Sunday, March 11, 2012

Essential Thor Vol.1 Review:

 You know, while it can often be a pain to slog through early entries of a series before the writers figured out what they wanted to do with it, or where they found a formula but it didn’t fully tap the potential of the series, there’s something to be said about reading those early stories and contrasting how things were with what they became.
 These early Thor stories are quite amusing for that reason. See, while Thor would later be turned into a quasi-Sword & Sorcery strip (which it remains to this day), that’s not how things were originally. While stories that feature awesomely powerful heroes fighting mundane villains can often be dull (believe me, I know), it’s somewhat refreshing to read Thor stories from an era where he was just as likely to fight aliens, gangsters, commies and super-villains as he was quasi-mythological deities. There’s a story where Thor battles an ordinary (and wounded) gangster at a construction site that is more suspenseful than it has any right to be. I’m sure that if these stories were written during the Golden Age it would quickly grow tiresome seeing stories like that, but in the Silver Age, where supervillains were the norm rather than the exception, that isn’t the case.

 There’s a real variety to these stories at first, the origin story could easily be a typical Atlas monster story for the first few pages. Even the obligatory anti-communism stories are fun. One such story, where Thor takes on a Castro-like dictator, successfully avoids the “mighty whitey” trope by having Thor be one of many components who help to bring down the tyrant’s downfall, and makes it clear that the rebel army is perfectly capable on their own. Another story, where Thor’s alter ego Dr. Don Blake is kidnapped and taken to a fortress in Russia, is pretty simple plot-wise, but manages to hold one’s interest because of the Universal horror-like atmosphere on display, with crumbling castles, dungeons, laboratories with an operating table that people get strapped to, and torch-lit hallways.
It's Alive!!!

 Perhaps that’s why these stories work; they successfully manage to make the presence of a super hero seem special in Jet Age America, even when facing outlandish (but mundane for comics) villains like aliens and commie mad scientists. Don't get me wrong, I like the stories set in Asgard, and it’s always nice to see characters on their own turf and matched with equal opponents, but sometimes, when it’s something as operatic as a mythological super hero, it all just gels together and overrides any sense of wonder. For example, read too many of the later 60s Thor stories in a row (where the focus was entirely on Asgard and omnipotent villains like Ego, Mangog, and Galactus), and your head will start to ache.
 Another reason that these stories work is because we have a human identification figure in the character of Don Blake. Admittedly, Blake is not much of a character himself, but he’s convincing as a Joe Average who suddenly gets super powers and is having the time of his life. Besides, I just love the idea of a disabled man who works as a doctor, a healer, but can turn into a fearsome warrior who commands the storms, with his weapon disguised as a walking stick (sort of like Daredevil, in some ways). A common complaint about these early Thor stories is that Blake takes too well to his newfound powers (which would necessitate the retcon that Blake really was Thor all along), but it’s clear from the first story that Blake is simply remembering things he learned about Thor while reading books about mythology (and who is to say that Norse myth in the Marvel Universe isn’t vastly different from Norse myth in the real world?).

 Blake also shows memories of World War II and Korea, and even mentions an ‘accident” in childhood that led to his disability, implying that he was a real man with a backstory long before he discovered Thor’s hammer. Also, to be frank, I just find it far more interesting that a man could be deemed worthy of wielding a god’s powers because he’s earned it through years of nobility and strength of character, and he clearly shows this, investigating an alien invasion unarmed and alone, trying to stand up to villains even without his powers (but not stupidly so) and trying to entertain his patients and use his powers to help them. I find that far more human and inspirational (for personal reasons) than “Oh, he was Thor all along”. The hammer’s inscription says “Whosoever wields this hammer—if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor”, not “Okay Thor, here’s your hammer back”.
 Blake isn’t without his faults and foibles as well. He sometimes lets his immense power got to his head, and at one point, throws a hissy fit as Thor that actually raises the ire of other members of the Avengers because of how close it comes to threatening bystanders. He’s also hilariously lax about his secret identity. Also, for a good chunk of the volume, Thor speaks without his quasi-Shakespearean dialect, but when he does, he is still written as being Don Blake in a different body. One could assume that he intentionally starts speaking with “thees” and “thous” and behaving arrogantly simply because it’s fun and he can get away with it. Sometimes Thor comes off in these stories as simply being a bland boy scout like Superman, but moments like that re-inforce that he’s not someone you would ever want to piss off.
 That’s the good stuff this volume has to offer, but it’s still early Silver Age Marvel material, so there’s plenty of silliness on display. Don Blake’s relationship with his nurse Jane Foster is one of the most genuinely unhealthy and creepy relationships in comics. He pretends not to love her so that he can keep her around for eye candy, hoping one day he’ll get the courage to ask her out, while she wants to baby him because she feels sorry for him because of his disability, then she completely loses interest in him when she sees Thor. If you think that sounds bad, that is when the relationship is written well, because it sometimes flips back and forth as to whether Jane prefers Blake or Thor. Other times, Jane openly berates Blake and says she wishes she could work for Thor because he’s a “real man” (she has fantasies about Thor where she literally polishes his hammer. Do I even need to describe what that symbolizes?) and calls Blake a "coward". Yeah, honey, mock the disabled man who aids the sick and suffering, has operated on a man at gunpoint, has volunteered courageously for government projects like acting as bait for spies and volunteering overseas to help refugees. Bitch. A later plot point that comes up is that Odin refuses to let Thor marry Jane because he sees her as unworthy of him. While Odin is a pretty unpleasant piece of work in his own right, I’d say he was right on the ball with that one. Natalie Portman’s Jane in the movie really was an improvement.
 Also, something I’ve noticed is that, even though he’s simply an MD, Don Blake is not immune from what I’ve come to call “Reed Richards syndrome”, which is when comic book scientists are depicted as being experts in every field of science, no matter what their specialty is, even though Blake isn’t even a scientist. At first this is believable, like in a story where he pretends to be working on a germ warfare project for the government (it’s the same story where he sets himself up as bait for spies). He is shown treating viruses and such, so it’s reasonable to assume that an ordinary medical doctor like him could have skills in germ warfare, but later this becomes ridiculous, with Blake creating an android and a cerebro-like tracking device! Oh, Silver Age. It’s become common to blame Stan Lee for stupid mistakes like this because he supposedly just wrote dialogue and misinterpreted what the artists (the “real” writers) intended, but very clearly in instances like these, silly shit like Blake creating androids was fully intended by the artists.
 Oh, and a recurring gimmick is that if Thor lets go of his hammer for more than 60 seconds, he will return to being Don Blake. At first this makes for some genuinely suspenseful scenes, but later on, the amount of things that are accomplished in those 60 seconds becomes truly ridiculous. Time must move slower in the Marvel U.
 Even the (debatably) infallible Jack Kirby has a few memorable screw-ups, like what happens to Don Blake’s clothes when he transforms back and forth from Thor; regaining hats he visibly lost earlier, wearing completely different clothing from what he previously had on, gaining and losing glasses, and damaged clothing suddenly getting repaired. Oh, well, it’s magic, it doesn’t have to make sense. Then again, if magic trumps all, why does Loki disguise himself with a rubber mask when he is established in his first appearance as a shape-shifter? Eh, he’s Loki.

 Speaking of Loki, while I’ve praised recent attempts to give the villain depth, I must say that there’s a giddy joy in watching him wreak havoc for no reason in these stories. Sure, he talks of taking over the world for all the typical villain motivations, but when he’s not plaguing Thor, it becomes clear that he has no goals other than just random mischief. He turns cars into ice cream, makes a hypnotized Thor tip over the leaning tower of Piza with his finger, lets animals loose from their cages and generally is just…kind of a dick. Odin should have just sent Loki to some enemy planet no one cared about and let him annoy them for all eternity.

 Some of the other villains are fun too; Mr. Hyde and the Cobra, while not yet having evolved into the bickering, camp gay stereotypes they both later would, are still pretty funny with their constant arguing over who is the more dangerous. It’s actually somewhat jarring to see that Hyde is depicted here as a scientific genius, since almost all modern stories I’ve read with him just treat him as a big brute. That’s an aspect they should bring back. There is even a direct reference to the original Stevenson story, with Hyde instinctively terrifying passerby without doing anything. Hyde actually gets set up to be second only to Loki as Thor’s main nemesis, but his relationship with Cobra drains all the menace from him. Another villain, called the Grey Gargoyle, also boasts one of the lame-brainedest origins I’ve ever seen, although that same story boasts a memorably eerie scene where a plane lands with all of the passengers found turned to stone. Finally, one of the volume's few female villains, the Enchantress, proves that Kirby really could draw women well if he felt like it.
Behold, the bufoonery of Hyde & Cobra

 Artwise, this volume is pretty strong. Kirby is stellar, especially in the first few stories. Joe Sinnott, while occasionally lax on anatomy and panel composition, is a fine substitute for Kirby, and really has fun drawing deranged facial expressions. Don Heck draws a lousy Thor, but his storytelling abilities and his superb drawings of the supporting cast and villains make up for it. Only the art by Al Hartley is truly bad, with almost Liefeldian-ly bad anatomy and some of the lousiest character designs I’ve ever seen. All of the rest of the stories are done by Kirby and inked by Chic Stone, with the “Tales of Asgard” back-up features inked by Vince Colletta. Curiously enough, the much maligned Colletta’s work is more striking, creating a far more unearthly and mythological feel than anything else in the volume.
Fun fact: Colletta could be quite good.

 All in all, while early Thor was hardly Marvel’s best series in the 60s, this volume is an amusing enough page-turner and I really had no trouble getting through it. While I wouldn’t recommend it to people looking to get into comics, or people looking to get into Thor comics (especially not any kids who saw the recent movie), it’s a fun enough diversion for Silver Age fans, as well as Thor fans who want a change of pace. I’ll give it a solid 4/5.


  1. Enjoyed your reviews of the two Marvel ESSENTIAL volumes. I have a self-serving request. I have been doing some Kirby cover recreations and sometimes the ESSENTIAL cover repros are good enough for my purposes.

    On some issues I have had to slice out the pages I needed due to the tight binding (hate to do it). The THOR Vol. 1 is one of those I want to find cheap (the newer printing, like you reviewed) so I can scan the JIM #112 cover art.

    IF you can scan it as best you can that would be of tremendous help to me. I see you are having the same problem with trying to flatten the pages out. I have only been able to flatten out one FF one (the FF meets the Hulk) good enough to use w/o 'surgery.'

    If not, I'll keep looking for a cheap used copy. I adore Kirby and Stone!!! Thanks!

    1. I'm terribly sorry, both for being late to respond and because I sold that Essential a year ago.

      However, you aren't out of luck entirely. I have a friend who keeps his essentials around for his nephews to use as coloring books and I know he had this volume. I don't know if it's been touched yet, but since we see each other almost daily, I'll ask him just in case.

      Also, Essential Thor Vol.1 is going for only $7 on Sham-azon as I type this.

  2. Thanks for responding! I wrote one of the sellers trying to confirm that they were selling THAT Vol. 1 edition and never got a response. I was just checking it again right now when I figured I'd check back here, too. It has been more than long enough.

    Looks like I'll have to trim two FF covers out of my ESSENTIAL VOL. 2 that is in great shape as the binding is still so tight. I confirmed with my customer yesterday, as I did not want to cut them out unless he was sure.