The Mighty Thor: Mjolnir’s Song
Thor: Ragnarok is in theaters this week, and the movie looks a treat, full of Hulks and gods and laughs and action. Mostly, it looks … big.
But no matter how big this film may be, it can’t be bigger than this Thor story from thirty years ago …
Welcome to the Dollar Box, where I review comic book treasures with an original cover price of a dollar or less! For this installment I wanted to do something big … and you don’t get much bigger than Thor #380, where every page is a full-page shot!
The year was 1987, and Walt Simonson was nearing the end of his run on Thor. And not just any run — for my money, Simonson’s Thor is in the discussion for the finest comics run of all time. I’ve already enthused about the first issues of Simonson’s era over at Longbox Graveyard (in two parts — ONE, and TWO), but with this issue we are in Simonson’s late innings, and the shadows are beginning to lengthen. Simonson had ceded his pencilling duties to Sal Buscema after issue #368, but like one of his Norse heroes, the master returned to the page for one last epic adventure with the God of Thunder, doubtless feeling some pressure to top the stellar work he had done before. The result was this “all-splash page” issue of Thor, an attempt to tell a big story with the biggest possible images.
And this is a big story. Thor battles the Midgaard Serpent … the mythological, world-girdling wyrm destined to slay Thor at the end of time. Thor has always been a book heavy with mythological overtones, and never moreso than in Simonson’s run. When Thor takes to the field of battle against the Serpent, it is with the full, crushing awareness that this is a battle he cannot win, and that his death at the fangs of the Serpent — followed by the destruction of the Earth that he loves — is his inevitable fate.
But what makes heroes into heroes is how they face their doom, and defy the fates, and that is what we have in Thor #380. Weakened by Hela’s curse, and sustained only by his magic armor and the power of his mighty hammer, Mjolner, Thor faces long odds in this battle. The Serpent is well aware of Thor’s sudden mortality, and also knows that this strange circumstance may free him of the doom that binds him to Thor — if he can kill this godling now, weakened as he is, then he might re-write his own fate. After all, he, too, is destined to die on the last day in battle with Thor.
Big stakes, big pictures, and big storytelling, and it works (mostly), not so much as a stand-alone issue, but as a victory lap for the end of Simonson’s long run on this title. Telling a story in this format is epic, but not ideal. A comic story needs images of differing sizes to operate at best efficiency. When all panels are the same size, they are afforded equivalent visual weight, working against the emotional pace of a story. The absence of conventional panel structure is especially acute when showing rapid action, such as when Thor is swallowed by the Serpent, then bashes his way back out through the monster’s teeth, a sequence better suited to two panels than two pages. But as a once-in-a-lifetime event — and especially as a punctuation mark for Simonson’s stellar run — it is fun to see storytelling on this epic scale.
There’s that word again — epic. “Mjolner’s Song” is epic in more ways than one. Tying the whole thing together is an “epic” in a literal sense. Storytelling captions narrate Thor’s battle the way some skald might tell it in the mead hall. These captions serve to heighten the mythological import of the conflict, while at the same time offering juxtaposition for the dialogue of our combatants, who can be charmingly flippant at times.
In the end this is a confident and fearless issue that echoes the confident and fearless approach Simonson took to his run on Thor. Throughout his time on the book, Simonson boldly reinvented the rich legacy of the stories and characters that had come before, and embraced the magical weirdness of his subject matter — Simonson confidently and unapologetically gave us talking serpents and heroes who were simultaneously bound by their fates yet also self-aware enough to note that they have an infinite capacity for stupidity!
In the end, it is that “capacity for stupidity” that may provide the most important secret sauce of all for these kinds of broad-shouldered, super-heroic tales. Simonson was a master at telling Silver Age stories in a modern style. He kept what worked of all that had come before, ignored what didn’t, and cheerfully reinvented comic book storytelling, leaving us work that still resonates three decades later. Since these stories were printed, Thor has gone on to become a major movie property (thanks in no small part to the foundation Simonson laid down during his tenure), but even the finest effects Hollywood can muster can’t lay a finger on the battle Simonson gives us here.
It’s big, it’s loud, it’s fun, and it may even be infinitely stupid … but it is also an example of what comics do better than in any other form of fiction. In the end, it is tales like “Mjolner’s Song” that keep us reading and collecting this unique art form. This issue is well worth tracking down, either in original form, in one of Marvel’s many reprints, or online (in it’s entirety) thanks to my fellow blogging pal, Mars Will Send No More!
This column originally appeared at Stash My Comics.
The Bride of Ultron
Welcome back to The Dollar Box, where I look at single issues and short runs of comics with a cover price of a dollar or less. With the Age of Ultron dawning in theaters this week, I thought it a good time to revisit this classic Ultron story from the pages of Avengers #161-162.
But in between was a two-year run helmed by Jim Shooter, where he brought his finely-honed Silver Age sensibilities to Marvel’s premiere superhero team. Shooter’s Avengers are best remembered for the Korvac Saga, but my personal favorite portion of Shooter’s run is this two-part story from Avengers #161-162. Featuring rich characterization, explosive action, and extraordinarily tight pencils and powerful visual storytelling from artist George Perez, these issues represent the soul of late-1970s Avengers.The 1970s were a golden age for the Avengers. The brand had not yet been diluted by West Coast Avengers or today’s endless spin-off books, and with only one place to go for Avengers action, Marvel lavished the title with their top talent. The decade began with Roy Thomas’ Kree-Skrull War, and continued under Steve Englehart in a series of stories that would test the Avengers both without and within. The era would conclude with a Roger Stern/John Byrne run where the Scarlet Witch would start to show some of the awesome power (and instability) that would later haunt her in Marvel events like The House of M.
Jim Shooter’s editorial reign at Marvel remains a controversial period, but there’s no disputing that Shooter was a superior comic book writer. A genuine savant, Shooter began his career at the tender age of thirteen, writing and drawing for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, which he would write through that book’s mid-1970s signature run. With Legion, Shooter demonstrated that he could handle ensemble stories that were rich in complicated backstory — skills that would serve him well in this tale of fathers, sons, and Oedipal yearnings.
The action kicks off in issue #161’s “Attacked By The Ant Man!” where Hank Pym has evidently suffered some kind of mental breakdown, accusing the present-day Avengers of being imposters attempting to replace the original vintage versions of those characters, who had first come together with Ant Man to form the team in the pages of Avengers #1.
The fight is on!This being a Silver Age-style Marvel comic, our heroes solve their differences by beating the tar out of each other, showcasing Shooter and Perez at the top of their game. Perez orchestrates the visually-complicated team fight with relish, while Shooter demonstrates his deft touch with expository dialogue — making sure that readers know who each character is, and making clear why a seemingly-insignificant character like Ant Man poses a threat to earth’s mightiest heroes. In the span of four perfect panels, we see how Ant Man can summon a swarm of ants to do his bidding; how those ants exploit Iron Man’s weakness by flooding through the eye-slits of his mask; and how Ant Man retains enough of his full-sized strength to clout Captain America on the jaw.
Shooter isn’t content just to recycle old tropes. After making clear that the Vision’s powers are based on making himself insubstantial, he follows up with a power trick (never used before or since?) where the Vision defeats a swarm of ants with an electrified shock. But that does nothing to stop Ant Man from taking out a pair of Avengers with his patented, grow-suddenly-to-full size sneak attack, expertly set in motion by Perez’s pencils.Part of Shooter’s ethos was to make sure that any readers picking up a comic for the first time would not be completely lost, and this awkward speaking of characters’ names and out-loud restating of action and results is part of that agenda. But it also serves to provide a verbal, character-driven rhythm for these stories, where even veteran readers had something to see, nodding along as familiar characters behaved in believable ways. It’s the kind of storytelling that comics can do especially well, and a strength of the form that is rarely used by current creators. Likewise, having characters speak aloud their internal monologues and footnote the uses and limitations of their powers would never wash on film, but when well-executed in a superhero comic, it is pure four-color fun.
Here Shooter employs his mastery of backstory, rooting Hank’s breakdown in the character’s checkered history. Madness isn’t too much to expect of a character who’s brain has been stressed by a career filled with growing and shrinking powers, and poor Hank has had breakdowns and multiple personalities in his past.The timely arrive of Hank’s wife — Janet Pym, the Wasp — allows the Avengers to get the upper hand, and take stock of what drove Hank off his nut.
Even a transitional scene affords room for Shooter to provide characterization. Here we see the Beast — having only recently joined the team — struggling to fit in with the rest of the Avengers.The Avengers, of course, take all of this in stride, and quickly act to help their fallen friend.
Looking back on these tales, of course, we know that they are Ultron stories, but at the time, his reintroduction was a bit of a shock. His appearance was hinted-at in the preceding issue #160, but Ultron had been out of action since taking a powder in Fantastic Four #150, three years before. That’s a long time for a Marvel super-villian to stay on the bench. While making an indelible mark in his introduction arc circa Avengers #55, I’d argue that it is in these Shooter/Perez stories (which would continue in Avengers #170-171) where Ultron became an A-list Marvel bad guy.
It’s perfectly appropriate for a megalomaniacal rage case like Ultron to state his name during his dramatic entrance (which again helps new readers), and in the fight that follows demonstrates through action the villain’s extraordinary strength and the invulnerability granted by his adamantium body. Iron Man gets humiliated a second time, having cleared those ants out of his helmet only to have his transistors drained by the bad guy. Again we see Shooter’s touch with exposition, leaving no doubt about how Ultron has felled Iron Man.
Round One to Ultron!
It is in issue #162 that the emotional undercurrents of this story are fully realized, as we learn of Ultron’s scheme. Ultron’s plan is deeply disturbed, and revolves around deceiving his creator/father, Hank Pym, into working his will …
Hank’s brains are still too scrambled to see what is coming, but certain of the Avengers begin to entertain dark concerns.
(And as an aside, I think Perez proves himself an especially great Iron Man artist in this issue — I feel like I can see my own reflection in Iron Man’s face plate thanks to the way Perez draws the character).
Meanwhile, back at Ultron’s secret lab, Hank abets his monstrous creation in draining the life force from his own wife, Janet (who by extension is Ultron’s mother!) into the unnamed shell of Ultron’s intended bride. This is the first appearance of Jocasta, a largely-forgotten part-time Avenger who would go on to feature in some pretty decent comics in this era.
But by investing his affections in this mechanical obsession, the previously-impervious Ultron also inherits a liability. His love of his bride makes Ultron vulnerable in new and disturbingly-human ways — a weakness Iron Man is quick to exploit.
It is a mean-spirited way to defeat a villain — a point Shooter skillfully drives home when Black Panther later admonishes Iron Man for attaining victory in such dishonorable fashion — and the Avengers don’t seem to win this battle so much as they attain a temporary reprieve. Ultron quits the field but this conflict is far from resolved.
Unlike most of the stories I review at The Dollar Box, this two-issue tale has plenty of loose ends … but they’re the right kinds of loose ends, deliberately-unresolved plot threads designed to bring you back the following issue. Hank Pym is still insane, and no one is sure what to make of Jocasta, who as the final panel of this issue indicates played a pivotal-but-secret role in defeating Ultron. How will Janet Pym react to having part of her life force drained into a mechanical being? As far as our heroes are concerned, Captain America, the Beast, and the Scarlet Witch are all dead. Ultron is still on the loose. There’s even a subplot featuring Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid (!) that is ready to boil over!
A great Avengers run lays just over the horizon, and these issues are a great place to jump on board. You can get each of them in decent condition for just a little bit more than a contemporary comic book, which is a bargain for a pair of the most iconic Avengers stories ever published. These issues are also a part of Marvel’s growing digital library. They may be non-canonical, insofar as the movies are concerned (where it is Tony Stark — and not Hank Pym — who conceives of Ultron), but they remain among the finest Avengers comics ever published. Excelsior!
This article originally appeared at Stash My Comics.
NEXT WEEK: #147 Top-10 Super-Dogs!
Here Comes Daredevil!
Usual topicality this month for The Dollar Box (my occasional series where I look at comics with an original price of a dollar or less) — Daredevil #1 might be a half-century old, but it feels more up-to-date than ever thanks to the Netflix Daredevil television series that debuts this month!
But before Daredevil looked like this …
… he burst upon the world looking like this!
And how did Daredevil fare in his debut issue, in that long-lost year of 1964? Read on!
Writing a decade after-the-fact in Son of Origins, Stan Lee suggests that Daredevil was his favorite Marvel creation, and says that the character’s origin stemmed from trying to conceive of a character who had a disability — rather than a super-power — at his core. Crediting the 1930’s Duncan Maclain mystery novels by Baynard Kendrick, which featured a blind detective, as an inspiration, Lee arrowed in on creating a blind superhero, leveraging the “… common knowledge that when a person loses his sight, his other senses usually become somewhat keener as he grows more dependent upon them.” While the character would of course have a colorful name and costume, Lee deliberately excluded super-strength from the character’s powers, writing that “the uniqueness of our new character would lie in the fact that his senses of hearing, smell, touch, and taste would be many, many times keener than those of a sighted person.”
Daredevil #1 hit the streets in mid-1964, with Bill Everett credited as “illustrator” but later acknowledged as co-creator of the character. Comics historian Mark Evanier determined that Jack Kirby also made significant contributions to Daredevil’s character design, coming up with Daredevil’s billy club, and effectively drawing the first page of the issue (which was repurposed for the cover), but the mood and atmosphere of the first issue are undeniably Everett. Working full time outside of comics, Everett drew Daredevil #1 in the margins of his time — the book was late (and incomplete, with backgrounds and secondary figures filled out by an uncredited Steve Ditko and Sol Brodsky), but the concept may have had personal resonance with Everett, given that his daughter, Wendy, was legally blind.
Unfortunately, Daredevil #1 would be Everett’s first and only outing on the series … but what an outing it was! Daredevil #1 is an excellent single-issue story, and one of the finest origin stories ever published.
The tale begins Fogwell’s Gym — a moody and murky storefront plastered with peeling boxing match handbills, and patrolled by a slinking alley cat. Upstairs, in a dingy room above the gym, a brace of mob tough guys kill time around a poker game, before they are interrupted by the literally glowing figure of young Daredevil.
When Daredevil brazenly announces that he is here to battle the mobster’s boss — “The Fixer” — fisticuffs naturally follow, and the next two pages of the story are a wonderfully swirling, kinetic, and exciting storm of panels that expertly show the nimble and acrobatic Daredevil getting the best of his beefy foes. Daredevil dodges attacks, knocks a gun from his opponent’s hand with his thrown billy club, swings from rings on the ceiling, and taunts his enemies with sarcastic quips that would be central to the character’s swashbuckling persona (at least until Frank Miller arrived on the scene, twenty years later).
Having put paid to the bad guys, the story flashes back to the origin of Daredevil, showing how young Matt Murdock agreed not to follow in the athletic footsteps of his father, prizefighter “Battling Murdock,” but would instead stick to the books to become a lawyer or a doctor. The hard-studying Matt was derisively nicknamed “Daredevil” by his peers for his refusal to join in neighborhood games, but as a natural athlete, Matt had little trouble working out on his own, while remaining a star student.
With his son dutifully following an academic path, Battling Murdoch found himself in a jam — on the downside of his boxing career, Murdoch signed up with “The Fixer,” a brutish gangster who looked like nothing so much as a gorilla with a hat and a cigar.
Murdoch’s joy in securing paying fights was juxtaposed against Matt’s unlikely origin, where he was struck in the eyes by a radioactive cylinder while saving an old man about to be run down by a truck. (Hey, it happens … and at least it also gave us the origin of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!).
The father took the news hard, but Matt faced up to the accident — which as rendered him blind — with characteristic optimism, saying that he’d continue his studies in Braille. In short order, Matt had graduated high school and gone on to college, where he met his roommate (and future law partner) Foggy Nelson, and also discovered that his senses had become startlingly acute …
… so sharp was Matt’s perception that he could navigate through the world with a kind of “radar-sense.”
Meanwhile, for Battling Murdoch, it was time to take the fall — his string of victories, engineered by The Fixer, were only to set up a big score in the championship fight. But with his son Matt in the audience — and in a move that couldn’t surprise anyone who had ever seen a boxing movie — Battling Murdoch ignored his boss’ orders and pummeled his opponent into submission, earning the victory … and a bullet in the back, courtesy of the Fixer.
Though Matt passed the bar and set up a law practice with Foggy, the death of his father would haunt him, and so, in one of those natural-only-for-comics epiphanies, Matt decided to clad himself in yellow-and-red long johns and avenge his dad as the superhero, Daredevil!
(Daredevil’s all-red uniform would debut a half-dozen issues later, when Wally Wood was doing the book).
And so we are back where we began, with the colorfully-costumed Daredevil facing down the Fixer and his goons. After a bit more of Everett’s splendid action, the Fixer is on the run, but Daredevil neatly tracks him by the scent of his cigar, leading to a confrontation in a subway station, where the Fixer drops dead of a heart attack, and his triggerman confesses to the murder of Battling Murdoch.
It’s an economical conclusion to a fast-paced and tight bit of comics storytelling, which also quickly introduces Matt’s supporting cast of characters, even setting up the love triangle between Matt, Foggy, and their secretary Karen Page, which would be the centerpiece of some (frankly) tiresome tropes as the series wore on. Not a panel is wasted in this 23-page masterpiece where we quickly understand the relationship between Matt and his father; get on board with the studious Matt as he develops his mind and his body; and accept his unlikely accidental origin as no more or less ridiculous than most other Silver Age stories. Daredevil’s powers and limitations are clearly delineated, but but even more distinctive is Everett’s smokey world of boxers and gangsters. While still a part of the emerging “Marvel Universe,” Daredevil’s world seems as separate as it could be from the sun-lit urban canyons where Spider-Man was spinning his webs and battling outrageous, costumed, science-fictional villains.
I would dearly love to see how Bill Everett would have developed Daredevil’s world, but this was his sole outing with the character. Though the book would benefit from a parade of great pencillers — including Wally Wood, John Romita, and Gene Colan — the series would not achieve A-list status until Frank Miller’s signature run in the 1980s, which adopted many of the grim and gritty visuals established in Everett’s Daredevil #1. But Miller’s Daredevil would have little in common with the swashbuckling, optimistic character as written by Stan Lee — Miller’s Daredevil was a dark, tortured spirit of vengeance, trained by ninjas and (in a hard-to-swallow bit of retconning) beaten and abused by his father.
Frank Miller’s Daredevil is a long way from the Silver Age version …
I love Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and will concede that it is the superior interpretation of the character … but Daredevil’s early adventures have a charm of their own, and never more so than when Bill Everett’s shining Daredevil plunged into the blue-grey murk of the boxing underworld to avenge his father while never losing track of the qualities of forbearance, education, and intelligence that made Matt Murdoch a hero before he ever pulled on his yellow-and-reds.
While Daredevil #1 had an original cover price of twelve cents (!), you won’t find a copy for many times that figure now. Catapulted to comics greatness by Frank Miller’s signature run, and then surviving a wobbly theatrical run under Ben Affleck, Daredevil is poised for pop culture stardom thanks to a Netflix original TV series that ties into Marvel’s riotously successful cinematic universe — and all of these things ensure you won’t be finding Daredevil #1 in any Dollar Box ever again. But this is still a terrific comic book, and I encourage you to hunt down a reprint or a digital copy — there is something here for every Daredevil fan, whatever their age or whoever “their” Daredevil may be.
IN THREE WEEKS: The Bride of Ultron!