The Stuff Of Legends
Aside from my rave for Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, my Longbox Graveyard reviews have been pretty qualified. I danced around the fact the Micronauts wasn’t very good. I damned Captain Marvel with faint praise, and feasted on my own liver in reviewing my brief run on Rune. Even my sentimental favorite Conan the Barbarian couldn’t score better than a “B” on the LBG Report Card.
Much of this blog is about revisiting stories I enjoyed in my youth and it is inevitable many will pale on reexamination, but Walt Simonson’s Thor is a rare example of a comic improving with age. I admired these books in the early eighties, but having read them twice in recent weeks, I can say that admiration has grown into an arrested development, fifty-year-old fanboy crush. Without qualifiation, these are pitch-perfect books. They’re straight-A efforts, ten-out-of-ten, Full Stop.
I need little excuse to write about Thor. He’s one of my favorite comic book heroes, and one of the founding impulses for this blog. But with the (quite entertaining) Thor movie coming out this week on DVD, this seems an especially good time to look at the Odinson, and also to linkbait random degenerates with promises of Chris Hemsworth naked (continuing my shameful tradition of Chris Evans naked, and Jason Momoa naked, too!).
There’s a lot to cover with this book, so I’m going to break my appreciation of Simonson’s run into multiple columns, beginning this week with the first of a two-part examination of issues #337-353, from the introduction of Beta Ray Bill to the conclusion of the “Surtur Saga.”
But before getting to that specific story, I want to concentrate on what I think most sets this run apart from other books and other interpretations of Thor — the way Simonson handled the mythological aspect of the series.
While Thor was born in an era where Marvel would try just about anything, the concept of a mythological character as superhero was still pretty “out there,” and basing the book on Norse myth (rather than the Greek and Roman stories American kids get in school) made the idea more bizarre still.
But somehow, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee made it work (most of the time), and since the strip’s birth in 1962, Thor developed a rich supporting cast and mythological continuity that transcended the superhero-inhabited New York City that was home to the rest of the Marvel line. Seemingly every troll, giant, god, and goddess mentioned in Bullfinch’s Mythology got the Jack Kirby treatment and showed up in the book as some crazy combination of swords, horns, armor, and fur.
Those mythological roots are both the promise and the peril of Thor. Mishandling this aspect of the book is a one-way ticket over the Rainbow Bridge (and that the recent movie did such a good job with its Asgardians I count among its greatest achievements), but ignoring this problematic backstory makes Thor just another superhero book, with a dude in a winged helmet babbling pseudo-Shakespeare and clobbering bank robbers with a hammer.
The best runs on Thor strike a balance, using Thor’s mythological origins to provide a fresh spin on the superhero story, constructing subplots and story arcs that can’t be told with more earthbound superheroes, mixing up the action between Midgard* and the eternal realm of Asgard. Simonson’s plotting, dialog, and pencils during this run were all superior, but it was in his masterful handling of Thor’s rich mythos where Simonson proved himself the finest Thor creator of all time.
Walt Simonson, master of Gods and Man!
Central to Simonson’s mythology is the way he handled Thor and his fellow Asgardian gods. Simonson’s gods are prey to all the longings and jealousies of mortal men, but with the operatic scale of immortals. Simonson keeps all the hair and horns of Kirby’s most outrageous character designs but keeps the characters simultaneously relateable and awesome (in the original sense of the world).
Taking us inside the minds of the immortals requires an even greater commitment to the fundamentals of storytelling. With all the gods, spaceships, dragons, and fire demons flying around this series, it would be easy to get lost in spectacle for its own sake. Simonson keeps us grounded with brilliantly rendered characters with meaningful external and internal struggles.
These larger-than-life characters require larger-than-life storytelling, and Simonson delivers. His characters aren’t superheroes in godly clothing. Simonson treats his gods like Gods, bound by strange conventions and limitations, fully aware of their own archetypal nature, and frequently imprisoned by it. Odin and the Asgardians sometimes seem prisoners of their own legends, and when Thor hears the prayers of “the Last Viking,” he answers — and leads that follower to a warrior’s death.
Thor does his “God thing”
But for all his godly majesty, Simonson’s Thor is also a down-to-Earth character who enjoys dwelling among mortals. He is refreshingly free of angst or guile. This Thor is so forthright he’d be boring if not for his engaging tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve, and for the genuine stock he puts in his friendships, both with mortals and his fellow Asgardians.
Simonson’s Thor is heroic, headstrong, dutiful, and happy to be Thor! Rather than burden his thunder god with Scandinavian melancholy, Simonson concedes that, yes, ‘tis good to be the God of Thunder, which is really the only sensible conclusion to reach about a character who is immortal, handsome, supremely powerful, and heir to a kingdom of gods.
’tis good to be the God of Thunder!
For all his unequaled power, Thor is at his core the firstborn trying to make good in the eyes of his father; that he exceeds all expectations save his own gives the character a rooted and endearing humility. Thor is the most powerful being in his universe, but he still needs his friends and family — and he knows that he needs them. That gives the audience a place to enter Thor’s story, and feel that his struggles have meaning, even if we know Thor’s conquest of the trolls/giants/supervillains are literally foreordained.
Simonson likewise finds the archetypal heart of Thor’s supporting cast. Simonson’s Asgardians are painted in broad strokes, but because Simonson understands the core of these characters, their interstitial scenes are genuine and memorable. He takes the characters seriously and gives them meaningful character arcs. Simonson makes heavy use of subplots in this run, cross-cutting between Thor’s story and those of his supporting characters; checking in on Sif, Beta Ray Bill, Loki, Volstagg, Baldur, and especially Odin (yes, Odin!) from issue to issue is one of the distinctive joys of this series.
Volstagg is still used for comic relief, but Simonson gives Volstagg a kind of self-aware wisdom, casting him as an aging warrior for whom food is the last pleasure in life. This Volstagg isn’t a clown — he inhabits his own legend, and uses his bulk to cloak his quite canny objectives with oafishness:
Baldur is a creature of light spiraled into depression after having returned from death. As the most cheerful and optimistic of the Asgardians, Baldur’s depression is felt by all — if this guy feels doom, then the doom must be real:
Loki is largely in the background in this run, but his few scenes are ace, as when he lets himself be decapitated for the sake of a jest:
Sif has a nice little empowerment and self-discovery arc, getting over her infatuation with an emotionally distant Thor to find glory in battle and love in unlikely places:
While not a proper Asgardian, Beta Ray Bill proves immediately likeable as the guardian supersoldier of a dying alien race. While introduced as a villain who steals Thor’s hammer and powers, when we learn Bill is a feared outcast who sacrificed his humanity for the good of his people, he becomes a paragon of selfless duty. Bill’s heroism and nobility reminds us of Thor’s best qualities, and when Odin restores Bill’s humanity (by neatly subverting the obsolete enchantment on Thor’s hammer that permitted Thor’s transformation into mortal guise), there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Simonson’s handling of Odin is especially deft. This Odin is a troubled liege, haunted by prophecies and the sins of his past (as when with his brothers he taunted the fire god destined to destroy the universe, leading to his brothers’ deaths and setting off the main events of these particular issues). Odin is a loving father not just to Thor, but in turn also to Sif, Baldur, and even Beta Ray Bill, giving them what they need, but not necessarily what they want. He probes the cosmos for signals of war but censors himself from observing Thor’s romances, saying that sons should have secrets from their fathers. In god-like fashion, Odin’s attention is given equally to the infinite and to the needs of a single worshiper, when he appears as an old hermit to bless the spear of Elif, the last viking, before he rides to battle.
Odin demonstrates his wisdom by sending other gods to do what he could better do himself, to help those gods grow and heal, and by putting aside past disputes by summoning the Enchantress, the Executioner, and Tyr to defend Asgard in her hour of need. Even with his realm facing its darkest hour, Odin shows himself a legitimate “all-father” by taking time to see to the emotional and physical safety of Asgard’s children.
Odin is not blind to his sons’ faults so much as he is eternally optimistic of their virtues, leaving a light on in the window for Loki, and letting headstrong Thor gain wisdom the only way he can — by getting his ass kicked. He thinks nothing of laying his son’s identity and life on the line in mortal combat with an alien warrior, and to laugh behind-hand when his son is humiliated by defeat. It is only later that what seems cruelty is revealed as wisdom, when we come to suspect Odin intended only to teach Thor a lesson, and that the loving father would have intervened had Thor been in genuine jeopardy.
Thor, Odin, Sif, Baldur, Volstagg, Loki, Beta Ray Bill … and Simonson is still just getting started!
Click HERE for part two of this review, where our mighty host takes on an alien invasion, a talking dragon, and a sword-wielding fire god who spells DOOM for Asgard itself!
NEXT WEEK: #14 X-Ratings
*Midgard = Earth