Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Definitives: Thor

As a kid, I was a big-time mythology buff (the Greek stuff in particular, but Norse as well to a lesser degree), so it was always a bit weird to me that I never took to Thor in comic book form. However, looking back on it, the Thor comics from when I was younger really didn't cater to what I was looking for as far as larger-than-life epics featuring colorful characters and exotic locales. Tom DeFalco, Thor's primary caretaker during my formative years, was (and remains) a good writer, but he clearly had an affinity for more street-level, earth-centric stories, which I believe is farily well-evidenced by the fact that for a large bulk of his run mortal Eric Masterson played the part of the Thunder God and went on to become Thunderstrike, a character DeFalco still demonstrates great affection for in Spider-Girl (available monthly on Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited!).

In my second "life" as a comic book fan and reader, I have been able to access a near full catalogue of Thor's adventures (though I confess I have still never gotten around to reading the original Lee/Kirby stuff, a situation I very much would like to change), and not surprisingly have become quite enamored with him and his world. Ol' Goldilocks (who, incidentally, is one of my least favorite characters to write copy about as I rely heavily on nicknames to switch up what I'm calling my subjects and his suck) has quite a few rad yarns, but here are a few of my personal favorites.

Visionaries: Walt Simonson
Talk about starting strong. Walt Simonson wrote and drew Thor for almost three years in the 1980's, and of his nearly 30 issues, there was rarely a bad one, truly a feat that demands respect. Simonson had an unquestioned passion for Thor and all the elements that made up his mythology, from Asgard to Odin to Loki to the Warriors Three and so on and son; more than that, he understood the scope of the majesty that a strip like Thor needed and was able to more than live up to expectations of glorious battles and wars that shook the heavens, but he was also unafraid to take unconventional approaches to keep the stories fresh. This is, after all, the man who in his very first issue had a horse-faced alien named Beta Ray Bill partly usurp the power of Thor and later transformed the God of Thunder into the Frog of Thunder. However, my personal highlights of Simonson's unmatched run would probably have to be his multi-part opus, the "Surtur Saga," which saw Thor, Odin, Loki and just about every other Asgardian team up to battle the demonic Surtur in a widescreen masterpiece that I daresay holds up to this day as one of the best pure prolonged action sequences comic books are capable of providing, and the emotionally hardhitting "Like a Bat Out of Hel!," the violent tale of redemption for the Executioner recently reprinted in Thor: God-Size. Walt Simonson's Thor remains not only the measuring stick for the character, but also just a damn fine piece of work regardless of qualifiers. Here's a link if you want to buy the first Thor Visionaries: Walt Simonson collection, but you're gonna want them all.

Blood & Thunder
Ok, so just a couple paragraphs up I was (kinda) bagging on the Thor of my youth, but as with just about every comic I read semi-regularly as a kid, there are things I remember fondly, if through self-confessed rose-colored glasses, and the "Blood & THunder" crossover would be the example of that phenomenon for Thor. It's a 13-part story crossing through Thor, Silver Surfer and both Warlock books (Infinity Watch and the Warlock Chronicles) and centered around the God of Thunder going batshit insane due to years of Odin tampering with his head. Beta Ray Bill, the Surfer, Adam Warlock, the Infinity Watch, Doctor Strange and even Thanos all attempt to slow down this runaway train and they all get their asses handed to them in pretty short order as Thor is pissed, powerful, and gets his mitts of Drax's Power Gem to make matters even worse. The story is pretty formulaic with each slugfest building to a bigger one in the next chapter, but it's harmless fun and well-executed for what it is, so I recall it fondly.

The Dark Gods
Following the "Heroes Reborn" event, Thor took a little longer to get his own ongoing series back than his contemporaries, but it was worth the wait. Writer Dan Jurgens dropped the Thunder God into a world where his fellow Asgardians had vanished and Thor was forced to play the unfamiliar role of detective in order to reunite with his people, and along the way he encounters the all-new menace of the unfathomably powerful Dark Gods. In the year-long arc that re-launched the new series, Jurgens brought an unfamiliar feel to Thor by employing elements of mystery and thriller as opposed to just the straight sci fi and adventure that had been the character's hallmarks for so long. By denying his title character the comforts of Asgard and his stalwart companions, Jurgens gave Thor an edge he had been lacking in the years leading up. However, as good as Jurgens' story is (and it's good), no question the legendary John Romita Jr.'s art takes the spotlight more often than not, and deservedly so as it's awesome stuff. JR Jr. has proven he can draw just about any Marvel character and make them look dynamite, but the hugely-muscled, wildly colorful world of Thor proved as perfect a fit for him as any assignment he's ever had.

Blood Oath
If there's anybody who has approached Simonson-esque levels of being simpatico with Thor in recent years, it's Michael Avon Oeming, who has written some of the very best stories starring him as well as Beta Ray Bill. Blood Oath is definitely my favorite Asgardian Oeming joint though, as it's got a rockin' retro feel to it and also features amazing art by one of my faves, Scott Kolins, whose work I discussed here not long ago. This six-part gem has its roots in classic mythology as the Warriors Three are framed for murder by Loki and Thor accompanies them on the resultant hero's quest to claim a series of legendary objects that will somehow prove their redemption. It's a tried and true framework and Oeming has done his homework as he weaves bits of various myths from several cultures into the story. Besides being a total mark for Kolins' art, I have a soft spot for the Warriors Three and there's a great Thor vs Hercules clash midway through the series, so Oeming knows how to sucker me with this one. I also dig that this is a true timeless tale you could hand to anybody if you wanted to demonstrate the appeal of Thor to them.

Ages of Thunder
More than once, my good buddy Sean T. Collins has said that creating a good Thor story is like creating good heavy metal, and no creator seems to get this like Matt Fraction. The trio of one-shots Fraction penned last year read like a Black Sabbath song put to paper in comic book form, with extreme violence and over-the-top almost lyrical narration as the order of the day. Fraction's stories follow a young, undisciplined and somewhat aloof Thor as he defends Asgard against Frost Giants, causes mayhem in Midgard, and generally makes his father Odin grimace. The initial special, the one actually called Ages of Thunder, is probably my favorite as Fraction sets up a clever tale about the Frost Giants nearly outwitting the Asgardians' due to lazy arrogance before Thor comes in and solves the problem with his hammer in immensely satisfying fashion; Loki is at his snivelling and overmatched best, the Enchantress is hot and Patrick Zircher steps up his game to 11 in illustrating the glorious bloodshed. However, as much as Ages of Thunder and it's wonderfully named follow-ups, Reign of Blood and Man of War, are blockbuster action stories, Fraction is also nicely building a dark fable about Thor being a monster of Asgard's own creation due to their over-reliance upon him, and sews the seeds for Odin to step in and deliver the ultimate spanking.

J. Michael Straczynski
Since his run on the book is now almost over, I feel like I don't come off so much as a Marvel corporate shill when I say J. Michael Straczynski's two-year stint on the latest Thor series really has been quite brilliant. Again, like the best Thor creators before him, JMS has been able to walk that line of making sure the series has its classic elements while also making bold alterations, chief of which was of course moving Asgard to the heart of Oklahoma and making the interactions between gods and mortals some of the book's true highlights. JMS has redefined his leading man as well, maturing Thor from a young and hungry warrior into the weary leader who longs for his younger days, while also exploiting new modern avenues with the Donald Blake alter ego, including his stint serving as a part of Doctors Without Borders. JMS' grand story has been a well-executed balance of action, palace intrigue, soap opera and philosphy beautifully rendered by Olivier Coipel as well as Marko Djurdjevic. It's a bit soon to say how history will ultimately judge this latest era of Thor, but I'd say its prospects are farily golden.


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