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!
Mighty Thor #1
I liked about half of what is going on here, but as a whole the book fell just short for me. Writer Jason Aaron starts out well, with sensitive if grim insight into the realities of being a cancer patient, and then the book hits the gas when our lady Thor goes into action, with a daring space rescue that so exceeds the ability of lesser heroes that the Avengers are reduced to spectator status. But then the book hits a wall, with a lot of exposition about Asgardian political intrigue, punctuated by an unfortunate sequence where a bunch of senators argue with each other from floating platforms that evokes the most tiresome scenes of the Star Wars prequels. This is a beautiful-looking book — artist Russell Dauterman gives it his all — but he might more easily heft Mjolnir than make a dozen pages of talking-head exposition play, especially one laden with verbal wet noodles like “If the Congress of Worlds will not intervene IMMEDIATELY to stop these atrocities then it has forsaken everything for which it was ever meant to stand …” What’s next on Asgard C-SPAN? How a bill becomes a law? I appreciate the ambition — and the subject is handled with taste — but having cancer at the heart of this story was also a dangerous distraction. Cancer isn’t a radioactive spider — it has struck close to home for far too many of us. Jane Foster can beat her cancer by turning into Thor, but it comes back with a vengeance when she returns to her mortal form. Yet she refuses to remain Thor because the mortal work she has to do is so important that she cannot remain Thor all of the time. That’s not enough. When that bastard cancer has hold of you, you’ll do anything to beat it. Anything. No way do secret identity concerns or political intrigue move the needle when cancer is in the room. I expect I’m missing subtext here, and I do sense that I came in to this saga at the wrong moment — that I should go back and read the well-regarded series that led into this — but this is the jumping-on point for this new series, and it failed to onboard me as a new reader.
Approachability For New Readers
Poor. This was my first experience with Lady Thor — I would have appreciated a bit more insight into how she came to be, and less senatorial thundering about elvish treaty violations. Existing readers might regard this as making mountains out of mole hills, but this is the first issue of a reboot and I hold it to a higher standard.
No, at least not without going back and reading much of what has come before.
Read more about Marvel’s monsters at Longbox Graveyard
Read more capsule reviews of Marvel’s All-New All-Different rolling reboot.
This past week saw my semi-annual family outing to Disneyland, in honor of my oldest boy’s seventeenth birthday.
(If your seventeen-year-old consents to going to Disneyland with you, the only response is “yes.” This may well be the last time I enjoy Disneyland with my boy).
We had the usual time — it was a good day — and it was relaxed enough that we visited some out-of-the-way corners of the park, including the Marvel attractions that have been shoehorned in to the “Innoventions” pavilion … a kind of spare-parts collection on the rump side of Tomorrowland, occupying a building that hasn’t quite had a purpose since America Sings packed it in back in 1988. Now it’s full of Microsoft stuff and … of interest to me … artifacts from Marvel’s recent movies.
Front and center was the Iron Man Hall of Armor.
I’d seen these suits when they made the tour at San Diego Comic-Con, but it was nice to get close to them in the sparsely-attended exhibit. There was a motion-capture gimmick where you could stand in line and seem to “suit up” in the armor on a large view screen. My boy started listing the obscene gestures he’d make were he to get on camera, so rather than have security tackle him, I contented myself with snapping an illicit photo of The Flash inside Tony Stark’s holy of holies and hustled everyone onto the next display …
… which was the Treasures of Asgard throne room.
From the outside, it looked like a short line-up to view various props from the movies. I remembered the big Asgard throne from Comic-Con a couple years ago, so I figured it was worth checking it out for my family, who liked the film.
Turns out that behind the doors were more prop exhibits and a little show. The voice of Anthony Hopkins gave us a potted history of Asgard and Midgard* (*Midgard = Earth), then a mole fogger and some disco light whisked us away to the Realm Eternal.
Yes … at the end of our Rainbow Bridge was one of those awkward autograph encounters with a Disney princess, but in this case the princess was a kid in a Thor suit (who did a fine job, but still — awkward). We snuck out while he was signing autographs for a couple kids who seemed convinced that they’d really gone to Asgard.
Overall, Marvel has little presence at Disneyland. It feels a bit like the characters are sleeping on the couch. But from little things do mighty exhibits grow, and Disney has a tradition of repurposing film props as attractions (in fact, one of the original “rides” when Disneyland opened in 1955 was a walk-through of sets from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea). In time I expect we’ll be able to experience Marvel rides at Disneyland, just as you can presently adventure along with Indiana Jones and Star Wars/Star Tours. My preference would be for Disneyland to level the nostalgic-but-underutilized Tom Sawyer’s Island and replace it with Marvel’s Manhattan.
In the meantime, Flash got to photobomb Odin’s throne room.
This week’s F.O.O.M. Friday is the “Irving Awards” ballot from F.O.O.M. #9 that I carefully filled out … but apparently never sent in!
This earnestly-filled-out ballot is like a time capsule for me!
First of all, my penmanship wasn’t half-bad for a twelve-year old … and I was confident enough to do the ballot in pen!
Second, that return address was for my grandmother’s house, which meant my family and I were between addresses when I subscribed to F.O.O.M. — likely still at the Hollywood, CA address where I experienced the first blush of my personal Golden Age.
Third, I really liked Thor! My nominee for “Favorite Marvel Color Story” was Thor #227, the first issue of that series I ever saw:
I have no clue why I nominated Thor #153 as my favorite cover — I must have been confused, as I’ve never laid eyes on that issue! And I was likewise confused about many of the creative roles called out for making comics, having no favorite Penciller (neglecting to understand that Penciller = Artist), and, I am sure, just picking the names of Inkers, Letterers, and even Writers at random!
A bit more care went into my character selections. It would have been cool to pair Firelord with the Human Torch in Marvel Team-Up (and there’s another Thor #227 connection, as Firelord figured in that story). Likewise, the Vision was definitely the guy-most-deserving of his own book in 1974, and a Hawkeye/Spider-Man partnership still sounds like fun to me!
Finally, even though I wasn’t a Spider-Man fan, and even though I’d never read a story about him, so great was my love of dinosaurs that I nominated “The Lizzard” as my favorite Marvel villain. It’s possible I’d encountered the character in a Ditko reprint some time in 1974, but chances are better I was thinking of this guy:
See you next week for another F.O.O.M. Friday!
The Sequart Research & Literacy Organization is a non-profit organization devoted to promoting comic books as a legitimate artform. This is the second time I’ve published an article at Sequart, as they previously reprinted my piece on how Grant Morrison and Alan Moore handled the death of Superman.
Thanks to Sequart for publishing my work! Head on over to Sequart to see what I had to say about Don Blake, then feel free to come back here and tell me what you thought!
- Thor WHO? It’s Beta Ray Bill! (Graphic Novelties) (popmatters.com)
- Review: Superhero Convergence – Thor Enters the Dark World (tmrzoo.com)
- Top Five Thor Battles (goodcomics.comicbookresources.com)
- Secret Identity (birthdayinabox.com)