Friday, April 05, 2024

Jim Starlin Versus the Inevitable: Thoughts on Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable

[This is not a review. I will be discussing Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable in ways that will ‘spoil’ it so, if you haven’t gotten your copy yet and don’t want to learn anything too detailed about what happens, maybe bookmark this piece to return to at a later date. If you don’t particularly care, read on.]

What is a Dreadstar comic?

I’ve been pondering that since reading Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable, the newest Dreadstar graphic novel. It’s the second Dreadstar graphic novel of the 2020s, both published through Kickstarter campaigns, after Jim Starlin departed the book in 1989 with issue 40. He had stopped drawing it a year previously and, after it was continued by writer Peter David with, mostly, artist Angel Medina, Starlin’s only contributions were the odd cover and chapters of a serialised novel that ran in the back. Even when the title returned for a six-issue mini-series under Malibu’s Bravura imprint, Starlin just did covers, focused instead on his ‘Breed series. The last time he had done anything with the character was actually in the third ‘Breed series where Vanth Dreadstar and Oedi from the title joined alongside Starlin’s other creator-owned characters to team up with the protagonist of ‘Breed. While fans always hoped Starlin would return to the character, that appearance seemed likely to be the last time Starlin would draw the character after an injury to his hand seemed to end his drawing career. Instead, after many years of work and recuperation, Starlin managed to regain the use of his drawing hand and the first comic he drew was Dreadstar Returns, which was published in 2021, not only acting as the first Dreadstar comic since the early ‘90s, but also with the promise of several more graphic novels planned. Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable finally had its Kickstarter campaign in 2023 with the property jumping to yet another publisher (if you include the ‘Breed III appearance, Dreadstar has been published by nine different publishers over its 42-year span).

Dreadstar began as a serialised story called The Metamorphosis Odyssey in the pages of Epic Illustrated in 1982 with Starlin writing and painting it. Partly a chance to work on his own characters, partly a chance to try painting a comic, it told the story of a war between two ancient, god-like alien races. With one side realising that that they will eventually lose the war, a plan is put into action to destroy the Milky Way Galaxy – it’s an allegorical story rooted in the Vietnam War. The idea being that the other side is so terrible that, to save the galaxy from the terrible fate of being conquered by this race, it would be better to be destroyed altogether. Vanth Dreadstar is one of four beings gathered to fulfill that plan. Armed with a mystical power sword, Dreadstar is stronger and tougher than the average mortal – the galaxy’s most formidable warrior. He and Aknaton, the alien who destroys the Milky Way Galaxy, are the sole survivors of the explosion that destroys it – and, immediately after reaching safety in a neighbouring galaxy, Vanth kills Aknaton and settles into a quiet life.

The Epic Illustrated story was followed by two graphic novels, also painted, and a short story that led into the ongoing monthly from Epic Comics. The basic set-up was that, in this galaxy, there is also a war between two powerful groups, the Monarchy and the theocratic Instrumentality, and Vanth is drawn into the conflict when the planet he lives on is attacked, killing his wife and the nearby village of cat people. Joining the Monarchy’s army with the goal of getting revenge against the Instrumentality, he learns that neither side is interested in winning the war as both societies are now dependent on the war machine. Basically, it’s too profitable to end the war. Pulling together a group of like-minded individuals, Vanth sets about finding a way to end the war. The monthly title followed Dreadstar and Company in these efforts and, once the Instrumentality won the war, finding a way to overthrow their religious rule, settling into a conflict with the Lord High Papal, leader of the church and government, and his minions.

Starlin stopped drawing the title after the Instrumentality was defeated and the ensuing year where he only wrote the book was a meditation on what happens next with Vanth awaking from a two-year coma, trying to find a place in this new world. Vanth’s efforts to find a direction for his life mirrored Starlin’s efforts to find a direction for the comic. Due to various reasons, Starlin never did find that direction and departed the title, giving it over to Peter David and Angel Medina to continue. This resulted in another change of galaxies and various adventures until the series ended abruptly with plans indicated by First Comics that it would return in a new form. Instead, First Comics didn’t last much longer and it was resurrected as a six-issue mini-series by David with artist Ernie Colon that focused on Vanth’s daughter, the new wielder of the power sword. That story both wrapped up the previous series and told a new story, seemingly bringing the story of Dreadstar to an end.

Until Vanth and Oedi appeared in ‘Breed III alongside Starlin’s other creator-owned characters. It wasn’t completely apparent when these characters were from given that both were back in their most well-known clothes from the beginning of the Epic Comics Dreadstar monthly. Rather than an addition to the broader Dreadstar story, it seemed like a fun crossover of Starlin’s various characters as a bit of a treat for his longtime fans. Soon thereafter, Starlin was back at Marvel, writing and drawing new Thanos stories in a series of graphic novels – until his accident that seemed to end his drawing career. He continued working on Thanos stories with the art team of Alan Davis and Mark Farmer and seemed to bring his version of those characters to a conclusion. If I recall, there were some musings about doing more Dreadstar with another artist (and even one or two aborted efforts previously at a new Dreadstar comic by Starlin himself – one of which is included in the Dreadstar Guidebook that was published as part of the Kickstarter for Dreadstar Returns), but, instead, he discovered that he could, in fact, still draw.

Dreadstar Returns was both a return to familiar grounds with the characters looking like their most classic versions but it not only taking place after Starlin’s run but all of the Peter David-written material as well. Vanth and company are back in the galaxy that they had departed, which is run by the telepath Willow, whose consciousness has been merged with a giant computer. Vanth seems content working for this government to help free worlds from tyrants and bring them into Willow Consortium. The story opens with him slaughtering a tyrant king modeled after Donald Trump before being drawn into the real story: a dimensional void is slowly consuming the capital planet of the Consortium and, from within, can be heard a voice calling Willow’s name. Vanth, Oedi, a newly resurrected Willow, and Teuton go into the void to figure out what’s going on. After battling through constructs of old enemies, which gives Starlin an excuse to draw every old bad guy from the title, it’s revealed that the cause is Doctor Delphi, a thought-dead member of the group who was in love with Willow. His death actually resulted in him becoming the god of a pocket dimension and, with his newfound omnipotence (in that dimension), he has been watching over Willow and the rest of his old universe. He’s discovered a new threat, an incredibly power being he calls the Nameless that is dedicated to killing all other life in the universe and will kill Willow and the rest in the future. Delphi sacrifices himself (again) to warn them and give them the barest chance at survival.

Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable picks up there as plans are made to confront the Nameless and, hopefully, stop his path of destruction. This quest eventually involves teaming up with the Lord High Papal, once the primary antagonist of the title, and ends with a lengthy rumination on the necessity of COVID lockdowns. It’s an odd comic, one that never really delivers what you’d expect, but also fits into the larger body of Starlin’s work. I wouldn’t say that it’s good necessarily... definitely interesting. It’s left me, as I said at the beginning of this piece, pondering a question:

What is a Dreadstar comic?

I’ve long had the definition/running joke of DREADSTAR IS POWER! taken from the short story that ran in Epic Illustrated #15. From The Metamorphosis Odyssey on, the stories revolved around the idea of power in its various forms, from raw strength to the influence and control one may exert over an entire populace. Vanth Dreadstar has access to an energy he dubs The Power and always seeks to use it in the service of some idea of ‘good,’ usually against those that would use their power in ‘bad’ ways. The Nameless is presented as such a foe, using advanced technology and military skill to travel across the universe, destroying every inhabited planet that it encounters. In Dreadstar Returns, Delphi tells Willow the origin of the Nameless, the mightiest warrior on a planet that was born into a war that had lasted generations and, eventually, helped end it, but found himself the sole survivor. Having seen the destruction nature of people, his desire to live grew into an all-encompassing paranoia that meant that all other living beings must die to ensure his survival. It’s a bombastic overreaction that fits into a long line of Starlin threats, including the Lord High Papal. But, it also makes for a mirror version of Vanth.

Vanth grew up on an icy planet, constantly fighting, becoming a fantastic warrior until he discovered The Power in the form of a sword. Much like the Nameless, was the greatest warrior on his planet and desires an end to conflict. His experiences with massive genocide left him with a similar wish to be alone, away from everyone. Unlike the Nameless, that desire for solitude and survival only eventually gave way to love and, then, a desire to provide that state of peace to everyone. The Nameless’s path reflects the one taken by Aknaton where it’s better to destroy everything for the idea of peace, completely antithetical to everything Vanth stands for, a twisted mirror image of himself and the authority figure he hates the most. Surprisingly, Starlin doesn’t make these connections explicit, treating the Nameless merely as an incredibly powerful threat to be dealt with, leaving the Nameless almost as an abstract cosmic being rather than a fully fleshed out character like past enemies, like the Lord High Papal, who the Nameless recalls visually somewhat.

The Lord High Papal was the victim of prejudice as a child, the mixed-race son of a human and an unknown alien. An outsider, he grew up weak and abused by those around him, finding a path to power in the Instrumentality’s church. Eventually, he became the leader of the church, the most powerful being in the galaxy and tool of the Twelve Gods – their living weapon against the universe. His hatred of others led to a great power that he used to subjugate and oppress. His death at the hands of Vanth, eventual resurrection and, then, mentorship of Kalla, Vanth’s daughter, makes for a different version of the character in Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable. His inclusion in the comic is one of the early moments where I questioned Starlin’s approach. While Dreadstar has featured numerous characters changing alliances, the ease with which Vanth and Papal settle into a partnership feels off... and familiar.

Rather than the next step in these characters’ journeys, it reminded me of the relationship of Adam Warlock and Thanos. Papal’s characterisation was never far off from that of Thanos (nor his design) with the Twelve Gods of the Instrumentality replacing Mistress Death to an extent, but there were differences. The thirst for power as a means to rule rather than its own end was the largest one. Thanos’s goals were always smaller and more deeply personal, it seemed to me; Papal wanted safety and control. While both grew up as outsiders, set apart by physical appearances, Papal seemed more defined by those formative experiences than Thanos, particularly as Starlin kept writing the Titan. Post-Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos became a different sort of character and that existence continued when Starlin wrote him, up through the series of graphic novels from the past decade. He and Warlock entered into a unique relationship of respect, sometimes working together, sometimes against, but always with the sense that whatever personal animus may have existed was behind them. That’s the relationship of Vanth and Papal here, and it’s unsettling. There’s a little more bite to their interactions, a little more distrust, but it’s largely the same.

One moment, in particular, stood out that seemed to firmly place them into the pseudo-roles of Warlock and Thanos. As the two prepared to board the Nameless’s vessel, Papal addresses their past regarding Kalla and Dreadstar’s current relationship with Willow: “WE ARE BETTER SUITED TO A SOLITARY EXISTENCE. / OUR KING WERE NEVER MEANT TO SIRE OFFSPRING... / ...NOR PARTAKE IN ANY OTHER KIND OF PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP. [...] AS POWERFUL AS SHE IS, THE WOMAN IS NOT OF THE SAME COSMIC STOCK AS YOU AND I.” That last phrase, in particular, is very reminiscent of the language used for Warlock and Thanos in the recent graphic novels where their status as unique cosmic beings was emphasised heavily. Starlin using the same language for Vanth and Papal is a hard to miss allusion. That isn’t necessarily a problem. I tend to appreciate the way that similar ideas turn up across the body of work by a writer. The original Dreadstar run contained many similarities to Starlin’s work before and after, both in the writing and the art. That was part of the fun when his various creator-owned characters all got together in ‘Breed III, seeing the similarities and differences. It’s always been the case. This feels different than that.

When the two eventually confront the Nameless, they find that he is a giant compared to them and is impervious to their most destructive, powerful attack. If their portrayal recalls Warlock and Thanos, the Nameless becomes something of a Galactus figure. It’s at this point that the story really feels less like a Dreadstar story and like an unwritten Thanos graphic novel repurposed. Everything that follows, from destroying the Nameless’s records of inhabited planets (depriving him of his Herald) to avoiding destruction by appearing uninhabited feels like a very Marvel/Galactus sort of story. Most Warlock/Thanos stories by Starlin are not resolved through direct conflict or physical violence – there’s reason and cleverness. Not that Dreadstar and Company were brainless dolts; Vanth Dreadstar tends to win through power. Dreadstar is power. It’s a running joke for me, yes – one rooted in an essential truth. Vanth Dreadstar is an anachronism, a warrior that thinks that enough violence will bring peace. The sad joke of the character is that he subscribes to the destroy the village to save it mindset of Aknaton while thinking that he doesn’t. That is part of this story, as well. When Papal prompts them to leave the Nameless’s ship after their failure to do even the minimum amount of harm, Vanth argues that they need to stay and fight. It’s the moment in the story that felt the most right, because that’s what he’s done so many times (and barely survived many times). It’s also a moment that renders Vanth Dreadstar unnecessary.

The rest of the story has them seem to survive the Nameless in a somewhat anticlimactic manner where a plan is put into place to have all of the worlds of the Willow Consortium use as little power as possible and do everything that they can to make it seem like the worlds are uninhabited, hoping that the Nameless, no longer in possession of his information on inhabited planets, will pass them by. It becomes a thin allegory for COVID lockdowns and the sorts that wouldn’t abide them. Starlin mocks the likes of Mitch McConnell and has one guy arrested for trying to turn on a giant electric sign to announce the gender of his unborn baby. Dreadstar and Company merely enforce the lockdown and it appears that it works. It leaves the two graphic novels in a place where it’s hard to tell what the point was entirely. They were stories that exist with no real drive, no real triumph for its seeming protagonist. While Dreadstar has always been an ensemble piece, to an extent, Vanth Dreadstar was always central (aside from the graphic novel The Price that preceded the ongoing series). Here, he no longer fits.

Two books in with two Kickstarter campaigns and it seems like a good place to ask if this return to Dreadstar makes sense. From the beginning, the conceit seemed a little contrived. Part a return to the familiar, while not ignoring anything that happened before. It reminds me, again, of Starlin’s Thanos graphic novels where, for the first time, he seemed to make an effort to incorporate and acknowledge the work of others on the characters. In his previous return to the characters, a decade earlier, he made a very explicit point of dismissing other Thanos stories as featuring clones, not the real character. In the graphic novels, a central plot point was giving us two versions of both Thanos and Warlock, one his and one the in-continuity Marvel, and finding a way to reconcile the differences. There’s no such effort here. Instead, things are much like you remember but everything that happened did, in fact, happen. Just because. Which is Starlin’s right. What’s lacking is a strong purpose.

What is a Dreadstar comic?

As I said, it’s about power. More than that, it’s about large powers in conflict, ones beyond the control of regular people. Governments, advanced civilisations, authority. It’s about noticing the power structures of the world, saying that things that people take for granted are wrong, and doing something to fix them. The Peter David run was rooted in subverting that idea where Dreadstar and Company think that they’re overthrowing a corrupt leader in favour of a wrongfully deposed, genial king. Instead, they were wrong and reinstall a brutal tyrant. The story that takes up these two volumes – and it is a single story, seemingly – isn’t about anything like that. It’s a cosmic godlike being warning them of impending doom and, then, trying to confront that external doom. Yes, that cosmic doom is powerful, so powerful that the combined might of Vanth Dreadstar and the Lord High Papal can’t even hurt it, let along destroy it. The Nameless is something beyond typical power structures – something from outside the system.

And I want to say that is another form of subverting the Dreadstar model. The COVID analogy that practically leaps off the page it’s so blatant is what it’s about. Something so big and unavoidable that it overwhelms existing power structures. Vanth Dreadstar is useless, because he’s useless. We all were. All we could do is submit to power structures and hope that their plans worked. And it feels wrong somehow, because it’s doing something by doing nothing. I’m not sure how much I believe in this argument. Or, better yet, how much that redeems these two books, particularly the newest one. Does it make them more enjoyable? No. More interesting? Perhaps. Does it answer the question of why Dreadstar? No.

I said it when Dreadstar Returns came out, but I find a joy in these comics that goes beyond the plot or characters. I’m still bowled over by how one of my favourite artists thought that his ability to draw was gone forever and, then, it wasn’t. These comics shouldn’t exist. In a large way, they’re about that. About pushing through and finding a way, where maybe the process is more important than the results. I like to imagine the joy that Starlin feels drawing these comics. I hope there is joy. Where maybe he returned to Vanth Dreadstar because, for a time, he thought he would never be able to, even if he never really planned to. Throw these characters back into mostly familiar roles and looks and just run with things. Maybe he doesn’t have anything to say about these characters and is just hoping he will. I think there is something there even if this one didn’t quite seem it.

There will be more Dreadstar graphic novels. The next one is titled Dreadstar vs. Dreadstar and deals with his daughter. Will that one make these two suddenly fall into place and make more sense? Maybe. I’m there, though.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Last Thorsday: Rambling Thoughts on King Thor #1-4

Jason Aaron began his run on the Thor titles in November of 2012. He ended it in December of 2019. Seven years. It began with Thor: God of Thunder with Esad Ribić drawing the book and Dean White colouring it. It ended with King Thor with Esad Ribić drawing the book and Ive Svorcina colouring it. It’s been just over four years since the run ended and it feels so much longer. A lot has happened between then and now, to say the least. And, now, I find myself at an end, struggling to find a way to pull it off, hoping that latching onto this wonderful finale may carry me through this last Thorsday.

As I end Thorsday Thoughts, I find it hard not to see myself in Shadrak, the god of bombs and things forgotten and imbeciles and imbecility, in Omnipotence City, fretting over the section of the library containing the books of Thor. Knocking the books to the ground and stopping to read them. For over seven years, I’ve been Shadrak in my office, compiling and completing my collection of the books of Thor, dusting them off, seeing what’s in them and trying to share some of the joy and wonder with you. Trying to find meaning in them. “Why Thor?” Why not. Even though this newsletter is ending, Shadrak’s words remain as true for me now and they’ve ever been:

“Oh well. Maybe I’ll...

“...I’ll have time to read another one. Tomorrow.

“The books aren’t going anywhere, right?

“There will always be more Thor stories.”

Even as I find solace in that idea, it’s hard not to read it as a threat. Only a few short weeks after King Thor #4 came out, a new Thor #1 hit the stands and, while I did not come to relitigate the Donny Cates run, let me just get in one last jab: it wasn’t good. The greatest Thor run that I’d been old enough to read in real time as it came out (a run great enough to enter the debate of all time great Thor runs) ended with a finale devoted to trying to define what makes this character so great – four final issues that sum up Thor as well as any other comics I’ve read – and it’s followed with no break by just some more Thor comics. Of course. Of course. That idea is buried right in the middle of the final issue when Shadrak picks up a book titled “Thor Cop” and the issue veers off on a tangent of three glimpses of Thor’s future, all horrendous and dumb. At the time, I called it “Jason Aaron doing Jason Aaron things,” and, now it seems like a recognition that part of the joy of Thor is the ups and downs. Part of that is because, as part of mainstream superhero comics, the character is nothing more than a piece of a franchise, something to continue pushing out forever to provide fodder for other, more lucrative media. Part of that is because, as part of mainstream superhero comics, these things keep coming out and, sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not, sometimes they’re awful, and sometimes they’re great. And you never really know what you’re going to get. And, as clichéd as it is to say it, the downs are important for the ups to happen. You don’t get “Worldengine” without the crater of that Roy Thomas run. You don’t get Walt Simonson without a sense of blasé hanging over the title. You don’t get Al Ewing without Cates. No matter how low things sink, eventually, Thor is back being Thor doing Thor things.

That’s one lesson given in King Thor, a comic that easily could have been called Thor: The End or Thor Forever or Immortal Thor or any other title that fits into a pre-established pattern of Marvel titles. But, it’s not. It’s called King Thor, picking up right after Thor #16, the aftermath of War of the Realms, which ended with Odin abdicating the throne and kneeling before his son. Finally, Thor would be king of Asgard. Except, Jason Aaron wouldn’t write that story. King Thor picks up at the very end of his reign by returning to the beginning of the Aaron run: with the Necrosword and Gorr the God Butcher. It’s a story about the endless struggle of living, made painfully obvious in the final issue with a page of narration about Thor’s lifetime struggle against self-doubt and his failures and his efforts to be worthy. A struggle that never ends because it’s not about an end. Living is a process and so is the idea of being worthy.

It’s tempting to point to the Aaron run and the central struggle of the Odinson to be ‘worthy’ as the reason why I like Thor so much, but that would be a lie. I liked Thor long before Jason Aaron began writing his stories and not too many people before Aaron seemed to give the idea much thought. It had cropped up when Beta Ray Bill reached out and took hold of Mjolnir at the beginning of Simonson’s run or when Eric Masterson took up the mantle or when Odin tried to replace his son however many times. The idea was there from the beginning, in Journey into Mystery #83, with the inscription upon Mjolnir. Being Thor means being worthy every single day. And what does that even mean?

It’s a question that lingered over a large part of the Aaron run as we followed the adventures of Jane Foster as Thor, able to lift Mjolnir with ease while the Odinson couldn’t budge it an inch. He was suddenly made unworthy with a single sentence: “Gorr was right.” Right about the worthlessness of gods, their selfishness, their arrogance, their demands, and their failures. Thor had seen enough gods to know that Gorr’s criticisms were rooted in truth and the self-doubt lingered... was he, the Odinson, like those other gods? Thor’s period of unworthiness is about self-doubt overwhelming him and his struggle to regain his confidence. The lesson winds up being simple: being worthy isn’t a static state, it’s a process. It’s something you do rather than something you are. Jane proved it in her time as Thor by putting the needs of those who rely on Thor above her own. Being Thor was literally killing her, and she couldn’t deny the cries for help that she had the power to answer.

King Thor is about Thor, having sunk into another low state and regained himself, proven himself worthy, remade Midgard, and brought peace to what little remained of the universe... realising that he hasn’t beaten anything. Gorr is the darkness inside that always comes back even when you think you’ve defeated it for good. With his hatred of the very idea of gods – the very idea of what Thor is – he is the embodiment of every self-doubt, every negative thought, every bit of hatred Thor has for himself. Aaron is a bit too on the nose, of course, with Gorr’s resurrection coming at the hands of Loki. Loki wields the Necrosword in one last attempt to kill his brother and brings back Gorr to kill him once that task is accomplished. It’s so fitting that Loki thinks himself able to kill Thor with the assistance of Thor’s own self-hatred and, then, will need the embodiment of everything negative inside his brother – that Thor has spent his entire life overcoming and beating back – to kill him, because he’s too weak to do it himself. The sheer absurdity of it all!

In the end, Thor overcomes. He is worthy. But not by himself. Gorr is only defeated because of the help Thor receives from his family and friends, because you can’t beat your inner darkness by yourself every time. Sometimes, you need help. In an absolute fitting touch, Gorr is defeated in, part, because of Thor’s humility. Of his willingness to accept the help of others – to ask for the help of others. And Aaron takes that idea of humility further in the Odinson’s final actions: to go to the centre of the universe and spend the rest of his life holding up the universe, to ensure it does not descend into entropy. It’s a moment of servitude and humbling himself before every living being. An act of proving himself worthy every moment forever.

But, there was also another idea that became the undercurrent of the Aaron run: that Thor is a title rather than a person. Like being worthy, this was inherent in the first Thor story. While it was eventually revealed that there was no Donald Blake (maybe), the idea originally presented by Stan and Jack was that an ordinary person, worthy enough to lift Mjolnir, is granted the power of Thor. Blake is transformed into Thor, like it was a role that he could step in and out of. And this idea recurred several times, with the aforementioned Beta Ray Bill and Eric Masterson stories. With Red Norvell, he picked up a few of Thor’s belongings, grabbed a big hammer, and declared himself Thor. Later, Odin literally bestowed the name upon him and acted as if he were his actual son. Odin collected Thors for a period, so paranoid about Ragnarok and the need for Asgard’s champion to defend it, maybe even somehow avert it. No wonder Thor, on page seven of issue four of King Thor, still struggles with what his father thought of him. In many ways, Thor was never a person. Thor was an idea. Thor was a title. Thor was a position. And, during Aaron’s run, the Odinson lost his title and Jane Foster took it.

That’s such a fascinating thing to have happen as it means that, when the Odinson was trying to regain his status as worthy, he was actively trying to regain his identity, his name. When Odin sent Thor to Earth to teach him humility and added the enchantment to Mjolnir, he separated his son from himself. Not just in burying him in Donald Blake but forever. Some part of Thor always remained inside of Mjolnir, separate from the person. By the time we hit the end of the universe and Thor departs to hold entropy at bay, he drops Mjolnir, leaving it for his granddaughters. Does he leave a piece of himself? For whatever reason, I like to think so. That may sound strange given that it seems like that idea of ‘Thor’ is an integral part of the character. There’s a joyful triumph when he regains it, first in spirit leading into the Thor series with Mike Del Mundo and, then, in actuality during War of the Realms when he retrieves Mjolnir to battle Malekith. That’s Thor.

But, I like what he became without that part of him.

While so much of the period of Aaron’s run with Russell Dauterman was focused on Jane Foster, the Odinson’s journey from the depths of despair and unworthiness to building himself back up is so integral to what makes that period so great. I love Jane’s time as Thor and still stand by my assertion that she may, in fact, be the best Thor. The most pure. The most heroic. The most focused and steadfast. Oddly, she provided a sort of ideal, an example of what the Odinson could strive towards as he regained himself. She was a reminder of those initial lessons in humility, in being aware of the tremendous power in being Thor – in the idea of Thor. But, that, again, makes Thor a role for the Odinson to play, even if he defined it. His awareness of the artifice of ‘Thor’ and that being worthy of it is something to continually work on is so important to the character, at this point, for me. And, when he drops Mjolnir at the feet of his granddaughters, he’s letting go of that struggle. He no longer has to be Thor. He no longer has to try to be that ideal. Oh, he failed at it for such a long time. He stopped trying for such a long time. But, we saw him regain the drive and the dedication to being Thor again – King Thor, the All-Father of the universe, dedicated to nurturing and preserving all life. And, in the end, he lays down that burden for one akin to Atlas. Destined to hold up the universe forever, to keep destruction at bay. It’s a different sort of struggle. An easier one, in many ways, because the purpose is so clear. There are no hard choices or self-doubts like when he stands in front of Gorr and Gorr points out the hypocrisy and arrogance of gods, and the death and pain and suffering that they leave in their wake, and Thor can’t help but agree, to an extent. King Thor is about the Odinson finally being able to let go of the idea of Thor and just be what the universe needs: a big strong god who saves everyone. Ironically, in leaving behind the idea of Thor, he averts a Ragnarok, of sorts.

I can’t help but focus on that final moment because the work of Esad Ribić and Ive Svorcina on that page haunts me. It’s not the final page of the story – there are two more – but it may as well be. Aaron’s narration is a story of Thor as a baby and the way he’d cry during a storm, ending with the obvious revelation that the storm was his crying and shows Thor punching at the darkness. Enveloped in darkness with the only light coming from his fist as he punches the darkness away. You can barely see Thor. He’s lit just enough to make out the shape of his body and some details and it’s perfect. The amount of details in Ribić’s line work make it ambiguous what version of Thor we’re looking at. We know that it’s old man Thor, the former king of Asgard. But, the details hint at the younger Thor that we know from the monthly comics. Is that his long hair or his beard? Which helmet is that? Instead of it being the literal image of what comes next following the previous page, Ribić and Svorcina give us the Platonic ideal of a Thor drawing. It’s less the literal representation of what’s happening in the story and more the visual depiction of who Thor is: the god who fights at the darkness, who lights the way with his fists and the power that comes from within. It’s such a beautiful page to cap the phenomenal work that Ribić and Svorcina did throughout the mini-series. I really loved the way that the darkness looked drawn with pencil sketches, often with the lines moving in different directions. It’s the sort of line work that you don’t see in mainstream superhero comics. It looks that way in the edges of Thor’s light, pushing against the darkness. Those little pencil lines that remind us that the darkness is never obliterated; just keep punching back at it.

This is the final Thor story. Jason Aaron continued the story of the granddaughters in the pages of Avengers and Avengers Forever. He told stories about different sorts of Thors. But, this was the final Thor story. And it’s perfect. Even with its flaws. Maybe because of them. In four issues, you get a full summation of Thor, his relationships with his family, his inner struggles, the duality of the man and the idea, and you see what makes him so special.

And you get Shadrak saying the words that speak to me – and for me – more than any others in a Thor comic, particularly as I bring Thorsday Thoughts to a close:

“I don’t want it to end. I don’t want it to ever end.”

Thursday, February 15, 2024

From God to Superhero: Alan Zelenetz’s Asgardian Work (Thor #329-336, annual #10-11, Bizarre Adventures #32, Marvel Fanfare #13, 34-37, and The Raven Banner: A Tale of Asgard)

Note: There are three additional comics that I had hoped to include in my discussion of Alan Zelenetz’s Asgardian work: Thor annual #12-13 and What If? #39, which is about Thor meeting Conan. They were ordered and are currently in Chicago, unfortunately. I wish I had them to present a complete picture of Zelenetz’s body of work. I sure hope that they fit into the assertions I make below. If they don’t... ah well.

“Alan Zelenetz? Never heard of him!” This reaction isn’t unexpected nor is it unusual. As I was preparing for the final eight Thorsday Thoughts, I looked through what was available and had settled on Doug Moench’s run on the title as a topic, noticing that it spanned two Epic Collections (The Lost Kingdom and Runequest), but not in their entirety. The early part of the former had work by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio, while the end part of the latter was written by Alan Zelenetz. I knew the first two writers, not the third. Looking into it, Zelenetz’s time as a comics writer was relatively brief and only featured a small body of work. Working almost exclusively for Marvel, he mostly wrote Thor, Moon Knight, Conan the Barbarian, and Kull the Conqueror comics along with co-creating/writing Alien Legion for Epic Comics. His time in comics spanned the early to mid/late ‘80s and, then, he was gone, leaving behind, what, four dozen or so comics? Judging from what I could find online, he focused more on his career as a rabbi and educator, dipping into movie producing, and acting as a consultant on the movie Pi. I didn’t see what drew him to comics nor what drove him away. I basically went into his work knowing that he had a brief career and that’s it.

His Thor/Asgardian work reminds me, conceptually, of Robert Rodi’s small body of work on the character/world. While Rodi never wrote the monthly title proper like Zelenetz did, he also produced a small but solid body of work with a few standout pieces like the Loki and For Asgard minis. Both are a bit of ‘hidden gem’ writers in the history of Thor comics. I started off thinking of Zelenetz as the ‘guy before Simonson’ since that was his place as writer of the monthly title. Except, his work continued past that point. He did two more annuals that came out during Simonson’s run along with the comics with Charles Vess that he’s probably most fondly remembered for: The Raven Banner graphic novel and the five issues of Marvel Fanfare focusing on the Warriors Three. I imagine most people who hunt down those issues do so for Vess’s art and the writer is treated as a bit of an afterthought, which is understandable. Vess’s stature has grown over the years and decades, while Zelenetz disappeared. Forgive me if I reverse the roles a bit too much, placing a larger emphasis on Zelenetz’s contributions while minimising Vess...

Unsurprisingly, Zelenetz’s writing on the monthly Thor title and his work outside of those eight issues divide easily into two separate camps, for the most part. Picking up where Moench left off and keeping things warm for Simonson, Zelenetz’s writing on the monthly title is mostly continuity service. He deals with the after effects of Tyr’s attempted coup, chips in on Marvel’s line wide use of Dracula, and, then, with the lingering mystery of what happened to Jane Foster. In the middle, he scripts one of the most interesting Thor stories over artist Bob Hall’s plot. Ironically, those two issues that he’s credited as only a scripter seem much more like the rest of his Thor/Asgard work than the monthly issues he’s fully credited as writer on. The continuity-service issues, as I call them, are good. They’re solid. The story of a giant left behind on Earth is a fun one, while the Dracula issues have their moments even if the threat is mostly resolved through a hand wave.

The “Runequest” story that the Epic Collection takes its name from is heavily steeped in settling a longstanding continuity issue, answering, finally, what happened to Jane Foster after he soul was merged with Sif’s long ago to save the human’s life. The question simmered towards the end of Moench’s time on the title when Sif joined Thor on Earth. While he continued to switch between his Asgardian self and Donald Blake, Sif remained Sif. The issue is brought to a head when Donald Blake is questioned as the probable suspect in Jane’s murder. Looking to clear Blake’s name, Thor searches for the Runestaff that merged the two souls, sending him, Sif, and Keith Kincaid across the galaxy to retrieve it. In the grand scheme of things, it returns Jane Foster to the Marvel Universe, an important detail decades later, and mostly resolves any outstanding issues for the Donald Blake persona. The run ends on an awkward note, indicating that the question of Sif on Earth would be resolved in an upcoming graphic novel (which turned out to be I, Whom the Gods Would Destroy, which wasn’t released for another four years and did not have any involvement from Zelenetz) and also shows Sif already back in Asgard. Basically, issue 336 ends with everything in place for Simonson to take over the following month.

During his time on Thor, Zelenetz did script issues 330-331, one of the few stories that delves deeply into the question of Thor’s impact on the world as a supposed god. Artist Bob Hall is credited as the plotter for both issues with Zelenetz only scripting, but that doesn’t matter. The two work so well together that you’d think it was written by a single person. A small group of worshipers of Thor make their presence in Chicago known after one of them fake a suicide attempt to get Thor to save her. Arthur Blackwood, a Christian fundamentalist coming from a long line of them, is so incensed that he’s expelled from the seminary his family founded and, somehow, is visited by his father’s spirit and given superpowers by God, dressing up as a knight called the Crusader. He initially defeats Thor in battle, nearly killing him, until Thor returns and wins the day. The idea of Thor as a religious figure is addressed head on along with concepts of religious zealotry. Zelenetz’s dialogue is heavily critical of Blackwood’s fanaticism while emphasising how out of step it is with the teachings of the New Testament. Blackwood’s secondary conflict after Thor is with Father William, the priest that expels him and, then, recognises him as the Crusader. William continually preaches tolerance and love, siding with Thor and not seeing any conflict between the Thunder God and his Christian faith.

The unease Thor expresses at the first sign of worship is interesting and would carry over into one of the annuals Zelenetz wrote. The phrasing of Thor’s reluctance to be an object of worship is interesting as Zelenetz never discounts the idea that Thor is a god: “I DO NOT SEEK WORSHIP, THAT IS LONG IN THE PAST... WHEN THE WAY OF THE WARRIOR WAS ONCE ACCEPTED.” He continually shrugs off worship of him as no longer being suitable for modern humanity. Even Odin instructs him that “THOU CANNOT ACCEPT WORSHIP IN RETURN. FOR THE DAY OF OUR KING HAS LONG PASSED.” Instead, Thor has settled into, as many others have pointed out, the modern mythology: a superhero. The form of worship that he and the Asgardians (usually known as Norse) had was one based around a specific lifestyle that suited a specific time. Now, Thor’s role has evolved and changed, shifting from one of worship to servitude. With superheroes, there isn’t an expectation of payment, whether through behaviour or sacrifice, to gain the favour of a god; there is simply the need for help. In the end, Thor’s faith in ‘goodness,’ as he emphasises, overcomes the Crusader’s zealotry. Thor’s initial loss is explained away as his doubt over his place on Earth. It’s only when he fully rejects his former role as an object of worship and embraces the humble role of servant that he’s able to win. It’s a rather clever way to weave in the progression from ‘god’ to ‘superhero’ with the story of Thor and his lesson in humility.

But, Zelenetz addresses the idea of Thor as an object of worship in annual #11 as well. That annual  is basically a series of short stories telling the highlights of Thor’s life. The fifth chapter is titled “The Worship of Midgard” and has Thor going to Earth to show his favour to some of his worshippers. However, when these Vikings slaughter a Christian monastery, Thor reacts is shocked and looks to retreat from Earth forever, not wanting to have a role in the killing of innocents. It’s a glossing over of the Norse gods from mythology and seeks to portray Thor as always being the same as the superhero version. Zelenetz makes Thor remaining on Earth as a superhero explicitly an act of atonement to humanity. But, placing the gods of mythology within the context of superhero fiction seems to be a concern of Zelenetz as he does something similar in annual #10 where, when faced with the Demigorge (the god eater), he has Thor assemble a group of gods from various pantheons, basically making their own superhero team of gods. This approach aligns with the work of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison among others. Morrison is particularly associated with the idea of superhero as modern mythology in mainstream superhero comics and this is clearly Zelenetz’s approach. More than that, like Morrison, it seems rooted in the idea of stories possessing tremendous power.

When you go beyond the monthly Thor issues that Zelenetz wrote, there’s an artifice to his work. A winking knowledge that he’s telling you a story. He leans on the Norns in a few stories to provide narration and framing, but, as he dealing with characters from mythology, he very much treats them within their original purpose: to tell stories and provide morals. Thor annual #11 is so rigid in its adherence to retelling Thor stories from mythology that it barely seems to resemble superhero comics. That issue is more a series of fables than anything else, which works quite well in the context of an annual. While annual #10 has him and Mark Gruenwald establish a sort of unified order of the gods in the Marvel Universe that Al Ewing is currently drawing upon, in a fashion, in Immortal Thor.

The Charles Vess stories all have the same level of artifice, very self-conscious of their nature as stories. Characters lack a certain amount of agency in the face of fate. In The Raven Banner, Greyval tries to circumvent his fate and finds that he must work very hard to regain it, righting his wrong of breaking the set story. The four-issue Warriors Three story is all about Loki trying to doom Asgard by ensuring that a prophesised marriage doesn’t occur while the heroes work to ensure that fate is fulfilled – and, in the process, each of the heroes confronts some flaw in themself, overcome it, and that triumph is key to the eventual righting of fate. But, that’s his writing in the macro. At that larger level, he seems very concerned with these stories as self-consciously constructed narratives that exist within a specific storytelling tradition.

In the micro, Zelenetz is acutely aware that, for these stories to have any true power, they must keep the attention of the reader. His work with Vess, in particular, is full of different types of comedy. Puns and visual, physical comedy are the main ones. With the Warriors Three, he takes each of their main personality traits and blows them up to encompass entire situations, becoming the focal point of their adventures. Volstagg’s bluster covering his cowardice coupled with his size; Hogun’s incredible seriousness and devotion to duty; and Fandral’s womanising conflicting with his chivalry. I mean, pairing Hogun with a doofus who won’t stop running his mouth is a basic comedy idea, but adding on tiny fairies as another level of foil, all while Hogun must carry a goat? Hilarious. And it’s a bit of a revelation to see how adept Vess is at that sort of visual comedy. At this point, his work is associated with a certain type of fantasy comic art that, while not as serious as, say, P. Craig Russell, is still a sort of respected and beloved serious that obscures how much humour in these stories comes from his art. Of nailing these perfect panels where a look carries everything.

Due to its lack of reprints, The Raven Banner is somewhat overshadowed by the Warriors Three stories – that and the familiarity of those characters. Part of Marvel’s graphic novel line of the ‘80s, the Raven Banner features appearances by some known Asgardians, but mostly focuses on Greyval, the latest in a lineage of Asgardians who carry the Raven Banner into battle for Asgard. Like many great mythological objects, the Raven Banner comes with a boon and a price: the side that carries it into battle is fated to win that battle, but the specific person who carries the banner is fated to die in the battle. When Greyval’s father, carrying on the family’s tradition as banner bearer, carries it into battle with giants, he dies and... Greyval is nowhere to be found. Instead, a scheme by the giants and trolls is revealed as they steal the Raven Banner, and we see that they worked to keep Greyval from the battle under the auspices that he could avoid his fate to die as the banner’s bearer and another god would take up that burden. After his marriage to a Valkyrie, it’s revealed that the banner was stolen (his excuse was that he was too busy killing giants to claim it) and he must overcome his fear of his fate to recover it. With assistance from Balder, he undergoes a quest to Valhalla, Hel, and other Realms, eventually confronting his boastful cousin who succumbed to the seduction of the trolls to reclaim the Raven Banner – and, in the end, he brings the banner into battle, giving Asgard the edge in its battle and, of course, he dies. But, fear not, because he died with honour and glory and, when the son he sired on his wedding night is able, he will take up the mantle as well. It’s an incredibly captivating story, watching Greyval struggle to avoid his fate but also hide that he’s working to do so. It’s very much a story of redemption as Balder takes up his cause, learning the full story of what happened, and pledging to help Greyval make right his mistake, arguing that no one should be judged only by one moment. That idea of an inescapable fate butting up against having to win back your fate works so well in the Asgardian context. It’s a shame that it’s yet to be reprinted, that I know of.

The idea that these characters’ lives are ruled by fate comes up in many of the stories, as they both fight against fate (and lose) or must fight for fate (and win). But, never within the context of the superhero stories. Fate only plays a role within the realm of mythology and legend. In ‘tales of Asgard.’ Whether it’s Thor trying to save a sole remaining sailor from his fated death or the Warriors Three trying to ensure a marriage happens or Greyval first avoid and then embracing his fated death... Even Thor’s eventual claim to Mjolnir is treated an inescapable fate. It’s only when he moves into the modern world and Asgard’s time has ‘passed’ that the idea of fate ruling them has as well. Zelenetz never tackles that idea head on, but it’s such an interesting one that you can see only when looking at his various works from a distance. What about modern humanity makes the idea of fate irrelevant and lacking in power? Why are Asgardian rules by fate while Thor the superhero is not? What has changed? We never get an answer. We never even get the question. Yet, it hangs and is part of what makes these comics so fascinating to read.

It’s understandable that Zelenetz’s name isn’t mentioned too often. He was one of those writers who passed briefly through the industry and, if you didn’t look at the specific areas he touched, you wouldn’t have even noticed him. Reading his Thor and Asgardian work, though, makes me want to track down the rest of his writing. He shows such a keen, clever mind. His approach to Thor takes some of what Roy Thomas, Mark Gruenwald, and Ralph Macchio did and take it further. Numerous writers that followed him, including Walt Simonson, Robert Rodi, Matt Fraction, and Al Ewing, are all working within a similar tradition. Without knowing it, I had been missing on some crucial Thor comics. I’m glad that I’ve finally rectified that oversight.

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Ultimate Thor: Thor the Mighty Avenger #1-8 and Free Comic Book Day 2011 (Thor the Mighty Avenger)

From summer 2010 through summer 2011, Marvel published a lot of Thor comics from one-shots to mini-series starring both Thor and his usual supporting cast. The reason was simple: April 2011 was when the first Thor movie came out and, in preparation, Marvel started to get the periodical releases of comics that would, then, be collected for a more mass market appeal and filling up book and comic book stores when, theoretically, regular folks would pour out of theatres and want more Thunder God media to absorb. As we all know, the film-to-comics pipeline has never really worked too well, but that wasn’t yet proven in those nascent days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thor was really the test case of pumping out a ton of comics in the hopes of transitioning moviegoers into comics readers. Marvel’s failure was our gain, I suppose, as we got the likes of the Loki mini-series, Thor: For Asgard, the Ages of Thunder one-shots, a bunch of other random Thor-related stuff, and, of course, the most fondly remembered comic of the bunch: Thor the Mighty Avenger. Brought to you by the team of Roger Langridge, Chris Samnee, Matt Wilson, Rus Wooton, and editors Michael Horwitz and Nathan Cosby, the series is one of those beloved critical classics.

So beloved that I had actively avoided rereading it and writing about it throughout the entire duration of Thorsday Thoughts... until now. In fact, I had not reread a single issue of this series since it finished in early 2011. I remembered it so fondly that I was terrified that revisiting it would reveal previously unnoticed flaws, that it would fail to live up to my rose-tinged memories. I preferred the half-forgotten version that existed in my head to confronting the reality of ink on paper. In short: I was a coward. But no more. I have now sat down and reread these comics and, more than that, am putting fingers to keyboard to put down some Thoughts on these comics.

Regardless of the quality, the choices that Langridge makes interest me quite a bit. This is a ground up reworking/retelling of the Thor story, able to draw upon anything in the character’s past, and what Langridge chooses to use and what he chooses to ignore are both insightful into what he’s trying to accomplish. This is meant to be an entry level Thor comic where you require no familiarity with the character, though some familiarity definitely helps to catch various references and the way that Langridge plays off previous stories and versions of characters. Given that the series launched nearly a year before the movie hit theatres, while it may have taken some inspiration from the early concepts known, it wasn’t directly influenced by the film, at least not in too many ways that readers would know at the time.

The premise is simple: Jane Foster works at a museum in Bergen, Oklahoma, and comes into contact with a strange, seemingly homeless man that turns out to be Thor. He is virtuous and defends her (and others) from the terrifying threat of Mr. Hyde, and she offers her couch to him with the two eventually becoming romantically involved. Thor is on Earth for reasons he does not know, eventually learning that he did something to cause his father to send him away to learn humility. By the end of the eighth issue, we discover the reason for Thor’s memory gap, but don’t know any specifics about the how or why of his banishment.

From that little bit, the choices that Langridge makes all manage to reflect the Thor story that we know, while putting his own spin on them. There’s no Donald Blake or any other human alter ego. Jane Foster isn’t a nurse or a medical doctor. Nor is she the physicist that Natalie Portman would portray in the movie. Even the setting moves away from New York, while maintaining Oklahoma from the J. Michael Straczynski run and movie, but in a different fictional town, one that takes its name from Norway. As the issues progress, we learn more and more about this world, which seems like a version of the early Marvel Universe with Ant-Man, Wasp, Namor, Captain Britain, Iron Man, and Captain America all making appearances. Thor’s supporting cast in Asgard is all familiar faces: Odin, Loki, the Warriors Three, and Heimdall (while she doesn’t make an appearance, it looks like Sif is on the cover of the first issue as well). Within that larger context, the focus on the series is very much on the interactions (and relationship) between Thor and Jane. This series easily could have aped the title of Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man and called this book Jane Loves Thor. Instead, it takes its title from an early version of the movie’s title when it was to follow Captain America: The First Avenger as Thor: The Mighty Avenger. We don’t actually see the Avengers in any coherent form in the series.

Excising Blake (or any human alter ego) simplifies Thor’s story immensely, while recognising that his exile on Earth is already enough to hang his character on. The complexity of being both an exiled Norse god and juggling a human life would be too much for this series, which focuses on coherent single issue stories. I’m sure Langridge and Samnee would have loved to play around with the idea at some point, particularly the comedic elements, but, in these nine issues, there’s clearly no room. Instead, the focus is on the contrast between Thor and Jane, the immortal god and the regular human as the former tries to learn about this new world he finds himself on and the latter tries to adjust with this alien being suddenly up-ending her life. Once Blake is removed, Jane being a nurse or doctor doesn’t make a lot of sense. Having her work at a museum gives her an overlap with Thor, particularly when she’s given oversight into the Viking exhibit at the beginning of the first issue. She has familiarity with Thor conceptually and is receptive to the idea that he’s telling the truth before any evidence is given. In fact, the subtle implication is that this is the sort of thing she always hoped would happen to her. It’s basically her job come to life and sleeping on her couch!

The structure of the series isn’t as simple as a series of self-contained issues, mostly because none of the issues are self-contained. The first two and final two issues are two-parters, while the rest of the issues are complete stories that link up and flow to and from the other issues. I was actually surprised how many plot threads carried over from issue to issue and impressed at how well each issue manages to tell a complete story, while picking up a detail or two from a previous issue. The third issue, for example, is a direct sequel to the first two issues where, in the course of his rampage, Mr. Hyde kills the scientist that invented the serum that transforms him – a scientist that, it turns out, helped mentor Hank Pym, prompting him to, then, investigate the murder. While the third issue tells its own story, mostly about a trick Loki plays on Thor, causing him to perceive Giant-Man as a Frost Giant, it very much flows out of the second issue. That flow from issue to issue exists throughout the run, but almost every issue works on its own.

That progression is central to the series. There is a constant feeling that things are moving forward: Thor and Jane’s relationship; Thor’s uncovering the reason for his exile; Thor’s growth as he works to return to Asgard; and Jane introducing Thor to the wonders of Earth. Each issue advances those four things in one way or another and, while the series ended before any of them could resolve, that sense of forward momentum is an exciting element of the series. The combination of self-contained issue with constant progression seems like a contradiction – and it was definitely at odds with the storytelling in most superhero comics at the time where trade paperback-sized stories driven by decompression and issues that seemed to linger on moments so long as to feel stagnant at times. Yet, Langridge makes it work by tying all four elements into the main plot of each issue. While each issue’s plot would resolve, it would also advance those four elements a little bit, giving both a sense of completion and progression. Dipping in for a single issue would be satisfying on its own; reading the entire run would give a larger story. And by focusing every issue around those constant elements, it allows Langridge and company to ground any new ideas, keeping things on track and with a purpose. If the Warriors Three pop into town to visit, it will serve to advance the subplots of the series.

When I call the series simple, it’s because of that central focus. The plots don’t get too complicated, there isn’t a lot of intricate moving pieces. Everything revolves around Thor and Jane, often as a pair. More than revolving around them, every character and plot exists only in relation to them. There is no ‘extra’ in these issues. No go-nowhere subplots. No extraneous scenes or characters. This is a ‘simple’ comic in the sense that it is incredibly disciplined and focused, both in the writing and the art. Langridge and Samnee prefer to tell stories through the characters. Every issue’s plot can be summed up quickly and usually resolves itself through long character interactions. While Langridge’s dialogue is clever and insightful, I usually lingered over Samnee’s drawings.

One of my favourite interactions is in issue six when we see Thor try to return to Asgard, only to be barred entry by Heimdall. Samnee’s Heimdall takes its cue from Idris Elba’s casting, depicting him with brown skin, but that choice is only one of many interesting ones. As guardian of the Bifrost, Samnee draws him as towering over Thor and his eyes constantly in shadows. Given that he’s meant to literally see everything in his duties, that you never see his eyes (barring one panel) shows the hidden layers of the character. As we see, his powers are much different here than we are used to as he transforms his form to keep Thor out of Asgard, including becoming a dragon that resembles Fin Fang Foom and, then, a literal rockslide, all while maintaining a calm, even demeanour. His shadowy face matches his stoic, matter of fact tone in dealing with Thor. He’s cool, calm, and constantly supportive of his young friend. That Samnee draws him as a good two or three feet taller than Thor emphasises the sort of mentor/protégé relationship that seems to exist with Heimdall as the wise older warrior that often gives sage advice to the young prince – just as he does throughout their confrontation.

Thor’s youth is constantly emphasised. Despite being thousands of years old, in the life of a immortal, he’s barely out of his teens. His strength isn’t quite the ‘challenge the Hulk’ level that we’re used to and our expectations of the character are often toyed with. In the first issue, he’s wrestled to the ground by museum security and thrown several times through the window of a bar. Even after he regains Mjolnir and his full strength, he’s still very much a young god that, while stronger than a human, is a far way from where he’ll someday be. It’s usually his courage and determination that carries the day more than brute strength. Continually, he’ll do what’s right even though it seems likely he’ll fail or suffer dire consequences. Part of what wins over Jane in the first issue is his unwillingness to back down from defending a woman from the unwanted advances of Hyde even through Hyde keeps overpowering Thor. Honestly, it’s not an unfamiliar take on the character. It’s the regular version of the character distilled to a narrow, specific form. He’s young, he’s headstrong, he’s got a good heart, and he’s got a ton of potential. This is as pure a form of the character as you’re likely to ever get.

The character that I struggled to fully wrap my head around is Jane. In many ways, she’s the main character of the series, at first. While it does become a Thor-centric comic (I’d argue the fourth issue when the Warriors Three visit is when it transitions from Jane to Thor), she’s almost a co-lead. I wasn’t kidding with the “Jane Loves Thor” idea. At the same time, what exactly motivates and drives her is a bit more opaque. Where Thor is a known quantity and, largely, he’s merely a version of that character that we know, Jane is a bit more of a new creation. The regular Jane Foster suffered in the original comics from being a bit of a hollow character. An ideal woman that Thor/Blake loved without much justification. She was a nurse and an inherently good person, although it was her beauty that was often emphasised. I’ve never had as much of a problem with the idea that a fictional character is appealing for reasons never quite articulated as others, since that actually mirrors reality, for me. I could give you a bunch of reasons why I love my wife, but they would never really capture the core truth, one that seems beyond words somehow. I don’t think that Jane is entirely in that territory here, although there are elements of that. I mean, part of what makes her so appealing to Thor is that she’s there. He meets her, there’s a mutual attraction, and admiration, and that grows over time. Dead simple.

But, what I’ve been reflecting upon is what Jane actually wants in this series. When it begins, we learn two things about her: she likes her job and gets a promotion despite believing she may be fired, and she has had an on again/off again relationship that she’s decided to end permanently. In her professional life, she’s successful but has low confidence; in her personal life, she’s not as successful but has self-awareness and self-respect. It’s an interesting combination to introduce a Thunder God into. What it results in, initially, is that, without a human alter ego for Thor, Jane kind of fills that role. The involvement of Thor introduces professional and personal drama into her life, both good and bad. Early on, she nearly loses her job thanks to Mr. Hyde (and Thor, kind of), but that same conflict provides the catalyst for her to have it secured as a favour from Janet Van Dyne. The idea of off-loading all of that usual alter ego drama onto Thor’s romantic foil is an interesting one and, while it doesn’t maintain its steam after the first few issues, that’s actually a good thing. One of the more frustrating elements of the Marvel style of superhero comics, at time, is the constant need for ‘human level’ drama that usually involves the hero sacrificing something in their personal life to do good as a hero. It works for Spider-Man and, thus, it became the norm. After that initial blip, the series settles into ‘human drama’ meaning people just having weird things happen and having to deal with those weird things without the constant pressure of job loss or eviction or whatever other extreme crisis could arise.

But, still, that doesn’t quite answer who Jane is in this series. Why is she drawn to Thor? While Thor is a good person, she does seem to be repeating her romantic history in a way. When she breaks up with Jim in the first issue, her big reason is that he’s inattentive and more focused on his career than her. Thor is definitely attentive to Jane, using up one of three tips on a magic chariot to take her on a picnic, yet his primary focus is his personal problem is learning why he was banished from Asgard and returning home. At some point, Thor will leave Jane. Had the series continued, that crisis would have no doubt come up as Thor would be forced to choose. And I think we all know that, eventually, he would return to his home. He’s an exciting, thrilling person to be around, no doubt. I love that their relationship is clearly doomed as she found someone who obviously has priorities that don’t include her after she broke things off with a man for just that reason. Maybe the self-awareness I attributed to her isn’t there as much as I thought...

That eventual doom in their relationship mirrors the structure of the series that I spoke of earlier. What we get in these issues are all of these little romantic adventures that progress their relationship, all while that reckoning is no doubt coming. The cancellation of the series means that we never actually get that resolution, for good and ill. I really do think that there is a positive to the limited nature of the series and it relates to the hesitancy to revisit the series that I started this piece with. The legacy and idea of Thor the Mighty Avenger benefits from the eighth issue getting a little “of 8” added to its cover. Much like Thor and Jane’s relationship, there was no decline in this series. It may have had unrealised highs that we’ll never experience; but, it also never got bad. It remains a book of unknown potential and possibilities.

It remains the best and most effective distillation of the Thor concept. If you’re looking for the true template that an ‘ultimate’ line of comics that modernises and simplifies decades of continuity and character development, look no further. I’m so glad that I got over myself and finally pulled this out of the long box to read again.

Sunday, February 04, 2024

The Most Jim Starlin Thor Comic: Some Brief Thoughts on Thor #323

Thor #323 does not have Jim Starlin’s name anywhere in the credits. A random fill-in issue (no doubt an inventory issue used for one reason or another) by Steven Grant, Greg LaRocque, Ricardo Villamonte, Diana Albers, and George Roussos, it breaks up the meat of the Doug Moench run on Thor with a story in Thor’s past. While out on some sort of adventure with Loki and the Warriors Three, they come across a large, muscular blue being with a giant war hammer that threatens them for coming too close to the border of his domain. What follows is a bit of a spin on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with him insulting Thor into agreeing to a contest where, first, Thor will strike the first blow and, then, the ‘Dark One’ will return the blow. Thor hits him with Mjolnir and knocks his head off and, like the Green Knight, the ‘Dark One’ simply picks up his head, jumps on his horse and demands that Thor follow him to his domain or be dishonoured. Thor insists on following despite the warning from Fandral that only Odin has ever come back from that region and that it is certain death. Taking Loki with him, as they come to a golden bridge, they encounter a seductive woman who tries to get Thor to stay with her. Before he rebuffs her, Loki rides off, leaving Thor concerned that he will tell all of Asgard that he has behaved dishonourably. To prove that he did not, Thor charges ahead, overcomes the bridge crumbling, and squares off with the ‘Dark One.’ Despite nearly dying from the first blow, Thor continues on, even as he’s beaten down more and more, taunted by both the ‘Dark One’ and the woman (his wife) as they tell him he’ll soon be their prize, turned into a statue to accompany the dozen or so that he passed at the entrance that were once warriors like him. In the end, Thor is spared because, as he’s about to die, he thinks only of his love for his father and the love Odin has for him. The ‘Dark One’ spares him and sends him back to Asgard with the gift of a horse having triumphed as Odin once did. Odin dismisses the gift and tells Thor that he faced Fear and his wife Desire, the enemy of all warriors, and that he would face them many more times in his life as a warrior.

It’s such a strange story, based in part on the story of Gawain and the Green Knight, but doesn’t adhere to it strictly, instead taking the rough plot and a little bit of the seductress/noble knight resisting elements. The opening scene is downright delightful in how it leans into Thor being a jerk of a big brother to Loki, fitting in nicely with the reworked issue 272 in the recent Immortal Thor #6.

Where I see the similarity to the work of Starlin is in the end and some of the artist choices. The idea of a story where Thor faces off against the physical embodiments of Fear and Desire is very much the ‘metaphor made literal’ approach that Starlin often embraced, particularly when a character would allow for that sort of mystical quality. His cosmic being often represented a specific quality like this and, even his Thor run with Ron Marz, leaning heavily into the physical manifestation of a psychological aspect.

In the art, it’s hard not to see Starlin both the ‘Dark One’ and his wife’s designs. The ‘Dark One’ is a blue-skinned giant of a man with a goatee and a Mohawk, looking straight out of ‘random alien casting’ from Warlock or Dreadstar. His wife, on the other hand, has similarly blue skin, but circles discolourations around her eyes, recalling Gamorra or Heater Delight along with similarly form-fitting garb. Apart, it would be easy to dismiss as a coincidence. Together, it definitely seems like a concerted effort to mimic Starlin’s aesthetic. LaRocque is around seven years younger than Starlin and could have been influenced by him, especially if this was an inventory fill-in done years previously when Starlin’s Warlock would have been a particularly strong enough. The line work of LaRocque and Villamonte definitely has a few Starlin-esque moments, while maintaining a different enough style.

While reading the Moench run, this fill-in was a pleasant treat. The ending is a little hokey, but, for a Starlin guy, it was interesting to read something that seems influenced by his work, even in small ways.

Thursday, February 01, 2024

The White Knight: The Doug Moench Thor Run (Thor #303, 308, 310-322, 324-328)

It’s a little weird to think of these comics as comprising a ‘run’ in modern terms. It lacks many of the hallmarks of what we consider a run on a monthly comic, especially over the past 20 or so years. There’s no overarching story, no big plans, very few traits that make it stand out, honestly. If I handed you these comics, you’d probably say that they look and read like any random Thor comics from the mid-70s to early 80s prior to Walt Simonson taking over writing and drawing duties. I’d even admit that they don’t read much different than the Thor comics from the year that Simonson was artist on the title years prior. Monthly superhero comics of this time period weren’t necessarily meant to stand out and have a unique voice to them. The idea that you’d take over Thor and do something different and radical enough for people to stand up and take notice was a little strange. Instead, you were working within the general idea of what a ‘Marvel Comics’ monthly was meant to be, especially if you were on one of their marquee titles.

But, you know what, I’ve spent so little time with Thor comics of this era that there is a certain novelty to them. For most of us, these comics fall into that broad, ambiguous category of ‘Thor comics between Kirby and Simonson’ where maybe some John Buscema issues may get some notice, maybe that Roy Thomas-led Eternals/Celestials stuff, but not much else. There’s something fun about diving into some ‘generic’ Thor comics and seeing what exactly that means.

For the most part, it means a lot of Donald Blake and a lot of sad sack manoeuvring to make his existence tolerable. The odd contradiction in the character is that it’s recognised that Blake is not a real person, that he is a creation of Odin who existed solely to teach Thor about humility by living as a mortal, and, yet, Thor cannot give up his ‘life.’ Even though he has no job, no money, no reason to actually live. His one possible justification is his incredibly skill as a doctor, except that is constantly sabotaged by the demands of being Thor as well. Unlike a Peter Parker who has always been Peter Parker and dons the identity of Spider-Man due to a moral calling where you can see how he’s in a bind regarding priorities, no such dilemma exists with Thor and Blake. As we see when Simonson does away with the human alter ego in issue 340, there is no reason for Blake anymore aside from convention, inertia, and a bit of nostalgia. Blake is there because Blake was always there.

Not only is Blake there, you could make a strong argument that he’s the central character of these issues. Everything revolves around him, his need/quest for a job, and the charade that is his life. Moench inherits Blake trying to re-establish himself by working at a small clinic in a poor area of New York, ends that in relative short order, has Blake do some work for Tony Stark before setting him up for a move to Chicago, which is, coincidentally, Moench’s hometown. Despite the change in scenery and Moench’s familiarity with Chicago, it doesn’t result in much substantive change. There’s a bit of a love interest in an old med school classmate who prompts the move and that’s about it. The only way that you can tell that Thor lives in Chicago is that the surface details are no longer New York specific.

The relationship between Thor and Blake remains unchanged after the move: Blake tries to have a normal life and it is disrupted by Thor. What’s lacking is a reason for Blake at all. Why does Thor maintain this fake life his father made up? The closest we get to an explanation is in issue 324 when Blake is in New York at Avengers Mansion and winds up having an all-night conversation with Janet Van Dyne: “AND THOUGHT I KNOW DON BLAKE IS A FALSE PERSONA CREATED BY ODIN, WHEN I’M JIM, HE SEEMS JUST AS REAL AS THOR!” It’s not the strongest explanation for why Thor maintains being Blake. Blake feels himself to be a real person despite the shared mind with Thor and the knowledge that he’s not a real person. Does Thor maintain it only because of the enchantment where he’ll revert to Blake if he stops holding Mjolnir for 60 seconds? Is it a compulsion? A secret desire to be mortal? It’s never explained and, 40 years later, it hangs over these comics. Unlike nearly every other superhero with an alter ego, Thor can walk away from this one. Blake, basically, doesn’t exist as far as the rest of the world is concerned most of the time and it’s only his efforts to re-establish his life that reform connections with the world. Thor could easily let this persona fade away, barring the enchantment, which Odin could easily remove. Would abandoning Blake be akin to murder, perhaps?

That unwillingness to inflict such permanent harm on another, even a fake other, would line up with the most consistent qualities of Thor throughout this run: his unwavering nobility and goodness. His steadfast belief in doing ‘the right thing’ and acting ‘honourably’ drives almost every action that he takes. To a certain extent, Thor lacks any other personality traits. At times, it comes off as almost too good. Too sickly sweet, if you know what I mean. Once he decides on what is right, he does not budge, stubborn to a fault. In some cases, like his conflicts with Mephisto, it makes sense; in the more ambiguous case of the menagerie of mythical animal-like creatures who transform the bodies and minds of some humans, it’s less clear, especially when they show that it is very much a merger of the two beings, not a possession.

Even with Thor’s straight ahead morality, there are some grey areas in these comics, usually through either misunderstandings like with the Scarlet Scarab or the Death-Demon, both well-meaning characters whose true intentions need to be worked out (after a bit of fighting) or with situations that are less clear-cut, like with the menagerie. Or, with issue 311, the most morally complex issue of the run, and the only one that feels like it could be published now.

“Grief More than a God May Bear” tells the story of a young black man shot by the police after one of the officers thinks he’s reaching for a gun when he is, in fact, reaching for pills for a heart condition. He’s taken to the clinic where Blake worked and the outrage over the shooting causes members of the community to storm the clinic and plant themselves in front of it. Of course, the police then respond in force and tensions run high as both sides stand off, ready to engage in violence at any provocation. After he seemingly saves the boy’s life in surgery, Blake transofmrs into Thor to try and ease tensions, mostly through lecturing, disarming many with Mjolnir, and, finally, creating a literal chasm in the road between the two sides. While he gives a big speech, the boy’s heart condition results in his death and it’s only the boy’s mother who manages to defuse any violence. The issue ends with her and the police officer who shot her son exchanging meaningful glances of grief, while Blake is suspended for abandoning his patient (to be Thor). It’s a very ‘both sides’ comic, bending over backwards to make both sides seem equally prone to violence and anger, and to regret and grief. It’s very simplistic, particularly in the way that Thor focuses on defusing any and all violence with no regard for consequences or the systemic reasons for what happened. Why are members of the community so quick to anger that they’re willing to violently burst into a local clinic? Why is the officer that shot the boy still amongst the assembled officers, still on duty? How in the world are we to stomach the panel where the officer and the boy’s mother seem to give knowing glances? It’s the sort of issue that’s good for raising a very real problem and that’s about it. The moral complexities lie in the implications.

But, they also lie in the moral simplicity of Thor, so convinced of the rightness of his actions that he never considers the obtuseness of his judgment – nor the consequences of choosing to act as Thor over remaining as Blake. If ever there was a moment that justifies Blake’s continued existence, it’s this issue where he seemingly saves the boy’s life with surgical skill that, apparently, only he possesses... and, then, he leaves. It’s suggested that nothing could have saved the boy, but, as Blake’s boss tells him, they’ll never know because his incredibly talented doctor wasn’t there. The larger implication is that, as we see Blake struggle to maintain a consistent life, given his profession and the amount of good he could do, particularly as the other half of an immortal god, is the moral thing for Thor to abandon being his Asgardian self and devote even more of his existence to Blake? It’s odd that that question is never broached. For all of the challenges in maintaining both lives, the idea of choosing one is unexplored, even as the justification for maintaining both is never offered.

The run is an entertaining one, make no mistake. Its flaws are the strict superficial level of morality and character depth that it rarely wavers from. Blake struggles to have a life, while Thor is Thor, a steadfastly moral and honourable god. A common tactic to give Thor the illusion of depth is for the true motives of his enemies to actually be good or misunderstood, making the character seem reasonable and flexible by not continuing to pound them with his hammer. Instead, it simply makes him not so inflexible as to be a moron. When it comes to truly tough choices, he tends to stick to the middle ground. But, what else can you expect?

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Lessons in Humility: Ages of Thunder (Thor: Ages of Thunder #1, Thor: Reign of Blood #1, Thor: Man of War #1, and Thor God-Size Special #1)

It’s hard to write about Matt Fraction’s Thor. It looms oddly large in my life. His run was going to be big. It was going to be amazing. It was going to be fantastic. It was going to be one of those legendary runs that people talk about with a bit of awe and love in their voice for decades. The build up was huge, the wait was long. Firstly, for J. Michael Straczynski to wrap up his run, then for Kieron Gillen to tie off loose ends and, then, vamp for time. But, Fraction was coming! That was the promise! And, then, he came and... well, expectations are a right bitch. And living up to them just isn’t in the cards sometimes. If you weren’t there, it must all seem so silly. I feel silly when I write about it. I feel mean and unfair, and I don’t intend to be, but maybe I’m still hurt, unjustifiably I’d concede. The comics weren’t as bad as they seemed and the demand to be not just good but Great was unfair, even if it came from a place of love and excitement. And it did, I swear. None of us were sitting there building Fraction up, hoping that he would fail. I don’t think I’ve been quite as excited for a writer to take over a work-for-hire book, before or since. It was a specific sort of excitement and anticipation, because it started well before the gig was announced. I don’t know if it was always part of the plan or if it was because we demanded it. The fervor for Fraction writing Thor started over two and a half years before his first issue came out, which is an absurdly long time. So absurd as to be presumptuous on fans’ parts. Jeez, it was unfair, wasn’t it. How do you live up to two and a half years of waiting? I guess you don’t.

But, to be unfair one more time: it was kinda his fault for writing Thor: Ages of Thunder.

The first of three one-shots released in 2008, Ages of Thunder was a decidedly post-Ragnarok (the Michael Avon Oeming- and Daniel Berman-penned story) comic felt so fresh and new, so bold and confident. It began with the caption “IT IS THE ERA OF THE THIRD RAGNAROK,” while the second story (each one-shot had two stories) began “IT IS THE ERA OF THE ELEVENTH RAGNAROK.” That alone set it apart, leaning into the cyclical nature of the Asgardians, of their continued existence that ends with the gods dying and beginning anew. This wasn’t a superhero comic; this was a comic about Thor the myth. The Thor of stories. In that first one-shot, word balloons were rare as Fraction relied mostly on narrative captions to tell the story alongside the art, a complete break from a decade of dialogue-driven writing with few captions save ones that indicated a location. Ages of Thunder was so different from the monthly Thor comic – and everything else Marvel and DC were putting out.

Even the idea of telling stories of Thor’s past, of leaning into the mythology Viking god side of the character was something new at the time. Others had told stories of Thor in the past, interacting with Vikings or other people of Earth. Not many had done so with such brutality and ugliness. Of leaning into the idea that the gods were once everything that humans are, only bigger and more dramatic. Their highs are higher, their lows lower. It very much seemed like Fraction was coming at Thor and his world from a perspective we’d never seen before and that was exciting. We wanted more – and we got it two months later with another one-shot that continued the loose larger story that would connect all three issues. The third one-shot took several months and was followed quickly by a fourth, unrelated one that would actually be more of an indication at where Fraction was coming from. It’s a little surprising that the second two one-shots didn’t temper expectations and the demand for Fraction on the monthly book. The God-Size Special, in particular, seemed like a disappointment at the time. It’s not a bad issue by any means. It’s a loving tribute to one of the memorable moments of Walt Simonson’s run, the last stand of Skurge the Executioner (a moment so memorable and cool that it made it into a movie) that also ties up a dangling thread, of sorts, from the Tom DeFalco/Ron Frenz run. If you take the issue as it comes, it’s an entertaining read and has some great art by Dan Brereton (recreating the Simonson story) and Michael Allred (such a goofy chapter) amongst others. It also reprinted the original Simonson issue, Thor #362, so... how could you complain? When I read it now, I tend to look upon it pretty favourably. It’s the finale of the Ages of Thunder trilogy, Man of War, that gives me much more of a pause.

We return to expectations and reality, once more. In this case, it’s the expectations created by the story and the reality of how it plays out. The broader story of the Ages of Thunder one-shots is that the Asgardians are thoughtless and frivolous people. They are gods in their glory, making rash, short-sighted decisions that require them to find a rapid solution to the problems of their own making. Odin is arrogant and selfish, quick to blame others and to demand that he get what he wants. And, usually, what he wants is for Thor to fix things. And Thor does it. In that first issue, he saves Asgard from itself by killing Frost Giants at his father’s behest – but he also clearly understands that the reason why he’s needed is his own people’s foolishness, particularly that of his father. So, he’s resentful and usually not in much of a mood to celebrate saving his people. In Reign of Blood, Odin’s selfish lust puts both Asgard and Earth in peril, prompting Thor to act – only to be betrayed by the people he’s trying to save. The thrust of these two issues is that, yes, Thor grows cold and cruel, but it seems somewhat justified given that the problems he’s solving with his hammer are created by the people he’s saving. Who wouldn’t, after a while, grow tired of saving everyone from themselves? Particularly when the main cause of these issues is his own father, Odin?

From the end of the first issue, it’s clear that a confrontation between Thor and Odin is coming when Odin invites Thor to celebrate the return of Idun and her ability to cultivate the golden apples that grant the Aesir immortality, and Thor rejects the offer, saying “SOME OF US HAVE BEEN KILLING GIANTS TODAY AND AREN’T IN THE MOOD TO HAVE A TEA PARTY.” Artist Khari Evans gives Thor such a wonderful sneer as he says this, solidifying just how little Thor thinks of his father and the rest of Asgard in that moment. What are they celebrating? What did they do? What did Odin do, except beg his son to solve his problem? The issue ends with the following captions, which point to the eventual confrontation:




Reign of Blood only increased the conflict between father and son with two stories where Odin’s selfish lust nearly brings ruin down on Asgard. In the first, Thor is mostly a bystander, albeit one who makes it clear that he knows that Odin and Loki need to find a way to clean up their own messes; in the second, Thor goes to Earth to defeat an army of the undead. It requires creating a Blood Colossus, this monstrous creation of dirt and metal and lightning with Thor at its heart. It takes forty days and forty nights for Thor to defeat this army of the undead and, before he goes into the Blood Colossus, he tells the people of the village he’s helping to save, that he needs his horses to win. That, though they will die, if the people drag their bodies onto a fire and burn them, they will be reborn the next day. No matter how hungry they are, they must resist eating the horses. It’s the one thing Thor asks. Loki, of course, convinces them to eat the horses and, upon saving the village and discovering that they had eaten his horses, coupled with the long and weary battle he’d undergone, he, ah, gets a bit angry, brings down rain and floods, creates a new horse, and vows to bring down a rage on humanity unlike any before. This is where things begin to turn with the third issue, Man of War, having Odin send his Valkyries to stop Thor (until they unite against a common enemy) and, then, suiting up in the Destroyer armour to fight his son directly.

The thrust of the story up until the end of the second issue is one where Thor’s diminishing patience for those around them seems justified. We see Odin and Loki make choices that are poor and require Thor to act to right matters. Odin’s choices come from arrogance and selfishness; Loki’s from envy and maliciousness. The result is that Thor is beyond his breaking point and the third issue’s resolution is to cast Thor as little more than a child throwing a temper tantrum in sore need of a lesson in humility. It may be that Fraction’s perspective is not that of Odin, but it is the dominant (and victorious) perspective in the comic. There’s a coupling of ‘humility’ with ‘cheerful obedience’ that’s difficult to accept.

Perhaps, that discomfort is where this comic needs to live. There’s a genuine sense that Thor is treated unfairly by his father who decries his son’s lack of humility while displaying only arrogance and selfishness. The issue ends with Odin besting Thor in battle and, then, stripping him of his godhood and sending him to Earth in the body of a human who tends to the sick while suffering from a weak and handicapped body: Arkin Torsen. In the end, we see that Odin sending Thor to Earth to learn humility is just another element of the cycle. It’s a cruel sort of ending that never sits right with me, particularly the final captions: “IN SHORT, THE MAN KNOWN AS ARKIN TORSEN WAS KNOWN FOR HIS HUMANITY. / IT WAS A START.” I hesitate to call that a ‘happy ending,’ yet it’s clearly portrayed as a positive ending. One where justice has been served on a brash, young god who should have just shut up and did what he was told with good humour. It’s a disconcerting sort of ending, because Thor’s rage at the end of the second issue and beginning of the third is excessive and needing someone to curb it. Yet, it was the choices and actions of Odin and Loki that brought him to that point, and they suffer not even no consequences, but no recriminations. Taken on its own, you would think that Thor’s anger was rooted solely in the arrogance of a young god who has overreacted to a minor slight.

The stories told in these issues are not fair or nice ones. People suffer unjustly. The Frost Giant that Thor kills at the end of the first issue is tricked by Loki’s schemes just as much as Thor is in the second issue, for example. And he dies anyway. That Thor suffers an unjust fate with no regard for what caused his rage is not necessarily out of place with the overall tone of the issues. There is little fair or just in these pages. All there is, truly, is the idea that the strength and will of the mighty dominates that of the weaker. And that’s what happens, in the end. Odin is more powerful than Thor and that might is the true decider of who is arrogant and in need of a lesson, and who is justified in their actions. It’s as much a part of that ‘bold, new approach’ to the character that I mentioned above as anything.

That the different stories all take place across different eras of Ragnarok firmly places these stories within the idea that Thor and the Asgardians are inextricably tied to cycles. These stories form one larger one spread out across different cycles of existence, suggesting that these events repeated themselves again and again, confirmed by the final pages of Man of War where Thor becomes a man clearly meant to allude to Donald Blake, hundreds of years before Blake existed. These are recurring mythical stories where the events are somewhat divorced from typical motivations as we know them. These characters are less characters than roles that they inhabit by decree of fate. Odin is the arrogant patriarch; Loki the trickster that no one trusts yet everyone tolerates; Thor, the brash young god. It doesn’t matter why they do the things that they do, they just do them and events play out as they will. Fraction revisits this idea, in a subtle manner, in his Thor run when Thor resurrects both Odin and Loki, seemingly for no reason other than he misses them and wants them back. You could place that in Fraction’s recurring theme of family, or that, even though Thor has broken the cycles of Ragnaroks, there is some generational memory that he can’t escape. He can’t help but recreate these familiar roles and situations as displayed here. How many times must Loki betray them? How many times must Odin rage at Thor’s arrogance while displaying his own? How many times must Thor get over himself and do what’s ‘good for Asgard?’

Despite the frustrating third issue, Ages of Thunder remains a startling work, one that clearly influenced the Thor comics that came after Fraction. You don’t get much of the Viking metal elements of Jason Aaron’s run with these comics. Nor even the bleak Thor of Donny Cates. Look closely enough and much of what Fraction did as the writer of the ongoing monthly book is foreshadowed here. But, these comics exist outside of continuity. When was the era of the third Ragnarok exactly? Or the eleventh? Or the twenty-third? I know when Fear Itself takes place, though. Ages of Thunder raises expectations and promised a bold, new perspective for Thor, even if it’s one that isn’t compatible with mainstream corporate superhero comics. Sometimes, in hindsight, you can see everything that led to a specific place and, still, someone has to get punished, has to fall, has to get a lesson in humility.

Sorry, Matt. I’m trying.