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Thor by J. Michael Straczynski Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

With the release of Marvel’s big-budget superhero action movie Thor this summer, we’re taking a month to celebrate the God of Thunder. Check back each Wednesday for a Thor-related review.

J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Thor is a somewhat controversial one. In fact, this rather wonderful omnibus collection comes with little by way of textual extras. There is no introduction from a recognisable figure, nor any scripts included, nor any commentary or interviews. One can almost sense the discomfort in the air. The saga of Straczynski’s run on Thor is a long and complicated one, but it ended with the author departing both the publisher and the comic a lot earlier than anticipated. To this day, both sides have differing accounts of what occurred, and both insist that they are in the right. That’s a lot of subtext behind one lovely hardcover volume, but it’s something that was always in my mind – particularly as I approached the somewhat “crowded” conclusion. Still, it’s a great epic story, albeit one with a slightly disappointing ending.

Hammering home...

Thor is a mythic character. He’s the Norse God of Thunder, so perhaps he lends himself to an epic. In many ways, this is how the story feels – at least when it starts. Opening with two issues of Fantastic Four, one gets the sense that this is a story so epic that it can’t even be contained to the title character’s comic. There’s a definite feeling of a preamble, of the fact that the Thor (both the comic book and the character) are the product of far bigger events playing themselves out. Straczynski is able to accomplish this effect with two issues of Fantastic Four, rather than a massive event or miniseries.

A lot of people have complained that Straczynski’s run on Thor is decompressed comics at their worst. They’ll tell you that the pacing is glacial and that nothing really happens. I can’t tell you that they’re wrong. I would use the adjective “stately” rather than “glacial”, and point out that Straczynski is able to give his story depth and breadth in those extra pages. Everything is well-defined. We are introduced to characters and concepts without need for clumsy exposition. More than that, the space allows Straczynski the chance to define his epic saga – to insert the little touches which add up to so much more.

His home is his castle...

In contrast, the rushed last issue of Straczynski’s run, Thor: Giant Size Finale, is a much tighter story-driven exercise – with Straczynski forced to collapse his house of cards far quicker than he built it. It feels much less satisfying – if only because it’s physically impossible to tie up everything in a single issue, even a giant one. It’s only then that you realise just how much work Straczynski has done setting up various elements of the plot. Being honest, and I am aware that the conflicted feelings between Straczynski and Marvel possibly prevented it, it might have been nice to see the author’s notes – to see how he planned to develop these ideas into the future and where he might have taken them.

At its heart, Straczynski’s Thor is about reconciling the fabulous and the mundane – which is exactly the sort of thing that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby built the Marvel brand on. Peter Parker is the Spectacular Spider-Man! But he’s also a nerd who has to deal with homework, bullies and every other teenage pitfall. The Fantastic Four voyage into the unknown every day! But they’re also a family with their own unique dynamic. Iron Man is a genius who can build a suit of armour like the world has never seen! But he’s also a drunk weapons manufacturer. To be honest, Thor also stood apart from these characters. He was a god, moving amidst a world of very flawed human beings.

Don't you know he's Loki?

Of course, his origin makes him a flawed character. He’s exiled to Earth by his father to learn humility as the physician Donald Blake. However, he is still the Norse God of Thunder. I mean no disrespect when I observe that the iconic moments in Thor’s history focus on the character as a divine power – especially Walt Simonson’s run. The closest I’ve seen to rendering Thor as a flawed character in line with the rest of the Marvel heroes was during Mark Millar’s run on The Ultimates – in which the Scottish author cleverly brushed aside the nature of the character as a god, and dared to suggest that he was just an insane dude who stole some top secret technology, and likes to pretend he’s a god. I won’t tell you how that played out, but even that initial seed of doubt allowed the character to better blend in with his contemporaries.

Straczynski’s iteration of Thor manages the same feat, albeit through a different method. It never questions Thor’s status as a deity, but instead moves Asgard to Earth. The scripts are consistently smart and good-humoured as they explore the floating castle of Asgard in the state of Oklahoma. When the police arrive to find Thor has resurrected the home of the Norse gods on private property, they aren’t quite sure what to make of the fairytale castle he’s pulled out of the sky. “Look Mr. Thor,” one officer begins, “we don’t want any trouble, but you just can’t go putting… this… down where ever you want.” Thor’s response? He uses his power to raise the castle off the ground, so it is suspended in mid-air. “It is no longer on the ground,” he assures the officers.

All the best gods have daddy issues...

It’s quirky and fantastic and it works. Straczynski has fun with the idea of a floating castle in the middle of Oklahoma, populated with Norse gods. We soon discover that the fantastic and the mundane are perhaps more closely linked than we might expect. There’s more that brings the two communities than one might expect. After all, some things are universal. After Thor brings his kingdom back, one of the residents remarks that it “must be hard to be alone like that.” Thor’s three closest friends end up running “an eatery”. A mortal enters Asgard, falls in love and end up wearing the coat of a king. The residents even give the floating castle its own address – “Asgard, 1 Asgard Road.” It’s wonderfully charming and well-handled, never being overwhelmingly schmaltzy. And yet, at its core, it’s the story of two communities coming to live together.

Similarly, Straczynski has great ideas about these creatures of legend coming to reside in the plains in Oklahoma. Attending a local meeting, Volstagg is forced to ask his hosts, “What’s a septic tank, and what’s a sewer system?” One god, stopping to help a family with a burst tire as he walks home carrying a boar he hunted in Texas, idly remarks that “It is my hope to be first Asgardian with a tan.” It’s this wonderful juxtaposition of the normal against the abnormal which defines Straczynski’s run so well.

Thor visits New Orleans...

Indeed, the story does well to reconcile the human and the immortal aspects of Thor himself. Thor’s human alter ego, Donald Blake, is not a typical secret identity – the story features some lovely sequences of them sharing coffee or sitting at a camp fire. Indeed, the Norse gods are revealed to be hiding inside the bodies of normal mortals, much as Thor hid inside Donald when he was exiled. In essence, every Asgard warrior is a fusion of the divine and the mortal. Indeed, Loki worries that “if i leave this body, it may revert to its true owner”, which suggests that perhaps there is a complex system at play between the gods and their hosts. Unfortunately, Straczynski never really develops the idea  that these Norse gods are all living as Thor does (it’s just that Thor is more used to sharing his consciousness), but it’s a smart idea bubbling away in the background.

However, Straczynski does well to suggest that even with his unique relationship with Donald Blake, Thor is out of touch with the modern world. Whether it’s due to some residual arrogance of godhood or a childish innocence, Thor doesn’t seem to comprehend how or why the world works the way it does. When he’s told he can’t build Asgard on private property, Thor proceeds to raise it into the air – misunderstanding the real issue. Similarly, as Thor grows distant from his own people, he can’t see their growing sense of insecurity that allows Loki to undermine him.

My gods, what have you done?

Even his gift to Steve Rogers – cutting all transmissions for one minute on the anniversary of The Death of Captain America – seems hopelessly niave and impractical. What right does a Norse god have to essentially repress the world’s right to freedom of speech? And why does he kill all transmissions indiscriminately? It is an action motivated by noble intentions, but one which reflects that Thor still doesn’t understand how our world works. Similarly, the Norse gods are naive to place their trust in Loki, who has continually betrayed them – time and time again – just because he has a new body.

At its core, his story is one of cycles or violence, of freedom and destiny and curses and decisions. It’s a wonderfully epic story which suits the characters who inhabit it. The central idea is that the Norse gods have finally freed themselves from the cycle of violence in which they found themselves trapped – repeating the end of the world over and over again. The story opens with Thor deciding to return to the mortal world, knowing that he and his people might be free to live their own lives, without being claves to prophecies of ragnarok.

The reason for trusting Loki is flake-y at best...

However, just because they are free from the repeating cycle of destruction and rebirth does not mean that they are entirely free. Thor debates resurrecting his father along with the rest of the Asgard people, but he knows that his father carries with him a sense of legacy and continuity that might ultimately be destructive. “Odin would only know those ways,” he tells Donald Blake. “He would lead us down familiar paths.” Some are more optimistic, believing that they can break free of the old ways. Regarding Thor’s villainous brother, Loki, Balder suggests that perhaps, if there is one thing that he must learn, “it is that change is inevitable.” However, one might be forgiven for being skeptical at the prospect that Loki, the Trickster God, has changed.

“To be who we are, we must kill our fathers,” Odin suggests at one point – and, while it works as a metaphor, we also see the literal act play itself out repeatedly throughout Straczynski’s epic. Although we may act through our own free will, how much of it is actually free? How much of the truth can we know when those such as Loki so skilfully manipulate it? How much of our world shapes ourselves? This is its own cycle, playing out time and time again. “I cannot go back and change what has happened,” Loki muses, as he sets in motion everything – revealing that even the reader was blind to his machinations, “But I can make what happened happen. And spend the rest of my very, very long life wondering which came first.” It’s an existentialist riddle, and one which everybody has to answer for themselves – even if not bound by destiny or prophecy, we are shaped by the world and by our legacies and inheritance, so just how free are we to act?

Thor once and Thor all...

It’s interesting to note that Straczynski’s creative disagreements with Marvel stemmed from Thor’s role in their gigantic shared universe. Straczynski wanted Thor kept separate from the slew of tie-in and crossover issues associated with events like Secret Invasion or Utopia. The editors at Marvel claimed that it was unfeasible to keep such a core character out of major events like that, isolated in Oklahoma, but – reading the book – I have no problem with Straczynski’s approach. Both the third issue of Thor and the very first Fantastic Four issue explicitly reference Civil War, and the series features shared universe characters as diverse as Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom, as well as Norman Osborn’s Avengers, Iron Man and even the (dead!) Captain America. That sounds pretty integrated with the wider universe to me, and it manages to avoid derailing the comic book.

And yet, throughout Straczynski’s run, I can detect more than a hint of cynicism about modern superhero comics – or perhaps a frustration with the modern world expressing itself as criticism of the genre. Being honest, I wasn’t especially comfortable with the author’s use of post-Katrina New Orleans as a stick to beat the editors with. “If he was not here,” the caption box asks as Thor strolls through the remains of the city, “then where were the other heroes?” It seems like quite an obvious critique of the “darker and edgier” nature of the Civil War crossover (especially since Iron Man appears later in the same issue), suggesting that superheroes shouldn’t be doing anything as empty and violent as that.

They have some issues which need ironing out...

Indeed, Straczynski seems to have had quite a few issues with that event – especially considering his handling of Tony Stark when he wrote Spider-Man. Here, Stark again serves as a whipping boy for the event. “It’s real simple Thor,” Iron Man remarks, like little more than a state-sanctioned thug. “You either work with the government, for the government, or you’re against the government. There’s no middle ground.” Thor then proceeds to hand the character his ass. I suppose that the baggage of the event needed to be dealt with – especially given that Mark Millar had Tony clone Thor, creating a homicidal copy of the god – but it just illustrates how much damage the event did to Tony Stark that he’s still being punished for it in other characters’ comic books. No wonder Matt Fraction had to “reboot” the character.

To Straczynski, the Marvel Universe seems broken. Twice in the comic does Thor declare the iconic battle cry, “Avengers Assemble!” Neither time does he manage to draw any real support. In fact, the second time, he draws the attention of Norman Osborn and his psychopathic Dark Avengers. To Thor, this state of events is unfathomable. “This is an outrage,” he remarks in the middle of battle with another opponent, “This is blasphemy…” The modern Marvel Universe is a crazy place, damaged and broken – a slave to branding and excess. When the Norse gods discuss the Avengers, they pause to remark at how much of a franchise the team has become. “Where once there was but one, there are now as many who call themselves by that name as there are sunsets.” And, amongst all those possibilities, they can’t seemingly find a satisfactory one.

Strange goings-on...

However, there’s also a hint that Straczynski’s frustrations are political. Fictional superheroes couldn’t have helped New Orleans, but the government should have. He even explores tribal conflict in Africa. Steve Rogers appears as a phantom to speak to his old friend and laments the shattered American political consciousness, and the way that everything – including his own character – has become so politicised and commercialised. “All my life I fought to become a symbol,” he explained to Thor. “A symbol of all the things that were right about this country, all the things I loved. And now, they’re trying to turn that symbol into whatever’s convenient, whatever will serve the political agenda of one side or another. I can hear them talking nonstop… The media, the press… They don’t understand. It was never about politics. It was never about me. It was about the country. It was always about the country. But they can’t hear that truth above their own voices.”

However, things aren’t too heavy. It’s a well-written tale with a great amount of depth to it. It’s as mindlessly entertaining or as thoughtful and deep as you need or want it to be. After all, it features its own iteration of Kurt Busiek’s famous Thor smack talk: “The God of Thunder would have words with you.” Olivier Coipel provides the art for the vast majority of the run, and it looks spectacular. The art really suits the oversized edition. As I mentioned above, there’s relatively little by way of extras – just alternative covers and sketches. It’s a shame that the company and the creator couldn’t have worked it out over the collected edition, and it’s more of a shame that the story had to end so suddenly.

Thor's a bright spark...

I hold out hope for a single oversized hardcover volume to link this omnibus to Matt Fraction’s on-going work at the character. I fully expect Fraction’s Thor to get the hardcover treatment, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Kieron Gillen’s fill-in work collected properly – especially since it finishes a lot of what Straczynski started here and (reportedly) in a pretty fine manner at that. It’s a damn shame that this is the only volume of Straczynski’s run on the character, and even more of a tragedy that the run had to halt so suddenly, but there are worse collections out there. If you’re looking for an introduction to the character, you could do a lot worse.

It’s a great story about the character, and one which reportedly heavily influences Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming film adaptation. I can see why, as it’s a cinematic and epic tale which stands on its own two feet while drawing in the rich legacy of the character. Whosoever holds this book, if he be worthy, shall possess a very good Thor story.

6 Responses

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  2. I was looking for reviews for this omnibus and stummbled upon this one. I just have to say this one of the best reviews I have ever read. Well worth my time, it went into depths that I didn’t even think of. Extremely well done, this must’ve taken forever to write.

    • Thanks Austin. I just make notes as I write and then expand on them. And, to be honest, I enjoy writing them. Soemtimes I’ll return to them after re-reading and wonder what the hell I was writing about.

  3. FYI, it was Volstagg who said “What’s a septic tank, and what’s a sewer system?”

    Other than that, great review! My wife and I recently watched the film version of Thor (we loved it), and I just started reading Straczynski’s run on the comic.

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