Friday, 20 November 2015

Essential Thor volume 7

Essential Thor volume 7 contains issues #248 to #271 (issue #254 was a reprint represented here by the cover and a copy of the apology caption) plus Annuals #5 and #6. Bonus material includes an unused cover for issue #264. The writing is nearly all by Len Wein, including one annual, with one issue co-plotted and scripted by Roger Stern, a couple of back-up tales written by David Anthony Kraft and the other annual written by Steve Englehart. The art is mainly by John Buscema, Tony Dezuniga and Walter Simonson with the back-ups by Pablo Marcos whilst one annual is by John Buscema and the other by Sal Buscema.

The first annual in this volume is quite a curiosity, sitting outside the present day narrative and maybe outside of continuity altogether. It starts with a prologue that narrates the creation story from Norse mythology, showing how the worlds came about and Odin's rise to power. Then it embarks upon an alternate telling of the first encounter between Thor and Hercules, with Loki manipulating the situation to provoke conflict between Asgard and Olympus but Odin and Zeus have their own plans. It's also shown how each set of gods is reliant upon worship and the Asgardian attempt to capture the Ancient Greeks' loyalties completely flounders. The implication, though not explicitly stated, is that each set of gods were created by the worship of their followers, bringing the mythology to life, hence the contradictions created by their simultaneous existence. The story is also one of the first to rewrite modern Marvel history by showing a very different first encounter with Hercules from the original annual, but hand waves this away by pointing to the confusion and uncertainties of mythology that throw up stories that directly contradict one another. This tale was originally written for a black and white magazine series that never happened and then got modified into colour for the annual so it's nice to see it as close to the original intention as is now possible. The art is some of the best in the whole volume, showing John Buscema at his most mythic.

The other annual is, in itself, more mundane fare but would go on to have a big influence outside the title. It sees Thor transported to the future where he winds up in a team-up the Guardians of the Galaxy to battle Korvac, previously seen in the pages of the Defenders but who would go on to be a significant player in the Guardians' own timeline. This annual seems a rather tame beginning but it would subsequently form the basis for one of the most memorable of Avengers storylines. Otherwise it's a typical example of the annuals of the mid Bronze Age and its placing here between issues #266 and #267 is a little surprising as it pre-empts Thor's return to Earth. The two-part back-up "Tales of Asgard" is also tame, telling of how a young Thor learnt there is more to battle than weapons and that he must always use his brains first.

But the main interest comes in the regular issues as this volume contains an eighteen part epic saga (with the reprint falling one third of the way through) that focuses upon Odin's displacement from the throne of Asgard and his eventual return. Apart from some brief comedy at the outset, most notably the scene where Thor sorts out a traffic jam by physically lifting each car out and carrying it to the correct lane, this saga is set completely off Earth. Instead it combines Asgard, the various other realms such as Valhalla or Nornhein and a quest into deep space. The length may seem off-putting but it's never billed as a single piece and instead sees a series of adventures starting with the problems in Asgard due to Odin seemingly going corrupt and mad under the influence of new advisor Igron, then follows a search for the real Odin whilst Balder seeks to uphold the realm against an attack, concluding in a showdown back in Asgard.

It's a storyline with ambition but also at times it seems a little too willing to use almost every single aspect of the Thor stories that isn't connected to Earth, and even one or two that are. So for much of the epic Thor is allied with Sif and the Warriors Three with additional help from variously Balder, Karnilla, the Grand Vizier, Hildegarde and the Recorder. Many of the longstanding villains return, including Mangog, Hela, Ulik, the Grey Gargoyle, Amora the Enchantress, Skurge the Executioner, Loki and the Destroyer armour. There's even a return of the Stone Men from Saturn whom Thor battled in his very first appearance. The quest itself brings another piece of mythic conceit as Thor, Sif and the Warriors Three embark aboard the Starjammer (the name just predates the group from X-Men), a space ship that looks like, and is piloted as though it were, a Viking sailing ship. Towards the end of the quest it's fitted out with weaponry, but it still makes for a striking visual that reinforces that the Asgardian civilisation is built on magic, not science. And there's a strong menace, with even Ragnarok being threatened when Mangog arranges to have the Odinsword in its scabbard placed beneath the stolen throne so that he can kick the sword out and trigger the great destruction in the event of being overwhelmed.

But as well as all the returns there are lots of new ideas, with Mangog's restored power depending upon the worship of the Asgardians due to his disguise as Odin, and his downfall comes when he acts in anger to destroy their trust. Hela allows Thor to walk free of her realm as she reasons death would be preferable to what is to come to him. In space the quintet come across a derelict spaceship where the weaker passengers are being picked off by a monstrous tentacled beast called Sporr - but not for the reason everyone assumes. The Grey Gargoyle turns up as the captain of a ship of anthropomorphic animal space pirates. There's a dying alien race who seek to use the Asgardians' life-forces and magics to revive their fortunes, worshipping Thor and the others even whilst sending them to their deaths.

Less original moments come when the epic mines either the well-worn clichés of fables or the more predictable elements of the series itself. At one stage Thor petitions the spirit Mimir for the real Odin's location and is sent on a quest for a jewel; in the process Thor is forced to sacrifice the jewel to save the Trolls from the beast called Trogg having pledged to save them another way in order to prevent fighting over the jewel. Astonishingly Mimir gives him the information anyway, as the real quest was not for the jewel but to show Thor was worthy. This secret test of character has been done too many times in mythology to not be predictable. And there's the revelation that the mastermind behind the Enchantress and Executioner's attack on Asgard is none other than Loki, who once again secures the throne. Loki has frankly been done to death in the series and it would have been a greater surprise had he not appeared in this saga. Instead it makes the last few issues quite a comedown. There's an attempt to enhance his villainy with a moment when he sends the Enchantress and Executioner to their apparent deaths, but otherwise it's business as usual.

One of the more unfortunate effects of such a lengthy saga is the disappearance of Jane Foster as a character with barely a word. She insists on coming to Asgard with Thor and the others, pointing to Sif's spirit within her giving her strength, but once there she picks up Sif's sword and finds that when she slams it against the wall she is replaced by the goddess herself. Although the relationship between Donald Blake and Thor was messy for years and subject to retcons, there was a time when it seemed that the two were different personalities with separate histories who alternated, but this was never fully explored before it was established Thor had been Blake all along. Now for the first time we get the potential alternation of two distinct characters who cannot be so easily retconned into the same person, with the added complication that they are rivals for Thor's affections. There is a huge amount of potential in this... so it's a pity that Jane is forgotten for the rest of the volume and Sif treated as the sole entity occupying the body. When Thor opts to return to Earth Sif stays behind with no mention of Jane; nor is her absence addressed on Earth as Donald Blake seeks to re-establish himself there. It's as though she's been forgotten by all including the writer; a very arbitrary solution to the long running question of which of the two women is the right one for Donald/Thor, seemingly destroying a character in the process and ignoring all the potential story possibilities that could stem from the different aims and objectives of Jane and Sif.

But in spite of the individual problems, overall this storyline is fairly strong. Because of the twists and turns it's entirely possible to come in midway without missing important details for later, and so back in the 1970s this must have been more of a treat than an infuriation with the length, but it's all the better for having been collected in a single volume rather than being broken across more than one collection as indeed some releases do.

The last few issues see Thor return to Earth on his own, Odin having given the Warriors Three another mission that keeps them away whilst Sif also remains in Asgard. On Earth Thor finds he's been away for over a year (which will give the chronology mappers a headache), the building his surgery was in has been torn down and his regular patients scattered. Thus there's a clean slate for Donald Blake's life on Earth, though within these issues the only step taken is the suggestion of volunteering at a free clinic. Otherwise Thor battles a variety of foes he's not faced before, including the techno criminal Damocles, Stilt-Man, Blastaar and the computer F.A.U.S.T. The Damocles story is well constructed in the way it focuses upon the criminal and his brother Eric in conflict without being explicit in comparisons with Loki and Thor, and the climax where Eric finds himself with no option but to shoot his brother is very moving. Otherwise the adventures form a mini-epic as Stilt-Man is manipulated by Blastaar who in turn is manipulated by F.A.U.S.T. Stilt-Man has a new set of armour with a number of upgrades that make at least a semi-credible foe but Thor's power level means intervention by Blastaar is necessary. The chain of manipulation and betrayal eventually culminates in F.A.U.S.T. building itself a spaceship to attack humanity from orbit. But the conclusion feels rushed and undermining the title character as he turns to the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. for help. It would have made a much better ending to the story and the whole volume if Thor had tackled and defeated the menace on his own.

Although there are some individual letdowns in the volume, overall it's very strong and shows a very good use of many of the series's elements yet doesn't deploy every single one of them. The grand epic is the high point of not just this volume but this period of Thor as a whole and having it all in one place makes for a very strong volume.

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