This article was written in 2015 and posted on a prior site. It has not been updated but is reprinted in full for posterity.

thanos on throne

I have read every appearance of Thanos in the “main” (616) Marvel Universe. Every. Single. One. And many that are not part of “normal” Marvel continuity as well. So I am infinitely (pun intended) qualified to write a piece about his ten best appearances. And there’s no need for caveats about what I haven’t had time to read. I’ve read it all. Did I mention that? Because I’m nerdly proud of it.

When I started doing my research, I assumed this would be a bunch of stories written by Jim Starlin.

I can’t say I was totally wrong.


15. The Avengers #125 (1974)

One of the fun things about Thanos is that sometimes he pops in weird places and weird ways, just for a panel or two. It happened quite a few times in Deadpool (hilariously, one time, in Pool-O-Vision), but his greatest cameo ever was this one, where he hides behind a chimney. I don’t think he ever lowered himself like this again (at least not in a story that’s actual 616 canon).

14. The Avengers: Celestial Quest (2001-2002)

This is the rare Thanos story that is really good and is not written by Jim Starlin. And in truth, Starlin could never have written it. In his last work for Marvel, Steve Englehart told the tale of Thanos dumping Death, once and for all, because he loves himself more than he could ever love her. It was the ultimate expression: Isn’t it true that so many people claim to have undying affection for someone, when in reality they are in love only with the way that person makes them feel? And Death made Thanos feel like he mattered. So, when he realizes that he can matter by killing a celestial messiah, he doesn’t need her anymore. And, when he realizes that he loves the act of destroying life more than Death, he realizes that loving her never made sense in the first place—because to love death is to be anti-life, and nothing is more life affirming than love.

There’s also some punching and stuff.

13. Silver Surfer #34-38 (1990)

This was an “important” story because it changed Thanos forever. The “rebirth of Thanos” arc brought the character back from the dead and started over a decade of cosmic comics by Jim Starlin and Ron Lim, and also serves as the main basis for the movie version of Thanos.

12. Thanos #1-6 (2004)

In 2003, Thanos finally got his own comic—with script and art by Jim Starlin, and Al Milgrom on inks. It’s the showdown everyone wanted to see: Thanos vs. Galactus. It’s also the end of Starlin’s reign on the character for a long, long time. After this, Marvel gave control over the cosmic line to Keith Giffen and then to Abnett and Lanning.

11. Spidey Super Stories #39 (1979)

No, I’m not kidding. This is an excellent comic, from the learn-to-read comic tie-in to the PBS TV show The Electric Company. In it, Thanos has his own helicopter. You gotta love this comic, if only for the kitsch factor.

10. Ka-Zar #7-11 (1997)


Okay, when I first read this story by Mark Waid and Andy Kubert I thought it was stupid and awful. Ka-Zar defeats Thanos? Thanos runs around like an idiot getting beaten up in a slapstick adventure? Come on. But I have to admit: It has stuck with me more than most other Thanos stories. Is that because it’s so bad? Or because it’s so bad, it’s good? I mean, Thanos would never act like that! And it’s canon!

Then, years later, in 2006 Dan Slott made it all make sense in his wonderful run on She-Hulk: It wasn’t Thanos! It was a very powerful clone! And he says exactly what all of us are NOT thinking: How disappointing. No, how terrific. Thanos’ self-important gravitas remains intact!

9. Silver Surfer #50 (1991)

This is almost a forgotten Thanos story, as it happens after the more famous “Rebirth of Thanos” story in Surfer #34-38 and the Mephisto story in #44-47 (see below), but it’s a great issue. In it, we learn how Thanos returned to life after having been turned into a stone statue, and the answer is: Death loved him so much she had to have him back. It’s really the first (and I’m pretty sure only) time that Death returned Thanos’ affection with her own.

But when she gave Thanos a new body, the statue became a Golem, and in this issue it beats the crap out of Norrin Ladd.  By Jim Starlin and Ron Lim.

8. Captain Marvel, #31-33 (1974)

In this issue, Mike Friedrich and Jim Starlin tell the tale of the first time Thanos revealed his love for death (in issue #31), and then killed Thanos. For the first time. Obviously, it wasn’t permanent, and his death is really only implied. At the end of the comic, he screams, death laughs, and a ghostly image of Thanos appears in her eyes.

7. Marvel Universe: The End #1-6 (2003)

Has there been a series as villified and loved as this one, written and drawn by Starlin? I’m not sure. But I loved it. Thanos teams up with what’s left of the Marvel Universe (nearly everyone gets killed in the first two issues) to prevent the death of the universe at the hands of an old Pharaoh with infinite power. Of course by the end Thanos has figured out a way to snatch all that power up for himself, but Warlock gets him to let it go and put everything back the way it was. So, yeah, everyone dies and no one dies. But it’s a great ride. It also shows Thanos’ continuing ambivalence—he wants absolute power, but when he gets it he finds the experience hollow because, at heart, he is a searcher and a philosopher and not a despot or destroyer.

6. Avengers and the infinity Gauntlet (2010)

An all-ages book that retells The Infinity Gauntlet with real humor and joy. It’s not canon, but it is excellent. It’s one of the few comics that made me laugh out loud. By Brian Clevinger, Lee Black, and Brian Churilla.

5. Silver Surfer Volume 1, #44-47 (1990-1991)

I suppose in some ways this is really a Mephisto story told as part of a Thanos arc in a Silver Surfer comic. Honestly, the issues of Silver Surfer by Jim Starlin and Ron Lim are some of the best Surfer stories ever told. In these issues, Drax is hunting down Thanos (and it’s really funny), while the big T is just trying to enjoy his new toy—the Infinity Gauntlet. In #44 we get a nice summary of each of the gems’ powers, and in #45 through #47 we see Mephisto sitting on Thanos’ shoulder whispering evil in his ear. There’s a wonderful origin story for Mephisto, during which Mephisto is trying to coax Thanos into taking certain actions (that benefit only Mephisto)—but we see that Thanos is above petty motivations like revenge.

The story doesn’t expand the Thanos mythology so much as show him truly to be Godlike—unmoved by the types of things that generally tempt lesser characters (hero and villain alike). This renders Mephisto essentially powerless, so he decides to team up with Thanos and be his second in command. Thanos doesn’t think of him that way, of course. It’s interesting to contemplate why Thanos keeps Mephisto around at all—but it’s consistent with the character’s past and future actions: He seems to always need an audience.

4. Marvel Graphic Novel #1: The Death of Captain Marvel (1982)

In 1982, a six-dollar, oversized and glossy book wasn’t a guaranteed success–especially one that starred a character known only to geeks and that involved his death in a bed (as opposed to being killed in action).

Without question, this is one of the best written, best constructed, and best illustrated comic books of all time—and one of the most important ones not so much in terms of continuity (although it’s a rare example of a character who died and stayed dead) but in terms of the impact publishing a successful, oversized, full-length original graphic novel had on the industry. But this is a Thanos list—so why is it here?

In this story, Thanos helps guide Mar-Vell into death. It’s almost Buddhist, in that that spiritual tradition rests heavily on end-of-life companionship and guidance. The Thanos here, written by Jim Starlin, is not a megalomaniac. He’s working with Death, who he loves, and helping his former arch-enemy understand, peacefully, that the end of life need not be a frightening battle. Truly, this is a beautiful story and Thanos is a major reason why.

3. Warlock #9-16/Avengers Annual #7/ Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 (1977)

Depending on who you ask, these issues are collectively referred to as The Magus Saga (but some would not include the two annuals as part of the saga). Thanos is rarely a main character, so this is ostensibly a story about Adam Warlock and Jim Starlin’s attempt to make the character relevant again. And it’s that main storyline that is most interesting—but that’s not a Thanos comic. Thanos, however, does have a very interesting role as he must team up with Warlock, his arch enemy, to defeat Magus who is basically a grey-and-evil version of Warlock. It’s the first time Thanos showed himself to be more than a mere villain and instead revealed himself to be the ultimate opportunist, willing to team up with anyone if it will further his own personal agenda.

Written by Starlin and illustrated by both Starlin and Steve Leialoha, the tale started in a reboot of Warlock’s solo comic, but even at a bimonthly schedule it couldn’t maintain enough sales—so it ultimately spread into two annuals and concluded with the big showdown/throwdown in Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2—two years after the epic began. But the Warlock issues above are kind of self-contained. Also by way of expanding the myth of Thanos, this story marked the first appearance of the Infinity Gems, which became his raison d’etra.

Trivia note: The two annuals include the first time Warlock died and the second time Thanos died.

2. Thanos Quest #1-2 (1990)
More greatness from Starlin and Lim. Before Marvel underwrote the potentially expensive proposition of a full-length graphic novel about a cosmic character, they tested the waters with a two-issue series of extra-long, glossy papered Thanos. This is the story where he shows how smart he is, finding and tricking each of the immortals who guard Infinity Gems. What’s so great about it is that there’s very little use of force. Thanos in the movies appears to be a being of awesome power, like his DC foil, Darkseid. But here he’s really just a guy (albeit a pretty tough one who can breathe in space) with a brain and the desire to steal the creative force of the universe.

1. The Infinity Gauntlet #1-6 (1991)

As much as I like Ron Lim’s art, I love Jim Starlin’s more, so when he’s not drawing his own scripts I always feel disappointed. The Infinity Gauntlet may be the sole exception.
Illustrated by one of the greatest artists of the last century, George Perez, the Infinity Gauntlet is the “go to” story when it comes to Thanos. He’s got the gems, he’s got the glove, and he’s going to kill the universe to woo death. There’s lots of action and philosophy, and all the Starlin heavyweights are here. This might have been Marvel’s greatest event of all time…If the tie-ins weren’t so bad. And there were many. And all, except for the crossover issues with Silver Surfer (also by Starlin), were wholly dispensible. So don’t read them. Don’t let them diminish the wonder of this absolutely perfect cosmic miniseries.

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