Comics: Essential Thor Volume 6
Gerry Conway, Bill Mantlo (scripts)
John Buscema, Sal Buscema (art)
Marvel Comics, 2012
Another of Marvel Comics’ ongoing reprint lines has a bit of bloated overreach right there in its title: the “Essential” line features fat, cost-mindful black-and-white reprints if … well, everything Marvel’s done, which can’t all be ‘essential’ or the word would lose its meaning (and since some of the stuff being reprinted – the entire run of “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man,” for instance, or “Ms. Marvel” – is uniformly awful, the word is endangered enough as it is).
As we saw in the previous “Essential Thor” volume, for example, the contents can be uneven – it was a monthly title, after all, and you can’t ask inspiration to strike like clockwork. And just like last time, this newest volume features a touched-up cover by Gil Kane – colors brightened and words removed (although not the severely anachronistic “T” from Thor’s belt buckle), which in this case is all to the good, since the words were “Odin in Exile!” (he wasn’t), “Ulik at Bay!” (he wasn’t), “Don Blake and Jane Foster – together again!!” (they weren’t), and “And now … Star-Quake!” (it wasn’t)(Kane could be a very lazy cover artist – this was about as lazy as he got during this period in his career – twenty years later, some of his “Conan” covers would practically be stick-figures).
Still, for unevenly settled contents, this volume features some memorably good stuff. The writer for most of the 25 issues reprinted here (all originally published in the glorious 1970s) is Gerry Conway, an assured hand with epic storylines but really specializing in short, intense character-moments. These issues were produced during some heady counter-culture days in the U.S., which presented problems in chronicling the adventures of Thor, Marvel’s super-strong, straight-laced, red-caped answer to Superman. Conway responds by amping up the character’s angst, making him a hero tortured by many things – from his dual nature with his mortal identity as Dr. Donald Blake to, far more fruitfully, his divided affections between the goddess Sif and the mortal woman Jane Foster.
He’s also given a sidekick for most of these stories: the Greek god (and long-time Marvel character) Hercules, whose boisterous, free-wheeling nature is used to contrast Thor’s more Hamlet-style brooding grandiloquence. The volume opens with a rousing fight-fight between the two (featuring, at one point, the sound effect “SPANGG!” – which only spoilsport would ever point out isn’t a sound flesh can make against flesh), but the pattern of the following issues is the same: Menace X arrives on the scene, Hercules fights it more or less to a standstill, the furor of the fight attracts Thor from wherever in Manhattan he happens to be moping at the moment, he arrives to fight Menace X, and then he and Hercules embark on the whatever plot follows. It’s a good pattern: Thor is a bit uninteresting as a character – giving him a foil helps quite a bit.
(The two of them are given a foil of their own in the person of a gruff New York Detective Sergeant clearly modelled on All in the Family’s Archie Bunker, a character initially called Blumkenn whose name, maddeningly, Conway can hardly be bothered to spell consistently from one issue to the next. The character has some very interesting possibilities as a representative of the human world of law-and-order for which both Thor and Hercules exhibit only a weak and grudging regard, but Conway doesn’t really pursue that potential – instead, he has our heroes man-handle the portly cop whenever they’re out of sorts, and ignore him the rest of the time)
This is a version of Thor very much akin to the aloof, vaguely menacing character currently appearing in Marvel Comics: he’s a brightly-colored super-hero, and he duly saves the innocent in virtually every issue, but he’s a long way from being your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. At one point he stops the getaway of a gang of robbers (in a typically vivid and masterful action-sequence by John Buscema, here inked to perfection by Joe Sinnott) in a matter of seconds, and as he stalks away a befuddled cop asks his partner, “What do you do with a guy like that, Abercrombie?” And his partner replies, “You think your lucky stars he’s on our side, Finch. A guy with power like that could rip this city apart and not even end up breathing hard.”
He’s certainly not the blunderbuss brawler we’ve seen in earlier “Essential” Thor volumes; Buscema, the artist for most of these issues (and at the top of his game for most of them as well), instead favors a precise, almost surgical choreography for most of the fight-scenes. Conway helps this approach by giving Thor an almost telekinetic control over his hammer Mjolnir – it doesn’t just get thrown and come back, it swoops and curves and obeys spoken commands. Thor uses it to create localized, stationary whirlwinds in which his foes are trapped but from which he’s able to stalk without a mussed hair, and he’s suddenly a mean shot with a ricochet effect, as Buscema shows off a few times:
Conway indulges in the full measure of big-scale cosmic adventures for which this character is perfectly suited – there’s not only a team-up with the world-devouring Galactus and a few godly intrigues (including a confrontation with the pantheon of ancient Egypt in which a character shouts, “How do you defeat death, Thunder God?” To which our hero replies, “By living, warrior! By living!”) but also a foray into the future with Zarrko the Tomorrow Man, in an epic four-part time-travel arc that’s the highlight not only of the whole volume but of this entire era of Thor’s adventures.
The economical nature of these black-and-white “Essential” reprint volumes necessarily precludes much in the way of tinkering, so whatever imperfections were in the original issues tend to remain in the reprints – including, unfortunately, the massive foul-up in page-sequence that makes issue #231 incomprehensible – Marvel received dozens of snarky, witty typewritten letters in response to that misprinting (today, they’d get at most a couple of indifferent tweets), and here it is again, in a bound volume fit for the library shelves.
Nostalgia enfolds even such errors, as it will, for certain readers, enfold everything in this latest volume of Thor reprints. A grand, confident epoch of four-color comics was slowly coming to an end during the time these issues were appearing – their price had risen from 20 cents to 25 (budgetable sums, back then, and much commented upon in by the aforementioned letter-writers), their creative teams were changing more rapidly (even by the end of this volume, Conway has been quietly replaced by Bill Mantlo), and most of the giants who helped to create the industry were winding down their careers (the issues in this run contain covers by Gil Kane, John Buscema, John Romita, Sr., and, amazingly, Jack Kirby himself – a line-up no future Thor volumes will be able to boast).
Later creators would manage to bring Thor to heights of grandeur and excitement that equalled or excelled what the ’70s saw, and the character himself would get new and interesting interpretations. But that just makes these simpler issues all the more worth savoring – especially for those readers who remember eagerly taking them all in the first time around.