Friday, 21 June 2013

Essential Thor volume 1

The same day that Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15, another hero made his debut in the pages of Journey into Mystery (yet another of Marvel's anthology series). Issue #83 introduced the Mighty Thor, as the Norse god of thunder was brought to life. Well in a way...

Essential Thor volume 1 reprints the Thor strips from Journey into Mystery #83-112, including the "Tales of Asgard" back-ups from issue #97 onwards. Also included is Thor's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe - Deluxe Edition, though in the first edition (at least) the pages are out of order. There are also a couple of pin-ups.

The first issue is plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by Larry Lieber and drawn by Jack Kirby. Lee plots up to issue #96 and then takes over the full scripting on both the lead and back-ups, with issues before then scripted by first Lieber and then Robert Bernstein (under the semi-pseudonym "R. Berns"). Kirby draws all of the "Tales of Asgard" back-ups and most of the leads, with a handful done by variously Joe Sinnott, Don Heck and Al Hartley. The first three stories carry no credit on them, but later on the order of plot-script-art is used and the contents pages are structured accordingly. The order of credit for Thor has become a contentious issue, particularly when the movie of a few years ago carried a "based on" credit that was ordered Lee-Lieber-Kirby, but it seems likely that had there been a credit back in issue #83 it would have been ordered as such. Personally I feel the original order should be used as it's the only way to avoid awkward disputes to which there is no clear answer, but that isn't much help in this particular case.

The very first story in Journey into Mystery #83 is rather atypical of what was to come. Dr Don Blake is on holiday in Norway when he stumbles across first an alien invasion and then a cane that when struck gives him the body and power of Thor. The foes in this story would be forgotten were it not the very first story and there's none of the traditional material associated with the character from his nurse Jane Foster to Asgard and the various other Norse gods who dwell there. As is later made more explicit, this is far from the first time Thor or a Thor has walked the Earth so it's an origin story for Blake but not Thor, whoever that may be.

Who is Thor? It may seem an obvious question at first but it's more complicated than it seems. Is he, as shown in his first story, Dr Donald Blake who has acquired the power of Thor? Or is he, as his relationship with Odin and the rest of Asgard in later issues implies, the true Norse Thunder God? And if he's the latter then just who is Donald Blake? If the two are separate beings fused together then why do they never speak or act as such? We're doubtless seeing the effect of the character not being fully thought through at the start and this would later lead to problems before an attempt to tidy it up (and then much later came one of the most ludicrously unnecessary retcons of all). Asgard first appears in the third story as Loki escapes an age-old imprisonment and seeks revenge on Thor. But the Thor he finds only recognises his foe from legends rather than having the memories. Despite this Loki and the other Asgardians assume that the real Thor is in action. Starting with issue #86 there are multiple times when Thor appeals to Odin for extra help, and then in issue #90 Odin orders Thor against revealing his identity and the latter accepts it without protesting that he isn't actually the original thunder god. In issue #89 Blake, temporarily without his cane, thinks "...even though I haven't the body of Thor, I still have his brain -- his thought processes!" as though he's still thinking of his two identities as more than just different bodies and powers. But increasingly this Thor is treated by all, including himself, as the actual god - in issue #92 he even thinks of Odin as "my father". This leaves open the questions of just who is Donald Blake and exactly what happened when Blake found the hammer Mjolnir, but otherwise the series gets on with things.

Donald Blake's life away from superheroing isn't especially explored. We see him as a reasonable successful medical practitioner who also dabbles in various experiments from time to time, making for a somewhat generic alter ego that isn't too far removed from contemporaries such as Hank Pym. The only supporting cast member at the mortal end of things is his nurse, Jane Foster. Each is attracted to the other but Blake is unable to declare his feelings. It may seem clichéd now, but Jane Foster is (by my reckoning) actually the first working woman girlfriend of the Marvel Silver Age, arriving before the likes of Betty Brant, Pepper Potts and Karen Page. Each works for a living in a white-collar environment, but in a subordinate role, and each is attracted to a man around the office. In three cases the man is their boss but there's no mention of malpractice, being an era when comics didn't descend into such complicated matters. Jane is no wallflower and at times stands up to both the various villains and to Donald Blake when she feels he's been cowardly. She's also drawn to Thor a little, but wisely there isn't a full-blown triangle involving the hero and his own secret identity - that approach had been done to death with Superman. Instead the main impediment to Jane and Donald finding happiness comes from a different source, edicts from Asgard.

Fairly early on we start to see more and more of the other Norse gods and Asgard, providing a steady source of foes but also of continued conflict. By far the key figures is Odin, the ruler of Asgard and Thor's father, and this volume contains a lot of tension as the two repeatedly clash over Thor's desire for Jane and wish to marry her and Odin's refusal to allow his son to marry a mortal. Unfortunately the reasons behind such a key conflict are never properly explored as we never get a very strong exploration of just why Odin feels it is such a bad move. Odin's orders to Thor are often come with the assumption, sometimes explicitly stated, that Odin is right by virtue of his positions both as ruler of Asgard and as Thor's father. Probably more by accident than design the series had stumbled across what would become one of the major social conflicts of the later 1960s as a whole generation rejected the notion of elders and officials having inherent wisdom and that one should do (or not do) something merely because such a person said so. Thor may have long hair but he's not the most natural teenage rebel. It also doesn't help that Odin seems rather quick to form judgements, and whilst he may be able to look down on Earth and see what's happening, he hasn't got sound with the picture and so doesn't always realise why Thor or Jane are acting as they do.

Odin isn't the only other Asgardian introduced here. Between Thor's various visits to Asgard and the back up feature "Tales of Asgard" we meet a variety of others. As well as the various villains we also meet Heimdall, the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge that leads to Asgard, and Balder the Brave. The goddess Sif appears, but at this stage only in "Tales of Asgard" and there's no sign of her role as a potential rival for Thor's affection for Jane Foster.

We get a mixture of the famous and forgotten foes, with several of a type familiar to the early Marvel Silver Age. Thor's very first adventure sees him fight off the Stone Men from Saturn - an alien race trying to conquer the planet. Then in his second story he fights the Executioner, who is no relation to his later Asgardian foe of that name, but the corrupt bearded leader of a Communist revolution in a Latin American country. Now I wonder who he was a parody of? And Communism isn't just seen in fictional countries, with one early tale revolving around the Soviets kidnapping key scientists and another showing "Red" China trying to invade India only to be turned back by Thor and subsequently creating the Radioactive Man to fight him. Back home there are more generic criminals such as Thug Thatcher, or Sandu the fortune-teller who steals from his audience until Loki powers him up. Then there's Professor Zaxton, a corrupt scientist who invents a duplication ray with the added power of giving the duplicates opposite personalities under his mental control. Or there's Merlin, who is revealed to be a mutant (he first appeared the same month as the X-Men launched) who used his powers to fake magic and who has been in suspended animation for a millennium. (I have a feeling he's been since retconned as not the actual Merlin.) Or there's the Lava Man, supreme warrior of his more often seen race, and Skagg the Storm Giant. At the, erm, fantastic end are the Carbon Copy Men, a race of aliens with the ability to disguise themselves. No, nothing like the Skrulls from the Fantastic Four. When captured they are forced to use their shape-changing power to permanently turn them into a form where they forget who they are. Again nothing like the fate of the Skrulls.

More familiar foes include Loki, Thor's half-brother and master of mischief, who first appears in the third adventure and appears regularly thereafter, either attacking Thor directly or empowering agents. In total Loki appears as a villain in thirteen of the thirty lead stories here, as well as appearing in some of the Tales of Asgard back-ups as well. Other big name foes introduced include Zarrko the Tomorrow Man, the Radioactive Man (who originates from "Red" China), the Cobra, Mr. Hyde, the Enchantress, the Executioner, Hela the goddess of death, Surtur the Fire Demon and the Grey Gargoyle. (I'm surprised that his name is spelt that way rather than "Gray" - were both spellings common in the US in the mid 1960s or was the British spelling used to emphasise his foreignness?)

And the very last issue in the volume touches on one of Thor's other great rivalries. He comes across children arguing over who is tougher - himself or the Hulk - and relates a story of an encounter between the two that ended inconclusively. This may have been intended to set up a forthcoming rematch, but it feels odd to be getting a story told in flashback that takes place between panels of an early issue of Avengers, rather than introducing an original situation and building on it. It's also uncertain just which of the two actually is the strongest, in spite of Thor successfully appealing to Odin for all Mjolnir's magic to be suspended for a few minutes to allow a fight based on pure strength.

Indeed Thor's powers and strength levels are often altered in these tales thanks to either appeals to Odin or punishments being arbitrarily imposed (Odin also seems reluctant to just actually tell his son that a particular punishment has been given). It can make for a slightly uneven approach that undermines the tension when Thor is up against an especially powerful foe. However there's less of this as time progresses and Thor increasingly has to resort to brain rather than just brawn. The ultimate comes in his fight against the Grey Gargoyle when his Thor body is turned to stone for twenty-four hours and he has to defeat his foe as Donald Blake.

The early stories are relatively straightforward, perhaps due to the writing being split between plotting, drawing and scripting. There's also rather a heavy emphasis on anti-Communism, with some quite overt propaganda, especially on the point that democracy and communism are incompatible. However once Lee takes over the full scripting from issue #97 onwards we start to get more intricate tales with action flowing from issue to issue, multi-part tales and a sense of direction even if the actual direction isn't too clear beyond the rather repetitive conflict between Thor and Odin about Jane Foster without a great deal of advancement. Otherwise we have a succession of battles that keep to the spirit of Thor as a noble being who fights for the common good. These aren't the most dynamic of Thor stories but they do well to lay out the basic tapestry of the series, with "Tales of Asgard" providing an epic feel (though I'm not sure how true to recorded myths the series actually is). But with Thor the best is yet to come.

The material appears to have been sourced from a mixture of clear remastered black and white pictures and direct reproductions of the printed colour comics. However the latter is of a noticeably higher quality to all previous such scans in earlier Essentials (this volume first appeared in early 2001 and was the first to sport the second cover format), especially in the speech balloons and captions. It seems that developments in scanning technology and digital clean up were used to get a much better page than previous reproductions without master materials. Indeed it almost opens up the question of whether all the pages should have been scanned from colour copies, as sometimes the grey can enhance the effect. However in other places it can make the resulting image too dark and some of the colour doesn't scan so well, producing a dotted smeary grey effect.

3 comments:

  1. Interestingly, the first edition used proofs of Thor's origin as it had first appeared in JIM #83, whereas the 2nd edition used proofs of the Marvel Masterworks version of the tale. This had been sourced from the reprint of the origin in Thor #158, and as such, had retouched and relettered sections, rendering it inferior. (The current edition has returned to superior proofs, as used for the newer softcover Masterworks and Omnibus volumes.)

    Also, the reason that the grey-toned stories in the first edition were of better quality than in previous volumes of other titles is because they were mainly scans of the material in the original Masterworks edition. The current Essentials edition is all black and white.

    And did you notice that Jane Foster is originally called Jane Nelson in her first appearance in JIM #84?

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  2. I did notice but I generally don't comment on those as some of them have been amended (IIRC "Peter Palmer" is absent from at least some edition of Spider-Man 1) and often they're tiny references. Here's it's a throwaway surname they forgot about later on.

    I'm surprised that they scanned fom the Masterworks - at the time I recall that most of the clean b&w pages were thanks to the Masterworks creating new separations so the possibility they were scanning the finished versions of those for the Essentials had passed me by. I guess archival problems run much more recently than one would assume.

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  3. I think they had just misplaced the B&W proofs for some stories, hence them resorting to Masterworks. I'd restored one of the stories they used, which is how I recognised it. They'd altered some lettering from the original after I turned the job in (changing 'bullet-proof' to 'bulletproof', etc.) and that was the one that appeared in the Essentials volume. Tom Brevoort was the Masterworks editor back then, but he didn't seem so devoted to preserving the archival nature of the stories as Cody Sedlmeier, who took over after the series had been dormant for about 6 or 7 years.

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