All posts by JC Armstrong

Top 10 Moments: The Infinity Gauntlet

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Twenty-eight years later The Infinity Gauntlet stands as one of the finest comic book events, not just of the 90’s, but of all time.  Written by Jim Starlin (with pencil art from George Perez and Ron Lim), the Infinity Gauntlet concerns the threat of Thanos, a death worshipper who has collected the six Infinity Gems in order to please his dark mistress.  The saga of The Mad Titan’s struggle to retain his newly acquired godhood and his nemesis Adam Warlock’s plans to thwart him with the aid of Earth’s super heroes has endured.  So enduring, in fact, that the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe film franchise was built up to its adaptation.

From my own perspective, The Infinity Gauntlet was the first “Event Comic” I experienced.  It’s still my favorite, with no real competition.  The Infinity Gauntlet #4 stands out as the highlight issue, with that being where various Avengers, X-Men, and other super-heroes throw down with the big bad, only to be dispatched in brutal fashion one by one.  As a pre-teen and even into my early 20’s, this top 10 list would be loaded with stuff like “Spider-Man gets bludgeoned to death with a rock!” and “Iron Man gets his head ripped off!” but with re-read after re-read, I came to appreciate the smaller character moments more and more, especially those dealing with Thanos and Adam Warlock.

As much as I love the Thanos brought to life by Kevin Feige, The Russo Brothers, and Josh Brolin on film, no one does it up like Starlin.  There’s a poetry to the way he writes Thanos and Warlock that no one else has been able to match.  It’s also no small difference in personality between the two versions.

The Thanos of the MCU is cold and calculating, but essentially good intentioned, which works well for the film franchise.  Starlin’s Thanos is a lunatic, drawn even more mad with the immense power he’s gained.  He literally worships Death itself, and is so love sick he often comes off as a petulant child when he doesn’t get the attention he wants.

The Infinity Gauntlet has sweeping action, savage deaths, cosmic warfare, and heroic last-stands, but it is often the conflict of personalities that lead to the most satisfying moments.  If it’s been awhile, I hope this look back reminds you of how great it truly is.

(This SPOILER HEAVY rundown of the ten best moments from the series is entirely subjective, and  and as such, it’s no problem if you disagree with the moments chosen, or the order in which they are ranked. Feel free to make your own list – this is mine.)

Before I get to the Top 10, a few honorable mentions:

Mistress Death Silenced (The Infinity Gauntlet #1)

While Thanos is in love with the personification of Death, the cosmic entity does not speak for herself.  Instead, she communicates through a servant.  When Thanos hears of her distaste for his actions, his response is explosive.  I include this only as an Honorable Mention because a near identical scene takes place in the Infinity Gauntlet precursor, Thanos Quest.

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Farmer Thanos? (The Infinity Gauntlet #6)

Once the conflict is ended and Adam Warlock has wrested control of the Gauntlet, Thanos fakes his own death.  Warlock, now omniscient, isn’t fooled.  In the near future he visits Thanos, free of his desire for ultimate power, living a quiet life of solitude.  While Thanos doesn’t face justice for nearly tearing the universe asunder, we are left with an even more satisfying version of closure.

 

“Prepare thyselves for battle most fierce and awesome.”

(The Infinity Gauntlet #3)

I, uh… I just really like this line.

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10. “We’re both monsters, pal.” (The Infinity Gauntlet #3)

As Earth’s heroes prepare for battle, Hulk and Wolverine find themselves alone atop Avengers Mansion. Despite an extensive history of violent confrontation, the two engage not in fisticuffs, but conversation. As Hulk confesses his admiration for Wolvie and acknowledges their similarities, Adam Warlock approaches to entrust them with the task of killing The Mad Titan, should the opportunity present itself.

 

9. Mighty Galactus, Humbled (The Infinity Gauntlet #3)

Knowing the mortals of Earth haven’t the power to deal with Thanos, Adam Warlock also employs a cadre of cosmic beings to take part in his plans.  Planet consuming powerhouse Galactus scoffs at the notion of following Warlock’s scheme, and after being insulted, lashes out.  Despite initial appearances, Warlock proves unscathed and once the other cosmic beings throw their weight behind Warlock, Galactus is left with no choice but to agree to join them.

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8. “Stay thy hand.” (The Infinity Gauntlet #4)

So powerful is Thanos when the heroes of earth approach, his first instinct is to simply freeze time and erase them from existence as he had so many others.  It’s his “advisor” Memphisto who prevents this calamity.   For his own reasons the devilish deceiver convinces Thanos that the key to earning Mistress Death’s admiration could be proving himself in battle, going as far as to engineer Thanos lowering his power levels in order to allow the heroes a chance at victory.

 

7. Shattered (The Infinity Gauntlet #4)

In a rare moment of seeming vulnerability, Thanos falters under Thor’s assault.  Our narrator for this issue, Thanos’ half-brother Eros, silently implores the Asgardian to finish the job.  Not to be, however, as Thanos utilizes his power over reality to transform his foe into a glass statue, diffusing the threat.  After admiring his handiwork, he dispatches his most powerful opponent.  Muses Eros: “Thanos is inevitable.  All light is lost.  All that is left are tears.  And the echoes of dreams shattered.”

 

6. “A GAME!” (The Infinity Gauntlet #4)

While Thanos battles Earth’s warriors, Adam Warlock and The Silver Surfer observe from afar.  When Eternity, the living embodiment of all that is (don’t overthink it), insists the cosmic entities take part, Warlock shoos him away.  While Warlock is an artificial man, he’s still only a man, and his dismissiveness takes The Surfer by surprise.  When called on it, Warlock doesn’t mince words.  Despite his power, Eternity is a game piece, like the others.  Seeing them as such is necessary for him to keep his machinations in play.

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5. Delusions of Granduer (The Infinity Gauntlet #4)

Before his 90’s resurgence, Thanos faced the original Captain Marvel in some of his earlier appearances.  Mar-vell, now long dead, has been replaced by Quasar.  With a job description that reads “Protector of the Universe”, and possession of the Quantum Bands, Quasar seems a match for almost any foe.  Until he faces Thanos, who simply eradicates the Quantum Bands, and Quasar soon after.

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4. Doomed (The Infinity Gauntlet #3)

While Adam Warlock gathers Earth’s forces at Avengers Mansion, Vision and She-Hulk discuss their chances of victory.  Not good, says the android Vision.  While the Avengers had defeated Thanos in the past, it was with no small amount of aid from Thanos himself.  Now, as before, if he doesn’t give them their chance, the battle itself is a formality.

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3. “SNAP” (The Infinity Gauntlet #1)

Thanos, being in love with Death herself, had once pledged to exterminate half of all life.  It was his pursuit of this promise that led him to collect the Infinity Gems, but after attaining ultimate power, he had yet to make good on his promise.  With Mistress Death spurning the lovesick Titan at every turn, Memphisto suggests that making good may be what it takes to impress her.  Thanos walks to the edge of his shrine to Death, overlooking his universe, and exterminates half of its life with a snap of his fingers.

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2. “Even gods err…” (The Infinity Gauntlet #5)

After Thanos loses his prize to Nebula, he finds himself on Earth with Adam Warlock and the few remaining champions.  In a private moment, Warlock requests Thanos’ help in dealing with the new threat presented by his granddaughter.  Not one to offer aid, Thanos needs convincing, and Warlock has only knowledge to offer.  Revealing that he was within the Soul Gem when Thanos attained it, Warlock now knows the Titan better than anyone.  Confronted with the harsh truth that he knows, subconsciously, that he is unworthy of the power he craves and has attained multiple times, Thanos struggles and stammers.  Humbled and defeated, Thanos agrees to take part in Warlock’s plan.

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1. Captain America Stands His Ground (The Infinity Gauntlet #4)

Captain America led the charge against Thanos, only to witness all of his friends and allies fall, many in brutal fashion.  Despite lacking the power of Thor, Hulk, Namor, or even Cyclops, he approaches Thanos head high, chest out, giving no thought of surrender.  Cap faces the Titan and sneers: “As long as one man stands against you, Thanos, you’ll never be able to claim victory.”  Cap’s play is a final gambit, luring Thanos into position for The Silver Surfer to relieve him of the Gauntlet.  Again, failure.  Eros ruminates: “The Surfer misses his mark and Thanos retains his godhood.  The echoes of failed plans and good intentions wasted in futile acts… Nothing remains of hope.  Nothing remains but sweet oblivion and an end to this nightmare.”

 

Well, there you have it.  While these ten moments stand out to me as the best of the series, there is no shortage of greatness that I was unable to spotlight here.  The Infinity Gauntlet is truly one of the 90’s, and indeed history’s, greatest comic books.  The story didn’t end here, with The Infinity War and The Infinity Crusade following in subsequent years.  A far cry from the original, but those sequels have plenty to love as well.

Marvel is still using Thanos (more than ever, really) in its comic universe, but I suggest seeking out Jim Starlin’s recent graphic novel series for the best of it.  Nobody has a handle on The Mad Titan like he does.

 

 

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Image @ 25 : The Savage Dragon

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In late 1991 a group of Marvel Comics’ hottest artists gave Marvel (and later DC Comics) the collective middle finger and struck out on their own to form Image Comics.  The following summer, Image took the comic book world by storm. I’m looking back at some of the books that changed the industry forever, starting with Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon.

In the summer of 1992, I was a couple years into collecting comics.  I started with the usual: Spider-Man, The Avengers, occasionally some DC stuff.  The comics industry was growing and publishers were bringing out countless new characters and concepts, throwing the proverbial crap at the wall to see what would stick.

Boy, was there a lot of crap.

But, hey, I’m not here to throw stones.  I’m here to throw some praise on what I love.  And I loved some of those new guys on the block.  I’m looking at you, Darkhawk!  This guy still loves ya, Sleepwalker!

Y’see, the great thing about the new guys was they were all mine.  I got in on the ground floor and was able to watch them grow from the beginning.  Spidey had been around for near 30 years at that point.  Batman was over 50!  Beat it, gramps, there’s some young blood here to take us into the next Millennium!

Speaking of Youngblood…

The feeling of “All New Heroes Just For Me” took a big leap in 1992 with the launch of Image Comics.  At the time, I was wholly unaware of the inner workings at any comics publisher and had only just begun to appreciate different writers and artists.  So when the much-ballyhooed Image split took place, I didn’t even know about it until I realized that the Youngblood comic was drawn by the guy who used to do X-Force, Rob Liefeld.

While I can’t remember specifically, I suspect it was Wizard Magazine that eventually gave me the scoop on Image and all the badass comics that would soon be coming my way with a bevy of all new characters from artists I loved.  Spawn, Shadowhawk, Cyber Force – they were all in my wheelhouse, and while Youngblood was initially my favorite Image book, it would be a green-skinned strong man with a badge that stood the test of time.

Erik Larsen had followed Todd MacFarlane on both Amazing Spider-Man and then Spider-Man before again following MacFarlane (along with Liefeld and several others) out the Marvel door and into forming Image Comics, the biggest game changer the industry had seen since the release of Watchmen in 1986.

Larsen separated himself from the Image pack right away with The Savage Dragon.  While many of the Image founders relied on what worked for them at Marvel and cribbed heavily from those characters and concepts, Larsen went waaay back to his roots and brought a boyhood creation into the spotlight.

At first glance, it was easy to dismiss Dragon as an obvious Hulk clone.  Upon further inspection, however, the similarities are almost entirely cosmetic.  Aside from the green skin and super strength, there wasn’t much to compare.  The Hulk has gone through countless changes in his decades of existence, but the core concept remains a Jekyll/Hyde dynamic, the brute having little interest in the world around him.

Dragon was always Dragon. He took great interest in his world, which had a large supporting cast, including many he called friend.  Dragon was a Chicago cop committed to the job.  He was a thinker with a strong sense of right and wrong.  He had no patience for ignorance or cruelty.  He was a fully developed character from nearly the beginning, despite having no knowledge of his own origins.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before diving into the early Dragon years, I want to take a quick look at the first issue of The Savage Dragon mini-series.  Most of the Image guys launched their new books as a mini-series, before starting again with a new #1 (Savage Dragon, Cyber Force) or just continuing on with the numbering once the series was proven to be sustainable (WildC.A.T.s).

Savage Dragon #1 was released in the summer of 1992 (July is the listed month, so it likely was released in May), and I had already been enthralled by Image thanks to Youngblood and Spawn’s debut issues.  I had pretty much decided to get every Image title I could afford, and thankfully my older brother was buying up Image books in speculator fashion, so what I couldn’t get for myself, I still had access to.

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The cover is a bit plain but still dynamic, right?  The Dragon, all muscled up, leaping at the reader, fangs bared.  And TWO TAGLINES!  A lot of early 90’s comics seem to have that going.  “1st BRUTAL ISSUE!” was an effective hook for a 12-year-old, I’ll tell you.  Wisely, Larsen’s name is prominent on the cover, which was rare before Image.  The creators were the draw, not the characters themselves, so it was a smart move.

The fin on his head was a bit of a mystery.  I don’t think I had ever seen the likes of it before.  Mohawks were not cool in this era, but given Larsen had dreamt Dragon up years prior, maybe that was an influence.  Regardless, it helped distinguish Dragon from ‘ol purple pants at Marvel.

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Page one starts us out right in the middle of the action, Dragon leaping at a ridiculously 90s bad guy.  Cutthroat, how I love thee.  A black dude with dreads, an eye patch, absolutely covered in spikes and skulls and knives and knives with skulls on the hilts.  Not only that, but poor Cutthroat is an amputee, missing his right arm from the elbow down!  “Don’t worry, just slap a giant-ass sickle on there, doc!”  Did he cut his own arm off so he could do that?  I think he might have!  I need to know!

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Cutthroat also has the standard scantily clad henchwoman, or partner, who goes by Glowbug.  She never uses her powers, if she has any, but does get clocked by Dragon one good time and is down for the count.  I don’t recall Glowbug ever showing back up again, but I can’t guarantee it.

Dragon gets sliced up pretty badly, but still makes short work of the two losers.  As he escorts them outside, a fellow cop asks if it’s a rough day, to which Dragon replies, “I’ve had worse.”  This leads to a flashback sequence with Dragon lying in a burning field, naked and unconscious.

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When Dragon wakes, Lt. Frank Darling interviews him and we discover Dragon suffers selective amnesia.  Weirdly, Dragon seems to know everything, from who the President is to who won the ’45 World Series, but has no knowledge of his own past.  Early on, he doesn’t know why he’s green and super strong, or even the extent of his powers.

Frank sets him up with a job, and the reader is soon shown how dire the crime situation is in Chicago.  The whole city is pretty much at the mercy of The Vicious Circle, a mob of “Super Freaks” who do as they please because the police force just doesn’t have the firepower to combat them.  Frank asks Dragon to help him out, but Dragon turns him away at first.

Looking at these pages, you can get a sense of Larsen’s writing style.  I think he’s great at dialogue, even if sometimes things get overly talky.  It’s obvious how much Robert Kirkman is influenced by Larsen (a fact Kirkman freely admits).

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It’s just a matter of time before Dragon sees how bad the Super Freaks can be.  A couple of them (including the aptly named Skullface) give his boss some shit, and Dragon has to smack them around.  Look at Skullface, by the way.  LOOK AT HIM!  Red and gold armor, a crazy demon skull, and he’s a ginger to boot!  He’s beautiful.

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Soon enough Dragon is on the force, kicking all kinds of Super Freak butt and even handling the normies when need be.  Take a look at some of these panels in this shootout.  So much energy in the artwork.  I still appreciate it now, but as a 12-year-old?  There was no way I could keep from salivating when I read this stuff.

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Issue #1 ends with Dragon promising the public he’ll deal with the Super Freak problem while the head of The Vicious Circle (unnamed here) gives his lackeys permission to take the fight to Dragon.

Much of the first three issues focus on flashbacks to Dragon’s early days after waking up in the field, mingled with the present day.  It flows smoothly enough, but later Larsen would put everything in chronological order for the trade paperback.

(Disclaimer: I’m not an artist, and have no knowledge of how to properly criticize art, so I won’t.  I just know what I like and what I don’t.)

Larsen’s art seems to be divisive, and I’m firmly on the pro side.  His balls-out action scenes are great, but he can handle the little moments too.  In the bedside interview, he nails some facial expressions, and the lightning effects from the storm outside are a great touch.

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In the back of the first issue is a page-length letter from Larsen to the readers, and it may be the contents of this page that cemented Larsen as one of my heroes.  He goes on at length about how he grew up making his own comics and how Dragon was his favorite boyhood creation, one he would re-invent on occasion but always keep focus on.  Now he was getting the opportunity to publish Dragon professionally, and through Image he would own everything he published.

As time went on, other characters and storylines from the comics he produced as a kid made their way into the regular Savage Dragon series.  Erik Larsen was (and still is) literally living his dream, and I think that’s amazing.  There would be many Savage Dragon spin-offs and ancillary series, but every issue of The Savage Dragon has been written and drawn by the man himself. (Although Jim Lee did Issue #13 as part of the Image X Month event, Larsen later went back and produced his own Issue #13).  He’s still putting the book out to this day with Issue #225 on sale now.

In preparation for this article, I went back through all my Savage Dragon trades and re-read the first 11 volumes, which covered up through Issue #58 of the regular series.  Volume 2 starts out with Dragon sporting a wicked sleeveless trench coat, Fu Manchu stache, and some lame-ass spectacles, with the tone and artwork getting extra dark and violent.  The job is proving too much for one Super Freak to handle and some other super powered folks join the department for a short while, but it doesn’t last.

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The next few volumes are a tour de force of insane action and outlandish characters.  Aside from a couple epic tussles with Vicious Circle head Overlord, he confronts one of the most unique rogues’ galleries in comics history.  A shark man (Mako), an ape with Hitler’s brain (Brainiape), and a chicken-headed powerhouse (uh, Powerhouse) to name a few.

Also among the superfreak villains Dragon faces on the job: Dung, who utilizes giant shit-cannons and Heavy Flo, who… um… well, here’s a picture.

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After several years of working as a cop, a few team-ups with the Ninja Turtles, a trip to Hell and back, defending the earth from a Martian invasion, and fathering a child with his super-powered girlfriend, Larsen eventually transitions Dragon into an actual superhero, costume and everything, around Issue #40.  In this role, as part of a government-sponsored team of heroes, he gets caught up in inter-dimensional travels and battles with the gods of legend.

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Also, one time Dragon beat a dude with his own severed arm.

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In the mid-90’s there was even a short-lived Savage Dragon cartoon on USA Network, but it’s…not great.

The trade paperbacks make for generally swift reads, but Larsen made the decision early on to let the characters (at least the ones who survive long enough) age in real time.  As a year passes in what we have to settle for as reality, a year also passes in Savage Dragon land.

My Savage Dragon collection has some holes.  In the early 00’s I lost interest for a bit, partially because Larsen’s art style seemed to change slightly in a way I wasn’t thrilled with, and partially because my local shop wasn’t consistent in getting the issues in.

As years passed, the status quo and cast of characters took on drastic changes, Dragon’s origin story was eventually revealed in the Image 10th anniversary book, and Dragon’s son Malcolm grew up and took center stage as the star of the book.  While I’m not as big a fan of Malcolm, the fact that Larsen is able to do this is so satisfying.  I’m collecting the title now, but while I’m current on buying them, I’ve only read up to Issue #208.

For a number of reasons, the book now is not on par with its heyday of the early to mid-90’s, but I admit nostalgia may well be coloring that opinion.  The focus on Malcolm and more space-faring, dimension-hopping adventures aren’t as appealing to me as the semi-grounded beat cop approach of the early days.  Even still, the book is fun as hell.

Erik Larsen also has always been a fan of drawing well-endowed, scantily clad females, and he made no secret of it.  He likes big, bodacious boobies on his babes and giant, rippling muscles on his dudes.  That’s part of the appeal of his art, overly exaggerated proportions on the men and the women. As time went on, more and more sexuality made its way into the book, including some occasional nudity.  There’s been some press lately about Larsen’s decision to start including some, for lack of a better word, pornographic material in the book.  I actually don’t like it, but it’s Erik Larsen’s book, and I whole-heartedly support him doing whatever he wants with it.  He won’t lose me as a reader over it.

If you’re a fan of comics (especially the outrageous 90’s variety) and haven’t ever read The Savage Dragon, you owe it to yourself to check it out.  The early back issues and trade paperbacks are inexpensive and fairly easy to find.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.  If you dig it like I do, consider adding the title to your pull list at your local comic shop. Independent comics always need support.

Comics is a shrinking medium, but 25 years in, Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon has soldiered on.  Here’s to 25 more…