New To You Comics: No One’s Hero In Marvel’s “Thanos Wins”

by Tony Thornley

With the comics industry slowly returning from the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are taking the opportunity to introduce each other to comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals and things that go bump in the night. This week we visit an acclaimed story arc from Marvel that’s far outside the norm.

Several years ago, Donny Cates made a splash with his earliest Marvel work. One of those titles involved his frequent collaborator Geoff Shaw along with color artist Antonio Fabela and Clayton Cowles on letters. At first glance, Thanos#13 was just a continuation of the Mad Titan’s series, which itself was meant to capitalize on his popularity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, what the team delivered was a seminal character study of one of the most despicable characters in comics, Thanos Wins.

Tony Thornley: So this is an interesting one in my opinion. I have to say that I didn’t actually love this story until the last few pages. Don’t get me wrong- It’s a brilliant character study of the most well known threat to the Marvel Universe, but as a story I didn’t love it until the actual point of the story is revealed in the final pages. That said, that’s starting at the end.

I think this is an incredibly well crafted story at all levels. Cates loves his dark stories, and it doesn’t get any darker than a story about the bad guy, the ULTIMATE bad guy, winning. Alongside that, we see Shaw change things up a bit stylistically to something halfway in-between his previous two works that you and I talked about, with a bit of polish. What did you think?

Brendan Allen: I was actually pretty curious about this one for a while. I don’t read a lot of Marvel, but it’s kind of hard to miss the hype. And I hear you. It took a minute to warm up. It did end up being pretty great by the end. I liked the new Cosmic Ghost Rider character Donny Cates invented for this, and the backstory actually fits really well into the larger Marvel canon. 

TT: Now, for the narrative, this story is the chronicle of the last days of the universe. King Thanos, a conqueror who has slain the entirety of existence except for himself, the Hulk, Cosmic Ghost Rider and his greatest enemy, summons his past self to aid him in his greatest battle. It’s also peppered with heavy doses of flashbacks, so we see what led to the death of the Marvel Universe as you know it. 

I think that bit of detachment, approaching it as a historical record rather than a more conventional superhero, sci-fi or fantasy tale, is really for the best. It helps the reader avoid sympathizing with the protagonist, because there’s nothing redeemable about Thanos here. He’s a monster and he stays a monster the entire story.

BA: Right. There’s a lot to be said for the nuanced exposition in this one. A lot of things come to light that Thanos would never admit to anyone. Things he actually doesn’t even end up admitting to himself. But that last twist really gives it away. This dude has some deep, dark emotions about who he is, what he’s done, and what he’s become. I don’t think there’s a different way any of those emotions could have come out that would have been believable.

TT: Yeah exactly. This guy is someone who ENJOYS the Penance Stare. This is a power that Ghost Rider once used to take down Galactus, and Thanos uses it as his morning refresher.

BA: I mean, if your goal was to end all life in the universe, what’s left when you’ve accomplished that? All the dude has is the memories. Those are his trophies.

TT: Sick monster. So the story covers a lot of ground, and you keep thinking that you’ve found the point. The final battle with the Silver Surfer. The Surfer nearly winning. King Thanos demanding that his younger self kill him… and then the amazing twist that we’re not going to spoil. That’s the point that it truly elevates itself.

BA: It’s weird that there are a couple times when you almost get it, that you almost feel sorry for the dude. Then, he does something else so heinous that you’re like, oh yeah. That tracks.

TT: Yeah, exactly. Now, we have to talk about Shaw’s art here. I feel like Shaw is the secret sauce. This would have just been misery porn if it wasn’t for him. I really like that it still has that over the top, grand quality that we saw with Buzzkill and God Country, but it’s more polished. It’s like a next step in his evolution.

BA: It’s funny that we’ve already hit two books with this same team. I promise that was coincidental. I really look for books that made a mark on me as a reader, and I think you do the same. These guys just have something when they get together that makes an impression.

Shaw does a really fantastic job here with emotional close-ups and dynamic fight scenes, but the thing that really stood out for me is the character design. It’s not an easy thing, aging and de-aging characters in ways that are convincing and believable. Baby Thanos all the way through grumpy old man Thanos, and every stop along the way to that Mad Titan beer belly.

TT: And Cosmic Ghost Rider. There’s no doubt the character would have been a one-and-done if it wasn’t for the distinctive design. It’s so full of personality, and so distinct from any other take on the Ghost Rider to date. It takes the history of Frank Castle, the power of Ghost Rider, and adds a twist of Deadpool. It shouldn’t work, but it’s actually pretty great!

BA: Right. And to take a character that is already so well known, and throw him into the position of another well known character, and have the thing WORK? That’s pretty rare. It’s like if Hulk Hogan strapped on a kilt and came down to the ring to bagpipes. Yeah, it’s the Hulkster, but that sure as hell ain’t Roddy Piper. (We have a wrestling book coming up soon. Had to do it.)

TT: Hah! So what’s the verdict?

BA: I liked it. It’s not my usual fare, but it’s plenty dark and twisty. That’s how I like my books. These dudes are also very, very comfortable working together, and it comes through on every panel of every page. Hard to argue with great comics.

TT: What’s up next?

BA: I gave you a few weeks off from the horror shows, but the break’s over, big guy. We’re going to hit up Cullen Bunn and Donny Luckert’s Regression Volume 1. You’re going to love it. 

Thanos Wins is available now from Marvel Comics. It’s available via Comixology at the link above and in bookstores and comic book shops everywhere.

We’d like to ask, on behalf of our friends and colleagues that own and are employed by comic shops, that you first try to get these books at your local shop. This is a very uncertain time for owners, employees, and their families. Show some love for your community and friends by buying from your regular shop when possible and safe.

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