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?

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Professor X: Hero or Zero?

Oct-07-08

It certainly would be difficult to dispute that, when a character has existed for over four decades and has been written by dozens of separate scripters, it can be difficult to keep a consistent character portrayal. There are certainly times when any character may seem slightly off to long time readers, often for a variety of reasons. That being said, there may be no character in the Marvel Universe (and certainly not in the X-Universe) that has been portrayed in a more confusing fashion; sometimes Charles Xavier appears to be a decent, heroic man, and other times he seems to be a manipulative ass. Which is the real Professor X?

The trouble began as early as his third appearance. Xavier seemed to be a good man, and had created a group of mutants to safeguard humanity from evil mutants. He was teaching these teens the normal prep school curriculum, as well as training them in how to use their powers. (Some might consider this to be a morally questionable action; the Professor trained five teenagers in fighting and used them as his private army, a move he would repeat with the New Mutants some years down the road. Some people might be correct.) However, in X-Men #3 (the original series, before they became uncanny) Xavier mused at how much he loved Jean Grey, and mentioned that he would love to tell her, but he couldn’t, since he was confined to a wheelchair. Apparently, the fact that he was her teacher, close to her guardian, had known her since she was eleven, and was easily twenty years older than her did not factor into his decision not to pursue this relationship. Granted, Stan Lee, who was writing the book at the time, never mentioned the attraction again, no doubt realizing he had crossed a line that was better left uncrossed. However, it was printed, and years later other writers would pick up on it and run with it, and it’s still sometimes mentioned today.

Some years later, Xavier again showed his tendency towards cruelty. Sensing an impending attack from an alien race, Xavier decided that he was the only one who could stop it, but also decided that he would need to be isolated so he could work on his preparations without interruption. He got a reformed criminal who could make himself appear as someone else, the Changeling, to assume his place on the team. When the Changeling died in battle, Xavier knew that his students thought him dead, and were devastated by his passing (so devastated that they broke up the team). The only one who knew his secret was Jean Grey, and Xavier swore her to secrecy. It would be some years before Xavier would reveal his existence to his remaining students, which he did only so they could help repel the alien invasion for which he’d been planning. So, not only did he allow those who looked on him as a father figure to believe him dead, but he also saddled Jean with a very weighty secret and would not allow her to lessen her burden by telling anyone, even the man she loved. Not very nice.

In the last few decades, Xavier’s hasn’t stopped his morally questionable deeds. Of course, his most famous example of “Telepaths Behaving Badly” happened when he mind-wiped Magneto, who is one of his oldest friends, leaving said friend a drooling vegetable. Subsequently, Xavier started calling himself Onslaught, and became a major villain in the Marvel Universe. It would later be revealed that some of his behavior was caused by Magneto’s presence in his mind, which became rooted in his psyche when Xavier mind-wiped him, but surely Xavier must claim some of the blame for the villainous actions of Onslaught, if only because mind-wiping his oldest friend was a morally dubious action in the first place. However, the surprises awaiting the X-Men didn’t stop when their mentor and long-time leader tried to kill them; they were just as surprised when they discovered the “Xavier Protocols” which were files authored by Xavier detailing how you could kill each member of the team. This seems ridiculously over the line, putting Xavier on a par with Batman (who did something similar in the DC Universe). Is Xavier truly that ruthless and paranoid?

There are other examples of Xavier doing things that are somewhat morally ambiguous, as well as examples of him being a true hero. Which one is the true Xavier?

Aw, man…I was hoping you were going to do like you did with Jean Grey and document all the times Xavier has been killed and brought back. Or, better yet, all of the times he’s been given back the ability to walk only to become wheelchair-bound a few issues later. Good times.

I’m torn on this one, mainly because I just don’t really like Charles Xavier. I think he’s a bit of a self-serving dick masquerading as some sort of hippie cult leader. Don’t tell anyone, but I think Professor X is secretly a Republican. He’s all about control and forcing a flawed point of view. Regardless of what he publicly states, he’s blatantly for the premise of “might over right.” Why else would he train teenagers in ways that are more strenuous than the Marine Corps? The guy has an axe to grind with humanity, but he’s less genuine about it than Magneto ever was. At least you knew where that maniac stood on a daily basis (until Charles messed with his head).

The big question is: since Xavier is such an Alpha-level telepath and mind-messer, how do we know that he isn’t tweaking everyone’s will at will? He could be tricking every single person in the world every single day. Making people bend to his ideals, forcing others to comply with his way of thinking and generally making a mockery of independent thought are things Professor X could do without even getting out of bed in the morning. It’s a decidedly creepy scenario. Has Marvel ever done a What If? issue about THAT?

That would certainly be amusing, looking at the times Xavier has died and returned, although that’s become so much a cliche of the X-Men (and really, the entire Marvel and DC Universes) that it’s difficult to track all of the instances. It might be much more illuminating to chart how many times the poor man has regained the use of his legs, only to have them destroyed again, putting him back in his wheelchair (or whatever you call his personal conveyance, since he seems to eschew your normal wheelchairs, and the last few futuristic models he has had don’t even have wheels any longer). If Xavier is something of a jerk, maybe he’s just bitter that he can’t seem to walk for any length of time.

Your feelings about his powers are certainly understandable; telepaths are probably the scariest of all superhumans for exactly the reasons you’ve named. I believe that your thoughts have been echoed by certain characters in the Marvel Universe from time to time, and they’ve confronted them head on in a few issues of Ultimate X-Men, where it’s been hinted that Xavier is even more of a manipulative dick than normal. It’s interesting that in the early days of the group, Xavier’s physical condition was obviously intended to offset the incredible powers of his mind. He couldn’t go with the X-Men into battle, and although he followed along with them mentally, he was apparently limited to merely thinking at the team. In fact, his powers were so limited at that time that, when he wanted to mindwipe the Vanisher and the Blob (which he did in issues #2 and 3 of the original X-Men series, respectively), he had to be physically near them. Over the years, his powers expanded, and now he seems to be able to physically affect people no matter where they are in the world. Now, his physical handicap seems to be a pointless condition, inflicted on him merely because that’s how people know him. It’s not like they’ve ever used his inability to walk as a way to express the situations of people who actually are confined to wheelchairs on a day to day basis and it doesn’t affect his ability to be an effective superhuman. So why even bother keeping him crippled?

That being said, I must admit that I like Professor X, and I don’t think he’s as bad as recent writers want to portray him. I think that he certainly has done some questionable things, but that’s part of his character. With the power that he possesses, surely anyone would have occasional lapses into morally dubious territory. There’s a scene in the God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel (one of the best X-Men stories ever, and certainly the best of the Marvel Graphic Novel series, which had quite a few strong entries) that I think encapsulates exactly how I see Xavier. In this scene, the battle is won and the X-Men are hanging out with Magneto, who’s reminding them that they’re weak and their more peaceful method of solving problems doesn’t work. Xavier, who was kidnapped and brainwashed through this story, agrees with Magneto, saying that maybe his way really does suck. Cyclops, Storm and the other X-Folks disagree with Xavier, and seeing the support from his students is too much. Xavier breaks down in tears, thanking his students for their faith and support in him and his methods, especially when he lacked that faith in himself.

That’s the Charles Xavier that resonates with me. He’s a man with an incredible power and an incredible responsibility to use that power ethically, and to train the next generation of mutants to use their powers responsibly as well. He’s a flawed man, as we all are, but he’s doing his best. Too many times, writers want to portray him as one thing or the other; he’s either the sweet old teacher, who’s rather above reproach, or he’s the manipulative jackass, willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals. In reality, of course, rarely are people at either end of that spectrum and Xavier shouldn’t be either. I think he’s out there doing his best, and he will sometimes fall, but he’ll get back up again (perhaps a tasteless analogy, considering his physical condition, but it works on the astral plane) and continue to soldier on, doing the best he can.

I dunno. I’m rather indifferent when it comes to portraying subtlety in comics. For me, in order to prove a point or move a story forward, it’s helpful if the characters are somewhat one-dimensional. And I mean that in the best light possible. I don’t expect flat conversations and predictable battles, but I do expect Wolverine to be blunt, I expect Spider-Man to be a smart ass and I expect Captain America to stand up for what’s right. Trying to find this so-called middle ground with Xavier is off-putting. His exterior message is one of “can’t we all just get along” proportions. I’m just not sure if his motivation is backed by his tactics. No one can really say if he’s being honest or just playing everyone like a cheap one-man band.

I agree that the lack of attention to his physical handicap is disappointing. His early appearances worked hard to set up obstacles, showing him as frail but his mind as strong. Over the years, this has been forgotten and it has helped to escalate his out of control powers. The Professor X character has fallen into the same trap as Superman, Batman, Hulk and any number of additional superhero types. The 80s and 90s are predominantly to blame for this over-powering of characters, like ‘roid rage in graphic form. Everyone was so rabid for the knock-down drag-out fight scenes that creators consciously and haphazardly threw aside the built-in limitations in favor of sparks and blood. Imagine how fearful the general populace would be to live in a world of that proliferate magnitude. I would never leave my house for fear of a crushed tank or spaceship landing on my head from thousands of miles away. Hell, I’d want to sleep forever just to avoid being mind controlled or set on fire or thrown into the future from the comfort of my kitchen while trying to make a sandwich.

Seriously. They need to back off with the omniscience. Professor X is a frightening character when taken to the extreme. I’m just not sure there has been enough editorial control exerted on him over the years to justify any sort of trust.

Well, I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying, but I think we’re hitting a few different points here. Allow me to try and sort through them:

Your general comment about one-dimensional heroes is well taken, although I wouldn’t call it one-dimensional. Every character (just as every person) does possess some dominant personality traits. Spider-Man is a smart ass. Batman is grim. Wolverine is a scrapper. It’s just like in real life, when someone might say that someone is sarcastic or someone is meticulous or someone is analytical. That’s a very obvious and apparent personality trait, and I don’t think it’s one-dimensional, nor are those characters one dimensional. That’s just the personality trait most evident. Xavier is a mediator, one who is always trying to find a middle ground. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other facets to his personality, nor that they can’t be shown from time to time. Some of the most interesting Spider-Man stories have been those which show him when he stops cracking jokes, because that’s when you know something is wrong, since it happens so rarely. Along those lines, we shouldn’t see Xavier breaking down often, as he did in the scene I mentioned above, but when it does happen, it underscores the seriousness of the situation. So, in the end, I’m not seeing our positions on that point being so different.

You then mention the escalation of powers, which I agree is a poor choice, as it makes characters difficult to relate to, and also difficult to challenge effectively in combat without staging ridiculously over-the-top cosmic battles (I sometimes wonder if that’s why we encountered so many omnipotent villains in company wide crossovers, such as Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet and the Beyonder; there was no way anything less could challenge the assembled might of the heroes). However, I would caution against blaming the 80s and 90s, especially when you choose Batman and Superman as examples. Yes, those decades saw an incredible escalation, particularly at Marvel, but DC began escalating Batman and Superman to the ranks of the gods back in the 50s and 60s (they actually depowered Superman to a great degree in the 80s). However, in the end, your point is well taken; the powers many of these heroes have are still amazing things. We don’t need to make them even more powerful to instill a sense of awe. It’s the weaknesses in a character’s power that can make for interesting stories, and force writers to be more creative.

In the end, though, I think I agree with you. Professor X could have used firmer editorial guidance a few times over the years and he is scary when taken to extremes. Would I trust him? I’m not so sure; it would be difficult to ever truly trust a telepath. That being said, just because trust would come slowly, that does not mean he doesn’t deserve it.