had declined by the late ‘90s, and in the years since, dozens of other crossover events have taken place in the Marvel Universe.
However, after Thanos made a cameo appearance on screen in 2012’s The Avengers, the story saw renewed interest. This begs the question, why was The Infinity Gauntlet the story that inspired so much of the MCU?
Starlin: The success of the series surprised everybody, including myself.
DeFalco: Only about half a dozen titles crossed over on [The Infinity Gauntlet,] but it sold so well that it also boosted the sales of the books that it crossed over with. So, for the next one, almost everyone wanted to be a part of it.
Lim: When I did The Infinity Gauntlet, I was also doing Silver Surfer and Captain America. The plan was, after Gauntlet, for me to go back to Cap, but The Infinity Gauntlet did so well that they had me do Infinity War and Infinity Crusades shortly after. Then, when the movies came out, there was this big boom, and everyone wanted to read this story again. I was amazed at how popular it got again.
I don’t know why this story in particular got so big. There are so many great Marvel stories, but Thanos is a really strong character. Readers really love that character — I know I did, growing up. The Infinity Gauntlet was also just the second big crossover. There are crossovers all the time now, and that’s cool, but it doesn’t feel quite as special. Back then though, it was an event to have all these heroes together. Even I was excited to see them all together!
Starlin: It’s surreal at times, how big it’s gotten. When Avengers: Infinity War came out, I did a convention in New Jersey, and, at the end of it, I went back to the house and figured that would be the end of that. That night, I watched The Late Show with [Stephen] Colbert, and he made a Thanos joke and I thought, “Maybe this isn’t going to fade as quickly as I thought.”
I think it’s because Thanos is a complex character, but I also think some of it is the luck of the draw. These people who worked on the movies happened to be fans during the time I was doing the book. Like Joss Whedon, he said that he was a fan of the Avengers annual I did with Thanos, and I think that had a lot to do with it. It could easily have been another villain, like the Sphinx, who was another big alien space creature.
Forbeck: The Infinity Gauntlet has kind of got this perfect design for a crossover. Not only is there the classic trope of heroes having to stop a villain before he builds this horrible thing, but there are six gems out there and we need to go find them. We need to stop the big bad from getting them.
It also worked really well in the movies, because they could place the stones into things you already know, like Loki’s staff, the Tesseract, and that gem in Vision’s head. Suddenly, that makes the stuff you already know bigger than you thought it was, which is a great reveal for a story.
DeFalco: It was a big, cosmic story that was just perfect for a two-part movie. I mean, at the end of Infinity War — whoa, holy shit! It was such an emotional thing and so many characters broke your heart when they turned to dust. I couldn’t believe they killed Spider-Man!
I give Marvel [Studios] and Kevin Feige so much credit, because they’ve done a fabulous job with these movies, and I’m in awe of what they’ve done. There’s no doubt, though, that a lot of it came from The Infinity Gauntlet. Starlin did a great job. No two ways about it.
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