Ewing and Rocafort's "Ultimates" Stand Guard Against Alien Empires & Cosmic Entities
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.
Thor 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.
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