No, this isn’t “Thanos vol. 3: Thanos Wins.” So successful were these six issues from new writer Cates, and his “God Country” collaborator Geoff Shaw, that this volume was rebranded (on the copyright pages at least) with his name. Deservedly so, if the sales of this arc were any indication. This latest “Thanos” series was looking like an also-ran at the end of Jeff Lemire’s twelve issues, and then these six issues from Cates and Shaw piled on reorders -- issue #13 went through five printings the last I heard -- and sales increased in a way that you just don’t see for a Marvel comic, or really any comic, in this day and age. So, was “Thanos Wins” as good as I had been led to believe? The answer is a qualified “Yes,” because for all that works about this arc you’ve got to be onboard with the idea of Thanos as one of the Marvel Universe’s big bads in order to get the most out of it.
I realize that shouldn’t be hard for most people who have fond memories of his role in “The Infinity Gauntlet” or have just been introduced to him following his big win in “Avengers: Infinity War.” Yet if “Thanos Wins” has one weakness, it’s in how it tries to sell how capital-E Evil Thanos is at just about every turn. It’s evident from the very first page as we find out the secret fear that lurks in the hearts of every hero in the Marvel Universe that gives this arc its name. It goes on from there as we’re treated to a brief history of the warlike Chitauri before Thanos showed up on their doorstep a few hours ago to conquer them.
This is only the beginning as the story’s time-travel-fueled plot kicks in after an encounter with the Cosmic Ghost Rider has Thanos brought to the future to help someone very much like himself in the extermination of all life in the universe. The change in scenery only brings on more stories of Thanos’ decadent slaughter over the millenia, in case you were worried that he might start to question himself at some point.
It’s easy to see how this could annoy some people since, on the surface, it’s an aggressively one-note take on the character. What kept it from grating on me is the level of gusto that Cates displays when talking up the achievements of the Mad Titan. He doesn’t just gut Black Bolt to use his scream to defeat the army of Celestials that has come for him on Earth, he goes on to build a palace out of their bones. Though the Ghost Rider’s “Penance Stare” may cause others to go mad from confronting their sins, it just invigorates Thanos in the morning. Cates fully commits to his approach and the results wind up being quite entertaining.
In fact, “Thanos Wins” strikes me as one of the few comics that I’ve read in collected form that might have actually read better as a serialized experience. While the six issues collected here tell one complete story, each issue does an excellent job of establishing the stakes and then raising them for a final-page cliffhanger at the end. It’s easy to see how fans were excited to talk about what went on in each issue and speculate as to what would happen in the next one. The scale of the arc escalates in dramatic, but believable fashion with each issue, something that even the best of event series struggle with.
We also get plenty of just plain crazy developments over the course of the arc as well. Like the aforementioned Cosmic Ghost Rider, who made deals with three different devils to get where he is at the start of this series (and maybe one more too since he’s getting a spinoff miniseries as well). Then there’s the fate of the Hulk in this dark, dismal future and the identity of the Fallen One -- the last thing Thanos has to kill -- and the surprising weapon of power that’s at his disposal.
Now, I mentioned before in my review of Cates’ “Doctor Strange” arc where Loki took over as the Sorcerer Supreme that it had the feeling of a fill-in arc, but one where its writer decided to go as crazy as editorial would let him. “Thanos Wins” has much the same feeling as that arc since the status quo has more or less been reset by the end of it. Yet it’s a superior work compared to the “Strange” arc because it just goes so much further over the top. If nothing about this arc was meant to matter, then why not go ahead and kill the whole damn universe along the way! It’s fun to indulge in a little nihilism from time to time, after all. There’s even the bonus of having us learn some interesting things about how Thanos sees himself and how he wants to face death (and Death as well) leading to a final few pages that are genuinely creepy in a way few Marvel comics are.
While Cates deserves a lot of credit for having the imagination to take this arc as far as it goes, Shaw deserves just as much for capturing its craziness on the page. His work on “God Country” showed that he was equally at home with cosmic action as he was with grounded family drama and he gets to go to town on the former for this storyline. From the Death of the Celestials, to the last Marvel Heroes fighting against Thanos, and the epic arrival of The Fallen One, Shaw gives each moment the style it deserves. Shaw also delivers one of the best page-turn reveals in recent memory as we find out just what led to the character who becomes the Cosmic Ghost Rider to make that first deal with a devil as he comes face-to-face with Mephisto in all of his demonic glory. For all this, the artist’s Thanos manages to cut an appropriately sinister figure throughout, even when he’s making not-so-friendly conversation with those around him.
Rounding out this volume is the “Thanos Annual,” a collection of shorts spotlighting the Mad Titan’s most evil deeds. Said deeds run the spectrum from the mundane, to the absurd, to the soul-crushing. The “Annual” dropped in the middle of Cates’ run, so one has to wonder if the buzz from it attracted this impressive level of talent for this issue. Quickly running them down, the stories are:
Titan’s Greatest Dad: From Cates and Shaw, and surprisingly the weakest story in the collection. It’s a Thanos/Gamora tale about one way in which the former made the latter into the most dangerous woman in the galaxy. Unfortunately the way he did it here feels both expected and a little predictable, even in the space of five pages.
What to Get From the Man Who Takes Everything: Chris (“Deadpool,” “Doctor McNinja”) Hastings and Flaviano tell us about the one Earthling Thanos keeps visiting on his birthday to inflict random acts of malice on. It’s some cleverly dark comedy as Thanos’ torments range from the broadly destructive to the specifically personal.
Exhibition: Coming from Kieron Gillen, with Andre Araujo, I was expecting something really great. What I got was a good little aside from “The Infinity Gauntlet” as Thanos tries to impress Death by showing her his artistic side. It’s the comic equivalent of a deleted scene from a movie that, while it may have been entertaining, was clearly cut because it would’ve disrupted the pacing of the whole thing.
My Little Thanos: Katie (“My Little Pony”) Cook has a distinctively adorable style that she exploits to great subversive effect here as Thanos pays a visit to the cutest race in the galaxy, the Adorales. They’re honestly a lot more excited to see the Mad Titan than you’d think and they come up with some surprisingly awful ways to show it. Pretty great, but I also felt it would’ve been better if Cook had drawn Thanos in a more traditional style to play up the absurdity of his interactions with the Adorales.
That Time Thanos Helped an Old Lady Across the Street: ...God damn this one was dark. Ryan (“The Midas Flesh,” “Squirrel Girl”) North and Will Robson deliver a story involving exactly what the title promises. An event which also has consequences on both a cosmic and heartbreakingly personal scale, with Thanos on hand to rub some salt into the wound.
The Comfort of the Good: A race of aliens are celebrating how their god has given them eternal life with the promise of greater rewards for good behavior. Then Thanos shows up. This story from Al Ewing and Frazer Irving isn’t as clear as it should be, but it’s still an intriguingly dark look at the supposed rewards of good behavior.
As the hit rate for the stories in the annual much higher than your average anthology it winds up being some tasty gravy to the overall experience of “Thanos Wins.” Cates and Shaw wound up with a lot of freedom for this arc and they responded by taking the craziness all the way to eleven. If you can get onboard with a story that depicts Thanos at his absolute Evil-est then you’ll have a lot of fun with this wild ride.