Monday, May 02, 2011

Looking Back at Thor

One of the first Marvel comics I looked at was Journey Into Mystery #93 staring the Mighty Thor. I remember seeing a group of comics by some off-brand company (not DC). A guy with long hair and a red cape attacked some tanks. I remember thinking, 'He talks about his hammer too much,' and stopped looking before the feature villain, the Radioactive Man, even appeared. A few months later I read X-Men #3 (featuring the Blob) and was hooked on Marvel comics. Being an instant X-Men fan, I just had to buy Journey Into Mystery (Thor) #109 which featured Magneto with sort of a cameo by the X-Men. I missed the next issue but started buying it regularly with #111. When Thor met the Destroyer the following year I thought that it was one of the most exciting cliff-hangers ever. I also picked up enough back issues and reprints to fill in my knowledge of the character.

Looking back, I started reading Thor just as the character really came into his own. The first several issues were clumsy. The story often revolved around Thor turning into Don Blake without his hammer and having to retrieve it before wrapping things up fast. The supporting cast consisted of Blake's nurse, Jane Foster and the strip was only given 13 pages so stories had to be streamlined.

The big change came when Jack Kirby became the regular artist and co-plotter. A whole new element was added - Asgard. Don Blake's life never got any more interesting but Thor's relatives, friends, and enemies were slowly introduced giving the strip a fairly large cast. This is also when the character moved from being about a regular guy who could become a superhero to being about a god who could disguise himself as a human. Jane Foster was written out of the comic in #136. Finally in issue #159 Thor finds out that Blake was nothing more than a construct to teach Thor humility. After that revelation, Don Blake pretty much ceased appearing unless needed for his medical knowledge.

The team of Lee and Kirby continued until Kirby left in 1970. The great Neil Adams took over for two issues followed by John Buscema., The quality of the comic continued until Stan Lee left around 1971. He still wrote a couple of issues after that but Gerry Conway became the regular writer. As time passed, the stories seemed to be going through the motions rather than capturing new glory. This was a general problem in comics at the time as a new generation of creators struggled to find their voice.

Marvel went through a set of revolving editors in the 1970s with the result that few comics had a regular creative team. Thor saw stories written by Conway, Roy Thomas and Len Wein and art by John and Sal Buscema, Rich Buckler, and Walt Simonson. Somewhere in there Jane Foster returned and merged with the goddess Sif. For a while Jane and Sif could switch places like Thor and Don Blake. One memorable plotline involved a false Ragnarok.

Jack Kirby returned to Marvel briefly in the late 1970s, creating some ultra-powerful characters called the Eternals. The book lasted less than a year but many of the plot threads moved on to Thor. Most of the stories over a two year period combined the Eternals and ancient Norse myths into a single plotline.

Quality continued to decline in the early 1980s. The comic was on the verge of cancellation when it was turned over to Walt Simonson as writer/artist. Overnight Simonson revived the character, making Thor cool for the first time in a decade. I reread some of his stories last week and they hold up very well.

Simonson began his run by introducing Beta Ray Bill, an alien demon-horse thing who was judged worthy of Thor's powers. Eventually he was given his own hammer. The spell that let Thor change into Don Blake is transferred to Bill allowing him to transform back to the humanoid he was before being re-engineered into the protector for his people.

Thor returned to Earth and took up the identity of Sigurd Jarlson, a construction worker so that he could be closer to humanity. Simonson did the art for two years between issues #337 and #353. After that Sal Buscema took over the art with Simonson continuing to write and doing around half the art. Along the way Thor's face is scarred and he grows a beard. The death goddess Hel curses him with fragile bones and he has to wear armor to support his broken limbs. The whole thing came to a climax in Thor #382 which marked Simonson's departure from the comic.

Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz took over and the quality of the book began another decline. An architect named Eric Masterson was introduced and merged with Thor replacing Don Blake as Thor's mortal identity.

In the late 1990s the big thing was reviving sales by replacing a hero. This was done at one point or another with Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Iron Man. Thor's turn came after he "killed" Loki (he got better). Thor's identity was submerged and Eric Masterson became the new Thor in 1991 in issue #433. In issue #440 they introduced the Thor Corps - Eric Masterson's Thor, a Thor from the future, and Beta Ray Bill (Beta Ray Thor). The real Thor finally returned in issue #457 and Masterson was spun off as Thunderstrike with an enchanted mace.

After his return Thor went crazy and fought most of the other cosmic heroes in a mammoth cross-over.

At the end of this Thor got a new costume and Roy Thomas took over writing. I remember hating this period.

Warren Ellis wrote memorable four issue run reviving the character once again and starting a long affair with the Enchantress. Bill Messner-Leob took over as the regular writer. Thor lost his powers, shirt, and helmet. He worked as a free-lance hero with the also-powerless Enchantress handling the billing. He got his powers back just in time for the Onslaught plotline. This was a cross-continuity event where all of the major non-mutant heroes vanished to another world and were presumed dead. Thor's last regular issues was #502, printed in 1996. It was a nice send-off as Thor and a second Thor (leftover from a Roy Thomas plotline from 1979) prepared for one final fight to the death. It was only marred by a brand-new costume which just looked strange.

Thor was replaced with the Lost Asgardians for a year. Somehow various Asgardians had been transported to Earth and given human identities. It was really nothing more than a way of marking time.

The whole thing led to a massive reboot of the Marvel universe. Old plotlines and dangling plot threads were ignored and the various characters started with fresh creative teams and #1 issues. Thor was joined (again) with an emergency medical technician named Jake Olsen.

Dan Jurgens was the writer and the quality stayed fairly high. After around fifty regular issues the book got into really interesting territory - what if the gods took a more active role in humanity's affairs? Odin died and people started praying directly to Thor. Starting in issue #68, the comic jumped 17 years then 200 years into the future. Thor and the Asgardians have conquered the world and turned it into a paradise ruled over by Thor (who lost an eye, an arm and his hammer along the way), the Enchantress, and Loki. It eventually turns out that to be a hollow paradise and Thor uses his power to turn back time and undo most of the events. This is followed by a six-part version of Ragnarok and the cancellation of the comic.

Thor was revived again, three years later in 2007. The series has been separated into different story arcs which are easy to package as graphic novels. The first was is about the revival of the gods and their new home, floating above a small town in Oklahoma. The second arc was about the machinations of Loki and Doctor Doom, leading up to the Siege event. The Siege of Asgard itself was a major cross-continuity event involving nearly everyone in the Marvel Universe. That was followed with Thor's attempts to save the Asgardian dead.

All of these have been strong stories, especially the first set written by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski. They are best read as graphic novels instead of individual issues.

So there we are - nearly 40 years of Thor. Long stretches of creativity punctuated by longer stretches of mediocrity.

1 comment:

Nikki said...

This is so good. You mirror my thoughts almost exactly. A few differences though,

- I thought that Stan and Jack's Thor went downhill with the removal of Jane and later with sidelining Donald. Sif was never an interesting love interest, and for me not really an interesting character full stop. Donald was how the reader related to Thor and how Thor could verbalise his emotions without being distant and broody. With the loss of Donald, we lost the likable side of Thor.

-Ellis' Worldengine and the mess with Enchantress was ridiculous and totally remove the impetus of her character as the spurned lover.

-Jane and Sif could never swap places at will. The closer Jane got to Sif's experiences the thinner the merge became. So Jane can call on Sif's fighting skill when she's in a knife fight and when she's using her teleportation powers. Jane got trapped in the other dimension when she was given Sif's sword. About 10 years later we are told that Sif knew she could have switched places with Jane had she used to runestaff, she just didn't. It was different than the merge with Thor. Donald is Thor or was at the time and he was switching between masks essentially.

- The first half of the Jurgens run is better than the second. I wasn't a fan of the decent Thor went through although I liked how Jurgens showed how detatching Thor from his humanity would destroy him. Its a theme that was there perhaps unintentionally for a long time and included the mad relationship with Enchantress. Thor had lost his way, this was Jurgens showing us where it would end up. Only thematic problem, future Thor says to Sif that had he been whole it would have been her. Surely the lesson is that had he been whole it would have been Jane who he had killed in that timeline (symbolic as the death of his humanity) and was last seen properly just before he decended into madness?

I'm of the opinion that a truly humble Thor would always choose the mortal.

- JMS' run is completely marred by how wrong Donald is in it.

So I'm thinking the good spells are roughly-


23 out of 58 years, about 50-50 then.