We Interviewed Jim Starlin: the Guy Who Killed Robin and Created Thanos!
You may not know his name, but if you've seen The Avengers or are a fan of Batman, you know his work. Mr. Starlin, who has worked for both Marvel and DC, created the character of Thanos (who showed up at the end of The Avengers and will, indeed, be the next big bad guy that team faces) and is also responsible for having The Joker kill Robin in the A Death in the Family Batman series.
We recently sat down with him to discuss his four decade-long career:
MindHut: For the uninitiated, what would you say are the proudest moments or the tent poles of your career so far?
Jim Starlin: Thanos, Dreadstar, killing off Robin, Cult, Death in the Family, a bunch of Infinity Books, Captain Marvel, Warlock, Breed, Kid Cosmos.
MH: Yeah, just some of the most important comics ever.
JS: Yeah, those are a few of them.
MH: Do you feel like there are any defining moments—and you’ve mentioned a few of them—in your career that have become more important than you thought they would be at the time you were working on them?
JS: Well, Thanos showing up at the end of The Avengers movie kind of took me by surprise; I wouldn’t have seen that back in 1972.
MH: So you really didn’t see that coming at all then?
JS: No, I had no working relationship with Marvel at the time, and finally I started getting hints of it a couple weeks before and when the movie came out I went to the midnight showing and there he was at the end.
MH: And what was your reaction?
JS: My first thought was, “His nose is too long,” but going back and looking at it a second time I thought, “Well, no, no there’s a real human underneath there; that’s about as good as you can get.” The blue eyes kind of surprised me; I hope when he gets mad later on they flash red. But it was a pleasant surprise, it was nice.
MH: Are you going to have any creative input in the upcoming movies that use Thanos then?
JS: No, the comics and the movies are completely separate. That’s Joss Whedon’s show and Marvel has their own thing they do with the books.
MH: So for a lot of people, you’ll always be the guy who killed Robin—
JS: That got me a lot of free beers in Mexico at the time—
MH: Ha ha, that’s funny! Can you talk a little about how you got put in the position of writing that, of writing A Death in the Family?
JS: Well I always sort of felt that going out and fighting crime with a teenager that you dress in primary colors while you’re in the shadows wearing black and grey, well, that could only be termed child endangerment. So I was never big on using Robin. And when [my editor] Benny [O'Neil] came up with the phone-in gag about voting whether he lived or died, and they said, “Well, let’s do Robin” (because I had been pushing for it) it just sort of fell into place. And it worked out well. I never suspected, I never figured that the readers were going to want him to live, because I know what kind of ghouls you fans are, so we did the thing and it turned out they had all these pajamas and lunchboxes with Robin’s pictures on it, so within a couple months I was out of DC because I screwed up their merchandising department.
MH: Even though the fans were behind it, DC still wanted you out the door?
JS: Oh yeah, I was suddenly persona non grata. Up until that point, the editor Benny O’Neil had been taking credit for the whole thing. As soon as it went south, it was all my fault so I was gone.
MH: The ending, how he was killed, that came from the fans, right?
JS: Well, they decided whether he lived or died. I had two different last pages—I mean, he got beat up and blown up by The Joker, and whether he lived or died depended on what the fans. And it was only like 72 votes difference out of ten thousand; statistically next to nothing.
MH: So looking back on it, it was huge at the time. Do you think it’s still as big a part of the Batman mythos as it was then?
JS: It’s never appeared in a movie, so no. That’s a great longevity booster for a character. I mean, we do pop culture. You have a definite shelf life: sometimes it's within months, sometimes it's within years. Thanos showing up a the end of The Avengers has lengthened Thanos’s shelf life by a decade or two. I mean, but we all fade away eventually.
MH: That’s a good way to look at it I guess—unless your Batman or Superman.
JS: No, those become corporate properties, and that’s another story entirely.
MH: So Jason Todd is back and he’s been turned into the Red Hood with the New 52 and everything. How do you feel about the re-appropriation of Jason Todd and also how do you feel about the New 52 in general?
JS: I was aware of Jason Todd coming back; it wasn’t a big thing with me one way or the other. I had nothing invested in it. With the death of Captain Marvel, I cared a bit more about him being brought back. As for the 52, I haven’t seen any of them and couldn’t tell you anything about them.
MH: You haven’t read any of the New 52?
JS: No, I’m not much of a comic book reader anymore; I’m too busy with other things.
MH: When was the last time you were really into comics?
JS: When I was working at DC a few years ago, they started sending me the bundles and I felt obliged to read everything because we were supposed to be connecting enough continuity. Then after the Death of the New Gods was done, I realized that nobody pays attention to continuity anymore, it’s a lost art, and I wasn’t working for them anymore, so I haven’t been bothering to read any.
MH: Cult has always been and will always be my favorite Batman story. Do you know if they’ve ever thought about putting that on the big screen, making that into a movie?
JS: No, I’ve never heard of it. Some people were saying that the things were in the 3rd movie, but I went and saw it and thought there’s nothing of the Cult in there, so no. And they’ve already done a subway sewer movie, so I don’t think they’ll be doing another any time soon.
MH: You’ve worked at DC; you’ve worked at Marvel: How would you compare the two places? Would you say there’s an environment you like better?
JS: The only difference between DC and Marvel is that DC has a better book-keeping department. The good or bad of a company is dependent on who the editors are at the time. I’ve come in to both companies and worked with good editors, I’ve worked with both companies with really bad editors; it’s just the luck of the draw. I tend to look more at who I’m working with than at what the company I’m working with.
MH: And is there a universe of characters in one or the other that you think is more dynamic or more interesting?
JS: Well, I grew up with DC stuff more than I did with the Marvels—that came when I was a teenager. But , you know, I sort of had more of a warming toward the Marvel characters overall; I always seem to have a better handle on them than I do on the DC characters. Like, everyone’s always trying to push me into doing Green Lantern, but I haven’t got any real connection with that character. The X-Men are the same way, I just don’t care—sorry!
MH: So what’s next up for you?
JS: I’m working on two illustrated novels which I’m sort of sitting on at the same time. I have a big project in the works for one of the major companies that we’re talking about, but nothing’s solid that I can say anything about. Though I did promise David Bogart that he’s the best thing since sliced bread.
MH: Well, we’ll print that.
JS: Yes, go ahead. I promised him I’d say something nice about him and that’ll be it.
Special thanks to Eric Garneau for questions on this post.