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Roger Langridge & Chris Samnee’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

There really aren’t enough all-ages friendly comic books, and there certainly aren’t enough comic books that you can pop into a curious stranger’s hands and say “hey! read this!” In this era of blockbuster movies and hit television shows based off comic book properties, you’d imagine that companies would be working hard to attract new fans, trying to make comics accessible and enjoyable to those with little experience of picking up a comic book or graphic novel.

Thor: The Mighty Avenger is a wonderfully accessible piece of work that provides a brilliant introduction to Marvel’s take on the classic Norse God of Thunder. However, it remains a tragedy that this is one of very few efforts to provide such a comic, and also that Thor: The Mighty Avenger came to such an unceremonious end, cancelled after only eight issues.

Taking Thor for a spin...

Taking Thor for a spin…

The biggest problem with Thor: The Mighty Avenger is that it ends. It ends rather suddenly, the book brutally cancelled due to low sales figures. There is no resolution to the plot, no impression that the creative team were trying to tie as much together as humanly possible before the curtain came down. There’s a sense that the last script only became the last script long after Roger Langridge had turned in his work and after Chris Samnee had put the finishing touches to his art. As result, all there is by way of closure is a postscript page with thanks and dedications.

Even allowing for the Free Comic Book Day one-shot Captain America & Thor: The Might Avengers epilogue issue, there’s no real sense of closure to the over-arching story that Langridge and Samnee were trying to tell. Sure, various items on the “great Thor story” checklist are crossed off. Having spent the series on the sidelines, Loki finally gets pushed to centre stage before the series bows out. After meeting Hank Pym, Tony Stark and Namor, Thor finally gets to meet the most iconic of Avengers.

Ironing out their problems...

Ironing out their problems…

Yet there’s no sense that this version of Thor has completed his journey. There’s no sense that all the plot points pushed into movement at the start of the series have been properly resolved. The journey is not completed. This is not how this story was supposed to end. Still, if the only major complaint to be held against Thor: The Mighty Avenger is the fact that the comic book ends, then it’s an indicator of just what a wonderful job Langridge and Samnee have done.

There’s a wonderful sense of joy to Thor: The Mighty Avenger, making the book an absolute pleasure to read – from start to finish. Langridge and Samnee seem perfectly suited to one another, both writing and illustrating the comic so it seems to exist in a magical mystical world where the sixties never quite ended. There are mobile phones and computers and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, among other modern touches, but there’s also an endearingly timeless quality to Thor: The Mighty Avenger, one that suits the title character perfectly.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne are portrayed in keeping with their more heroic and idealised sixties personas. There’s no hint of domestic discord between the two. Unlike so many of his contemporary comic book portrayals, Pym is not treated as a failure or a screw-up. In fact, he’s the first hero that Thor encounters, and the comic treats him as a larger-then-life sixties science hero. He even gets to push his gimmick a bit further than more modern (and self-serious) comics would allow; he keeps a giant ant as a pet and flies around in a giant ant-plane.

Similarly, Tony Stark is introduced in a manner that plays on him as a sixties archetype. His Iron Man armour is designed to evoke the original clunky design, even if it is coloured in a more modern pallet. The story features Stark referring to Iron Man as his “bodyguard”, a now obsolete piece of continuity. There’s a sense of Stark as the kind of free-wheeling international playboy in the vein of Hugh Hefner or even Howard Hughes, feeling more like a romanticised philanthropist from the hazy past than any modern billionaire.

Feeling a little antsy...

Feeling a little antsy…

Indeed, time itself is something of a recurring theme over the course of the book, as various characters and ideas are repeated and reiterated. There’s a sense of ideas been recycled and rehabilitated – evolving and chnaging with the times around them. Returning to Midgard for the first time in centuries, Thor is astounded to discover that his people have been remembered as gods by the native people. When confronting Hank Pym, the comic cleverly connects him to mythological giants.

There’s a sense that the world of Thor: The Mighty Avenger is one built on the history of what came before. Hank Pym learned a lot from his mentor, Lew Stevens. Jane is able to learn a lot about Thor by digging into the museum history books. The Van Dynes have supported the Midtown Museum for “three generations.” More than knowledge and wealth get passed down – ideas and concepts do as well.

Thor lightening up...

Thor lightening up…

Taking Jane on a romantic midnight adventure, Thor explains how even larger-than-life concepts seem to echo and reverberate across the boundaries of reality. “In Asgard we have a tree called Yggdrasil,” he tells her. “It is said to contain entire worlds. These Sequoias contain echoes of that great tree.” When Heimdell takes the form of a dragon, he warns Thor, “Do you not know my current form, Thor? It is one which is common throughout the cosmos… echoes of a single ancient dragon, now tamed and humbled.”

These are, of course, simply stories that echo across time and space. Which works very well. Many of the best Thor stories (including those by Simonson, Hickman or Oeming) are preoccupied on the notion of the Asgard gods as those trapped in stories and patterns, with fiction and reality inter-tangling. It also works in the context of Thor: The Mighty Avenger, because that’s precisely what this comic is. It’s an echo of a mythos that is so much larger and more encompassing than any one iteration of that story.

The Blizzard of Odd...

The Blizzard of Odd…

There is something absolutely wonderful and magical in Langridge and Samnee’s retelling of the classic Thor mythos. Part of that is down to how well-suited the duo are to the task. Langridge is a writer who hasn’t got enough credit for his work on books aimed at readers of all ages, including the soon-to-be reprinted Muppet Show comic. Samnee has found a higher profile as a result of his work with writer Mark Waid on Daredevil, a comic that similarly plays to the artist’s wonderfully timeless qualities.

There’s an incredible innocence to Thor: The Mighty Avenger. Appropriately enough, Langridge uses The Wizard of Oz as a recurring reference. When Thor finds himself stranded on Midgard, we’re treated to the shot of the Norse god watching the classic film. Later, Jane sings it to herself in the shower. It’s a reference that works on multiple levels, from the superficial (Thor also needs to go over the rainbow to go home) through to the thematic (Thor is also a modern American fantasy story).

Hammer, don't hurt...

Hammer, don’t hurt…

Indeed, the fact that the same sequence also references Monty Python and the Holy Grail should tell you everything you need to know about Langridge and Samnee’s approach to Thor: The Mighty Avenger. There’s a charm and magic to the story. “Let us see wonders,” Thor suggests to Jane in the middle on the night, waking her up and summoning a sleigh driven by flying goats. It’s a beautiful evocation of the romance of the superhero and fantasy narrative, the opportunities to turn the mundane wondrous.

At the same time, Langridge and Samnee imbue the comic with a sense of absurdity. The fact that Brian Braddock’s friends humour his belief that his identity is a well-kept secret is a delightful spin on a classic superhero trope. (“He’s Captain Britain. He thinks his friends don’t know, but he’s terrible at keeping it a secret. So we pretend we don’t notice.”) Thor: The Mighty Avenger is a comic that finds time to devote issues to Norse gods going on drinking holidays, alongside midnight trips around the world for young lovers.

He's a little tied up at present...

He’s a little tied up at present…

It feels rather pointed that most of the superheroes that Thor encounters during his time on Earth are characters who have become somewhat tarnished or ambiguous in mainstream superhero comics. Hank Pym is a character who feels like the butt of a particularly cruel and extended joke. Tony Stark sparked a disastrous conflict within Marvel’s superhuman community. Captain Britain has been portrayed, pretty consistently, as a bit of a jerk. Namor committed an act of mass murder in Avengers vs. X-Men and has been presented as a sociopathic anti-hero.

And yet, in Thor: The Mighty Avenger, each of these characters is presented as an ideal. Hank Pym is a wholesome Adam-West-type superhero. As Thor lays into him, he protests, “I’m sorry, chum… but you leave me no choice.” Brian Braddock is an all-round nice guy. Tony Stark is concerned about Thor’s disappearance. Even Namor, although grumpy, comes across as a fundamentally decent individual. “All right, Namor, what do you do…?” he asks himself at one point. “Tame the beast or save the stupid, stupid human? The human wins… as usual.”

Breaking out...

Breaking out…

(As an aside, the decision to pair up Thor and Namor is inspired – juxtaposing the two arrogant kings of mythological kingdoms, comparing and contrasting their characterisations and their attitudes. It’s the sort of wonderful character work that Thor: The Mighty Avenger delivers without a second thought. Namor is just a logical counterpoint to Thor, so placing them both in the same story makes a great deal of sense.)

Even Thor himself comes across as a nice guy. Banished to Earth to earn humility, we are properly introduced to Thor after he finds himself tangled up in a bar fight. He’s not drunk or angry, but trying to protect an innocent who has found herself the object of Mister Hyde’s affections. Despite getting beaten to a bloody pulp, Thor won’t give in. “There is a man in there… he is… what is the word…? bothering a woman. The woman wants to be left alone. Something must be done.”

Diving into action...

Diving into action…

This innocence and idealism must not be confused with naivety or shallowness. As much as Thor: The Mighty Avenger might embrace a more upbeat and optimistic vision of these Marvel characters than most comic readers have come to expect, that doesn’t mean the comic is simplistic or under-written. Thor is well-intentioned, but he’s also consistently portrayed as stubborn and arrogant. Despite the fact he’s fundamentally a decent guy, we can see why he might need to learn humility.

The relationship between Thor and Jane Foster is also surprisingly nuanced and well-developed. Given that so many contemporary comics have difficulty writing romance, it’s impressive how skilfully Thor: The Mighty Avenger handles the growing attraction between the museum curator and mysterious deity who has wandered into her life. Both Thor and Jane feel well-written and fleshed-out, and there’s an argument to be made that Thor: The Mighty Avenger is as much a romance comic as a superhero comic.

Golden age...

Golden age…

Indeed, the two issues in which Thor sweeps Jane away from a romantic late-night getaway stand as two of the stronger issues in the whole collection. Given the high average quality of the work, that’s quite a ringing endorsement. Thor: The Mighty Avenger is a sweet, sincere and intelligent piece of comic book writing, and a testament to both the creative team and the character himself. It’s a celebration of one of Marvel’s most intriguing character, and proof that all-ages comic books are by no means inferior to their more “mature” counterparts.

Thor: The Mighty Avenger deserves consideration as one of the best Thor comics of the past decade.

4 Responses

  1. Wonderful review Darren! I was one of the few people saddened by the early demise of this wonderful series. It is nice to see Chris Samnee in Daredevil, but it was Thor: The Mighty Avenger that introduced me to his wonderful art.

    It’s still the best Thor story I’ve read

    • I’m not sure I’d push it to “best” (I’ve loved Lee and Kirby’s work, Simonson’s Thor, Millar’s Ultimates 1 and 2, and what I’ve read of Aaron’s run so far), but it certainly ranks in the top tier of Thors stories. (Then again, I am predisposed to Thor. I just think he’s a wonderful character with rich storytelling potential.

  2. Always enjoy your Thor reviews, like how much detail and depth you go into. The best part of this short series was definitely the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster, in my opinion. There are lots of feel-good moments and sense of wonder. It felt I was reading silver-age Thor comics reworked for our modern time. The stylized facial expressions also allowed to see and feel the characters emotions very effectively. This book is filled with fun and is a small gem in the wide library of Thor stories.

    • It is a gem. A highlight for a character who has quite a few highlights. Thor is probably the most-consistently well-written member of Marvel’s big three. While there are probably fewer “pinnacle” stories than Cap or Iron Man, there’s a lot of “very underrated” work on the character.

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