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.”