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.