Saturday, March 19, 2011
Thor: The Mangog Saga!
Our story today is "The Mangog Saga," but it wasn't written down by Snorri Sturluson a thousand years ago - it's of much fresher vintage. This is a four-part tale that ran in "The Mighty Thor" back in 1968, a grand, rip-snortingly epic tale brought to life by writer Stan Lee, penciller Jack Kirby, inker Vince Colletta, and colorist Sam Rosen.
Obviously, I was nudged to revisit this story by that last comics entry, where I mentioned that the revamped "Kid Thor" hero Thunderstrike faced off in his latest issue against a Thor super-villain named Mangog, a gigantic claw-fisted creature with a long tail, troubling teeth, and ... the strength of a billion billion beings. Some of you wrote in (some taking advantage of the snazzy new 'write to me' box the right-hand margin; more such improvements to follow!) curious about my all-too-obvious eagerness to talk about this particular villain, but honestly, when it comes to all things Thor-related, I probably didn't need the urging. I've read the four-issue run I'm dubbing "The Mangog Saga" many, many times in the forty-something years since it first appeared - indeed, I read it first as it was appearing, traipsing with my beagles to the town variety store month after nail-biting month. It's something of an Asgardian miracle my issues haven't disintegrated completely.
Our story starts in "The Mighty Thor" #154, a chapter called "To Wake the Mangog!" - and that chapter starts where pretty much every Thor story starts: in the middle of a fight between him and his scheming half-brother Loki. This fight is interrupted by an abrupt call from Asgard, the home of the Norse gods - a call from Odin, Thor's irascible father, the king of the gods. Odin has sensed a menace looming in Asgard's future, and he's calling all his people back home to face it. While Thor stands at rapt attention listening to this warning, Loki takes the opportunity to flee - but then the warning stops, no further details forthcoming, and when Thor realizes Loki has escaped, he flies to the hospital where his immortal beloved, the goddess Sif, lies recovering from wounds she suffered at Loki's hands. Thor finds her sleeping peacefully ("Thought the eyes of the thunder god now peruse my lady's medical report," he muses, "'twill require the brain of Dr. Donald Blake to comprehend what it doth signify" - an interesting indication that in Stan Lee's original conception, Thor and his mortal alter ego Dr. Blake are entirely separate entities - they don't even share the same knowledge - which is a far cry from how things are nowadays).
It's always in hospitals that we're most aware of how close 'resting peacefully' is to 'rest in peace' - and we're not the only ones! While Thor is standing there fumbling with Sif's chart, Hela, the Norse goddess of death, suddenly appears in the room. Thor draws the natural conclusion and speaks up immediately, barring Sif's bed: "She did but suffer wound in battle! I vow she shall recover!"
But Hela's not there to claim Sif - she's there, for some inexplicable reason, to tempt Thor (that 'inexplicable reason' bit crops up more than once in this issue, reinforcing my theory - and longstanding gripe - that unlike so many writers, Lee always found the beginnings of big stories more difficult than any other part). She can't simply kill him until he's once again mortally wounded - a point of etiquette she's going to forget in only ten years, as we've seen in a previous Thor post - but she can show him the wonders that await him: "Now come I to show what thou hast but postponed! Behold - the promised glory of Valhalla! Do but say the word, and everlasting battle can be thine!" She gestures, and Thor sees a hilly vista covered in armies with banners flying - it's here that we get our first real taste of the great job Rosen will do in these four issues, masterfully playing somber deep-blues against garish bright yellows.
And Hela has an extra spokesman: Harokin! "God of Thunder - join us!! 'Tis they once and former foe Harokin who calls thee! Eagerly we await thee - for thou art surely the mightiest of all!" As we've seen here at Stevereads, Lee introduced Harokin in his "Tales of Asgard" backup feature (a feature that had been all but shelved by the time of this issue) - that storyline was immensely popular with readers, hence the nod to Harokin here. It's a very nice little gesture, but Thor declines the invitation, and Hela and her infomercial vanish. Lee shifts the scene to a far outlying district of Asgard, where the troll Ulik encounters a mysterious door inscribed "Let No Living Being Disturb What Lies Within." As any fan of old Bugs Bunny cartoons will attest, there is only one moral thing to do when confronted with a door that says "Don't Open Me" - and Ulik promptly does it. Thereby releasing the Mangog, who's very big, very ugly, and very ticked off: "Let the Universe tremble! The Mangog Lives Again! I have one goal - one aim - one destiny: to destroy him who crushed the invasion of my race!"
But like so many of Thor's villains, Mangog isn't exactly well-stocked in the brains department; only one panel later, he tells Ulik "Mangog is the foe of all who live!" ... not just Odin and Asgard. And he goes on to prove that point, but first, we cut back to Thor, who changes back to Dr. Blake and sits vigil at Sif's bedside. Once she wakes up and he's fairly certain she's out of danger, he turns back into Thor and resumes his search for Loki, who in the meantime has fled to Asgard. There he finds turmoil - the city's defenses are in hurried preparation, because they're aware that Mangog's chamber has at long last been opened and that one of the greatest evils of the city's past is now free again. Loki's nonplussed by all this - Odin jailed Mangog originally, after all, can't Odin just re-jail him? Then Loki learns that Odin is sleeping the Odin-sleep: a deep regenerative trance from which he can't be awoken. Lee introduced this rather homely plot device - an old guy who's naps absolutely can't be interrupted - and future writers would make great use of it, for obvious reasons: it takes the deus out of the machina long enough to make things interesting. Naturally, Loki only sees it in selfish terms - with Odin sleeping and Thor still on Earth, he himself is in charge: "Know you all that Loki now doth rule! Asgard at last is mine!"
Lee then temporizes again, putting Thor through some fairly mundane adventures - he stops a robbery and gives a pep-talk to some hippies (for you youngsters out there, 'hippie' was our word for 'hipster' - but the revolting, pretentious, unwashed phenomenon itself was completely the same) - before shifting to one last plot-strand: Balder the Brave, who's dallying with Karnilla, the Queen of the Norns, when he suddenly senses the danger facing Asgard and tries to take his leave. This angers Karnilla, who's hopelessly in love with Balder, and she shows him the price of defying her: there stands the Legion of the Lost, a small group of long-missing Asgardian warriors who now stand like statues on display in Karnilla's hall.
It's an odd, disjointed start, but things pick up pace considerably in the next chapter, "Now Ends the Universe." The sense of menace has increased a dozenfold, and Balder's not the only Asgardian who can sense it: Thor now grimly flies back to Lady Sif's hospital room, where a nurse is sitting reading by her bedside. She's startled when Sif suddenly sits bolt upright, and she's terrified when Thor shows up in the room. Kirby and his inker and colorist do a very effective job here - by throwing Thor's face entirely into shadow, they make this day-glo colored good guy suddenly alien and menacing. The technique works so well that David Mazzucchelli would use it forty years later in the great story "Daredevil: Born Again," shrouding Thor in shadow to maximize the mystery and power of his one-panel-only appearance:
Thor is here on business this time: "Thou hast seen the omens! Thou hast heard the silent call!" He transports them both to Asgard, where they find the same chaos Loki found before them: the city in arms, dire reports already coming back from outlying garrisons .... and they find Loki himself on the throne.
At which point, characteristically, Lee pauses to check on his sub-plots! First he takes us back to Karnilla's stand-off with Balder, as she reveals the "The Legion of the Lost" aren't just a collection of statues - they're the warriors themselves, which she now brings out of suspended animation and unleashes on the man who spurned her love. Balder is more annoyed by this than anything else - he can sense that Asgard is in danger, and he longs to answer the call, not fight some brainwashed minions. The second sub-plot Lee invents on the spot, again for no discernible reason: he shows us the far-distant Colonizers of Rigel dispatching the robot Recorder to investigate the source of the energy-waves they sense coming from Asgard. How they can sense energy-wave disturbances that haven't happened yet - much less how the Recorder can simply fly to the mystical dimension where Asgard is located - isn't explained, but this is something of a habit of Lee's, this invoking an impartial witness to comics events he's writing on a grand scale (the Watcher serves the same purpose in that first great Galactus story over in "The Fantastic Four")
In any case, Loki shrilly defends his right to the throne and sends Thor and the Warriors Three - Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg - out to face Mangog, whose rampage through the outlying districts of Asgard we see in some typically rollicking action-panels by Kirby. During this rampage, Mangog begins hinting at why he's such a bad-ass: an evil race, in a final act of defiance against Odin, distilled their entire population's life-essence into the creature called Mangog: all their hate, all their thirst for revenge, and all their physical power. The result? You only have to listen to Mangog for about five seconds to know the result, because from this point out he repeats it whenever he opens his mouth: he has the strength of a billion billion beings! In other words, incalculable power - just as Doctor Strange can't possibly defeat Eternity, just as the Fantastic Four can't possibly defeat Galactus, just as the Silver Surfer can't possibly defeat Mephisto, so even Thor can't defeat a being with incalculable physical power. As one fallen Asgardian croaks out before he dies, "Not all the fabled strength of Thor - nor a thousand such - can make him cancel half a step!"
Lee likes this gambit - it allows him to throw the sheer courage of his heroes into sharp relief. Mangog can't be stopped, yet all of Asgard (with the exception of Odin, who's still sleeping, Balder, who's still battling the brainwashed Legion of the Lost, and Loki, who's still under the impression he'll have a kingdom left to rule when Mangog's finished) marshals in a desperate attempt to do just that. As this chapter ends, Asgard's defenses lie in ruins, the Warriors Three are trapped under boulders, and Thor himself is in pitched, losing combat with Mangog.
The next issue, "The Hammer and the Holocaust," that battle is fought in earnest, and here's where a novice reader might expect Lee to pull back from his own premise, to make the give-and-take between hero and villain more even - but it doesn't happen: Thor is completely and hopelessly outclassed from the beginning. The most he can do is slow Mangog down a bit with storm and wind and rain (Colletta and especially Rosen do fantastic work in these sequences), all the while rousing his comrades: "Are we not warriors born? Are we not Asgardians all? Are we not akin to gods? Not for such as we the pale cast of surrender! Whilst we live, we fight! And as we dare - so shall we win!"
Winning isn't an option, however, and in very short order our heroes retreat to Asgard just ahead of Mangog. In the center of the city itself, Thor joins the final knot of resistance, the last line of defense before the main palace. Everybody now knows - because Mangog has been repeating it every few seconds, that the monster's goal is now to pull from its scabbard the gigantic Odin-sword, which will release shock-waves of such ferocious power that they'll destroy the entire universe. Why Odin would forge such a device and then leave it lying around like a Ming vase in the front foyer is yet another journey into mystery - and I'm also more than a little curious how in the dickens Mangog even knows the thing exists. Maybe he became a fan of Marvel comics during all those eons he was imprisoned behind that warning door (and as for why a monster with the strength of a billion billion beings couldn't break down that door but scruffy old Ulik the troll could, well, it's not all that clear to me either).
However he came by the knowledge, Mangog is in the home-stretch when our fourth chapter, "Behind Him - Ragnarok!" opens. He's wading through the cream of Asgard's defenders with no trouble at all when suddenly a wave of reinforcements arrives - Balder, leading Odin's reserves, headed by the Legion of the Lost, who've been freed from their brainwashing by the sight of his bravery! This four-part saga is liberal with full-page shots, and all the artwork is quintessential Kirby, a bludgeoning symphony of action, but this panel, with Balder leading one last desperate charge of mounted warriors, is a hum-dinger (it's the kind of thing a modern artist would ostentatiously sign and sell at conventions).
It's all for naught, however - Balder and his reinforcements are brushed aside just as every other defense has been. Thor races to the palace of sleeping Odin (there's a wonderfully understated moment where he encounters Loki in the chaos - the one brother hurrying to the center of the danger, the other fleeing from it - neither has any use for the other, and they part with harsh, dismissive words), where he finds the Lady Sif and the robotic Recorder standing lonely vigil by the Odin-Sword. Lee gives us a perfect cinematic counterpoint, slowing down all the action to a single moment, which Kirby captures with an extreme close-up: "The very walls begin to crumble," Thor marvels. "Art thou frightened, most fair Sif?" Sif answers serenely: "Whilst I stand with thee, my lord? Nay - whatever befalls, my heart is calm ... and ever thine!" Then the moment is shattered in a classic Kirby panel of explosive movement, as Mangog breaches the final wall and sees the Odin-Sword at last.
This is yet another point where you might expect Lee to side with his embattled heroes even at the cost of his own premise - last-ditch efforts and characters shiningly out-doing themselves are, after all, stables of his comic book writing, especially when the end of the world is at stake. But again, it doesn't happen - Mangog is simply too powerful to be inconvenienced. He swats aside all last-minute opposition and seizes the Odin-Sword. The Recorder observes, "And now begins the ultimate end ... already the cosmic shock waves start to form." But still Thor doesn't yield - he summons a raging thunderstorm, and at the very last minute, it becomes clear why: he's trying to wake up Odin - and it works. Odin halts Mangog, re-sheathes the Odin-Sword, and then undoes the process by which Mangog was created: we see an image of a billion billion beings repopulating distant planets. Odin implies that these are now a peaceful people, and he declares that the crisis is passed (he also implies that it was he himself who bottled up their collective essence in the form of Mangog, whereas earlier Mangog states categorically that 'his people' created him themselves). It's an abrupt ending to a rousing Lee-Kirby cosmic saga, a four-issue gasp of sharp air before Thor inevitably returns to Earth and resumes battling with armed gangsters and giant robots. Lee was never truly able to reconcile the two worlds of his mightiest hero; when Thor's on Earth fighting super-villains, he ridiculously over-matches his opponents - but Lee feared that if he spent all his time in Asgard fighting cosmic menaces like Mangog, he'd lose his super-hero appeal. Personally, I never believed this (and most of the fans who wrote in to the magazine during those years didn't believe it either - "Tales of Asgard" arose in part from those letters imploring Lee to give readers more of super-heroic Asgard), although taking Thor entirely out of his more mundane story lines would have deprived readers of some peachy moments.
Shall we deal with one of those Earthbound story-arcs next time we examine Thor in Marvel Comics? Or shall we pick another mega-saga instead? Only the spinning Norns know for sure! In the meantime, here's an image to cut-and-paste into your Christmas cards next winter: