The Masked Bookwyrm's
Thor Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews ~ Page 1
Star
Back to other Trade Paperback and GN review(s)

The mythical Norse god of thunder, lord of the living lightning, in the modern world...

Thor published by Marvel Comics

For other appearances of Thor see:
The Avengers, The Best of Marvel, X-Men: First Class - Tomorrow's Brightest, Daredevil: Born Again, and probably some others


Essential Thor, vol. 4 2009 (SC TPB) 600 pages

cover by Kirby.Written by Stan Lee, with Gerry Conway. Pencils by Jack Kirby, John Buscema, with Neal Adams. Inks by Vince Colletta, Bill Everett, Joe Sinnott, others.

Black & White: Letters: Art Simek, Sam Rosen.

Reprinting: Thor (1st series) #167-195 - with covers (1969-1972)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Review slightly revised: Mar. 2011

These Essential volumes, massive collections of consecutive issues, are basically just nifty grab bags of comics, with high and low points. With one or two exceptions, that's how I purchase them -- not as part of a complete library, but just as a random sampler. In this case, I was kind of hankering for some Thor comics, and settled on this one in part because of the artists represented. Jack Kirby, the original Thor artist, draws the first half, then John Buscema draws most of the rest. Two guys who kind of strike me as the definitive Thor depicters -- with apologies to Walt Simonson, John Romita, Jr., Oliver Coipel, etc. (Though, just as an aside, there were later Thor comics -- not from this period -- where I felt Buscema was maybe losing his enthusiasm for the gig). In addition to Kirby and Buscema, Neal Adams even pinch hits a couple of issues inbetween.

This is one of the few of these black & white Essential volumes where I kind of miss the colours, thinking that scenes of the Eternal Realm -- Asgard -- probably lose a bit in black & white. Though, conversely, the work of some inkers maybe benefit from this presentation.

But this runs a nice gamut of tales. There are plenty of earth based stories of Thor battling robots and super villains...and plenty of stories set within the mythological halls of Asgard; there are simple, one off slug fests...and multi-part epics. And yes, there is a variance in quality, with some just okay page turners (that you don't mind as much when the next story is just a flip of the page away) and some quite exciting epics...and some pretty missable affairs as well. Yet what emerges is a nice collection. I often read TPBs with an eye to the "definitive" story -- that is, if I was pruning my comics collection down to one book per character, what would it be? I don't tend to count Essential books in this theoretical culling process...but of the Thor TPBs I've reviewed, this one volume most delivers what I want, and expect, from Thor.

There are a few spots where one feels the cart gets ahead of the horse, as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby will seem to set up a neat idea...that kind of fizzles. Early in this collection, Odin sends Thor off to discover the true origin of the planet devouring entity, Galactus (familiar from other comics, notably The Fantastic Four). It's an intriguing enough tale, full of Kirby's grandiose visuals and Lee's dramatic dialogue...but seems like it should be the set up for something. Instead, Odin basically says, thanks, I was just curious...and that's the end of it! There's a one issue tussle with the Wrecker that is basically just twenty pages of mindless fisticuffs...except with a running stream of dialogue that makes you wonder if Lee was trying to use it as a metaphor for some deeper philosophical point.

Perhaps the stand out of the tell-it-in-one issues is one where Thor takes on the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime...a fun story that crams enough plot and twists into one issue to make a mini-series today!

Visually, Kirby delivers a lot of robust, dynamic visuals. I seem to be a bigger Kirby fan as I get older than I was as a kid, enjoying his work more, and he's certainly in his element with a character like Thor. Sometimes he's inked by Vince Colletta, an inker with a stiff Spartan style that has certainly gained him his share of detractors over the years, particularly as he maybe puts an undue restraint on Kirby's surging pencils. But a number of issues has Kirby inked by Bill Everett -- a pairing I'd never seen before but, at least in black and white, is just gorgeous. Everett brings a delicacy to the pencils, while also matching the bombast. And it's a true shame that, to my knowledge, the two weren't paired more often.

What's imaginative is how Kirby and Lee mix up their genres -- something that used to be what made super hero comics just a little bit more exciting than other mediums. Nowadays, it seems a lot of Thor comics tend to want to play up the strict Norse mythology angle. But what's kind of neat here is how Lee and Kirby know their Norse myths...but mix it up with a science fiction flavour. So Thor travels the galaxies...in a space ship, and Asgard looks like a hallucinatory blending of Viking legends...and something out of Magnus Robot Fighter. It gives the series, and its "reality", a unique, entrancing flavour. Perhaps they were deliberately applying the theme of "Chariots of the Gods" and other para-science theories about ancient gods really being alien visitors. The Asgardians here are not simply time frozen Norse gods...but a weird mix of ancient legends and futuristic beings.

Nowadays, writers seem a little more concerned about continuity and the overall "universe", so you probably couldn't write stories like the ones here. I mean, on one hand, Thor clearly exists in the Marvel Universe -- there's Galactus, and villains like the Wrecker -- yet these stories also seem to exist outside it because despite world shaking menaces, no other super hero swoops in to join the fray. And there's no attempt to explain how Asgard fits in with all the other cosmic beings and demi-gods in Marvel comics. In fact, this could border on sacrilegious to those who take it too seriously, with Odin often identified as "the way and the light -- the power and the word", as if he truly is the All-Father...the Supreme God! Which raises some interesting sub-texts about Thor as a kind of Jesus metaphor -- the son of God, sent to earth to save humanity. Pretty heavy analysis for a comic about a guy in tights with a magic hammer!

Though the series benefits from the variety inherent in the shifting milieu -- sometimes set on modern earth, sometimes in timeless Asgard -- it's at its most unique in Asgard. In fact, it's kind of funny that despite Thor spending a lot of issues as an earth based super hero, that aspect of the comic remains the most undeveloped. There's basically Thor, his alter ego of Don Blake...and that's it. Even one time love interest Jane Foster has been largely written out by this point. Yet you can't say the comic didn't have a supporting cast. It's just they were all Asgardians. Odin, Sif, Balder, Fandral, Hogun, Volstagg, Heimdal, even Loki and Karnilla. Indeed, it's probably the biggest supporting cast outside of Spider-Man! It's when the story focuses on them that Lee's trademark angst and soap opera-y flare comes into play. And though there's repetition, even that can take on a certain operatic charm (as we frequently cut away to Loki and Karnilla plotting -- and Karnilla pinning for Balder). Though Loki definitely can exceed his "best before date". And Lee seems to enjoy writing the characters in all their passion and poetry -- and not just the Elizabethan "thee"s and "thou"s, but the phrasings he employs have a lyrical, poetic rythm. In recent years, Thor comics have tended to move away from the Shakespearian dialogue, but it lent the series a flavour distinct from Spider-Man or Daredevil. And there was probably no other comic at the time where grown men would unabashedly declare their "love" for each other. Heck, even modern Thor comics tend to squirm away from such emoting.

In fact, modern Thor comics tend to play Thor as taciturn and stone-faced. But here what's appealing is that Thor is an emotional, vulnerable guy -- one capable of expressing fear, and love, and grief, and isn't worried this will unman him! And Lee, ever the romantic, always seems to find time for Thor and Sif to declare their love for each other! And, of course, what's at the heart of the character is a guy who simply does what needs to be done. When Thor takes on a bad guy, you don't so much get the feeling he's thinking about winning -- or losing. Merely, that an evil must be bearded. Period.

This was around the time when Kirby was growing dissatisfied with Marvel and quit to go to DC Comics. But before he does, he and Lee deliver one of the collection's high points. Loki usurps the throne of Asgard and, inadvertently, triggers Ragnarok (the end of the world). In three issues (#175-177) Lee & Kirby tackle a veritable cliche of Thor comics -- such stories have certainly been done many times since, and probably before. Yet they do it exceptionally well, telling it concisely in three issues, but cramming it full of drama and emotion, machinations and strategies, with an apocalyptic grandeur. In three issues, it's as good a version of that kind of tale as there probably has been.

After Kirby leaves, there's a multi-parter (began by Kirby, finished by Neal Adams) in which Loki switches bodies with Thor. This seemed to be a popular plot for Lee (using it in Daredevil and Captain America around the same time) and though not as good as those versions, nonetheless it's an enjoyable page turner. After which comes a two parter, now with "Big" John Buscema officially ensconced as artist, pitting Thor against Dr. Doom...that proves a surprisingly compelling effort. It's effectiveness creeps up on you. There's a scene where Doom is threatening someone while feigning civility which is just chilling in its subtlety, and the story even builds to an unexpected twist. It demonstrates how action and adventure doesn't just have to be a code word for "fight scenes". It's a fast paced, exciting effort...yet Thor and Doom only come to blows for three pages or so!

Sure, throughout it -- and a lot of the stories -- there is a lot of goofiness, and lot of implausibility, or loose logic that strains credulity. These are almost 40 year old comics, after all. Lee was, no doubt, writing as much to meet a deadline as out of artistic inspiration. And maybe I'm being unduly kind at times when even the continuity seems inconsistent -- sometimes Thor can't be separated from his hammer for more than a minute without turning into Don Blake...other times he can! But if you can forgive those lapses, there's a lot to entertain.

Then they launch into the collection's biggest epic. You know how I said those "apocalyptic, fight for Asgard" stories are pretty much a cliche of the series? Well, scarcely a half dozen issues after the last one, Lee and Buscema take another whack at the theme -- and despite the repetition, score another winner. Stretched over seven issues, it manages to conjure an effectively dramatic, apocalyptic ambience, with a few twists and turns and mysterious agendas, as an enigmatic cosmic entity threatens to consume the universe...and even Odin seems helpless to stop it. Of course, by this point, Lee is getting into the idea of overlapping stories, so the final couple of chapters are almost more a secondary plot (and, indeed, the plot had its roots in an earlier story -- which is an appeal of these Essential books, collecting such a massive run of issues between one cover means those roots are also contained in this volume). There are even moments of profoundity, as Hela, goddess of death, points out that she's a far cry from being a villain. And when it finally comes to an end...the last couple of pages segue into the next story arc.

Once more (!) Loki seizes the throne of Asgard...and it's feeling repetitious, and a little nonsensical. Perhaps Lee had some ideas left over from the previous Loki-seizes-the-throne arc and wanted to present them. But the how and why is ill-explained, so the saga lacks a certain foundation. When I initially posted this review, I suggested this story arc went a bit "off the rails", perhaps a reflection of Lee losing interest (he hands over the writing to Gerry Conway part way through) -- but I also said maybe I read it in the wrong frame of mind. And re-reading it some months later, by itself, removed from the context of the preceding issues (and therefore any blatant sense of repetition) I actually did like it more. Sure, it's still a bit thin (stretching from, more or less, the last couple of pages of #190 through to #194), the lion's share an epic fight scene as Loki conjures an unstoppable monster to battle Thor -- in a premise evocative of the later Superman villain Doomsday. But the energy is high, the angst and emoting in full swing, and the theme of Thor torn between conflicting duties adds an emotional undercurrent. Conway adopts the Lee-style Shapespearian patois quite well, and it does wrap up with a clever denouement. The Silver Surfer even guest stars for an issue.

I've said the advantage to these massive omnibuses is lesser issues can seem better, because they don't have to justify the purchase on their own -- but maybe the downside is it's too easy to negatively compare a tale to another a few pages earlier. Coming at the end of almost 25 issues of Thor comics, the above-mentioned arc was maybe starting to seem a bit stale. But read on its own, though hardly a classic adventure...it's an okay page turner.

The final issue here begins a new arc -- another end of the world one! -- that goes unresolved (until Essential Thor, vol. 5, of course). But as such, the collection kind of ends with a whimper, more than a bang.

But when you're talking a collection of almost 30 comics, that's a pretty small part of the collection.

The appeal of these Essential volumes is the sheer variety -- two or three epic sagas (that would make decent TPB collections on their on!) and some shorter one or two issue adventures; cosmic grandeur and New York brawls; Thor as super hero...and Thor as a mythical, fantasy hero. Thor is one of those character who I kind of like in theory, but often have trouble finding a story that quite captures the essence of what I associate with the character and his comic. And this Essential volume hits the spot. Verily -- I say thee Yea!

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.99 USA.


Thor, vol. 1 1992 (HC TPB) 144 pages

cover by Coipel.Written by J. Michael Straczynski. Pencils by Oliver Coipel. Inks by Mark Morales.
Colours: Laura Martin. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos. Editor: Warren Simons, Alejandro Arbona.

Reprinting: Thor (3rd series) #1-6 (2007-2008)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

It seems everytime you turn around these days, comics companies are restarting familiar titles from #1. Still, this time they can justify the renumbering because, apparently, Thor and his entire Asgardian pantheon had been killed off previously.

It's still the same continuity, though, the story simply picking up the pieces. Thor is just hanging about in limbo when he is approached by his mortal alter ego, Dr. Donald Blake, who basically tells him he's only as dead as he wants to be, and can will himself back into existence. So he does. Then he tells him he can will Asgard back into existence. So he does (in the middle of the American Midwest, yet!) And then Thor goes about willing his people back into existence, their souls having sought refuge in human hosts scattered throughout the world.

And that lack of logic is one of the fundamental problems with this new series. Stories dealing with magic can always require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief -- but still: Thor recreating Asgard simply by willing it so? He's the God of Thunder...not The Guy Who Can Will Matter Out of Nothing! Or the Guy Who Can Come Back from the Dead Simply 'Cause He Wants Too!

And this series doesn't really explain much for the newbie. It's not entirely clear how Thor and his fellows died, or when. I doubt a new reader would even realize Don Blake is supposed to whack his stick on the ground to turn into Thor (the visuals often show him holding his stick in the air, leaving the reader to infer that he brings it down on the ground). And the first half dozen issues are partly about just resurrecting all the old Asgardian faces -- which will have no resonance if you aren't already a fan.

Yet in other ways, writer Straczynski seems to cavalierly alter the concept to suit himself. His treatment of Thor/Blake is just odd (admittedly, maybe this was established by earlier writers -- the last time I read a Thor comic, he had long since discarded the Blake identity). But he seems to treat them as two different people -- stranger, there's a scene where Thor's having a battle, and we cut to limbo where Blake and...Thor are dispassionately observing the battle. How many Thors are living under that winged helmet anyway? It's as if Straczynksi feels the fantasy aspect means logic doesn't apply.

But the biggest problem is that it's sloooowwww, with nothing much happening. With little story logic to Thor's re-establishing of Asgard, Straczynski just pads out moments, relying a lot on Oliver Coipel's visuals to carry things along. And, yeah, the art is pretty breathtaking at times, with Coipel (and the colourist) beautifully rendering the flat prairies of the Oklahoma and the medieval ramparts of Asgard, nicely capturing the rustic simplicity of a small town diner or the earth shaking power of a thunderstorm, delivering realism in scenes that require it, and comical exaggeration in the light-hearted scenes (of which there are a few) and the imposing power of the super heroics (though his Thor is a bit boxy and ugly). The effectiveness of the art definitely adds to the atmosphere, making the scenes more appealing.

But they are padded. A scene where Thor is told that he can't build Asgard there leads to a cute-but-obvious joke/punchline...except it takes four pages to get there! Four beautifully rendered pages, sure...but it is just for an obvious joke. Likewise, another scene where a local visits Asgard has some nice images of the character wandering the empty avenues, his shadow splayed dramatically against walls...but it is just a scene of a guy walking. (And Coipel's more realist Asgard lacks that otherworldly Kirby-esque splendour of earlier Thor comics).

The first action scene occurs in #3, as Thor has a showdown with erstwhile buddy Iron Man (this being post-Civil War, when Iron Man had been less than upstanding). But it's basically just to show what a bad ass Thor is as he trounces Iron Man, not really meant to be suspenseful or telling a plot.

The first "plot" issue is probably issue #4, in which Blake goes to a war torn African country as part of Doctors Without Borders. But I use plot only in its loosest possible definition. This also reflects some of the hubris I've noted in other work by Straczynski. Throwing in the idea of Doctors Without Borders is potentially interesting, tackling some real world issues...but it smacks of pedantic smugness, as if just by tossing it in, Straczynski feels he has elevated his readers' consciousness. But Straczynski says very little with it, his characters are there to mouth statistics more than be real people. And though I'm all for super heroes tackling real issues, this feels too much like trivializing rather than tackling the issue. And I'm just not sure all-powerful Thor is the ideal character to use (in the previous issue, Thor visits post-Katrina New Orleans for a similarly awkward juxtaposition of fantasy and reality).

And, again, there's a lack of plausibility. Blake goes to Africa, does next to nothing medical, and is back in Oklahoma by the next issue. Um, I think stints with Doctors Without Borders usually last months.

The fifth issue is the first one where Thor battles a foe worthy of his power...yet still fails to quite create a sense of suspense where we worry whether Thor will triumph. It starts out with Thor investigating a mysterious menace, but again just seems the barest bones of a story. And like all the issues -- including the African sojourn -- is really just part of the resurrecting Asgard theme.

The final issue in this collection once more gets back to almost nothing happening...yet still manages to end on something of a cliffhanger as Thor lies sprawled in the dust in the final page, injured, possibly near death (well, as near death as one can be who can will himself into life).

Now the fact that the plotting is thin, the action minimal, and the logic tenuous, maybe leaves characterization as the point. But Thor is largely stony faced and stoic, Blake is, well, a cypher -- and neither Straczynski nor Coipel seem to remember he was supposed to be lame and the walking stick more than an affectation. There's a scene where Thor expresses an emotional conflict over whether he should try and resurrect his father, Odin. It's a nice idea...but would've been nicer to have portrayed it, perhaps teasing it through a few issues and scenes, to see Thor's inner turmoil -- not simply have him state it impassively in one scene. The supporting Asgardians don't have a lot to do (Volstagg gets a few cute comic relief moments). And though a couple of the town's folk recur enough that you can recognize them, they still haven't progressed much beyond walk ons.

Straczynski gets some cute scenes out of the town's folk trying to adjust to their Asgardian neighbours. On one hand, it's amusing to see these larger-than-life characters from the POV of the man in the street, on the other hand, it depersonalizes the Asgardians, bleeding the "human" out of super human protagonists.

With that being said, the whimsical scenes are often the best, even if sometimes problematic (though an amusing scene, do we really want to know about Asgardian waste disposal?).

Straczynski has characters repeatedly state the cycle of the Norse Gods has now been broken, and their future is theirs to fashion. Basically, it sounds like Straczynski (and his editor) were tired of past Thor writers endlessly recycling Norse myths. At the same time, that's kind of the point of Thor -- it's not just a team of super heroes who happen to be named after gods.

As well, Straczynski seems to fall into the trap of a lot of comics writers, who seems mainly interested in imprinting his own vision of the series -- the way the characters repeatedly say how the old pattern is broken seems as though Straczynski figures as long as he repeats it often enough any writer after him will have to obey his edict. It reminds me a bit of John Byrne (and others). But, of course, it's silly. His "vision" will only last as long as his tenure. Then a new writer, with a greater interest in Norse mythology, will come along, and reintroduce the old legends. Heck, even though the relocating of Asgard to small town America is a cute idea -- it's a pretty limiting one, and I suspect it won't be too long before some later writer relocates Asgard back to its mythical realm.

The only thing permanent in comics...is impermanence.

But Straczynski's writing is full of contradictions. He insists the old cycles (ie: the old comics) won't be repeated...even as he spends the first few issues simply re-introducing the old cast. He implies that he's bringing a new broom of creativity to the comic...and then for six issues, it feels like he's spinning his wheels, hoping for inspiration to strike.

Striking visuals and buoyed by some cute, light-hearted scenes, but this first collection doesn't tell a story, doesn't really flesh out the personalities much, and, perhaps worst of all, doesn't really offer any hint that it's going to get better!

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in Thor comics.

Cover price: ___

Next


Back