Thursday, December 19, 2019

"I don't want it to end." On King Thor #4

The other day, for some reason or another, I went back and read my CBR review of Young Liars #18. It was the final issue and I gave it five stars and the review was part celebration of a comic series that I really connected with and felt passionately about, part giant fuck y’all to everyone who wasn’t on board with it. I haven’t read that series since it ended. I should go back and give it a look, I think. I believe there have been final issues I’ve liked a lot since that one, but it’s what stands out for me when I think of final issues that really landed.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that Jason Aaron stuck the landing. Page seven cemented it for me. King Thor is going to die in a black hole of Gorr (literally) and the narration breaks down his lifelong struggles with self-worth, depression, all of his inner demons, and how he always hoped he’d overcome them some day. Except that day never comes – will never come. “You only learn to better live with the demons. To channel the rage and shame. To be the storm.” All while Thor yells for his father, about how Odin was right, how Thor wasn’t strong enough, worthy enough, and... I almost lost it there.
This isn’t a perfect comic. The middle section is Jason Aaron being Jason Aaron in a way that kind of makes me roll my eyes with Thor as cop or Thor as living planet or Thor as whatever the fuck. But, as much as I’ve lost my patience for that sort of things over the years (the Age of Awesome is behind us, I’d like to think), I can’t help but appreciate that there’s room for it in this issue. Aaron gonna Aaron, y’know?
It’s a big issue that packs everything in. Everything is tied up or addressed (oh, except for the odd thing, but, as the comic points out, there’s power in untold stories, so more about Volstagg and Roz will have to wait). The future, the past, the fate of Loki, the fate of Thor... the idea of Thor. The spirit of thunder.
It’s a little too fresh to really take in. This is becoming a fragmented thing and I didn’t want that. I wanted to, somehow, sum it all up and say something meaningful.
I guess I’ll go back to that seventh page.
Back when I began this newsletter, I said that part of my goal is trying to figure out why I feel such an affinity for Thor. I don’t feel worthy a lot. I’m very critical of myself, hate most of what I say, and seem to spend much of my time cringing at myself in real time. The more self-aware I become, the more I’m able to both overcome this and fall prey to it. I spend a lot of time wondering what the right thing to do is; the right thing to say; the right way to feel. What’s allowed, what’s too much, what’s too little, what’s appropriate, what’s not. Usually, I try to console myself with the idea that the struggle is enough; that I question myself and my actions and my thoughts and my feelings means that I’m not a lost cause at all.
I think I always liked Thor because he was just worthy. He just was. And his dad still thought he was a fuck up anyway. I never thought that my dad thought that, but our relationship was strained for as long as I can remember. Over time, I’ve realised that it had very little to do with me. I know that. I know that. But. But, that little bit of self-loathing on the matter is still there. I never related to Thor so much as when he was in the same room as his dad. Issue 491 held a great sway over me with Odin’s appearance.
And, at the end of time, Thor still can’t get over his bullshit with his dad. He still can’t get over every little bit of self-loathing and shame and feeling of unworthiness. But does he give up; does he fuck!
I related to Jason Aaron’s Thor run like no other Thor run. This wasn’t a Thor who was worthy because he’s worthy because he’s Thor. This was a fuck up; a mess of self-doubt and self-hatred, who had to struggle for so long to think himself worthy and, then, a single phrase took it all away. Thor never stopped being worthy, he just stopped believing himself to be worthy. He gave in to those terrible thoughts that haunt us all. And he kept going. It took him a while, but he kept going. And he’d get beaten down and he’d keep going. The whole thing began with that story: King Thor in the future, nothing but a mess of self-loathing and self-pity, but, after some time and a reminder of who he is, he was a grandfather and brought Midgard back.
Actually, it didn’t so much remind me of Young Liars as the end of Gødland. Enlightenment isn’t a destination; it’s a process. There’s no point where you become enlightened and just stop. It doesn’t work that way. Same with being worthy. You just keep going, trying to do your best, waking up every day and hoping you can still lift that hammer. We all have our hammer. It may just be looking yourself in the mirror and not hating the person you see. Most days, I’m successful. It was nice to read about a Thor with those same struggles.
Jane had those struggles, too. Her struggles helped the Odinson find his way back. She was worthy, but didn’t really know what that meant. It reminds me of when I met my wife and had this other person basically telling me that I was great. I was worth loving and liking and being around. And I had no idea why. I felt a little like a fraud. Still do. I always got that sense with Jane and Mjolnir. She didn’t understand why exactly she was chosen, why she was worthy when so many weren’t. Sometimes, I think that lack of awareness is part of the why.
I don’t know what now. I know that there’s a new Thor comic that I’ll be reading in two weeks. Just two weeks. It all keeps moving, doesn’t it. I don’t know if I’m ready. How often do you get to read the best of something and know at the time that it was the best. Is this what it was like when Simonson left? When Kirby left?
It’s a weird feeling. This was something special. And it’s done. But, it’s also here on my desk. I have the entire run stacked, ready to be read any time I want. It’s complete. Ha. Pretty cool.
This isn’t my last word on this comic or this run. Not by a long shot. It’s just what I’ve got tonight.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Did “The God Without Fear” Actually Happen? On War of the Realms: War Scrolls #1-3

Okay, yes, it did.



But, what if it didn’t?

What if the events as depicted in “The God Without Fear,” which ran for three parts in War of the Realms: War Scrolls #1-3, written by Jason Aaron, drawn by Andrea Sorrentino and Matthew Wilson, and lettered by Joe Sabino, only occurred within the mind of Matt Murdock? Setting aside the fact that that is highly unlikely based on the entire history of Marvel and the work of Jason Aaron, let’s walk through this story and see if it did, in fact, occur as presented.

The idea that this story didn’t actually happen first came to me when reading the third part, in the bottom panel of page nine. Daredevil, having used shards of the Bifrost to rescue a bunch of blind children that Malekith kidnapped to draw him out, is depicted lying in a field, arms outstretched, holding the hands of a child on either side whose arms are similarly outstretched to holds the hands of the children next to them. It’s such an odd panel that seems to have little basis in reality. Daredevil rescues the children so they can lie in a field, holding hands? It struck me more as an insight into his mind and the reality that he wished to observe. He equates saving the children, blind like himself, with their being at peace together in a field. It’s not a literal depiction.

And if that panel is not real, what is?

The observer effect is a theory of quantum mechanics in physics where the act of observation alters or impacts that which is being observed. It’s a theory that suggests that things aren’t as isolated as we like to think; that observing and measuring something, usually some small element of reality, affects it because no observation is entirely passive. Daredevil, normally blind, has the ability to see and hear all in this story, having taken Heimdall’s sword to command the Bifrost, which granted him Heimdall’s abilities. So, if Daredevil can see everything everywhere, how does that impact the reality of his own actions and events he’s a part of?

I would argue that the entirety of “The God Without Fear” is Daredevil’s observation of events, altered by his own viewing of them. What we see in the comic is entirely from his perspective. There are two things that support this idea: Daredevil narrates the entire story and the unique artistic by Sorrentino and Wilson that mimics Daredevil’s senses, even when he’s not present, as it does at the end of the first part when Kurse kicks Fisk in the face and there’s an outline box on the impact, coloured differently. It’s inconsistent with the non-Daredevil art and a clue towards what’s actually happening.

The primary conflict of “The God Without Fear” is an internal one. Matt Murdock’s continuing struggles with his faith run up against a new challenge when he becomes a god, or, at least, as close to one as he’s ever encountered. That casts the entire narrative into that set framework of Murdock trying to come to grips with what this means for both himself and the world around him. The narrative is shifted to suit his attempt to use this experience to better understand an unknowable deity whose presence and existence was ingrained into him at a young age.

By observing himself using these powers, Murdock hopes to observe a god in action. If he knows what he is thinking as he acts, and he is able to observe those acts from an external perspective, perhaps new insight is to be gained. In the first part, there is a clear disconnect between Murdock’s internal narration and the actions depicted. When he fights Frost Giants, the art depicts a cacophony of images piled upon one another with various insets and specific focal points, but the narration speaks of everything else that Murdock can see and hear until “I force myself to focus on the rush of icy blood through the arteries of these giants.” Once he focuses in that way, there is no true difference between Daredevil the god and Daredevil the man beyond some additional knowledge. A large depiction of a Frost Giant with a dozen parts isolated with facts provided is not so different from what Daredevil can normally sense in an opponent with his radar senses; the knowledge of the unearthly elements at play is the only addition. He can ‘see’ the various weaknesses and strengths of his opponent like any other time. As such, in the first part of this narrative, he learns very little about what being a god is, except that it’s either an activity in observing all of reality at a remove or it’s exactly like being a person, but with some added information immediately at hand. He’s left somewhat unsatisfied, questioning himself: “[...] but I do not know... if I am truly a god. I just answered the prayers of these people. Isn’t that what a god should do? I have also brought... divine retribution.” Except, in saving some innocents from Frost Giants, did he do anything different from any other night, except perhaps on a different scale?

This pattern continues through the second part. He talks up his powers in his narration, but his actions aren’t much different than normal. He marvels at the power both he and Fisk have at their disposal as they fight, but, aside from that, it’s just another fight between Daredevil and the Kingpin. By the end of the third part, Murdock cannot help but conflate himself with a god, not based on powers, but through his experiences. The added information and perspective gained by his godly powers doesn’t actually change him in any meaningful way. He takes down some thugs in New York, gets into a fight with Wilson Fisk, and saves some kids from a scummy bad guy and his muscle-bound goon before jumping back into another fight in New York. When he goes after Malekith, he narrates, “I used to curse God because I didn’t understand how he could be omnipotent and still let bad things happen to good people. But here I am, a god... doing the very same thing.”

His rescue of the blind children is very much a “Daredevil fight,” as he uses his abilities to his advantage, taking away the moonlight to fight in pitch darkness, and outthinking his opponent. He takes a beating to buy time before he’s able to enact his true plan. He plays to his strengths, fights a boxing strategy, and is able to save the day. At this larger scale of power, it only teaches him one thing: he’s still him, even with godlike powers. And that is the insight that he gains by juxtaposing his own actions with his inner knowledge. The story ends with him looking up at a church in New York and saying, “I’m sorry. About the things I always cursed you for. I didn’t know until now. That you’re just as blind as me.”

In observing himself from an external perspective using his new powers and comparing that to what he was thinking and feeling inside, Murdock learns that the only difference is that of scale. I suppose that is an insight, of sorts, but it’s also a thought exercise that doesn’t actually resolve the conflict he begins with entirely, because it begins from the flawed assumption that additional power is the same as being a god.

The manner in which he defeats Malekith provides another insight that competes with that final moment for being the ‘point’ of the story. The shards of the Bifrost are activated and allow Daredevil and the children to escape only when one of the children touches his sword. He narrates that “what I didn’t expect... was that sometimes more important than salvation... is divine inspiration,” which leads him to conclude, while he lays on the grass with the kids, that “It’s not our gods who give us strength. It’s the other damn way around.” If conflating himself with a god and judging that the only difference is that of scale is simplistic, this is the closest to a profound lesson that he learns and relates to the end of the first part when he spoke of answering prayers. It’s not a new lesson: the god doesn’t matter, it’s the believer. The god is a mirror of the believer, one imbued with an awesome scale of power, one whose whims and directions are merely an attempt to arrange order on the chaos of reality. Of observing the world around you and trying to make sense of it all, changing the unseen things to fit into a nice, neat narrative.

Just as Murdock does for the duration of this story.

There is one glaring argument against this particular reading: Daredevil, throughout the story, cannot actually see Malekith, who uses his magic to avoid detection and observation. In the second part, Daredevil is surprised when Wilson Fisk shows himself in New York, now possessing magical powers from Malekith; in the third part, Daredevil says that he can’t see Malekith until a specific moment, which is part of the Dark Elf’s attempt to entrap the hero. Except, that fits neatly into the narrative that’s presented here; it’s self-sabotage by Daredevil that’s not really in effect. Daredevil conveniently only sees Malekith as he discusses not being able to see Malekith with Heimdall. It fits Malekith into the regular Daredevil narrative where a bad guy has kidnapped some kids and holds them hostage, causing the hero to search for them until, finally, he comes across the trap.

The neatness of the narrative progression is part of what gives this away as a fantasy – or, at least, an edited version of reality. Aside from the present events of the narrative, the first and second parts begin with flashbacks to Daredevil’s past that inform the narrative. The first is an encounter with Thor that introduces the inner conflict between his faith and the existence of the Asgardian gods. He senses tell him that Thor believes himself a god when he calls himself such, which only raises more doubt. The ensuing narrative is Murdock gaining the powers of an Asgardian and learning if that means being a god. Much like the flaw in assuming additional power is the same as being a god, there’s also a flawed assumption in that having the power of an Asgardian is the same thing as being an Asgardian. If Daredevil has the power of Heimdall, is that the same thing as being Heimdall in every aspect? Of course not, because Daredevil continues to behave like Daredevil, not like Heimdall.

The second flashback focuses on the interplay between what is observed externally and what happens internally. Daredevil has caught a serial killer and talks of praying “that once I started beating you, I’d be able to stop,” and, then, admitting that he didn’t kill the man. He muses, “So I suppose God was listening to me that night. Or maybe my arms just got tired,” indicating that even he doesn’t know what happened. He experienced the events and walked away with an ambiguous conclusion of what happened. Perhaps if he had also witnessed those events, he would have gained new insight? Probably not.

If anything “The God Without Fear” is an exercise in solipsism. By simultaneously observing his actions and experiencing them, Murdock makes himself the centre of the universe, the focal point of everything. Everything that happens is fit into a narrative that suits his inner conflict and questions. Reality is remade to revolve around him. He doesn’t recue the children and return them back home; he lies in a field, basking in the glory of being their saviour and the knowledge that he is no different from his God. Even the ‘divine inspiration’ provided by one of the children becomes about him. If anything, this entirely self-centred approach to using his powers and defining his actions provides an unstated insight into the nature of God; one where everything exists and occurs merely as a reflection of His existence. Everything is God experiencing it and observing it simultaneously, fitting it all into a grand narrative of order, just as Matt Murdock does for the entirely of this story.

But, even if this reading of the story is correct, I must admit, that doesn’t mean that the events didn’t actually happen. Aside from that one panel, everything is credible enough. That the events that happen aren’t referenced in any way in War of the Realms does seem suspect, particularly an encounter with Malekith that doesn’t fit neatly into what’s shown in that series. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to support the argument that the story didn’t happen. Even if the act of observing what happened caused Murdock to unconsciously use his powers to somehow reshape reality into the narrative that we read, that would mean that that is what happened. So, I guess the question that really needs to be asked: how different is “The God Without Fear” from what actually happened?

Only god knows...

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Riding the Gravy Train: Avengers vs. X-Men, the Modern Event Comic, and the End of the Marvel Comics Decade

A little bit later than I had hoped, but Riding the Gravy Train: Avengers vs. X-Men, the Modern Event Comic, and the End of the Marvel Comics Decade is finally available via Amazon in both paperback and eBook.

As you can imagine, it is a collection of the posts I did on the event, but with some added extras like a final reading order for the event, annotations, new pieces, and some contributions by Tegan O'Neil and Tim Callahan (first Splash Page in print!). I've been working on this for a while and am really happy with how it turned out (I think - I haven't gotten a copy yet myself since it just went up yesterday). I'm really happy that Tegan and Tim allowed me to use their work. The new pieces by me are the introduction, an entry on three more comics that act as prologue to the event (Uncanny X-Men #9-10, and Avengers #24.1), and a longer essay looking back at the event seven years later.

Here's the description:
Avengers vs. X-Men was the biggest comics event of 2012. The culmination of a decade of stories co-written by Marvel’s five top writers dubbed “The Architects,” drawn by three of Marvel’s top artists, and featuring the company’s two largest franchises, it was billed as one of the biggest events in superhero comics history. Critic Chad Nevett read every issue in the event and wrote about them weekly from the prologues prior to the event starting right through the entire fallout with all of the good and bad of trying to follow an event on a weekly basis. Collected in a print edition featuring new essays by Nevett and additional supporting material by himself and fellow critics Tegan O’Neil and Timothy Callahan, Riding the Gravy Train is a deep dive into one of the biggest superhero events of the 21st century, and its subsequent legacy.
So, if you're so inclined, please get yourself a copy in your preferred format. Again, those links: