• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Ultimate Comics: Thor (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.

“It burns,” Thor tells us as the comic opens. “The world tree burns… Surely this is the end of all things…” Yes, Jonathan Hickman suggests, it is indeed the end, but it is also the beginning. The lives of gods, like the myths themselves and the comic books they inspire, are cyclical and endless. This scene, as Nazi stormtroopers and frost giants march on Asgard, might be the end, but it is also the beginning.

Thor Smash!

Hickman might just be the most fascinating writer to emerge in mainstream superhero comic books over the last couple of years. I am eagerly awaiting the inevitable omnibus collections of his runs on Secret Warriors and Fantastic Four, which seem to be the work of a writer on the top of his game working in a medium and a genre (and with characters) he deeply adores. Quite simply, it’s Hickman’s writing which takes what might otherwise be another disposable tie-in Ultimate Comics miniseries (like Ultimate Comics: Armor Wars) and turn it into something special.

In a way, the Ultimate line is just another reiteration of the classic mythical archetypes we have seen play out time and time again in mainstream comic books. Grant Morrison suggested that the Justice League of America (and, logically, all heroes) were an extension of the classic Greco-Roman pantheons. Warren Ellis proposed that a so-called “fourth movement” in mainstream comic books, a reinvention of a reinvention, which planted the seed that became the Ultimate line.

The end of the world tree…

If classic comic books are the spiritual successors to mythical sagas and legends of gods and monsters, then you could make two arguments about Marvel’s Ultimate line. Either it’s a retelling of these classic stories which moves them further away from their origins, and seems ultimately and pointlessly caught up in this brief moment at the start of the third millennium, or it’s a distillation of those central ideas, a refining of a refining, a story that is even more self-aware of its mythical roots than Stan the Man was all those years ago. In my opinion, the line is frequently neither, or both, or somewhere in between. There’s no really consistency. There are good moments, and great moments, and empty moments.

The Ultimates was, for me, a great moment. The large omnibus edition of one of Mark Millar’s twin masterpieces (I’d argue the other is Red Son) is one of the core texts that inspired my love of comic books. Millar’s story is a grand myth for the twenty-first century world, as these gods and men find themselves falling prey to the eternally changed society. Somethings never change, like the power of gods and celebrities, but some do – people these days, where democracy is a concept belonging to more than the men of Athens, reject or seek to destroy their gods to empower themselves. The Ultimates was a wonderful look at how the idea of a pantheon might struggle under the weight of global politics, the twenty-four-minute news-cycle and ever-changing public opinion.

What’s on Thor’s mind?

So Hickman does well to anchor his Ultimate Comics: Thor series in Millar’s run on The Ultimates, rather than setting it in the modern post-Ultimatum universe. Indeed, The Ultimates remains one of my favourite Thor stories, and it’s nice to see Hickman weave this story into that one. Much as the end of Asgard heralds the beginning of this miniseries, the end of this miniseries welcomes the beginning of Millar’s epic (with the closing image given to that wonderful confrontation between Thor and the Hulk).

The decision to open the miniseries with a confrontation between the Norse gods of Asgard and the soldiers of Hitler’s Third Reich is not simply an attempt to play up the pulpy atmosphere of this story (which is a far more “traditional” comic book than Millar’s The Ultimates), but an exploration of how myths and stories are used and recycled – creating power throughout the ages. Hitler’s racial philosophy proposed that Nordic traits – blonde hair and blue eyes – were inherently superior to all others, that the blood was somehow purer or more divine.

Sticks and stones, eh?

The very second panel of the book even gives us an example of a classical symbol, taken and corrupted by Nazi philosophy – with the Asgard symbol for lightning designed to remind us of the branding of the SS and concepts like “blitzkreig.” Symbols are eternal, as are myths and legends, they are given meaning by those who use them and tell them and retell them. The swastika as a symbol dates back to Hindu beliefs, but it was stolen and used as the emblem of German fascists. Nobody corrupted stories and images like the Nazi regime, leaving a stain on everything they touched.

However, through the cycle of rebirth and reinvention, Hickman seems to suggest that we can create our own symbols, or give our own meaning to things. So Thor suggests that the European scientists build his weapon in the shape of a hammer, or Thor tries to make the world a better place in his own way. He’s conscious of the fact that he’s playing with images and archetypes. Indeed, a lot of the Asgardian language that we see, in particular the hieroglyphs for “the lightning” and “the black sun”are built on illustration of their core concept, almost like a comic book.

Donald Blake is in the story…

“It looks incomplete,” Doctor Blake comments as he examines Thor’s writings on the floor of his chamber. However, a serialised medium like comics is always going to be “incomplete”, especially in a shared universe, much like our myths and legends will never be complete (at least not in our finite perception of them). “A rather ominous place to leave off, don’t you think?” Donald asks of the fallen deity, as he reaches the cliffhanger ending of that chapter of Thor’s story.

It’s interesting to note some of the complaints when Hickman and artist Carlos Pacheco were first releasing the series around the portrayal of Asgard. Some noted, for instance, that Hickman’s portrayal of the divine realm seemed curiously close to that seen in “mainstream” Marvel, with the funny fonts and the bright and colourful outfits and the strange monsters, rather than the traditionally more subdued “Ultimate” universe. This is a universe, after all, where Venom from Ultimate Spider-Man is a biological weapon rather than an alien spacesuit, and the Shi’ar from Ultimate X-Men are a religious cult rather than an intergalactic empire.

A frosty reception…

While there are moments in The Ultimates which suggest that Asgard is far more mystical than Midgard (including a cameo from another god in a restaurant), it’s a fair point – the Ultimate line is traditionally more “grim” and “realistic” than its regular counterpart (much as Nolan’s Batman Begins might be when compared to Tim Burton’s Batman). However, Hickman points out that Asgard had to die for Thor to be reinvented. The cycle had to close before it could begin again, moving Thor closer to reality and making him more “relevent.” Stories evolve over time, and some elements die out and the backdrop changes in order for the story to stay with the time.

I especially like the subtle suggestion that Hickman makes that Thor has evolved from a Norse deity into a Christ-type figure, from one form of godhood to another, like ancient Christians would coopt the myths and beliefs of other groups. Mark Millar rather obviously made the connection between Thor and Christ in The Ultimates, but here Hickman makes the point more explicitly. Thorlief Golmen undergoes a spiritual awakening in adulthood, is guided by another spiritual figure who serves only to prepare him, tries to make the world a better place by performing miracles and proclaiming a humanist philosophy, while a piece of his father lives inside of him. Indeed, Thor has gone from a member of a huge pantheon to the sole surviving deity. “I am my father’s son,” he proclaims.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

It’s a clever way of illustrating how ideas change and grow over extended periods of time. The pagan belief systems were consolidated and consumed by larger religious organisations, and various traits and archetypes were adopted and streamlined and reused for a new purpose. Hickman cleverly positions Thor as somewhat similar to Richard Donner’s Superman, another religious archetype and one that Thor is frequently compared to. Like Superman, Thor was sent to Earth to do good. Asked what his purpose is and why he has been sent to Earth, Thor is told, “Because Father means to remake two worlds. Asgard into what it once was… and this one, into what it can be.”

It’s telling that this represents perhaps the biggest change between Stan Lee’s “classic” Thor and Hickman’s Ultimate iteration. In those early stories, Thor was cast down from Asgard to learn humility from us mere mortals. However, this version of Odin sends his son to us in order to make the world a better place and to prepare us for what lies ahead. There’s a very clear link drawn between classical Norse beliefs and more modern Christianity. It’s brilliantly clever.

Quote the Raven Nevermore…

I’ll admit, however, that Hickman does seem to struggle a bit with Loki. In fact, the trickster god almost seems sort of secondary to the story, a logical foil who exists simply because (a.) somebody needs to lay siege to Asgard, and (b.) Hickman has to set up his appearance in The Ultimates. There’s little-to-no real sense of Loki’s relationship with Thor, nor his betrayal… it just sort of happens. There are a few interesting points raised about pre-destination and fate, but it’s not necessarily the best stuff written on this subject matter. So that is, perhaps, a little distracting.

There’s also the argument that the book is too dependent on The Ultimates to make sense, as the final issue is pretty much a clip show from that story, hitting may key moments as Hickman provides context. I’d almost argue that this series should probably strive to stand on its own two feet, but The Ultimates is a strong enough piece of comic book literature that it should be mandatory. If you haven’t read it yet, go do it now. And read that first, because this comic spoils a lot of the fascinating stuff Millar does with the character, a fact Hickman seems to allude to by having the time jump around – the idea being that even though the events may occur earlier, they should be read later.

Ultimate Comics: Thor is a wonderful little book, which manages to take what is arguably a promotional tie-in to Kenneth Branagh’s film, and manages to do something bold, exciting and creative. I was already eagerly awaiting Hickman’s first omnibus… now I can barely control myself.

You might be interested in our other Ultimates-related reviews:

2 Responses

  1. Didn’t get a chance to read these. I caught the “Ultimate: Spider-man” a few years ago, borrowed from a cousin. I think I might give these a go before re-reading “Ultimates” again – possibly adding “Ultimate Six” and “War” in the mix for good measure.

    • Just a quick head’s-up on that, Stu, Ultimate War is actually a tie-in to Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men run. So it might not make a lot of sense out of context. Basically, Ultimate Six and Ultimate war were two miniseries that tied into Spider-Man and X-Men respectively.

      As far as Ultimate titles go, Ultimate Spider-Man is a great comic book, as it Mark Millar’s Ultimates. The miniseries, with the exception of Ultimate Iron Man I & II and Ultimate Armor Wars (and, if you consider them miniseries, Jeph Loeb’s Ultimates III and Ultimatum), are mostly well worth a go. I do love Ultimate Human: Hulk vs. Iron Man (guess the summer that came out!), and Ultimate Thor is good, clean fun. It’s a great companion to the Ultimates.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: