Ian Melton wrote for Bleeding Cool from Rose City Comic Con,
Few comic book creators have characters that are as ingrained in the public consciousness right now as Jim Starlin. Known primarily as the creator of Thanos, but also the creator of Drax, Gamora, and many others for both Marvel and DC, Jim Starlin’s work for Marvel forms a great deal of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The creator took the stage recently in Portland, Oregon at RCCC to talk about his history and creations.
Starting with his “humble origin” Starlin spoke of his father and how he would bring home scraps and materials from work that he hoped to use woodworking hobby, but his son found a great use for the tracing paper, using it to trace super hero characters out of comics. This tracing went from “a hobby, to an obsession, to eventually a kind of career.” Starlin still used tracing paper when he was drawing for rough sketches. Starlin ended up in military service and during his time in “an intelligence outfit” in Southeast Asia he was the strange one sketching characters during his down time and “sending off Hulk stories to Marvel. Herb Trimple said, ‘they’re nice but that’s my job!’” After his time in the service was up Starlin spent some time in Junior College, but after selling two pages to Joe Orlando at DC comics he took this “as a sign. So I loaded up all my stuff and moved to New York. I got lucky because they were just hiring everyone at that point.”
When it comes to creating all the elements that comprise Starlin’s work at Marvel, the Infinity Saga, and the creation of Thanos, it comes to just one thing: “It just happened. Basically they needed a fill in on Iron Man. George Tuska, the regular artist, was going in for an operation and they needed someone to come in and take over. Roy Thomas asked me, and Mike Friedrich, who was the scripter on the first one, and I were sharing a house out on Station Island.” Before leaving for Friedrich said they would discuss the story for Iron Man #55 when he got back, and by the time he returned Starlin already had three pages done. “Thanos was going to be in there, and Drax. I had all these guys already before I came in.” They did the famous Iron Man #55 and then Starlin did issue #56 with Steve Gerber, “the funny Iron Man issue, and Stan saw it and hated it and he fired me and Steve. He said, ‘this is disrespectful, and you’re never going to touch this book again!’ and Roy felt sorry for me and he said ‘we have this other book that’s already on the ropes and we need another issue and I don’t know if we’ll even get the issue out before we cancel it…’ but Captain Marvel worked out pretty well…”
When creating Thanos, Starlin traced it to something Jack Kirby told him about the Hulk. Kirby said, “the Hulk is stupidity. The harder you beat on it, the stronger it becomes.” And Starlin liked that idea, a lot. Giving a theme to what he wanted to work on, and being exposed to the ideas of the light and dark sides of human nature in a psych class in junior college, Starlin “for some strange reason, latched onto the dark side and I had this idea about this dark thing that would never be satisfied. That’s what Thanos is, an appetite that will never be satisfied. No matter what he accomplishes, it will never be what he really wants.” Despite the character having obtained immeasurable power more than once, Thanos “is never satisfied. That’s a theme I’m exploring in the next graphic novel, Thanos takes a different approach.” With his work on Adam Warlock the character is Starlin’s efforts to explore insanity and power, and how a truly insane character would approach and use such power.
Addressing the theory that Starlin ripped off Darkseid when creating Thanos he says that idea “is completely wrong! I didn’t rip off Darkseid, I ripped off Metron! If you see some of my early designs he looks so much like Metron.” Riffing off the comparison, Starlin further elaborated his feelings on Marvel versus DC, commenting “DC is chaos, Marvel changes depending on who is in charge. DC has been owned by Warner Bros. forever and they’ve always been chaotic over there. Every job I’ve worked on there has had some crisis come up there.” The original premise of the Cosmic Odyssey was to mirror the Books of Magic which had come out a bit before and for Starlin to do the same thing for the DC cosmic landscape that Books of Magic had done for DC’s mystical corner. “I quickly lost track of that point… Nobody really read the scripts until Mike Mignola was like two or three issues in and when they finally did read it they were like ‘this is nothing like what we wanted you to do’.” DC Editorial told Starlin they were just going to just going to “dump it out” and that it was a real shame the book would just “come and go”, and they wouldn’t let him work on anything else. “25 years later they’re still paying me royalties on this damn book. So one of us was right and one of us was WRONG!”
When talking about the tendency of his work to be focused on the cosmic side and why he favors cosmic stories so much Starlin quipped, “my standard answer is [I do cosmic stories] so I don’t have to draw cars and horses. But basically I always liked the science fiction stories because you can get out there do a story that’s about something a bit meatier without being preachy.” Primarily a writer now since he injured his hand about a year and a half ago, Starlin enjoys just writing and it’s easier since he can write scenes detailing hundreds of characters and he doesn’t have to draw it. “It takes me two minutes to write the sentence and will take the artist a day and a half to draw the scene. But there is a certain satisfaction to the drawing part … you get up from the drawing board at the end of the day and there’s this image there that wasn’t there before. That’s very satisfying and I miss that.”
Starlin personally views his work at Marvel as “creator-owned”, even though he is quick to point out it isn’t, and prefers his work on Thanos and the surrounding stories to his work on projects like Dreadstar. “I really like working with editors who believe if it isn’t broken don’t fix it” and leave him alone to work versus being micromanaged on projects like he has been many times at DC. “One project I was doing with Dan Didio, which we plotted out for two months, he handed me off to my editor and he said ‘well we’re going to throw all that out’ so I walked out…” His perspective changes though with the times, from the introduction of computers, to the dominance of the movies. “It’s changed so much from Roy saying ‘so what are you doing on Captain Marvel this week?’ and I’m like, ‘Super-Skrull?’ and he would say, ‘Go with that’. Now everyone wants a synopsis and they go crazy when I don’t stay with the synopsis.”
An interesting thing that Starlin ponders more now than ever is that his creation is now “ahead of him” because of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “I now have got the permanent qualification that whenever I’m introduced it is ‘This is Jim Starlin. He created Thanos.’ Basically I’ve become a part of Thanos’ entourage. I live of his droppings. And I know he’s going to outlast me in any kind of historical basis, long beyond my time on this planet. It’s a real love hate relationship.”
Taking questions from members of the audience, Starlin was asked about whether or not Mistress Death, the character in the comics, is real, or just in his head? “I think Mistress Death is as real as Eternity or Infinity is. It’s not just Thanos whose seen her, she’s one of those abstract entities that the movies are trying to avoid but they will eventually probably get around to. A couple more Doctor Strange movies and we’ll see Eternity I’m sure. With the popularity of Thanos I’m sure we’ll see Mistress Death on the silver screen someday also. Josh Brolin is very hot to do more with [Thanos]. He went from ‘this is a one-off’ to starting to lobby to get into the Eternals movie.” Mistress Death’s origin as a character with Thanos though comes from a very strange place, and a dated one. “In the early Captain Marvel stories I sketched out this page with Thanos and the Super-Skrull behind him and I just sort of sketched in this other figure behind the titan and I went who is that? I put in this hooded thing and the more I thought about it and Cheers was on the TV at that time, with Sam and Diane and their dysfunctional relationship. And that’s where [Thanos and Mistress Death’s relationship] came from and I went back and put breasts on the hooded figure…”
In speaking of his enjoyment of the Marvel movies, overall Starlin likes the approach the writers and creators have done with Thanos. He views most of what Marvel comics does now as a big idea think tank for the movies and he commented on the lack of communication between the two comics and movie divisions. “They’ve made a big line there between the movies and the comics and for the most part that works best because all those people they had in from the comics [in the beginning of the MCU] caused more problems than they were worth. There is no communication, it is them looking at the work and doing their own interpretation.”
When it came to seeing Avengers Infinity War in theaters, Starlin said he did not go in expecting any kind of carbon copy of his work and “I was tickled pink.” One thing that had worried Starlin was that a half-an-hour of Thanos’ backstory that they had done for Avengers Infinity War was cut out before the theatrical release. “I had been told it would be on the DVD, it wasn’t, they lied.” After watching Justice League on the plane, Starlin was very worried without the backstory watching Avengers Infinity War would be similar experience, where the big bad just shows up and none of his motivation makes any sense. These thoughts led Starlin to think about Bob Kane and the Batman ’66 series and how Kane’s work on the character was the antithesis of that show. “I kept thinking he had a piece of this, he was getting something out of this, so he had to say he loved it. And all I could think of was if [Avengers Infinity War] stinks I’m going to have to say ‘I loved it’. Then I went to the premiere and I could actually say I loved it.”
Starlin’s final question was if there would be more Dreadstar. “There was going to be a TV show but my producer went and OD’ on me and that put a crimp on the project. There is nothing solid at this point. I’m collecting all the previous ones and putting them together, it’s 1300 pages all together. I’m going to cut some of it … too much recapping. Hopefully when the next Avengers movie comes out we’ll put that out, it will be another omnibus project. I’m talking to different folks about [new comics]. I need to find a penciler for that because I don’t do that anymore, but it’s a possibility. I have a story here and I penciled the first issue before my hand blew up. Some of those pages will be in the new omnibus.” With that final reveal Starlin thanked everyone for listening and spoke with fans as the room emptied.