Book Club #8: Thor Part One

For the seventh installment of the Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club, the four of us read the first volume of J. Michael Straczynski and Oliver Coipel’s Thor. We’re going to start our discussion by sharing an e-mail exchange that took place among the Fantastic Fangirls staff. This is a starting point for whatever our readers would like to say about the book. In the comments, feel free to address any of the points that came up in our discussion, or raise a topic/question of your own. Enjoy!

Anika: I’m going to be completely up front — I chose J. Michael Straczynski and Oliver Coipel’s Thor because it has been recommended to me by numerous people but I would never read it on my own. See, I have always been under the impression that Thor is ridiculous. The current Marvel universe tries pretty hard to be “realistic” and it all falls apart when there are actual Norse gods walking around. In the older Avengers books I’ve read that he appears in, Thor is basically a super powerful guy who talks funny. Here, I find him charming. Now there are a few factors that work in my favor. I am a big fan of the recent dark period under the Superhuman Registration Act so I like the setting. He didn’t talk funny. And while he is somewhat more god-like than I have seem him, he is simultaneously more human. He’s on a quest to restore his family and as he goes two communities — Asgard and the nearby town in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma — are built up and come together. By the end of this first trade I was entirely caught up in the story. I was sad it ended.

One of the things that really worked for me is how welcoming the town is. In the middle of this comic book about the Norse God of Thunder is a lovely tribute to Small Town America, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of how two farmers in Kansas don’t think twice about adopting a super powered alien that lands in their lap. What did you think of the new home for Asgard and the people that live there?

Sigrid: I haven’t ever read the Thor books because I am not enormously interested in what I perceived Thor to be about — a slightly dumb, slightly noble guy with daddy issues whose entire shtick is that his whole family is stuck in a relationship cycle that will never, ever change, only periodically bring about the end of the world. If you tried to invent a premise designed to repel me, you could not do much better. So I said “sure, why not,” to this book club suggestion. It was probably the only way I was ever going to read a Thor title.

How utterly, devastatingly, happily wrong I was.

This particular volume of Thor is about the community of Broxton. I found it — the town and the story both — to be an appealing view of small-town American life. I wondered, reading this, when JMS had started working on the script. At what point in our national cycle of politics, war, terrorism, and financial ruin he decided to write a paean to our Norman Rockwell self-image. We like to think of ourselves as generous to outsiders, even as we vote to strip outsiders of their rights. But we also give vastly, from personal resources, to people in need. This mutually exclusive, contradictory, breathtakingly hopeful and heart-breakingly infuriating human nature is all through this story. It might be, in fact, the entire point of the story

I’m not at all interested in stories about people or gods whose natures are predetermined and unchanging. I am in love with stories about people or gods who are struggling to define themselves, to choose what sort of person they want to grow into being. And that’s the story I got out of this trade collection.

Caroline: I might be the polar opposite of you guys when it come to Thor. On paper, I can’t come up with any good reason that his title wouldn’t appeal to me. I like mythology, and, while I’d prefer to see goddesses getting equal billing to gods, my fondness for certain of Shakespeare’s history plays suggests I have no trouble swallowing dude-centric stories about princes and their daddy issues. In practice, though, I’ve never been able to connect to any of the Asgard-centric stories, even when they’ve been done by writers I like (Matt Fraction, Kieron Gillen, etc. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sif one-shot from last year is the exception that proves the rule.) I don’t know why, exactly; maybe I have trouble understanding the stakes. What’s the best or worst that could happen to these characters as the result of a given story? That’s not a rhetorical question; I really don’t feel like I understand what Asgard is about, and even if I should want them to beat the Frost Giants.

The Thor stories I end up caring about, then, are the ones that interact with Earth. It’s not like I have a pro-Midgard agenda, I just get what’s going on with human beings more than gods. So I liked Roger Landridge and Chris Samnee’s all-ages Thor: The Mighty Avenger series because it was about Jane Foster (and the rest of the Marvel universe) meeting this magical stranger, and I enjoyed the Thor movie for the same reasons.

This book ought to strike some of the same chords with me, and I’m interested in what Anika and Sigrid are saying about the portrayal of small-town life. I think the idea of builiding Asgard in the middle of the U.S. is inspired, and a lot of interesting things have been done with that setup since this book started in 2007. (In Marvel time, that amounts to, paradoxically, about six months — actual story time — or about a million years — how many events have come and gone since then.) This particular volume, though, just didn’t click for me. J. Michael Straczynski may very well have wanted to say something important about middle America, but to me it comes off as kind of corny and unrealized. The townsfolk are played for laughs a lot, and while I don’t think the intent is precisely to ridicule them, they don’t seem individualized in any way. If they have a function other than to say ‘Aww, shucks!’ while Thor does something awesome, I don’t see it.

And don’t even get me started on New Orleans and Africa.

Jennifer: Ooh, ooh, I’ll get started on New Orleans and Africa!

But first I should note that, unlike Anika and Sigrid, this wasn’t my first encounter with this story. I read J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor as it was coming out, and I remember, at the time, enjoying it a whole hell of a lot. It was early in my comic-reading career, and I’d already fallen in love with Olivier Coipel’s art from his work on House of M. When he was announced as the artist on an all-new, new-reader-friendly Thor book, I decided it couldn’t hurt to give it a shot.

From that first experience, I can confirm that the book is definitely new-reader-friendly, which is no small feat in superhero comics. It lays out everything the reader needs to know without resorting to endless exposition, and the structure of the first six issues (Thor going around the world to free his Asgardian friends from their mortal hosts) allows JMS to introduce the major players in the Thor cast without confusing or overwhelming the reader. The first issue, especially, manages to beautifully introduce Thor and Donald Blake as separate but interconnected characters, streamlining their confusing continuity and providing a lovely introduction and mission statement for the series that follows.

But while I still appreciated JMS’s skill at introduction and Olivier Coipel’s gorgeous artwork, I found myself, as I reread this book, feeling much less satisfied, and even somewhat troubled, by its contents. A lot of this dissatisfaction stems from a problem exemplified in issue four, an issue I disliked even on my first encounter, in which Thor apparently ends African tribal warfare by making a big hole in the ground.

I know JMS means well when he puts social issues in his comics. But when his comics are about godly Aryan mega-rich straight white dudes, and he has them blithely solving the problems of poor people and people of color, he comes across as self-righteous and patronizing while remaining completely ignorant of his own privilege. He simplifies conflicts (like tribal warfare in Africa) into problems that can be solved by superheroes, which isn’t fair to the real-world events and the people who live them every day or to the readers of his comics, who are smarter and capable of more moral complexity than he gives them credit for.

This tendency is even more blatant in the previous issue, about post-Katrina New Orleans, and it’s coupled by an additional problem: the problem of explaining real-world tragedies in a universe full of superheroes. Thor laments that he wasn’t alive when Katrina happened, a reasonable excuse for his failure to stop it, but when he mentally berates his fellow heroes for not coming to New Orleans’ aid, it throws all the logic of the universe into question. Either heroes who regularly stop alien invasions can’t stop a simple flood — which is ludicrous — or they just don’t care to — which makes the superheroes of Earth into terrible human beings who no one would want to read about. The fact is that Katrina simply couldn’t have happened in the Marvel U as we know it, whatever its similarities to the “real” world, and by shoehorning this reference into the comic, JMS sets up an insoluble contradiction.

And the thing is, he’s aware of how patronizing and privileged this all seems. In the Katrina issue, JMS has a (white) character in New Orleans yell at Thor, exclaiming that “This is our town, it’s our pain, and 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!” Yet this is exactly what JMS is doing — using the tragedy of Katrina for his own commercial fiction so he can look like a sensitive, compassionate guy. And then that Louisana man turns out to be holding the soul of yet another white, straight, male god, and he and Thor skip off merrily to Asgard, leaving the real man, and all the other people of New Orleans, behind. The same goes for Thor/Donald Blake’s brief stint with Doctors without Borders — after JMS makes his big point about how a big ditch would solve all of Africa’s problems, Blake is never seen with the organization again.

If I thought JMS was trying to make a point about Thor’s blindness to problems that last beyond his intervention, I might give him some credit, but for the most part he just seems to have Thor bop around real tragedies in order to make half-baked points and fuel his fantasy story, and that’s something that ultimately sours the rest of the book for me.

Anika: Okay, I’m going to address Carrie first — I think the function of the townsfolk is to show where the differences and similarities lie between “regular people” and “superheroes”. The page that depicts the town meeting with townspeople on one side and the Asgardians on the other is a cute example of this. I understand the criticism that they are too generic. My brother linked me to a blog post about how all the normal people are seeming to be systematically written out of superhero comics — individuals like Mary Jane Watson and Jimmy Olsen are being sidelined and replaced by Random Person Who Yells At Iron Man (and Superman) and Random Person Who Oohs and Aaahs At Thor. I don’t like that trend at all, but I think of this particular story like I would a pilot for a series, I’m willing to give them a little time to grow into something more.

Now, the journeys to New Orleans and Africa bug me too. Absolutely. They are heavy handed and everything Jen says rings true. It didn’t ruin the book for me. The U.S. government was handing out money to anyone who included New Orleans in their fiction, and Doctors Without Borders has shown up in every medical show ever. It’s exploitative but we’re talking about it. We are siding with the downtrodden in opposition to someone who can represent both Church (he’s a god) and State (he’s a superhero) and to someone who represents corporate America (JMS/Marvel). That’s worth something. And if I avoided reading everything that has problematic elements, I don’t think I’d have anything left to read.

Please join us tomorrow for the next segment of our discussion in which we address Iron Man, Sif, Copiel’s art, and comic book continuity. We will also reveal what we’re reading for the next Book Club discussion.

  • Jenny Sessions

    On the Africa vignette, I agree there was a lot problematic with it, but I don’t think it was as fail as either of you are implying. Thor (and his sidekicks) listened to the tribal elder when the elder stopped them from going after the militants, but being a superhero, Thor also didn’t want to leave it at nothing. The chasm is extremely temporary, and not much use(good fences make good neighbors?), but as a gesture of privilege there are much worse ones to undertake.

  • Pingback: Fantastic Fangirls: Comics and Culture » Blog Archive » Book Club #8: Thor Part Two()