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An Appropriately Epic Thor

Matthew Derman

Thor was a superhero’s superhero, battling evil on a scale inaccessible to most if not all of his colleagues in the Marvel Universe.

I can still remember the first time I tried to explain to someone why Thor was better than all other superheroes. It was a middle school lunchtime argument, sometime in the late nineties, most likely ’99 when Dan Jurgens and John Romita, Jr. were in the middle of their story about the Dark Gods overrunning Asgard. I’ve long since lost those issues, so whether or not they’re truly any good I do not know (though I suspect not). It’s immaterial, since their quality wasn’t the point back then. What made me so enamored of Thor, and what I half-screamed about in my classmate’s face all those years ago, was the sheer magnitude of the threats he faced. Thor wasn’t just fighting to protect the planet or even the universe. His conflicts had to do with the very fabric of reality, the basic rules of existence that governed everything everywhere. He was a superhero’s superhero, battling evil on a scale inaccessible to most if not all of his colleagues in the Marvel Universe. To my pre-teen self, that made him undeniably the best, and while his standing on my list has changed over time, the concept of a hero capable of having such adventures has never lost its appeal. This aspect of Thor’s character is a big part of what writer Jason Aaron and artists Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina have tapped into so far during their run on Thor: God of Thunder.

The title was introduced as part of last year’s Marvel NOW! initiative, a brand new Thor book with a brand new creative team behind it. I remember thinking at the time that the decision to add “God of Thunder” to the title seemed arbitrary, an odd flourish tacked onto a recognizable name for no reason. Turns out the change actually had everything to do with the direction of the new series, its take on Thor and the role he plays. Thus far, Thor: God of Thunder has been entirely about what being a god means, for the gods themselves and the mortals who worship them. And it’s about why Thor deserves a title of his own even in a massive universe filled with superbeings and deities of all shapes and sizes.

In order to dive into these themes, the main villain of the book for its first eleven issues was a man loudly and violently opposed to gods of any kind on any world: Gorr the God Butcher. As his self-assigned title suggests, Gorr kills immortals wherever they’re found, traversing the cosmos in search of new pantheons to slaughter for thousands of years. He is kept alive by the strange black substance that acts as his clothing, his weapon, and the source of all his power. It can be formed into any shape he imagines, including an army of mindless guard dogs he calls “black berserkers,” and it is what makes him uniquely adept at killing gods. That and the fact that he decided a long time ago that gods do way more harm than good, and everyone everywhere would be happier and safer without them. The thing about the Marvel Universe is, gods are all over the place, not only from Thor’s Norse mythology but also many other real-world and fictional religions as well, so there is no shortage of victims for Gorr’s rage. A fanatic who’s hell-bent on committing deicide with the equipment and talent to pull it off is exactly the kind of villain I want in a Thor comic. He’s a bold, massive, uniquely suited enemy, and the danger he represents is both specific to Thor and much, much further-reaching.

Gorr first meets Thor in 893 A.D., sort of by coincidence—they both happen to be fighting the same group of gods, Thor in the name of the Vikings with whom he’s allied at the time, and Gorr in the name of his own mission. The God Butcher gets to them first, so when Thor seeks out his opponents, all he finds are their corpses and Gorr waiting in the shadows to ambush him. This initial encounter does not end well for either of them, and it’s why they still remember one another when they meet again in the present day. Discovering that Gorr has only grown more ambitious since they last fought, modern Thor vows to stop the killing once and for all. His efforts lead him into the distant future, where he meets an older and more haggard version of himself, the King and last surviving citizen of Asgard, who’s been battling Gorr for nine centuries and now wants only to die.

The three Thors—the young, the current, and the elderly—have their stories told simultaneously through the title’s first arc (“Gorr the God Butcher”), and end up gathered in the future battling Gorr together in the second (“Godbomb”). It’s a set-up unsubtly designed to pick the character apart, looking at what qualities change in him over time, and what stays the same. There are some leaps in logic involved, but I think the tradeoff is worth it, as each Thor has his own brand of heroism, humor, bravery, strength, stubbornness, and alcoholism.

Also, it’s not so much a “together-they-are-better-than-apart” story as it is a booming declaration that modern-day Thor, Thor the Avenger, Thor the inevitable star of the issues that will follow this Gorr saga, is singularly mighty and worthy as a protagonist. It is that Thor who wins in the end, absorbing Gorr’s weapon into himself so the God Butcher can finally be killed. The other two Thors are there, and even helpful, but the story’s climax centers on current Thor, whose actions literally save the lives of every god that has ever been or will be, by disabling the bomb Gorr specially designed and constructed over centuries to achieve his ultimate dream of a world without gods. It’s a fittingly prodigious victory, though admittedly it’s not as impressive as the series’ earliest chapters.

As a storyline, “Gorr the God Butcher” feels more intense and large-scale than “Godbomb,” even though the latter contains a bigger threat. In the first story, Gorr is still committing torture and murder with his own hands, so his conflict with Thor is more intimate, and therefore hits a little harder. By “Godbomb,” Gorr has droves of slaves and even more black berserkers doing much of his work for him, so he’s more of an evil mastermind than the cosmic serial killer he was in his introduction. By all means, then, “Godbomb” should be the more sprawling half, but at best it’s on the same plane as the arc it follows, and really I think “Gorr the God Butcher” wins by a small margin. The battles feel more brutal, the danger and the heroes’ fear more urgent. On their own, the Thors fight more rabidly and energetically than they do as a team. And Gorr, too, is less restrained, still more of a brawler and not yet the big-picture schemer he becomes. His ambition may grow, but as a planner he is less active, and that takes some wind out of the narrative sails.

Really, though, the two arcs tell a single story, the entire tale of Thor and Gorr’s eons-long struggle. Taken that way, the series maintains a certain level of epicness from start to finish that is precisely what I crave from Thor stories. Right away, the breadth of Gorr’s power and the immensity of his goals are made clear, and that never changes. Thor is pushed to several of his limits by this foe—physical, emotional, psychological. His powers and his resolve are tested thoroughly, as he fights harder than ever before while at the same time wondering if perhaps there is a nugget of validity in Gorr’s maniacal rants. Maybe people don’t need gods, an idea that’s not exactly novel, but also one not often entertained by the most well-established and hard-working god in all Marveldom. Indeed, even this book, with its Thors from three eras, seems to agree that one of the constants in Thor’s personality is his pride in Asgard and its people, how fortunate he feels about being to be a god. Yet what sets the current Thor apart from his counterparts is that he wavers in those attitudes. Young Thor is too full of himself to think that an enemy might be correct, and old Thor has spent too much time fighting Gorr and being bitter and broken to feel invested in the debate one way or the other. He just wants vengeance and/or the escape of his own demise. But present-day Thor at least considers Gorr’s side of things, rather than simply dismissing the villain as mad.

I suppose you could call this a weakness, but I’d say it speaks Thor’s thoughtfulness and maturity. As does the way he solves the problem, not by pounding the bad guy with Mjolnir but instead using its magic (and the magic of future Thor’s Mjolnir) in the heart of Gorr’s bomb to diffuse it and sap Gorr’s power. True, it’s less action-packed an ending that it might have been, but it serves the same role as having Thor doubt his value and ponder his opponent’s point of view. He is able and, more importantly, willing at this time in his endless life to put some thought into his decisions and strategies. So when these kinds of evil show up his doorstep, those that would fundamentally change things by spreading death through time and killing the unkillable, he doesn’t only have his physical might at his disposal. That’s comforting, and makes me anxious to see what other kinds of things Jason Aaron can cook up for Thor to deal with.

Hopefully, Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina will be there, too, because the combination of their respective artistic contributions adds significantly to the grandiosity of this series. Though Ribic does the pencil-and-ink works and Svorcina the colors, the two always come across as fully in synch with one another, sharing a vision and expressing it with equal authority and skill. Ribic’s lines make Thor broad and rock solid, but still very expressive, and Svorcina’s colors humanize him further so that his overall presence is one of approachable magnificence. On the other side of the spectrum, Gorr has a fluidity to his movements and, to a much greater degree, his ever-shifting black weapon, which is malleable and shimmering like melted metal. His skin is sickly pale, and his whole design is sort of lizard- or frog-like. Gorr is a lurker, a creature of total inner and outer darkness, always shrouded and often hunched. His posture improves when he gets to the bomb-building phase of his plan, but by then he is almost completely covering himself in a bulky armor of made out of his weapon, so he’s no less creepy a figure. Just creepy in a new way, shifting from unstoppable force to immovable object.

It’s not likely that past or future Thor will appear again soon, but each had a distinct look with enough similarities to display both Ribic and Svorcina’s ability to capture the character in a variety of circumstances and emotional states. Old Thor is stern, grave, and burly; young Thor is cocky, swaggering, and jovial. None of these words strongly describe the middle Thor, but he has moments, individual scenes or panels, where each of them would fit. He’s a balanced blend of the others, from his stature to his luster to his personality.

Where the art team does their best work, and where the scope of this story is maybe most evident, is when they get to make new deities. Many of these creations number among Gorr’s countless victims, but a few are gods that Thor contacts to assist him in his fight. All of them have their own look, from the very human to the completely fantastical. Some are awe-inspiring, some disgusting, and one member of the supporting cast is comically, heartbreakingly tragic. In a narrative focused on the potential positives and negatives of having gods, being able to produce so many varied examples is essential, not only to balance both sides of the argument, but to underline how massive a task Gorr has committed himself to. And by extension, how massive a challenge Thor has ahead of him.

Sometimes a comicbook feels like its just for you, and there have been several issues of Thor: God of Thunder that have evoked that in me. Not because they’re the most mind-blowing, face-melting things I’ve ever read, but because their specific approach to this character lines up so perfectly with what made me like him in the first place. I don’t want him to merely save the day, I want him to prevent the end of days, to save all the days anyone will ever have. He’s done it once in this title so far, with all the accompanying confidence and majesty expected. It was not a flawless narrative, not without its gaps or missteps, but the spirit of it excites me. If this Thor by these creators is sticking around, then so am I. Middle school me would be thoroughly delighted.

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