Posts from May 2011

May 16th, 2011

The Mighty Thor Treasury Edition!

Our book today is the extra-sized deluxe treasury edition of The Mighty Thor that Marvel Comics put out way back in 1974, back before comic shops and mylar bags and collector conventions. The treasury edition (this is the first – there actually was a second Thor treasury edition, but it reprinted a story we’ve already examined here, so we can safely skip it) is an oversized paperback (the owner of Trow’s Variety, where I bought my copy, had no idea where to put the thing when he unpacked that week’s comics shipment … he’d ordered it thinking it was normal-sized and would fit in his metal spinner-racks; he eventually decided to put it in the normal magazine stand, nestled right next to Life and Variety and The Saturday Evening Post) featuring a gorgeous cover illustration by John Romita and reprinting the epic storyline with which Thor at last got his own title – the first issue reprinted here is “Journey Into Mystery” #125, and through a bit of comic book sleight of hand that has since become well-used, the second issue reprinted here is “Thor” #126 (it didn’t occur even to the enterprising brain of Stan Lee to goose sales by re-numbering “Thor” so it would begin with an oh-so-collectible first issue). Some of us had been sending letters for months back in 1966 urging just such a change, since Thor had been a star in his own right for quite some time already. Lee exercised his usual flair for showmanship by making the transition story one of the biggest and most robust he’d ever done: Thor versus Hercules! Thor Defeated! Odin Defeated! Asgard Betrayed! Hercules Betrayed! Rip-Snorting Battle on Every Page!

In 1974, reprinting the six issues of this story-arc in a larger-format treasury edition was a bit of a gamble for Marvel. After all, the original issues were only a decade old – it stood to reason most fans would remember how the whole thing turned out and likely still own the individual issues, and the $1.50 price-tag was astronomical. But Marvel went ahead anyway, trusting that the size of the stories would justify the size of the format.

We’ve seen some pretty big Thor stories in a few previous posts of Stevereads, and this one is no disappointment. The story opens with Thor in bombastic battle with a jumped-up mortal villain whom he easily dispatches (this is the recurring problem this character shares with a certain super-strong red-caped fellow over at DC: how do you keep him busy?). Thor then returns to Asgard where – surprise, surprise – his father Odin is furious with him for wanting to spend any time at all on Midgard (that’s Asgardian for Earth), especially hanging around an insipid mortal woman like Jane Foster (she’s just a nurse in these dark days of Thor continuity, not a mouthy scientist, as in the spec-tacular new movie). And Odin does here what Odin almost always does when he’s being written by Stan Lee: he goes absolutely psycho. He rants and raves at Thor, orders Balder the Brave to smite Thor, calls out the warriors of Asgard to pummel Thor, stations Heimdall the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge to stop Thor from leaving Asgard, then … lets Thor leave Asgard.

And leave Thor does. He returns to Earth, only to find Jane Foster getting all cozy at the soda fountain (you young people will just have to Google that) with none other than … Hercules! The son of Zeus is portrayed here as every bit as powerful as Thor but far more impulsive and conceited (shortly after this story, Lee would portray him the same way to extremely good effect over in “The Avengers”) – and nowhere near as bright. Hercules is miffed that Thor would so rudely interrupt his swaining of Jane Foster, and quick as you can say “Clash of the Titans,” the two of them are duking it out all over Lower Manhattan (the sheer amount of property damage Kirby so wonderfully draws them so negligently doing is justification enough for a dozen Super Hero Registration Acts from Marvel’s “Civil War” story of a few years ago).

While this is going on, two sinister developments are taking place off-stage: Pluto, the nefarious god of the underworld, is planning to trick Hercules into signing a mystic contract that will consign him to the underworld forever, and Odin, still – surprise, surprise – fuming over Thor’s defection, is planning to strip his son of half his godly power, by way of punishment. Pluto has the decency to wait until the fighting stops, but not Odin, oh no! But at the last minute he finds he just can’t blast Thor right in the middle of his fight with Hercules – not because such rapid de-powering might get his son killed, but just because it doesn’t feel right. So Odin summons his Odin-force … and gives it, lock, stock, and sceptre, to his assistant Seidring the Merciless, who promptly fires off a bolt of energy that strikes Thor on Earth and instantly rips away half his power. Thor valiantly fights on against Hercules, who pounds the stuffing out of him and leaves him in a heap (in a truly psychotic twist, Odin telepathically contacts none other than Jane Foster and urges her to go and comfort his son! Yeesh).

After about fifteen minutes, Odin regrets his action and orders Seidring to give him back the Odin-force so he can make things right with Thor – and Seidring refuses (in his Introduction to the whoppingly huge new Thor Omnibus in comics shops now, Walter Simonson makes a good crack about how Odin probably should have been tipped off by the name “Seidring the Merciless”), blasts Odin into submission, and takes over Asgard.

Meanwhile, after some thought, Thor has decided to return to Asgard and confront Odin about all this banishment business. Only when he gets there (how he gets there, shorn of godly power as he is, we never learn), he finds the Eternal City frozen by unholy power, and when he confronts Seidring he once again gets the stuffing beaten out of him. In agony, he manages to make it to our old friend the Odin-Sword, the unsheathing of which would cause the entire universe to implode. Rather than face annihilation, Seidring restores the Odin-force to Odin and flees. Odin gathers his unconscious son in his arms and vows to be a better parent.

There follows a rather charming sequence (broken up with scenes of Hercules fighting for his life, since – surprise, surprise – he was indeed successfully tricked into signing that contract … he makes a thumb-print, presumably because, like Xena the Warrior Princess, he’s illiterate) in which Thor slowly convalesces in Asgard. At one point he and Balder bundle up in furs and go armored beast-fish-hunting on the frozen seas, but Thor’s still too weak to make his shot (Lee would have been bombarded with protest-mail if he’d done that scene in today’s more eco-conscious atmosphere; as far as I know, he only received one single letter protesting this armored beast-fish-harvest, back in 1967 – and that letter was probably from a crank).

He regains his full fighting strength just in time to save Hercules from being dragged down to the underworld by the forces of Pluto. There’s a neat little moment here too: as Thor is leaping into combat, Hercules, thinking his weakened state during their fight is normal for him, cries out a warning that said forces are too strong for the likes of Thor. And Kirby follows this up with a fantastic little panel that conveys speed and power without covering itself in either speed-lines or sound-effects. Little moments like that show Kirby as the absolute master of dynamic action-sequences – it’s a talent that’s all but missing from the latest crop of comic book artists, so it’s all the more pleasing to see it here.

Between them, Thor and Hercules manage to wreck enough of the underworld so that Pluto rather peevishly tears up the eternal contract and lets Hercules off the hook. The two heroes shake hands and go their separate ways, and so the epic ends, and Thor’s own titled comic is launched, and Marvel’s third deluxe treasury edition comes to an end. I’ve long since lost count of how many times I’ve re-read my own overized copy – but even after forty years, it holds up remarkably well. And true to form, Marvel threw in a little something extra: a two-page poster of the current, 1970s-style Thor cast of characters, drawn by the mighty John Buscema and available only in this volume:

The contrasts are unconsciously striking: this visual take on our cast (in addition to featuring poor Hildegarde, at the time being featured in Thor but soon to be completely forgotten)(and in addition to featuring Loki, even though the ‘Clash of the Titans’ story-line is one of the few Thor mini-epics that in no way involves Thor’s evil half-brother) is noticeably older – Buscema’s Odin is almost elderly, and his Thor shows no trace of the youth Kirby often gave the character. Plopped right in the middle of halcyon Lee-Kirby antics, it encourages the reader to speculate on how much different the saga of Seidring the Merciless would have felt if Buscema had done the artwork.

It’s a neat little addition to the volume, which is all-in-all a feast fit for the gods … and for lesser mythological creatures …

March 18th, 2010

Comics: The Penultimates!

Marvel Comics served up two pivotal chapters in its “Siege” storyline this week – the penultimate chapter of “Dark Avengers” (a series in which psychotic government hatchet-man Norman Osborn, with duped official sanction, creates his own team of Avengers using bad guys costumed as good guys), and the penultimate chapter of “Siege” (a series in which the aforementioned Osborn and his ‘dark’ Avengers and their storm troopers launch a full-scale attack on the fabled city of Asgard, home of the Norse gods, which at the moment is hovering about twenty feet over some empty badlands in Oklahoma). The tension – as events that have been percolating for a couple of years now start to boil over – is extremely well-handled by all involved, and the feat of these two issues, which tell very closely interlinked stories in perfect cooperation, is, to put it mildly, not Marvel’s usual way of doing things.

“Dark Avengers” should be read first, if only for the enormous pleasure of seeing Norman Osborn’s secret ally finally revealed. Some of you may recall that I made a prediction about this ally’s identity waaay back when this whole adventure was starting, and I’m happy to admit I was wrong – happy mainly because the actual identity of that mysterious ally is so perfect, so plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face that I laughed a bit when it was revealed: I should have seen this, the simplest possible answer, coming.

Of course the secret ally is the same ultra-powerful secret ally Osborn’s always had: the super-strong energy-wielding Sentry – only in his Edward Hyde persona as ‘the Void.’ Brilliant.

In the previous issue, readers saw Norman Osborn talk the Sentry down from a tantrum in which he might have destroyed Manhattan, and in a moment of criminal insight worthy of the former Green Goblin, Osborn realizes that the Sentry’s terrified, traumatized wife might be the disruptive element in Osborn’s control over her husband. He orders his ‘dark’ Hawkeye (actually the murderous Daredevil villain Bullseye) to make Mrs. Sentry disappear.

In this issue that happens. Under the pretext of flying her to a safe house to wait out the current crisis, Bullseye gets her alone in an auto-piloted plane and proceeds with his trademark snide mind-games:

You’re husband, he’s almost a god – and you – you’re kind of, well, frumpy is the best word I can think of. I mean, he can have anybody.I mean, I can have anybody and all I do is kill people. And I swear, I can get any girl I want. Imagine the ass he’s missing out on because he’s married to you. And look at you. Do you even own a brush? Or a mirror?

This is great, ghoulish stuff, perfectly in character for everybody, despite how ugly those characters are. The issue’s only weird element comes not from the writing but from the artwork. Artist Mike Deodato has been doing the best work of his career on “Dark Avengers,” and that continues here (even the bare-bones horizontal sequence in which Bullseye kills Mrs. Sentry is a homage to the similar linearity other artists have used in some of Bullseye’s more famous murders in other comics), but every so often there are panels that were constructed entirely on a computer, and the contrast between them and Deodato’s regular work is jarring.

The issue segues perfectly into the big-scale goings-on in “Siege,” Marvel’s breakout hit (sales are running at almost three times Marvel’s own exuberantly pumped expectations), in which all Hell is breaking loose during the aforementioned Osborn invasion of Asgard. This issue features more fantastic Oliver Coipel artwork, and it’s a great thrill-ride, despite multiple oddnesses in the storytelling (one minute Thor is furiously fighting the Sentry, the next he’s calmly standing over a defeated Norman Osborn, for instance, and a newly-returned Iron Man (Tony Stark) is able to remotely shut down Osborn’s own super-armor even though we were specifically told many, many issues ago that Osborn had all the Stark-technology suits replaced with his own armor and weapons-tech).

We get some absolutely great, glad-you-waited-for-it moments, the best of which is certainly comes from the fact that writer Brian Michael Bendis remembered which Marvel character should have the payoff moment of finally decking Norman Osborn (and he gives that character a perfect line while doing it, a ‘real person’ line instead of a comic book slogan)(and there’s the fitting little image of Captain America putting a calming hand on his shoulder the moment after). And of course Coipel’s action-sequences are spectacular, especially the fight – such as we see of it – between Thor and the Sentry. When Coipel draws Thor hammering the Sentry with lightning, you can practically feel it (and he’s one of the only working artists who could have convincingly portrayed what happens to the city of Asgard in this issue). But for me, the neatest such little moment passes so quick you almost don’t notice it: in the midst of the melee, Captain America and his former WWII sidekick Bucky are bantering, just as they did in the Jack Kirby-drawn comics of seventy years ago. I smiled.

Oddly, the issue is almost as full of missed moments too – after all, this is the issue where Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man are reunited on the same side after years of separation, alienation, and heartbreak, and yet in this issue they just take up fighting the bad guys with nary a word or look exchanged. I presume such payoff moments will come later, but considering the fact that five pages of this issue are a text-only backup feature, I wonder that room couldn’t have been found to work in just a single panel or two in the main issue, showing how these three react to seeing each other again.

But picky comics fans can’t have everything (!), and this issue delivers a lot, including a slam-bang cliffhanger that sets up what promises to be a very exciting conclusion. You can read all about that here when it ships to comic stores, I’m guessing  sometime in August.