Thursday, March 3, 2016

All New, All Different: The Interesting Thor

"Worldengine," the four-part Thor story from late-1995, generally gets high marks in various forums and reviewer circles, perhaps in part because it offered such a different, unexpected--some might even say "welcome"--take on the Thunder God. The story was a kick-off of sorts to, as Editor Ralph Macchio put it, "a bold new direction" for the book, which was badly needed at the time since it had arguably been in a downward spiral since 1993 after the DeFalco/Frenz run on the title concluded.

To give you a sense of why "badly"--a word one would hesitate to apply to a long-standing book like Thor--was nevertheless suitable for the situation, consider that a new direction for Thor would become moot, since the book would turn out to have only eight issues remaining in its long run following the "Worldengine" arc before the title would be pulled, swept up in the events of the Onslaught crossover along with other principal titles such as Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Avengers, et al.; but rather than the character of Thor continuing in his own book as part of the "Heroes Reborn" theme that played out in the other titles, he would be shifted to the Avengers title for the duration, and Thor would be replaced by a "placeholder" title, Journey Into Mystery featuring The Lost Gods, an unintentionally apt title considering the state of the book at the time. The Lost Gods would retain the issue numbering of Thor--yet not feature Thor at all. In other words, for all intents and purposes, there is no Thor book on the racks for just short of a year.  And that period would stretch even longer.

Cut to late-1997, when the "Heroes Reborn" story reaches its climax, with The Lost Gods story doing the same in the prior month. Afterward, the other principal titles are rebooted with a "Heroes Return" theme beginning in January of 1998, with interim Onslaught-related stories filling the gap, if memory serves. Meanwhile, the sound of crickets could virtually be heard on shelf space where the Thor comic was expected to once again be stacked for sale. Granted, it wasn't exactly a surprise to see Thor missing from the lineup of other titles; The Lost Gods was practically considered a referendum that signaled that issues of "Heroes Reborn" featuring Thor were unsustainable, given that an alternate universe version of Thor would represent even more deviation from the formula that made Thor such a success and continued to be elusive.

I remember thinking at the time, "Good grief, is this IT? Marvel isn't going to publish Thor anymore? Incredible." Talk about ending with a whimper instead of a bang. And even if Thor came back, what form would he take? It had become clear that things weren't working for the character in the "new direction" that Macchio was overseeing, but what was left? The old direction? A new new direction? When the book finally did reappear, it was over five months later--and every vestige of the Thor established in the last year of his original run had been expunged. Thor, in effect, was returned to status quo.

Yet "Worldengine," which brought aboard acclaimed writer Warren Ellis and artist Mike Deodato, is an interesting snapshot as to the effort Marvel was willing to make to give the character of Thor more appeal. Ellis, in particular, gave the impression that a refit of Thor was a long time coming:

"It's been the same for thirty years, this comic, and as much as we all respect the legacy of Jack Kirby, I honestly think that he would not be pleased to find the comic the same as it was when he started it. Kirby was foursquare for change. ... In the earliest THOR stories, Thor was arguing with his Dad ..., not being terribly Norse, and he didn't have a girlfriend. Of late, Thor was arguing with his Dad, not being terribly Norse, and he didn't have a girlfriend."

Ellis makes a fair point in basically saying that the character had grown somewhat stagnant, a situation which was addressed in a prior new direction for the character shepherded by writer Roy Thomas, involving different attire for Thor as well as his involvement with the High Evolutionary's "God Pack" which spanned over a year. When Thomas and artist M.C. Wyman finished their run on the title and made their exit, Thor had once again had harsh words with Odin (regarding the death of Thor's friend, Eric Masterson--"Thunderstrike," which muddied the waters of the Thor character even further) and been exiled from Asgard, substantiating at least part of Ellis's observations about the book.

Ellis, in "Worldengine," appears to wish to maintain the Norse ties that Walt Simonson brought to the fore, while transferring Thor into a more mortal frame of mind--a curious combination, but perhaps the only one workable for Ellis, whose writing appeals to contemporary readers and who would perhaps find the merging of both worlds difficult to adapt his style to. (As opposed to writer J. Michael Straczynski, whose splendid 2007 reboot of the character accomplished everything that Marvel could have hoped for in that regard.) Ellis goes on to mention the fine take that Simonson had on the Thunder God and his world, imbuing the book with the Norse trappings Ellis alludes to, working them into the "backdrop" that Kirby created and recreating a "sense of wonder for an '80s audience." With Ellis's approach, that would normally be difficult, given that Thor was now persona non grata in Asgard and must carve out a new life for himself on Earth; but in this case, the plot device that Ellis uses for his story is Yggdrasil, the mythical world-ash tree which Asgardians believe controls nature and the cycle of life, its roots extending partially to Earth (at least in Marvel's version of mythology)--Manhattan, to be specific.

Ellis begins "Worldengine" with Thor in dire straits--isolating himself in Manhattan, afflicted with a mysterious malady that has brought him to near-death, while finding himself assaulted by skeletal creatures composed of a mixture of technology and ash wood. He's eventually rescued by the Enchantress, an exile herself, whose spells serve to shield Thor from whatever force is trying to kill him. Ellis also introduces a new character--Detective Inspector Curzon, on loan from the U.K. to the Code: Blue special ops force to investigate a rash of victims experiencing psychic disturbances, all involving Yggdrasil in one form or another. Two sets of pages by Ellis and Deodato catch us up on the basic elements in both of these fronts to the story.

Amora, the Enchantress--the "girlfriend" Ellis now substitutes for Sif, who apparently fell short in Ellis's eyes--has seduced Thor in a sort of misery-loves-company scenario, with Ellis quickly pivoting Thor from his usual objections to Amora's charms and having him respond in a manner which would probably have Sif reaching for her sword. We get no sense that Amora has entranced Thor through any methods but, well, normal channels; but it's clear that Ellis wishes to keep Amora's duplicitous traits intact, bewitching a number of influential and wealthy mortal men into her service to maintain a lifestyle to which she's accustomed. As for Thor, he finds himself becoming more attracted to letting down his guard around her and even indulging her whims, though preoccupied with the crisis at hand. We also find him shorn of much of his attire, in a further break from the helmeted, caped Avenger we're accustomed to seeing. The down side is that Thor doesn't stand out in a crowd as much as he used to; but you can't say the new look doesn't suit the preferences of the Enchantress.

As for Curzon, a chain-smoker with a sense of entitlement, his investigation doesn't seem to add to the story beyond seeing his flaws on display and the fact that he appears to be the one who will connect the dots for the reader, at least as far as the basics behind what's happening to Thor and why. He's never really allowed to learn the specifics; but in conducting his research, he allows Ellis to float several trains of thought on how Thor and the rest of the Asgardians came to exist, all in the guise of different interpretive texts that Curzon has dived into in order to gain some insight on the case. One such interpretation is startling, to say the least:

Eventually, Thor and the Enchantress meet their adversary--the unassuming Mr. Price, who turns out to be a mortal physicist who has become fixated on the notion that Yggdrasil would birth a new race of humans following Ragnarok, the mythical end of the gods and, apparently, of all humanity. In order for him to see what those humans would look like, Price has built a wheel-device to override Yggdrasil's natural cycle and deceive it into thinking that Ragnarok has already occurred.

Since Odin had by now replaced Thor with his mortal counterpart, "Red" Norvell, and since only one Thor could be present at Ragnarok, Yggdrasil began the process of eliminating any other characters who possessed the attributes of the Thunder God, including the real Thor himself (proving that even world-trees aren't infallible). But while that explains Thor's affliction at the beginning of this story, Ellis asks the reader to accept too many factors that are necessary to bring this story to fruition. For instance, let's assume that Yggdrasil is visible and accessible to Price only because the tree believes that Ragnarok has already come and gone; the alternative would be that it's always physically existed beneath New York, available for the Mole Man or the Morlocks to start building treehouses on it. In either case, then we have to assume that Price used the clones of Thor and the Enchantress to either locate Yggdrasil or cause it to appear so that he could conduct his work on it. There's also this wheel-device to consider, which we can lump in with any other incredible villainous device that's been constructed in comics to accomplish the impossible--and that's easy enough to just go with.

But there's one more factor, mentioned in the scene above, that will prove to be inconvenient for how Ellis wishes this story to play out--as the climactic moment arrives in a workable-enough conclusion, where Price finds that all his efforts have been for naught.

Following the deaths of the new beings, the device begins to destroy itself--why, we're not quite sure--and Thor makes a last-ditch attempt to set things right by physically turning the wheel in the opposite direction, despite Price's position that the damage has already been done as far as Yggdrasil is concerned. But it appears to be the only way to prevent Ragnarok from happening after-the-fact, which seems to be taking place--and so Ellis provides us with only a few simple thoughts from Thor to counter what we've been told so definitely about it not being possible: "I force it back. And I do not care that I am fighting Yggdrasil or the Engine--I force it back--I do not care if I am violating laws--I force it--to an end." And he indeed does.

But, who are we forgetting as this story is being wrapped up? Curzon, of course, who has managed to track Thor to this location in an attempt to confirm his death. But thanks to the Enchantress, his character is brought to a rather abrupt end, though there seems to be no reason for it other than for Ellis to demonstrate that the Enchantress has hardly turned over a new leaf.

Ellis ends his participation on the title here, with Deodato staying on as artist (with an occasional assist) while William Messner-Loebs scripts the eight remaining issues. There are things to both appreciate and dislike about this story arc, and ditto concerning the direction that Macchio had hoped Ellis would lay the groundwork for, a direction which sharply breaks with what has gone before while retaining at least the trappings of Thor's former life. It's reasonable for almost any company to bring about changes in its product in order to adapt to the times (an example of "almost" being New Coke, reformulated in 1985 and subsequently receiving a disastrous verdict from consumers), though Thor had the misfortune of being caught up in the tailspin of what was happening with Marvel's line of comics across the board.  But taking the changes on their own merit, the "new Thor," as launched by "Worldengine," could be as Ellis described it: "This isn't one of those revamps where Everything You Knew Before Was Wrong. This is one of those revamps where Everything You Knew Before isn't quite so interesting as What's Happening Now."  Though perhaps it's telling that the word chosen here is "interesting," rather than "memorable."

Thor #s 491-494

Script: Warren Ellis
Pencils and Inks: Mike Deodato Jr.
Letterer: Jonathan Babcock


Anonymous said...

This four-issue arc, while certainly interesting, was the end of my collecting and reading THOR.
Oh sure, I would sneak into the local comics shop in a trench coat, dark glasses and fake beard, and peruse the new comics, finding little to my liking. Sure, I've dabbled in D.C. and a few smaller companies since then, but I was pretty much done with Marvel.
Still, these issues were compelling, in a head-scratching sort of way that Gerry Conway used to be. Price took "mad science" to a whole new level here. Somewhere the Mad Thinker, Dr. Octopus and Modok were just shaking their heads (well, maybe not Modok, with the head...) thinking, "Whoa, this guy goes too far! Take it down a notch!"
Interesting that they threw a "Constantine" type guy in here.
Not terrible.

Comicsfan said...

M.P., as the events of Onslaught threw Marvel's line of comics into disarray (not that they needed much help from Onslaught, at that point), I felt much the same way as yourself about the Marvel comics being presented on the shelves every month, books I seemed to be buying more out of habit than enjoyment. At some point the PPOC may cover in depth the "Heroes Reborn" stories, if only for the different take they offer on the characters--but I have a feeling it won't be pretty.

Dale Bagwell said...

I was just a punk kid in his early teens when this came out, but I dug this new direction myself. It could've been so much more if they had really let Ellis go nuts on it like they let him on Doom 2099 and Excalibur.
I liked this one though myself, especially the art, so that helped.
I did find it kinda weird that after all that time he finally hooked up with Amora, even though if it were me, I wouldn't have had her waiting long to jump her ass;)

It was just a weird time before Heroes reborn hit. Avengers was undergoing the surprising betrayal by Iron Man(well it was back then, now not so much) You had Waid/Garney's awesome run, but all the other titles other than the X-men were crap, so yeah, this one wasn't so bad, but it'd be admittedly a lot better of Ellis were able to write him nowadays.

I too noticed the John Constantine-like clone, but then Ellis was doing that sort of thing in other Marvel titles too, like Excalibur with Pete wisdom as a Constantine clone, and then in X-Man too.

Either way, not a bad, but all-too-brief Ellis arc.

Comicsfan said...

I suppose "misery loves company" holds true even for gods, Dale, which might help to explain why Thor was finally willing to let down his guard for the Enchantress--a fellow Asgardian and ally who turned out to be in the right place at the right time, in need of companionship and willing to lend much-needed assistance. (And it certainly didn't hurt that this ally was enticing, to say the least.)

Dale Bagwell said...

No kidding. To me, I'm like Sif Who?

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