Monday, May 5, 2014

Death Takes A Holiday

The cover to Thor #190 happens to be one of my favorite Marvel covers of all time.  I didn't have the good fortune to experience the giddiness of seeing it on the comics rack; instead, I read the story later when I'd ordered it as a back issue (among several I'd ordered at the time)--and after pulling out the copy from the small stack that arrived in the mail, this cover bowled me over, and made me pause just to absorb everything it represented. It's the kind of cover that draws you in through all the questions it's posing. We certainly know death is involved, given that bold caption--but what are the circumstances? Thor looks out for the count--is he dead? What's happened to Hela, the goddess of death? Why is Odin grimly surveying the scene?

Yet it's also a very basic cover, in that there aren't any other elements to distract us. Even someone who isn't familiar with the Thor book is probably going to take a second or third glance at it. The smoking rubble depicting the aftermath of some tragedy or disaster; the bright and detailed costuming of three obviously powerful characters; and an older figure, whose posture and garb indicate someone in authority, who's either the cause of the carnage or who bears some responsibility. New reader or regular, we only know that there's one heck of a story waiting in those pages--and somehow, this dramatic portrayal on the cover makes sense. Who's not going to plunk down 15¢ (or whatever I had to pay to order it after the fact) to find out?

If you've read the prior issue, of course, you know at least some of what's happening, even if the way the newer cover is laid out presents its conclusion as a mystery. Thor has been concealing his whereabouts (that's Asgardian spin for "hiding") from Hela, who intends to give Thor her death touch in retribution for the defeat of her latest scheme by Odin. But Hela has used a crisis on Earth to draw Thor out into the open, and now has him at her mercy:

And since Hela's idea of mercy is bringing the "final sleep," things don't look too good for Thor as far as getting a reprieve from her.

Odin gets word of the situation from Balder (who's been informed by Karnilla, the Queen of the Norns who's recently secured Balder's vow of loyalty)--though, judging by Odin's slouch, he's already well aware that Thor's moments are now numbered:

Odin's hands seem to be tied, though his reasoning is (dare I say it?) flawed. Hela's reason for being, in and of itself, is not evil, true enough--but making use of it in the form of revenge ranks right up there with evil, particularly in light of Hela's scheme to use Odin's essence to bring widespread death. Nor is there much merit to be found in Thor's "natural" death being fast-tracked and coming in nonbenevolent and almost spiteful fashion from Death itself. But those factors don't seem to influence Odin; instead, it only takes one powerful image to spur him to action:

Unfortunately, Odin's declaration takes the form of terrorizing mortals, something he seems to make a habit of without remorse. But the end result at least gives Thor the breather he needs to escape:

Yet, with Death holding sway practically everywhere (I don't know why Thor never thought of taking refuge in, say, Limbo), Thor finds that Hela can follow wherever he flees:

With Thor's flight being a futile one, the two return to Earth, where they must play out the final stage of this drama. But another player makes his entrance--a thunderous one, followed by a bold announcement:

Hela, however, calls what she believes is a bluff, reminding Odin that she's the one being he's powerless to affect. Though being an Asgardian goddess, Hela should already be well aware that it's generally not a good idea to flaunt the word "dare" in front of Odin:

Once the dust settles from Odin's jaw-dropping act, Thor puts words to the incredible reality: there is no more death. It's one thing to speculate on the repercussions of such a thing--but quite another to be in the position of facing them. And there's another fascinating aspect to this scene--just how far-reaching is Odin's strike? Has he eliminated death in terms of only Hela's sphere of influence, or actually eliminated death in all its manifestations, thus affecting everyone and everything, everywhere? Writer Stan Lee doesn't appear to want to delve into the matter; or, perhaps he has, given how Thor and Odin seem only concerned with the human race:

Yet that evidence alone, combined with Thor's pleas to undo this action, are enough to sway Odin, who proceeds to follow the incredible with the unbelievable:

With Hela's resurrection, her deadly touch to Thor now takes immediate effect. Odin, his demeanor becoming a mixture of comfort and grief, almost before our eyes transforms from ruler to father, staying with his son to the last:

Before Thor's time runs out, though, Odin summons the lady Sif to Thor's side. And Sif's tears manage to do what physical force could not:

And so the cycle of Hela's ambition runs its course. The goddess relents, and in so doing, returns to a more benign role in cultivating the dying:

With the affair's conclusion, there's little left to do but depart (Odin is in a bit of a hurry, but that's another story). Yet Thor voices an interesting thought, and it wouldn't surprise me if he's right:

We've just seen that a direct confrontation of Hela with the use of force was pointless--but let's say that Odin knew that would be the case. The only certain way, then, to deny Hela her target would be to get Hela herself to retreat from her plans--and the first order of business in bringing that about would have been to make it appear that Odin was out of options. All parties knew that Odin was capable of slaying Hela, and so he did--and he was "made to realize" that it would end in failure. That left the door open for Sif's appeal to Hela--an action which Odin might not have necessarily known the outcome of, but perhaps realized that it had the best chance of working. Beyond that, only Odin could say--and as we can see, he's not talking.

The Third Eye black light poster for Hela's resurrection:

Mighty Thor #190

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Anonymous said...

According to Norse mythology though, Thor can only perish at Ragnarok and if he died before that it would mess up the whole twilight of the gods thing.

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I suppose since Hela was planning to bring about a virtual plague of death for not only the gods but everyone, the events of Ragnarok would have been moot. Besides, I think Balder was more pivotal to the coming of Ragnarok, so I'm more surprised that Loki was willing to slay him when they were in Karnilla's domain.