The Genesis of Thanos and Guardians of the Galaxy

Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos, tells us about what it feels like to see his creations immortalized in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It can be reasonably argued that without Jim Starlin there never would have been a Guardians of the Galaxy. After all, in the 1970s, in the pages of Captain Marvel and Warlock, Starlin created such cosmic Marvel luminaries as the Guardians own Gamora and Drax the Destroyer. Along with those cosmic heroes, he also gifted Marvel with their cosmic comic villain: the Mad Titan, Thanos!

That’s right, the galactic evil of Thanos sprang from Starlin’s endless imagination as the cosmos was changed forever. In the ’80s, Starlin was the writer behind Infinity Gauntlet which as every Marvel fan knows, will serve as the inspiration for next year’s Avengers: Infinity War.  

It was our pleasure to pick Starlin’s brain and discuss his time on Captain Marvel and Warlock, his creation of Thanos, Infinity Gauntlet, and his future plans for Marvel’s cosmic characters. 

What first drew you to cosmic super hero stories?

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Those kind of stories you don’t have to draw cars or horses. But seriously, it was the Thor and Fantastic Four stories that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used to do that first hooked me onto the cosmic. Later on Carlos Castaneda, Wilhelm Reich, and other writers expanded on that fixation in a more cerebral fashion.

Were there any authors or films that served as inspiration to you when crafting your tales?

I’ve been influenced by so many different writers along the way, from Charles Dickens, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, John D. McDonald and so many others, that it would take a page or two to list them all. Same with the movies. Everything gets taken in, mulled over, mixed up and spit out again as my own. Life, itself, is inspiration.

What was your take on Captain Marvel as a character? He seemed kind of stagnant when you got your hands on him. What was your approach?

Cap was principally a warrior when editor Roy Thomas asked me to start plotting and drawing the book and later taking over the scripting. I like my characters to go through some changes during a story arc. Plus the book wasn’t selling and was about to be canceled, so Roy pretty much allowed me to go anywhere I wanted to with the tale. I owe him big for that kindness. I opted for the road to enlightenment with Captain Marvel and, looking back, I think it worked out pretty well.

How did you get the Captain Marvel and Warlock gigs?

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Well with Captain Marvel, Roy Thomas gave me the pity gig when Stan Lee fired Steve Gerber and I off Iron Man, after we produced an issue he really hated.

Warlock, I’d been doing a little work over at DC Comics but had decided to return to Marvel. Roy asked me what I wanted to write and draw, so I went back to my apartment, rifled through a box of various comics I had laying around and settled on Warlock. Told Roy who I decided upon the next day, he told me to go for it and that evening I penciled and inked the first page, without having any idea yet what the story would be about.

When did you know Thanos was going to be as important as he became? What made him stand out from other villains?

Hard question to answer. I’ve always thought of working for Marvel as an opportunity to write further Thanos stories, be it in Captain Marvel, Warlock, The Silver Surfer or whatever. When he showed up, the sales of those respective titles went up. So no one ever stopped me from this indulgence. When he appeared at the end of the first Avengers movie, I guess his popularity really exploded.

As for why he stands out: if we’re being honest, we’ve all got dark urges lurking at the back of our souls. They’re the things we do or say that we regret later. But with Thanos, he has no such governing method. He gets a dark thought, he acts upon it no matter what the consequences. They don’t call him the Mad Titan for nothing.

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How did Marvel editorial view the cosmic stuff in the ’70s? Did they support the space stuff?

Back in the seventies it was all about meeting the deadline; it was a production line. A new book had to come out each month or every other month. Roy Thomas, the editor-in-chief at the time, had no assistants and was pretty well overwhelmed by the number of books that had to be produced regularly. Hence the freedom to do what I wanted with the stories.

If a book sold really well, you might get a raise. If it didn’t, the book got cancelled. Categorizing books into genres really wasn’t part of the mix back then.

Can you talk about the creation of Drax?

I figured Thanos was going to be a powerhouse and was going to need his own Kyptonite and, so, Drax was created. But I guickly decided he should be a very inefficient Kyptonite and, so, Drax became the embodiment of frustration, created to do a job he was incapable of completing. Which kind of worked me into a corner with him. You can only go so far with frustration. So when I brought him back for The Silver Surfer, I brain damaged him to make him a more interesting character. Plus the Hulk at the time was gray and highly intelligent. I figured Marvel still needed a big dumb green guy running around.

Talk about the creation of Gamora.

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Again, her creation revolved around Thanos, when I brought him into the Warlock storyline; figured he needed a bit of a supporting cast. Visually Gamora was inspired by a photo in a European skin mag Alan Weiss had laying around his studio for reference. I modified the woman’s fishnet stocking outfit a bit and Gamora stepped onto the stage. Her being the most dangerous woman in the Galaxy was just a throw-off comment that stuck. From there she sort developed organically into what she became.

What do you think about the fact that pretty much all of Adam Warlock’s supporting cast has appeared on film but not Warlock himself?

Well, that’s a question I’m not sure how I should comment on at this time, even though James Gunn has sort of already let that particular cat out of the bag. Go see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and we can talk about this at another time.

Marvel seemed to move away from cosmic for many years, what do you think led to Guardians and the resurgence of the genre? 

The Guardians clearly got big because of James Gunn’s movie. Their comic had been canceled for a while before its debut, if I recall right. Advancements in computer graphics in film suddenly allowed movies to create stunning never-before-seen visuals. It used to be that comics had it all over movies for doing spectacular space scenes. No longer. That opened the genre to film exploration and a much wider audience. That then prompted the comics to do more space stuff.

Can you discuss the development and evolution of the Infinity Gauntlet series? Was it always going to be an event series?

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I took over the writing on the Silver Surfer when it was at a low ebb in sales. The numbers picked up and Marvel wanted more. That led to The Thanos Quest (my favorite Thanos story), which set up things for that story arc to be completed back in the pages of Silver Surfer. But Marvel wanted a big event book instead. So was born the Infinity Gauntlet.

At first a few of the Marvel editors were quite reluctant to allow me to use their characters in the story, especially the X-Men editor. But editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, eventually shot down those objections, for the most part. That’s why there’s only two X-Men in the story.

After the series ended and the sales figures came in on the titles that tied into the Infinity Gauntlet, Marvel wanted a follow-up series. In the Infinity War every editor at Marvel suddenly wanted all their characters included in the story, which turned out to be a real hassle, but one we worked through.

How does it feel that your work is the beating heart of both the Guardians franchise and the third Avengers film?

What can I say? It’s a real honor to have my stories up on the big silver screen, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s great fun flying out to LA for premieres and meeting all the actors and directors. But I think the biggest kick for me is seeing how directors and actors interpret those characters and stories.

What we’re doing, both in comics and the movies, is pop culture: nothing biblical or sacred. There are no sacred cows. Different medias require different approaches and (in the case of Marvel’s cinematic universe) different chronologies.

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Recently I ran into another comic creator who was quite put off by how a character he created was portrayed on screen. Though I sympathized I still found his outlook unrealistic. In the Guardians movies I find Gunn and Saldana’s portrayal of Gamora very much the character I wrote in the comics. In both the Guardians and Infinity Watch, she’s the adult in the room. There are flourishes to the character here and there, but the heart of the cinematic Gamora is the same as the comic book Gamora.

Drax, on the other hand, started off in the first movie as sort of a mix (visually the modern day comic-book version, character-wise closest to my Drax from the Infinity Watch and Infinity Gauntlet. In the second film Gunn and Bautista develop Drax into a character quite unique to the film. In my opinion the versions of both Drax and Gamora are equally valid and I enjoy them immensely. In the second Guardians movie I think comedy-wise Drax steals the show, even funnier than Rocket, though nowhere near as adorable as Baby Groot.

What led to the Death of Captain Marvel, and why do you think that his death has pretty much been the only superhero never to be permanently resurrected? 

Jim Shooter was quite up front about it when he approached me on the project. Marvel just couldn’t come up with a writer who could do what he considered justice to the character I left them with. So they wanted to kill Cap off and create a new Captain Marvel.

I came up with a handful of plots I wasn’t satisfied with: Cap dying off heroically in some big battle. Tossed them all without anyone ever reading them. But my father had passed away from cancer about six months earlier. Guess I figured doing the same to Cap was the cheapest form of therapy I could come up with to work through that loss.

Any other cosmic work of yours that you would like to see on film?

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Warlock and the Infinity Watch. It’d be nice if someone one day wanted to do a film of Gilgamesh II. Still working to get a Dreadstar TV show into production after the deal with Universal fell through because of unforeseen circumstances. Fingers still crossed.

How does it feel to be working with Thanos so many years later?

Like going out with an old friend for a drink. I listen to what he’s been up to and write another story.

You’re still delivering awesome cosmic tales. What’s next for you, Thanos, and Marvel cosmic?

The tremendously talented Alan Davis and I have a five-part Guardians of the Galaxy: Mother Entropy miniseries coming out in the next few weeks [Editor’s Note: It’s now on sale]. Presently Alan and I are also working on a trio of Thanos graphic novels that will include the Mad Titan’s little brother, Eros. But this will be an Eros that no one has ever seen before. Kang the Conqueror and a number of other familiar characters will be popping into this tale as it unwinds.

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