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Thor Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews ~ Page 4
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Thor: I, Whom The Gods Would Destroy 1987 (SC GN) 62 pages

cover by RyanWritten by Jim Owsley (a.k.a. Christopher Priest), from a plot by Jim Shooter. Pencils by Paul Ryan. Inks by Vince Colletta.
Colours: Bob Sharen. Letters: Rick Parker.
Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

I, Whom the Gods Would Destroy may be the only Thor all original one-shot graphic novel -- certainly of its era. Though you can wonder about its history. The story is credited to Marvel's Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter (making you wonder if writer Jim Owsley was a willing collaborator -- or simply when the boss asks, you say "yes") -- except it was published after Shooter had left Marvel (and apparently years after it was initially advertised!) It even contains an inside note that it takes place during stories from a few years before, explaining why the plot doesn't really seem to fit with Thor continuity as it existed when this finally saw print.

(The title is also odd. There is a line from a poem "whom the gods would destroy" and a line from another poem "I, while the gods laugh" -- but I don't now if a mash-up between them was deliberate, or just Shooter or Owsley got confused).

I mention all this because, on one hand, the book can feel like a bit of an indulgence -- a vanity whim by Marvel's head honcho. But the fact that it wasn't published under Shooter's tenure maybe implies that even Shooter had second thoughts about it, but a later regime decided to publish it -- maybe just because they had paid those involved and figured they might as well try and recoup their cost).

Who knows?

The premise is that Thor -- in his then alter ego of Dr. Donald Blake -- is depressed after losing a patient on the operating table. This sends him spiralling into introspection, contemplating the nature of humanity vs gods, and how for all their trials and heartaches, human beings arguably get more out of life than immortal gods. A concept he tries to explain to fellow god, his sometimes lover, Sif -- with mixed results.

And that's about it. You can almost picture them stamping a label on the cover: "A Very Special Thor Story!"

The art is by Paul Ryan, who I've mentioned before leaves me a bit ambivalent. He's a solid artist and tells the scenes cleanly and clearly. But the pictures tell the story more than they enhance it, or cause you to linger over a particularly striking panel, or marvel at nuances inherent in expressions. He's probably not flattered by inker Vince Colletta -- an inker who accrued his share of detractors over the years, largely for his reputation of being more concerned with meeting deadlines than artistry. I'm not saying the art is bad -- just bland.

As for the story...

One can object to taking a nominally action-adventure hero and sticking him in a story with no action and no adventure, all in an attempt to seem high brow and sophisticated. But even that could be forgiven if it was, in fact, a story -- but it ain't. And by story I mean a plot, a beginning, middle and end, with story development and the like. It's basically just 60 pages of Thor/Donald Blake ruminating on this central theme, broken up with occasional episodes -- Blake has a one night stand with a woman (perhaps as a concession to a slight "mature readers" vibe) and he takes Sif shopping.

But worse -- it doesn't really feel like Thor or Blake! I don't know if either Shooter or Owsley (also known as Christopher Priest) had written much for Thor before (though Shooter had written for him as part of The Avengers). But neither persona really sounds nor especially acts in character (Blake occasionally slips in Elizabethan English when talking with Sif -- while Thor almost never does!) Basically it's as if the writers wanted to explore the themes and Thor was just a convenient mouthpiece through which to do so.

And what about those themes?

If I were to attempt some armchair psychoanalysis, I might wonder if Jim Shooter had found himself suffering from creative ambivalence. A guy who wrote his first professional comic when still a teenager, I wonder if at that point in his career he was struggling with mixed feelings toward the whole men-in-tights oeuvre. The Dazzler graphic novel he wrote was more a Hollywood melodrama than a super hero adventure. While the ill-fated New Universe experiment he launched (of which the best was arguably his own Star Brand) was all about trying to add extra "realism" to super hero stories as was, in its way, the Valiant line he initiated.

But viewed in that way, this isn't just indulgent and pretentious -- but kind of condescending. I'm not sure the average reader needed to be reminded that there's a difference between the fantasy of Thor's Asgard and the real world. And surely Thor stories were all about presenting Thor and his pantheon as flesh and blood beings, characters of great passions and feet of clay. A story like this is almost trying to deny them their humanity -- without, it should be noted, doing anything more than pay lip service to mortals. After all, it's not like there's really any attempt to develop or explore a human character here.

It's a paean to The Human Race more than to human beings.

Conversely (while I'm getting all analytical) you could also see this as part of a philosophical trend. Years ago, alien or other outsider characters in fiction were often used as a way of criticizing humanity, to challenge us to be better than we are (such as The Silver Surfer) -- but then there seemed to be a shift toward using those characters to tell us how wonderful we are. I'm thinking of how Vulcan's were portrayed in the 1960s TV series (where there was at least a give and take when it came to human/Vulcan comparisons) and later Star Trek series (notably Enterprise, where the Vulcan's were there to be largely belittled and mocked in comparison to humanity's inate greatness). Just a thought.

The writing itself is rather workmanlike (despite Owsley/Priest later writing some good stuff) -- how much that's scripter Owsley's fault, how much plotter Shooter, is hard to say. If Shooter's plot extended to actual scene breakdowns, then he's responsible for the obnoxious bar patrons and surly firemen. There's also a slight sexist -- even misogynist -- streak I sometimes associate with Shooter (or at least, Shooter from that period). An almost subliminal sexism -- such that Shooter himself might not be conscious of it. But one where woman can seem a bit too much like sex objects -- not sexual objects (as in scantily clad heroines) but literally objects-with-which-to-have-sex-and-then-walk-away. Blake has a one night stand with a woman who you assume is going to be central to this graphic novel -- and then she's just dropped from the story!

Yet one could easily imagine this having influenced Paul Dini/Alex Ross's later treasury-sized graphic novels for DC -- in which there was likewise a tendency to turn super hero "adventures" into illustrated essays reflecting on themes of heroism and humanity. And writers like Kurt Busiek, J. Michael Straczynski and others have likewise done similar stories -- stories wrapped up in their own almost palpable sense of self-importance while sacrificing plot and characterization at the alter of lectures about what it means to be human. And stories in which the super heroes with whom the reader is nominally supposed to identify are rendered as some kind of iconic demi-god (here literally) whom the reader is supposed to regard as removed from himself.

In that context it's hard to entirely dismiss this story -- because I'd argue a lot of writers have done similar. But it's a Thor comic that doesn't really seem to "get" Thor. A graphic novel that wants to reflect on what it means to be human, without the writers really seeming to have much interest in genuine human emotion. A story that wants to celebrate humanity, but does so by denying that very humanity to its central characters. And does it as basically an illustrated essay rather than threaded through a genuine story.

Original cover price: $5.95 USA

Thor: If Asgard Should Perish 2010 (HC) 232 pages

cover by KirbyWritten by Len Wein, with David Kraft. Pencils by John Buscema, with Pablo Marcos. Inks by Joe Sinnott, Tony DeZuniga.
Colours: Glynis Oliver Wein, Marie Severin. Letters: various.

Reprinting: Thor (1st series) #242-253 (1975-1976), with covers

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed April, 2011

Marvel is clearly anticipating a Thor marketing wave from the up-coming motion picture. But why these particular issues in this particular format is a question. Presented as part of its hardcover Marvel Premier Classic series (listed as vol. 54), If Asgard Should Perish reprints 12 consecutive issues, starting with Len Wein assuming the scripting chores for the series, while artist John Buscema is in the midst of his long association with the character. Indeed, this is the first of two consecutive hardcovers reprinting Wein's run on the series!

The advantage to reprinting a consecutive run is that it allows sub-plots to unfold teasingly as they were meant to. So in this case, the collection begins with an apocalyptic four parter in which Thor (and girlfriend Jane Foster, and recurring buddies, The Warriors Three) travel, literally, to the end of time and back again, to save not just the world, but the world in multiple epochs. But unrest is brewing in mythological Asgard, as All-father Odin seems to be acting a bit odd and tyrannical (well...more tyrannical than usual). Eventually Thor returns to Asgard to battle his own, erratic father.

Thor can be a problematic character to write, balancing the mythological and the super hero. And the same plots tend to recur -- which is why it's in the details that a story can be refreshed, more than the basic plotting.

The opening four parter is uneven but generally works. There is a nice sense of apocalyptic grandeur, and bleak melancholy, much of the action taking place against desolate landscapes beneath dwarfing starfields. Wein has some good concepts -- Thor and his buddies reluctantly teaming with an old villain, The Tomorrow Man, who is the dictator of his own far future century, in order to battle a far greater menace. But Wein -- or Buscema -- indulge in too many protracted fight scenes, forcing the more compelling plot and character bits to peak out inbetween, like grass forcing its way through cracks in pavement.

I tend to regard Wein as one of my favourite writers of the 1970s, but he may be struggling a bit with Thor's idiom. Thor should be a figure of great passions, who loves with all his heart, rages with all his fury, and weeps unashamedly when sad. Instead, here he tends to seem rather stoic and unflappable. Likewise, Wein throws in the Warriors Three (as well as Balder and other Asgardian staples) without necessarily having much use for them. If you're going to expand your cast, it behooves you to come up with a plot that requires them. Instead they spend most of their time just hanging out with Thor, jockeying for a line of dialogue, and padding out the fight scenes...without much sense that if Thor was alone, Wein would've had to re-plot it much. And though Wein adopts the Elizabethan English of the series back then (all "verily" and "forsooth") he maybe isn't as good (at least at first) as some previous writers at evoking a Shakespearian syntax that lends the dialogue a poetic flourish.

Wein can also be a bit heavy handed, particularly in the early issues. Using dialogue and captions to clarify action is good (and something modern writers might consider using more) but when a giant hand crashes though a wall and grabs Jane Foster, do we really need dialogue stating as such?

Still, the far future adventure is a decent, somewhat eerie adventure. This is then followed by a more down-to-earth two-parter wherein occasional ally Firelord, then Thor himself, get brainwashed into helping South American rebels attack the legitimate government. But other than the brainwashing idea, there's nothing much memorable here. The rebels are just cartoony villains, with Wein not even pretending to use his story to explore real social and political issues.

After that we barrel full tilt into Asgard, The Eternal Realm, the milieu that truly allows Thor to stand out from other super heroes (interestingly, though some issues here contain the blurb explaining how Dr. Donald Blake becomes Thor...I'm not sure the Blake alter ego is employed anywhere in this collection!) Unfortunately, we've seen all this before and since, Thor having to fight someone who has usurped the throne of Asgard. Wein hasn't come up with intriguing sub-plots, or character bits, to distinguish it from other variations. It feels like Wein wrote it because it seemed like something you should write for a Thor story...but he didn't really have any particular things he wanted to do with it. That story line ends with our heroes victorious, Asgard saved...but All-father Odin vanished. So then the next few issues involve Thor trying to find him (a quest continued in the next collection -- The Quest for Odin -- not that these issues end on a cliff hanger).

And Wein seems maybe to be finding his tone a bit better. Issue #251 has Thor descending into Hel to see if Odin is there -- again, nothing particularly original for Thor over the years (though the claim here is it had never been done before). Yet nonetheless, it's a suitably moody, slight eerie tale. As well, Wein seems to be demonstrating a better feel for the passions and emotions of Thor and his godly brethren. The next two-parter has Thor (still seeking Odin) battling Trolls, and reluctantly coming to their aid against a greater threat (employing the recurring theme that Thor's nobility forces him to act against his personal wants). It's not an especially complex tale, but again, Wein seems to have now developed a sense for the fantasy milieu and the personalities.

And, of course, throughout many of these stories, we get what I think of as a signature of Wein's work -- the ending, whether it be an ironic twist, or a bitter denouement, that can sometimes elevate the more mundane aspects of the tale with a memorable finale.

Also included in this collection is a two-part "Tales of Asgard" story that ran as a back-up piece in a couple of issues. By David Anthony Kraft and Pablo Marcos, it's not particularly memorable.

Thoughout this entire collection, John Buscema provides the art, first inked by Joe Sinnott, then by Tony DeZuniga -- with mixed results. I don't know if Sinnott would be my first choice for a fantasy type series (though I liked his work better in black & white in Essential Thor, vol. 4), while DeZuniga's inks can seem a bit rough and sloppy in spots (his first issue lists him as a "guest inker" so it may have been a last minute assignment and he was rushing to meet the deadline). Buscema is an obvious artist for Thor, the character bearing some thematic similarities to Conan the Barbarian on which Buscema also enjoyed a long run. But I'll admit, some of his art here seems a bit lacklustre. Given the "Marvel Style" of production, where an artist would storyboard a scene from a writer's outline, it's possible that some of the problem with the narrative -- the lack of emotion, the overlong fight scenes -- might be partly attributable to Buscema. If so, that might also explain why the final few issues seem a little stronger, because the visuals, and the composition, are likewise more engaging, as if he was getting a creative second wind.

Which kind of brings us to Jane Foster -- written out as Thor's love interest years before, but then recently returned. And Wein clearly wants to avoid the pitfall of making Jane a damsel in distress, writing her getting involved in the conflicts, even seeming more of the comics' hero than Thor at times (suggesting strategies, even saving the day). Unfortunately, what he hasn't succeeded in doing is making Jane interesting. She may've been toughened up for the Women's Lib era, but she's still rather dull. And it's as if Wein realizes that, because once Thor is in Asgard, Jane transforms into his old love, Lady Sif (who previously had sacrificed her life force to save Jane). After a momentary surprise, and Thor musing that he's now no longer sure to whom his heart belongs, basically he and Sif are back in each others arms, Jane seeming largely forgotten. And again, one wonders how much the artist influences things. Because Buscema's depiction of Jane was kind of bland, she and Thor standing beside each other, evincing all the sexual chemistry of siblings. But once Sif is back in play, Buscema is happily drawing them draped in each others arms, faces pressed close together. You believe they are devoted lovers! So, again, was Buscema just drawing what Wein was writing...or was Wein following Buscema's lead as to who was the preferred love interest?

Ultimately, If Asgard Should Perish is an okay collection, with some enjoyable adventures. Yet, even the enjoyable ones are uneven. Why it was released in a Marvel Premiere Classic collection, I don't know. The material might be better suited to a cheaper, softcover edition...or simply waiting for the inevitable Essential Thor volume which would likewise reprint them consecutively, but in cheap black & white.

Cover price: $24.99 USA

Thor: Ragnarok 2011 (SC TPB) 128 pages

cover by BuscemaWritten by Roy Thomas. Pencils by John Buscema. Inks by Tom Palmer and Chic Stone.
Colours: various. Letters: Joe Rosen.

Reprinting: Thor #272-278 (1978) - with covers

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

Number of readings: 2

Reviewed May, 2011

Thor constantly is torn between being a super hero series...and a fantasy series set in magical realms inspired by ancient myths. And because Norse legends often serve as a recurring source, similar plots tend to crop up again and again, including the inevitable "fight for Asgard/end of the Universe" epics, often referencing Ragnarok -- the ancient Norse myth of Armageddon! Yet though past stories called upon elements of the myths, they were pretty loosely inspired by them. So in 1978 writer Roy Thomas, a fan of mythology, history and one of coimicdoms most faithful adapters, decided it was high time time Thor dealt with the myth of Ragnarok -- literally.

This collection begins with an issue where Thor recounts a tale of his and step brother Loki's younger days. It's a tale also inspired by Norse myths, and is enjoyable...though, as myths often are, it's a bit dream-like. It's unconnected to the greater saga save it leads into an epilogue that (sort of) kick starts the six-part Ragnarok saga, as a newsman, Harris Hobbs, approaches Thor with the idea of filming a TV special in Asgard itself! Thor refuses, but through Loki's scheming, the camera crew ends up in Asgard anyway, to bear witness, and to inadvertently affect, the coming crisis.

Although the contrast between the gods/fantasy with the modern day newsmen might seem an odd match, even too self-reflective, it captures the dual nature of the Thor comics. Thomas has a particularly good feel for the two extremes of, on one hand, the Asgardians with their Shakespearean phrasings, and on the other, the contemporary -- almost hard boiled -- flippancy of the mortal characters, even when in conversation together (other writers tend too often to either make mortals sound like Asgardians, or Asgardians sound like contemporary mortals). The results are conversations which are both colourful, true to the various characters, and inherently -- and deliberately -- slightly humorous in the quirky contrasts

What unfolds is the prophesied events leading to Ragnarok -- with even the characters aware of what the events portend, but unable to alter them. By drawing upon the ancient legends, Thomas is able to follow a dramatic template that, after all, was good enough for the Norse centuries ago, and maybe makes for an atypical plotting style than the average comic. Yet the weakness is Thomas is just following an established legend, and by relying on the crutch of "prophesy" doesn't fully justify actions and motives in the context of the Marvel Comics version of these characters. For example, what partly kicks off the events is that Balder, flaunting his invulnerability, invites his fellow gods to try and kill him (something which even a character suggests is out of character, and must be Loki influencing his mind). Firstly, I'm not sure if Balder's invulnerability was ever a part of the Marvel version of the character before. Secondly, it's not explained -- exactly -- why mistletoe proves deadly to Balder!

Yet, in a sense, that's where the TV camera crew provides a useful plot addition. Because even as Thor and his fellows are playing out an established ancient scenario, having these characters who are not part of the legends flittering about allows for original sub-plotting that does, nonetheless, tie into the greater saga, as a cameraman becomes smitten with Thor's girl, Sif, and so becomes a pawn in Loki's scheming. So even if you knew the myths...there are still a few twists and turns and character threads to keep you guessing.

In addition to drawing meticulously on ancient legends, Thomas was also very much at the forefront of the continuity movement in comics, always happy to draw upon past issues. So there are spots here where characters will refer back to events and characters from Thor comics published years earlier! Fortunately, they're mainly minor references.

The art is provided by old master John Buscema. His composition and storytelling is fine, the scenes playing out clearly and dramatically, but the actual pencil work can seem a bit rough and hasty. Though whether that's a fault of Buscema (maybe growing tired after a hundred some issues of drawing the series, or being overworked with other projects) or a weakness of Palmer's inks, I'm not sure. Palmer is a well regarded embellisher, and can do some nice work, often adding shape and dimension to a penciller's lines. But he also sometimes seems a bit reminiscent of an inker like Klaus Janson, in that he sometimes seems to use a thick brush that maybe isn't always that sensitive to the penciller's line work. The final chapter is inked by Chic Stone, who I often have some ambivalence for. Still, despite my quibbling, the result is certainly good art -- dynamic and well suited to telling the tale.

Thomas is a writer well matched to the Thor milieu, but is so in love with the form, the content of his tale -- the retelling of ancient legends for a comic book audience -- he maybe sacrifices the emotions of the characters. What I liked about some of Stan Lee's era of Thor stories (and, admittedly, few since have matched him) was the emotion, the passion, of Thor and his crew, their love and loyalty for each other. Yet here, Balder lies near death, and the characters are mainly concerned (understandably, of course) for how it signals the coming of Ragnarok -- yet there's little sense of Thor grieving on a personal level for the loss of one of his best friends. Likewise, his scenes with Sif lack passion. The Warriors Three are part of the story, but even though Volstagg makes comments about his legendary valour, it's only a long time reader who would understand the intended humour of those scenes, because as depicted here, Volstagg is given little comedy shtick to indulge in. Still, there are a few chuckles that way.

Ironically, the greatest emotion is milked from the TV newscrew and their reaction to what's going on!

Nonetheless this is an enjoyable arc, and with the 17 page issues cramming more in than most modern 24 page comics, it makes for a dense, meaty read! It's a better-than-average telling of the sort of "fight for Asgard" tales that the Thor series has churned out on a seeming semi-annual basis for decades!

Indeed, after a first reading, I gave this very good 4 out 5 star rating. But after a second reading...I'm boosting that a bit. After all, I'm the one who says my reviews are usually based around the idea of how well do these TPBs read as just something to be enjoyed for themselves, dragged off the shelf for a few nights distaction? And in that sense, Roy Thomas and company have concocted an enjoyable epic that holds you from beginning to end, that manages to be faithful to the character's mythological roots yet marrying it with the comic book eclecticism, mixing elements of the "real" world (ie: the news crew), with the sci-fi (Asgard looking as much like an alien civilization as a land of myth).

This story takes place just shortly before the Celestials/Eternals/Ring of the Nibelung epic that would consume a huge run of Thor issues and is itself collected in the two volume TPB Thor: The Eternals Saga (reviewed higher up on this page). Indeed, at one point, oblique references are made to events in Thor Annual #7 -- an issue not included in this collection, but was included in the first of the Eternals Saga TPBs. And this collection ends, after the Ragnarok matter has been settled, with Thor having a tiff with Odin and flying off warning of danger from The Celestials -- who otherwise were unreferenced here. My point being that, though Ragnarok is perfectly readable on its own (those minor references aside) for those curious about those comments, subsequent issues are also available as TPB collections.

Cover price: $14.99 USA