Friday, 2 January 2015

Essential Thor volume 3

Essential Thor volume 3 reprints issues #137-166, bar an Inhumans back-up strip that ran in issue #146 to #152. Everything is by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The stability is further enhanced by all but one issue being inked by Vince Colletta.

It's the format of the series which demonstrates the most variation. There's a final epic "Tales of Asgard" back-up feature which gives way to an Inhumans back-up strip then the second half of the volume sees issue length stories set in the present day. This is a series that has found a firm purpose as a mixture of Norse mythology and cosmic space adventure, with most time on Earth mainly serving as interludes between the big events. Thor is almost completely bereft of a human supporting cast with Jane Foster only making a single cameo to show she is getting on with her life and now has total amnesia of Thor. The other outstanding human element is also dealt with in a respectful way that confirms what the series has evolved into.

Throughout the volume Thor retains his identity of Donald Blake and his medical practice, although it's increasingly a sideshow. The two identities are by now clearly established as the same being but curiously when he's in the form of Thor he seems to lack Blake's medical knowledge. It's understandable that Thor's large hands and huge strength would not be suitable for delicate surgery, but less so that he would not know as much. And we finally get a resolution to the longest running uncertainty in the series so far. Issues #158 & #159 finally address the confusion about the main character - how can he be both the original Norse God of thunder with a life stretching back over many centuries and yet also a mortal man who discovered the hammer and gained the body and power of Thor? As he says, "If I am truly Thor... then who is the real Donald Blake? And if I am Don Blake... Where was Thor before I took his identity??" The first issue incorporates a reprint of Journey into Mystery #83, exposing the contradiction starkly as Donald Blake ponders the matter himself. (It also neglects to reproduce the original credits, a failing the Essential's contents page repeats) Then in issue #159 we get "The Answer at Last!" (the story's title) and learn how Donald Blake has been Thor all along. In order to teach his son humility, Odin had forcibly changed him into mortal form and given him both amnesia and a physical disability so that he would know weakness and learn "that any handicap can be endured... and overcome!" and sent him to Earth where he arrived in mortal & lame form on the first day of medical school with artificial memories. The hammer was disguised as a stick in a cave to await being found once humility had been learned.

This is one of the first overt retcons in Marvel history, with the original state of affairs addressed head on and explained away, rather than being simply ignored or flashbacks altering the original events. It may well have been driven by incessant questions on the letterspage and/or by the first generation of fans now working for Marvel, but in general it represents an elegant attempt to reconcile the original idea of a man acquiring the power of a being from mythology with the subsequent shift to depicting the adventures of the actual being. No retcon is ever perfect and this one doesn't explain how Blake could suddenly appear in adulthood with no recorded past, or why, if Thor is deemed to have learnt his lesson by now, he still has the Blake alter ego. But the biggest omission is any explanation as to why it took time for Thor's original personality and memory to come to the fore. Nevertheless the retcon has stuck to the point that any latter day readers are surprised to discover Thor and Blake were ever depicted any differently. I am aware of only one attempt to retcon this again, from the mid 1990s, and that was so convoluted and ultimately inconsequential that, as far as I am aware, it has been generally ignored and forgotten about every since the writer in question left the series. (If you don't know the details it's probably best to keep it that way.) But here we get Lee and Kirby putting almost a finishing touch on the character's background, overcoming the confusion from the earliest days of the series when they weren't in full control of it.

Thor's identity may have been cleared up but he retains his medical practice and loyalty to Earth, going so far as to defy an order from Odin to return to Asgard. At this stage Odin is acting somewhat out of character, being more power obsessed and angry than normal, and he opts to punish Thor once more by stripping him of all power bar his strength. The same subsequently happens to Loki, Sif and Balder. The power is eventually restored but in the meantime we see Thor trying to survive on his wits, unable to even revert to the form of Blake, and eventually taking a job with the Circus of Crime as a strongman who pretends to be none other than Thor himself. This leads to his being hypnotised into taking part in a robbery. This, even more than his Blake form, truly humbles Thor but also shows there is more to him than his powers though he does eventually regain them.

The series continues to thrust forwards with a good mix of existing and new elements. The early issues contain the final (for now) "Tales of Asgard" feature focusing on Hogun of the Warriors Three as his village is attacked by the sorcerer Mogul of the Mystic Mountain, leading to an epic journey as Hogun seeks vengeance. Successive issues show the group battling their way through a variety of monsters as they search for Mogul, with Volstagg's laziness and cowardice often on display along with excuses for it. However he also demonstrates his skills when he secures the Rod of Wondrous Wizard Power and uses it to deal with both beasts and Mogul's army. There is debate between Hogun and the others over how much help he should accept from them in his own duty to his people but ultimately the four journey together. This story is generally okay in collected form but five pages a month for nine months must have been tedious for contemporary readers and it's easy to understand why the feature is dropped for the time being.

The main strip doesn't hold back on character creation with this run including the first appearances of various trolls, of whom Ulik is the most notable. Others seen from the Troll kingdom are the ruler, Geirrodur, and his slave, Orikal, a mysterious being from another realm who is held captive to power the trolls. There are the mysterious Enchanters, made up of the trio Magnir, Forsung and Brona, who rule another dimension and now seek to conquer Asgard. In one brief adventure Thor battles longstanding Avengers foe Kang the Conqueror and his new weapon, the Growing Man. Another sees Thor take on both the crime boss Slugger Sykes and the ever adapting android Replicus, who feels like another variant on the Mad Thinker's Android and the Super Adaptoid. Asgard comes under attack from the Trolls and the Enchanters but the biggest threat comes in the form of Mangog, the gestalt embodiment of a race defeated long ago by Odin. Mangog is a giant monster that seems impossible to stop as it rampages towards Asgard to seize the Odinsword and cause Ragnarok, the ultimate day of destruction, making for a desperate struggle to stop him.

Loki's schemes and improvisations are responsible for a number of battles including with pre-existing foes such as the Super Skrull but also new ones. In order to regain his own powers Loki turns to Karnilla but at the time when she sends the power Loki's helmet has been taken by a burglar known as the Wrecker and he gets empowered instead. Armed with a now enchanted crowbar, the Wrecker takes on the role of the ordinary mortal empowered by Asgardian magic just before the retcon removes the last possibility that Thor himself falls into this category. Still the Wrecker makes for a good physical foe.

The last few issues see Thor in deep space, this time helping the Rigellians to confront Galactus who in turn is going after Ego the Living Planet. This leads to a confrontation between two very different kinds of gods, with a dramatic showdown. Later Odin shows part of the origin of Galactus. Following this there's another confrontation with Pluto and finally a battle with the mysterious "Him" (later renamed Adam Warlock), created by the Enclave, now seeking a mate and settling on Sif. Thor defeats him but is now succumbing to the Warrior Madness and has to seek redemption. The volume ends with Thor about to embark on a deep space expedition to achieve this.

In some of the adventures Thor is fighting solo but at times he has regular aid from variously the Rigellian Recorder, Balder and Sif. Balder is built up as a good loyal ally of Thor but faces his own problems when Karnilla falls for him and goes courting in her own unique way, even turning to the sorceress Haag to enchant him. But it's Sif who's given the strongest attention. Time and again she is shown as a strong warrior and though she's not a physical match for Thor she can more than hold her own. The affection between the two is strong though it brings its own dangers when Karnilla tricks Sif's spirit into occupying the Destroyer to help Thor only for the armour to overwhelm her, take control and nearly kill him. Later she takes a blast intended for Thor and nearly dies, but Blake's skill as a surgeon saves her. The two work well together and she is a far more suitable companion for Thor in this style of adventure than Jane Foster.

Although there are some problematic pages, in general the reproduction in this volume is quite good and in particular reproduces Vince Colletta's inks sympathetically. Also of note are some of the later issues where in certain shots space and/or Ego appear to be represented by photographs of either paintings or sculptures - it's a bit difficult to tell in black and white but the actual pages have reproduced quite well without the mix of line drawings and photographs turning into the mess seen in other volumes.

As a whole this volume shows a strong coherence and direction. With the totally consistent presence of Kirby and Lee this volume feels like the definitive take on Thor. Over the three volumes so far they have tried and tested a variety of elements and refined them to the point where it's now clear what works. At the same time they have either explained away or steadily phased out some of the more problematic elements. The result is now a solid run showing the series at its height.

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