Monday, March 27, 2017

Comics - Thor Epic Collection Volume 1

Thor has always been a fun Marvel character. He’s not quite a B-lister, but a strong mid-seller, except for certain periods when he had an inspired creator like Walt Simonson writing his stories. This thick Epic Collection (470 pages!) reprints the first round of Thor tales, mostly by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

I’ve always liked Thor, but he’s never been an absolute favorite. I’m not sure why Stan created him, some of the early stories are so generic he could be any muscle-bound hero. But when Lee and Kirby found their groove with Thor, there has never been better galactic, heroic adventure storytelling.

Thor debuted in 1962 in Journey Into Mystery #83, “The Stone Men from Saturn!” plotted by Lee, scripted by his brother Larry Leiber and drawn by the incomparable Jack Kirby. Lame Dr. Don Blake, vacationing in Norway, stumbles into an alien invasion. Running from the aliens, he discovers a cave with a secret chamber—and in the chamber, a gnarled old walking stick. When he accidently slams that stick into the ground, it turns into the magic hammer Mjolnir and he transforms into Thor, the Norse god of Thunder! After fighting off the aliens as Thor, Blake returns to America and begins his superhero lifestyle.

Thor tests his powers

Journey Intro Mystery #84 introduces on-again off-again bad guy The Executioner, who in later years shone so brightly under Simonson’s direction. This issue also introduces Nurse Jane Foster, Blake’s romantic interest. Jane loves Blake, but constantly remarks on how handsome she finds the mighty Thor! JIM #85 is the debut of Loki, Thor’s brother and main villainous opponent. Issue #83 pits Thor against the rather bland Tomorrow Man, with Kirby tweaking Thor’s costume details and his hammer’s abilities and powers. #84 has plotter Lee going to his favorite trope in the early ‘60s—commies! Thor pounds Ivan into the ground while Jane is now actively pining for Thor, much to Dr. Blake’s dismay. #88 is the return of Loki, who is really a scoundrel in these early stories. He’s jealous of Thor and wants to humiliate as well as kill him. Well, daddy did like Thor best ...

In issue #90, Al Hartley does the art as Thor takes on the Carbon Copy Man. Does anyone under 45 know what a carbon copy is? Hartley isn’t a bad artist, but he’s no Kirby. In #91, Joe Sinnot does a rare penciling job and it is wonderful. Loki gives powers to Sandu, Master of the Supernatural. Sandu tries to take on Thor’s hammer directly and totally underestimates it as well as its wielder. In #92, Loki takes a more direct hand in defeating his brother. This was when Thor’s hammer couldn’t be gone from his hand for more than 60 seconds or he would turn back into lame Dr. Don Blake. Lee gets a lot of mileage out of this detail and it bites Blake in the butt more than once.

JIM #93 introduces the Radioactive Man, a great villain who took on many Marvel heroes in the Silver Age, especially Iron Man and Thor. Scripting is credited to R. Burns (Robert Bernstein), who always does a sub-par job. Bernstein either looked at comics as sub-literate children’s throwaway garbage (as most of polite society did, to be fair), or he was just not a talented writer. His stories always stand out as dull and uninspired. Lee is still plotting, but Bernstein takes over dialog for a few issues and the results are lackluster stories.

In Journey Into Mystery #97, Lee is back to full scripting and Kirby returns on art, inked by Don Heck. Thor stories start getting good again. Lee turns up the soap opera (as he is wont to do) between Blake and Jane Foster, as both love the other but are afraid of expressing their feelings. This issue also begins Lee and Kirby’s “Tales of Asgard” backup stories, which squeeze an incredible amount of fun in a few pages. JIM numbers 98 and 99 introduce the Cobra and Mr. Hyde respectively, who go on to become a team that drops in to try and kill Thor regularly. With each new story Lee’s writing and Kirby’s art is getting more dynamic and epic. Issue #103 introduces another long-lasting villain team, the Executioner (from ish #84) this time in tandem with the lovely and deadly Enchantress. In the story, Loki dispatches Enchantress to steal the love of Thor from Jane Foster. It doesn’t work, but now Odin is made aware of Thor’s love for a mortal. He doesn’t approve. Issue #104 brings Odin to Earth to suss things out for himself. He and Thor end up kicking the tar out of Surtur the Fire Demon and some Storm Giants, but the all-knowing one is worried about little Thor.

Kirby's Enchantress - who says he can't draw women?

JIM numbers 105 and 106 bring back the Cobra/Mr. Hyde team. In this two-part tale, they kidnap Jane Foster, ending in Thor showing them that is a bad idea. Lee & Kirby are on a tear of creation here, introducing the Grey Gargoyle in issue #107. He is still around and up to old tricks today. In the last issue of this collection, issue #109, Thor makes a rare crossover with the X-Universe, as Magneto messes with New York and Thor tracks him down. In an exciting battle of muscles and wits, Thor is separated from his hammer too long and turns back into Don Blake. Seemingly at Magneto’s mercy, Blake actually outwits him and manages to reach Mjolnir and change back into Thor, who proceeds to wipe up Magneto’s hidden base with his body parts. Mags ends up fleeing in fear, living to fight another day. The story ends with Blake and Jane Foster looking over the NY skyline, pining for each other but afraid to say the words they both want to hear ... first-rate Stan Lee soap opera!

Delicious early Kirby art from Journey into Mystery

While this collection is a seminal Thor primer with some entertaining stories, the next few volumes will be even better. In the near future Stan really lets loose with the cosmic flavor in Asgard, and Kirby matches him artwise note for note. There are so many fun Thor stories ahead.

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Jack "King" Kirby. No caption needed.

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