Wednesday, February 22, 2017

At Death Do We Part!

If you were a regular reader of the first run of the Mighty Thor book, you may have eventually reached a point where you didn't give much thought to news of another Thor vs. Loki issue, since their long quarrel had driven them to blows more often than any of us would care to count. But for the sake of argument, the PPC has made a rough count on your behalf, and rounded off their clashes to 24 by the time the title's 432nd issue was published, an issue which billed yet another head to head conflict between the two. That two-dozen count is admittedly a bit on the conservative side, since the tally doesn't take into account any meetings in The Avengers or other titles beyond their match-ups in Thor and Journey Into Mystery.

But since issue #432 marks an anniversary of sorts--the 350th appearance of Thor since his debut in JIM #83--the most recent battle between Thor and Loki has been given prominent cover exposure as well as an oversized issue in which to play out, which implies that we may not be seeing the usual fare this time around when it comes to "Thor vs. Loki," that this time will be different. And that would certainly make for a welcome change. In the past, their meetings have amounted to variations on a theme: (a) Loki's plans are defeated, (b) Loki is fought and captured, (c) Loki is called on the carpet by Odin, and (d) Loki is banished, exiled, imprisoned, or otherwise dealt with for the time being.

In this issue, their legendary conflict has come to a head following Loki's recent machinations that would allow him to reclaim the surplus power long ago stolen from him by the villain known as the Wrecker--power which was in turn dispensed to three fellow convicts that, together with the Wrecker, formed the Wrecking Crew. Having now rendered those four powerless and drawn that power to himself, Loki is now able to meet Thor in deadly armed conflict, but still having an edge in his additional powers of sorcery. That covers the specifics of how Loki will withstand and perhaps even surpass the strength and power of his brother; yet the issue's story will also put on display the differences between these two which span an immortal lifetime of slights, jealousy, bitterness, and poor choices that have helped to make Loki the "god of mischief" in the minds of the Asgardians and even his own step-family. And if he has also gone on to be known as the god of evil, it's unfortunately an appellation well deserved.

At this point in time, Thor is merged with the mortal Eric Masterson, an architect and single father with a young son. The story's splash page brings us up to speed on where things stand--but it's obvious that Loki has planned well to have Thor at his mercy, given the helpless young hostage whose fate he taunts his half-brother with.

We've got thirty pages to go, so we can likely assume that Thor manages to think his way out of this immediate predicament.  But make no mistake: by the time the story reaches its end, one of these three people will die.

If you've read the past few issues leading up to this one, writer Tom DeFalco has made a number of not-so-subtle references to a long-standing Asgardian decree by Odin that has supposedly prevented the battles between these two gods from ending fatally, at least by Thor's hand; Loki, on the other hand, has never cared about the consequences of his actions, and with the Wrecker's stolen power back in his possession he has even less reason to pay any heed to Odin's dictate. But the Enchantress, who has worked with Loki against the Wrecker, feels obliged to point it out when Loki reveals his intentions for Thor.

The Enchantress, as is usually the case with her, is looking out for No. 1, since she has been a mole for Loki in Thor's camp, disguised as the roommate of Masterson's close friend Susan Austin, and was thus in a position to lure Masterson's son, Kevin, into Loki's clutches (by way of Ulik's clutches). And so if Loki does end up slaying Thor, the fallout from Odin's wrath will likely trickle down to her, as well.

If it feels that DeFalco has pulled this decree of Odin's out of a hat in order to supplement the drama of this particular story as well as to accommodate the twists he'll have waiting in its follow-up, I'm right there scratching my head with you. I'll need to be fact-checked on this, but in the nearly 29 years of this publication's history this decree of Odin's has never seen the light of day until now, nor has Thor thought to mention it on the many prior occasions when Loki has threatened his life--yet now it's regarded as lore that doesn't even need to be dusted off from the Grand Vizier's scrolls. Why would Thor feel compelled to bring it up now, in (roughly) clash #25?

And so with the gauntlet thrown down, this battle issue begins, with Loki clearly in a position of advantage due to his increased power as well as having a hostage that prevents Thor's retaliation outright. It's also clear that Loki remains a calculating S.O.B., in that he seeks to render Thor helpless before a single blow is struck by either of them; apparently he's fought Thor often enough to acknowledge how formidable Thor has proven to be despite whatever advantage Loki held over him at the time. As for Thor, the hostage ploy works against Loki to an extent, since Thor knows he must prevail for the boy's sake.

The first order of business for Thor, then, is to save Kevin while not acceding to Loki's demand for his hammer. In the story's opening panels, artist Ron Frenz has Thor making an ill-considered first attempt that Loki correctly labels as a blunder; but the second attempt fares better, as far as it goes.

(It looks like Loki and our friend the Air-Walker shop at the same men's wear store for their head adornments, though I'm not about to mention it to Loki in his current mood.)

Equally confusing is that, rather than Thor whipping up a vortex that transports himself and Kevin from the scene, Frenz instead has Thor racing through the maze of the building's hallways in an attempt to escape--the former being a much safer option for Kevin, since a foe versed in sorcery isn't going to have much trouble locating his potential victims while still on the premises.

But the story was more than likely structured in this run-for-your-life way to allow for the insertion of its guest-stars--Code: Blue, who come on like gangbusters in what appears to be another promotional appearance to test the waters for their own series.  That's a purely speculative assumption on my part, though a lot of effort is being spent to work a team of six mortals into a number of Mighty Thor stories simply to sideline them when the book eventually returns to more Asgard-based tales.

With DeFalco at the helm, the book doesn't suffer from the lack of a human element--on the contrary, with Masterson now serving as Thor's human form, he brings with him a diverse cast of supporting characters that interact with him to one extent or another, Kevin being an excellent example. With Code: Blue now on the scene, that human element is extended to Thor, continuing the successful appearances of the special ops unit in joining forces with Thor while providing the team with a spotlight of their own. It doesn't look like Code: Blue has any indication that this new assignment involves Thor--but with the team being on such good terms with the Asgardian, their presence can only add a level of excitement to this anniversary story, as they suddenly find themselves taking an active part in a long, bitter conflict that's at long last coming to a head.

With Kevin at last safe, thanks to the professionals in Code: Blue, Thor is free to cut loose on his evil stepbrother. And as they both engage in a fight to the finish, it's clear as crystal that these two will never come to terms. Loki is right: He does revel in evil, and in some twisted way he blames Thor for turning him to that path. Thor has lived long enough--has known Loki long enough--to realize how Loki has used that rationale to justify his actions, but it makes no difference now. Loki is who he is, and their cycle of confict will likely repeat itself for all their immortal lives.

Only this time, there will be a mortal witness to its denouement.

While it may seem that we're headed toward another impasse as far as a final clash between Loki and Thor--that Thor is simply going to remand his brother to Asgardian custody once again--it bears mentioning that this story, despite appearances, isn't over yet. For one thing, in the midst of the crowds on the street below are several people who have a vested interest in this battle's outcome, most having a connection to Masterson: his ex-wife and Kevin's mother, Marcy; his girlfriend, Jackie Lukus; and Susan, who has led them all here with a vague feeling that Kevin is at the scene. Yet it's the Enchantress, who's also present, who's responsible for Susan's sudden feeling--an Asgardian looking for an opportunity to avoid implication in Loki's professed course of action in dealing with Thor. All of these people could be here simply to be part of the wrap-up with Kevin's rescue--but does that seem to be the way things are headed?

By this time, DeFalco has run too many scenes by us (and some featuring Mephisto, no less) that carried strong implications that this battle was going to have repercussions--and that the long struggle between these two gods was going to have a final victor. Could one of them actually meet their end here? With one of them firmly declining to take the other's life, the door is open for Loki to strike--and strike he does, though inadvertently allowing the Enchantress to take advantage of the opportunity that's practically been handed to her.

Loki, of course, has violated the other tenet of Odin's decree with this act--that no innocent mortal shall be harmed by an Asgardian. Fortunately for the Enchantress, it's unlikely that Odin will conduct an investigation into this incident--he's more likely to deliver summary judgment against Loki and be done with the matter, otherwise the Enchantress could still share his punishment as she was fearing. But the story's true focus is on Loki's vicious act, done out of contempt for his hated half-brother and to in some way establish himself as this battle's true victor regardless of the fate that awaits him. Even for Thor, who has tried to tolerate Loki's evil nature, there is no longer any question that Loki is utterly irredeemable--and for Thor, there is only one form of justice suitable to end that evil once and for all.

And so at least part of DeFalco's intentions regarding the build-up that has led us here have been met--but, again, with Thor being the one to break his father's edict, DeFalco has already laid the groundwork for more questions to arise, and it will take time for all the twists to finally be unraveled. But for the present, at least, the implications for Thor are clear.

As this story at last winds down (though its true climax is yet to come), DeFalco establishes a nice bit of symmetry--and character development--by having Lt. Stone of Code: Blue following his duty to the letter and taking Thor aside to discuss some of those implications as seen through mortal eyes.

Thor doesn't have far to go to face Asgardian justice, as Odin has already instructed Heimdall to deliver the sentence that Thor expects. The lives of both Thor and Eric Masterson will change dramatically as a result--and if he had lived, Loki would doubtless appreciate the irony of how this affair has ended for the brother he so despised.

Fittingly, this issue rounds itself out by presenting again Thor's first appearance from Journey Into Mystery--but it's hard to feel short-changed with a reprint filling out the issue when DeFalco and Frenz have turned in a fine piece of work in the main story, tying up several loose ends and capping everything off with a battle between Thor and Loki that was worthy of the name. As for the decision to create a new Thor, it's admittedly a bold move that suits a cliffhanger scene--but to treat it as more than shock value and actually pivot the book to feature Masterson as "Thor" in place of the original is a perplexing turn for the book to take. Masterson's stint as Thor would last for the next two years, and would take both DeFalco and Frenz to the end of their run on the book, so the decision appeared to be well-considered--but why the shake-up of mothballing the character who is presumably the reason why readers are buying the book? Were sales indicating that Thor was a stale character and that a "Thor for the '90s" was needed? Or was the book selling so well that indulging a whim to tweak the concept could be sustained? The momentum of this story would allow DeFalco some leeway with "an all-new, all-different" Thor--but whether Eric Masterson would catch on with readers for the long haul remained to be seen.

It wouldn't be a Frenz story without a few scenes of "been there, done that," eh?

Mighty Thor #432

Script: Tom DeFalco (story co-plotted with Ron Frenz)
Pencils: Ron Frenz
Inks: Al Milgrom
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos


Kid said...

I really enjoyed this ish at the time, and thought that it was very-well paced and exciting. So much so, in fact, that I bought several issues 'cos I wanted to give some to friends. (Only gave away one, kept the rest.) Shame that some of the bold lettering in the JIM #83 reprint had obviously had some restoration work on them started, but not finished. That aside, it's a great issue.

Comicsfan said...

I agree with you that the issue is quite a ride, Kid. I also liked the fact that DeFalco didn't try to wrap up all the loose ends he had dangling--it was a nice way to keep the momentum going and stoke interest in not only Masterson's turn as Thor, but the real Thor's fate. (What exactly is Odin's idea of "eternal banishment"? I shudder to think!)