Posts from February 2015

February 28th, 2015

Comics: To Wake the Mangog!

thor epic collectionOur book today goes by a title Stevereads has already anointed as alluring: To Wake the Mangog! (I added the exclamation point that the book’s own packagers shamefully omitted) – it’s a thick volume in Marvel Comics’ ongoing “Epic Collection” series of color reprints from the archives.

This is the fourth “Epic Collection” of Thor comics, and those four inadvertently serve as a pretty good illustration of how weird this whole reprint line is. Volume One was called The God of Thunder and featured the first twenty-five issues of Thor’s appearance in Journey into Mystery; Volume Two was called A Kingdom Lost and featured a slew of utterly undistinguished 1980s issues written boringly by Mark Gruenwald and drawn boringly by Keith Pollard; and Volume Three was called War of the Pantheons, a great collection of issues from the 1990s written by Tom DeFalco and drawn lovingly by Ron Frenz in full Kirby-homage mode. And because the “Epic Collections” are supposed to be pieces in an enormous ongoing tapestry, the first Thor volume might be #1, but the second is listed as #11 and the third was #16. To Wake the Mangog is still #4, but it’s damn odd. My only hope is that it betokens Marvel’s intention to reprint not only the whole run of Thor but also the whole run of their entire back catalogue. The completeness of it would be nice, even though any collection that features Keith Pollard (or, Odin help us, Larry Leiber) can hardly call itself “epic.”

Actually, that same unevenness is a bit on display even in To Wake the Mangog! (sorry – but it’s Stan thor 1Lee at his full throttle – it needs an exclamation point!) The collection starts with the great four-issue storyline that all but defines “epic” in the Thor line, in which the titular creature, the Mangog, a being of incalculable physical power (the strength of a billion billion beings!), assaults Asgard, the home of the Norse gods. And almost missing a step (there’s a reprint issue – remember those? – of Thor’s first appearance in Journey into Mystery), the collection moves on to a somewhat disjointed story that finds Thor caught between the world-devouring Galactus and the sentient planet Ego – certainly doesn’t get much more “epic” than that (except maybe for the great two-part Doctor Strange story in which the Earth is destroyed and then reconstituted, with only the Doctor remembering it – but we’ll get to the fantastic Gene Colan Doctor thor2Strange again in good time here at Stevereads).

He and his Asgardian allies fight Pluto, the Greek god of death, and then there’s an odd interlude-story where the super-powered artificial being called Him decides that he wants to lose his virginity to … Thor’s immortal girlfriend, the goddess Sif. Not even the febrile imagination of Stan Lee attempts to come up with an actual reason for this – he just steams ahead, having Him abduct Sif and spirit her away. It incenses Thor – actually drives him to what Lee calls “The Warrior’s Madness” (oddly, Lee avoids calling it by its actual Viking term of berserker-fury). Even though Sif herself keeps assuring Thor that Him hasn’t harmed her,thor3 that Him is just a misunderstood man-child, but it doesn’t matter: Thor is lost in rage:

Speak not to Thor of madness! Speak only of revenge! Revenge! Revenge! Revenge! Such as none who live have ever known! If Balder call me mad, so be it! Of what use is sanity, when naught but power will prevail? And in all the world – save for regal Odin – there be no power to equal mine!

Him manages to escape, and when Thor calms down, he has to face the music for succumbing to the Warrior’s Madness – and the punishment Odin imposes is equally epic: he’s to seek out Galactus again and learn the world-devourer’s origins and intentions. And what Lee serves up is intentionally off-kilter: Thor and Galactus don’t fight – they sit and talk.

But the rest of the collection falters, and not just because Kirby’s artwork is gradually growing weirder thor4and more disassociated but because Lee’s writing is gradually growing a bit phoned-in. The volume limps to a finish with Thor fighting killer robots andlucy reading up on thor mortal bad guys and only barely manages to finish up with a win by presenting some of Jack Kirby’s original pencil-layouts for some of the pages reprinted earlier.

Even so, it’s by far the best “Epic Collection” of Thor that’s appeared so far, and it brought me a couple of hours of very warm re-reading. I of course eagerly bought all these individual issues as they first appeared, parting with 12 cents each time and flipping through their pages while my beagles snored all around me, and it quite apart from enjoying the stories all over again, it was nice to be reminded of those days.

November 10th, 2014

Comics! If Asgard Falls …

giant size thor 1Our story today is a corker from 1968: “If Asgard Falls …” from Thor Annual #2, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby (with customarily perfect inks by Vince Colletta), the kind of fine hammy high fantasy that always best suits this strangest of all the original crop of Marvel superheroes Lee & Kirby dreamed up, a clean-shaven version of the Norse god Thor, incarnated in the present day as a crime-fighter and Avenger. Don’t get me wrong: Lee & Kirby were such a genius team that they could – and did – create believable scenes where Thor foils bank robbers and mad dictators. But it’s these epic fantasy stories that really allow both writer and artist to cut loose. Here at Stevereads, of course, we’ve looked lovingly at some of those epic fantasy stories, here, here, and here, for instance.

“If Asgard Falls …” is a prime specimen of both how juicy this kind of story can be and how frustrating it can be. The story opens in the fantasy realm of Asgard, home of the Norse gods, where the Tournament of Titans is about to take place, a grand tourney of mock-combat among all the warriors of the extended realms of Asgard, with the winner getting a golden suit of armor. In a charming, quintessentially Stan Lee moment, Thor is standing at attention in his father Odin’s chamber, trying to ignore the whispered calls of his friends outside the thor destroyer 2window while the old man rants and rants and rants:

Yet, well do I remember those hallowed days of yore … when the bludgeoning blade of Odin did strike with the fury of a thousand storms! ‘Twas then the summer of my life … when tall and straight as an oak stood Odin! And now, though minstrels still sing of Odin’s feats … while campfires flicker … thy father hat reached the twilight of his years … ’tis for the young to seize the torch of gallantry and hold it high! Thus has it ever been! Thus shall it ever be! Even the aging lion must one day allow the eager cub to lead the hunt!

“What is this?” Odin finally says, “The attention of the thunder god doth seem to falter!” (Well yes, you old windbag – just about anybody’s attention would) Instead of banishing Thor from Asgard forever in response to this minor infraction – as he’s done countless times in the past and will do countless times in the future – Odin waves off his impetuosity and lets him hurry to the Tournament.

Where foul practice is brewing! In parallel plot-lines, we see Thor and his comrades being thwarted by illegal sorcery in the Tournament even while Thor’s distant, banished brother Loki is sending his spirit-form to Earth in search of a great villain from an earlier Thor storyline: a giant indestructible suit of armor called the Destroyer (those who know the Marvel version of Thor mostly from the movies will recognize the Destroyer from the first of those “Thor” movies) that needs a guest spirit animating it in order to move – enter Loki, who wants to use the Destroyer’s enormous powers in order to take his revenge on Odin and Asgard. Why Odin left the Destroyer’s empty hulk lying around in the ruins of an Asian temple is never answered, but then, “If Asgard Falls …” has more unanswered questions than even Stan Lee usually comes up with.

Starting with the origin of the Destroyer itself. In this issue, Heimdall, the guardian of Asgard’s rainbow bridge, exclaims, “‘Tis the living engine of destruction … created ages ago by Odin himself in the long-forgotten past to guard the planet Earth from ultimate disaster!” And only one page later, Odin himself says, “He was designed to serve Asgard … to be the weapon supreme in an hour of need! Hence, it did please me to make him indestructible!”

thor destroyer 3But regardless of why the Destroyer was created, Loki’s plan at first looks to be going like gangbusters: he’s plowing his way through the warriors assembled for the Tournament, pressing on straight to Odin’s dais, intent on using the Destroyer’s energy powers to bump off the old man. Here at Stevereads, we’ve seen Odin menaced by the Destroyer in other storylines, and in “If Asgard Falls …” (no explanation for the title, either – whether or not Loki succeeds, Asgard’s not endangered, just Odin) the very idea fills Thor with horror. He springs to confront the Destroyer, and in an absolutely professional panel sequence, Kirby shows us Thor’s blitzkrieg attack, culminating with a temporary downing of the Destroyer (“Asgard be praised!” Thor says, “I have achieved the impossible!”).

But the only real way to defeat the construct is to defeat its animating spirit, and when Balder the Brave shows up at the last lucy reading thorminute and tells Odin where he can find distant, exiled Loki, the key is clear – but, Balder wonders, is there time for Odin’s power to reach Loki and shut down his mind? To which Odin answers, “Banish thy fears! Am I not eternal Odin? Though the Destroyer be ready to hurl his bolt of death … ’tis I who possess the power to tear the very fabric of eternity! Thus at my command … let time stand still!”

And time duly does so. Why on Earth – or in Asgard, for that matter – the old goat didn’t just freeze time as soon as the Destroyer showed up (let alone why he was whining on about being old and feeble earlier on), we’re never told. Instead, he fires off a beam of energy that reaches Loki and puts him to sleep, thus causing the Destroyer to topple like a puppet with its strings cut. Then Odin, feeling uncharacteristically magnanimous, grants everybody a golden suit of armor for the day.

It’s a nifty, re-readable little story, one that sold well in 1968 and then sold even better when it was reprinted again in “Giant-Size Thor” #1 in 1975, this time sporting a classic Gil Kane cover that doesn’t even mention the Destroyer. And of course it’s been reprinted two more times, in the “Essential” series of black-and-white reprints and in the “Marvel Masterworks” series of color reprints. It stands as a classic example of the perennial problem of giving Thor a strong enough opponent to keep him busy.

July 15th, 2011

Comics! Big Events and Little Moments!

I admit: this week, I was mainly looking for something to take my mind off the coming Continuity Apocalypse over at DC (otherwise known as ‘the reboot that dare not speak its name’), so I concentrated my reading on Marvel, which hasn’t gone in for a Continuity Apocalypse in weeks now. This strategy is all the more ironic because Marvel’s super-hero universe isn’t the fictional ‘home’ for me that it is for most comics readers out there – I’ve always liked DC better, and in September I’m going to pay big time for that. But for now, I got to turn to the comparatively placid waters of all things mutant and web-slinger.

By sheer luck, I picked a week that has to rank as one of Marvel’s strongest all year – spearheaded by two Bit Events (not company-wide soup-to-nuts revamp Big, but big just the same): the first issue of the 5-issue mini-series “X-Men:Schism” by writer Jason Aaron and artist Carlos Pacheco, and the first issue of a new relaunch of “Captain America” written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Steve McNiven. In the former, mutant leader Cyclops attends an international arms reduction meeting with Wolverine along as his one-man security detachment. Cyclops intends to make an inspiring speech for human-mutant toleration (and just before the speech, he gets a great little bit of inspiration from Wolverine, in the form of the great line, “When there’s somebody around worth following, I follow.” As Cyclops says, “That’s probably the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me”), but what he ends up saying is, of course, “Nobody panic!” – because as always, the proceedings are interrupted by a crazy mutant attacking everybody in sight. Why would anybody in their right mind ever book a Marvel super-hero to speak in public? Why would anybody attend such a speech, when there’s a 100 percent certainty you’re going to get stomped on by Attuma or shot at by Kang the Conqueror?

Anyway, once chaos erupts at the conference, Cyclops and Wolverine find themselves fighting Sentinels, giant killer robots specifically designed to ‘neutralize’ mutants – only ‘fighting’ isn’t the right word, since our heroes almost perfunctorily wipe them all out. Sigh. I remember when the Sentinels were introduced, many moons ago, and the idea was that they were crafted (and could to a certain extent re-craft themselves, on the fly) to take down super-powered beings. So a Sentinel encounters Cyclops and re-configures its carapace to ruby quartz (which, as you fanboys out there will already know, is impervious to Cyclops’ eye-blasts) – right before blasting him with 700 volts of electricity: end of fight. A Sentinel encounters Wolverine and uses magnetism to confine him in mid-air, where he can’t slash or hack at anything: end of fight. Instead, Sentinels these days are like high-tech ninjas: they’re just there to be kicked around by the heroes. A dramatic opportunity wasted – but then, “Schism” is only in its first issue.

And so, now, is “Captain America.” Over in Marvel’s blockbuster summer mini-series “Fear Itself,” the ‘new’ Captain America (the original’s grown-up sidekick Bucky Barnes) was apparently killed in battle, prompting the original Cap, Steve Rogers, to take up the mantle and the shield again. Naturally, in an industry completely first-issue crazy, that meant a re-numbering of “Captain America” – hence this first issue, written by Ed Brubaker and drawn with odd, languid poses by Steve McNiven, whose action sequences owe so much to movie story-boarding that I kept expecting to hear “Cut!” at the end of every fight-scene. The issue itself is no great shakes (certainly not a patch on the last Cap first issue, the start of the great Mark Waid run a decade ago), but I find myself ambivalent about the whole re-launch, especially since a) I kinda liked Rogers’ new identity as “Super-Soldier,” and b) I always tend to dislike changes in comics that are entirely mandated by new movies (“Captain America: The First Avenger” premieres in just a few days – I’m sure we can expect a write-up over at Hello, Mr. Anderson). But again, it’s early days – we’ll see how the series progresses.

This week’s Marvel offerings also included an utterly charming issue of “Spider-Man” with just-this-side-of-corny writing by Dan Slott and extremely good art by Ryan Stegman – this particular issue serves up a genuinely heart-warming ending, even though it still manages to annoy Steve on a couple of minor points (like: Aunt May isn’t drawn as old anymore – she looks more and more like a version of Gwen Stacy who for some reason has grey hair – and writers continue to avoid dealing with the inconvenient fact that since Spider-Man no longer possesses his ‘spider-sense,’ he’d get shot to death every time he lept into some bad guy’s crossfire … although I can forgive things like that when compensated by such a wry cover as this issue had – as gentle a poke at Julie Tambor as the company could get away with). Still, the whole thing was charmingly done and as close to a stand-alone issue as any Marvel comic ever is these days.

And speaking of charming! My favorite little comic-detail this week was very little indeed: In the latest “FF,” there’s an ongoing storyline called “Two Kings” featuring the return of the Inhumans and their silent-but-deadly king Black Bolt (portrayed on the cover of this issue, for reasons that pass understanding, as sporting a pair of boobs that would do a female pro wrestler proud). This issue features not one glimpse of our heroes – it’s all a hugely enjoyable story about the Inhumans and their Kree progenitors, written with sharp skill by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Greg Tocchini with a mastery I’ve never seen from him before. And the little detail I loved so much?

At the beginning, in the issue’s credits, after ‘writer’ and ‘artist’ and ‘inker’ and such, there’s one simple line – “Two Kings: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.”

Perfect.

 

 

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 19th, 2011

Thor: The Mangog Saga!

Our story today is “The Mangog Saga,” but it wasn’t written down by Snorri Sturluson a thousand years ago – it’s of much fresher vintage. This is a four-part tale that ran in “The Mighty Thor” back in 1968, a grand, rip-snortingly epic tale brought to life by writer Stan Lee, penciller Jack Kirby, inker Vince Colletta, and colorist Sam Rosen.

Obviously, I was nudged to revisit this story by that last comics entry, where I mentioned that the revamped “Kid Thor” hero Thunderstrike faced off in his latest issue against a Thor super-villain named Mangog, a gigantic claw-fisted creature with a long tail, troubling teeth, and … the strength of a billion billion beings. Some of you wrote in (some taking advantage of the snazzy new ‘write to me’ box the right-hand margin; more such improvements to follow!) curious about my all-too-obvious eagerness to talk about this particular villain, but honestly, when it comes to all things Thor-related, I probably didn’t need the urging. I’ve read the four-issue run I’m dubbing “The Mangog Saga” many, many times in the forty-something years since it first appeared – indeed, I read it first as it was appearing, traipsing with my beagles to the town variety store month after nail-biting month. It’s something of an Asgardian miracle my issues haven’t disintegrated completely.

Our story starts in “The Mighty Thor” #154, a chapter called “To Wake the Mangog!” – and that chapter starts where pretty much every Thor story starts: in the middle of a fight between him and his scheming half-brother Loki. This fight is interrupted by an abrupt call from Asgard, the home of the Norse gods – a call from Odin, Thor’s irascible father, the king of the gods. Odin has sensed a menace looming in Asgard’s future, and he’s calling all his people back home to face it. While Thor stands at rapt attention listening to this warning, Loki takes the opportunity to flee – but then the warning stops, no further details forthcoming, and when Thor realizes Loki has escaped, he flies to the hospital where his immortal beloved, the goddess Sif, lies recovering from wounds she suffered at Loki’s hands. Thor finds her sleeping peacefully (“Thought the eyes of the thunder god now peruse my lady’s medical report,” he muses, “’twill require the brain of Dr. Donald Blake to comprehend what it doth signify” – an interesting indication that in Stan Lee’s original conception, Thor and his mortal alter ego Dr. Blake are entirely separate entities – they don’t even share the same knowledge – which is a far cry from how things are nowadays).

It’s always in hospitals that we’re most aware of how close ‘resting peacefully’ is to ‘rest in peace’ – and we’re not the only ones! While Thor is standing there fumbling with Sif’s chart, Hela, the Norse goddess of death, suddenly appears in the room. Thor draws the natural conclusion and speaks up immediately, barring Sif’s bed: “She did but suffer wound in battle! I vow she shall recover!”

But Hela’s not there to claim Sif – she’s there, for some inexplicable reason, to tempt Thor (that ‘inexplicable reason’ bit crops up more than once in this issue, reinforcing my theory – and longstanding gripe – that unlike so many writers, Lee always found the beginnings of big stories more difficult than any other part). She can’t simply kill him until he’s once again mortally wounded – a point of etiquette she’s going to forget in only ten years, as we’ve seen in a previous Thor post – but she can show him the wonders that await him: “Now come I to show what thou hast but postponed! Behold – the promised glory of Valhalla! Do but say the word, and everlasting battle can be thine!” She gestures, and Thor sees a hilly vista covered in armies with banners flying – it’s here that we get our first real taste of the great job Rosen will do in these four issues, masterfully playing somber deep-blues against garish bright yellows.

And Hela has an extra spokesman: Harokin! “God of Thunder – join us!! ‘Tis they once and former foe Harokin who calls thee! Eagerly we await thee – for thou art surely the mightiest of all!” As we’ve seen here at Stevereads, Lee introduced Harokin in his “Tales of Asgard” backup feature (a feature that had been all but shelved by the time of this issue) – that storyline was immensely popular with readers, hence the nod to Harokin here. It’s a very nice little gesture, but Thor declines the invitation, and Hela and her infomercial vanish. Lee shifts the scene to a far outlying district of Asgard, where the troll Ulik encounters a mysterious door inscribed “Let No Living Being Disturb What Lies Within.” As any fan of old Bugs Bunny cartoons will attest, there is only one moral thing to do when confronted with a door that says “Don’t Open Me” – and Ulik promptly does it. Thereby releasing the Mangog, who’s very big, very ugly, and very ticked off: “Let the Universe tremble! The Mangog Lives Again! I have one goal – one aim – one destiny: to destroy him who crushed the invasion of my race!”

But like so many of Thor’s villains, Mangog isn’t exactly well-stocked in the brains department; only one panel later, he tells Ulik “Mangog is the foe of all who live!” … not just Odin and Asgard. And he goes on to prove that point, but first, we cut back to Thor, who changes back to Dr. Blake and sits vigil at Sif’s bedside. Once she wakes up and he’s fairly certain she’s out of danger, he turns back into Thor and resumes his search for Loki, who in the meantime has fled to Asgard. There he finds turmoil – the city’s defenses are in hurried preparation, because they’re aware that Mangog’s chamber has at long last been opened and that one of the greatest evils of the city’s past is now free again. Loki’s nonplussed by all this – Odin jailed Mangog originally, after all, can’t Odin just re-jail him? Then Loki learns that Odin is sleeping the Odin-sleep: a deep regenerative trance from which he can’t be awoken. Lee introduced this rather homely plot device – an old guy who’s naps absolutely can’t be interrupted – and future writers would make great use of it, for obvious reasons: it takes the deus out of the machina long enough to make things interesting. Naturally, Loki only sees it in selfish terms – with Odin sleeping and Thor still on Earth, he himself is in charge: “Know you all that Loki now doth rule! Asgard at last is mine!”

Lee then temporizes again, putting Thor through some fairly mundane adventures – he stops a robbery and gives a pep-talk to some hippies (for you youngsters out there, ‘hippie’ was our word for ‘hipster’ – but the revolting, pretentious, unwashed phenomenon itself was completely the same) – before shifting to one last plot-strand: Balder the Brave, who’s dallying with Karnilla, the Queen of the Norns, when he suddenly senses the danger facing Asgard and tries to take his leave. This angers Karnilla, who’s hopelessly in love with Balder, and she shows him the price of defying her: there stands the Legion of the Lost, a small group of long-missing Asgardian warriors who now stand like statues on display in Karnilla’s hall.

It’s an odd, disjointed start, but things pick up pace considerably in the next chapter, “Now Ends the Universe.” The sense of menace has increased a dozenfold, and Balder’s not the only Asgardian who can sense it: Thor now grimly flies back to Lady Sif’s hospital room, where a nurse is sitting reading by her bedside. She’s startled when Sif suddenly sits bolt upright, and she’s terrified when Thor shows up in the room. Kirby and his inker and colorist do a very effective job here – by throwing Thor’s face entirely into shadow, they make this day-glo colored good guy suddenly alien and menacing. The technique works so well that David Mazzucchelli would use it forty years later in the great story “Daredevil: Born Again,” shrouding Thor in shadow to maximize the mystery and power of his one-panel-only appearance:

Thor is here on business this time: “Thou hast seen the omens! Thou hast heard the silent call!” He transports them both to Asgard, where they find the same chaos Loki found before them: the city in arms, dire reports already coming back from outlying garrisons …. and they find Loki himself on the throne.

At which point, characteristically, Lee pauses to check on his sub-plots! First he takes us back to Karnilla’s stand-off with Balder, as she reveals the “The Legion of the Lost” aren’t just a collection of statues – they’re the warriors themselves, which she now brings out of suspended animation and unleashes on the man who spurned her love. Balder is more annoyed by this than anything else – he can sense that Asgard is in danger, and he longs to answer the call, not fight some brainwashed minions. The second sub-plot Lee invents on the spot, again for no discernible reason: he shows us the far-distant Colonizers of Rigel dispatching the robot Recorder to investigate the source of the energy-waves they sense coming from Asgard. How they can sense energy-wave disturbances that haven’t happened yet – much less how the Recorder can simply fly to the mystical dimension where Asgard is located – isn’t explained, but this is something of a habit of Lee’s, this invoking an impartial witness to comics events he’s writing on a grand scale (the Watcher serves the same purpose in that first great Galactus story over in “The Fantastic Four”)

In any case, Loki shrilly defends his right to the throne and sends Thor and the Warriors Three – Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg – out to face Mangog, whose rampage through the outlying districts of Asgard we see in some typically rollicking action-panels by Kirby. During this rampage, Mangog begins hinting at why he’s such a bad-ass: an evil race, in a final act of defiance against Odin, distilled their entire population’s life-essence into the creature called Mangog: all their hate, all their thirst for revenge, and all their physical power. The result? You only have to listen to Mangog for about five seconds to know the result, because from this point out he repeats it whenever he opens his mouth: he has the strength of a billion billion beings! In other words, incalculable power – just as Doctor Strange can’t possibly defeat Eternity, just as the Fantastic Four can’t possibly defeat Galactus, just as the Silver Surfer can’t possibly defeat Mephisto, so even Thor can’t defeat a being with incalculable physical power. As one fallen Asgardian croaks out before he dies, “Not all the fabled strength of Thor – nor a thousand such – can make him cancel half a step!”

Lee likes this gambit – it allows him to throw the sheer courage of his heroes into sharp relief. Mangog can’t be stopped, yet all of Asgard (with the exception of Odin, who’s still sleeping, Balder, who’s still battling the brainwashed Legion of the Lost, and Loki, who’s still under the impression he’ll have a kingdom left to rule when Mangog’s finished) marshals in a desperate attempt to do just that. As this chapter ends, Asgard’s defenses lie in ruins, the Warriors Three are trapped under boulders, and Thor himself is in pitched, losing combat with Mangog.

The next issue, “The Hammer and the Holocaust,” that battle is fought in earnest, and here’s where a novice reader might expect Lee to pull back from his own premise, to make the give-and-take between hero and villain more even – but it doesn’t happen: Thor is completely and hopelessly outclassed from the beginning. The most he can do is slow Mangog down a bit with storm and wind and rain (Colletta and especially Rosen do fantastic work in these sequences), all the while rousing his comrades: “Are we not warriors born? Are we not Asgardians all? Are we not akin to gods? Not for such as we the pale cast of surrender! Whilst we live, we fight! And as we dare – so shall we win!”

Winning isn’t an option, however, and in very short order our heroes retreat to Asgard just ahead of Mangog. In the center of the city itself, Thor joins the final knot of resistance, the last line of defense before the main palace. Everybody now knows – because Mangog has been repeating it every few seconds, that the monster’s goal is now to pull from its scabbard the gigantic Odin-sword, which will release shock-waves of such ferocious power that they’ll destroy the entire universe. Why Odin would forge such a device and then leave it lying around like a Ming vase in the front foyer is yet another journey into mystery – and I’m also more than a little curious how in the dickens Mangog even knows the thing exists. Maybe he became a fan of Marvel comics during all those eons he was imprisoned behind that warning door (and as for why a monster with the strength of a billion billion beings couldn’t break down that door but scruffy old Ulik the troll could, well, it’s not all that clear to me either).

However he came by the knowledge, Mangog is in the home-stretch when our fourth chapter, “Behind Him – Ragnarok!” opens. He’s wading through the cream of Asgard’s defenders with no trouble at all when suddenly a wave of reinforcements arrives – Balder, leading Odin’s reserves, headed by the Legion of the Lost, who’ve been freed from their brainwashing by the sight of his bravery! This four-part saga is liberal with full-page shots, and all the artwork is quintessential Kirby, a bludgeoning symphony of action, but this panel, with Balder leading one last desperate charge of mounted warriors, is a hum-dinger (it’s the kind of thing a modern artist would ostentatiously sign and sell at conventions).

It’s all for naught, however – Balder and his reinforcements are brushed aside just as every other defense has been. Thor races to the palace of sleeping Odin (there’s a wonderfully understated moment where he encounters Loki in the chaos – the one brother hurrying to the center of the danger, the other fleeing from it – neither has any use for the other, and they part with harsh, dismissive words), where he finds the Lady Sif and the robotic Recorder standing lonely vigil by the Odin-Sword. Lee gives us a perfect cinematic counterpoint, slowing down all the action to a single moment, which Kirby captures with an extreme close-up: “The very walls begin to crumble,” Thor marvels. “Art thou frightened, most fair Sif?” Sif answers serenely: “Whilst I stand with thee, my lord? Nay – whatever befalls, my heart is calm … and ever thine!” Then the moment is shattered in a classic Kirby panel of explosive movement, as Mangog breaches the final wall and sees the Odin-Sword at last.

This is yet another point where you might expect Lee to side with his embattled heroes even at the cost of his own premise – last-ditch efforts and characters shiningly out-doing themselves are, after all, stables of his comic book writing, especially when the end of the world is at stake. But again, it doesn’t happen – Mangog is simply too powerful to be inconvenienced. He swats aside all last-minute opposition and seizes the Odin-Sword. The Recorder observes, “And now begins the ultimate end … already the cosmic shock waves start to form.” But still Thor doesn’t yield – he summons a raging thunderstorm, and at the very last minute, it becomes clear why: he’s trying to wake up Odin – and it works. Odin halts Mangog, re-sheathes the Odin-Sword, and then undoes the process by which Mangog was created: we see an image of a billion billion beings repopulating distant planets. Odin implies that these are now a peaceful people, and he declares that the crisis is passed (he also implies that it was he himself who bottled up their collective essence in the form of Mangog, whereas earlier Mangog states categorically that ‘his people’ created him themselves). It’s an abrupt ending to a rousing Lee-Kirby cosmic saga, a four-issue gasp of sharp air before Thor inevitably returns to Earth and resumes battling with armed gangsters and giant robots. Lee was never truly able to reconcile the two worlds of his mightiest hero; when Thor’s on Earth fighting super-villains, he ridiculously over-matches his opponents – but Lee feared that if he spent all his time in Asgard fighting cosmic menaces like Mangog, he’d lose his super-hero appeal. Personally, I never believed this (and most of the fans who wrote in to the magazine during those years didn’t believe it either – “Tales of Asgard” arose in part from those letters imploring Lee to give readers more of super-heroic Asgard), although taking Thor entirely out of his more mundane story lines would have deprived readers of some peachy moments.

Shall we deal with one of those Earthbound story-arcs next time we examine Thor in Marvel Comics? Or shall we pick another mega-saga instead? Only the spinning Norns know for sure! In the meantime, here’s an image to cut-and-paste into your Christmas cards next winter:

September 25th, 2010

Comics! Thor relaunches!

Well, here the issue itself is, the capstone on our aforementioned glut of Thor-comics, so I could hardly refrain from mentioning it. It’s Thor #615 (flat-out amazing that Marvel didn’t relaunch the whole thing with a spurious first issue – an adult must temporarily be in charge at the House of Ideas), featuring writing by Matt Fraction and typically gorgeous artwork by fan favorite Pasqual Ferry.

Those two names – especially the latter – will give any alert reader the tip-off why more hasn’t been made of this change in creative team: neither Fraction nor Ferry will be sticking around. My guess is that they were both contracted for six issues – the length of a graphic novel – and that Fraction will write all six and Ferry will draw four before bailing (if reneging on work-contracts were a super-crime, every single creator in comics today would have to start wearing iron face-masks and calling themselves “Doctor”).

In the meantime, the two are faced with the same old problem that’s always confronted writer and artist teams working on Thor: how do you handle his dual heritage as a character? Tough enough to write a super-hero who’s as powerful as a god and keep things dramatically interesting (ask any Superman writer), but what do you do when your character is a god?

Naturally, us long-time Thor fans can’t help but hark back to Stan Lee, who knew perfectly well that this would be the central dramatic hurdle of the character. And he was typically canny about it: not only did he saddle Thor with a fairly draconian weakness (if he lets go of his hammer for longer than a minute, he reverts not just to the powerless mortal Don Blake but to the crippled powerless mortal Don Blake – sheer Lee over-the-top genius), and not only did he periodically have Thor get banished to Earth by his tubby nutso father Odin, but he was careful to switch up the nature of the character’s adventures. For three months, he’d be fighting the Absorbing Man or androids on Earth, and for the next three months he’d be off in space saving the Colonizers of Rigel from Ego the Living Planet.

(Lee and Jack Kirby also had the inspired idea of cutting Thor’s actual adventures in half and putting a back-up feature in almost every issue, “Tales of Asgard,” where they could give readers their fill of the cosmic Wagnerian side of the character, thus freeing the front half of the book for often more mundane adventures)

The old challenges with the character are still here in this effective relaunch: Thor is still the most powerful Marvel character (able to lift well over 100 tons, able to fly, invulnerable, able to control the weather, and possessing roughly 2000 years of combat experience), effectively ruling out the viability of nine-tenths of the potential villains you might run against him. And in response to this challenge, Matt Fraction does indeed hark back – but only about ten years, to the character relaunch done by Dan Jurgens and John Romita Jr. in 1998. Then, as now, Asgard is attacked by a new group of immensely-powerful super-baddies we’ve never heard of, setting the stage for some of the epic action sequences Ferry does so well.

The main difference here is that Asgard isn’t attacked directly – it’s in ruins on Earth, after all, in the wake of the “Siege” storyline. Instead, the extra-dimensional void left by Asgard’s absence is attacked by the aforementioned super-baddies, who are trying to take advantage of the fact that the universe is out of joint to score a little quick real estate.

The issue itself is just dandy, with only a couple of reservations. Ferry’s artwork is eye-popping as usual, and there’s a quite good little moment where Thor reminisces about his evil half-brother Loki, conceding that he was evil but admitting that he misses his brother just the same. Don Blake is still here as Thor’s alter-ego, but it’s the least well thought-out aspect of this current incarnation of the character (and the new wrinkle that Thor and Blake aren’t the same person, that they can have cute little internal bickering sessions, needs to die a speedy death). And Odin is still technically dead, off in the realm of death fighting eternal battles to protect the home dimension. So Fraction has some junk to clear away.

Because as is so often the case, the basic Stan Lee template for this character is the best one – not for sentimental reasons but because it works better than any other. Before Fraction departs for the next project he’s always ‘dreamed’ of doing, he needs to fix three things: a) he needs to get Asgard off Earth and back into its normal place in the cosmos, b) he needs to return Odin to life and the kingship of Asgard, and c) he of course needs to return Loki to the ranks of the living, since you can’t have Thor without his best villain.

Fortunately, the kind of big cosmic story Fraction has chosen to kick things off here can easily accomplish all three of these well before the Thor movie opens, and then all will be right again with my favorite Marvel character.