Friday, May 2, 2014

The Icy Touch of Death!

It's funny how some comics stories turn out to be such good reads when they follow up on the more major events that preceded them. That doesn't always turn out to be the case; in fact, in most cases, it seems that subsequent stories make an effort to break with prior events and not dwell at all on what came before. Some examples might be the stories following the climax to the Korvac saga in Avengers, or the wrap-up of the Fantastic Four stories where Dr. Doom had stolen the power of the Silver Surfer--major events for these characters by any measure, yet you'd think the Avengers and the FF overcame them with a shrug and made casual dinner reservations that evening.

With the Asgardians, such reactions are understandable, living under the shadow of eventual death as they do with the threat of Ragnarok. They know the true battle is yet to come; but in addition, they're a warrior race to begin with, and a victory in a life-or-death fight is something to be celebrated, with the next such battle hopefully on the horizon. Perhaps, to them, every battle is a welcome distraction, as well as a morale booster, given what they know is to come.

Yet, when Death itself is the foe, and waiting in the wings, it can be an uncomfortable portent of Ragnarok--and such a state is where we find the Asgardians at the start of an excellent two-part story beginning in Mighty Thor #189, as the entire kingdom of Asgard waits for the retribution of Hela, the Goddess of Death, following the conclusion to the story which saw Hela take possession of a portion of Odin's essence and use it to broaden her deadly base of power across the stars. "Infinity," as she named it, was eventually overcome by Thor and then Odin himself; but with Odin denied her, Hela is now seeking to claim one other, as the issue's splash page makes clear:

We can assume that the phrase "Death is imminent!" likely got its start from an Asgardian.

These don't look like battle-hardened warriors chomping at the bit for an enemy to fight, do they? Even Thor, of all Asgardians, seems resigned to his fate. Odin, on the other hand, is old-school Asgardian, and isn't about to bend the knee to any foe--and so he sets an example and begins to make plans against Death itself, like the ruler he is:

With this bold beginning, writer Stan Lee puts in motion a deadly twist on the catch-me-if-you-can scenario--relentless pursuer vs. a clever plan of evasion. It's a good first stage of that plan, meant to buy time--and as we'll later see, this isn't the only strategy Odin has up his sleeve. But, what of Hela herself? She's still licking her wounds in her realm, but is resolved to continue her plans:

Of course, when it's Death that's making a plan, there can be only one end result. Yet, it's curious how Hela rationalizes her actions, as if she's merely fulfilling her natural role:

But we've seen before, as we do now, that Hela is a more aggressive manifestation of Death than her counterparts in other forms. The one commonality they all seem to have is that they wish Death to be the eventual victor in the tug of war with Life; Hela, however, is often more proactive in her approach, with Odin at times having to sternly remind her of her more benign role in the scheme of things. Perhaps we can attribute Hela's urges to raise her profile to her Asgardian nature; and so where the living Asgardians seek out conflict, Hela acts thusly by use of her sole function. In other words, both are exercising their aggressive nature, with neither apologizing for it.

There is, of course, one whose nature is both mischievous and evil, and that never bodes well for Thor. And the god in question, as we know, goes by the name of:

Don't you just want to throttle him? Loki is truly despicable. And he's about to be even more so, when he spills the beans on just how Thor is hiding himself. Yet, unknown to Loki, Balder the Brave has been busy on Thor's behalf--and in an altercation with Karnilla, an enemy of Asgard but a woman he has deep feelings for, he's forced to renounce Odin in order to secure the Norn Queen's aid in saving Thor's life. In return, Karnilla fulfills her part of the bargain by giving him information on what Loki is up to. And just in time, too:

It looks like Balder isn't going to have anything to show for his sacrifice of loyalty to Odin--unless you count the fatal gash he's going to receive at the end of Loki's deadly blade. But look how Lee deals in Hela herself in resolving the situation without taking an interest in it:

Hela sends the two back to Asgard, where Loki is too nervous about killing Balder in front of witnesses. Balder, unfortunately, isn't off the hook, having the unenviable task of facing Odin with his betrayal. But the All-Father lives up to his name:

(Heh--it wouldn't be the last time Balder gets laid out on a bier, would it?)

With Hela now clued in on where Thor is in hiding, Odin feels the need to get word to his son to be sure to stay in the form of Donald Blake at all costs. And just look who he taps for the job of courier:

We're all glad at this point that Volstagg wasn't sent out by horseback, because Death isn't the type of entity to waste any time in her rounds. And there are a couple of mortal low-lifes who are going to regret it:

Both Lee and artist John Buscema nicely craft this pair's final moments of being in the wrong place at the wrong time--mortals obsessed with their own petty needs who, unknowingly, not only face a god, but their own end. We won't be shedding any tears for this pair--but it's still a somewhat terrifying scene, one which sets the stage for the hunt for Hela's intended victim:

But, as surprised as we are to discover Thor out in the open like this, Hela nevertheless impassively prepares to strike. Or so she thinks:

Yes, as you might have guessed, Odin has created these illusions in an attempt to throw Hela off Thor's trail, as well as to give Volstagg crucial time to deliver the message that Hela is now aware of his general location. Let's hope that Hela doesn't target Johnny Storm, given the resemblance between Johnny and Donald Blake:

But as we can see, we shouldn't underestimate Death. Hela is reacting like a bloodhound, having caught Thor's "scent" but not being able to pin it down. Ruthlessly, she decides on a tactic to flush him out into the open--and with mortals in danger, can Johnny Thor be long in coming to the rescue?

And so Thor arrives to deal with the crisis at hand, yet having a good idea of who and what is waiting for him.  And once all is put to rights, Hela chillingly arrives, to issue her final ultimatum:

It's a scene which Hela has masterfully played, befitting her station. Thor, of course, can have only one answer, and it sets up one heck of a cliffhanger:

If you read the story of Infinity, a story which took five issues to play out, you might have found yourself as impressed as I was to read such a compelling follow-up--particularly with more material featuring Hela, whose threat you would have expected to have been dispatched along with Infinity. But given the scope of Hela's plan with Infinity, it does make sense for Lee to pursue this angle. While it may boil down to revenge in our eyes, Hela instead sees it as a sort of Plan B: take Thor from Odin, thereby incapacitating the All-Father with grief and thus removing him as an impediment to her plans for causing death on a more massive scale, something she'd planned to do as a "puppet master" with Infinity but can still accomplish on her own.

In Part Two of this story, we'll see the "catch me if you can" aspect shift into high gear--but is there truly any escape from Death? Surprisingly, it's a question Hela herself will be forced to confront.

Mighty Thor #189

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

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