Tuesday, March 29, 2011

28: Sometimes All You Learn is that "Change or Die" can Make You Wish for the Sweet Release of Death

Warren Ellis's brief, four-issue run on Thor (#491-494) changed my comic-reading habits. In some ways, it was another in a long string of radical shifts for a character grown stagnant that happened during my childhood. Superman died and was replaced by four men, Batman got his back broken and was replaced by a crazy man in armour, the X-Men titles were taken over by an alternate reality for months, Hal Jordan went crazy and was replaced by a young guy, Spider-Man's clone returned and eventually replaced him, too... There were others, of course, but those are the ones that stand out.

Besides, of course, Thor and Iron Man, both of whom underwent some pretty big changes close together in 1995. In Ellis's run, Thor was made mortal, spoke plain English, and entered a relationship with the Enchantress. As a result of the horrid "The Crossing" storyline, Iron Man became his teenage self, because the best plan the Avengers could come up with to stop adult Tony Stark was a dumber, more immature Tony Stark. To be fair, they were probably distracted by the Wasp turning into a giant insect. You'll notice that only one of these decisions is still mocked today. I used to think it was because the Thor change worked, while the Iron Man one was so patently flawed in execution that it couldn't be explained away for years and, even then, only in a minor one-shot or annual that no one read.

See, I had fond memories of the post-Ellis Thor, written by William Messner-Loebs. He picked up where Ellis left off and tried to show what happens when Thor loses all of his godhood and is forced to rebuild Asgard with his people scattered across Earth. It was a run that was cut down before it had a chance to succeed, I thought. See, it only lasted eight issues, ending when Thor was transported to the "Heroes Reborn" universe and Thor became Journey into Mystery again (hey, the more things change...). There was a fatal flaw in this line of thought:

I'd never actually reread the eight issues that followed Ellis's four-issue stint on the title.

I did that last night for the first time since the issues came out. Okay, that's probably a lie. Since I found myself remembering the details of these comics as I read them, I must have reread them in the time that followed their release, but that's still well over ten years ago. Probably sometime in 1998 at the latest.

Having read these now, I'm disappointed. These are issues that take the potential of the Ellis retooling, one that felt fresh and dangerous and somewhat skeevy, the sort of thing that blows a 12-year old's mind, because superhero comics featuring an Avenger don't have him fighting disgusting vikings made of wood and radio parts as he tries to keep from vomiting up his vital organs before he fucks one of his enemies in exchange for saving his life. THEN! He finds out his problems are caused by a cannibal mad scientist trying to trick the World Tree into thinking the apocalypse is here just so he can see what the future of humanity looks like. That's some fucked up shit. That's what I wanted from my comics from that point on.

What followed were some fairly mundane superhero action and some boring-as-fuck talk about Asgard falling and Odin becoming a drunken hobo. Oh, and a lame crossover with Captain America, Iron Man, and The Avengers two issues in, because Marvel wanted to convince people that the 'new' Thor and Iron Man wouldn't change anything. It's the Big Three back together again and all that... the only good thing about that crossover was the John Paul Leon promo art that put the actual 88 pages or so of comics art (and four covers!) to shame.

Maybe it was the change at Marvel at the time as this was the beginning of Bob Harras's tenure as Marvel editor-in-chief, leaving behind the old system where there were five EICs, each in charge of their own little kingdom. Maybe the Ellis stuff was a bit too heavy, a bit too much for what Marvel wanted at the time. Maybe not. I don't know...

What I do know is that these are comics that struggle with the status quo Ellis established, trying to find a way for it to fit with what came before Ellis. These were comics that tried to reconcile Ellis's big leap forward and fail, because you can't reconcile those things. I read Thor prior to Ellis and, while they were all comic book starring Thor, they weren't remotely related beyond those superficial qualities. By trying to use the change as the impetus for the story, Messner-Loebs turned the title into a comic book about how Thor was a different comic than it used to be, which, ironically, made it have more in common with the comics pre-Ellis than Ellis's run despite carrying over the superficial qualities of Ellis's run.

To be fair, I had an idea that these comics would let me down. I've put off rereading them for a while. The one I was really worried about was Thor #502, the final issue, which I had particularly fond memories of. It was the only issue to featured the redesigned Mike Deodato costume (though, it didn’t make an odd appearance in the Iron Man issue of the "First Sign" crossover because someone at Marvel gave the artist the wrong reference material no doubt). It's a simple issue of Thor and Red Norvell (a former replacement Thor) waiting on the Jersey shore for the final assault on Onslaught after the heroes basically left him Manhattan. It's two guys preparing for death with Thor trying to enter a berserker state, hoping that would give the heroes the edge against Onslaught -- but, he fails and that allows him to save a man's life using the surgical knowledge from his past life as Donald Blake.

It's not a bad comic. It's the only issue that shows what Messner-Loebs could have really done on the title if he'd gotten cooking. It suffers from the context and... not feeling like an afterthought, but the knowledge that this is it. It's a comic about waiting for death -- and it's a comic stalling for time before it dies. Some would argue there's a brilliance in Messner-Loebs's writing in how he manages to make Thor about Thor, but it's tedious. It never says anything of substance. It never presents adventures that engage or engross. It flails about between goofy comedy and serious drama...

It's basically a reminder for me that change itself isn't what I love; it's how it was done. You'll often hear me want things to be different, for characters to change, for Marvel and DC to take bigger chances, and that simply telling good stories while jogging in place isn't enough for me. Well, sometimes I should just shut my big mouth, because there was a time when Iron Man was his teenage self and Thor ran around New York without a shirt on...