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The Reread Reviews — J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor

With J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Thor ending a few weeks ago with Thor Giant-Size Finale #1, I thought I would take the opportunity to finally reread the 17-issue run on the book and do a write-up here. So, click on the link and beware spoilers.

thor001Thor vol. 3 #1-12, vol. 1 #600-603, Giant-Size Finale #1 by J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel, and Marko Djurdjevic makes up an odd little story that works to reinvent Thor and his fellow Asgardians, while returning to classic concepts and ideas at the same time. I have mixed feelings regarding this run as I think Straczynski has some really good ideas here as he finds a way to move the concept forward while injecting various old ideas that were longstanding parts of the character before being phased out over time. The largest ‘old idea’ brought back in is the inclusion of Donald Blake as Thor’s alter-ego, though their relationship is much more akin to that of Billy Batson and Captain Marvel than the simple replacement/shared mind that they previously knew.

While I like the inclusion of Blake, it doesn’t actually lead anywhere. After 17 issues, I don’t really have a strong sense of who Donald Blake is or what he wants. He’s sort of a blank do-gooder type as he does everything he can to support Thor and… well, not much else. In the few instances we see him act independently of Thor, his actions are still largely dictated by his relationship with the Thunder God. Even his travels to Africa to work with Doctors Without Borders shed little light on who he is beyond being a doctor that is helpful. What are his likes? Dislikes? Little personality quirks? I have no idea. He’s a very empty character, which is a trait shared by a lot of the focal points of this run, although not all.

Take William and Kelda, the token mortal/god(dess) relationship that fights against the odds of two people so different falling in love. William stumbles around as a lovesick hayseed before turning into Sam from The Lord of the Rings with his insistence on helping ‘Mr. Balder.’ A lot of apparent depth of character is hinted at, but never revealed with him or Kelda. He will give simple generalisations about their love, while she speaks in flowery prose that signifies nothing. In that respect, they do represent the relationship between the people in Oklahoma and the Asgardians well since nothing of consequence happens there. A few interactions are played for comedic purposes, but nothing else happens. JMS never really goes beneath the surface to examine what the relationship there would truly be.

Of course, there’s no room for him to do that thanks to his incredibly slow pacing. My assessment of the fourth issue sums up my feelings early into the run: “I love how Straczynski recognises at the end of the issue that his pacing is slow as fuck and needs to be quickened. The first three issues felt like what the first issue should have been. This issue should have been eight pages.” The slow crawl by which Thor restores Asgard and its populace is frustrating and excrutiating to read because there’s no reason for it to take so long. The only delaying action that seemed somewhat worthwhile was the confrontation with Iron Man in the third issue, but even that was hampered by the downright horrendous Hurricane Katrina stuff (as the minute you mix superheroes and real world disasters, the superheroes look like total failures and are revealed as absurd and inane). That slow pacing should have helped the development of characters and their relationships, but, oddly, it didn’t. As I noted before, many characters remained combinations of superficial, general character tropes with no depth.

Where the pacing did work was in Loki’s plan to oust Thor as Lord of Asgard in issues 7-12, which saw fruition in #600. The intricate nature of his plan relied on laying the clues early and then having it all tied together in issue 12, which was the strongest of the run easily. Almost everything with Loki (barring what happens after issue 600) is fantastic in this run as JMS gives his/her scheme an intriguing hook: Loki spends most of his time telling the truth and manipulating events to match that truth. The revelation of how he makes it all happen in issue 12 is brilliant and shows just how well he screwed over Thor before it even happens. Thor never had a chance against Loki and Loki wins. How often does that happen in comics? Loki is one of the few characters with real depth and development here. One of my favourite moments is when the calm, collected, calculating Loki takes a sword and just goes to town on his mortally-wounded father in the past, losing all composure in a rare fit of rage. It’s shocking since, up until now, he’s been so subdued and demure as a woman, treading carefully so as to not be exposed.

Balder is another character that comes out of this run looking very strong. The conflict he has with Thor as leader is good. Even before he’s told that he’s Thor’s half-brother, he obviously isn’t sure of Thor’s leadership and becomes less so when the truth is told. His rise to Lord of Asgard is engineered by Loki without him knowing it, but he plays his role all too well, masking his displeasure with Thor behind the law and concepts of duty. He has a specific way of viewing Asgard and its people, one that doesn’t match Thor’s. He almost eagerly allows Loki to manipulate him so frustrated is he with Thor’s leadership — but JMS rarely shows us that explicitly, wisely.

And what of the central character? Thor is also handled well as he struggles with his desire to serve different masters. He understands Earth better than any of his people, but is incapable of sharing that knowledge. He continues to sit in the shadow of his father and feels guilt over it. Even when he kills Bor and is exiled, he doesn’t defend himself, claiming that he will only speak when he can prove the true guilty party, but I get the feeling he’s glad to be rid of the leadership. He never seems comfortable in that role, not wanting to be tied to his people so directly. He’s not comfortable with making the tough decisions and standing by them.

Artistically, I really like the two artists in question. Djurdjevic is hurt whenever Danny Miki inks him as his art is made more scratchy and ugly — inks by Mark Morales and himself are more fluid, smoother, and fuller. Olivier Coipel redefines the look of Thor, giving him a broader, shorter face, and an updated costume. His Loki is downright creepy with her alien-looking face. Visually, the run is quite strong, my favourite issue for art being #600 where Coipel does most of the issue, but Djurdjevic (inking himself) handles the Bor panels where we see how he views the world thanks to Loki’s spell, and it’s a great effect. Sticking with two artists gives the book some visual stability and works well.

Ultimately, JMS does shake things up over the course of his run, but it happens at such a slow pace that it loses its impact. That the run ends in an incomplete manner is both a positive and a negative. I like that it leaves the door open for the next writer to step into his place, but it does make it less a whole unto itself, less definitive. All in all, though, it’s an enjoyable read, particularly the run of #7-600 as that’s where Loki’s plan is shaped and executed with expert precision. Definitely worth checking out.

18 Comments

Ya know, I really like JMS. His run with JRJR on ASM is one of my personal favorites, and I enjoyed the later stories with Deodato JR too(yes, even Sins Past. It helps that I don’t give a flying crap about Gwen Stacey at all, so no “ZOMG RUINED FOREVER” hyperbole). And Rising Stars was great(at least the part I read). JMS’ Thor was slow and delayed, but I really enjoyed it for the most part(You’re absolutely right about #7-600 being the best part, with issue #600 being one of my favorite single issues of the year). Also, I’m SO glad Thor stopped talking like some fake Shakespearean actor, that was definitely one of the big things that stopped me from enjoying the character previously.

I hope that JMS Superman stuff is good. Its been his dream comic project, and I wand to see what he does with no continuity to be bogged down with.

I think you summed up this run very well! When you factor in my great displeasure with Thors new look, especially his weird elfin head, i don’t like this run much at all. glad you pointedout miki’s ugly inks too.

JMS’ Thor, for better or worse, is the end of an era of self-contained, realist ( for superhero comics ) Marvel stories; in this book, Thor and the Norse pantheons were the only significant characters, as well as the newly created Oklahoma cast. I think this run had the best and worst of that type of franchise comic; it was really focused ( at least until the end ) and dedicated to a small cast, but at the same time, it was glacially paced in its development of a few characters, and didn’t access as much of Thor’s mythos as would have been beneficial. Still, it was a good book on its own, and it was nice to read a Marvel book that wasn’t hip-deep in Invasions, Reigns, and Wars.

I also like the redesigns of the Asgardian cast, though I would like it if more artists drew the texture of Thor’s scale mail, instead of making him look like he skinned and wore a disco ball.

The renumbering makes it sound like JMS wrote Thor for a long time. “the run of #7-600″. That’s got to be some kind of record…

Kurt — I know. I tried out a few ways to write that, but none really worked well.

The only one I’ve read is #600, and I wasn’t that impressed by it. I can see some good points to the writing, though, and I can see how it might be a lot better if I’d seen what came before.
I really LOVED the Giarrusso story, though. That clearly made the book worth the 99 cents I paid for it. (And had I paid the full price, it might still have been worth it.)

I can’t believe anyone did not like this run.

I haven’t read it myselb but I believe its quite easily believable that people didn’t like this run at all. bad_trotsky, i’m talking to you.
The slow pacing in particular is a pretty negative thing, especially if the reader is picking it up on a monthly basis. It makes you wonder if it’s worth the wait and the cover price. Although, when Coipel and Djurdjevic are doing the art, it might just be worth it after all. Perhaps this reads better in trades? I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read it because i’ve never felt I “had” to read it.

It was a good run, though certainly not great, and I think you pick out the flaws in it very well, Chad.

I do tend to like JMS’s stuff. Rising Stars had some very good bits and some bad bits, Midnight Nation was very good, ASM was wonderful (at least before JRJr left), and Supreme Power was excellent. His FF was a bit of a let-down, though. I got the hardcover of his Marvel Knights Silver Surfer story recently, but have yet to read it. I haven’t read The Twelve yet, but from what I’ve heard it’s decent.

I was thinking about taking this opportunity to drop Thor (I know Gillen’s okay, but I really want to cut some more, and Thor’s just not as enjoyable as stuff like Incredible Herc, Criminal, Northlanders and B&R), but now that Fraction’s coming on board, I don’t know if I should. The Ages of Thunder et al that he did was the biz, and his Thor: Secret Invasion mini was also pretty good. What to do?

I’m sticking with it. Gillen’s first issue was right in line with what JMS was doing and Fraction… well, his Thor work to date has been fantastic.

Roquefort Raider

December 21, 2009 at 8:56 am

A good review, Chad!

I’m ambivalent about JMS’s Thor run. He handled the character and cast with respect, and he introduced some good and unexpected ideas. But you’re quite right in pointing out many of those ideas were never truly explored; most of them ended up looking a little shallow.

I have a few big reservations about JMS’s revival of Thor. First, the finality of Oeming’s run (at the end of the previous volume) is never really addressed. The whole point of the end of the Ragnarok cycle was that the Norse Gods would be free of the endless repetition to which they were apparently cursed. Granted, I didn’t expect them to stay dead for good, since after all they’re a fun part of the Marvel universe. But their return under the pen of JMS showed them acting exactly as they were before, just as if they were still stuck in the same rut. They even fell IMMEDIATELY for one of Loki’s tricks, for crying out loud!!! You’d think having the guy destroy their universe just a few months ago would have taught them a lesson.

Then, there’s the missing sense of fun. There’s adventure, there’s drama, but there’s no real fun. Thor has bigger responsibilities now, it’s true, but he used to love having a good time too, whether drinking or fighting; the other Asgardians even more so. Now all he does is frown and brood, and the Asgardians all look bored and purposeless. I don’t want to read about Norse gods acting bored!!! I want them to act like drunk supernatural Vikings!!!

A problem I had with this series is that JMS was trying to do too many things at once, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. To wit:
1. Telling new epic stories in the style of mythology.
2. Considering real-world issues through the eyes of superheroes.
3. Playing the gods off of the Broxton locals, just to see what happens.
4. Reestablishing the Norse gods in the Marvel Universe after their long absence.

These four storylines almost never intersected in any meaningful way, so the series just kept jumping back and forth and felt very disjointed for it. But more problematically, only two of those storylines were good. (1 and 3.) The epic stories about Asgardian politics and Loki’s deceptions and Thor having to take over from his father, that was good. Not among Straczynski’s best, but good. And the interaction with the locals was consistently priceless. My favorite issue is the one that has no plot but just shows the gods trying to fit in to ordinary life in Broxton. I’m sure some people might disagree with me, but I would have preferred a more-or-less straight drama entirely about those interactions than the smorgasbord that we got.

The other half of the story was uninteresting. The Marvel Universe stuff (Dr. Doom’s involvement, the slow reincarnation of the gods, the cameos by random superheroes) was not only entirely pointless, but also contradicted other comics. (For example, the 1-year anniversary of Steve Rogers’ death, and Dr. Strange still being the Sorcerer Supreme.) It’s like he did these plot points because he thought it’s what fans would want, without having any other reason at all to think they were interesting. And as for the real-world relevance, well, Straczynski has done a lot of that over the years and each time it gets a little bit preachier.

I really enjoyed his run and i’m sad to see him go, but Thor Giant-Size got me a little disappointed. I hoped for a greater finale.

> I really LOVED the Giarrusso story, though. That clearly made the book worth the 99 cents I paid for it. (And had I paid the full price, it might still have been worth it.)

The mini-marvels Ultimate Collection mini-TPB is out this week, for the record…

> I also like the redesigns of the Asgardian cast, though I would like it if more artists drew the texture of Thor’s scale mail, instead of making him look like he skinned and wore a disco ball.

It would have helped if there was less fur on the general costumes, especially since Thor didn’t have any. The pre-Coipel costumes of several characters (especially Sif) fit better in a lot of ways with his costume…

In regards to the criticism of including Doom and Latveria and all that, we honestly dont know if the inclusion of those things were planned from the beginning by JMS or if they were forced upon him by editorial mandate so that Siege could proceed. I personally loved the run, and the slow pace didnt bother me in the least bit, as it always felt as though it was at least building toward something. My complaints come in over the final two or three issues, where things were obviously rushed. Sif had been building since the beginning of the run, and yet her story was resolved in the span of a page or so and quite mundanely. The breaking of Mjolnir had a possibility for a great scenario, one where Thor had to face the wrongs of Loki at less than full power…but that was again resolved cheaply by using the deus ex machina known as Strange. If I was to venture a guess, i would say that editorial had JMS resolve these things and set the pieces back to normal so that Bendis could have his fun. Oh well, it wouldnt be the first time editorial screwed up a magnificent story.

Doom showed up early enough in the run that I don’t think it was forced on him or part of the Siege planning.

I find JMS is one of the most frustrating writers out there. Don’t get me wrong – I really do like his writing style but it seems that every second project he writes is either delayed or finishes abruptly with none of the character arcs tied up. Look at the mess that was the end of the ASM run. Or the dangling threads and unfinished charachter arcs in Thor. Or the abysmal “phone-in” ending for Rising Stars. Or the second half of the Twelve. As someone who made his name with Bablyon 5′s writing plan of beginning, middle and end he has failed to fulfill a lot of what we as readers expect of him.

Issue 609 is when the marvel event Siege ends. That’s where JMS should of left. And that’s where I’m going to leave. Unless the new writer after Gillen, which is Fraction, can make another great long storyline that I can love. Essential Thor comics: 1-12, 600-603, Giant-Size Finale, 604-609, Siege 1-4 and whatever else that ties into that. That’s the run I want to collect. And I guess you could include the meiocore Annual too.

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