Book Club #8: Thor Part Two

Welcome back to our discussion of Thor. For the next installment of the Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club we will be reading Finder: Voice by Carla Speed McNeil. A separate introduction will be posted in later weeks. Now, back to Thor!

The following is a continuation of our Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club discussion of J. Michael Straczynski and Oliver Coipel’s Thor started here.

Anika: The other thing that happened in New Orleans was also heavy handed — does anyone have anything to say about Iron Man?

Caroline: I feel like the go-to person for Iron Man opinions, but I don’t have that much to say about his appearance here. Mostly it reminded me of how heavy-handedly he was written in and around Civil War. It’s kind of stunning to realize how much the movies and Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man series have done to rescue the complexity of Tony Stark as a character, because it’s not at all on display here. He’s essentially an antagonist who shows up as a lackey of the “the Man” (he mentions his superiors, though I’m not even clear who these would be at this point) to make unreasonable demands and have his ass kicked by Thor.

That brings up the issue of what Jim Mroczkowski of ifanboy calls “continuity accounting.” JMS is building this story that is supposed to reinvent Thor for a new era, and three issues in the momentum comes to a screeching halt so they can argue about something that happened in a different series and was stupid anyway. (Why can’t Tony explain why he cloned Thor and had him murdering superheros? Because the answer is, “So there would be an awesome fakeout in the big crossover, followed by a tragic death! Who cares if it’s something this character would actually do?!”)

To some extent, this is an unsolvable problem as long as you have continuity. Anybody who was reading this book at the time must have been yelling, “But they have superhero registration! Why is the government not on Thor’s case?” But I’m still not sure it needed to happen and disrupt the rhythm this early in the story. Plus, I’m soured looking back by the realization that the confrontation implied between Tony and Thor never really happened. It got sidetracked by other events (“Oh no, Skrulls!” “Oh no, the Green Goblin!”) and, despite the fact that I’ve been reading Marvel comics consistently since Civil War, I don’t even remember when and why these guys stopped hating each other.

Considering how long it takes to tell a single story in modern superhero comics, and how short an attention span editorial often seems to have, it’s not that uncommon to read the build-up to a story that never really pays off. Overall, actually, the Thor-in-Oklahoma story has had surprising staying power. I just picked up a new issue of Fraction’s The Mighty Thor, which is also drawn by Olivier Coipel, and I was impressed by how much it feels like part of the same world. That might be why it strikes me so much that the Iron Man scene feels out of place here. This should be a book that I want to hand to a new reader, but that part makes me hesitate.

Then there’s the other issue with a “new” title that’s also in continuity, which is, “Why should I care?” I can see that theoretically, Thor wandering the world to find all his old buddies is an ‘introduction’ but it seems to be an introduction that only works if I already know something about these characters. I understand Sif and Heimdall and the Warriors Three now, but when I first saw this series as a new-to-Thor reader, it was like, “Random guy! Random other guy! Random lady Thor thinks is his girlfriend but is actually his brother! Well. . .that’s at least different.” It’s not that I can’t get interested in a character I’ve never seen before, but more that I feel like writers who re-introduce pre-existing characters sometimes don’t try very hard to individualize them. I definitely felt that here.

Sigrid: There are times when I think my life-long reading of comics handicaps my ability to critique them. This is one of those times. I can see the problems you all list here, and I agree with you, and two-thirds of my brain shrugs and says, “well, that’s comics.”

I know this is supposed to be a discussion of the Thor comic we all read, and it is, but the conversation unavoidably takes place in a broader cultural context. And the cultural context of this conversation is amidst DC’s announcements that they will reboot their entire universe, and Marvel’s doing untoward things to characters in the pages of the New York Times as well as announcing dramatic changes to upcoming books. And when I read all this press I feel exhausted, discounted as a fan, and disillusioned. Yet I will keep reading reading comics, even the ones that I’m less than thrilled about in their pre-press, because none of this matters.

Huge events happen, and massive plots get revealed, and four years later not a one of us can remember what the hell Tony Stark was supposedly doing in New Orleans, or why Thor cared. This, to me, is the damnable sin and the saving grace of continuity comics.

In that context, my brain fully accepts this volume as a starting point, a new entry for readers. We aren’t told exactly why Thor cares about these people, but he cares. And the fact that he cares tells us something about the sort of hero he is. We aren’t completely clued into the entire Donald Blake / Thor duality, but it’s there, and the work Thor does and the work Donald does are both valuable to him. We know — along with the people who live in war-torn Africa — that neither Thor nor Medicine sans Frontieres can end the problems there, but Thor feels a need to try. Like all “stories for new readers,” this approach leaves new readers slightly confused and condescended to. And I’m not sure it’s necessary. I started reading comics by picking up random, out of sequence, issues of Uncanny X-Men during a Marvel-verse-wide Dire Wraith invasion that was not explained and during Secret Wars II, ALSO not explained. I lived, I got invested in the characters, I read comics.

Caroline: To be clear, I’m not ranting against continuity in general. I just felt like this book didn’t strike the right balance. It wasn’t sufficiently tied in to the rest of the Marvel Universe for me to feel like I was diving into this rich world of existing stories but it didn’t stand on its own well enough, either.

Anika: For what it’s worth, I remember why Tony Stark showed up in New Orleans because as I said at the top I liked that time period. I didn’t necessarily like this appearance so much (if we never hear about cloning Thor again, that’s cool) but I really miss the SHRA — Anyway! I also said at the top I was sad when I got to the end of this volume. This is because Thor didn’t find Sif. And he really wanted to, so I really wanted him to. Is is enough for me to pick up the next volume? I don’t know. I’m not particularly attached to the Loki plot since MY reaction to his reveal was not “At least that’s different” but rather “DUH”. Am I the only one who found it ridiculously obvious? Maybe intentionally, but still. And are any of you invested in finding Sif or am I just too much a romantic? Those of you who may have read on — is it worth it?

Sigrid: I’m not particularly invested in whether Thor finds Sif, because we know it works out, but I might be interested in how. Except … Except I already read DeConnick’s Sif one-shot, which tells me how SIF feels about what happened to her, and that’s the part I’m interested in.

Except … Except I thought that about this volume of Thor and ended up liking it way more than I’d thought. Maybe I will pick it up. I’ll let you know.

Say, complete topic shift here, but we all like Coipel’s art, right? The man draws a thunderstorm like you would not believe. Okay, maybe that’s an odd thing to fixate on, but I live in the midwestern United States and he draws a REALLY great thunderstorm. (He also draws a smokin’-hot naked Sif, but that’s in current issues of The Mighty Thor, not in this issue, and this is a digression.)

Jennifer: Anika, from what I remember of the rest of this run, it’s not a terribly good Sif story, and while I won’t spoil the specifics, I will say that it never addresses Sif’s own reactions to what happens to her — that had to wait until Kelly Sue DeConnick’s excellent oneshot. I thought this was an especially glaring absence, in retrospect, because Thor is so offended by the way Tony used and violated his body, and there could have been interesting parallels made between his situation and Sif’s. To be fair, though, that might have been JMS’ intention; he did, after all, leave this book before he was done telling his story, because Thor as a character was about to be absorbed into major crossovers and taken away from the plot JMS was laying out.

Honestly, I agree with Sigrid that the lack of characterization with the Thor supporting players never bothered me — I had no idea who Heimdal or the Warriors Three were before I read this comic the first time, but I still thrilled at the little reveals, and it was enough to know that these people were important to Thor (and had really strong character designs, visually). I do, however, also agree with Caroline that certain continuity bits, like the Tony issue, took away from the overall story and hampered its momentum. Obviously, given his ultimate departure from the book, JMS agreed.

But the art, as Sigrid says, is stunning. Everyone’s just a little cartoonish in Coipel’s art, gods and Oklahomans alike, but he also gives real personality to the individuals of Broxton. This pays off down the line, especially in the love story of Broxton Bill and Kelda the Asgardian (and wow, her design in particular is gorgeous). Anika, if you’re looking for a love story as a hook to continue following the series, that’s the one to watch. It’s the best evidence for the theory you and Sigrid were proposing, that this book was meant to show small-town middle Americans as real people. There may be moments where the characterization slips down to two-dimensions or has a tinge of mockery to it, but mostly it seems to be genuinely fond, and that’s rare.

Really, there’s a lot to love about this book. If I was able to turn off my critically analytical brain and my media-studies-grad-student goggles, I’d probably still enjoy it as much as I once did.

Anika: Thank you all for sharing your thoughts. If I find the next volumes in a library I will certainly read them, and it’s quite possible my Thor-adoring six year old will make me buy them, especially if there is a love story with a princess (Kelda). Until next time!

  • Follow-up to this. . .even though I didn’t particularly enjoy THIS series, since we wrote the emails, I’ve picked up the first three issues of Fraction’s “Mighty Thor,” and I dig it. So never say never! Also, we didn’t even get into the whole JMS thing, but it’s likely that some of my feelings around ‘Squadron Supreme’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ — not to mention some of the later seasons of ‘Babylon 5’ — are sneaking into my opinion of this book.

  • Monica

    Excelent discussion – I thought you did an great job detailing the good points and flaws of the book. I hadn’t been planning on reading along this month, but I saw the book while browsing at the library last week, and well, when it’s that easy I can look past my general disinterest in Thor.

    It looks like my feelings about Thor are somewhat opposite of Caroline’s – I usually like him least in Earth settings. When he’s with the Avengers I find him the most boring character pretty much without exception. There’s a steampunk AU fanfic out there with the original Avengers lineup, but it replaces Thor with Jericho Drumm, and it worked so well that I’m convinced Thor must be a hinderance for most Avengers writers.

    Previous to this I’d only read one Thor book – the tie-in to Dissassembled, which really only tied in for the first issue, and then was pure Ragnarok for the rest, and it turned out I actually liked Thor when he was dealing with godly stuff. I was pleased to see that this book picked up neatly from the one Thor book I had read.

    I did enjoy this – I liked the art and the narration-lite style with many full page panels. I read it very quickly, and was never bored. That said, I totally agree with what you all said regarding the Katrina and Doctors Without Borders subplots. It was obvious that the writer knew he was dealing with condescending plots, as he had characters actually say this to Thor in both settings, but then in the Katrina setting Thor and Tony destroy a house while fighting and never make amends to the people in the neighborhood, and in MSF plot the man who tells Thor that white people can’t resolve the conflict later seems awed by Thor’s temporary solution. Not to mention that Thor’s solution is to basically send them to separate corners for a time-out.

    Does anyone know if Thor/Blake has ever worked with MSF before? They are pretty much my favorite charity, Thor working with them might be awesome if done for more than one issue.

    I really loved how Asgard was brought to Earth. I’ve read bits and pieces of Seige, but it never came together for me like it did here. Thor on Earth makes so much more sense and fits into such a more interesting context when Asgard is on Earth, too. I’d always rather see people (or aliens, gods, whatever) interacting with their own than isolated or the last of their species. I thought Loki’s reunion with Thor was way rushed, considering all the stuff they went through in Disassembled. “Hi brother! I’ve changed my ways. Give me a chance?” “Okay, but I don’t trust you.” “Fair enough, bye!” I guess this might compel me to check out the next one.

    Fun fact – when Jen described the ‘asgard souls in human bodies’ plot to me and I said, ‘that sounds like a Babylon 5 plot’, I didn’t actually realize that JMS was the creator of Babylon 5. That came later in the conversation.

  • Both my father and I are life-long THOR fans and were disappointed when JMS left the book. My father complimented JMS on his run and asked him what his plans would have been in a world without SIEGE via his Facebook page. JMS was kind enough to reply and briefly outlined his plans to really flesh out the supporting cast, quoted below:

    “Thanks. It was a lot of fun to write, especially because it allowed me to use a particular dialogue style that I’m fairly good at but which I can’t use much of anywhere else…sort of a faux Christopher Fry style that has a semi-classical …ring to it.

    I’d had a really cool arc planned out for the story: Volstagg was going to join the Avengers, the remaining Warriors Three and Thor would team up on a number of action stories that would bring them into the rest of the MU in pair-ups that we hadn’t really seen before, we would play out a quadrangle love affair between Blake and Jane Foster on one side, and Thor/Sif on the other, and I would have done a lot more with Bill the Warrior, both in his love story and as he takes on an almost advisory role, a friendship role, with Baldur.

    I really wanted it to be a combination of action and political intrigue. A smart, detailed, character-based story. I’d barely finished working out all the elements of the story when I learned of the big Thor event (a character that had been largely ignored until he was made a consistent top ten book, then suddenly everyone was grabbing for him), and realized that there was no way I could do the story I had in mind within that framework.

    Thor was a top ten book month in and month out beause of the care that went into how he was brought back and what was done with him and Asgard. It was a really delicate balance. The upcoming event — which was clearly within Marvel’s right to do — would blow a hole in the middle of all that, and having gone through this before on Spider-Man, I just felt I couldn’t do it again. So I called Dan Buckley, who was very gentlemanly and menschy about it, and said I had to go. So I closed off the arcs as best I could, and let them do what they felt they needed to do. Their call, their property.

    But it would’ve been a really cool story. And no, I can’t use it elsewhere…the fingerprints and DNA are all in the previous issues.”

  • CalvinPitt

    I bought and read the second issue for a different website’s roundtable review. I loved Copiel’s art, thought he drew a great Asgard, really gave it the immensity and emptiness to sell how lonely Thor was, but I needed more story. Pretty but boring, basically.

    I eagerly flipped through issue 3 because I really wanted to see Thor pummel Iron Man (ever since Civil War I’m OK with anyone pummeling Iron Man.), and that happened, so I was happy, but that was as far as I went with the title.

    The only Thor run I’ve enjoyed longterm was Simonson’s which switched between Earth and Asgard pretty effectively, and made Thor seem a little more clever than I was used to. Not a genius, but a guy who’s tangled with Loki enough he knows his tricks and can figure how to get around them.