NewMU: Thor

Jan-25-12

“It’s bad enough that he just had to fight off the brutal Wendigo for the dinner he trapped in the Yukon frontier, but now Thor’s home planet of Asgard is being invaded by alien hordes and he’s being called back to help by his father Odin…or at least someone who looks like Odin.”

I’m going to be honest right up front and say that I always felt that Thor was a bit of an anomaly in the Marvel Universe. He’s considered one of the “Big Three” and has rightfully taken a position of power because of his station and his abilities. However, it has always rubbed me the wrong way that he is considered a “god” and yet fights (and bleeds) alongside common heroes. He has what I like to call the Superman Complex, where he’s been made (or at least assumed so) to be so powerful that you could never imagine him ever actually losing. After years of early Marvel reading, I just kind of accepted Thor as a side effect of superheroes and learned to ignore him.

Then Walt Simonson had an amazing run on the title from 1983-1987 (and also the 1986 Balder miniseries) that dropped Thor into his homeland among his family and natural enemies. I finally had an avenue to view Thor in context. He was just a guy with family problems who was doing his best to not become a frog. I made peace with Thor and took him at face value.

But then, Marvel took things even further. When The Ultimates first launched, they positioned Thor as a delusional hippie. Was he really a god or did he just think he was? And THEN, they went even further in the live-action movie: Thor was actually an alien from the planet Asgard. Whaaaaaaa??????? My mind was blown. Looking at it now, though, it all makes sense. Our NewMU Thor is a mix of all of these things.

I want to embrace the true Viking lore of Thor and I think that can be done quite easily. Think of the word “Thor” as a title instead of a name. The vikings of the early 8th century had a pantheon of which Thor was a member. Most religions are based on some sort of visions or witnessing of supernatural accomplishments. So, let’s say that “Thor” and his other Norse “gods” were simply aliens that had landed on Earth hundreds of years ago. The vikings saw them doing things they couldn’t have possibly done themselves, maybe they interacted at some point and earned the worship of the vikings. I’d like to think that even the most hearty alien wouldn’t live forever. So, over the course of time, one “Thor” was replaced with another “Thor” and the worship continued. Legends were born. Thor was accepted as a part of Earth history.

The current Thor is a lazy drunk who lives in a remote area of Alaska along the Canadian border. He hunts and fishes and drinks with the locals, but no one treats him like any kind of god or even knows that he’s from another planet. He’s just a vaguely Scandinavian dude with low morals and a high tolerance.

There’s a female scientist who just came to town to study the correlation between the Northern Lights and electromagnetic waves that could affect space travel. Her name, obviously, is Jane Foster. Thor takes a shine to her but is horribly awkward when sober and completely offensive when drunk. This makes courting difficult.

Adding to this, there’s the whole problem with shape-shifting Skrulls invading Asgard under the direction of the nigh-omnipotent Thanos. And it doesn’t help that Thor’s half-brother Loki has struck some sort of tenuous deal with the Skrulls to become “governor” of the newly enslaved Asgard when all is said and done. What Loki doesn’t realize is that the shapeshifters have even more dubious ethics than he does and not all is what it seems.

I think the introduction of an alien species that can change shape dovetails nicely into the earthlings first learning about the true existence of the Norse “gods.” Just as we common folk are celebrating how awesome Thor and his people are, it turns out that some of them are actually disguised creeps looking to overtake our planet as well. Gives another layer of xenophobia to it all.

Thor’s powers will be explained away with scientific reasoning. His hammer is made of a metal that reacts differently to our magentic fields, allowing him to use it to “fly” or to “summon lightning.” We can even use the Superman line of varying gravity or atmospheric weight or solar radiation or whatever this month’s origin is to explain why Thor is super-strong and impervious to regular damage. I’m assuming, at some point, that the Olympian gods will be revealed as aliens as well. Hell, maybe even the Hindu or Egyptian pantheons.

That’s a lot to swallow at once. What do you think of that beginning?

I certainly have no problem with Thor as an alien, because I also have never been particularly thrilled with the “gods” of the past being brought in as part of Marvel continuity.  As much as I’ve learned to enjoy the Asgardian and Olympian pantheons in the Marvel Universe, that enjoyment comes in spite of their origins.  I have no problem with discussing religion in modern comics, but the religion discussions that the origins of these characters sparked were rarely very illuminating, and most writers tended to ignore those aspects of their character anyway. 

I absolutely love the idea that these characters aren’t immortal, and that Thor is more of a title.  I’m a huge fan of legacy heroes, and the idea that there were Thors before the current one and will be Thors after he is gone opens up a lot of storytelling possibilities.  We can now tell stories up and down the timeline, and with that one change, we’ve opened up a much richer well of storytelling than if we were discussing one immortal being.  Unfortunately, it also leaves us with a problem.  His father is named Odin?  His brother is Loki?  Are these also hereditary titles, or are we just going to assume that it’s just a coincidence that their names echo the names we know from the former Marvel Universe?  Or does the ruling family of this alien race have to adopt the names of yesteryear, since that’s how the humans knew them when they worshipped them as gods?

I do enjoy your characterization of Thor.  It can make for some interesting interactions as he begins to take his place as a hero, and as he begins to woo Jane Foster.  It gives you someplace to go, and it’s nice that he has some character weaknesses to balance out his extraordinary powers.

I like the idea that Thanos will be a shadowy villain for some time….the readers know someone is behind the Skrulls and directing their attacks, but they don’t know who.  You could keep the Skrulls center stage as villains for years before finally revealing Thanos.  For all his power, I think Thanos is at his best when he’s a plotter.  Yes, he can demolish stars, but if you look at the best Thanos appearances, they are the ones where he’s not involved in direct fighting, but instead schemes from the shadows.  And the Skrulls themselves are brilliant villains, who I think are best if played less as just another interstellar species coming in with lasers flashing, and more as sly saboteurs and spies.  They also fit better in that respect as allies with Loki. 

There’s a lot of potential here, no doubt about that, but there are still some rough spots to smooth over.

The name thing is just how Earth deals with them. I guess over certain generations of Asgardians, it wouldn’t make as much sense but it’s for identification purposes. After hundreds of years, none of the original “relationships” should be valid…the Odin of now couldn’t possibly still be the Thor of today’s father and so on…way too incestuous to explain. But the positions hold true to earthfolk. Thor is the God of Thunder. Loki is the God of Mischief. Blahblahblah.

My favorite part of using the Skrulls, aside from how well they match up with a shadowy, scheming Loki (and an even shadowier, schemier – are those words? – Thanos), is how weirdly a shapeshifting race parallels our concept that the self-duplicating Madrox is somehow at the heart of the NewMU. We’re beginning to weave a sort of background continuity into our titles.

Plus, the Skrulls can pose as friends or allies of Thor and undermine his attempts to prove his true origins to the people of earth. He could just be brushed off as “that crazy drunk who lives in the woods.”

I agree with you on the Skrulls, but first we have to talk about the characters again.  I’m sorry, but I’m not entirely sure your first paragraph in this section actually makes any sense, and I’ve read it three times.  I’m beginning to believe you may be a politican, as I’m not sure you actually said anything in those sentences, but it does sound good if you don’t really stop to think about it.  Let me explain what I think you’re insinuating, and you can let me know if I’m right.  Are you saying that everyone’s names are passed down throughout the ages?  Well, perhaps not everyone’s names….there were certainly plenty of these Asgardians who weren’t named deities, so their names aren’t important.  However, are you saying that when an Odin dies, a new Odin must take his place?  That Odin may not be the current Thor’s father, but he gets “promoted” to the Odin position?  That means that none of the traditional people we associate with the names are going to be who we might suspect.  For example, couldn’t Odin be a woman, if Odin is the leader of this group, and a woman is put (or seizes) that position?  Besides changing the gender of these positions, could we also change the ages and the descriptions?  For example, Odin is often seen as a robust and stout man, but couldn’t he also be very old and infirm?  Could he be younger than Thor?  We could play these same games with Loki or with any other member of this alien tribe that you eventually introduce. 

The other interesting potential of this situation, if what I interpreted above is true, is that we could also shake up the nemesis for Thor.  This Loki could actually be quite a decent bloke, and may not actually be the one who is betraying the Asgardians to the Skrulls.  However, since the Loki of old was a trickster and so many Lokis through the ages have also been tricksters, when things begin to go wrong no one believes this one’s claims of innocence.  The readers eventually find out that the real traitor is Heimdall, who happens to be a right jerk.  When he’s found out, he kills the current Loki and takes that name, saying that he’s tired of watching the name of Loki being dragged through the, uh, meadow (what’s the opposite of dragging a name through the mud?) and is going to show these simpletons what true mischief is!  Then someone new would have to be named the new Heimdall, perhaps someone who now has a special grudge against the new Loki, as the name of Heimdall is now feared and hated by the Asgardians (and really, who would want to be the new Heimdall after the disgrace on the name?  For that reason, it would take a special person to ever want to be named a Loki).

Have I gone way far afield of where you see us?

Yeah…wow. That went way further than I was envisioning it. I do like the idea that the current Loki is actually a nice guy, trying to spit-shine a name that has already been spat upon enough over the ages. But bringing Heimdall into it and then having him try to usurp the “Loki” title is just downright confusing.

I was merely thinking that the names earthlings ascribe to them don’t necessarily mean the same to them on Asgard. Or maybe, over the generations, each title is now a “house” of royalty. So the original Odin was Thor’s father and Loki’s stepfather, but the current holders of those names are only distant cousins at best. It just so happens that the Odins have always been the rulers of Asgard while the Balders, Thors, Lokis and such were just members of the royal court (and vague relations).

Therefore, much like Prince Charles has a recognized but rarely used last name of Windsor (from the House of Windsor), maybe Thor is just this guy’s surname. Let’s call him Elmer Thor. (KIDDING). Is that easier?

And, really, does it matter? On Earth, people will call him Thor. His existence will make people think the Norse gods are real. He’ll try to explain he’s an alien, but other nefarious aliens will say he’s crazy in order to mask their existence. It’s all very deep.

The House of Thor?  You’ve already created Marvel’s next big crossover.  Call Bendis!

But yes, I think it does matter.  Personally, I like my idea, as it gives us a lot of opportunity to really create a unique and fleshed out alien race.  These “titles” are millennia old and quite important to their culture.  Odin is their leader, Thor their protector, Heimdall their guardian, Loki their planner, Tyr their token handicapped guy, etc.  How exactly does this culture go about choosing someone to fill one of these positions when the previous one dies?  Do people vie for these positions?  Are they coveted?  And who would want to be Loki? 

I also think you are way off-base saying my suggested story with a bad Heimdall taking over for a repentent Loki would be confusing.  I have more faith in our readers than that.  And if we learned anything from the Claremont X-Men, it’s that convoluted plots do not preclude a large audience.  However, I recognize a losing fight when I see one, so I’ll back-off.  The names we now know as their “god” names are actually ancient surnames, and someone like Odin is probably Odin XXVII, much like the Tudor dynasty has plenty of Henrys. 

Of course, now I’ve dragged us off course so often that I’ve forgotten where we are.  What were we discussing again?  Skrulls are bad?  Thanos too?  I agree with you on all those points.  Did you have more story beats I can ignore in favor of dragging us down into minutia?

Eh. Your idea still seems too complicated to me. But this back-and-forth is boring me now. How about this? What if we go with my idea for the first year or two of the book and then, in typical comic book fashion, a new writer will come in and retcon everything to your concept? Problem solved.

I really don’t think the specifics of the titles would mean all that much to anyone. They’re all just people on the planet of Asgard. It’s not until they get to Earth that they become “superpowered.” We’re the ones who raise them up to god level, mostly based on the exaggerations of some very primitive minds.

And, reading back over those last two paragraphs, I feel really nerdy.

So yeah. Thor is a lazy drunk guy with a fancy hammer. Thanos is a bad guy who commands an army of shape-changers. Big viking-like fights. Not too much over-the-top dialogue sprinkled with “thous” and “verilys.” Everyone is happy.

You want to talk about the NewMU Avengers yet?


1986: It Was A Very Good Year.

Apr-18-08

While doing research for our Defenders post, I began to realize that a lot of great (and a few not so great) things were going on at Marvel Comics back in 1986. So here, in a brief and highly disorganized ramble, is a recap of the year that Marvel Comics hit its stride (I think).

In 1986, I was making the transition from middle school to high school. It was a tumultuous year. I was saying goodbye to friends that would be attending a different high school and I was filled with anxiety over meeting new people at my new school (our school district is kind of twisted, don’t ask). This was the year that I embraced comics completely and let my paper friends comfort me in the transition. Granted, I had been reading comics since around 1978 and collecting them seriously since 1984, but this one year had it all for me.

I wasn’t the only one in transition though. Jim Shooter was running a tight ship at Marvel and the publisher was celebrating its 25th anniversary. However, not everything was puppies and rainbows. Marvel was about to be purchased by New World Entertainment, which looked great on paper and added both an animation studio and a feature film outlet for their characters. Unfortunately, New World didn’t know how to handle the business and soon sold it off to Ron Perelman. The rest of the debacle you can read in Dan Raviv’s excellent book, Comic Wars.

So what was the big deal with ‘86? I’m glad you asked. First of all, a couple miniseries hit the shelves that changed the way I looked at the Marvel Universe. Firestar was a character I knew from the Spider-Man cartoons and I was curious as to how they would work her into real continuity. Balder the Brave was an unknown Asgardian to me and I was eager to learn about more than Thor and Loki. And finally: The Punisher. The team of Baron, Zeck and Janson just blew my mind. At the time, all were minor characters and I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would become of Frank Castle’s story.

Punisher #1

Aside from the focus on new characters, Marvel was pulling off some of its best ongoing work as well. We had Bill Mantlo writing Alpha Flight AND Cloak & Dagger. Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run was in full force (as was his Squadron Supreme maxiseries). Walt Simonson was working on what would become an iconic run on Thor. The West Coast Avengers, a pivotal book in my comic obsession, had recently begun their ongoing title. John Byrne was writing AND drawing not only the Fantastic Four but ALSO the Incredible Hulk!?! Oh, and Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham was still going strong too. Sue me, I like the funny.

Spider-Ham #12

It wasn’t all joy and excitement for me though. Two of my favorite books disappeared from the shelves forever: The Defenders and Power Man and Iron Fist. Also falling casualty to slowing sales were three licensed books: ROM, Star Wars and the Further Adventures of Indiana Jones (which was actually a great read).

Indiana Jones #34

Unfortunately, not only was the dreadful Secret Wars II going on in 1986, but the New Universe launched as well. But those travesties were offset by the launch of the new X-Factor series. And the end of 1986 marked the beginning of what I believe to be one of the best written storylines in all of comics history: Roger Stern’s great “Under Siege” run in Avengers.

But the biggest event of 1986 for me had to be the introduction of the new Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. I easily lost myself in the pages of each issue of that title…memorizing every detail, every event and every secret identity in Marvel’s intriguing world. To this day, I still test the true faith of supposed fans by asking them “Which villain’s real name was Bruno Horgan?”

Marvel Handbook #8

Yeah…look it up, posers! (CLUE: He’s in the issue shown above.)

1986. I can’t think of a better time to be a Marvel Zombie.

Interesting that you would pick 1986, and yet, as a Marvel Zombie, you don’t mention The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, two seminal mini-series from that time as well. They show up on most people’s lists, but not on yours, since you’re focusing exclusively on Marvel.

I know that Maggie Thompson from Comics Buyers Guide has said (and she may not be the only or even the first person to say this) that everyone has their own Golden Age of Comics, and that their personal Golden Age is when they were twelve. I’m not sure that the exact age is always correct, but I agree that the comics of our childhood will always be our favorites, or at least hold a special place in our hearts. It’s obvious that this describes 1986 for you. I also have a special place in my heart for many of these comics, but being a cold, unfeeling android, I can often separate what is good due to nostalgia from what is good due to quality.

I wouldn’t dream of arguing the memories of your childhood, so instead of mentioning a few of these series where I disagree with your opinion of them, let me focus on the ones where I agree wholeheartedly.

I think Mark Gruenwald’s writing was always underappreciated, especially when one considers that he was doing it while holding down a job as one of Marvel’s best Group Editors. I think that almost all of his long run on Captain America is worthy of reading, but I also agree that he was strongest right out of the gate. His stories involving the Serpent Society and Scourge were excellent. Captain America is, I think, a difficult character to write well, but Gruenwald seemed to understand how to make him inspiring and heroic, without being boring. As Jason says, Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme was another excellent read, and about fifteen years ahead of its time, looking at a superteam in a more realistic way. Finally, while it came out after 1986, I need to take a moment to plug the first few dozen issues of his Quasar comic. The later issues devolved into overly complicated messes that tied into some truly horrible miniseries, but the early issues were an excellent examination of a super-hero just starting out in his career.

I could comment on a few other series, but instead let me take a few moments to mention Roger Stern. You bring up his “Under Siege” storyline in the Avengers, and rightly so, as it remains one of the best multi-issue storylines in Avengers history, and truly in the history of about any comic I’ve read. Why Roger Stern isn’t currently writing four books a month will remain a mystery to me. I consider him one of the best writers I’ve had the pleasure of encountering in comics and I have been continually amazed by what he has been able to do with what have been some truly horrible comics.

Two series illustrate this point very well. The first is The Incredible Hulk which he started writing at a time when the book, to my eyes, sorely needed help. The Hulk had been a mindless dolt, running around the countryside having random adventures for what seemed like years. His comic was pointless and dull. Stern came on board, set up a new staus quo, introduced some supporting characters, and give the comic a purpose. He was the first writer in the series history to make the Hulk interesting for me. Sadly, his run on the title was very short.

He performed the same amazing feat on the original Ghost Rider series. Ghost Rider’s series had been boring me to tears since Tony Isabella left the title back in the 70s. The stories since then weren’t necessarily bad as much as they were unconnected stories which seemed to blend into each other. Again, the series lacked direction. Stern came onboard, and again, he gave this title direction. He brought in a supporting cast and gave us plots that made us care about these new people in Blaze’s life (and, to be honest, to care about Blaze’s life, which I had stopped caring about some time before). Unfortunately, he again left the title in a short time.

I could go on and on, talking about his work on Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America, and a slew of other comics, but instead, let me just come back to the Avengers. If I had to pick my favorite comic series of all time, it would probably be the Avengers. There are many reasons for this, but part of it has to be because I was lucky enough to begin reading it during Roger Stern’s run as writer, which thankfully, lasted quite a few years. All of his stories are good, but his run really began to take off when he was paired with John Buscema and Tom Palmer on art. This art team gave his stories a weight and grandeur that made them more than comic stories; they became epics. The “Under Siege” story was certainly the highpoint, but it was quickly followed by a multi-part epic where the team when to Olympus to fight the Greek Gods, which is almost as incredible. Never before or since have the Avengers so embodied their title of “The Earth;s Mightiest Heroes.”

Yeah, DC was pretty active in 1986 too. You mention Dark Knight Returns and the beginning issues of Watchmen…there was also the start of solo series for both Blue Beetle and Booster Gold. Crisis on Infinite Earths wrapped up in ’86 and the important Legends series began. And don’t get me started on indie comics…Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Ralph Snart Adventures and the relaunched Grendel all saw print then. It was a pretty busy year for all comics!

I’m not saying 1986 was the pinnacle of comics as we know them (although, not being alive during either the traditional Golden or Silver Ages, I think it was pretty close). Oddly enough, I was 14 going on 15 that year…so not too far off from Maggie Thompson’s ideal. I actually started collecting heavily when I was 12 though.

Anyway, yeah I know which of my spotlights — *cough*Firestar*cough* — you’re referencing when you talk about separating nostalgia from quality. But I think I pointed out the reasons WHY I thought they were important and, frankly, it had nothing to do with quality but more to do with coming from a different place and showcasing something new.

It’s funny that you touch on Mark Gruenwald. Not too many people know this, but I actually had a letter-exchanging friendship with Mr. Gruenwald around the time of his Cap run. We talked about the changing times in comics and he advised me to read what I liked. I was actually quite upset when I read that he had passed away.

And Roger Stern was perhaps my favorite writer of the time as well. Like you, I would call The Avengers my favorite book of all time (I have quite the extensive collection). While I came of age reading his run on the book, I was also active in collecting the back issues featuring runs by Englehart, Conway, Thomas and Shooter. In fact, right now I’m reading Assembled! by the folks at AvengersAssemble.net. It’s a fun read about Avengers history. DK Publishing also put out a pretty book called Avengers: The Ultimate Guide written by Tom DeFalco…beautiful art and brief write-ups of all the prominent members of the team, their villains and the important storylines.