I wrote last week in my unofficial “comic book character who died and sometimes got better” weekly column about Drax the Destoryer. I mentioned that Drax died in a place called “the Cancerverse” but didn’t go into great detail on what that was.
You know what? That storyline provides some good fodder for one of the few deaths Marvel Comics just will not reverse: Mar-vell, Kree captain and champion of the living and the original opponent to all things Thanos.
In the 70s, Marvel’s cosmic stuff was probably best known when done by writer/artist Jim Starlin. Starlin used a few characters Marvel had lying around (Adam Warlock, Captain Mar-vell), plus added others of his own creation (Drax, Thanos) to craft some truly memorable and mind-boggling stories. Most of these stories involved Thanos. Starlin even today is highly possessive of Thanos, and even though he does often leave Marvel for extended periods to do other work with other characters, any time he returns to do another Thanos story, as I have mentioned before, one of the first things he does is ret-con anything anyone else has done with Thanos as out-of-character behavior, often the work of a faulty clone. That may seem to be the kind of thing a Class-A jerk would do, but Starlin has always given Thanos a very distinctive voice. Thanos from other writers just doesn’t…sound right.
I actually feel much the same way about the late Steve Gerber on the subject of Howard the Duck. No one else quite got Howard’s cynicism right.
Anyway, the classic Thanos story would show Thanos plotting something big, and then he’d be defeated, either by Mar-vell, or some team of heroes. Thanos being the guy who could throw down with whole teams of Avengers and not break a sweat, unless you count that one weird Spider-Man team-up with Hellcat where Thanos was flying a helicopter with his name on it and he tripped over his own feet such that Spidey could snag his Cosmic Cube and the cops led Thanos away in handcuffs (and yes, that all happened in an actual comic book, and no, you should not count it), Thanos would lose in the end of the story but the defeat was actually part of a much larger plan. Thanos meant to lose. Then he’d come back with what looked like a new plan (but was actually the next step in the original plan) and he’d be even harder to beat.
Eventually, Captain Mar-vell found a way to defeat Thanos once and for all (at least once and for all for the 70s), and left the big purple goon as a stone statue, dead at last. Since Thanos worships death and is rather hard to kill, he might have gotten what he really wanted.
A bit later, Mar-vell got into a battle with exploding supervillain Nitro. The issue itself isn’t overly noteworthy. Nitro is a basic human bad guy. After battling all kinds of crazy stuff with Thanos and Cosmic Cubes, as much as Nitro could put up a good fight, he really wasn’t in the same league as what Mar-vell usually dealt with. So, when Mar-vell beat him, there didn’t seem to be the same emotional wallop as there was from stopping the guy who was rewriting reality for kicks and giggles.
You may also remember Nitro as the guy who got the whole Civil War mess started by exploding himself near a school.
The wallop came later, when it was revealed the nature of Nitro’s powers had given Mar-vell cancer. He was dying. Starlin wrote and drew a whole graphic novel standalone depicting Mar-vell’s death on Titan, surrounded by Earth’s heroes paying tribute. As he passes to the other side, he sees Thanos there with Death and accepts his end. Its slow, sad, and moving. Marvel has basically never really changed it. Even during resurrection storylines where characters return from the dead en masse, if Mar-vell is among them, his return is temporary. There was even a fake-out during Secret Invasion where a Skrull was impersonating him. The problem was the Skrull impersonations were so good the Skrulls themselves often believed they were the person they replaced, and this particular Skrull ended up turning on his own people, since the Kree (Mar-vell’s people) and the Skrulls were longtime enemies.
Mar-vell does have a few children, it is worth noting, such as Genis-Vell who took the Captain Marvel name for a period, Phyla-Vell who took the Quasar name for a period, and the Young Avenger Hulkling, though that last one wasn’t really something that Mar-vell really knew about.
But what if Mar-vell hadn’t died of the cancer?
That was part of the basic premise for the 2010 mini-series The Thanos Imperative. Writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning had done a lot to revive Marvel’s cosmic heroes with a variety of mini-series and the Guardians of the Galaxy series that would be the basis for the movie. The story there begins with Thanos hatching out of a cocoon. This occurs at a good time (after an initial ugly scuffle between the delirious Thanos and the Guardians), because a space-time rift to another universe has opened up and…things are coming out of the other side.
On the other side is the “Cancerverse”. See, I told you I’d get to it.
The Cancerverse was a place where nothing died. Why? On his deathbed in that reality, Captain Mar-vell didn’t want to die, so he made a deal with some Lovecraftian type horrors to stay alive. He had all the superheroes gathered for his death to gather close and, well, he corrupted them into demonic versions of themselves.
The problem was, with nothing dying, the Cancerverse was “full”. Mar-vell, now known as Lord Mar-vell, was pushing into the main universe to both spread the idea of Not Dying, and to make room for his own population. His fighters, many of them twisted versions of Earth’s superheroes, were difficult to kill, but they could be taken down with sufficient force. Galactic armies and space-based heroes like Nova and the Silver Surfer gathered at the entrance and did what they could to hold the things off. Even the big cosmic entities like Galactus got involved. Even big cosmic entities on the other side got involved. It wasn’t pretty.
That would be about where Thanos came in. As an avatar of death, the Guardians realized they needed to take him to the Cancerverse to do…something. Thanos went along for unknown reasons. Death had rejected him. He wasn’t allowed to die. He was somewhat miserable.
He was also the only thing in the Cancerverse that could kill things and have such things stay dead. Except, the Guardians had brought avatar of life Drax along, and Drax kept getting in Thanos’ purple face until Thanos finally just upped and killed Drax.
Killing a life avatar got Lord Mar-vell’s attention, and he took his forces back to the Cancerverse to confront Thanos. Thanos then…surrendered. He lay down so Mar-vell could kill him. Mar-vell plunged the knife in and…summoned Mistress Death. Thanos had outsmarted Mar-vell, and Mistress Death came to collapse the whole corrupted universe, long overdue for her. She also refused to take Thanos, which upset him, and Star-Lord and Nova volunteered to hold him off long enough to make sure he didn’t return to his usual universe and cause more problems this time.
Well, that obviously failed. Star-Lord and Thanos both managed to get out (Nova said he’d hold Thanos off so Star-Lord could escape and that didn’t work).
But really, Mar-vell dying on time there would have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble.