Wednesday, July 20, 2016

When Demands Galactus!

Around the time of the first Thor film in 2011, a new comics series was launched that continued the story of Asgard's existence on Earth in the vicinity of the rural town of Broxton, Oklahoma. Written by Matt Fraction with art by Olivier Coipel and Mark Morales et al., Thor and the other Asgardians enjoy a fascinating interaction with the locals, whose beliefs in Christianity are now coming into conflict with the existence of gods on their doorstep. The first six issues of this series are an excellent lead-off, as the Asgardians face a deadly challenge from none other than Galactus and the Silver Surfer, who have come for a source of power that the Asgardians will fight to the last man to keep from them.

Fraction is of the same school as Brian Bendis when it comes to scripting, practicing a "less is more" approach to the comics of the 21st century and interjecting dialog and/or narrative sparsely, while depending on the story's art to set the pace and tone and to indicate the flow of events. As a result, whatever dialog does come down the pipe makes more of impact and allows the characters to leave a distinct impression with the reader. That kind of approach to scripting has both its pros and cons--though in terms of Thor, where we've likely had our fill of "thees" and "thous" and other aspects of Asgardian antiquated speech that have the characters saying so much and yet so little, it's a refreshing change for one of Marvel's most recognized and familiar figures. Yet Fraction's dialog is there when it counts--for instance, the handling of a character such as Volstagg, whose candid and boisterous opinions would be wasted if not allowed to flourish.

You'll also notice that Fraction's Thor has little to nothing in common with the Thor of the 20th century. The Thor that charges into battle in this story and moves about among his fellows has none of the temperance of the Avenger in him, no history with the Surfer that he cares to recall, and no ties to Earth to speak of; he's an Asgardian through and through, with a warrior's mind of his own and a keen awareness of his status among the gods. It's as if he was never sent to Earth to learn humility; indeed, humility would be ill-suited to this god, who takes on his foes with a mixture of arrogance and relish. His relationship with Odin is also far from subservient--rather, contentious and proud, almost one of equals, though falling in line and joining his father on the front lines without a second thought. Thor sets an example for his fellow Asgardians as both independent warrior and prince of the realm, and both Odin and Thor are generally pleased with their relationship.

As for the Surfer and Galactus, they make a credible threat to both Thor and Odin, as the Surfer is once more the herald of Galactus and unquestionably loyal to him. In fact, the Surfer has never seemed more of a herald--doing the bulk of the "leg-work" for Galactus, of course, but also interacting with the species he encounters on target worlds and giving them full warning of what's to come, rather than simply signalling Galactus of the discovery of a world that will suit his needs.

In the case of the Asgardians, the Surfer fulfilling his role as herald makes for a seat-gripping encounter with a warrior race which would naturally take the Surfer's words as a challenge--for here he comes not to warn, but to demand on behalf of his master. It's one of the most riveting scenes of this type that I can recall, as you'd expect the likely response from the Asgardians would be to "shoot the messenger" and send the Surfer's head back to his master on a silver platter. Yet just as the Surfer acts for Galactus, Thor is there to deliver the Asgardian response for Odin, in a confrontation that isn't meant to settle the matter so much as make it clear where both sides stand. For the Asgardians, it's probably the only response that is possible for an intruder who expects compliance.

But what is this "seed" that is at the heart of this story? That's an appropriate way of putting it, since it was recovered at Odin's orders from the heart of Yggdrasil, the world tree which was split in a prior conflict and now is a geyser of space-time from which the "worldheart" seed has been retrieved. To Galactus, the seed represents a source of power which would provide the world devourer with an unending source of life-energy, allowing him to abandon his devastation of planets forever. But the real question is: Why does Odin wish to possess it? Odin claims that the Surfer wasn't telling the whole truth--that Galactus' motives are more selfish and are based on the desire for immortality, claims that no doubt serve to motivate Odin's troops and Thor in particular. Odin's reasons for wanting to keep the seed for Asgard are more obscure, at least for the time being. One aspect of Odin's character which Fraction has chosen to retain is Odin's penchant for weaving intricate plans and keeping his own counsel as to their details and execution. Unfortunately, as we've seen many times in the past, the all-father's plans often involve breaking a few eggs to make the omelette.

Aside from the people of Broxton and their pastor, another character you might find interesting is Fraction's treatment of Loki, who has been reverted to a small boy and who is mischievous yet well-meaning--in this case, taking it upon himself to seek another solution to this conflict under the noses of everyone. The attraction here is how Thor, Sif, and others interact with Loki and vice versa, providing some humorous moments that come part and parcel with a boy-god who gets underfoot and tries to help, though whose middle name more often than not seems to be "trouble." The scenes featuring both Loki and the Broxton locals fit in splendidly with the main plot without detracting from it, and eventually coalescing with it in its closing pages.

Then of course there's the confrontation of Odin and his hand-picked group of warriors with the Surfer and Galactus, with really only Thor and Sif taking point with the Surfer while Odin and Galactus face off. It's here where Fraction's minimalist approach to dialog perhaps falls short of heightening the "main event," since a battle between Galactus and Odin would be rife with accusations and posturing. (Though when you think about it, a battle occurring in the void of space would normally be bereft of dialog, or sound of any kind.) Galactus has never been at a loss for words--yet throughout this story, Fraction has let the Surfer do the lion's share of the talking, even in scenes involving just the two of them. But with Galactus at last front and center, the time for the Surfer speaking for his master has passed, and Fraction misses a priceless opportunity for Odin and Galactus to have it out with words as well as actions. Instead, their war is confined to mutual telepathy, with both prying into each other's thoughts to find some weakness or vulnerability to exploit.

Finally, Odin loses his temper and, capitalizing on an earlier devastating strike by Thor who gets past the Surfer's guard and makes a hit on Galactus that has to be seen to be believed, launches an attack on Galactus that has them both hurtling to Earth and crash-landing on the surface. As a result, Odin sinks into his Odin-sleep--and, in his stupor, at last hints at his reasons for seizing and holding onto the world seed.

Yet Galactus, though severely weakened, rises--and, despite the Surfer striving to convince him otherwise, is determined to fight on and take possession of the seed. A final ploy by Odin has the Destroyer, armed with Thor's hammer, standing before Galactus in defiance (along with two others, though you should experience Fraction's scene in full to appreciate it); but before the point of no return is reached, the Surfer senses what we already know--that Loki has accomplished his secretive goal, retrieving the seed himself and hiding it once again in the heart of Yggdrasil, so that, as he puts it, "Hid it--no seed--no war--no death..."

And so this war is now at an impasse, with neither side being able to locate the seed and claim it for their own. Interestingly, it's the Surfer who Fraction has, along with Volstagg, made even marginally consistent with his past character, a being who retains his moral center and who strives to bring peace to a situation (when he's not throwing down a gauntlet, that is) and balance it with justice. Here, the words and character of Pastor Mike have not escaped his notice--and, all things considered, he crafts a compromise that suits all of the aggrieved parties.

It's an acceptable cap to a contentious story by Fraction, where neither party gets what they coveted, yet each knows that further fighting is pointless since they cannot reach it now, or even find it. Yet it seems apparent that Odin is possibly playing for time--time that is on his side, since the seed resides within Yggdrasil, and Yggdrasil resides (more or less) within the realm of Asgard, and he has millennia to devise another of his dreaded plans to retrieve it as well as to deal with the Surfer, who is now mortal (more or less). As for Mike, his ascendance really doesn't address what was important to him--the status quo of the people of Broxton vis-à-vis the continued presence of the Asgardians. On the other hand, his experience with Galactus may enlighten him as far as the words spoken to him by Volstagg as the crisis reached its climax, words that serve as well as any to take us out.

The Mighty Thor #s 1-6

Script: Matt Fraction
Pencils: Olivier Coipel (with Khoi Pham on #5)
Inks: Mark Morales (with Dexter Vines on #5, joined by Cam Smith on #6)
Letterer: Joe Sabino


Anonymous said...

I'm delighted that the modern Thor comics have dumped the thees and thous, verilys and versooths but they've been replaced by an annoying font to represent Asgardian godspeak instead...ggrrr !!!

Comicsfan said...

That crossed my mind, Colin, when I was writing that part of the post, only I was thinking of another instance--the 1998 reboot of The Avengers, where Thor returns to the assemblers even before returning in his own mag. The style they were using for his dialog balloons--good grief!

Warren JB said...

This was an issue that felt unsatisfying to to me, and part of what started to put me off Matt Fraction. (And going off Matt Fraction was another small step towards going off superhero comics altogether. 'Small' compared to all the endless, inconsequential events) Pastor Mike may be his character, but it feels like Fraction didn't really know what to do with him or how to articulate him or his faith, and turning him into Golden Oldie II seems like an answer to a question that no-one asked.

Comicsfan said...

Warren, you raise a fair point about Pastor Mike. I found myself warming to the character in the beginning of this arc, as someone who seemed to be reassuring his parishioners about their faith vis-a-vis the Asgardians and calmly taking a "live and let live" approach; at that point, I was truly curious (and interested) as to what Fraction was going to do with him. Then, when a young woman from his church approaches him in an almost frantic state and feels her faith crumbling because of what the Asgardians purport to be, he suddenly becomes this two-dimensional, rural bible-thumper and begins whipping up public fervor to reject the Asgardians. It was disappointing to see Fraction go that route with the character; I think the greater challenge, and the greater story, would have been for Mike to explore his own feelings on the matter by injecting himself into the Asgardian's affairs and confronting them from a standpoint of faith, rather than fanaticism.

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