Posts from May 2014

May 3rd, 2014

Great Moments in Comics: Thor Versus the World Serpent!

thor coverFor our latest Great Moment, we harken back to the heady days of 1987, to Thor #380, with writing and page-layouts by the mighty Walt Simonson and very able artwork finishes by Sal Buscema. The issue is in many ways the climax of a storyline that had gone on for a year. In a fit of spite, the death-goddess Hela had placed a curse on our heroic thunder god – a twofold curse: his bones would suddenly become brittle, but no matter how badly they were damaged, he’d be unable to die. Over the course of many issues (in Thor’s own title, and also in The Avengers and even The X-Men), Thor had his arm broken, his ribs broken – all without the hint of healing or relief. Eventually he fashioned a suit of protective armor in an valiant but vain attempt to keep his body from deteriorating as he fought his, um, never-ending battle against the forces of evil.

In issue #380, “Mjolnir’s Song,” Thor and his armor are put to the ultimate test: he faces off against a creature every bit as much out of Norse mythology as he is himself: Jormundgang, the World Serpent who’s fated to kill Thor during the great final battle of Ragnarok.

In addition to being a fantastic storyteller, Simonson was one of the most inventive writers Thor ever had, and it shows in “Mjolnir’s Song.” He tells the story entirely in splash pages, and the artwork is grand and stylized, and the narration-boxes simulate a Norse edda recounting the action between these two as they fight and talk and fight some more.

But it’s the dialogue that makes our Great Moment. Jormungand has been mocking Thor for his curse-spawned weakness, and every comeback Simonson gave to Thor just snapped with signature deadpanning. It was all entirely out of character for Thor (nothing like it would have been recognizable to Stan thor panelLee, for instance), but boy did it make great reading – especially the moment when Thor launches himself straight at his enormous enemy and recites some classic Simonson lines:

You said it yourself, Jormundgand! The trouble with godhood is that it robs you of your finer judgment! And that is why we will never be the same. You are a mighty fighter, but in the end, you are only a selfish creature while heroes … heroes have an infinite capacity for stupidity! Thus are legends born!

When the two come together, the sheer force of the impact sends them both reeling – Jormungand seemingly destroyed, and Thor? Well, it’s an empty suit of armor that lands on the ground seven paces away, and readers had to wait a month to find out whether or not their Asgardian hero would remain a puddle of pulverized jelly for the rest of time.


He doensn’t, but as I mentioned at the time, Walt Simonson is one of the only comics writers I know of who could have made the monthly adventures of a puddle of pulverized jelly actually interesting.

October 10th, 2013

The Walt Simonson Thor!

thorcoverOur book today is the latest Marvel Comics paperback reprint from what’s become known in reverential whispers as “The Simonson Run.”

Walt Simonson’s run as writer and artist on Thor only lasted a comparatively short time – from the golden year of 1983 to the golden year of 1986 – but media experts and comics fans unhesitatingly place that run of issues among the most accomplished and definitive for the character, an epoch to rival or perhaps surpass the great Stan Lee/Jack Kirby years. One of the most remarkable aspects of Simonson’s run is how confident it is, visually and rhetorically, right from the start (when Odin, the king of the Norse gods, abruptly transports his son Thor to Asgard from Earth, leaving Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. standing alone in the rain asking a typically wry Simonson-style question, “Don’t these people ever travel in dry weather?”). There’s no tentative growing into a style, as is so often the case with even the best artistic runs on certain comics titles. Instead, Simonson knows what he wants to do right from the start.

The simplest way of summarizing what he wanted to do is: to humanize Thor without quite making him human. Gone are the Sir Walter Scott-style ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ of the Stan Lee years, replaced with an oddly but believably quasi-elevated style of diction employed by Simonson’s Asgardians (with whom we spend a good deal of time, since Simonson, like Lee before him, clearly considered Thor’s back-story to be infinitely rewarding). Gone is the bombast (even, mostly, from Odin, who under Lee’s tenure was the Way, the Wonder, and the Windbag), and gone are the often wooden characterizations that could mar even the most powerful of Lee’s storylines. All Simonson’s characters – be they human construction workers, Asgardian rank-and-file warriors, or the heads of pantheons – are immediately recognizable people, acting from any number of real-feeling motivations, rather than the simple on-note heroism or one-note villainy that tended to satisfy earlier writers of the title.

Simonson also brough humor to the fore in a way no earlier writer had quite dared to do with Thor. Stan Lee displaced all his humorous impulses into stock clown far from the fields we knowcharacters like the rotund Asgardian warrior Volstagg, and although later writers like Gerry Conway would sometimes add little comic gags (Hercules deploring the look of Thor’s Teutonic helmet, for instance), the book was for the most part unrelentingly serious. Simonson kept the high seriousness, but right from the beginning of his run, he began injecting an element of sly, tongue-in-cheek humor the title had never seen before – including, famously, the issues where he had Thor temporarily transformed into a god-sized frog (“What do you call a 6’6″ fight-mad frog?” asked one of the covers, and when the reader opened the issue, he found the title on the main page answered the question: “Sir!”).

But as refreshing as such winking and nudging could be, it was a side-show to the main story Simonson used to kick off his run, and he built that story gradually. In the middle of some entirely unrelated adventure, we would suddenly cut to a shadowy figure working an enormous anvil “far from the fields we know” – a nice allusion to Lord Dunsany – a figure obviously forging something big and dire. Gradually, these little glimpses grew bigger and more detailed; gradually, we saw that the figure was immense, and that a vast, uncountable army was sitting in the darkness, eagerly watching the creation process.

odin and sonsBy the time Simonson was ready to move these tense little vignettes to the center stage, regular readers of Thor were half-mad with curiosity to know who the immense forger was, what he was making, and what all of it portended for our stalwart Asgardian heroes. It was a masterfully-done feat of building expectations, but as any seasoned thriller writer could attest, it runs the risk of making the final revelations seem distinctly anti-climactic. The fact that it didn’t happen in this case was entirely due to Simonson’s retrograde willingness to tell Stan Lee-sized stories. It turns out the immense shadowy figure is Surtur, the primordial destroyer from Norse mythology who has forged the Sword of Doom in order to use it to destroy Asgard and her god – and all life in the universe in the process. This is an elder-god Surtur who’s as uninterested in being an ordinary ‘villain’ as this version of Thor is in being an ordinary ‘hero’ – and Simonson doesn’t hesitate to present Surtur as the equal of Odin in power.

Surtur rampages to Asgard, stomping on all resistance he encounters. Meanwhile, Earth is attacked by seemingly endless hordes of Surtur’s demons, forcing the Avengers to team up with the Asgardians in a fight that spills across all of Manhattan (even after a dozen years, the scenes showing the heroes rallying around the Twin Towers still have the power to sadden, like coming suddenly in a happy, smiling photo album upon a picture of someone long dead). In a desperate last stand in Asgard, Odin, Thor, and Loki are finally united as father and sons against a common, unbeatable foe. Before Simonson, fans would hardly have believed it possible for such a sequence to be accomplished with the wonderful combination of humor (“For Asgard!” Odin cries; “For Midgard!” Thor cries; “For myself!” Loke cries) and grand guignol action, and yet Simonson would go on to dream up half a dozen such sequences before his tenure on the book was over.

Two years ago, Marvel Comics published a gigantic doorstop of a hardcover Thor volume collecting Walt Simonson’s entire run on the book in gorgeously re-mastered color. That book was only just barely affordable at $100 and not at all portable. With a multimillion-dollar new “Thor” movie about to open in theaters worldwide, Marvel has seen fit to calve more manageable little glaciers off the great massif of that hardcover, and the latest of these features that first stunning, wide-scale Surtur story. Thor fans will of course know the splendors awaiting them here, but even newcomers will feel themselves pulled right away into Simonson’s fantastic world of wise-cracking gods and smiling villains and desperate all-or-nothing combats. This is as good as four-color comics get, and now with 80 % less wrist-strain!

July 11th, 2012

The People of the Black Circle!

Our story today is Robert E. Howard’s arch 1934 Weird Tales masterpiece, “The People of the Black Circle” – not the story so much as its most stellar adaptation, beginning back in 1976, in issue #16 of that epic old Marvel Comics fantasy magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan. Marvel’s ordinary-sized four-color comic starring Conan, “Conan the Barbarian,” had become a critical darling and an early fan favorite, and for a while, the world seemed to smile on all things Conan (if only things had gone slightly differently, alas! If last summer’s Conan movie had caught on with audiences, we might be living in a Second Age of Conan even now – I certainly did my part in trying to bring about such a golden time – and the movie’s star, Jason Momoa, gave the thing his all – but theater audiences can be fickle creatures, and the lightning just didn’t strike. Sigh). Even some of those earliest fans of the comic book were skeptical about the magazine, butThe Savage Sword of Conan was superb fantasy fare from its very first issue and stayed superb for a good long time. A newcomer to comics or fantasy literature could pick up a copy of issue #16 (provided they could find one reasonably priced, not always the easiest thing) and easily find themselves spellbound.

Of course, that newcomer would have quite a bit of industry overkill to wade through first – in this case, courtesy of issue #16’s hilariously garish cover illustration by Earl Norem, which features just about every stock ‘sword and sorcery’ image that came to the artist’s mind, all plunked together willy-nilly like globs of fat in a bubbling gumbo. There’s Conan, of course, swinging away with his bloodied broad-axe (he’s not actually looking at where he’s swinging it, but he’s Conan – maybe he doesn’t need to). On some mysterious little rise of ground behind him is the requisite buxom blond in negligible bangles, looking more stoned than terrified (given her position, she’s lucky Conan – who I presume she knows – hasn’t accidentally decapitated her). In the background is the requisite wizard (you can tell because he’s got pretty cardboard stars sewn onto his bathrobe) casting some nefarious spell at our hero, to no obvious effect. Conan’s too busy for spells anyway, since he’s surrounded by foes – living foes, one (presumably non-union) dead foe, and even, for no discernible reason, a green foe. It’s a lot to process.

But oh! The sheer splendors that await the reader who can somehow manage to choke down the ridiculous overkill of that cover! The first instalment of “The People of the Black Circle” is written by the great Conan scripter Roy Thomas and drawn by his long-time stalwart collaborator, John Buscema, whose work here is elevated from very good to downright beautiful by the careful, gorgeous inks of Alfredo Alcala. Thomas lovingly adapts and expands on Howard’s story of a plotting secret society that employs cutthroats, harlots, and one or two genuine wizards (in one chilling sequence, one such wizard calmly tells a hapless guard “I no longer need you – kill yourself” – and Buscema provides a devastatingly calm horizontal sequence showing the guard doing just that).

And that’s just the issue’s first feature. The stunning thing about these oldSavage Sword issues is the sheer array of first-rate talent they could amass in a single issue. #16 is no exception: one of the back-up features is drawn with meticulous detail and gorgeous contrasts by Barry Windsor-Smith, and another is drawn by later “Thor” fan favorite Walt Simonson, in his best full-grandeur style.

There’s nothing even distantly like this being done today by either Marvel or DC, which makes these old Conan-celebrations all the more satisfying to revisit. Almost like a lost world, or something.

April 18th, 2012

Comics! AvX and an ‘ah’ Moment!

Marvel’s latest crossover-crazy brou-ha-ha, “Avengers V.S. X-Men,” continues this week where it left off last time: the X-Men are holed up on their island off the coast of California, harboring a young woman named Hope, who’s very likely the focus of the vast and destructive Phoenix force that’s rapidly approaching Earth. The Avengers have come to take the girl into their own protective custody until they can figure out what to do about the situation, but the X-Men – led by eye-blasting mutant Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) refuse to give her up. Leading to the inevitable: a Marvel super-team fight!

This one is written by Jason Aaron and drawn by John Romita Jr., and this latest issue is basically one big brawl. And reading the issue is about as entertaining as watching one big unscripted chaotic melodramatic brawl: not much. Aaron provides some enjoyably sharp narrative – this is by far the most adult-sounding superteam-fight-event Marvel’s ever produced – but he’s clearly taken not even five minutes to choreograph exactly what would happen if two well-populated super-teams squared off on a beach. The Red Hulk and Colossus start pounding on each other, but they seem far removed from everybody else; the Thing and Luke Cage fight the Sub-Mariner underwater and seem to be holding their own despite the fact that Namor can breathe in that environment and they can’t; Magneto and Emma Frost are fighting Iron Man one minute and Doctor Strange the next; Cyclops gets his face plastered by Captain America’s shield because he apparently likes firing his eye-beams at it instead of, say, using them to pulverize one of Cap’s feet and take him out of the fight, and then suddenly both teams are hurriedly converging on the X-Men compound to check on Hope, for all the world as if they hadn’t just been beating the stuffing out of each other.

To be fair to Aaron, brawls like this one are almost impossible to pull off (and this one would have been impossible, if the plotters behind the whole mini-series hadn’t contrived to have some of the Avengers’ most powerful members – including Thor – conveniently off-world when this rumble happens), so this one is probably done as effectively as possible. It’s less easy to be fair to fan-favorite artist Romita Jr in this case, since his artwork here is almost exclusively lazy, full of repetitive, lateral views (and some odd problems with scale), in many cases saved from being outright boring only by Laura Martin’s coloring job, which is once again superb.

Fortunately, fans of superhero comics art get a real treat elsewhere in this week’s offerings! The latest issue of Brian Michael Bendis’ “Avengers” title features a boring cover by Daniel Acuna, but the inside artwork is by none other than comics legend Walt Simonson, and although his ability to draw team-oriented action hasn’t improved any over the decades, fans won’t care about such details – like me, they’ll be looking for one thing only, and in a glorious full-page-and-then-some panel, they get it: the mighty Thor, drawn by the artist who gave readers the definitive run of the character’s own book! The moment is worth it, especially for nostalgic fans who might have missed a Thor who actually smiles, as Simonson’s Thor habitually does. The issue itself is fairly rote take-down-the-bad-guys stuff, but just seeing Simonson’s hopeful, square-jawed rendition of Thor was a classic ‘ah’ moment.