Jim Starlin is one of the most important writers in the history of pop culture, but you likely don’t know his name. As a comics writer at Marvel in the 1970s, Starlin created Thanos, the villain who has supported the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, the cinematic juggernaut whose intricately-connected franchise movies have dominated international theaters for over a decade now.
More even than his characters, Starlin’s cosmic cool has come to define a certain kind of mass-scale filmmaking in a way unimaginable to the 20-something army vet who decamped to New York in the early 1970s.
Marvel Comics was massively expanding at the time, and thus massively increasing their writing and drawing staffs: “They were basically hiring anybody from across the state line who could hold a pencil,” laughs Starlin, “and I barely qualified.”
Though he came on as an illustrator, Starlin quickly began to assert himself as a writer. While illustrating pages of an issue of Iron Man, he came upon a scene in which, infuriated with Pepper Pots, sidekick Happy Hogan kicks over a trash can and exclaims: “Now look what this woman has turned me into: a litter bug!” Pencil in hand, Starlin replied: “I think I can do better this.”
Encouraged by legendary editor Roy Thomas, Starlin made his mark on comics history, taking the industry into ever-more-esoteric and strange places through his work on Captain Marvel, Warlock, and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, among plenty of others.
But it was through the character of Thanos, played in the MCU films by Josh Brolin, that Starlin unexpectedly laid the cornerstone of the biggest franchise in movie history.
Thanos came out of a psychology class Starlin took in community college. Inspired by Freud’s concept of human death drive, or thanatos, Starlin set to work on what he calls “a really bad bad guy.”
Thanos premiered in 1972’s The Invincible Iron Man #55, becoming “more strange and esoteric over time.” Eventually, his complicated worldview and background would rope in Eros, his “sexual predator” of a brother, and an obsession with the female embodiment of Death explored during Starlin’s run on Captain Marvel.
It wasn’t until 1991’s The Infinity Gauntlet, that the titular glove, so important to Marvel’s franchise project, was even introduced. Though all of these details haven’t made it onto the screen, Starlin’s main outlines — the self-righteousness, the drive toward self-destruction — will be familiar to anyone who has been to a movie theater in the last decade.
Starlin never expected Thanos to become the “pop icon” he is today, known as the ultimate villain by millions of moviegoers worldwide, a genocidal maniac who dissolved Tom Holland into a pile of ash. “He became a cult character for a number of decades,” says Starlin. “I just figured he was too strange and esoteric to ever make it to the screen.”
He credits Joss Whedon’s experiences as a “twisted young man reading it when he was a teenager” with introducing the character to a wider audience by inserting him into the end credits of 2012’s Avengers and thus forming him into the evil backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Though he jokes that Whedon’s choice “ruined the character completely,” Starlin has been very happy with Marvel Studios’s adaptation of his work, including Guardians of the Galaxy characters like Gamora and Drax the Destroyer, played, respectively, by Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista. He visited the sets of Guardians and Endgame and even got a short cameo in the most recent release.
When we spoke Starlin had just returned home from a series of events promoting the film, and he describes himself as “very pleased” with the results. “I get along much better with the movie people,” he says, “than the editorial people up at Marvel.”
This sums up the most recent phase of Starlin’s career. Even as his creations are raking in billions all over the globe, he has effectively stopped writing mainstream comics altogether.
Though he has had troubles with the Big Two publishers before — he has quit Marvel a total of six times — his most recent quarrel relates back to Thanos. While working on a series of Thanos graphic novels, Starlin came to believe that another, concurrent series of Thanos books had begun to copy and even pre-empt his own plots.
And so, after completing his obligations, Starlin quit, leaving behind many of his most famous characters with the company that owns them.
Though this might have been the inciting incident, it seems that Starlin has grown tired of the mainstream comics industry as a whole. “I don’t read comics anymore,” he says. “I sort of outgrew them.”
Though he admits to still “loving the form,” he believes that the current, editorial-heavy approach to story has left the books themselves incomprehensible, with their focus on crossover events meaning that one issue can be directly contradicted by the next. “I don’t think they put out as good a product as they did back in the old days.” He also chafed at the tendency to assign far too many writers to a single issue, leaving little room for a coherent individual expression.
“After awhile you just get tired of taking part of what doesn’t seem to be working very well,” he says. “So I went off and did other things.”
These other things have been published through independent presses, leading Starlin outside the mainstream comics system. Though generally more of a writer, Starlin continued to illustrate some of his own work until an injury several years ago left him unable to draw for more than thirty minutes at a time.
To this end, he has been focusing on a series of sci-fi novels drawn from his Hardcore Station comics, with one illustrated volume currently published through Ominous Press and an additional three prose works under construction.
He recently Kickstarted a hardcover omnibus edition of his Dreadstar comics, and has contributed stories to a number of anthologies.
And though he no longer reads comics, Starlin remains a consumer of new ideas: the Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem Trilogy, he says, has been a recent find.
Though his signature creations beam and snarl from billboards the world over, Starlin himself keeps a low profile, living with Sonny Lan, his wife, in Saugerties.
And while he appreciates the international recognition for his work, he’s more than happy to keep his life as it is. He’d rather let the work speak for him.