The release of Avengers: Infinity War today marks the end of a glorious decade-long journey for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Overall, it has been an entertaining journey (with the exception of hiccups like Iron Man 2 and 3). Having avidly followed the movies and the comics, I’ve found the former to be a lot easier to understand, and a whole lot less painful to the wallet!
When it comes to stories about Thanos and the Infinity Gems (or Stones, in the movies), the comic book experience leaves much to be desired, as decades of revamps, retcons and relaunches have made an Infinity War refresher more difficult than searching for Soul Gems!
A quick Google search for Infinity Gem-related stories, I found an “Infinity Gauntlet adventures” reading list, sporting 10 trade paperbacks. While this list is pretty comprehensive, I personally felt that it was just way too much for a casual comics reader to grasp, and might even scare you away from watching Infinity War!
Hence, to make it easier for you to get a decent grasp on what happens in the comics, here is our list of essential titles to read before watching Infinity War. For the record, there is a 1992 limited series called Infinity War that shares common cast members but bears no significance to the movie plot.
Captain Marvel #25-#33 (1973)
Writer/artist: Jim Starlin
Though Thanos made his comic debut in the pages of Iron Man #55 in 1968 (also plotted and drawn by Jim Starlin), the magnitude of his villainny only became clear in this story arc. However, the significance of this Captain Marvel story has less to do with Thanos, but more about the fact that this is when Marvel’s “Cosmic Era” truly began.
Courtesy of Starlin, a lot of cosmic building blocks were paved in this arc, which coincidently stereotyped Thanos as the ultimate cosmic-antagonist.
Prior to this, Captain Marvel was more of a displaced alien soldier who chose to become one of Earth’s protectors – but under Starlin’s pen, Mar-Vell was repackaged as a key character and Avengers’ ally.
Moving into the big leagues meant Mar-Vell required a big name villain, and Starlin deserves the credit for elevating Thanos into that role within a few issues. Of course, Thanos wasn’t alone, as he was accompanied by the Super Skrull, the Controller, a horde of minions and the Cosmic Cube!
Earth’s defenders weren’t chopped liver either, as they comprised the Avengers, a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy Drax The Destroyer and a cosmic-enhanced Captain Marvel (this timely power boost took place midway through the story arc, courtesy of Eon).
While the star studded cast provided lots of cosmic eye candy, what’s equally captivating was how Starlin developed the characters of Thanos, Captain Marvel, Mentor (Thanos’ father) and Eros aka Starfox (Thanos’ brother), which paved the way for their future involvement in key Marvel events.
Big names aside, the plot revolves around Thanos’ desire to impress a lady… who turns out to be none other than Death herself!
Obviously, flowers, wealth and charms won’t do the trick, so Thanos gives Death what she wants by committing genocide, starting with his home planet, Titan!
When Thanos sets his sights on Earth, however, his plan is foiled by the intervention of a Captain Marvel-inspired force of heroes – who shattered the Cosmic Cube and left Thanos drifting aimlessly in space. The defeat left Thanos in shambles, as Death was unimpressed by his failure and spurned his affections… until the Mad Titan’s next cataclysmic move!
Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 (1977)
Writer: Jim Starlin
Artists: Jim Starlin and Josef Rubinstein
Despite his failure, Thanos’ appeal as a big time villain skyrocketed after the Captain Marvel debacle. Starlin then returned with a sequel via this two-part Annual crossover featuring Thanos’ new plan to woo back Death. Even today, I rate these two Annuals amongst the finest annuals ever produced!
This time around, Thanos’ love offering involves destroying all the stars in space by utilising the combined might of six “soul gems”, which he would later rename to “Infinity Gems”. At the time, there was no Infinity Gauntlet to house these gems – instead, there was a single large synthetic gem.
Despite Mar-Vell’s past success in thwarting Thanos, the reverse happens this time as the Mad Titan easily defeats our hero AND the Avengers as well (Avengers Annual #7). The role of saviour falls to Adam Warlock aka Him (remember the cocoon presented in one of Guardians Of The Galaxy 2’s end-credits?), but their initial encounter proves brief, as Thanos easily snuffs out Warlock’s life.
With the Avengers, Captain Marvel and Warlock captured or dead, Earth stands on the brink of an all out alien assault – prompting the Cosmic Powers-That-Be (Chaos and Order) to intervene by recruiting two new players – The Thing and Spider-Man (Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2).
On paper, the duo looked out of depth against Thanos but the tide changes when a “possessed” Spidey succeeds in releasing the “deceased” Warlock, who was merely trapped within the Soul Gem. Caught off guard by Warlock’s reappearance, Thanos succumbs to his fiery attack and is permanently reduced to the state of an immobile statue, which he remained for a long time (13 years in real time).
Silver Surfer #34-#38 (1990)
Writer: Jim Starlin
Artist: Ron Lim
Thanos’ undying devotion to Death finally pays off somewhat, as she returns some affection by resurrecting him to do her bidding, which involves killing half of the universe’s population!
Despite having been out of circulation for 13 years, Thanos shows that he is still very much a formidable threat – hoodwinking the Silver Surfer to unwittingly help him commit genocide on a few planets.
While these small victories are merely appetizers for Thanos in the grander scheme of things, his main work only happens in the ensuing event.
The Thanos Quest #1 and #2 (1990)
Writer: Jim Starlin
Artist: Ron Lim
After failing to impress Death all this while, Thanos finally hatches a plan to be recognised as her equal.
After a visit to Death’s Infinity Well, Thanos learns the true nature of the six “soul gems” and obtains her permission to “seek them out” from their respective owners (i.e. The In-Betweener, Champion, Gardener, Collector, Runner and the Grandmaster).
Despite individually owning the Gems, these Cosmic Elders do not realise its collective potential that only Thanos sees. After retrieving the gems at any cost and by any means from the six parties, he renames them the “Infinity Gems”, and sets about harnessing its collective might via the Infinity Gauntlet!
However, what Thanos did not foresee is that his newfound powers did not make him Death’s equal but rather her superior – further complicating their already complex relationship.
The Infinity Gauntlet #1-#6 (1991)
Writer: Jim Starlin
Artists: George Perez (#1-4) and Ron Lim (# 4-6)
With absolute power at his disposal, the Mad Titan is now omnipotent and ignites this mega event by killing off half of the Universe’s population with a mere snap of his fingers… all just to impress Death!
With Earth’s heroes both victims and pawns in Thanos’ mindless show of affection, they gather for one last onslaught on Thanos’ space fortress.
Besides gathering some of Earth’s mightiest heroes, the battle also involves some of the Marvel universe’s most powerful cosmic beings, including Galactus, Eon, and Eternity!
In the end, Thanos’ Achilles heel turns out to be his own ego and a rare moment of self-glory allows his purportedly granddaughter Nebula to whisk away the Gauntlet, forcing Thanos to join forces with the heroes to defeat his daughter.
Inevitably, Thanos is defeated and the Gauntlet is claimed by a resurrected Adam Warlock, which paved the way for two more lackluster sequels – Infinity War and Infinity Crusade.
If there was one story you HAVE to read before watching Avengers: Infinity War, this is it. Judging from the trailers and what has been revealed about the movie, it would seem that the directors Joe and Anthony Russo has drawn quite a bit of inspiration from the Infinity Gauntlet event.