Sunday, April 24, 2011

Comics: Essential Thor Volume 5!

Our book today is Marvel's new Essential Thor Volume 5, which for some unknown reason features a retouched version of this cover:

- which is just a run-of-the-mill John Buscema (the volume claims the cover is done by Buscema and John Romita, even though that's visually not the case) fight scene with the dialogue removed, instead of this cover, which is a vibrant basic from the tuxedo-neat pen of John Romita:

And the mis-choice of cover maybe gives readers a hint of the trouble to come: this is an uneven volume, to put it mildly. It collects 25 issues from the early 1970s, all written by the great Gerry Conway, almost all drawn by the great John Buscema (a couple are done by his perennially-underrated brother Sal, and a couple more are only roughly laid out by either Buscema, with finishes done by the, shall we say less inspired? pen of Don Perlin), almost all inked by the great Vince Colletta. And don't get me wrong: the volume has dozens of great moments in Thor's comic book history. But unlike previous Essential Thor volumes, it doesn't really boast a classic Thor-style epic storyline like some we've examined here over the years.

Not that it doesn't try real hard! Gerry Conway took over the writing and plotting chores on "Thor" directly from the master himself, Stan Lee, but even if you're encountering the stories in this thick black-and-white volume for the first time, you'll notice right away that Conway doesn't quite have the knack that Lee had for crafting just the right mixture of super-heroics and bargain-rate Wagnerisms to keep Thor a believable character. And again, it's not from want of effort - there is, in fact, the sketchy idea of a great big epic-storyline unfolding across a large number of the issues contained in this volume, but it only comes close to coalescing.

Festivities start off with him again - Mangog, the mole-clawed prehensile-tailed super-baddie with the strength of ... wait for it ... a billion billion beings. He's wreaking havoc in Asgard as this volume's set of reprints gets underway, and he's once again intent on killing Odin, the king of the Asgardian gods, killing Thor just 'cause, and last but not least, drawing the Odinsword from its scabbard and thereby killing the universe (Mangog only and always talks about revenge, so the point of that last part is a little trick to follow). The Asgardians are losing badly - including Odin: Conway very much liked the concept of Odin as an older and wiser-but-still-powerful king-god figure, rather than the energy-wielding cosmic heavyweight favored by Lee.

But Odin, as always, has a plan. Many plans, in fact, so many plans that not only Thor and the readers but Odin himself have no hope of understanding them. Take this storyline, for instance: Odin has sent Thor (and his comrades the Warriors Three) to the Twilight Well at the World's End, to collect some of its mystical waters, and he's sent Thor's beloved goddess Sif (under the protection of Hildegarde, a gigantic fur-caped warrior woman of Conway's invention, a wonderfully hard-bitten character who's never used again in "Thor" and really should be) to a mysterious world populated by dragons, knights, and steamboats. Odin has his reasons for both these decisions - but they make no sense and end up only pointlessly complicating things and, briefly, costing him his life. The reasons involve Kartag, the huge but noble guardian of the well, the Norns, who have some interest in Thor's errand, Ego-Prime, a giant-sized avatar of the living planet Ego, and three apparently normal humans who've been picked by Odin to play a part in some kind of cosmic-upgrade to godhood. No explanation of the need for three brand-new gods is ever given, nor do we ever see those brand-new gods again, although Thor's outrage over the manipulations involved in their creation causes Odin to banish him to Earth forever for about the tenth time. During this banishment Thor and his friends interrupt their bouts of self-pity to fight various Earthbound menaces like the Absorbing Man, but when Balder the Brave shows up and has a nervous breakdown because of what he's seen back in Asgard.

Thor and crew determine to go back to Asgard even though they've been banished, to see what's going on. They find the city deserted of gods and infested with talking, gun-toting reptiles who inform Thor that Asgard was attacked by marauding space-ants in flying saucers who somehow defeated all of Asgard including Odin and took the whole of them back to their homeworld to sell as slaves. Anybody familiar with comic books would have sniffed out the falsehood underneath this story in two seconds: in comics as in the movies, reptiles are always the bad guys. But Thor must not have read comics when he was a kid, because he trusts the lizards and voyages with them to the space-ants' world, where he does indeed find a battered and drugged Odin being held as a slave. The rescuers are briefly held as slaves as well, until Thor discovers that the stinking gruel the prisoners are being fed is the thing that saps both their will and their power. He refuses it eat it, breaks free, frees everybody else, deals with the lizard-men (who - duh - turned out to be playing a treacherous game of their own), and everybody sails back to Asgard, having adventures along the way.

Like I mentioned, all of this raises a lot more questions than it answers. For instance, how the hell does an invasion force of space-ants conquer Asgard? And how do they manage to break the will of every single Asgardian - including Odin - so quickly? And how's come Balder made it out in one piece? And no matter how he escaped, why did it cause him to lose his mind - isn't he a several-thousand-year-old warrior god?

The last story-arc in this volume concerns Tana Nile and the Colonizers of Rigel, whose far-off space empire (curiously unused elsewhere in the Marvel Universe) is being threatened by the Black Stars, enormous wandering space-bodies that consume every planetary system they touch. Throughout these stories, Conway yields over and over to the temptation to mix the mythological elements of Thor's world with this kind of science-fiction plot (there are no fewer than six space-related menaces in these issues), and the results often make for great moments. Thor and his comrades travel in the Starjammer, a Viking-style wooden longship complete with rudder and sails but mystically capable of interstellar flight, and Buscema does some wonderful work juxtaposing its archaic appearance against the space-hardware called for by Conway's plots.

Another aspect that crops up again and again in Conway's stories is his conception of what Asgardians are like as a people - especially, that they love to fight. Time and again in these stories, we're told that their eyes gleam at the prospect of battle, that they enjoy it for its own sake, etc. I think this kind of characterization is a whole lot more sensible - and enjoyable - than the saintly oafs who so often cropped up in Stan Lee's Asgardian mini-epics; Conway's Asgardians aren't saintly, they're bloodthirsty (and, in another refreshing twist, unapologetically randy) - and their immortality can make them fairly obnoxious ... most certainly including Thor himself. One of my favorite moments in this volume illustrates both these things, when, gazing in wonder at the vast space fleet carrying the entire fleeing race of Rigellians out of the path of the Black Stars, Balder asks the quintessential Asgardian question:
Nine billion people, milord ... the entire population of the Colonizer's lost world, in flight from a menace they cannot escape! 'Tis a most strange insanity. Why do they not stand and fight?

To which Thor replies:
Because they are only mortal, brave Balder ... and their lives are too short to be spent on useless warfare. They seek only to live, and honor can mean nothing to such creatures ...Only life matters, and only death is feared. And, in the end, who can say if this is strange insanity ... or a strength we may never hope to understand!

There are lots and lots of other great moments scattered liberally throughout this volume, of course. Just because Conway was usually much better suited to writing more down-to-earth stuff doesn't mean he doesn't rise to the cosmic occasion quite often. We see Hildegarde chewing out Thor for yelling at the Avengers' butler Jarvis; we see a depiction of the king and queen of the Trolls that's actually sympathetic; we get some fascinating Freudian exchanges between Thor and his evil half-brother Loki during one of their obligatory fight-scenes (Loki's angry because Thor connived to steal Odin's love! Apparently he hasn't been reading "Thor" back-issues, or keeping up with all those banishments-to-earth); we get a wonderful sequence where Tana Nile complains that a massive door is made of "Mondurian steel - a foot thick and electronically sealed as well! It would require a company of good Rigellian battlecraft to even penetrate it!" To which Thor responds, "Hildegarde - I shall have need of thy good arm! Shall we see if the strength of two lone Asgardians be equal to that company of Rigellian battlecraft?"

And in a charming little scene, we get ... Gerry Conway himself! He and some of his colleagues in the Marvel bullpen (including Glynis Wein, whose fantastic coloring work is uncredited through most of this reprint volume - and invisible anyway, the only price readers pay for the cheap cover price and bountiful contents) have travelled to Rutland, Vermont to watch the famous Hallowe'en parade presided over by Tom Fagan, and in a move that was almost unheard of at the time (the classic example being the moment when Nick Fury's men turn Stan Lee and Jack Kirby away from the wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm), we hear a little of their banter before the fighting erupts.

Great moments, then, though no really great sustained story-arcs this time around. But a collection of great moments is certainly justification enough for this volume, especially since otherwise many of these issues would just crumble to dust unread by anybody. It's my hope that Marvel's craze to cash in on the hoopla surrounding the upcoming "Thor" movie will push them to reprint just about everything Thor-related they've got in their capacious archives. There's a LOT of great stuff there, and it all deserves a new audience.

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