Saturday, December 23, 2023

Merry Christmas, Eric Masterson!

You may find it hard to believe, but Thor #444 is the only Christmas issue of the title’s 60-plus years. Maybe I missed another issue or two with a reference to Christmas, this is the only issue that you could say, beginning to end, is pure holiday schmaltz. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that it came during Eric Masterson’s time as the Thunder God while the Odinson was exiled beyond the known universe by acting All-Father Heimdall for killing Loki. An Asgardian and a Christmas issue don’t exactly mix given the North American view of the holiday and its origins. Taking a regular guy who happens to gain the powers of god when he taps a cane on the ground and putting him smack dab in the middle of a good ol’ fashioned holiday depression, though? That’s classic bordering on cliché.

“How the Groonk Stole Christmas!” lives for the holiday cliché. Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, well into their creative partnership, manage to take a fairly regular issue of their Thor run and deck it out with as many Christmas clichés and references as they can manage. From the titular Groonk being a friendly allusion to the Grinch, from his green appearance and Santa suit to his dog Max with one antler to a little girl named Cindy Lou that sticks up for him. Beyond that, there’s every holiday movie about a parent feeling estranged from their kid, or down on his luck due to money issues, or feeling like a worthless human. DeFalco and Frenz rip off the classics from A Christmas Carol to It’s a Wonderful Life. And, surprisingly, it works.

What could be eye-rolling never quite crosses the line because, firstly, DeFalco and Frenz are pretty clear that they know how cheesy and sappy this comic is. Every reference comes with a little wink that lets you know that they’re in on it too. Mostly, it’s that those elements are flourishes added here and there to what could be a non-Christmas issue of Thor. The entire issue is rooted in the ongoing struggles of Eric Masterson with the holidays acting as a focal point to magnify some of them. That root in Eric and his problems carries the issue past the Christmas clichés and actually lets a few of them land. By focusing on the genuine goodness of that character as he struggles to get through the day, DeFalco and Frenz transform Christmas clichés into a moving finale that feels earned – and welcomed.

The issue opens on Eric having spent nearly five hundred dollars on a gift for his son. Broke, about to lose his apartment due to superhero-related destruction, his architect career barely hanging on, and the general feeling that he’s a failure as Thor, the first page and a half is one long self-pitying monologue over a dozen or so thought bubbles. When a fellow shopper is robbed of only one of her many presents, the superhero plot of the issue is introduced. Apparently, there is a mugger who has been stealing a single present from people, seemingly at random (the people and the present). It seems like a simple criminal to take down and one that Eric feels good about trying to stop. There’s a sense that, if he’s able to catch this thief and return the stolen presents, he’ll have done something good at the holidays. He never says it outright, but the alluded outcome is that he’ll be saving Christmas, in a sense.

The visit with his son, Kevin, does little to lift his spirits. Despite giving him a much-desired gift that he can barely afford, Eric feels like a letdown to Kevin. His ex-wife is married to a professional football player and Eric feels like he can’t measure up to the lifestyle that they’re providing for Kevin. Even though his relationship with his ex and her husband is amicable, especially since he willing gave up custody of Kevin (to spare him the fallout of his double life as Thor), the strains of his superhero alter ego and the time away from his son turn it into a competition in his mind. He readily acknowledges that the expensive gift is an effort to ‘bride’ Kevin into overlooking his failings as a father and he’s so wrapped up in those feelings of inadequacy that he blows off Marcy’s invitation for him to join them for dinner and spend more time with Kevin.

His self-sabotage and desire to prove himself is a recurring feature in the issue, especially when he finally confronts the robber. It turns out to be a giant, hulking green monster in a Santa outfit that only yells the word “Groonk!” Their battle takes them into a shopping mall and Eric’s need to take down this seeming monster causes him to go all out and not do the best job at keeping the innocent people around them safe. At one point, he ducks an eye blast from the Groonk before realising that it was meant for a beam that, now broken, allows part of the ceiling to fall in. When the battle leads into the sewers, Eric almost fights against a group of homeless people living there until a little girl, Cindy Lou, intervenes and explains the situation. The Groonk is normally a gentle creature that, inspired by a story about Christmas, has been stealing presents to give everyone living in the sewer a proper Christmas. As I said, it’s a little cloying except for the way that it works against your typical superhero story.

Captain America would later chastise Eric for his handling of the situation: Eric takes back the stolen gifts, but doesn’t turn the Groonk into the police. He’s able to see that there’s no justice as it was a well-meaning gesture by someone who didn’t know any better. And that’s without getting into the question of whether or not it was wrong at all and what more could be done to help the group of people living in the sewers. Eric’s willingness to not do the typical superhero thing and treat the ‘bad guy’ with genuine respect and compassion is one of the things that sets him apart. Not many superheroes are willing to give a seeming villain a chance – and the comic’s continued use of Captain America’s ‘disappointed dad’ lectures is meant to drive that point home.

Like many Christmas stories, that decision to do something nice and good almost seems to provoke a chain of good fortune for Eric. Visiting his assistant and friend in the hospital, she finally wakes up from a coma that Loki put her in; running into Captain America on the street, the Avengers leader offers Eric a room at the mansion since he’s losing his apartment; and, returning home, he finds that his son and friends have organised a Christmas party for him. They all know that he’s going through a rough patch and want him to know that they’re there for him. This reveal is alluded to in a couple of earlier scenes where the beginnings of it come together via Kevin and one of Eric’s friends. That he has a group of people who care about him and love him is that reminder he needs that he’s a good guy and he’s not a failure. None of them (save Hercules in his ‘Harry Cleese’ persona) know that he’s Thor and the good that he does all of the time – but they know Eric and the good that he exudes in his daily life. The sort that we see when he’s Thor and, instead of continuing to punch the Groonk in the face, he hears out why this seeming monster is stealing Christmas presents and, then, acts with compassion rather than some rigid concept of justice that does no good for anyone.

Even with all of this, DeFalco’s dialogue can lean into the cheese a bit, whether it’s melodrama or hamming it up with the jokey quips, and Frenz’s art carries a big part of ensuring that the emotional beats of this issue land. He’s so good at pacing those scenes and giving the perfect panel when it’s needed. Like the genuine shock on Eric’s face when he returns home to find his son waiting and, then, to see the party that everyone has made for him. Or the chastised look of self-pity when Captain America lectures him. Or, my favourite, the three panels of Eric hugging his son goodbye where the moment lingers too long because neither one wants to let go. All of my favourite Ron Frenz Thor moments are between Eric and Kevin because Frenz depicts the genuine love between them in a way that transcends words. It’s so obvious and immediate when you see the art on the page. It always hits me hard.

And that’s what I mean when I said that this is a regular issue of the DeFalco/Frenz Thor run with Christmas elements added on top. While the two use those elements to play up the problems that Eric is going through, they rely on those pre-existing, ongoing problems. These aren’t new difficulties that arise when the issue begins and are solved when the issue ends. Taken by itself, I think that the final pages are earned by what happens throughout the issue leading up to them. I’m sure some will dismiss it as a bit too much of It’s a Wonderful Life with the whole group of people coming together to throw Eric a party – for ongoing readers who have seen the build up of Eric’s various problems, things like Susan waking up and Eric coming home to a party thrown by his son and friends is the exact thing that a Christmas issue needs. It needs a sappy feel good ending.

And so does Eric Masterson.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Schrödinger’s Robin: The Meaningless of Batman 428: Robin Lives! #1

It has long been the ultimate ‘what if?’ in mainstream superhero comics. In 1988, DC Comics ran a call-in phone poll where readers voted on the fate of Jason Todd, the second Robin. Should he live or should he die? It was callous and cruel and what a gimmick. Mostly, it stemmed from writer Jim Starlin’s lack of affinity for the character, as he admitted in The Art of Jim Starlin: A Life in Words and Pictures:

I tried to write stories that didn’t involve Robin the Boy Wonder.

It had always struck me that if you were fighting crime in a dark and murky costume and chose to bring along on these dangerous adventures a teenage sidekick, whom you dressed in bright primary colors: this could only be considered child endangerment. But it had been going on for more than 40 years and, so, was now tradition. Just turn off your brain and write the story, Starlin!

The four-part A Death in the Family ran from Batman #426-429 with issue 428 containing the oh so crucial moment that readers voted upon. Given the production demands of monthly comics (they’re produced incredibly close to when they’re released, particularly in comparison to other media, but still), the issue was written and drawn with two different versions of events, one where Robin lives and one where he dies. Starlin succinctly summed up what happened: “The vote comes in, Robin gets the thumbs down, and A Death in the Family sell through the roof.” As such, the published version contains the pages where Jason Todd doesn’t survive an explosion engineered by the Joker. While some of the alternate art has been published for the version of the issue where Jason won the vote, this new edition of Batman #428 is the first time that readers get the complete alternate issue. Now, you can read the first two parts of A Death in the Family and opt for a slightly happier version of events in the third part... but does that matter? Isn’t this just another gimmick?

Putting the two versions of the issue side by side, four pages have completely or partially altered art, while a fifth has slightly tweaked caption boxes. That Jason lives is the only substantial change to the comic, one whose overall structure and story remain unchanged. Instead of burying Jason and his mom at a funeral in Gotham, it’s only one coffin. Even the only scene that amounts to a truly ‘alternate’ one, after the funeral, contains most of the same dialogue. In the originally published version, Alfred asks if he should get in touch with Dick Grayson and Bruce says not to, that he wants to handle things alone from now on. In the new version, Dick is visiting Jason at the hospital and asks Bruce if he wants help tracking down the Joker. Bruce turns him down, saying that he wants to handle things alone from now on. Call it an incredibly crafted issue to allow for minimal disruption from a publicity gimmick; or call it for what it truly is: Robin’s death was immaterial to the story, even though it has grown to define it. Even the fourth part of the story barely hinges on Jason’s death: there are only four specific mentions of it in dialogue and captions, all of which are easily altered or omitted.

Putting aside the gimmick of the call-in vote, Starlin’s desire to no longer write stories involving Robin shapes A Death in the Family completely as the two alternate versions show. Whether or not Jason lives or dies does not matter. It means some art changes, some dialogue tweaks, some different scenes, but the substance does not change. If you believe Starlin’s version of events, his parting with DC came about due to the backlash to the death of Jason Todd (fans, merchandise licensing, even the theory that the vote was rigged), so, say Jason had lived and Starlin continued writing Batman well beyond this story. Do you think that Jason would have been back as Robin in issue 430? 431? 432? Or ever while Starlin was writing the title? The Joker blew him up. It’s clear that Starlin was writing a Batman that had no interest in having a sidekick from that moment on. In both versions, he makes it clear that, from now on, he’s going it alone. I don’t know how the conversation about the call-in gimmick went, but it’s clear that, one of the reasons why Starlin went along with it is that it had very little impact on the story that he was telling. The sheer violence of the act of the Joker blowing up Robin was enough. If the readers had voted for Jason to live, it most likely would have led to a future issue where Bruce tells him that his days as Robin were over and he’s being sent away to some boarding school where the character would have been ignored or become fodder for some solo stories or a possible return to Gotham eventually... Maybe Tim Drake would have still happened, maybe not. In the short-term, following A Death in the Family, Robin was dead no matter what the readers decided.

Seeing these two versions of the comic side by side, it strikes me as typical Starlin that Jason’s death doesn’t matter in the slightest. He’s always been a writer with a “it’s my way or the highway” attitude, singularly focused on seeing his vision through or walking away. There’s no way that he would leave the story that he wanted to tell up to chance, to the whims of the readers. And it’s such a Starlin move to disguise his true story under some meaningless element that everyone would focus on. His trio of Infinity events in the 1990s (none of which would have happened if not for his leaving DC after this story, by the way) are filled with meaningless subplots featuring the popular Marvel heroes while the actual story is dealt with and resolved by Adam Warlock and Thanos. Take out the filler and you get a couple of issues’ worth of actual comics, if you know where to look. Everyone else sees these big events that span the entire Marvel Universe and feature all of their favourite heroes. Not that they are used as cannon fodder, distractions, and general dismissed as not being up to the cosmic tasks at hand. Starlin likes to give people the spectacle that they want in order to tell the story that he wants. The (possible) death of Robin is such a spectacle – and everyone has been dazzled by it for three and a half decades.

A question I’ve grappled with for years is where to place his Batman run within his body of work. The majority of Starlin’s comics work is what he’s most known for: cosmic. Over the decades, he’s done a handful of ‘realistic,’ decidedly non-cosmic comics with his run on Batman being the only sustained work that no one refers to as cosmic. It deals with many of the same themes as his cosmic work, particularly the focus on the meaning of death, but it’s a fairly grounded, ‘realistic’ book comparatively. Except for the vote for Robin’s fate. That is the transcendent moment of the run, the one that approaches the cosmic. A truly unique moment in Starlin’s career, it’s one where the fate of a character was taken outside of even his hands, left up to some nebulous, unknowable power. It’s the closest that any of his work (or anyone else’s, honestly) has come to being left entirely up to chance. Just like life. Call it a readers’ vote, call it god... life and death determined by a faceless, uncaring void is pretty damn cosmic. The final kicker, of course, is that, like one of his characters facing the same sort of forces beyond their control, Starlin planned for it and made sure that any result would accomplish his goals.

Robin dies? Robin lives! Robin’s gone. It doesn’t matter.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Platonic Ideals of Smiles and Gods: The Immortal Thor #1

How many Thor #1s have I seen as a reader? The Jason Aaron run alone had eight. Half of those were mini-series, the other four were presumptive ongoings. If you ignore the mini-series and one-shots, The Immortal Thor #1 is Thor #1 number nine. It would have been fitting to be number ten or, perhaps, eleven. Alas. Each of them has come with their own expectations and declarations of what Thor is now. Some were regressive (Heroes Reborn, JMS/Coipel), some were declarative (Aaron/Ribic), some were continuations rather than proper beginnings (every other Aaron-penned number one along with Fraction/Coipel), some were baffling (Fraction/Coipel again because it started at the same time as Fear Itself and had nothing to do with it), and some were disappointing (JMS/Coipel, Fraction Coipel, and Cates/Klein). I want to slot The Immortal Thor #1 into that declarative category alongside Thor: God of Thunder #1 by Aaron and Esad Ribic... but, it also has shades of regressive, for me.

Let’s get the praise out of the way. I very much enjoyed this issue. It was witty and joyful. Both Al Ewing and Martín Cóccolo seem to take great pleasure in presenting us with a confident, happy Thor. It’s not a version of the character that we get to see often and it’s almost a shame that the big run plot stuff intruded at the end to spoil that feeling. Even the opening with Thor confronting the Frost Giants, expressing his disappointment in the blizzard, and doing everything he could to avoid killing everyone, while it never showed Thor smiling, it felt of a piece with the smiley Thor that took up most of the rest of the issue. It’s a Thor that’s comfortable with himself and his place, which we glimpsed a bit of at the end of the previous volume.

The scene where Thor reflects on Mjolnir and the idea that he doesn’t worry about worthiness anymore, because he gets to decide who is worthy went a long way to communicating this idea. Not just, as Ewing said in interviews leading up to this issue, that his Thor won’t be one who doubts his worthiness anymore as that ground has been well trod over the past decade; it also points to his comfort in the role his father occupied, particularly with the followup thoughts about no longer having his father’s rules to push back against. Thor now decides. That agency is shown in both how he handles the Frost Giant invasion and the way that he decides to test out the rebuilt Bifrost by going to Earth with no explanation or excuse.

Skrymir mocks the gentle nature of Thor, comparing it to the overwhelming force approach of Odin, calling the new king of Asgard weak. He’s not wrong in his comparison to Odin as Odin was always quick to anger and quick to arrogance (perhaps why he so abhorred those qualities in his son), and would have simply cut the Frost Giants down. Thor’s approach is a subtler use of power, almost equally dismissive as Odin’s hand wave of destruction. Odin showed his arrogance through how easily he could end a threat; Thor shows his through how desperate he is to show mercy and how easily he commands the blizzard. He literally takes control of Skrymir’s magic and nullifies it by expressing disappointment. The three young Frost Giants supporting the wizard rightly run away in fear, understanding the true meaning of what Thor did. While part of it is his determination to not be his father, another part was a show of complete power that communicates the ease with which he can end this threat. The Frost Giants aren’t worth his strength of force when a few words will do the job. It’s only when Skrymir ignores the warning and attacks Thor that the Thunder God displays the minimal power at his disposal and eliminates the threat with his pre-king weapon, Mjolnir. Still, Skrymir isn’t worthy of the full attention of the king.
The journey to Earth is different in the lack of reason. In the previous volume, there was a strong emphasis on the idea of what a king of Asgard must do – namely, none of the things that Thor did before he was king. That’s always been a key idea about ruling Asgard throughout the history of the book, often ignoring the way that Odin would intercede in events or even go wandering incognito. There was a continued false idea that the king of Asgard must sit on the throne all day and never leave the palace, and that was a continued source of conflict in the previous volume. No more, it appears. The idea of what Thor as king is subtly redefined in this issue, first, by his intervention with the Frost Giants and, then, by his journey to Earth. As the narration states, Asgardians know that their king is a god of two worlds and they accept that. Thor doesn’t need to make excuses to go to Earth, because he’s the king and his people understand that. They understand him and he’s comfortable and confident enough to be the god that they already know.
While it doesn’t seem like much necessarily happens in those pages, the way that Ewing and Cóccolo emphasise this confidence and comfort is a key part of this issue’s declaration. The contribution of Alex Ross to the issue, beyond the cover and some designs, is the way that he, apparently, convinced Ewing to go with the return to the modified look of Thor’s original costume. That’s the final piece of showing us what sort of place Thor is in currently. While numerous modern costumes have looked great and felt naturally Thor (the Coipel and Ribic costumes, in particular, were great), this is the one that he wore for the majority of his existence as a character. It’s the iconic ‘Thor’ costume and look, and what better way to assert that Thor is comfortable in his own skin than put him in the most ‘Thor’ like outfit there is? This is Thor adopting the Platonic ideal of his look, you could say...
And this is comic about Platonic ideals, it seems. The second page of the comic alludes pretty heavily to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as it introduces Toranos, the Utgard-Thor. The introduction of this character along with Utgard-Loki (who Skrymir claimed to be in the past) seems to run up against Those Who Sit Above in Shadow as previously seen... basically, the gods of the gods. Ewing is repurposing various pre-existing ideas for this story and it’s not entirely about the idea of more powerful versions of these characters. He seems to be leaning into the idea of Platonic ideals – the ideas of what these characters are meant to be. Thor, as we know him, is a character – but what is the essence of Thor the Thunder God? What is the essence of Loki – not the skald god of stories that they have become, but the basic concept? Ewing has said that he’s using the Eddas for inspiration here and, damn, I wished I had better knowledge of those. The name Toranos is one of the variations of a Celtic god of thunder/storms that seems related to Thor, at least if you go back far enough. As with a lot of mythology, what we know is based on what has survived and a lot of similar ideas arising in various places. As Ewing references, Matt Fraction used the name for Ulik’s usurpation of Thor’s place in the fallout of Fear Itself when he went by Tanarus. Utgard-Loki, on the other hand, was a Frost Giant also known as Skrymir (amongst other names) and that has been the use of the name/character up until this point.
The ‘essential’ reading for previous uses of these names and concepts isn’t much. Personally, I went back and reread Thor #272, Balder the Brave #1-4, skimmed Thor #375-382, and reread the second half of Thor #83 and all of #84-85. But, everything up until Thor #83-85 covers the previous appearances of Utgard/Skrymir/Utgard-Loki (save a brief appearance in the Aaron/Russell Dauterman Thor run). Thor #272 is an interesting comic and is possibly referenced explicitly in The Immortal Thor #1 when Utgard-Loki says, “Thor will be tested by more than trolls now. As he was before, long ago – when he journeyed to the Utgard-Hall in his youth. And as before, if he breaks – if he falls – if he fails to be what he must be – it will mark the end of all that is.” This suggests that the Utgard/Skrymir of issue 272 is not the same character as the Utgard-Loki/Skrymir of the Walt Simonson/Sal Buscema comics.
In issue 272, Thor tells a story to some kids about a time when he and Loki became lost. They eventually happened upon a giant named Skrymir who was going to Utgard-Hall and they were in the land of Utgard. (A brief aside: Utgard is normally associated with the land of the Frost Giants, but that isn’t stated here at all. It was another case of Roy Thomas bringing in real mythology, in his own way.) Once they arrive at Utgard-Hall, trailing Skrymir, they come across the ruler, Utgard. Not taking kind to these tiny interlopers, he says that if they can best his five challenges, he’ll let them live. Loki and Thor fail them all, and, at the end, Utgard reveals that he is also Skrymir, and that every challenge was actually a trick of magic somehow. In fact, Utgard itself was an enchantment and the story ends with the two gods on a rocky wasteland, the castle and the green, lush landscape that they traveled through all gone. It was all a big trick by a power beyond their ken.
While never explicitly linked to the Utgard-Loki that leads the Frost Giants in the Simonson/Buscema comics, there’s been a general assumption that they are related. Ewing, here, seems to be making it definitive that Utgard-Loki/Skrymir the Frost Giant is a different being from the Skrymir/Utgard that appeared in that story. The Utgard-Loki at the end of this first issue’s words make that pretty clear. I think it’s a smart choice that works, because the power levels of the two characters never matched up entirely. The Skrymir/Utgard of issue 272 was clearly much more powerful, while the Frost Giant was a bit of a poser, calling himself those names, in particular, Utgard-Loki to puff himself up. Of course, ‘Utgard’ doesn’t mean anything like ‘ultimate’ or ‘better’ or anything to denote a superior version – it means, literally, ‘Outyards.’ Obviously, you look at a word like that and stick it in front of an existing character’s name in a superhero comic and your typical reader is going to galaxy brain their way to something like ‘ultimate.’
And that’s where Those Who Sit Above in Shadow come in. As longtime readers know, the Thor: Disassembled story, “Ragnarok,” is one of my favourite Thor stories of all time. It has little to do with Avengers: Disassembled except in how it’s used to end Thor’s story. Writers Michael Avon Oeming and Daniel Berman give us the full scale Twilight of the Gods, drawn amazingly well by Andrea DiVito. I remember reading this when it came out and being completely blown away by the methodical, epic nature of Asgard’s complete destruction. I only reread the second half of the story, because that’s where Oeming and Berman really swing for the fences. Basically, Thor goes down the same route as Odin, sacrificing an eye (and then his other, because more is needed) before hanging himself to gain the knowledge to save his people. Instead, he learns of the cyclical nature of his people – how they continually live only to go through Ragnarok and, then, are reborn and do it all again. This cycle had one change, though, as Odin became aware of the cycle: Thor’s time as Donald Blake. By introducing that mortal existence into his son, Thor exists both inside and outside of the cycle and, through performing the same ritual as Odin, is able to gain knowledge from outside of it. Thor gains an audience with Those Who Sit Above in Shadow, the gods of the gods. They are depicted in black and white reverse/negative colouring and look down on this tiny god. At the end of the story, when Thor is poised to end the cycle after ensuring it reaches its conclusion, they offer him a spot amongst them. He refuses, cuts the thread of fate and, seemingly, ends Asgardian existence forever.
Of course, they all came back when Thor was relaunched by J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel. There was some lip service to the idea that they were free from the cycles of Ragnarok now and could be whatever they wish, but I don’t think anyone ever really believed that. While there are the obvious ways to read Toranos’s words “Too long have you chosen illusion over change” and I don’t fault anyone for reading the obvious metafictional there, I think it may relate to the way that Thor and Asgard have, for the most part, settled into their old routine, specifically. While Those Who Sit Above in Shadow (the Utgardians) were shocked by Thor’s actions to break the cycle, they were also impressed. Just as Thor is impressed when humans grow beyond their seeming limitations, so too were his gods pleased by his ability to be more than he was. And, now, he is less. And, so, he must be tested. Ewing has said numerous times that calling the comic “The Immortal Thor” is a challenge to himself after Immortal Hulk. The reveal of the title was a bit of a joke given that Asgardians are immortals. But... part of their immortality was their existence within the Ragnarok cycle.
I’m really just grasping at loose threads here that I see hanging everywhere. As you can tell, I’m pretty excited at the various ideas teased in this issue. I admire the confidence in setting out a specific status quo and, immediately, upending it. I didn’t discuss everything in this issue (like what’s up with Loki) and I won’t. I want to leave it there as that’s where my mind mostly rests after reading this. The Thor-centric reading that dives into back issues to try and glean a bit of what’s coming. It’s an impressive first issue, one that made me laugh and smile and gasp – and, like, the eight Thor #1s that preceded it, its eventual designation will rest heavily in what comes next.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Everyman Thor: Eric Masterson in Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz’s Thor and Thunderstrike

Does Thor need a ‘secret identity?’

Of the many questions I’ve pondered over the years about the Thunder God, this is the one that I tend to be the clearest about: no. No, Thor does not need a secret identity. Now, to clarify, I’m referring specifically to Thor Odinson, the Asgardian price and God of Thunder specifically, not other people who take up the hammer like Beta Ray Bill or Jane Foster. While sharing the powers of Thor and similar trappings, they’re different enough to stand apart. What I’m referring to is the idea that this Asgardian should share an existence with a mortal being as he did when first introduced. It’s an idea that’s never sat right with me.
I understand that, in the Marvel Universe, the point is that it’s like our world, after a fashion. Most of the heroes are some version of a regular person, either given powers through an accident, the luck of genetics, or their own ingenuity and skill. Thor is the exception. He’s the god amongst mortals. To counterbalance this, when he was first introduced, it was as a transformation that Dr. Donald Blake underwent when he struck a specific stick against the ground. Blake, suffering from a disability in addition to a general frailty, was the opposite of Thor’s impressive physical skills. The nerd becomes the jock. Originally, Thor was Blake, retaining his mind after the transformation while gaining some innate awareness of Thor’s life and world. Gradually, over the course of a dozen or so issues, Blake’s influence as Thor lessened and Thor morphed into the version of the character we’re familiar with. While a link between the two remained, they became more like two separate people rather than a single mind housed in two different bodies that change places. After a period, Blake was so unimportant that you’d be forgiven if thinking he had been written out permanently.
As Jack Kirby’s influence over Thor grew, so too did the unearthly side of the character. Asgard was developed further, Thor went out into space, and Blake wouldn’t appear for an entire year at one point. The idea of a god as man faded in favour of the stories of a warrior god superhero. Donald Blake wasn’t much of a character and the initial love triangle between him, his alter ego, and his nurse Jane Foster didn’t exactly rival the Clark/Superman/Lois one. Kirby and Stan Lee pushed it as far as they could until it became just a Thor/Jane relationship and even that ran its course fairly quickly after she refused elevation to an immortal and joining Thor in Asgard. After that, Blake never went away, but he was no longer relevant unless a story specifically called for his presence. Unlike Spider-Man’s adventures which were driven by Peter Parker’s personal life often with his superheroing acting as another complication, Thor was the central focus and Blake was the distraction.
That is, until Walt Simonson took over Thor in 1983 and, in his first four issues, wrote Blake out. Already revealed long before as a creation of Odin meant to teach Thor a lesson in humility, Simonson clearly saw that the character was unnecessary baggage and used the enchantment that transformed Thor into Blake and vice versa, and gave it to his creation, Beta Ray Bill, allowing him to transform between his original form and his warrior form. It was the best use of Donald Blake in years. Simonson introduced a human alter ego for Thor, Sigurd Jarlson, which was really just the Asgardian with a ponytail and glasses, a gag built on the Superman/Clark change in appearance. Jarlson worked construction when the story called for it and it gave Thor something to do while on Earth, while also lacking the substance of an existing life that allowed for him to abandon it when needed. Jarlson was just a name and a look to allow Thor to make believe as human when it suited him. It was an acknowledgment that he didn’t need a human identity so much as wanted one, sometimes.
When Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz followed Simonson on Thor, the first year to year and a half on the title had Thor maintain his Asgardian status quo. He fought Celestials and uncovered a scheme by the Egyptian God of Death, Seth, culminating in a huge confrontation that had both Odin and Surtur return. They also had Sigurd Jarlson return briefly and, in the process, introduced architect Eric Masterson. The architect of the building that Jarlson was working on, Masterson was a divorced single dad and didn’t jump out as anything more than a supporting character with a modern-for-the-1980s backstory. After the Seth story culminated, Masterson was kidnapped by the villainous Mongoose to draw out Thor, leading to a trip into space and, upon returning to Earth, a confrontation with Mongoose left Masterson close to death. Thor called upon Odin’s assistance and the All-Father tied to the life essence of both men together. Basically, Eric Masterson became the new Donald Blake.
That status quo of Thor and Eric sharing a life persisted until Thor seemingly killed Loki and was banished from existence by Heimdall (filling in for Odin). However, as the world still needed a Thor, he gave that power to Eric and, suddenly, Thor was actually a mortal human. Eric transformed into Thor ala Blake, but retained his mind in the godly body. He slowly learned how to be Thor, took the real Thor’s place in the Avengers, got mixed up in Asgardian schemes and, by the end of the DeFalco/Frenz run, brought the real Thor back. Originally given Mjolnir by the Asgardian to continue acting as him on Earth, that arrangement didn’t work and, instead, Masterson was given a less powerful mace dubbed Thunderstrike. While Thor continued on his comic, DeFalco and Frenz continued telling Eric’s story as Thunderstrike in his own title. Eric was the main character of the run despite not appearing in it for the first year.
This slow introduction and transition is one reason why my usual hesitancy about Thor having a human identity doesn’t come into play. DeFalco and Frenz take the transition in stages, telling regular Thor stories, adding Eric as a supporting character, then pairing him and Thor in what reads as an organic change for both and, then, when another story-driven change occurs, Eric takes over as Thor himself until, finally, transitioning to Thunderstrike. Each period is given a good amount of time and space so it doesn’t feel like a rush from one to next; and, at each change, it never feels arbitrary or forced. It’s all driven by story and character choices. Too often, the addition of a human identity, like Jake Olson or the returned Donald Blake, don’t work is because they’re dropped right into the story from the beginning with no build or reason save the desire of the writer. Eric, on the other hand, was able to linger in the background a little and feel like a small part of the comic before becoming the star. When he took over as Thor at the end of issue 432, it didn’t feel like he was pushing Thor out of his own story. Thor made a choice to kill Loki and faced the consequences of that action – the addition of Eric becoming the new Thor was the twist. There was no evil scheme in the plot to make a mortal the new Thor... it’s just what happened.
Eric as a character was more developed than ciphers like Blake and Olson. The former was literally revealed as an invention created by Odin, while the latter was given a sense of a larger life, but, as the reader was dropped into it with Thor, it had a harder time landing. It’s the difference between a brand new character taking over as opposed to an established character stepping up into a more prominent role. There’s a better sense of what you’re getting with an established character and the various new conflicts are logical ones, arising from already known factors. When Thor and Eric are merged, we know that Eric has a son and a will they/won’t they thing with both his assistant and his professional rival. Rather than those things complicating Thor’s life, Thor is the addition that complicates Eric’s already full life! And that last point is a subtle one that helps this status quo. Thor remains, largely, Thor and it’s Eric who suffers from suddenly having a godly alter ego. And we care about that!
Eric, more than simply fitting into the Marvel tradition of the regular guy whose life is complicated by his newfound powers, is positioned as the inverse of Thor. Thor is the headstrong son who does as he pleases, sometimes ignoring his responsibilities at home. Eric is the responsible father who increasingly finds himself dragged away from the responsibilities at home that he wants to be his priority. Prior to the union with Eric, DeFalco and Frenz’s Thor was also a fairly stripped back, basic version of the character. As much as I love the character, he can, sometimes, default into generic warrior hero, which is a reason why writers keep trying to make the human alter ego thing work. Again, this is one reason why giving Eric that role after 18 or so months was a smart choice. DeFalco and Frenz got as much mileage out of Thor solo as they could and changed things up before it got stale.
Eric provided depth and conflict (both internal and external) to Thor. While Thor remained the same do-good hero, he had a little voice inside his head that nagged him about Kevin Masterson or a blown deadline at work. Giving Thor some personal stakes in what happened on Earth was a benefit, particularly when Kevin was placed in harm’s way – or that Thor and Eric sharing a body gave a reason for Hercules to suddenly become Eric’s roommate. All of which is the broad goal of giving a character like Thor a human identity. Part of the problem with other human identities is that they either were paper thin (Blake), retreads of previous identities (Olson), or nostalgia wanks (Blake again). Eric succeeds, in no small part, because he isn’t like any other Thor identity. While meeting Thor and having his life saved by merging with Thor dramatically changes the course of his life, he had a life. That’s the point. Eric could have stayed a sometimes supporting character like Sigurd Jarlson’s boss Jerry Sapristi and been a great addition to the Thor comic as just that. His function outside of Thor’s alter ego makes placing him in that role additive.
Prior to taking over Thor, DeFalco and Frenz worked on Spider-Man and Eric is definitely a hero in the mould of Peter Parker. At a time where Peter was newly married and the idea that he may be settling into a life of juggling Spider-Man and a family, Eric was the matured, divorced single dad trying to make a go at being a hero. He showed how relatable an adult Peter Parker with adult problems could be (despite what many at Marvel would have you believe). In fact, I would argue that Eric’s best moment comes from being a father in Thor #421 when, after continual threats to Thor have put his son at risk, he gives up custody in the middle of a heated legal fight with his ex-wife. It’s the best four pages of the entire DeFalco and Frenz run, full of emotion and phenomenal storytelling by both men. Frenz composes his pages perfectly for maximum impact, while DeFalco chooses the words incredibly carefully, often opting to let silence and the art carry things. Eric’s decision to give up his son is heroism at his finest – unconditional love and self-sacrifice put into action better than almost any other example I can think of. It’s a choice that puts his son’s wellbeing above all else and is one that affects Eric until the end of Thunderstrike. It recalls Thor’s decision to share his life with Eric; not an easy sacrifice that is over and done immediately like laying down one’s life. It’s a hard choice with lasting consequences that must be lived with.
That decision to give up Kevin is also the moment that cements Eric as devoted to being a superhero. At several times, he’s given the chance to walk away. From the time that Thor is exiled and Eric is given the cane to transform into Thor, he always has the option to put it down and walk away. At first, he thinks he owes something to Thor, to take his place and, hopefully, find a way to bring him back. So, he does that – and, then, when Thor is returned, Eric is ready to keep Mjolnir at the Thunder God’s request. And when that is no longer a possibility, he accepts the gift of the enchanted mace and assumes the identity of Thunderstrike. Eric’s heroism is a choice. It may have began as the only way for him to survive a deadly encounter with Mongoose, but, pretty soon into that time, he begins making choice after choice to give up his own desires and any chance at a regular life to do good. He sacrifices his personal desires – living with his son, having a steady job, having a relationship – to be like the hero that saved his life.
Eric’s desire to be like Thor is yet another element that makes him so compelling as Thor’s alter ego and replacement. He isn’t Thor – he isn’t controlled by Thor or driven to do what Thor wants out of obligation or guilt. He is genuinely inspired by Thor and wants to be like him. He’s that guy who is saved by a hero and actually gets to make right on that debt – and he never stops trying. Eric’s time as the new Thor is one of continual humiliations and setbacks. He’s called a fourth-rate fake by pretty much everyone he encounters – he fails as often as he succeeds – and he keeps going. And does it his way. One of the best running subplots throughout the run is the way he gives Crusher Creel the Absorbing Man chance after chance to make a life away from crime. Something about Creel’s desire to settle down with Titania and live a quiet life gives Eric a blind spot for the villain. It immediately separates Eric from most heroes as he is always willing to talk things out and find a peaceful solution – a bit of a change from a hero who finds that everything looks like a nail to hit with his hammer.
Eric’s journey as a hero is one that leads him to becoming more and more like himself. He starts as the other side of Thor, then gets all of Thor’s power, and, then, loses that identity and some of the power to be the sort of hero he wants to be. It’s a downward slope in that he goes from Thor to replacement Thor to Thor knockoff, but each step allows him to shape the sort of hero he wants to be. Sharing a body with Thor, he’s more of a passenger than a driver; as Thor, he has a certain reputation and obligations to live up to; as Thunderstrike, he gets to decide what that identity means. The comic itself struggles in its first year to come to a decision and, while it makes for some uneven reading, when you look at it as part of the whole, there’s charm in watching both the character and creators cast about a little, trying to figure out what Eric’s idea of a superhero is.
What they all settle on is “THE EVERYMAN AVENGER” as becomes the tagline above the logo beginning with Thunderstrike #19. His struggles as an Avenger were pretty much legendary by this point, but he had grown into a respectable role within the team, often bringing that ‘average person’ perspective to things. He was cast in opposition to the stuffy, arrogant beaurocracy that could make the Avengers seem out of touch at the time. He was the guy who would gawk when he finds himself in the Shi’ar throne room or think outside of the usual hero box. It a role that other Avengers occupied before him (Hawkeye was great for being that voice of dissonance) and, by the time his book (and life) ended, he seemed to finally be getting the hang of it.
Even Eric’s death was a choice. Faced with the returned threat of Seth (DeFalco and Frenz going back to the beginning of their run), he made a choice to take up Bloodaxe and give himself over to its power to ensure he would be able to stop the Egyptian god. He knew that it was a dangerous move that he may not come back from – and he didn’t. What it also showed was the trust he put in his hero, Thor, to step in and put him down if it needed to be done. Those final two issues of Thunderstrike show that, even though Eric grew into the role of a seasoned hero, he never lost those defining characteristics that he had from the beginning. He never stopped choosing to be a hero no matter the cost; and he never lost faith in the hero that saved his life and acted as a constant inspiration.
If there’s one thing that Jason Aaron took from this run, it was making Jane Foster loving being Thor... just as Eric did. He was so easy to root for and see yourself in, because, like those of us reading Thor comics, he looked up to the Thunder God. He was the everyman Thor.

Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Custom Kitchen Deliveries 12 – Sins of Sinister: Dominion #1

I was wondering if that was going to happen. Well, not specifically that, but that reveal. After all, a key part about Dominions is that, once one exists, it has always existed. Sort of a chicken/egg thing, right? Fate. A Dominion exists, therefore everything that happened to create it will occur, therefore the Dominion exists. Ouroboros. So, if Sins of Sinister were to feature one of the Essexes reaching the state of Dominion, then that would mean... they’ve always been Dominion. The end goal was reached before the quest to reach it began. Kind of makes the whole thing feel a little futile, doesn’t it? I’m left wondering if it even matters which of them reached Dominion because they’ve always been Dominion and that has not mattered thus far (that we’re aware of).

Like Age of Apocalypse before it, Sins of Sinister is the story that never really happened, except that it did. It doesn’t ‘matter,’ except that it does. Nothing has changed, except that things have. It’s kind of funny the way stories like this work. They’re like the regular sort of events, but stretched to extremes. The actual story doesn’t matter in continuity because it didn’t actually happen; yet, what little touches the ongoing continuity of the comics hits hard. It’s almost the definition of the destination mattering more than the journey. In many ways, you could actually skip Sins of Sinister. Jump from Immortal X-Men #10 page 1 panel 2 to Sins of Sinister: Dominion #1 page 28 panel 3 (not counting the two credits pages – or, because the first two panels of those pages are repeats, from the end of Immortal X-Men #9 to Sins of Sinister: Dominion #1 page 28) and you’re with the characters. You haven’t lost anything except your ability to read in a perpetual state of dramatic irony. All of the important conclusions/results from the Sins of Sinister story get fed to you. Most events are all about the end change to the status quo, but like to pretend that the journey is essential to understanding that; in a story like this, the journey is literally erased. This is the point where we steer away from endlessly debating what the ‘purpose’ of stories are and what does ‘counting’ really mean... Let’s just leave it at the obvious-but-kind-of-interesting-to-think-about point that: Sins of Sinister can, for the most part, be ignored between the two points that I indicated if all you care about is the strict continuity of the specific X-Men comics universe that we’re reading.

What I’m left with is yet another reversal... Mother Righteous’s plan worked thanks to Moira. All of her accumulated knowledge got sent back to the point where the universe reset. I guess it wasn’t entirely small thinking like I said last week. And Moira’s role is a difficult one to wrap one’s head around entirely, mostly for what it means going forward. She eliminated the Moira Engine, inadvertently helped Mother Righteous while executing her own plan, ensured that all Sinister learned was the final insight about the Dominion, and sent Rasputin IV back. Except, one detail that may be important: Rasputin IV came from a clone program called “Moira.VII.1.RPIV.” That’s not just Rasputin IV in there... is Rasputin IV now, somehow, a six-mutant Chimera? Or something different? Is it just a clone of Moira or is the SoS +1000 Moira in there somewhere as well? I love that, like Age of Apocalypse, Sins of Sinister is having some strays stick around.

So, where does this event leave the X-Men comics with its story that literally happened between panels? Sinister in the pit; Xavier, Hope, Emma, and Exodus in the pit; Rasputin IV (with Moira?) in the present; an Essex is Dominion; Orchis is not in shambles, meaning Stasis is still active; Mother Righteous has knowledge of events and regrets, and, now, the thanks of “every mutant on Krakoa.” She looks like the early favourite for the Essex most likely to establish Dominion—

—I want to point out that I’m struggling a little with that just occurred to me: where does the most recent storyarc of Legion of X fit with all of this? It showed Nightcrawler further mutating beyond the horns, which he has in Immortal X-Men #9 and Sins of Sinister: Dominion #1, and, at the end of Legion of X #10, Mother Righteous comes to him looking to make a deal. She and Nightcrawler interact briefly here and there doesn’t seem to be an awareness there. Moreover, in Sins of Sinister, she spent years trying to break the spell that mutated Nightcrawler and other mutants while he became more and more of a beast. And, if this means that that story didn’t actually happen, what about the Legion/Xavier interaction? That wasn’t Sinister Xavier, was it? I’m sorry, this is a little difficult to line up, maybe the Sons of X one-shot will clear this all up—

—but Orbis Stellaris still has the Worldfarm and Stasis still has Orchis. That last point seems particularly worthwhile in that the SoS timeline was the only one we’ve seen thus far where the machines lose. My running joke about that is that it’s Moira who always loses since she finally switches from mutants to machines and, immediately, the mutants manage to overrun the universe. There’s a bit of a joke to the idea that Moira is the one to end that timelime and does send back knowledge... we just don’t know if it’s to herself. We don’t know if she’s mixed in with the Rasputin IV that’s now in Krakoa. Is Moira now both mutant and machine? Hell, did she somehow get mixed up with Mother Righteous in the process, too? If that’s the case, then Orbis Stellaris seems on track to win... I guess we shall see.

But not here.

This is the end of Custom Kitchen Deliveries, an extension of Them Guys Ain’t Dumb... which is meant to be something of an examination of Kieron Gillen’s event comics. It speaks to the quality of these comics in how they continually sidetracked me from that goal. A writer going back-to-back like this is rather unusual. Sins of Sinister felt like an extension of Judgment Day in an odd way. Of the collaboration with Al Ewing and Si Spurrier that we saw a little taste of there, now on a story where things were split more evenly, but Gillen still took the lead. It was an event without an event book to act as the spine. It was all tie-ins with the bookend issues remaining (because the best issues of an event at the first and last ones) with the dragging middle cut out. More than that, by taking place exclusively within the realm of the X-books, it provided a stronger payoff at the end, one that impacts things going forward. More than anything, that comparison point shows the limitations of Marvel Universe-wide events at times. Unless you’re a Brian Michael Bendis sort of writer who is willing to anchor the MU moving forward, it’s hard to do one that actually leaves a lasting, quantifiable impression. Post-Judgment Day, Gillen has only been writing Immortal X-Men for Marvel, while the rest of the line has been doing its own thing. That’s not a knock against Judgment Day’s quality; it means it’s more Age of Ultron than Siege, you know? Even on Immortal X-Men, Judgment Day felt like a minor detour after the fact... too big and about too many larger things to leave a concrete impact at the end... Sins of Sinister, on the other hand, already made a big impact in changing the course of things on Krakoa. Not that ‘impact’ and ‘mattering’ is all there is with a story... it is important for an event, at least at this stage.

But I digress...

“This is not an exit.”

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Custom Kitchen Deliveries 11 – Nightcrawlers #3

Well, I was way off, wasn’t I? For those who didn’t read last week’s edition, I dove head first into wild speculation about the grand plans of Mother Righteous in relation to the narration of Storm & The Brotherhood of Mutants #3. I knew I wouldn’t be right, but why not have a bit of fun and swing for the fences in the art of exposing one’s ass publicly? (To be clear, my speculation that Jon Ironfire killed Lodus Logos is still a valid guess until proven otherwise...) That’s fine. I’m happy to look the fool sometimes. I guess I didn’t expect to be proven wrong by Mother Righteous’s true plan being so less ambitious. I definitely overestimated what she was aiming for...

It’s actually pretty funny how, throughout this event to this point, there’s been a sense that Mother Righteous was lurking just beneath the surface, ready to steal away Dominion from Orbis Stellaris and Mr. Sinister. Building up thank yous and regrets, sinking her hooks in, and amassing magical objects, all to step in at this moment and become Dominion while her ‘brothers’ watch, horrified. Instead, all of her work was to... create a slightly more complicated version of Sinister’s plan...? Well, consider me fooled. I thought that she was somehow a different breed from the other Essexes... something smarter or more ambitious. Nah, just the same sort of simplistic solipsism. Use people in the laziest way possible to get a slight leg up in the next go ‘round and, maybe, after you try that a few hundred times, you may actually get somewhere... You just have to laugh.

What hit home in this issue – and I feel like a bit of a fool for not picking up on it more before this – is how misleading the part numbers given to each issue are in this event. I’ve been so focused on the larger story of the Essexes and the playfulness with Powers of X that the obvious-from-the-beginning connection that I’ve mentioned, but not really discussed so far kept getting overlooked: Age of Apocalypse. If you’re not familiar with AoA, it was a 1995-96 X-Men story that began when Legion went back in time to kill Magneto before he and Charles Xavier had their falling out. He assumed that, without Magneto to act against his father, Xavier’s dream would happen easier. With only ‘good’ mutants in the public eye, the Dream would be achievable. Of course, it all goes wrong and Legion accidentally kills his father. This leads to a four-month period where the entire X-line of books are replaced with the alternate present where the lack of Xavier allowed Apocalypse to rise much sooner and conquer North America. Every book in the line became a new title (Uncanny X-Men was now Astonishing X-Men, X-Men was now Amazing X-Men, X-Force was now Gambit & The X-Ternals, Cable was now X-Man, etc.). It was bookended by Alpha and Omega issues and was a lot of fun. As a 12/13-year old, I loved it. I loved seeing all of these changed, alternate versions of characters that I knew, picking up on little details about their pasts, maybe where each of them veered off from the story I already knew, and I spent a shocking amount of time looking at the map of this new world.

The important part here is that it told one big story through individual titles that each told their own stories that added to the larger story. It wasn’t a linear story where you read the comics in a specific order and needed to read every single one (while my dad read comics and bought the entire line, I only got all of the first issues and, then, focused in on X-Man specifically as the book that I wanted to follow). There were details that crossed over (the Sentinel airlift launched in Weapon X #1 became a major plot point in Amazing X-Men) and there was a cumulative effect so that, by the time you reached that Omega issue, all of the various books’ plots smashed into one another for the climax. Skip some of it and you were fine. Even now, you can go back and read it all in pretty much whatever order you want – read all four issues of each series in succession or the mixed up order that the omnibus has or even figure out your own – because it wasn’t a story told in a specific ‘correct’ order. The actual story of Age of Apocalypse was one of those ‘more than the sum of its parts’ things where it existed outside of the actual comics to a degree. Each reader created their own version of the larger story.

Sins of Sinister is based off that idea... kind of. Unlike Age of Apocalypse, we’re given a specific reading order from the getgo with a much smaller ‘line’ of books participating. Sins of Sinister takes the loose idea of Age of Apocalypse and turns it into a weekly series. There are advantages to that as specific effects are created, like propelling the story forward through specific successive issues (Sins of Sinister #1 ending with Sinister finding his lab stolen leading right into Storm & The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants #1 showing the theft) and creating a sense that every issue is essential to the larger story. But, thinking about it, it’s also misleading in that it implies a much more coherent and structured story than it delivers (or intends to deliver). There isn’t a linear story exactly, yet the existence of story numbering on each issue implies a more coherent story that each issue of the event advances. Some plot points begin in one part and pick up in the next (the +1000 time period is the most cohesive chunk of the event where each issue does lead to the next in a much more direct manner than the previous time periods), but, now that all three mini-series have been released, their specific structures are much clearer. Like Age of Apocalypse, each of these ‘substitute series’ tell their own stories that contribute to the whole:

Immoral X-Men is of Sinister’s struggle to stay alive long enough to regain his lab and reset the universe with a subplot about the progression of the Sinister-infected Quiet Council over time.

Storm & The Brotherhood of Mutants is about... well, the titular characters fighting against the prevailing Sinister forces. As the Sinister-infected mutants become more and more powerful (more the status quo), the Brotherhood (with Storm both a part of and apart from the group simultaneously) are the ‘evil’ mutants rebelling and trying to overthrow that new status quo.

Nightcrawlers is about Mother Righteous’s schemes with a specific focus on her manipulation of the Nightkin.

Each of these series tell those stories in shockingly straight forward, linear ways. None stand alone completely, of course, but they come damn near it in a few cases. I don’t know how many titles would have needed to be part of this story to escape the idea that it’s a linear larger story much more akin to past X-line crossovers that has similar part numbering schemes. Five? Six? Enough to break free from the one-a-week release schedule, I suppose. But, with only three titles and each issue numbered as a specific part of Sins of Sinister, the idea of the larger implicit story of the event looms larger than it did in Age of Apocalypse. AoA was so big that, as a reader, you knew you wouldn’t get it all, even if you read every issue. It was a miniature version of trying to keep the ongoing story of the Marvel Universe straight in your head in real time with every week’s new releases. While there are some fools crazy enough to try, most of us know that it won’t happen and accept that we’re only ever going to know a piece of it and move on with our lives, hoping that we know enough for everything to make sense in the end (it never ends).

Sins of Sinister’s structure and release gives the impression of a specific story being told (and the cycling of the order of the three titles in each time period (ABC, BCA, CAB) played into that idea of a very specific order/structure)... and I’m not sure that’s the right takeaway. While there is a story told by Kieron Gillen, Al Ewing, and Si Spurrier, I’m convinced more and more that it’s much looser than we (I) may have imagined. It took until Nightcrawlers #3 and seeing the end goal of Mother Righteous to have that particular bubble popped. If you look at only Nightcrawlers #1-3, then her plans don’t take on the same implied epic scope as they do when you add in her other appearances. Her appearing as a vision to Jon Ironfire or dropping off her book with Sinister... they helped create a larger myth for the character than the self-important fake-it-til-you-make-it false god of Nightcrawlers. Her pettiness is a key limitation of the character and was lessened by her appearances outside of this series... All of which pointed toward a larger plan – a larger payoff. Instead of a race to Dominion, we get a race to remembrance... And, make no mistake, the release structure purposefully downplayed Mother Righteous’s pettiness and made her seem more important with that four-issue gap between Nightcrawlers #2 and 3.

I guess what gets lost in the larger story approach are the little stories that, while not necessarily as prominent in the grand scheme of things (not as... fun and alluring as the schemes of the Essexes). The stories of Wagnerine, Jon Ironfire, and Rasputin IV all play a role in the (for lack of a better word at the point) metastory of Sins of Sinister, but are all much more prominent in their specific series (and, as I haven’t developed the idea but want to get it out there, let me just mention how interesting it is that Orbis Stellaris doesn’t get the same prominence as his siblings... Storm gets that role and that seems important in ways I haven’t thought nearly enough about). Wagnerine (and the Spirit of Variance!) plays a rather key role in thwarting Mother Righteous in this issue... but that seems like a crucial moment delivered by a minor player when you look at the metastory. Read exclusively through the lens of Nightcrawlers as a series, it’s a major moment from a main character! The release structure of Sins of Sinister de-emphasises those series-specific elements in favour of speculation on how they play a role in the metastory... last week’s Custom Kitchen Deliveries is a clear example of reading this event in that manner gone awry.

And, of course, I hit this realisation right before the final bookend issue that will firmly conclude the Sins of Sinister metastory. Alas. Hindsight and all of that.

Next: Sins of Sinister: Dominion #1

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Custom Kitchen Deliveries 10 – Storm & The Brotherhood of Mutants #3

Who is the poet narrator of Storm & The Brotherhood of Mutants #3?

This is the question that vexes me. Done in the font/word balloon and poetic style of Lodus Logos, it sent me hunting for any reference to Arakko’s poet in Sins of Sinister thus far, coming up empty. Perhaps I missed an offhand reference. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t appear anywhere. Any art depicting the fall of Arakko doesn’t include him – rather a mix of the Arakki we know and some of the returned Arakki that were still with Genesis and Apocalypse when this story began. And, right there on the first page, in the second balloon, it states “Sing as Great Lodus sang, in days of old before the Diamond,” suggesting that he died somewhere between the beginning of Sins of Sinister and the fall of Arakko. In Sins of Sinister #1, very little attention is given to Arakko save the Eternals war and its eventual fall to the forces of Sinister. No mention is made of the rejoining of the Arakki tribe that stayed behind. In the previous issue of this series, Jon Ironfire is visited by the image of Mother Righteous who assures him that she is nothing more than a daydream he won’t remember. As he participates in the raid on Orbis Stellaris’s Death Sphere, she asks if he has any regrets, and he responds, “...The Genesis War. I made a mistake – took a life that haunts me still. My faith... it’s a penance. Because I didn’t have faith then. I didn’t trust the Storm.” Maybe you’re ahead of me here, but, as I sought desperately to answer my question and indulge in a bit of diving too deep to make connections, I came to the following conclusions:

Jon Ironfire killed Lodus Logos in the Genesis War. Mother Righteous learns this fact, one that is tied up intimately with his desperate need for faith in Storm to atone for his action. Mother Righteous uses this knowledge to craft “The Song of the End” and engineer both the destruction of the Red Diamond Queen and the downfall of Arakko by intertwining Ironfire’s regret and faith. What we witness is not narration, it is causation.

The first clue that the song/poem narration interacts with the story comes early on when it says “Sing me the Storm System... and the king who ruled there, last of his line, Jon Ironfire his name.” To which Ironfire responds “‘The Storm System.’ How many still know what means?” suggesting that, on some level, he can hear the Logos-esque poetry. He follows this up with a reference to telling Righteous of his one regret... why think of that conversation at that moment? It folds into a discussion of trust with Khora, yet, I wonder if the voice he can vaguely hear reminds him of admitting his regret... before it turns to them discussing putting faith in Sinister in order to bring Ororo back to life.

So much of this issue centres around the idea of Ororo as goddess, an object of faith and worship – in opposition to Emma Frost who, Sinister now for 1000 years, has set herself up as a self-proclaimed goddess of her own empire of subservient worshippers. Ultimately, this issue is a battle of the gods, one secure in her solipsistic belief in herself, while the other is strengthened by the faith of others. At one point, Emma strikes out in rage after hearing Araki whisper “...Ororo protect us,” proclaiming, “You’ve broken my first commandment. Praying to another goddess?” The struggle between the two becomes a proxy battle between Sinister and Righteous despite Sinister seemingly on the side of Arakko. All that Emma draws upon is her self-assuredness and belief in her own supremacy... and that takes her far. The resurrected Ororo, on the other hand, is given all of Khora’s power and is the physical embodiment of Arakko’s last hope, borne out of Ironfire’s memories, an embodiment of a single man’s faith. Ororo is the purest form of the sort of power that Mother Righteous has sought to tap into throughout the story. A pure vessel that faith is poured into... While Emma cloaks herself in a giant robot, something that recalls a living statue, Ororo flies free and without protection, secure in her power and the faith entrusted in her. Emma is an empty goddess propped up by tyranny... something like a pharaoh who declared himself a living god simply because he happened to rule. Emma is a goddess because she says so; Ororo one because others say so. Ororo’s triumph is a clear victory for the sort of power that Righteous covets and seeks to cultivate, while Sinister’s genetic solipsism cannot stand... it’s a lonely sort of power.

All of this happens against a backdrop of a universe divided into kingdoms of faith where Sinister’s genetic empires have risen as singular religions by this point. Each member of the Quiet Council is either powerful enough to stand as their own focal point, acting like a god, or is subsumed into one of the other’s religions. Arakko stood apart and, now, has its own goddess returned only to die (eliminating another rival goddess in the process). After 1000 years of amassing objects of power and planting her seeds of gratitude and faith (and regret), is a universe where the ruling class are indistinguishable from deities what she wanted? In a universe primed for faith, is she poised to take all of that religious energy and redirect it her way, using it to ascend to a higher form of godhood – Dominion?

Her absence in this issue is the other thing that troubled me. While she hasn’t appeared in every issue of this event, her role has grown and her appearances important no matter how small. Despite Orbis Stellaris seeming like the true rival to Sinister at first, she’s been the one slowly and methodically spreading her own sort of influence. Stellaris has been too insular and isolated – so focused on building up his World Farm as the power base to launch his plan for Dominion that, when the Brotherhood stole it, he’s seemingly dropped off the map entirely by the time we reach +1000. Sinister, we know: he’s given up the hope of Dominion in this reality, focused on reaching a Moira and killing it. That leaves Mother Righteous as the seemingly only (obvious) chance for an Essex to reach Dominion.

And that leaves her “Song of the End” as she weaves her magic, drawing upon Ironfire’s regret over killing Lodus Logos to mask her magic as his power... to shape events. Is her song narrating or is it directing? The interplay of words and images in a comic aren’t always clear in this regard. When Alessandro Vitti draws a panel of Ororo holding a lightning bolt, while Al Ewing writes the words “And Ororo readied for the end... and called the lightning home,” are these two occurring simultaneously? Are the words describing the picture? Usually, we read comics that way where overly narrated comics are treated as redundant to an extent – the words telling what the art is showing. But, here, what if the words are telling a story into being? What if this is an act of incredible power and magic as Mother Righteous sings a song that helps shape the reality needed to achieve Dominion? Ororo gives her life for Arakko. Jon Ironfire’s faith is justified, realised in full glory as his goddess, the Storm, sacrifices herself again for the sake of universe. When Sinister (seemingly) shoots and (apparently) kills him... does that faith disappear? Does that form of mystical energy dissipate? Or does it go somewhere else?

All of these questions relate to the larger structure of Sins of Sinister. Everything has been building towards a specific point, much of it playing off Powers of X to some degree. In Powers of X, the X3 timeline of Moira VI was moving towards the assimilation and ascension of homo novissima into part of the Phalanx, becoming a small part of a Dominion. However, in Sins of Sinister +1000, there are no machines to fuse with humans – to be Phalanx – to form Dominion. Or, at least, none that care to make their appearance known (save a leftover non-mutant clone Moira and a broken down Doombot). All that remains is a host of homo superior that exist in such powerful form as to be akin to Phalanx, possibly even Titan. If Mother Righteous can eliminate the figurehead mutant gods and assimilate the cloned masses of followers... will that be the same as uniting 10 or more Titans? Though, in Powers of X, the ascension never actually happened as Moira was killed, secure in knowledge she hoped to use to avoid that fate for mutantkind.

Will Sinister kill his Moira in the nick of time as well?

Next: Nightcrawlers #3.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Custom Kitchen Deliveries 09 – Immoral X-Men #3

Genetics aren’t enough.

We are now 1000 years from where Sins of Sinister began and the universe is a monstrous wasteland of rival factions. Things are so splintered that even Exodus and his religion has broken into dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of sects. When Destiny’s recording for Sinister tells him “I know your eventual goal is to transcend time and space to become a Dominion. You do not succeed,” my first thought was “Yeah, no shit.” It’s apparent, by this point, that the flaw in Sinister means that he is incapable of achieving that goal. Perhaps, a flaw in all of the Essexes.

As I said when discussing Immoral X-Men #1, the key component that Sinister’s genes added to the Quiet Council was narcissistic solipsism. Each and every one of them thinks themself the only true person in the universe, the only person that matters, be they original or clone or staring in the face of a thousand identical clones of themselves. It’s been the ongoing joke of Sinister where every version of him thinks that it is the real Sinister... only to have its head blown off by the next Sinister in line who assures us that he is the real deal (until...). Faced with Doctor Stasis and Mother Righteous, his first instinct is to shout that he’s the real Nathaniel Essex; as does Orbis Stellaris. That overwhelming, unavoidable idea that each of these Essex-derivatives have that they are the only one that matters. The only real person. It comes to a head in the +1000 time period as it’s a universe of single-minded empires, all convinced that they are right, they matter, and all others must be conquered, subjugated, and subsumed.

The supposed goal of the Essexes is to defeat the machines. On Earth, we saw that happen fairly quickly, almost as a throwaway footnote to this entire story. In the +1000 time period, there doesn’t appear to be any threat from the machines. The universe is overrun by mutantkind, endless combinations and variations, almost all carrying that Sinister gene. While our perspective on things is fairly limited by the narrative goals of the comic, the successful domination of the universe via Sinister’s mutants seems complete – despite it being domination without Dominion. Yet, is that any better? Nearly a dozen little fiefdoms that may have sprung from the same genetic source, but wind up mimicking any other random universe of competing interests. Dominion requires unity of consciousness and purpose, and, in +1000, there is none. All Sinister has done is trade one dominant lifeform (machines) for another (mutants) with the same dreary dystopian existence. Except a bit gooier.

In Immoral X-Men #2, when Sinister gave his convincingly insincere speech to Rasputin IV about destroying the paradise of Krakoa, I think what he was trying to get at what the shared purpose of Krakoa. Genetics aren’t enough. This has been the endless cycle of X-Men comics where mutants can never truly unify and thrive, because all that they’ve got in common is an extra gene and a world that hates and fears them. When you take away the hatred and fear and replace it with overwhelming dominance, that extra gene isn’t enough. The centre cannot hold, as it were. By accentuating the individuality of each of the Quiet Council, Sinister has both achieved universal dominance and moved away from Dominion at the same time. Think of those two goals as the X and Y axis on a graph. At the line towards universal domination moves forward, the line towards Dominion rises and rises until it peaks and begins falling until it flattens out. Perhaps, given enough time, one or more of these fiefdoms of the Quiet Council could grow large or powerful enough to approach Dominion on their own. More likely that we’ve reached a dead end. The real path forward was Krakoa, at least for the Sinister branch of the Essex family tree. A multitude brought together under a shared purpose and cause that allows growth. But, alas, even if Sinister were to kill a Moira and reset the universe back to before all of this, with “Fall of X” on the horizon, that chance may be gone, too...

The real problem is that the goal isn’t the survival of a species or a people. The problem is that a single man, Nathaniel Essex, came the conclusion that he will die. He can find ways to prolong his life, but, eventually, something bigger and more powerful, like a Dominion (more likely a Phalanx or something even smaller) would come along and be too much for him. He wouldn’t just die – he would be absorbed, taken in, and made part of a greater whole. Something bigger than him. The problem is that he only cares that he survives forever. Everything flows from his solipsism. So: four of him, each exploring a different path to ensure that Nathaniel Essex can never be lost – each searching for a path to Dominion. Each convinced that they are the only true Essex (or the only one that matters). Each doomed to failure because their message is not one of inclusivity, it’s of singular focus and determination, of absolute control and domination. But, that message of solipsism and singularness, when spread, only breeds new versions of that same solipsism. While the Empress of the Red Diamond may carry Sinister’s genes (Essex’s genes), it is still Emma Frost and thinks of herself as Emma Frost, not Sinister or Essex. The same goes for Xavier and Exodus and Colossus and the rest. They are worshippers at the altar of Essex’s Church of Solipsism and, as devout believers, they each think themself a god.

(To indulge a brief return to my nonsense metacommentary from earlier in this series, if Jonathan Hickman is Sinister and Sins of Sinister is the X-line after HoX/PoX, growing and changing beyond his original plans as each additive creator takes things in new, unexpected ways, deviating further and further from the original singular plan... then Hickman is a Sinister that was able to look at what their influence had wrought, smile, and walk away. Is it what he wanted to do when he began? No. Does that mean he’s unhappy with what has happened? No. You could make a compelling argument for Sins of Sinister as a repudiation of anyone who wished for Hickman to force his vision on the line going forward…)

However, speaking of gods and churches, it’s more and more apparent that one Essex has the potential to succeed: Mother Righteous. She’s the constant figure throughout Sins of Sinister, popping up here and there, planting her little seeds of gratitude, getting her hooks in as many different people as possible. While we don’t yet know the exact state of her religion playing off the Spark with the Legion of the Night, she makes an appearance at the end of this issue, offering Rasputin IV a deal. That her power base is one of belief, calling in her markers at once could, conceivably, unite enough beings to begin the road to Dominion. While the other Essexes spread themselves among the masses – she has focused on spreading herself via a focus on her. She is the singular focus of her interactions with everyone. Not her genes, not her technology, or even her despot orders. Just her, a separate being, ready to possibly enslave all she’s lured in, body and soul... even her two remaining brothers...

Next: Storm & the Brotherhood of Mutants #3.