Comics

Hollow "Victory": J Michael Straczynski 'Reboots' the Mighty Thor

J Michael Straczynski's storytelling stands out as one of the most inventive in recent mainstream superhero comics.

Even the lead story "Victory", from the momentous anniversary issue #600 seems hollow in light of the changes to the Thor mythos writer J. Michael Straczynski has wrung since his reboot of the series.

It is a far cry from halcyon days, as Thor creator, Stan Lee pens "To Asgard! Forever!", the first backup story in issue #600. Artist David Aja's subtle palette correctly captures the mood of the era: bright colors for the heroes, dull tones for the backdrop. It is a story where the characters speak in ornate imperatives, and every action is jarred by an exclamation point at the end of it. With just a little imagination, readers can fill in the 'zounds!' and 'ye gods!' for themselves. In no more than 11 pages, Lee and Aja capture all facets of Thor's erstwhile exploits: his days with the Avengers, his defense of his native Asgard, his life-saving surgery performed as Don Blake, and his wrestlings with dissolving the mystical bond between himself and his alter ego. But the Lee/Aja vision of Thor is little more than twist of the knife for long-time readers. The Thor of the rebooted series is not the same as the days of yore. Even the Lee/Aja story is nothing more than a postmodern pastiche of the old Journey Into Mystery comic books.

With the J. Michael Straczynski reboot, even "Victory", the lead story in the momentous anniversary issue #600 (the story that continues plotlines established in the regular monthly title), somehow seems hollow. In monthly continuity, "Victory" marks a trumpeted return to the kind of stories told of Thor in days gone by. A rogue Asgardian has been set loose. He now roams the streets of New York City where he wreaks havoc with its citizens. Acting on his oath to protect both Asgard and Midgard (the mortal world), Thor wades through the carnage to check the disruptive violence of this unidentified Norse God. But the moment that longtime fans may have yearned for, actual physical conflict, is brought to bear by Straczynski in a radical inversion of the usual Thor mythos.

The unidentified Asgardian, readers soon discover, is Bor, the grandfather never known to Thor, now resurrected from Valhalla. The victim of treachery at the hands of Loki, Lord of Trickery, Bor now wanders the NYC streets imagining the scene as a battleground of monsters. Frightened and threatened, he lashes out. When Thor intervenes and eventually emerges victorious, Loki reveals the truth of Bor's identity. Loki's trap is sprung. A hollow victory, indeed. Since the price for attacking a fellow Asgardian is having to forsake any dynastic claim, Thor is forced into exile. And in a final triumphant swoop, Loki convinces Baldur, the new Lord Protector of Asgard to relocate the now earthbound Asgard to the kingdom of Latveria and into the monstrous clutches of Doctor Doom. An ignominious ending that echoes the dire Empire Strikes Back.

If any happy note can be culled from "Victory", it is the judicious use of two artists. Since the first issue of the series re-launch, Straczynski's storytelling has shifted between two regular artists. Olivier Coipel has told the stories of Thor, and his human alter ego, surgeon Don Blake, roaming the continental US, attempting to reestablish the Seat of Asgard.

This is a hopeful moment in Straczynski's story. As Don Blake roams far beyond the political labyrinth his life in NYC had become, he touches the world in an almost honest way. He recovers those inner resources that positioned him to become not simply a surgeon, but a healer. And Thor for his part, though weighed down by machinations he cannot yet comprehend, finds his own spring awakening. The seat of his ancestral power is reestablished, and he gathers together his people in their newly rebuilt home. Coipel's art is just enough hope, just enough fear, just enough whimsy and dread in just the right mix to convey the rich palette of emotion that Straczynski hopes to convey. It may not be warm yet, but it is bright.

In contrast, Marko Djurdjevic's artwork for the alternating storyarcs is boorish and sullen, a cavern filled with spears and treasure and corpses somewhere endlessly cold. Djurdjevic's art is held over for the more grisly story arcs that delve into the murky history of Thor's bloodline, such as his continual self-evaluation that pushes him to becoming a staunch defender of Asgard, a protector of Midgard, and a loyal son to his father Odin, Odin's troubled dealings with his own father Bor, and the endless savagery of the monsters Thor and his bloodline must contend with. The blood-chilling compromises that Djurdjevic is able to execute between external savagery waged against monsters, and the interior battle of the fortified psyche speaks volumes about the emotionally brutal socialization that Thor must endure.

Although darker for issue 600, Coipel's artwork still taps a vein of pensive hopefulness

Djurdjevic's artwork is reserved for confronting externalized inner demons

With "Victory", the two series regular artists finally appear together for the first time. Straczynski achieves a story mode that balances perfectly the bloodlust of the subplots saved for Djurdjevic's story arcs with the apprehensively hopeful whimsy of those saved for Coipel's storyarcs. Straczynski's storytelling in this regard stands out as one of the most inventive in recent mainstream superhero comics. If anything, Thor has thus far been the story of two competing psychologies, signified independently by Coipel and Djurdjevic. Albeit in "Victory", Coipel's artwork seems to tend to the darker aspects, that quintessential hopefulness remains apparent as he rushes in to clash with Bor. For "Victory" Coipel's artwork becomes Thor's perception of the battle. While the gruesome pencils of Djurdjevic become reserved for the monstrously violent hallucinations of the tormented Bor. As the battle crescendos, Straczynski takes pains to remind his audience that what they are glimpsing is as much Thor in the tyrannical grip of his ancestral past, as the war between fractured psychologies.

But the ceaseless pendulum between these varying apperceptions, the countless confrontations with externalized monsters signifying inner demons all point to a deeper realization for long-time readers. With issue #600, The Mighty Thor reverts to numbering for the original comicbook series. In one swoop the Thor of yesteryear, the Thor glimpsed at one final time in the postmodern romp that is Lee's "To Asgard! Forever!", seems to have vanished perhaps forever.

The more chilling alternative however, remains hard to ignore. That in some ways, this new Thor, the sullen, brooding Thor more a Hamlet than an Ivanhoe, is that Thor that was always aimed for. Even as far back as the old Journey Into Mystery comics, could Stanhttp://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/thor01_banner.jpg Lee have been hoping for a pensive and slowly ruminating, a Thor more evocative of the daily grind of godly life? Is Lee's own "To Asgard! Forever!" not so much a postmodern pastiche of what was, but what should never have been? Have long-time readers been lured into a decades-long misreading of the character?

Straczynski offers not series reboot, or a character renovation, but a concerted attempt at reassertion. This is the Thor, fraught with doubt, beset on every side with the inability to take action, trapped in a perpetual lockstep with externalized manifestations of a hollow interiority... this is the Thor that we have always hoped for.

And it is worth the read. Both in itself, and for the past it unlocks by radically reconfiguring.

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