Friday, October 08, 2010

Comics: The Thunder Reigns!

The Thorapalooza Marvel Comics is unrolling in preparation for their $200 million dollar movie continues apace. Thor has no fewer than four series unfolding right now, and this week Marvel added a fifth with the first issue of the “Ultimate” version of the character.

We've seen this character before, of course; he appeared in the first story-arc of “The Ultimates,” Marvel's problematic attempt to modernize “The Avengers” ala Wildstorm's “The Authority. In that story, we're introduced to a big blond guy with a super-powered hammer and told he was a nurse in civilian life and only thinks he's the ancient Norse god of thunder. One of the pleasures of that original Mark Millar/Brian Hitch arc on “Ultimates” was following that thread, as this version of Thor fights the Hulk, bridles at government control of the team, is fought by and defeated by his erstwhile teammates, and gets imprisoned in a mental institution, apparently powerless. The final couple of issues, before Millar and Ellis decamped for other big, overstuffed bags of money, provided a vindication for the character that couldn't possibly have displeased any long-time Thor fan.

It's that “Ultimate” version of the character who gets his own series this time around, and the writer, Jonathan Hickman, has wisely decided to tell us a story that ranges in time, rather than one that simply jumps off the latest “Ultimates” continuity. This is especially good news because in the latest “Ultimates” continuity, Thor is dead, in Hell, negotiating to get back to Earth by sleeping with Hela, the goddess of death … and who wants to kick off a series on such a tacky note?

Instead, what Hickman gives us is a good old-fashioned cornball three-ring circus. We see Thor in the present day, incarcerated for insanity, forlornly tracing out the Poetic Edda on the floor of his cell. But we also see him “eons ago” fighting frost giants on the border of Asgard with his brothers, Balder and Loki. The characterization here is lightly but expertly done – seeing these three as brothers with radically different personalities, it's hard to imagine them as anything else (the whole scenario is a nod to Thor's non-”Ultimates” ongoing comic, in which a scheming Loki recently revealed to Balder that he is in fact a son of Odin). And balancing out these two story lines is one set in 1939 Nazi Germany, where Baron Zemo has discovered mystic Norse rune stones – and hatched a plan to use them in order to invade Asgard itself. Crackerjack stuff.

All of which is intensely enhanced by the artwork of Carlos Pacheco, here given a heft it's never had before by inker Dexter Vines. Vines takes Pacheco's standard somewhat sylphlike line and fleshes it out everywhere with dark spaces and hatchings that at times call to mind Walt Simonson's epic run on “Thor” from thirty years ago (rumor on the Internet has it that said run is being collected by Marvel into one oversized hardcover edition with remastered coloring ...if this rumor is true, I'm sincerely hoping the Silent Majority will take up a collection and send a copy winging its way to Stevereads the instant it appears).

When you bring the first-rate writing and artwork together, you get yet another Thor title to look forward to every month. It's an embarrassment of riches for us long-time Thor fans, who well remember the dark days not long gone when Thor had no title of his own at all – or the far more frequent days when whatever title he did have stunk up the comics store like goat cheese. It'll be ironic indeed if the movie that's presumably prompting all this good stuff turns out to be a disaster. When you've got Anthony Hopkins playing Odin, things could go either way.

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