I'm a huge Thanos fan. I love the concept of Jim Starlin's creation. His stories of the Mad Titan are some of my favorite superhero comic books of all-time.
I have to admit that calling this a "Top 9" list is a bit of a dupe because the entries aren't ordered by quality. Instead, the following list is a pretty accurate chronological comic book reading order with some extremely subjective opinions on the quality of the stories contain therein.
To see where these stories rank in my personal top 9 order, check out the numbers listed in italics after the titles.
Silver Surfer #34-38 (3 of 9)
Collected in the Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos graphic novel
- There are Thanos stories by Jim Starlin dating back to the mid-70s. But this 1990 storyline is the prelude to the epic Infinity triology and the beginning of Thanos as he's best remembered. He doesn't do that much in this story except for mess with the Silver Surfer's mind, but it's @#$%ing awesome!
The Thanos Quest #1-2 (1 of 9)
Collected in Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos and The Thanos Quest
- By far my favorite Thanos story and an essential read if you have a passion for the character. Thanos goes off on a quest to collect the six Soul Gems a.k.a. the Infinity Gems. Nuff said.
Silver Surfer #44-52 (6 of 9)
- These tie-ins are not essential reading by any means. But if you love Ron Lim's art as much as I do, you'll enjoy them. Thanos is only in these issues a little bit, but reading them prepares you for what comes next...
Infinity Gauntlet #1-6 (5 of 9)
Collected in the Infinity Gauntlet graphic novel
- The classic Thanos tale of love, loss, and monumental cosmic war. This is a mega-crossover... so if you don't like chocolate in your peanut butter, you might not dig this. But it's by far the most famous of all Thanos tales.
Silver Surfer #53-59 (7 of 9)
- These comic books are tie-ins to the Infinity Gauntlet story. They're not essential reading and they don't all feature Thanos, but reading them definitely enriches the Infinity Gauntlet experience.
Infinity War #1-6 & Marvel Comics Presents #108-111 (2 of 9)
Collected in the Infinity War graphic novel
- Personally, this is my second favorite Thanos story. I love Lim's art and Starlin's masterful writing. This tale is over-the-top and bombastic, but it's also full of elegant touches. However, skip all of the tie-ins except for Marvel Comics Presents #108-111 ("I, Thanos"), which takes place within one page of story during Infinity War #3.
Infinity Crusade #1-6 (9 of 9)
Collected in the Infinity Crusade v1 and Infinity Crusade v2 graphic novels
- I don't care much for this third leg of the classic Infinity trilogy. Frankly, I think it's too long and convoluted. A glut of tie-ins deprives the main miniseries from a good deal of important moments, making this story very passable.
Infinity Abyss #1-6 (4 of 9)
Collected in the Infinity Abyss graphic novel
- Now here are some great comics for the casual reader! This may be a wee bit confusing without any prior Thanos knowledge, but it's also the most rewarding story from a standalone perspective. Think of this as Jim Starlin's Thanos 2.0, wherein 90s Thanos gets upgraded to the 00s with lots of nods to the work of Steve Ditko.
Marvel: The End #1-6 (8 of 9)
Collected in the Marvel Universe: The End graphic novel
- I've never been able to finish this tale. I have a few friends that rave about it and I appreciate their opinions, but it's just not for me. However, it's a fun and ambitious story that works well as an end-cap to the iteration of Thanos that began in 1990's Silver Surfer #34.
There are plenty of Thanos stories that have followed, including a Thanos solo series started by Starlin (who left the book after too much editorial meddling), as well as the Annihilation cosmic saga (I forget exactly which issues contain Thanos appearances... I do know that he "dies" in one of them).
From what I've seen online, the character has made his official return in Avengers Assemble #3. This is going to be a new era for the anti-villain... a fourth era, if you will. I like to think of it as follows: 1st era = Starlin in the 70s, 2nd era = Starlin in the 90s, 3rd era = Starlin and Annihilation in the 00s, and 4th era = these new 2010s movie tie-in comics.
In other media, Thanos was the big boss in Marvel Super Heroes. It's a classic fighting game by Capcom that centers around the concept of the Infinity Gems. It's got gorgeous art direction and wonderful music. I highly recommend it. Learn more by listening to this podcast.
Thanos also popped up on the Silver Surfer TV show. I didn't care for this iteration. He was pretty sucktastic. Plus, there's the new-ish Super Hero Squad Show, which features Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet (as well as the "Infinity Sword" and the "Infinity Stones"... say wha???)
BUT most people will now be familiar with the character through the ending to The Avengers movie. And that's cool. If you're curious about him, my above reading order should treat you well.
Conceptually, Jim Starlin has laid down some fascinating explorations of morality through the use of Thanos. Thanks to his writing in combination with the awesome art of Ron Lim and Al Milgrom, I've become a huge fan and I think you will too if you give some of these comics a shot.
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