The Menace from the World Beyond Saga
Writer: Stan Lee. Pencils: John Buscema, with Jack Kirby. Inks: Joe Sinnott, other.
Thor #184-190, 175-177 (1971, 1970)
All these issues are, in fact, available in a single volume -- as part of Essential Thor, vol. 4 (hence why my scans are black & white). So this review is just to highlight them.
Because of the series' mythological roots, a staple plot of Thor comics is the "end of everything/fall of Asgard/Ragnarok/Armageddon/death of the Gods/call it what you will" saga. Some variation of which seems to be trotted out by every writer who takes on the series...usually a few times. As such you can take your pick as to your favourite variation...and you can also find that the whole premise gets a tad repetitive.
But I find myself having a certain fondness for this early Lee/Buscema saga -- what may have been one of the longer multi-issue Thor story arcs to that date (though much longer ones have come along since). Yet if you were to collect it into a TPB (kind of the fanciful premise of this part of my website) I might suggest it be paired with yet another "Ragnarok/end of everything" saga. Partly that's because that earlier one -- by Lee/Kirby -- actually stands as one of the best variations I've come across...and I review it in greater detail here. And events in it lay the ground work for this later story. It's not 100 percent essential -- info is recapped as needed. But having read it means certain revelations don't come out of nowhere.
Anyway, the Lee/Buscema saga has Thor arriving in Asgard to find it gripped in an aura of despair, people literally cringing in the streets. All-father Odin explains a menace has arisen from the mysteriously labelled "World Beyond" -- a menace that is blinking out distant stars and threatens all of existence (Odin had cryptically referred to this menace an issue or two earlier). Meanwhile a mysterious entity named the Silent One has appeared in Asgard, observing all. The Warriors Three have already been dispatched to investigate -- and not returned.
As mentioned, Thor stories deal with such apocalypses on a regular basis, yet this manages to seem like a slightly less well-trod version of that premise (you could pair it with the earlier Thor #175-177 and not feel it's exactly the same). For one thing, though there is the obligatory battles for Asgard, as Loki and Trolls attempt to take advantage of the crisis, much of the action actually takes place in the mysterious World Beyond, Thor battling against an eerie, desolate landscape at the far side of the universe. There is a decent use of the regular supporting cast, with everyone from Sif to Balder to Karnilla playing a part. Plus there are aspects of apocalyptic mysticism, like the Odinsword, whose unsheathing will herald the end of the universe, slowly working its way out of its scabbard (apparently the Odinsword was just made up for the comics, but has the convincing ring of mythology to it). Cutaways to earth genuinely add to the chilling sense of doom and apocalypse, as humans feel the repercussions of these godly events, as flash floods and earthquakes devaste cities.
Sure, there is repetition, and recurring fights, but also mysteries to tease us along, about who is the Silent One, and, of course, who and what is the main villain. The main plot itself actually wraps up in four issues...but then segues into another two issues as Hela, Goddess of Death, seeks to claim the life of Thor.
Of course, even that ends segueing into yet another story arc -- if one were to reprint this as a TPB, perhaps you would end it with the first two panels on page 18 of issue #190, which do feel as though "The End" could've been stamped at the bottom of the panel before the new plot commences.
So why do I like this over so many other Thor apocalypses? Maybe it's because, as mentioned, it manages to draw upon the familiar cliches, the regular cast, the characters striding fretfully through Asgardian corridors...with the originality of the World Beyond and its eerie landscape. Maybe because they manage to capture the sense of an epic conflict...while keeping the focus on Thor and the other characters, as opposed to degenerating into a lot of mass battle scenes where the individual heroes are lost in the crowd. I think it's also because of the way the characters themselves emote, and are so full of passion and anguish, that you can't help but be swept up in their fears. I've commented in some reviews of other Thor stories that too often the writers (and artists) present the characters as too stoic and macho, unfazed by the enormity of their dangers. But Lee wrote passionate characters who wore their hearts on their sleeves, and Buscema draws them appropriately. You believe they confront an unthinkable crisis...because it's betrayed in every line of their faces, in every teeth gnashing exclamation.
As such, there's surprising emotion lurking beneath the superficially corny histrionics and comic book action. When -- in the final, Hela-focused Act -- Odin grieves over the body of his dying son...you can actually feel a lump in your throat. Particularly because these are such powerful, unstoppable heroes, yet are, themselves, powerless in the face of certain threats. Heady stuff.
Lee had a good feel for the Elizabethan language of the heroes, remembering it's not just about writing "thee" and "thou", but the poetic phrasing. Yet there are also moments of Lee-style whimsy, too. When cutting to earth scenes, he throws in some typical-for-the-era Red baiting (as we cut to a communist government blaming the crisis on the west) yet then he also throws in a sly dig as we cut to the American president advising his team not to panic...what with it being an election year! And Buscema is in top form here. Though I am curious about the depiction of Sif -- in the first issue, she is given a new hair style...and doesn't even look like Buscema's work (resembling more a John Romita, Sr. drawing). By the next uissue, she looks more like Buscema's work, though still with the new hair. But an issue or two later, even her hair is back to normal. One wonders if there was an editorial decree to try a new look for Sif, and Buscema's panels of Sif were literally re-drawn by another artist in that first issue.
Sure, there are flaws. How they defeat the menace can seem a bit perfunctory. And when you get to the climax of the World Beyond part of the saga, it can get a bit...muddled. The action cutting back and forth between different scenes where it's unclear how they relate to each other (as a character is in one location, then in another, and it's unclear if there's a time jump, or whether Buscema just lost track of where people were). Maybe it's special pleading, but Thor comics get away with it more than others, because of the inherent mythological aspect -- you can forgive, even embrace, a certain surrealism. Like in the way earth astronomers witness some of the cataclysm in distant galaxies and Lee even has the characters remark that it should be impossible for them to see such events...but they do anyway!
At the end of the day, I find myself caught up in the action, and the characters' emotions, their despair and nobility both, making for an effective epic. Particularly, as mentioned, when paired with #175-177.