Jim Starlin and Marvel’s Cosmic Infinite

Not only is today Jim Starlin’s 66th birthday, but this month also marks the 40th anniversary of the release of his game-changing Warlock #9, one of the books that cemented his legacy among some of comics’ all-time greatest creators, and made his name synonymous with Marvel’s cosmic universe.

Warlock #9, "The Infinity Effect"
Warlock #9, “The Infinity Effect”

“The Infinity Effect” became more than just a starting point for Adam Warlock’s adventures with his evil future self; it set the groundwork for arguably the grandest four-color space opera of all time. The saga of the Infinity Gems and the characters linked to those stones – including Thanos, Gamora, and, of course, Warlock – has spun into numerous universe-shattering events and limited series over the last few decades. And, more significantly for even the casual superhero fan, it has become a slowly building central plot point for Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Seeing Thanos slide the Gauntlet onto his purple mitt in the final scene of Age of Ultron might have been the coolest big-screen teaser since seeing Thor’s hammer chilling in the desert.

So to celebrate Starlin’s birthday, and help prep the uninitiated for the coming Infinity blitz, here’s a Top 5 primer on his Marvel cosmic canon. Rather than rank these, they’re being presented chronologically, from the early 70’s right through the present day.

CM essentialCaptain Marvel (1973-74)
Captain Marvel #25-34
Collected in Essential Captain Marvel #2

The Kree soldier Mar-Vell, better known as the original Captain Marvel, may have been created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan, but he found his home, both in the cosmos and in the comics, with Jim Starlin. Comics in the 1970’s were so wonderfully trippy and weird, and Starlin’s Marvel run is a perfect example. Along the way, he reinvented the character, changing his appearance slightly and gifting him with a cosmic consciousness that opened the door to stories that transcended both time and space. The first great Thanos epic unfolds in these issues, back when major events could be contained within regular monthly titles, as the Mad Titan gets his hands on the Cosmic Cube.

This Essential edition also reprints Iron Man #55, the first appearances of Thanos and Drax the Destroyer, as well as some truly oddball post-Starlin Mar-Vell yarns courtesy of Englehart & Al Milgrom. My earliest memory of Captain Marvel, as a matter of fact, was one of those issues, pulled from the backroom of a used bookstore when I was young enough to think that a superhero flying through space on a robot pony with a fishbowl-Martian helmet was cool, and not yet old enough to realize how drugged out these storytellers actually were.

warlockWarlock (1975-76)
Strange Tales #178-181 and Warlock #9-15
Collected in Warlock by Jim Starlin: The Complete Collection

These are the books where things really started coming together in Starlin’s world. Although he didn’t create the character of Adam Warlock (his birth occurred in an early Lee & Kirby Fantastic Four and his first rebirth, complete with Christ-like allegory, came courtesy of Roy Thomas and Gil Kane), he made him his own, in much the same way that he did with Captain Marvel a few years earlier. These stories, beginning with the Strange Tales issues, introduce us to Gamora, Pip, and the Magus, Warlock’s sinister alter-ego from a future timeline. The battle against The Universal Church of Truth showcases the breadth of Starlin’s star-spanning imagination, and also anticipates some of his later work on Dreadstar and DC’s space books. Perhaps more significantly, this run re-introduces us to Thanos and plants the seeds for future universal crises with the first gathering of the Infinity Stones.

death of cmThe Death of Captain Marvel
Marvel Graphic Novel #1, 1982
Currently in print

Although Will Eisner is largely credited with creating the first graphic novel, Marvel introduced both the term and the format to the comics community with their Graphic Novel line in the 80’s, and the guy they entrusted with the very first of these was Jim Starlin. And Starlin went ahead and killed Captain Marvel.

Most superheroic deaths, both before and after this graphic novel, are inundated with sudden, tragic drama and forced significance. The hyperbolic fanfare is made all the more tiresome because the characters invariably come back. What’s going on with Nightcrawler? Oh he’s dead right now. They killed Captain America? Yeah, I wonder how they’ll bring him back. Human Torch? He died and returned as a bug. But this graphic novel stands alone. Not just in the way the death is handled (spoiler alert: he dies of cancer), but in the way Marvel has handled its universe, post-death.* He hasn’t come back. At least, not really. The story is about dying as much as it is about living, and doesn’t feature splash pages of Kirby-esque fists or crackling energy blasts. The themes of death, life, and the infinite that become so integral to all of the cosmic tales that follow are captured in this one, stunning work.

original cover
original cover

*Except with the terrible cover choice for the new printing. This new cover, featuring Nitro standing triumphantly over the fallen Marvel (which is actually from a pre-Starlin adventure), feeds into the exact kind of superhero death drama that has become so overwrought in recent years. Part of the beauty of Starlin’s Death of Captain Marvel is that original cover.

inf gauntThe Infinity Gauntlet (1991)
The Infinity Gauntlet #1-6
Collected in trade paperback

If you read only one collection to work yourself up to speed with what Marvel looks to capture in their movies, this is probably the one. Even though Starlin only handles the writing duties with this mini-series (and the Infinity-related tales that follow), George Perez is a legend in his own right and is a welcome partner for this classic collaboration. The Cosmic Cube was for amateurs. Back from the dead, and in service to Mistress Death, Thanos now works to assemble the Infinity Gems and extinguish half of all life in the universe. Starlin and Thanos will continue to up the ante several times following this supposed be-all-end-all of omnipotence (an assemblage of Cosmic Containers, The Heart of the Universe), but this book, by itself, has an appropriately epic finality. It also features the development of the Marvel pantheon of universal elders, embodiments of time, space, and creation that began as fervent creatures of Jack Kirby’s imagination, and become something much more compelling in Starlin’s universe.

thanos reveThanos (2014, 2015)

The Infinity Revelation
and The Infinity Relativity
Marvel Original Graphic Novels

Marvel brought back the idea of “original graphic novels” a few years ago. Self-contained, bound stories that begin life in this format rather than being collected reprints of a half-dozen or so individual issues. And since Jim Starlin helped launch Marvel’s original line of graphic novels, it only makes sense to have him – and his favorite cosmic characters, Thanos and Warlock – return for the new books.

thanos inf relaThe first book, Revelation, sees Thanos back, once more, searching for glimmers of meaning in the universe, with Warlock again as an unlikely partner. But more than that, Jim Starlin is back, once more, writing and illustrating expansive odysseys in a way that wasn’t ever truly captured in any of the Infinity series, or even Marvel Universe: The End. In fact, it’s his best work for Marvel since that Death of graphic novel more than twenty years ago. And the second graphic novel, released just this year, incorporates the Annihilation Wave, the brainchild of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, heirs apparent to Starlin’s Marvel cosmological legacy. (And to see how Annihilus got his groove back, and then some, you can check out Starlin’s recent Thanos vs. Hulk mini-series.)

Marvel has recently announced the final part of Starlin’s Thanos OGN trilogy. The Infinity Finale, with art by frequent Starlin collaborator Ron Lim, will be released in 2016.