Friday, June 12, 2009

Comics: The Infinity Saga!

Our 'book' today is the great seven-issue "Infinity Saga" story arc from 1970's Marvel Comics Thor, a baggy magnum opus that would mark Stan Lee's departure from regular scripting chores on this title (he was leaving all his usual Marvel haunts around this time, or had left them already and was 'training' the next generation of writers, uncredited, of course). He leaves Thor with a real flourish, uncorking just the kind of quasi-mystical cosmic-sized storyline that's perfect for the character and his mythological cast.

Perfect because what other good use can you find for Thor? The character is as strong as the Hulk, and he controls the weather, and he's got thousands of years of experience in combat - in normal comic book terms (A.I.M., Magneto, the Red Skull), he's pretty much unbeatable. And unbelievable - as I've mentioned here before, why would the Norse god of thunder bother to spend any time at all stopping the Stilt-Man's latest crime-spree? No, the character is much better served with sprawling cosmic epics - and despite his undeniable skill at small interpersonal moments, Lee clearly relishes such epics. His run on Thor is saturated with them (especially if you include his Tales of Asgard backup features, where he simply gave the tendency full rein), and "The Infinity Saga" is one of the best, despite the obvious signs all through it that Lee was growing a bit tired of the genre - or worse, finally running out of nifty ideas.

The story starts clean enough - Thor is striding down the streets of Asgard, home of the gods, having been summoned from Earth (where he'd just spent two issues kicking Doctor Doom's ass and off-handedly destroying the armed forces of Latveria) by his father, Odin. At the time of this story, Thor and Odin are on good terms - which is fairly remarkable as far as Thor goes during Lee's run (in fact, Lee's Odin might be one of the most consistently unpleasant parent-figures in all of comics - if Superman ever read these comics, he'd be glad Jor-el wasn't around to endlessly criticize his taste in girlfriends). Thor shows up in the royal audience chamber and finds Odin mighty perturbed. He's been troubled by portents of dark evil at the edge of the known universe, a great nebulous hand that seems to be wiping out whole worlds. These portents are matched by some closer to home: not only is the weather on Earth all screwed up, but in Asgard the massive Odin-sword is slowly inching from its sheath. If it were ever to be unsheathed, the resulting shockwaves would tear apart all creation, as Thor well knows (it came up in a previous Lee Thor epic, one we'll cover in the fullness of time). "Each fateful day I find it thus!" Odin says, re-sheathing it. "Each fateful day I sheath it anew!"

And that's not all: all through these things, Odin's had one word repeating in his head: Infinity, Infinity, Infinity! He has no idea what it means, but, as he tells Thor, he suspects knows somebody who does: the Silent One, a mysterious robed figure who appeared recently and, true to his billing, says nothing. Odin's sure he's connected to the mystery of Infinity - and he's sure the danger can only be faced in the heart of nebulous disturbance - the World Beyond (you can see what I mean here, right, about Lee's slightly flagging inspiration? The names in this story tell it all: The World Beyond, Infinity, The Silent One, The Guardian ... as generic as as generic gets). Odin has already sent three of Thor's friends, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg, to investigate the World Beyond, and now, over Thor's objections, he goes himself - with the Silent One following right behind.

Loki, Thor's evil half-brother, sees the fireball of Odin's departure and takes the opportunity to return from exile and raise a troll-and-giant army to attack Asgard. His minions capture Thor's best friend Baldur the Brave and Thor's Asgardian girlfriend Sif (the fact that Thor for the longest time kept a girlfriend in Asgard and a girlfriend on Earth can be chalked up to the fact that Lee was, pound for pound, the coolest writer comics have ever had), but Thor quickly rescues them and tells off his brother, irritated that Loki can be so petty even when something as big as the World Beyond is threatening them all. Evil half-brothers! There's simply no living with them!

Predictably, Thor decides to go after Odin. He whirls his hammer and flies to the World Beyond, which turns out to look a lot like Scotland - lots of rocks and mist, plus irritable natives: in the case, a four-armed giant who calls himself the Guardian and insist Thor has to die. While they're grappling, the Guardian points out that the only exception he's ever seen to the rule was the white-haired old guy who showed up recently and was claimed by Infinity himself - naturally, on hearing that Odin passed this way, Thor goes wild to find his father and promptly kills the Guardian to get him out of the way (this also is a feature unique to Thor during Lee's run at Marvel: although he's careful to observe Earth politeness when he's on Earth, when he's offworld Thor kills his enemies with a happy recklessness). But there's another obstacle: out of the mist steps Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg, who've been taken over by Infinity and turned into Thor's enemies! They mindlessly shuffle forward to do battle with him, but since he can't bear to lift a hand against them, he creates a cyclone with his hammer and sends the three of them back to Asgard - along with his hammer.

At the same time, we get some great surrealistic shots of Odin off somewhere fighting against the unseen Infinity while the Silent One watches - these and other panels throughout "The Infinity Saga" really give artist John Buscema a chance to strut his cosmic stuff in a way he wasn't doing in any of the other Marvel titles he was drawing at the time (yes, you heard that right: he was drawing more than one title a month, all superbly, and all on deadline, often for years at a stretch ... sounds impossible, doesn't it?)(of course the pinnacle of his 'cosmic' style happened in Silver Surfer, but it's more prolonged here in Thor)(his artistry is here immensely helped out by the stunningly clean inking job of Sam Grainger and Joe Sinnott, and by a superb coloring job done throughout by an uncredited master, Stan Goldberg).

There are two problems with Thor's strategy for disposing of his brainwashed friends: first, according to the enchantment Odin put on his hammer, if it's away from his possession for longer than one minute, he reverts to the puny mortal surgeon Don Blake, and second, whenever the Guardian gets killed, he gets revived by Infinity. That happens now, and poor schlub Don Blake is facing a quick, messy end as the Guardian advances on him.

Even in the midst of his own battle, Odin sees the trouble his son's alter ego is in and fires off an energy-bolt that stuns the Guardian long enough for Thor's hammer to return to him. Thor and the Guardian face off again, Thor charging straight at him with inimitable ferocity and hitting his favorite refrain from the Lee/Kirby years: "As thou art strong, so Thor is strong! As thou canst fight, so Thor canst fight! But as thou be mortal, Thor be God of Thunder!" Nothing like a little taxonomy to clarify a scrap.

Thor defeats the Guardian and finds the Silent One beckoning him. The walk through the mist a bit, and then Thor meets the last person he'd expect to find out here in the middle of nowhere: Hela, the goddess of death! Buscema takes the old slightly frumpy Jack Kirby version of the character and makes her an arresting figure - eight feet tall and unapologetically curvaceous (she's a whole lot more impressive-looking than a little goth girl in a tank top, if you know what I mean).

She pops up out of nowhere and stuns Thor with a bolt of life-ending energy; as she vanishes from the scene, we see Thor rapidly aging and dying - until the Silent One revives him, at the cost of his own life. Thor takes one panel to grieve over the old creep, then he flies off to Odin's side ... only to find Odin looking just as brainwashed as Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg! Yep: while Thor was busy with Hela, Odin lost in his fight against Infinity and was taken over - and he promptly attacks Thor.

It's a fight he can't possibly win, and he knows it, and Odin knows it (even brainwashed, the guy's a champion windbag, telling Thor, "'Twas I who made thee what thou art! 'Twas I who gave thee godly power. For I am the Will, the Word, and the Way! And I say thee now ... thou must fall!") - so Thor flees back to Asgard, where in his absence the good guys - including Baldur and Sif - have been trying to come up with a way to push the Odin-sword back into its sheath, to no avail.

When Thor shows up and tells them the worst possible news, that Odin is possessed, they're naturally distraught. They've seen how tough it is to break Infinity's possession: the sexy Norn Queen Karnilla came to Asgard specifically to break that possession (she agreed to do so in exchange for the, er, gratitude of Thor's friend Baldur - she loves him, but he can't return that love as long as she's a kinda-sorta enemy of Asgard ... it's one of those fascinating quasi-subplots that Lee could string along literally for years) and failed until Loki reluctantly helped her. He's been hanging around this whole time, snarling and sniping, despite continuously having it pointed out to him that if the Odin-Sword actually comes out of its sheath, he'll die too. Evil half-brothers! I tell you!

Eventually, Loki sees the light and actively tries to help; he and Karnilla pool their vast magical energies and fire off a bolt of power designed to stop Infinity from merging completely with Odin. The bolt fails, but it gives Thor an idea: if Karnilla uses the life-force of all the strongest Asgardians for another try, it might work. They do, and it does - Odin wakes "as though from a haunted dream" and summarily destroys the remnant of Infinity still hovering around.

He returns to Asgard and undoes all the damage (everything on Earth is righted too), and everybody lives happily ever after. It turns out that months ago, while Odin was in one of his period semi-hibernations known as the Odin-sleep, Hela had split off a portion of his soul, and that portion had become Infinity, and Hela, being the goddess of death, had very much liked Infinity's world-gobbling ways (that's why she was on the spot to zap Thor when he was in the World Beyond). Since Infinity is now re-absorbed into Odin, the crisis is passed.

Or is it? In a coda only Stan Lee could pull off, Odin sternly warns everybody that since Hela was denied her prize of Odin's soul, she'll certainly come looking for Thor's (nobody - including Lee - seems to recall that she already did come looking for Thor's just a couple of issues ago). The triumphant chapter ends in looks of horror all around.

Odin comes up with a temporary plan: "Thou shalt assume thy human form - be the mortal Donald Blake and hide thyself 'pon the distant planet Earth. Once thou art safe, the time will come to plan." In a bolt of energy, Thor is sent back to Earth and into hiding, and then Lee shifts the scene to Hela's cold, foggy underworld and gives us one of those great, seemingly effortless glimpses into the souls of his so-called villains that were, up until he came along, utterly unheard of in comics. Hela, it turns out, isn't really a bad guy at all - at least, she doesn't see herself that way: "Why do the living so fear my touch? Do I not bring peace to those who long have borne life's burden? Do I not bring rest at the end of life's weary journey? Do I not banish pain from all who may suffer? Do I not cure all ills and put an end to all wounds? In truth I am gentle - in truth I am fair. To me, all are equal! I deny none my embrace." It's hammy stuff, true - but it's epic hammy.

Loki goes to Hela to tell her that Thor is hiding on Earth, and while he's doing that, Baldur is going to Karnilla to ask her help in saving Thor - help she's happy to give him, if he finally renounces his allegiance to Asgard and swears fealty to her. Outraged, he draws his sword in front of her minions, but ultimately her arguments sway him and he swears. She sends him to Hela's realm, where he's just in time to stop Loki from blurting out the part about Thor being in human form. There follows a panel-quick battle in which Loki uses his vast sorcerous powers to flatten Baldur - a good reminder that not all Asgardians are created equal: Thor and Loki are the two biggest hitters. But Hela, bored with the fighting, banishes them both from her realm before Loki can spill the beans.

She decides to visit Earth herself, and she tries to be inconspicuous by donning the world's sexiest pill hat .... but, um, she's still eight feet tall, which draws the attention of two gun-wielding lowlifes who try to mug her (this was 1970 New York, after all ... a Norse death-goddess walking the streets might be believable, but a nighttime stroll without a mugging? Please!). "It was not yet your time," she tells them (Buscema puts in a neat detail of her pupils turning to skulls), "but since life means so little to you that you would take another's, I shall hasten your entrance into my silent realm."

Still, the delays in finding Thor are irksome to her (she gets a little distracted, in fact - she keeps the disguise but starts walking in midair about twenty feet off the pavement, which is something of a dead giveaway, as it were), so she decides to take an indirect approach: she finds some fire-fighters saving people from a burning building and starts rapid-aging them. Don Blake hears about this on the radio and, despite the warnings of his friends and his father, he becomes Thor in order to save innocent lives. And as soon as he's done doing that, Hela stands waiting. He has no choice - if he resists, she'll just strike at bystanders again. Thor submits.

And just at that moment, Odin appears! "Hela, hear my words," the old windbag says, "though I be the Power and the Light, the Judgement and the Will, thou I be the Sovereign Supreme of all that was and is and yet shall be - I be one thing more: I be father to the Thunder God. And to thee I say ... Thor shall not die!"

She's unimpressed. She knows perfectly well that Odin has too much respect for the natural laws of the universe to kill her - she knows he won't do away with death itself, not even to save his son. "You know full well," she tells him, "while I do live, not even you may stop me. And even lordly Odin would not dare to slay me."

"To save my son - Odin dares!" he yells, and he kills her with an energy-burst (and a classic Stan Lee sound effect: "sshossp!"! That's the sound of death dying!).

Thor knows immediately the impossibility of what Odin's done - without death, the universe will be overrun with life and suffering (after all, Hela was right about the beneficial role death often plays in the natural cycle of things). Thor's not morbid by any means: "Believe me, father," he says, "I find life sweet - and have no wish to die! But, let me die a thousand times, rather than cause the calamity which is to come."

Odin knows all this. He knows he has no choice but to restore Hela to life, knowing full well the first thing she'll do is claim the life of Thor. With tears in his eyes, Odin says, "May the mighty Thor bring glory to Valhalla, as he hath brought glory to the grieving Odin." He restores Hela, and she begins the process of withering Thor into her silent realm. Odin embraces him briefly, then just before the end he tries one last gambit - he transports Sif to Earth, to Thor's side. She sees what's going on and right away turns to Hela:

"Hela! Though thou be the queen of death, thou art a woman too - surely love hath touched thy heart?"

"Why speakest thou to me of love?" Hela asks.

"'Tis all I know! 'Tis all there be!" Sif says. "Without it, life hath no meaning and no joy! Thou still couldst save the dying Thor - thou must! Thou must, O Hela! The regal Odin may not beg, for he be Lord ofAsgard. But I am a woman, as thou art a woman! I beg! I plead - Sif doth implore thee.

Or if my words should not move thee - this last request I make thee: do but spare the mighty Thor ... and take Sif's life in forfeit."

"Thou wouldst die to save thy true beloved?" Hela asks, with tears in her eyes. "Sif asked if Hela had e'er known love ... and now I answer nay! But at last, I know what it doth mean! Not even death may crush it"

She restores Thor to youth and vigor and vanishes, and Sif and Thor embrace. Thor openly wonders if Odin transported Sif to Earth merely to pay her last respects, or was it possible that Odin anticipated what might happen? Unfortunately, the old coot has fully recovered from his grief and is right back to his old self. "I am the Way! I am the Light!" he blusters. "And none may share my Odin-thoughts!" Whatever, gramps.

The final issue of this arc catapults our characters straight into the next story line (hint: Evil half-brothers! There's simply no living with them!), but shortly after that Stan Lee would begin 'sharing' his writing chores, and then he'd abandon regular comics altogether (in the '70s, we were told he was 'spearheading' Marvel productions in Hollywood - which seemed a dubious concept when it started producing garbage like the "Hulk" and "Spider-Man" TV series ... luckily, Marvel productions improved quite a bit once special effects grew up and the right people started getting involved - although still no Thor movie, and that's probably a good thing). "The Infinity Saga" was his last hurrah doing the kind of epic stories he brought to such perfection in Thor and Tales of Asgard ... after this, the title would go almost a hundred issues until it got this kind of treatment again (likewise Buscema would after this gradually lessen and then leave the Marvel fold, after spectacular runs on Thor, Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, and Conan, not to mention some of the finest Tarzan work this side of Joe Kubert)(although as you can see, the one artist's trick Buscema almost never pulled off was the great cover - his mostly stink, only the last one in this arc being any good).

By my count, the next "Essential" Thor volume (7? 8?) will likely include "The Infinity Saga," and since my 1970 issues are literally falling apart, I'll certainly buy that volume (even though in this case it's really pretty coloring that's being left out of that black-and-white series) - and you all should too, to revel in the glories of comics' Silver Age!


Sharon said...

Thank you for posting this, Steve--I never liked the Buscema-Sinnott pairing, at least based on what I saw on the FF(IMO Sinnott dampened Buscema's singular qualities)--but here--WOW! I'm definitely going to have to read these issues now.

Also, in terms of Buscema's covers, Avengers #57 (debut of the Marvel Silver Age Vision) was pretty impressive.

Anonymous said...

"Quasi-mythical" makes sense, but what is a "quasi-sub-plot"? It reads as though the prefix "quasi", having been used once, was just waiting around trying to find some other stray word it could latch onto. Steve is usually more careful about his prose.

steve said...

Steve was being quite careful in this case too! I was, in fact, using the prefix identically in both cases: to imply 'almost but not quite' - in this instance, because the Karnilla ... WHATEVER it is keeps cropping up but never really seems to GO anywhere or get resolved. Nothing slipshod about it, I assure you!

steve said...

And I entirely agree that the Buscema/Sinnott pairing didn't always work in Fantastic Four (although I can't of the top of my head remember if they worked together on the great Overmind/Thing v.s. Hulk stretch ...), and I couldn't really tell you why - better in a fantasy than science fiction setting, maybe?

And yes, I suppose: that Avengers cover IS something of a classic (although design-wise, it's a snooze) ... but just LOOK at all the flops!

steve said...

I just learned that you'll be getting a nice affordable chance to look at all of this stuff - as I wondered in my posting, the next Essential Thor volume includes all of these issues, although minus the colors ....

Joe Jusko said...

By far my favorite Thor storyline ever! A truly epic tale that has seldom, if ever, been matched in the book. I have to disagree on Big John's covers being a snooze, though. There was a reason Marvel used Buscema on them to sell books over the years. Aside from the early Silver Surfer issues this was the best Buscema/Sinnott pairing, IMHO. I was always disappointed in the Mooney fill in (#188) as it disrupted the flow of the story for me. I reread this storyline at least once a year. It really IS that good!

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It is an amazing release, it is the best of Thor's series, the characters and their missions are perfect, excellent review.

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OH I love it, I really liked to read "Infinity Saga" story arc from 1970's Marvel Comics Thor, the relations are excellent, thank you so much for the post..I really like.

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