Friday, 24 July 2015

Essential Thor volume 6

Essential Thor volume 6 reprints issues #221 to #247. The writing sees the end of Gerry Conway's run and the start of Len Wein's with the transition covered by Roy Thomas and Bill Mantlo. The art is mainly by John Buscema with individual issues by Rich Buckler and Sal Buscema.

This volume shows the series caught in its ongoing dilemma over just how far it should stray from the Lee-Kirby era. There are some attempts to create new characters and chart new ground but at other times the series retreats to not just the set-up of the 1960s but even that of a particular part of the 1960s. One attempt at moving forward is to provide Thor with a regular sidekick and there are two in this set of issues. The first is Hercules who, after a fight due to an impersonation, rapidly sides with Thor as they set off to tackle Pluto and Ares in order to rescue Krista the Valkyrie. It's almost the archetypal adventure story as two friendly heroes set off together on a great quest, watching out for one another as they go. Hercules is often a difficult character to handle because he's presented as the character of legend with all his incredible tales taken as part of his actual history (whereas Thor strays more from the recorded legend, as noted on panel by a messenger from UCLA) and this can create a man who is too strong and ridiculous to work in stories. But here he comes across well, a loyal dependable friend of Thor's who can be relied on at all times, at least until he accepts an offer to go off to Los Angeles and lecture at UCLA on the truth behind Greek myths, and who never enters into serious rivalry between the Norse and Greek gods. The contradictions between the two sets of legends go unspoken and soon a third is added to the equation.

The biggest developments come with the introduction of deities from the Egyptian pantheon as we see the arrival of Osiris, Isis and their son Horus as a prelude to a battle with Horus's brother, Seth the god of death. In the process, Odin is transformed into Atum-Re, the forebearer of the Egyptian gods with a hint that this is actually a restoration to an earlier incarnation. Marvel has generally been rather coy about having so many different sets of gods running around the universe and yet there are clear contradictions between their myths about the creation and growth of the Earth and much overlap between the different responsibilities of the gods. And there are a number of common themes across pantheons - Horus may have a much friendlier relationship with his father than Thor with Odin or Hercules with Zeus, but once again the biggest rivalry within the pantheon is between the (comparatively) young prince and his brother, as with Thor and Loki. And the greatest villain in the pantheon is the god of death, as with the Greek pantheon and even the Norse has used Hela as one of the more recurring foes within the pantheon after Loki. The result is that the introduction of the Egyptian pantheon offers some diversity of characters but continues to follow structures already established with the Norse and Greek gods rather than offering up much that's truly diverse. Even the hint that Odin may somehow also be the founding entity of another pantheon is rather swept over in favour of implying that Osiris, Isis and Horus have merely transformed him into believing he is Atum-Re. Were he the actual Atum-Re it could have made for some interesting tales exploring the various connections and common foes between the different deities, providing a wealth of original ideas for years to come. But instead it's all brushed over for now.

There are a handful of other new foes and situations introduced in this volume but few make much of an impact. Little can be said about Armak the First Man whose spirit possesses a modern day man during a seance, whilst the first encounter with Kamo Tharnn, now better known as the Possessor, is more notable for the successful taking of his powerful Runestaff that offers hope of a cure for Jane Foster than for this strange man in space himself. Right at the end of the volume there is a trip to the Latin American country of Costa Verde where a revolution is underway with the help of Firelord, under the control of the mysterious Gypsy, mistress to the revolution's leader El Lobo. Meanwhile in Asgard, Odin is turning into a tyrant, now advised by the malevolent Igron, but this story thread is not resolved within this volume. Odin has previously spent some time wandering Earth as an amnesiac elderly man called Orrin, supposedly to improve his understanding but it doesn't last long before the Egyptians show up. More earthly moments come from ongoing run-ins with Detective Sergeant, later Lieutenant, Blumkenn, who supplies Thor and Hercules with information about ongoing problems but gets somewhat frustrated with all the action and damage in the area.

The other major introduction in this volume is Firelord, a new herald of Galactus who earns his freedom at the end of his initial adventure when together with Thor and Hercules they have successfully dealt with Ego the Living Planet. Thor is charged with finding a replacement herald and produces the Destroyer armour, with which he and Hercules have battled once more in these pages. As for the Living Planet, we get an origin for Ego but it's rather convoluted as we learn how his people tried to survive a supernova by entering suspended animation, only for the supernova to come early and fuse the last man standing to the planet, consuming all the other lives on it. The clear intention is to make him similar to and a contrast from Galactus, casting both as tragic figures who were once ordinary men now turned into cosmic nightmares, but it's hard to feel much sympathy for Ego at all.

There's a clear liking for Firelord in spite of the cosmic herald feeling somewhat out of place in a series based on Norse mythology as he keeps reappearing, often being used by other malevolent forces such as the Gypsy with her hereditary mind-jewel that allows her to take control of men's wills or by Loki, who makes yet another attempt to conquer Asgard and then Earth, this time with the direct force of an army, but it's one of the most forgettable of battles. The same can be said of the confrontation with the Dweller in Darkness, though the encounter with the Absorbing Man has a wonderful scene where Thor runs away into a toy department only to trick the Absorbing Man into absorbing the properties of a cardboard copy of Mjolnir. For once there truly is someone who can't punch their way out of a paper bag. There's a battle amongst the Trolls, with Ulik kidnapping Jane to force Thor to help in the battle against Ulik's rival Geirrodur and his minion Zotarr but neither side's motivations are entirely altruistic.

One of the more advanced epics comes towards the end of the volume as Zarrko the Tomorrow Man returns, accompanied by his giant Servitor robot. Now the ruler of a land in the 50th century, he comes seeking Thor and the Warriors Three's help to tackle the Time-Twister, a strange group of aliens moving backwards through time and bringing death and destruction wherever they go. The ultimate showdown comes at the Temple at the End of Time where they all encounter the mysterious He Who Remains at the end of it all. It's a strong piece that takes time travel, which can often be a confused concept when used for anything other than to bring characters and situations together, and weaves a tale in which existence is threatened by seemingly unstoppable foes. It also has a strong comeuppance as Zarrko returns to his realm only to discover that his successful conflict has had side effects upon the timeline.

Towards the last third of the volume Hercules drops aside as an interim writer quickly phases him out. But there's a clear successor waiting in the wings who rapidly becomes Thor's new sidekick, getting involved in all his remaining adventures whether intentionally or not. Jane Foster returns but has been one of a number of people who attempt suicide under the influence of the Dweller in Darkness, though this is only discovered after Thor has defeated him, and the attempt has left her in a seemingly incurable condition. Despite not having seen her for years Thor is deeply upset over this and spends a succession of issues in near mourning. Jane is only saved when Sif and Hercules obtain Kamo Tharnn's Runestaff. But in order to restore Jane's spirit Sif transfers her own life force into her. Thus at a stroke all the years of building up Sif as Thor's romantic interest are swept aside and we're back to the old days of Jane, reinforced by Thor making a much greater use than in recent years of his Donald Blake identity as he resumes his regular medical practice. Jane even resumes part of her old role of being a regular damsel in distress to be captured by various foes as a prelude to drawing Thor into the action. This is very much a step back to the old days, albeit with Jane now aware of Thor's dual identity, and it doesn't always feel like a reversion for the better.

But in one regard there has been some development with Jane presented as a much stronger and tougher character than before. At times there are hints that she is channelling the power of Sif, in particular the little-seen power to bypass time and space, but at others it seems as though she's strengthened up on her own accord. She insists on going off on adventures with Thor and won't take no for an answer, holds her own against foes to the point where she's overpowering revolutionaries and besting the Gypsy in physical conflict, standing up to Geirrodur with a spear and more. A lot of time has passed since she was last a regular in the series and this was now an era when portrayals of female characters were moving beyond the old fawning wallflowers. Odin still orders Thor to reject her, an order that is refused, but this may be as much down to Odin's sudden shift in behaviour as anything else. Otherwise Jane is being presented more and more as a strong match for Thor, even to the point of freeing him from mental control. But simply rehashing the 1960s adventures with more modern sensibilities isn't enough and ultimately Jane's return to replace Sif is a major retrograde step.

Overall this volume is so so. It does try to introduce some new elements but doesn't really succeed in finding strong ones that stick, whether because they feel out of touch with the basis of the series or because of a reluctance to explore them in full or because they're just not up to much. Otherwise we get yet more reuses of the same old foes and the return of Jane literally in place of Sif. Some of the individual stories are good but in general this is a series that doesn't know just how to get out of its traditional comfort zone.

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