Saturday, September 29, 2012

Charmed, I'm Sure

"I recently lost my I.D.," says Doctor Donald Blake, "and it took a long time, but I finally got it back." The good doctor, who carries a cane for a limp that might just be for show, is the human host of the Mighty Thor. He speaks with Beth Sooner, the owner of a boarding house in small-town Oklahoma. She replies, "Oh, well. That's good. I just hate it when that happens."

So do comic readers. The Asgardian and his hammer Mjolnir have led an oft mucked-with career at Marvel. Though Nordic gents such as Eric Masterson and Sigurd Jarlson have been Thor's connection to Midgard (Earth) during defining eras, Blake is the original whom Stan Lee and Jack Kirby trapped in a cave with an inscribed mallet back in 1962 (it said, "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor"). In 2007, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Olivier Coipel revived Thor after the mythical apocalypse Ragnarok wiped the Asgardians from existence.

Their run on Thor, the first six issues of which I mention here, is an embarrassment of iconic riches. The opening sequence gives us high fantasy done right, as Thor's essence delivers a cosmic elegy: "I have dreamed such dreams. I was a man dreaming I was a god. I was a god dreaming I was a man." Coipel's art, sharpened to cinematic luster by Mark Morales (the best inker working today), features huge panels that showcase Thor's allies the Warriors Three (Hogun, Fandral and Volstagg), and his love, Lady Sif.

Thor's narration, in a medieval font that elegantly complements the material, continues: "I have known the stars... I have known war. And the end of all things. And then I... And then we- went to sleep. And were no more." Communion with Blake in limbo follows. The dual identities discuss oneness, truth, and possible futures. Straczynski, already encamped firmly on that charmed middle-ground whereupon a master storyteller entertains both adults and children, then writes, "It is not for the gods to decide whether or not man exists- it is for man to decide whether or not the gods exist. And because you are important, because you are needed, your time is not yet over."

Now for some action. Thor fights barehanded through a horde of under-dwellers fresh from Cthulhu's waiting room. The prize, should he reach it, is Mjolnir. The tension Coipel invests in each panel is on par with Kirby's peak work from Journey Into Mystery. After the hammer's gripped and lightning cooks the monsters, our hero restates his desire to live, breathe and fight again.

The very next page features Blake walking along rolling green hills and an empty highway, somewhere in America. In picking up an old stick (that feels right in his hand), the doc gives a subtle impression of having just then materialized (which he did). With a wonderfully patient writing hand, Straczynski doesn't always show off. Instead, he frequently blurs his scene changes to draw readers further in.

And he does brilliantly in Thor what he did for years in Amazing Spider-Man: he makes the supporting cast real. Their meaningful exchanges with the hero are more rewarding than some hyper-quest that only serves to thump the writer's own chest. Beth Sooner, pudgy and with coke-bottle glasses, accompanies short-order cook Bill Junior and most of the rest of an entire small town in welcoming Thor back.

At first, it's a lonely return. Thor conjures a monstrous thunderstorm, out of which Asgard itself manifests. Roaming its majestic stone halls, he encounters ghosts and his own troubled mind. Then, Oklahoma police arrive, saying, "We don't want any trouble, but you can't just go putting... this... down wherever you want." Quietly, Thor acknowledges the idea of private property. Then he causes Asgard to hover above the ground. Later, when the landowner nonchalantly offers to let our hero buy the land, Thor leads him to a treasure vault. To a friend, the man replies, "Tom... back up the truck!"

A lone aspect of this story arc glares, requiring some foreknowledge of recent Marvel comics. When Thor heads out into the world, he visits the recently battered New Orleans. That no heroes stopped Hurricane Katrina from leveling the home of so many innocents galls him. Then, Iron Man shows up. He shows up to tell Thor that in his absence, a super-human civil war happened. The winners must sign up and strap on with the government. Otherwise, it's off to a mega-gulag in the Negative Zone.

The exquisitely drawn fight that ensues isn't simply because Tony Stark, Iron Man, comes off as a goose-stepping prick. It's because, in Thor's absence, he and Mr. Fantastic created a cyborg replica of the Asgardian. Which murdered a few people. And was an awful, poorly executed idea, that everyone would rather forget. Straczynski addresses it though, and reminds us that the civil war wouldn't have happened if the real Thor had been around.

This encounter between titans is awe-inspiring, regardless of context. It also puts Thor in place to find the first of many hosts for his Asgardian brethren. On a bridge in New Orleans is a broken man who's lost almost everything. He says to Thor, "...this is our town, it's our pain, it's our life, and you don't get to use it like it was some kinda movie set so you can look like a big guy!" Into this man Thor compels the essence of Heimdall, guardian of the rainbow bridge that once connected Earth to the gods' home.

The return of the Warriors Three soon follows, as Blake visits Africa with Doctors Without Borders. There, he encounters a trio of soldiers from around the world who've become inseparable. When ethnic warfare breaks out, with bullets strafing the medical area, Blake pounds his staff and becomes Thor. After smiting the gun-toting savages, he finds that the name of the village, Umeme Mungu, means "lightning god." A few revolutions of the Uru hammer later, and Hogun, Fandral and Volstagg stand in our midst once more.

But the fateful encounters quickly take a dire turn. Odin (Thor's father), Loki (his evil half-brother), and Lady Sif all need recovering... or do they? Some sagas are best reignited without the element that caused such pain the first time. Thor makes some tough choices, but not before his old enemy the Destroyer takes him by surprise.
I hate sports metaphors, but Straczynski hits the first issue out of the park, and then dances the bases to home plate. That his reign in Asgard was cut short to fold Thor into the Siege event is bittersweet, since it's one of Marvel's best epics, despite being loud and dumb. In a different time and place, Straczynski's slower, more savory narrative style might return in force. Then again, as Loki says: "In the end, the darkness must always overwhelm and hurl back the light."

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