Friday, 17 April 2015

Essential Thor volume 4

Essential Thor volume 4 reprints issues #167 to #195. The first half is the end of the Jack Kirby and Stan Lee run. Kirby is succeeded by John Buscema, with a couple of issues in between by Neal Adams, whilst near the end Lee is succeeded by Gerry Conway.

The first half of the volume covers the last year of the Lee-Kirby partnership plus a few fill-ins to wrap things up. And it may just be the bad luck of where the volume breaks come but this last year feels extremely tired and repetitive. There are very few new original foes introduced in these pages, just a couple of robots in the forms of the Communist created Thermal Man and the mad scientist invented Crypto-Man, plus forgettable ruthless rich man Kronin Krask and Loki's wizard henchman Igron. Otherwise, it's a heavy dose of more of the same. We get yet more conflict with Loki, another take-over of Asgard, another attack by Surtur, another mission in deep space for Thor, another encounter with Galactus, another fight with the Circus of Crime, another battle with the Wrecker, no less than two storylines involving foes trying to take over Thor's body and so forth. There's a one-off return appearance by Jane Foster together with the doctor she now works for and has fallen for, Jim North, but there's no real tension between the current boyfriend and the ex even as they have to work together to rescue Jane from Krask. Only a brief sojourn into the realm of Mephisto and a battle with the Abomination whilst the Stranger is coming feel in any way original, at least for this series, and significantly both moments come under fill-in artists. Beyond that the most substantial addition to any of the mythology is the origin of Galactus, yet even this is let down by the announcement that this knowledge was the sole reason for Thor's mission rather than conflict. Otherwise, this is a case of just doing Thor by numbers. The artwork does, however, hold up quite well with Neal Adams having a big task when he steps in to finish off the Thor-Loki body swap storyline but he produces strong art that matches the existing style for the series.

Issue #179 is the last issue to be drawn by Jack Kirby and frankly it's one too many. Had he instead stopped at issue #177 (#178 is a fill-in drawn by John Buscema and ignored by the next one), he would have ended with on the climax of the Surtur storyline, going out on the nearest to a high there is in this final part of the run. Instead Kirby's last issue sees Loki use what seems to be a piece of dough to cover Thor's face, causing them to trade bodies and powers, but not clothes until Loki swaps the manually. The storyline runs into Neal Adams's issues, making for a very disappointing last job for Kirby. (And he would never return to the title so, other than the occasional reprint, it would be the last time ever that his work appeared here.)

What could have caused the series to sink into a quagmire of dull repetition? The answer is probably to be found in Jack Kirby's yearning for better terms and conditions and in particular greater creator benefits. Although there's been endless debate about just who contributed what on the Lee/Kirby creations, it's generally agreed that in their last years Stan Lee was primarily just scripting Kirby's finished pages, with Kirby doing most if not all of the story ideas and plotting as well as the pencilling. Consequently, it seems that the flow of imagination had been arrested at his end, perhaps deliberately. His subsequent career at first DC and then a return to Marvel show that he still had many big ideas in him, so here he was either going through a phase of writers' block or else he was deliberately holding back on new ideas until he could deliver them under perceived better terms and conditions. That he the ground running upon his arrival at DC with the Fourth World suggests that it was a case of the latter. And given his feelings that his creative contributions had been somewhat overlooked and insufficiently rewarded, it's not surprising that he wanted to get a better outcome with future creations. But what was the best course of action for Jack Kirby wasn't necessarily the best for Thor. The result is a set of work that's almost phoned in, recycling concepts and stories that were not that old at the time and showing all the hallmarks of someone just working out the end of their contract (or the equivalent in an era when the paperwork was appallingly handled). I don't know when in the course of this volume Kirby ultimately decided to accept DC's offer rather than carry on at Marvel (he may have been negotiating with DC for a couple of years, but was that a move definitely in mind or was it with a view to getting a better offer out of Marvel) but the time between his last Marvel and first DC work was very brief, suggesting there was clearly a period of notice. Looking at the results it might have been better for the series to let him immediately and indeed these issues are a good counter to criticism of other creators who leave series and companies on a hurry.

Of course Kirby's isn't the only name on the credits and whatever the debate about what he was actually contributing at this stage, Stan Lee was still taking credit and responsibility for the output so cannot evade blame for the shortcomings. Lee stays on the series for a year further than Kirby and there are some original ideas but it's not clear if these come from Lee or Buscema, a partnership credit that has not received much in-depth analysis compared to some others. The final three issues in the volume are scripted by Gerry Conway but as he's mainly wrapping up existing storylines it's hard to detect if he's a burst of new imagination or someone will just regurgitate much of what has come before. And that has been a problem with a lot of Thor over the years. Lee and Kirby may not have given the strip the greatest attention when it started but once the pair took full control they went in to produce an amazingly imaginative run that offered something truly epic. Unfortunately it seems they also cast a shadow that has often proved difficult to escape from, and this volume shows that it began on their watch. It's also a rejoinder to those who wished the Lee-Kirby partnership could have gone on forever and that the solution to all perceived deficiencies in either's work post-1970 would have been to get the other onto the project as well. I suspect the results would have been much more like their work here than during the earlier years of their collaboration, and fans would be arguing over who was holding who back and suggesting Kirby either going solo or working with a different scriptwriter for a change.

Following the wrapping up of Kirby's last storyline by Neal Adams, the new~ish era begins with a two-parter that pitches Thor against Doctor Doom and gives a strong sense of doing things differently from before. Then we get a saga involving the mysterious entity Infinity that is steadily consuming the universe into the world beyond but harbours a dark secret. The story shows originality in its threat and resolution but is let down by a subplot involving Loki launching yet another attempt to seize power in Asgard, this time by direct conquest with the aid of the Frost Giants. With Infinity dispatched, Thor has to face down looming death itself in the form of Hela. Meanwhile Loki seizes power in Asgard and proceeds to force Sif to agree to marry him. To deal with Thor he has Karnilla use her magic to create Durok the Demolisher, an incredibly strong and powerful fighter who proves incredibly hard to overcome, resulting in Balder calling in help from the Silver Surfer. As is so often the case, Lee's last issue ends on a cliffhanger midway through an ongoing story, here being the arrival of the Silver Surfer on the scene.

Looking at this post Kirby year, it's not exactly awash with bold new ideas and long lasting new characters. Loki has been responsible for the creation of other incredibly strong foes in the past and Durok offers little sign of long term staying power. Infinity shows more originality but has an origin and resolution that makes it hard to set up a decent sequel. Otherwise it's mainly taking existing elements and offering up new twists on them, though Doctor Doom at least hasn't been seen in this series before.

The last few issues under Gerry Conway see an extra long resolution to the threat of Durok that rather forgets just who is the star of the series. Then we get a showdown with Loki in Asgard, followed by an odd issue at the end of the volume that sees Thor and the Warriors Three dispatched to prevent the return of Mangog whilst Sif is unceremoniously sent to another world by Odin. Oddly for a volume released in the full cover era of the Essentials it ends on a cliffhanger with Mangog's threat to Asgard unresolved.

Although the writing is generally weak across the whole volume, the art holds up very well and continues to present a strong dynamism. Kirby has a distinctive style but both Adams and Buscema do well to match it at first, with Buscema slowly evolving into a distinctive pattern of his own. There's also some good adaptation to the format restrictions of this era. This volume covers a period when most Marvel comics had twenty story pages but with two of them covering only the upper half of the page. Often these pages work as just one page cut in the middle and with reprints simply pasting them back together into a single page. But sometimes we get a more imaginative use of this restrictive format with a number of issues having a double page spread across the halves that presents an effective widescreen image.

The art may be good but there's no disguising that the stories feel repetitive and tired. Much of this volume is by one or two creators at the tail end of their run and there's a combination of burnout, wallowing in past successes and holding back on new ideas, all combining to produce a very disappointing conclusion to what had been a strong strip in the past. Though the art gets a strong replacement there's little sign by the end of the volume that new imagination has been infused into the title. Overall it's a disappointment.

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