Friday, September 24, 2010

Comics! Thor relaunches!

Well, here the issue itself is, the capstone on our aforementioned glut of Thor-comics, so I could hardly refrain from mentioning it. It's Thor #615 (flat-out amazing that Marvel didn't relaunch the whole thing with a spurious first issue – an adult must temporarily be in charge at the House of Ideas), featuring writing by Matt Fraction and typically gorgeous artwork by fan favorite Pasqual Ferry.

Those two names – especially the latter – will give any alert reader the tip-off why more hasn't been made of this change in creative team: neither Fraction nor Ferry will be sticking around. My guess is that they were both contracted for six issues – the length of a graphic novel – and that Fraction will write all six and Ferry will draw four before bailing (if reneging on work-contracts were a super-crime, every single creator in comics today would have to start wearing iron face-masks and calling themselves “Doctor”).

In the meantime, the two are faced with the same old problem that's always confronted writer and artist teams working on Thor: how do you handle his dual heritage as a character? Tough enough to write a super-hero who's as powerful as a god and keep things dramatically interesting (ask any Superman writer), but what do you do when your character is a god?

Naturally, us long-time Thor fans can't help but hark back to Stan Lee, who knew perfectly well that this would be the central dramatic hurdle of the character. And he was typically canny about it: not only did he saddle Thor with a fairly draconian weakness (if he lets go of his hammer for longer than a minute, he reverts not just to the powerless mortal Don Blake but to the crippled powerless mortal Don Blake – sheer Lee over-the-top genius), and not only did he periodically have Thor get banished to Earth by his tubby nutso father Odin, but he was careful to switch up the nature of the character's adventures. For three months, he'd be fighting the Absorbing Man or androids on Earth, and for the next three months he'd be off in space saving the Colonizers of Rigel from Ego the Living Planet.

(Lee and Jack Kirby also had the inspired idea of cutting Thor's actual adventures in half and putting a back-up feature in almost every issue, “Tales of Asgard,” where they could give readers their fill of the cosmic Wagnerian side of the character, thus freeing the front half of the book for often more mundane adventures)

The old challenges with the character are still here in this effective relaunch: Thor is still the most powerful Marvel character (able to lift well over 100 tons, able to fly, invulnerable, able to control the weather, and possessing roughly 2000 years of combat experience), effectively ruling out the viability of nine-tenths of the potential villains you might run against him. And in response to this challenge, Matt Fraction does indeed hark back – but only about ten years, to the character relaunch done by Dan Jurgens and John Romita Jr. in 1998. Then, as now, Asgard is attacked by a new group of immensely-powerful super-baddies we've never heard of, setting the stage for some of the epic action sequences Ferry does so well.

The main difference here is that Asgard isn't attacked directly – it's in ruins on Earth, after all, in the wake of the “Siege” storyline. Instead, the extra-dimensional void left by Asgard's absence is attacked by the aforementioned super-baddies, who are trying to take advantage of the fact that the universe is out of joint to score a little quick real estate.

The issue itself is just dandy, with only a couple of reservations. Ferry's artwork is eye-popping as usual, and there's a quite good little moment where Thor reminisces about his evil half-brother Loki, conceding that he was evil but admitting that he misses his brother just the same. Don Blake is still here as Thor's alter-ego, but it's the least well thought-out aspect of this current incarnation of the character (and the new wrinkle that Thor and Blake aren't the same person, that they can have cute little internal bickering sessions, needs to die a speedy death). And Odin is still technically dead, off in the realm of death fighting eternal battles to protect the home dimension. So Fraction has some junk to clear away.

Because as is so often the case, the basic Stan Lee template for this character is the best one – not for sentimental reasons but because it works better than any other. Before Fraction departs for the next project he's always 'dreamed' of doing, he needs to fix three things: a) he needs to get Asgard off Earth and back into its normal place in the cosmos, b) he needs to return Odin to life and the kingship of Asgard, and c) he of course needs to return Loki to the ranks of the living, since you can't have Thor without his best villain.

Fortunately, the kind of big cosmic story Fraction has chosen to kick things off here can easily accomplish all three of these well before the Thor movie opens, and then all will be right again with my favorite Marvel character.


David Scholes said...

It certainly seems to be the time for all things "Thor" now in the lead up to the 2011 movie. I don’t know whether Marvel is overdoing this?

I can recall a time not so long ago when it was the opposite. Michael Oeming had finished his magnificent "Rune Thor" comic book series and there was a long hiatus before JMS took over for a while as comic book writer for Thor.

During that "hiatus" about the only thing being written on Marvel Thor were my various fan fiction stories. You can still enjoy them. Just scroll down below my author profile and you will see over 40 fan fiction stories here:


Steve Donoghue said...

Hee. David, you have just GOT to be the only person in the world who LIKED that wretched Oeming run! May the All-Father bless your quixotic optimism!

And many thanks for the link to your stuff, especially since it doubles as a link to one of my favorite places on the Internet:! Why, it's just possible I have stuff of my own on said website - under two pseudonyms, but still: anybody who's read any of my comics entries here at Stevereads will be able to take some pretty educated guesses at some of my subjects!

Mike M said...

One thing that Lee did well (possibly because he couldn't do the alternative well) is work out the characters in very broad strokes, so that all you need is a general idea of the character and situation to get a hang of what's going on (think of how easy all those origin stories are to toss off from memory). My problem with Thor as a character was that he was inevitably saddled with so much history that it seemed impossible to generalize about him. As a kid at least (I've long since stopped reading comics, mostly for economic reasons, though the internet gives me a nice taste of what I'm missing--and I don't have to pay! Truly a product of the internet generation) I could never identify with him because I didn't really get his story--maybe this is because in the late 90's and early 00's when I was reading comics Don Blake was a thing of the past--and I always found him more interesting in a group setting than alone. But those broad strokes--I hope my metaphor makes sense--that Lee was so great with seems to have been forgotten for absurdly complicated attempts to make characters "relevant" and "modern." But then again, Lee and Kirby didn't seem to mind writing for children, and I don't think any contemporary creator would deign to do so. At least not for Marvel or DC.
But that's just my grousing about an industry I've abandoned.