Thanos is still doing his best impersonation of the galaxy's most intimidating paperweight following the events of "Infinity," but that didn't stop creator Jim Starlin from returning to write an untold flashback story about this resurgently popular villain in "Thanos Annual" #1. Reunited with past collaborator Ron Lim, Starlin starts his story at the conclusion of his classic Thanos/Cosmic Cube epic from four decades ago. It's a fun if convoluted journey that spans from this point through Starlin's subsequent "Infinity Gauntlet" event and beyond, and is clearly constructed with fans of those storylines in mind, although the comprehensive nature of this comic makes it accessible enough for just about anyone.
Yes, there are two manifestations of Thanos facing off against Mephisto on Starlin's variant cover, and this cover is a pretty representative clue as to what happens inside. Within the course of the story, Starlin reveals that the future Thanos, at the peak of his power, creates a dozen "avatars" to explore unanswered mysteries from the past. Only one of those avatars is relevant to the story here, fortunately, and serves as its narrator as he shares his past triumphs and failures with his younger, dejected self. It's the kind of story Starlin has done so well before and ably does so here, despite a contrived trick to solve the how-come-I-don't-remember-this dilemma that comes to mind every time a character interacts with his or her past persona.
There are some big story holes, like why future Thanos doesn't just give his younger self the Infinity Gauntlet in the first place, but this is really no different than why any villain who ever possessed the Cosmic Cube didn't just wipe out their enemies in the blink of an eye. It's all but impossible to convincingly write around the story challenges that infinite power brings, so Starlin wisely doesn't try, and such questions aren't the point of the story anyway. The story is actually a prologue to August's "The Infinity Revelation" event and serves as a bridge between this upcoming arc and the past moments of a pre-"Infinity" Thanos. Starlin effectively and successfully makes it work, reaching out to those who prefer the classic incarnation of the character to the one seen more recently.
The dialogue throughout is classic Starlin, which is largely a good thing but is punctuated by some off-kilter phrases. "Power supreme is a very subjective boast in a universe such as ours" reads like a classic Starlin line, but so does "It truly is quite the handy little gadget" a couple of panels later. Thanos' line is in reference to the Infinity Gauntlet, but one would think he's referring to his Swiss army knife.
Lim has long been an excellent artist for bringing Starlin's stories to life, capturing the scope of cosmic wonderment with the same kind of detail and precisely inked lines that have typified Starlin's own art. The double-page spread that leads off the story is a reconstructed scene from one of Starlin's old Captain Marvel issues, but is a beautifully rendered piece that quickly reminds readers that even though Starlin's only handling the writing this time around, it can still look just as exciting. Colorist Val Staples even uses purplish tones for the spread's background, further evoking the look seen in some of Starlin's past work.
"Thanos Annual" #1 largely relies on past stories for its substance, but its strength lies in Starlin and Lim's ability to make referencing those classic stories work in a modern comic. It's not one of Starlin's masterpieces, but it's enjoyable on the merits of evoking those masterpieces and giving them context and relevance with stories yet to come.