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Avengers Disassembled: Thor (Review/Retrospective)

Thor: Disassembled is easily the strongest solo arc to stem from the events in Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers Disassembled. It’s  full of interesting and clever ideas about the nature of stories, and serves to wrap up Thor’s story fairly efficiently, leading into the big reshuffle of the Marvel Universe. Rather than merely treading water waiting for J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor, writer Mike Avon Oeming takes advantage of the unique set of circumstances before him to present that rarest type of superhero story: one with an ending.

Thunderbolts and lightening, very, very frighteningly…

Superhero stories rarely get endings. That’s why origin stories make for popular big screen adaptations – they offer a clear arc for the character to follow, changing them in the process. The truly iconic superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man, Superman or Captain America are all pretty much archetypes. People recognise the iconography and instinctively know the broad details. As such, nothing much ever changes. To radically shake up a character’s status quo by offering closure would affect the marketability of the character and thus damage them as a commercial property. As a result, most superhero stories tend to leave thingsmostly as they were found.

My own pet theory is that this is part of the reason why Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and The Dark Knight Returns are so popular – they propose to offer a conclusion to the on-going saga of their serialised character. Everything is pretty much wrapped up, the hero gets a sense of closure and we get an idea of what their “last ever” story might look like. Marvel attempted to capitalise on this a few years back with their collection of The End series, and it never quite worked. On the other hand, Oeming does an excellent job off giving us an idea of what the finalThor story might look like.

Hammer to fall…

Part of the reason I am so fond of Thor as a character is that there’s an enhanced self-awareness around the character, an acknowledgement that superhero comics are perhaps an attempt to craft a modern American mythology, filled with archetypes and meanings unique and important to that culture. Superman is the immigrant made good. Spider-Man is the little man who can do anything. Captain America is the embodiment of patriotism. Green Lantern is an intergalactic policeman whose abilities are confined only by his imagination. Thor is a Norse god reimagined and reinvented as a superhero.

As such, Thor lends himself to reflection on the genre, an old myth for a forgotten age adopted and repackaged as a new myth for the modern era. Oeming’s superb Thor: Disassembled seems rather sullen and contemplative about the nature of serialised narratives, and the toll they must take on their characters. It’s telling that, for a story about the end of the world titled Ragnarok, there’s relatively little on-panel action. What we don’t see is almost as important as what we do see. We don’t see Loki’s original attack on Asgard, nor do we see his brutal murder of Toothgrinder and Toothmasher. We cut away from Surtur’s final assault on Vanaheim. Oeming’s story is more interested in the idea of an ending than whatever form that might take.

Surtur yourself…

“Did father foresee this?” Thor asks as he reflects on the destruction. “Was this meant to be? If so, should I fight this ending or embrace it? What does this cycle mean?” There’s quite a lot weighing against Thor, but it’s telling that he seems to make his final decision not as a god or even as a man, but as a character within a story. He doesn’t care to save any of his remaining friends or to salvage the terrible situation he faces. He seeks to end it. As a citizen of Asgard, his actions seem cold, something that Oeming concedes in his short but insightful afterword. “My concern in writing this arc was that Thor’s final act would by misunderstood, that letting his people die would in some way be seen as a betrayal, when in fact, it was the opposite.”

Within the story itself, that’s scant comfort. Thor tells Tony early on that there’s no afterlife for the gods. “In death we cease to be.” As such, Thor’s decision to lead Surtur and his demonic army to the last sanctuary of Asgard must be a betrayal within story, to condemn the citizens within to survive – including the innocent children. Thor does not consult with his fellow heroes, he makes the decision he deems to be best. And, as guided by the Odinforce, it’s clear that he can only make the decision from outside the normal parameters.

New gods and old gods…

However, Thor’s actions become somewhat heroic if examined outside the context of the story itself. If you look at this as a myth or a story, it seems an act of cruelty to allow it to continue in perpetuity. “Yet, if this is a cycle, how could they ever have a final battle?” the Odinforce asks, pointing out that continuous never-ending stories are denied resolutions and – perhaps, through that – have their meanings diluted.

Thor himself rages against those who watch and feed off the perpetual adventures of the gods – perhaps an accusation at comic book fans who want everything to always remain the way it was, eschewing growth or development. “The cycle of death and renewal gave life to those who sit in shadow,” he laments. “They fed on our energy. They sucked life from us — those who live through it again and again. They made our existence hollow, each sacrifice and each daring deed less significant as they were repeated in an endless cycle.” Later on, he suggests, “For life to be complete and true, it must have an ending!” The suggestion is that, by allowing superheroes to run through the same cycle time and time again, we rob them of any capacity for meaning, resonance or growth.

Everything dies…

It’s an interesting, brave and challenging idea for Oeming to voice within the context of mainstream superhero comics, and Thor seems to be the perfect place to make it. After all, it is a comic book about myths and myth-making. Oeming repeatedly draws our attention to the fact that this is all just myth and narrative. The story opens with a more violent and vengeful Loki than we’ve seen in a while. “Loki has gone mad!” Fandral yells. “Ymir-Krul has fallen! The gods are dying!”

We are never provided with a reason for Loki’s actions, save that they are dictated by legend. There’s never any attempt to portray Loki as a three-dimensional villain with complex motivations. Instead, Oeming seems to suggest, he does these things to fulfill his role in a greater story that he cannot comprehend. This evokes the superb handling of the character in Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers, where Loki is doomed by his role in the story, by his nature rather than any complex external factor. As Volstagg observes, “A bee will always sting when it feels winter’s approach.”

Oh brother, oh bother…

Oeming’s afterword quotes Joseph Campbell, the writer who crafted The Hero’s Journey, a book about storytelling that has had untold influence on countless iconic adventures. It feels fitting in a way. I’m actually relatively happy with Thor: Disassembled as a possible “last ever” story for Thor. While it works better as a “meta” narrative than a narrative in its own right, it certainly feels like a more substantial attempt to give some measure of closure to the character than any of the other Avengers: Disassembled tie-ins.

Oeming does a great job, and I’m honestly disappointed that he hasn’t found a lot more work as a writer. (Of course, his artwork is superb in its own right, so it’s tough to choose.) I’m a bit disappointed that there isn’t more of Oeming’s work available on Thor, as the character seems to especially suit his sensibilities. I certainly wouldn’t have minded a more extended run from the writer on the character. Andrea DiVito’s artwork fits remarkably well with Oeming’s vision.

Lightening strikes…

There are other nice moments as well, divorced from the “stories about stories” aspect of the collection. I especially like some of the smaller, smarter ideas about the forging of Thor’s legendary hammer. “So great was the forging of the mold and of Mjolnir that it nearly destroyed the smiths, shook all of Asgard and sent chunks of fire to the worlds,” we’re told, as we see the forging of Mjolnir created the comet that killed the dinosaurs. “Destroying some… to make room for others.” Similarly, I like the idea of Thor’s hammer being proliferated throughout Asgard.

Thor: Disassembled is a great way to close out Thor, albeit only temporarily. It’s a nice reflection on the shortcomings of superhero narratives, a clever examination of the nature of serialised fiction, and a fitting farewell to the iconic God of Thunder. If only more of the Disassembled tie-ins could say that.

Check out our look at the Avengers: Disassembled tie-ins:

One Response

  1. Thanks for the review, always a fun and great read.

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