Every superhero has their own set of enemies, but on occasion, heroes need to come together to take down looming dangers from major supervillains — the big bads. While the DC Universe has Darkseid, the Marvel Universe has Thanos, a mutant-Eternal from Saturn’s moon, Titan. Ironically, the original purpose for Eternals, a race of superhumans created by the Celestials, was to defend Earth from extraterrestrial threats, not become one of them.
With superhero movies saturating Hollywood these days (or at least seemingly taking precedence), more and more people are taking an interest in comics, and that is primarily due to the establishment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel Studios has already released 14 films, with dozens of heroes and villains being brought into the fold, but it has all been leading up to one big showdown with the Mad Titan Thanos, played by Josh Brolin.
Before he takes center stage in Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War in 2018, it might benefit casual moviegoers to read up on some of the character’s best adventures. So, in relative chronological order, here are the 15 Must-Read Thanos Stories.
15. The Life of Captain Marvel
To understand a character like Thanos, what better place to start than the very beginning? Although he made his debut appearance in an Iron Man comic, the Mad Titan continued his opening story arc in the Captain Marvel comics, particularly issues #25-34, while simultaneously guest-starring in Marvel Feature #12. Marvel Comics later republished all of these issues in a collected edition titled The Life of Captain Marvel. Remember, Thanos is a villain, so while this edition follows the life of Captain Marvel, Thanos still has a prominent role.
A few of the subplots we see unfolding in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as a few of the major players being introduced, are touched upon in Thanos’ earliest stories, particularly his motivations for ultimate power. Furthermore, his connection to Drax the Destroyer, a character who debuted in the same comic book as the Mad Titan in 1973, is briefly explained. After obtaining his revenge on Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy, Drax appears dead set on taking out Thanos next. The Life of Captain Marvel can help clarify why.
14. The Death of Captain Marvel
If the best place to start reading about Thanos is with The Life of Captain Marvel, then the story to follow up with should be The Death of Captain Marvel. The collected edition reprints Captain Marvel #34, Marvel Spotlight #1 and #2, and Marvel Graphic Novel #1 —; the publisher’s first graphic novel ever to release.
In the early ’80s, Captain Marvel was one of the greatest comic book heroes in the medium, and the story of his tragic end conferred upon Marvel and the rest of the comic book industry a much-needed sense of appreciation for grounding heroes in reality. Sure, stories of an alien like Mar-Vell of the Kree defending Earth sounds preposterous to non-comic fans, but having that same hero succumb to cancer after fighting countless battles, against countless enemies, is something people can relate to on a personal, allegorical level.
The Death of Captain Marvel shows just how menacing someone like Thanos can be, while also showcasing a rare aspect of not only the Mad Titan, but also of other villains: compassion and respect. In Mar-Vell’s last moments, he sees Thanos’ spirit approach him. He didn’t come as an enemy, but rather as an old friend to escort the man who had been his greatest adversary into the afterlife.
13. Marvel Masterworks Warlock: Vol. 2
If you’re confused as to how Thanos died prior to Captain Marvel’s passing, don’t fret. The story of the Overmaster’s demise unfolds in Marvel Masterworks Warlock: Vol. 2, which collects Strange Tales #178-181, Warlock Vol. 1 #9-15, Marvel Team-Up #55, Avengers Annual #7, and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2. Following his work on Captain Marvel, Jim Starlin moved onto Adam Warlock, and his work in the aforementioned comic issues epitomize what it means to be a comic book writer and artist.
Longtime comic book readers understand both the animosity and camaraderie Thanos and Warlock share for one another, and their story begins with the comics in Marvel Masterworks Warlock: Vol. 2. In this expansive narrative, Thanos aids Warlock in defeating the hero’s evil counterpart, Magus, while simultaneously funneling energy from the Soul Gem so that he could reunite with his beloved Death. In fact, this is the first time all the Infinity Stones are present in one story, as well as the first time the Avengers join forces with Captain Marvel to take down Thanos.
12. Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos
The thing is, with a being like Thanos, he doesn’t stay dead for very long. He always comes back, and he always has a new plan for universal domination. But the biggest plan of them all, to gather all the Infinity Stones, begins in Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos. The collected edition consists of Silver Surfer Vol. 3 #34-38, The Thanos Quest #1 and #2, and a six-page story from Logan’s Run #6 (part of Marvel’s brief run with the iconic comic series).
Make no mistake, while the Silver Surfer is technically the main character, the story is all about the Sky-Rider’s attempt to curtail Thanos’ deranged plans at conquering the universe. The major aspect of the story follows the Mad Titan’s quest to collect all six Infinity Stones from the Elders of the Universe. However, an often overlooked aspect is the Masterlord’s motivation. Moreover, the story provides some insight into Thanos’ relatively unknown past, while also alleviating the drama with doses of humor. Essentially, the Rebirth of Thanos story arc acts as a prequel to The Infinity Gauntlet (which we’ll get to momentarily).
11. Thanos vs. Mephisto
Unlike all of the other stories on this list, Thanos vs. Mephisto is a single issue story arc — in Silver Surfer Vol. 3 #45 — that exemplifies the villain’s inability to conquer the universe despite having total control over it. By now, it should be pretty obvious that the Overmaster’s plan in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to assume control of the Infinity Gauntlet in order to conquer the universe. But when he does so, will he be able to kill everyone, thus leaving himself as the sole survivor?
Before embarking on universal conquest, Thanos used the Gauntlet to trap Drax the Destroyer and the Silver Surfer in the Mind Stone (or Gem, as they’re known in the comics). It’s in this story that we learn the history of the Stones, from Mephisto of all people. Furthermore, the demonic character reveals the true power the Gauntlet holds. He tells Thanos that the Mad Titan can literally touch every being, every mind, and every soul in the universe, which is something the villain admits to having never thought of.
10. The Infinity Gauntlet
There is not another bigger or more important story arc involving Thanos and the Avengers than The Infinity Gauntlet. It became a guide upon which future crossover events would be compared to, and it became Marvel’s version of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, involving virtually all the heroes of Earth and all alien beings in the universe. Unlike the previous stories, The Infinity Gauntlet is not a collected edition, but rather a six-issue limited series, though it does exist in an omnibus that also contains The Thanos Quest storyline.
Ever since The Avengers released in 2012, one thing has been clear: Marvel is building towards The Infinity Gauntlet story. One by one, Infinity Stones are becoming exposed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they will eventually be hunted by Thanos so that he can mount them onto the Infinity Gauntlet, thus imbuing him with omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. He will quite literally become a god, one which Earth’s Mightiest Heroes will be forced to go to war with. If you’re curious as to how this might play out in Avengers: Infinity War, The Infinity Gauntlet is your place to look.
9. Warlock and the Infinity Watch
Marvel achieved enormous success with The Infinity Gauntlet arc. So the publisher commissioned Jim Starlin to continue Thanos’ adventure, along with Adam Warlock, Drax the Destroyer, and Gamora, as well as a handful of other characters, in Warlock and the Infinity Watch. In this 42-issue series, each member of the Infinity Watch is tasked with protecting one Infinity Stone, that way they could never be reassembled again.
Though not immensely significant, the entirety of Warlock and the Infinity Watch accentuates a different side of Thanos, a side that imbues morality and humility as a result of his abuse of the Gauntlet’s power. He understands his lunacy during The Infinity Gauntlet arc, and he believes no one should have the authority to control all six Infinity Stones.
There’s no question that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be intrinsically different following Avengers: Infinity War, and whether or not Thanos will remain a part of the shared universe going forward is up for debate. If he does, there is a chance Drax, Gamora, and Thanos could unite in a future film centered on protecting the Infinity Stones following their removal from the Gauntlet. Who knows, maybe Adam Warlock will come along for the ride and make his long-awaited debut in the MCU.
8. Infinity War
Handing over an Infinity Stone to someone who once desired universal conquest may not seem like the best idea, but Thanos eventually proved himself to be a worthy ally of Adam Warlock. So when Warlock harnessed the power of the Gauntlet to rid himself of his evil counterpart, Magus, but accidentally recreated his alter ego instead, Thanos came to his one-time enemy’s aid. That is how the Infinity War limited series begins, a sequel to The Infinity Gauntlet series.
In the story arc, the former Mad Titan helps Warlock conquer his evil self, Magus. As with most major comic book stories, Infinity War can be quite confusing to uninitiated readers, but it is well worth reading for anyone interested in Thanos and the Gauntlet.
Though Anthony and Joe Russo’s upcoming Avengers film is subtitled Infinity War, a rumor suggests that the movie will follow The Infinity Gauntlet storyline instead of the Infinity War comic the movie takes its name after. Even if that were true, the Infinity War story arc is vital to understanding the ramifications of Thanos’ actions, as well as anyone’s use of the Infinity Gauntlet. Harnessing its power, even for good, can lead to adverse, unforeseen consequences.
7. Infinity Crusade
In the history of entertainment, when has one sequel ever been enough? That notion doesn’t just apply to movies and video games, but to comic books as well. As previously mentioned, The Infinity Gauntlet limited series was an enormous success for Marvel Comics, which is why Thanos’ story continued in Warlock and the Infinity Watch and then with Infinity War. The thing is, it didn’t stop there. In 1993, a year after Infinity War released, Marvel published its sequel, Infinity Crusade — again written by comic legend Jim Starlin.
In this new chapter, Thanos once again helped Adam Warlock, who sought the Titan out this time to defeat another extreme version of himself: Goddess, his genetically good counterpart. As we learned in Star Wars, one extreme is not above another; there must be a balance. So when Goddess came threatening the universe, by brainwashing Earth’s heroes and using them as an army to protect the newly-created Paradise Omega planet, Warlock and Thanos joined forces to defeat Goddess. If for no other reason, Infinity Crusade is worth reading just to see the role-reversal of Thanos leading the heroes of Earth in a fight against another villain.
6. Marvel: The End
Years after the conclusion of the Infinity trilogy (consisting of The Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, and Infinity Crusade) Thanos turned down a more righteous path than what he was used to. Lacking his characteristically malevolent desires, the once Mad Titan sought to use his power for good rather than evil, and this notion was exemplified in the story arc Marvel: The End, written by Jim Starlin and inked by Al Milgrom. Note that in reprint, the six-issue limited series comes under the title Thanos: The End — and for a good reason.
The limited series may involve several heroes, but Thanos is undoubtedly at the center of it all. A millennium prior to the events of Marvel: The End, a band of explorers discovered the Heart of the Universe, and they entrusted its celestial power to various ambassadors, such as the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, who perverted this power to conquer the modern world. With most of Earth’s heroes dead, and Doctor Doom having failed in preventing Akhenaten’s rise to power, Thanos gathers Captain Marvel and the Defenders to put up one last stand.
Filled with twists and turns, this story is compelling in showcasing Thanos’ willingness to save the universe, especially when it means winning the love of Lady Death, albeit impermanently.
Thanos is a supervillain, which means he can stray on the side of morality from time-to-time, but he’ll always return to a state of hostility against the heroes of Earth (and the rest of the universe). After helping out Adam Warlock a few times, the Mad Titan allied himself with the supervillain Annihilus, the leader of the parallel, antimatter dimension known as the Negative Zone, in the Annihilation crossover event.
Tired of the same outcome, the Master wanted to see what would happen if he were to join Annihilus and tip the scales against the Positive Zone. Instead of leading the villains this time, Thanos would merely follow orders and see if Annihilus could do what he could not: defeat the good guys once and for all.
Once he discovered Annihilus’ true plans, though, Thanos sought to betray the invader and free Galactus. Unfortunately for the Mad Titan, Drax the Destroyer killed him before he could do so, punching a hole clear through his heart. Now wouldn’t that be something interesting to see on the big screen? Fair warning: it might be a bit gruesome and bloody for Marvel’s targeted audience, so we wouldn’t advise getting your hopes up.
4. The Thanos Imperative
Every once in a while, comic book publishers try to up the ante by introducing threats from new worlds or, sometimes, new universes. In 2011, Marvel did just that with The Thanos Imperative, by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Following the Annihilation and War of Kings storylines, a hole was ripped in the universe, known as the Fault. What came pouring through was something that altered the scope of the Marvel Universe.
In the six-issue limited series, Lord Mar-Vell — an evil doppelganger of the mainstream universe’s long-dead Captain Marvel — led an army through the portal from the Cancerverse, an alternate reality in which death no longer exists, and life grows like a cancer.
The villainous Mar-Vell and his band of extradimensional invaders planned to spread their life-based cancer (weird, we know) into every alternate universe. Upon their arrival, Lord Mar-Vell killed Magus for failing to locate Thanos, who was being held prisoner by the Guardians of the Galaxy. Since Mar-Vell is the Avatar of Life, he needed to kill Thanos, the Avatar of Death, in order to succeed.
It’s an intriguing concept: when all the universe’s heroes are powerless against an invading threat, they have no choice but to put their lives (and their reality) in the hands of one of the greatest enemies, the Mad Titan himself.
3. Thanos Rising
When it comes to comic books, the heroes are almost always the primary characters, whereas the villains seldom get their own origin stories. Some villains, though, are exceptions, and Thanos is one of them. After fighting the Avengers and coming close to destroying the universe a few times, Marvel Comics finally gave the Mad Titan an origin story in 2013, titled Thanos Rising.
They originally planned to release a Thanos origin story in 2012, then-titled Thanos: Son of Titan, with writer Joe Keatinge and artist Richard Elson helming the project, but the idea was later scrapped. The following year, writer Jason Aaron and artist Simone Bianchi were hired to pursue the origin story, this time titled Thanos Rising, and the result was a five-issue tale of the character’s genesis from birth to the time he devoted himself to the physical embodiment of death.
What makes Thanos Rising a must-read for newcomers is that it not only expands upon the Master’s origin (briefly told in Silver Surfer #37) but also sequentially reveals his descent into nihilism and obsession with satisfying his true love, Mistress Death — and he does so by literally murdering his entire family. We see just how he evolved into the supervillain we know today.
In the earliest Thanos stories, we know that the Mad Titan murdered his entire family at the request of his one true love, Mistress Death. Unfortunately, locking down the embodiment of death is difficult, even for a genocidal maniac like Thanos. So, he went about his life conquering as many known planets (and universes) as possible, and sometimes even attempting to sacrifice himself so that he could be reunited with Death in, well…death. No matter what he tried, he was unsuccessful in convincing her of his love.
Then, during the Infinity crossover event in 2013, he learned that he had fathered a son at some point during his galactic travels. So, being Thanos, what does he do? He invades Earth and the Inhuman sanctuary Attilan, searching for his Inhuman-Eternal hybrid son, Thane. Not to be a father, but to kill him. What’s different about Infinity, though, is that this time, instead of being defeated by one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Thanos is bested by his own son, who traps him in a cube-like stasis called Living Death.
1. Thanos (2016)
It’s no secret that comic book publishers have trouble letting their characters stay dead. Every once in a while, a character — be it a hero or villain — dies and remains six feet under, but when it comes to major characters like Captain America and Thanos, they can’t stay gone forever. They are needed in the Marvel Universe, which is why the House of Ideas tends to resurrect them from time-to-time. The All New, All Different Marvel universe is the latest instance in which that happens.
After being sidelined for the past decade or so, Thanos has received a new, self-titled series by writer Jeff Lemire, penciler Mike Deodato, and editor Jordan White. In the new eponymous series, Thanos is back as his villainous self, and he sets out to reclaim his Black Order forces from Corvus Glaive, who had planned to grow the order so that he could set out to build his own evil empire. While newcomers would be oblivious to Thanos’ past exploits, this is as good of a place to start reading as any, for it continually introduces elements from the character’s past.
What’s your favorite Thanos story arc of all time? Which of these comics do you think will have the biggest impact on next year’s Avengers: Infinity War? Let us know in the comments.
Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters on May 4th, 2018.