Friday, 15 May 2015

Essential Thor volume 5

Essential Thor volume 5 reprints issues #196 to #220. The writing is all by Gerry Conway apart from the main part of issue #200 which is scripted by Stan Lee. The art is all by John Buscema apart from one issue by Sal Buscema. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Pluto, Tana Nile and Mercurio. Unusually these are taken from the Master Edition when previous Essentials have normally used more wordy material from the original or Deluxe editions.

This volume contains a lot of searching and quests. Maybe Gerry Conway was trying to tell us something. For there doesn't seem to be any real sense of direction for the series and instead we get a rather tired rehash of much of what has come before, tempered only by some new character creations and the odd individual idea. Overall it's very hard to resist the thought that the series is now stuck in a worship of the Lee-Kirby years and simply unwilling to try anything fresh. Instead we get a rather meandering mixture of battles for Asgard, fighting on Earth against the backdrop of Odin's disapproval, and journeys off into deep space with some rather unusual sights in space. It's as though the creators are either unable to imagine anything to take the series in a dramatically different direction or else too in awe of past greatness to risk tampering with it. But the result is the first demonstration of the problem that has bedevilled the series for years if not decades.

We begin with Thor and Sif separated on odd quests for Odin, with Thor and the Warriors Three battling Kartag, Keeper of the Twilight Well, in order to obtain water with which to fight Mangog. Meanwhile Sif and the valkyrie Hildegarde have been dispatched to Blackworld, a curious mirror of Earth where developments occur at an accelerated rate, in order to recruit the enigmatic Silas Grant, a ship's captain. When the Mangog finally reaches Asgard he is soon overpowered by Odin, albeit at the cost of his own life and so forcing Thor into confrontation with Hela. But also attacking is Pluto, the Greek god of death.

Issue #200 is odd and it's hard to tell if it's a fill-in or a one-off return for the anniversary by Stan Lee. The issue sees the Norns observing Pluto's attack on Thor but realising that this is not Thor will die before proceeding with another telling of the legend of Ragnorak. Whether this was intended or not, this issue brings up another problem for Thor in that it can be difficult to suspend expectations and believe that he really can die in an adventure when his final fate, and indeed also that of many of the other Asgardians, has been laid out in advance. It's the "Superboy problem" albeit without the hero's future published on a regular basis. Though it may stray from Norse mythology, although that's something the series has often done, it would probably be best to find a way to take Ragnorak out of the equation altogether. This could be achieved either by having it occur and then immediately resurrect the Asgardians to a life free of this destiny, or else recast it as only a prophecy of a possible future and invalidate some of the specifics on way or another. However awkward the heavy lifting needed to carry this out it would be a vital way to restore a degree off edginess to the series.

Once Pluto has been dispatched, we get the first original concept in the form of the humanoid Ego-Prime who is an inadvertent offspring of the Living Planet, created by accident by the Rigellians. The quests Odin sends a number of Asgardians on soon bear fruit in the form of three humans who are enhanced by draining off the power of Ego-Prime to create the first of the Young Gods. But this causes a rift between Thor and Odin. It also feels suspiciously like a real world swipe at Thor's co-creator. Jack Kirby was now working at DC on the Fourth World Saga featuring the New Gods, who were intended to be the deities who came after the Asgardians. Over at Marvel we have some rather forgettable new gods who are soon forgotten whilst the Asgardians prove their continued relevance. This cannot be a mere coincidence. Was this backhanded dismissal of the new gods in some way retaliation for Kirby's parody some months earlier of Lee and now editor Roy Thomas as the Funky Flashman and his sidekick Houseroy? If so then it's a more subtle approach but is still tit for tat.

Odin's actions lead to an argument with Thor that results in the latter being exiled for a while, together with a cluster of other characters ranging from Balder and the Warriors Three through Hildegarde to Tana Nile and Silas Grant. Maybe the intention was to create a more ensemble cast based on Earth but it doesn't really pan out that way. There's a brief hint of a alter-ego storyline as Thor discovers that a change of landlord has resulted in Dr Donald Blake's office being sealed up due to missing paperwork, but it never comes to anything and it's hard to tell if this was something separate that got forgotten or a lead into another encounter with Mephisto in which Thor's fellow exiles are turned against him.

What follows is initially more traditional with another encounter with both the Absorbing Man and Loki from which the volume's cover comes. But then we get an original creation in the form of Mercurio, the Fourth-Dimensional Man who has the power to generate both fire and ice, forcing Thor to come up with an imaginative way to defeat him. Then there's the Demon Druid who rampages through the UK until it becomes clear what his real aim is. This is followed by a return to the traditional pool of foes as Thor battles an invasion by Ulik and the trolls.

The later issues have another attempt at an epic, starting with Thor returning to Asgard to discover it's been taken over by lizard people called Sssth, led by the Sssthgar. Thor is tricked into helping the Sssth battle their old masters, the Vrllnexians, only for the Sssth to turn on him once the battle is done. This leads the Asgardians deeper into space, battling Mercurio again and encountering Xorr the God-Jewell, a giant sentient jewel that takes on humanoid form and briefly holds Sif captive within him, forcing Thor into a difficult choice. Another return to Asgard finds it again occupied by intruders, this time duplicates of Odin, Thor and the others who are actually spells cast by Igron. Finally Thor heads off into space once more, this time to investigate the pending destruction of the planet Rigel by the mysterious phenomenon known as the Black Stars. The Masters of the Black Stars turn out to be giants, making for some interesting problems of scale as Thor finds he is but an insect compared to them. But eventually he exposes the truth behind the situation.

Throughout this volume the art is consistently brilliant with John Buscema having now developed a distinctive style that is faithful to what Kirby set down without going into full-on mimicry. Often the visuals have good little moments, particularly the traditional wooden sailing ship that sails through space, managing to both look impressive and maintain the obvious absurdity of the concept. Sal Buscema also demonstrates his effectiveness as a full-in artist, easily capturing his brother's style to the point where it's easy to overlook which brother is on any particular issue's credits. But it's the writing which is the weak point of the volume.

Gerry Conway just seems unable to either write up to the level of great myths or else to take the series in a clear different direction. Instead it just squats in the house that Stan and Jack built, occasionally venturing out to add a new toy but otherwise just sticking to the same old formula. It gets worse with the repetitiveness of multiple quests, Thor repeatedly search for Sif, take-overs of Asgard and so forth. Nor are any of these retreads particularly spectacular, but rather they just go through the motions. Too often conflict is resolved either in a blink and you'll miss it action by Thor or else by Odin coming into action and exercising his great power. There is an attempt to create a new set-up when Thor and the others are exiled to Earth, but very little ever comes of this and the whole story strand.

Overall this is one the most turgid and unmemorable Essential volumes of all. There are no real stinkers amidst these issues but there's also nothing that stands out as memorable. Instead we have a run that shows the hard way just how easy it is for this series to wallow in the shadow of its creators instead of finding ways to take things forward.

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