Friday, May 6, 2011

First Impressions: Thor

Let’s get this out of the way quick and dirty: The Thor movie is coming out this weekend; I already saw it, Rickey already saw it, Kevin already saw it, we all loved and you really need to go see it.

Shill over.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how for those of us who started reading or at least sampled comics young then went on to become devoted fans, some of our early impressions of certain characters don’t match up at all to the most quintessential versions or the ones we become most familiar with. I wrote a column about my experiences with the X-Men in this regard over on my blog and recently here about the Justice League.

Comics is that rare artistic medium where serial stories continue more or less indefinitely with radical changes being implemented fairly frequently, but the status quo nearly always returning eventually in some form or another. You don’t see the stuff you see in comics on, say, television, where a show will run maybe a decade tops and change subtly along the way, but if a main character gets recast or the mission statement changes completely, the result is cancellation more often than revitalization, and regardless there will be no hitting of the reset button and near immediate re-launch.

If you grew up as a comics fan in the 90’s as I did, odds are strong that your first encounters with certain characters or concepts were very askew from where those properties started or ultimately returned to. Superman didn’t stay dead, the clone didn’t continue as Spider-Man, Batman’s back got unbroken and Wolverine only kept the bone claws a few years, but in many cases that’s how we met these guys. As I said in that post on the X-Men, as far as I knew Moira MacTaggert led a team consisting of Legion, Siryn and Madrox and that was that.

In that spirit, I want to periodically look back at the way different characters were when I first really read their stories, for nostalgia and fun’s sake, but also for contrast and to demonstrate how incredibly resilient and unbreakable these folks can really be.

Let’s start with Thor, who I kinda thought was a bad guy.

Now I knew that wasn’t really the case because Adventures in Babysitting aside, I was aware of Thor from the odd Avengers issue I had come across when I was really young and knew he was the friendly strong guy with the hammer who was friends with Captain America and Iron Man. I was also a bit of a mythology buff, so while I was a bit confused as to why Thor was blond, I also knew he was one of the good guys.

So why was he beating up The Silver Surfer?

I began to expand my Marvel tastes beyond New Warriors and X-Men around 1993, and thought the perfect way to do so would be in the big event starring every character, The Infinity Crusade. The gist on that one was that Adam Warlock’s “good” half, The Goddess, enslaves a bunch of heroes by exploiting their faith and attempts to use them to destroy the universe because there’s no way it can be good enough so better to let it burn.

Also of note: Everybody in the series—including Thanos and Silver Surfer, who seem like pretty formal guys—refer to Professor X as simply “Prof. X,” always using the abbreviation and period. Also, when the heroes who still have their free will storm The Goddess’ stronghold, Iron Man “randomly” selects Forge and Nomad to stay in orbit and monitor the situation rather than fight anybody, perhaps Tony Stark’s all-time shrewdest move.

One of the Goddess’ thralls was Thor, who beats the crap out of both Drax and The Hulk. I was picking up a lot of the crossover issues and bought Thor’s book where he engaged in those fights as well as one with Super-Skrull. The weird thing was he didn’t need much coaxing from The Goddess because he was already pretty unbalanced and taking orders from a black-haired chick named Valkyrie who kept telling him how much everybody hated him and he should take over Asgard. He was also not an Avenger and apparently had been away for years, as the rest of the cast was often referencing “Eric Masterson,” whom I would later come to know as Thunderstrike, but who had previously been a fill-in Thor with a bear and funky facemask.

So the Thor I thought I knew had been gone for awhile but had apparently just returned, yet he acted nothing like the Thor I’d heard about and was for all intents and purposes a really powerful and insane super villain with his own ongoing series—following me?

After the Infinity Crusade ended, while most of the heroes went back to being heroes, Thor remained nuts and headed into the Blood & Thunder crossover between his own book, Silver Surfer, Warlock & The Infinity Watch and Warlock Chronicles; that’s kind of crazy that not only did Adam Warlock have two ongoing titles in 1994 but also outnumbered Thor during a crossover ostensibly about him—Adam Warlock was truly Marvel’s most unlikely rock star during the early 90’s, but I digress.

I really enjoyed Blood & Thunder, which was basically just a big action punch ‘em up with Thor getting progressively more powerful and crazy and fighting everybody he comes across as they keep recruiting more and more powerful cavalries—it goes from Beta Ray Bill to the Surfer to Warlock to the whole Watch to Doctor Strange to Thanos and finally to Odin. The Warlock Chronicles chapters in particular are a treat as you’ve got early Tom Raney art and he absolutely kills it drawing nutso Thor plus hordes of trolls and monsters.

The heroes and Thanos find ways to slow Thor down even after he gets a hold of Drax’s Power Gem, but he always breaks free and absolutely crushes them until he storms Asgard ready to raise Hel. As I mentioned, Odin finally has to step in and invades his son’s mental landscape where he frees Thor from the shackles of “warrior’s madness” and they team up against a giant-sized and super-empowered Valkyrie.

After that, Thor was sane again, but went through a bunch of changes to his familiar costume during which I somewhat lost track of and interest in him (though I have since gone back and read the William Messner-Loebs and Warren Ellis stuff I missed, which was actually pretty cool).

I later got re-acquainted with Thor via Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s Avengers, wherein he’s back to being the noble warrior I recalled from my early youth. Once I got full-fledged and gained access to Wizard’s and later Marvel’s libraries, I’d devour the full run of Walt Simonson—you will find few super hero purists who won’t agree those are some of the most wild and fun comics ever—as well as catch up on the underrated Dan Jurgens years, Mike Avon Oeming’s awesome forays, and through into today.

It’s somewhat funny that my first impression of Thor was of a berserk bad guy who ruthlessly dispatched more heroic types, given that so many of his classic stories not to mention the myths of yore deal with his legendary temper and how he needs to learn temperance and humility; indeed the entire basis of his Marvel origin—and now his blockbuster movie—are Odin punishing him for being brash and a little nuts. Some of the best Thor comics in recent years in my opinion were the rocking Matt Fraction Ages of Thunder one-shots featuring a Thor who loved to fight with little to no thought as to consequences or reasoning. Noble, regal Thor is a great character, but there’s a lot of mileage in that crazed warrior prince as well.

I’d actually be curious how many comics neophytes could come out of the movie over the next few weeks, be handed Blood & Thunder and think it seems pretty consistent.

Enjoy Thor!