Panel by Panel – The Infinity Gauntlet #5

Panel By Panel is a regular feature at TSB where we present a single comic book page (or sometimes a single panel) of historical and/or artistic note accompanied by a brief explication of its significance.

Marvel’s The Avengers is a box office smash, and thanks to the mid-credits epilogue, the geek world is abuzz with talk of Thanos!  What better subject to revive our lately dormant feature, Panel by Panel?

Thanos and his beautiful, cosmic, boy-meets-Death/boy-loses-Death story are the brainchild of Jim Starlin. Standing on the shoulders of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Starlin took the cosmic, spiritual ideas in their stories and art and created one of the great, enduring storylines of post-Silver Age comics.

Director Joss Whedon has said he was inspired by the second Thanos story arc, culminating in 1977’s Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2, in deciding to make Thanos the string-pulling baddie at the end of The Avengers. That story and the first Thanos arc (beginning in Iron Man #55, 1972) are each notable moments in comics history.  I chose, however, a page from 1991’s The Infinity Gauntlet to examine here.

The Infinity Gauntlet #5 1991 pg 23
The Infinity Gauntlet #5, Marvel Comics November 1991.

Infinity Gauntlet #5 features pencils by Ron Lim, inks by Josef Rubenstein, and writing, of course, by Jim Starlin. Page 23 is a wonderfully rendered piece of storytelling that really sums up what Thanos is all about. Like any great villain, what makes Thanos special is the rich development of his character–he’s not merely a conqueror, he’s not particularly vain, he’s just in love. That love is both his weakness and his strength. The fact that he’s in love with the personification of death just happens to make things a little more complicated.

The page begins with a demonstration of Thanos’ pure power–so mighty as to overwhelm even the devil himself (Mephisto). The dialogue begins with many bolded words, exclamation points, and blocky sound effects, culminating in the perfectly placed “WHO?” of panel 3, which appears almost like a supertitle, right above panel 4’s full-body depiction of Lady Death. This gives way to Thanos’ muted “Mistress Death?” in panel 4–abruptly altering the rhythm of the page and drawing us into the character of Thanos as he becomes suddenly vulnerable. The central action of the page is that Death herself turns against Thanos, and that image is prominently placed in wide panel, center-page. Death–depicted full-front as Thanos turns away from us, throwing his attention to her–holds the focus, even as her distance to the foreground connotes her emotional distance from Thanos himself.

The page resolves in a four-panel sequence at the bottom. In the first panel, Lim does a wonderful job of expressing Thanos’ combined emotions of bewilderment, sadness, and letdown–no small feat with a character whose eyes are completely in shadow. This is followed by Thanos’ head falling into his hand as he laments, “I offered you the universe…”—an offer we are reminded of by way of the bejeweled gauntlet now obscuring the face of the vulnerable man behind. In this perfect panel we realize, along with Thanos, that even the power of a god cannot bring happiness to someone with a tortured soul. These panels alternate with the stoic, inscrutable face of Death–a character whose consistent lack of expression or sentiment only serves to increase our perception of her power and loftiness.

If you’ve never read these stories, you really owe it to yourself to check them out, and there’s no better time than now! Start with the first two “Thanos Wars” where you’ll witness Captain Mar-Vell being granted “cosmic awareness,” and the tragic death of Adam Warlock. Then pick up The Infinity Gauntlet, where Thanos finally comes to a place of peace.

To read previous installments of Panel by Panel, click here.

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