Saturday, December 13, 2014

When Asgard Dies!

Whatever you may think of Tom DeFalco's writing on Fantastic Four and his seeming inability to connect to the essence of that famous team, his handling of Mighty Thor might be enough to make you forget all about the flak jackets and the Cable-guns, and Ant-Man and Sub-Mariner as member stand-ins, and Lyja, and "Nobody Gets Out Alive." DeFalco's run on Thor, with artist Ron Frenz, managed to bring back a lot of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby feel to the Thunder God's stories of the late 1980s; in fact, if it weren't for alert reader Scott, who correctly pointed out that it only took four years (our time) for Odin to return after his fateful battle with the fire-demon, Surtur, we might not be here right now, about to take a look at one of the title's most well-done epics--the invasion of Asgard by Seth, the Egyptian serpent-god of Death!

(Where would the PPC be without the fact-checking of you alert readers? In your helpful recollections, you end up opening the door to some pretty good stories!)

Here, as in Fantastic Four, DeFalco builds momentum in the Thor stories leading up to the title's 400th issue. Seth's forces have made incursions into the lands of Asgard, now isolated with the destruction of the Rainbow Bridge by Surtur, and vulnerable to invasion due to the absence of its powerful ruler, Odin--while Balder the Brave, made King in Odin's stead, prepares for the worst, sending Hogun the Grim to Earth to locate Thor (who has his own troubles battling the villain Quicksand), a possibly futile quest since, with Bifrost shattered, they have no way to return to the realm. It must be new ground for the Asgardians, born attackers who must now assume the defensive as their homeland is targeted; on the other hand, it's a prime opportunity for DeFalco to have the Asgardians rise to the occasion, battling against hopeless odds as they did with Surtur and his forces.

DeFalco also ups the ante here. Seth, who's motivated to attack Asgard in order to take revenge on Thor for the loss of his hand, doesn't plan to stop with this one invasion, but intends to extend his march of death to every plane of reality--extinguishing all life, everywhere. The Asgardians, then, will strive to battle not only for their own survival, but for that of the entire universe--the multiverse. Frankly, I would have been satisfied with the invasion of Asgard; but it makes sense for the valor of the Asgardians to reach out and give their all to save more than just their own lives, and the responsibility adds a great deal to this story.

You'll see the styles of both DeFalco and Frenz in full display here. DeFalco, like Walt Simonson, gives a generous amount of attention to the Asgardians--not just their fighting spirit which almost any writer could plug in, but their camaraderie as well as the familiarity of the individual characters we've come to know. Balder, in particular, is intriguing to watch in the role of King, with no Odin-Power to fall back on and a great deal riding on his shoulders. There is no doubt of the Asgardians' loyalty to and love for him--but in such a campaign, we may see him have doubts in himself.

As for Frenz, there's a good deal of Jack Kirby's style in his pencilling, and surely a bit of swiping taking place in some of his panels--though, as seen here, in smaller doses and in a more subtle method than similar efforts by Rich Buckler:

On the whole, though, Frenz steps up to the demands of this epic and delivers an astounding amount of work and pacing that DeFalco must, and does, meet with equal effort. And on top of all of this--ODIN LIVES! But, will Asgard? Will life??

We'll have to keep Odin under wraps for now, since, as far as anyone knows, he's still trapped in Muspelheim, grappling with Surtur. But along with his wish to take his revenge on Thor, Seth realizes that it's the perfect opportunity to begin putting his plans into action.

Balder, as well, is making plans--in this case, a fail-safe plan, should Asgard's battle against Seth go badly:

As for Thor, he's run into assassins on Earth with an Egyptian "signature": Earth Force, three mortals met at death's door by Seth and transformed into super-powered agents to do his bidding, in this case to take out Thor before he finds a way to go to Asgard's aid. In time, though, Earth Force realizes that it's wrong to become a group of murderers, and eventually they join Thor (along with Hogun) in taking his fight to Seth's own dimension. Thor's fellow Avenger, the Black Knight, also includes himself in the mission, which is likely to be an uphill battle.

While Thor and his group try to make headway, Seth, at last, launches his invasion:

As a result, Balder is forced to siphon the power of Thor for the defense of Asgard--and the Asgardians, no strangers to war, begin the battle where the stakes literally come down to life or death.

Thor, now bereft of his power, realizes that Balder has acted as he must, though it leaves him at a disadvantage against Grog, Seth's powerful warrior who now is able to more than match the Thunder God.

With their heaviest hitter taken out, the small group is soon captured and hauled off to Grog's dungeons. As for Seth, he and his armies are finding the Asgardians to be more than their match--and so Seth sends his men to further torture a mysterious captive whom Seth has been making use of to aid his forces. And when his power is unleashed in earnest, the Asgardians find that the tide begins to turn, and not in their favor.

As Seth's forces draw closer to Asgard, they run into something of a mystery when they find themselves unable to penetrate a mysterious castle. But when the castle allows Seth to enter, the serpent-god discovers that its occupant might be a force to contend with--assuming this particular Asgardian doesn't instead prefer to pursue his own plans.

It's the perfect way to handle the wily Loki's involvement in this saga--an implied threat giving way to opportunity when he realizes that Seth has a formidable weapon that might fit into his own ambition to conquer Asgard. It remains to be seen how Loki's role will play out.

What he does see when he begins to spy behind enemy lines is his step-brother, Thor, in dire straits and at Grog's mercy. Unfortunately for Grog, he pushes Thor too far, and his rash words prove to be his undoing.

Shorn of his power, it's an impressive display from Thor--and it serves as an example to his friends, who, like Thor, have spent their time applying constant pressure to weaken their bonds:

The group rallies--none more than Thor, who has a score to settle with his captor:

Throughout the invasion, this story has played cat-and-mouse with us as far as revealing the identity of Seth's secret power source--keeping the man-like figure in shadow, hearing Seth and others allude to his level of power, Balder making repeated references to Odin--and now, as Thor and his group close in on the top of Seth's "Black Pyramid" where the figure is kept, we even see Thor speculate that this figure might be his long-missing father. Imagine the surprise, then, when Thor releases the figure only to find:

With the power of Bes at Seth's service, however reluctantly, it becomes clear why the Asgardians have been finding this war going against them. Most of them have continued fighting the good fight, of course--but when Heimdall is critically injured, one finds her ability to bear the oppression reaches the breaking point, and ends up taking her rage to the source.

It's a spectacular scene, again keeping true to form an Asgardian we know well, while also displaying the might of this near-invincible enemy who, after all, is the God of Death. How does one challenge, much less overcome, death?

As for Thor, he's eager to return to Asgard and have it out with Seth. But Bes dissuades him, sensing that he should proceed in another direction, instead. More teasing on DeFalco's part, though this time leading to the mother of all shock endings.

Despite the many questions we may have at this point--What's Odin doing here? How did Seth grab him from Muspelheim? What's Surtur have to say about all this? Why didn't Odin simply free himself?--in the following issue, we don't get much more on Odin's circumstances beyond a simple reunion.

Back in Asgard, though, there's plenty going on. Asgard is on the brink of defeat, and Seth seeks to cut to the chase by meeting with Balder in final combat. And just to make sure Balder accepts, Seth provides incentive that would shame him into doing so.

The mutually agreed upon terms of the contest are mostly for show on Seth's part, since he cheats at every opportunity and soon has Balder helpless before him. As for Seth's legions, they don't stay idle. While Seth and Balder keep the Asgardians' attention, they use the distraction to transport directly into the city and put the Asgardians to rout.

With Asgard falling to the invaders, it only remains for Seth to slay its leader. DeFalco has indeed taken us to Asgard's darkest hour, and there seems to be no way to recover. We know that Seth certainly isn't about to show mercy--though, with his death imminent, Balder struggles to make amends to his friend and brother-in-arms.

The death of Balder hits Thor like a knife to his gut. And with his power now restored by Balder's gesture, woe be to the forces of Seth who find themselves in his line of sight.

However, Asgard's fate is as imminent as Balder's was--but Odin finds that he must now divide their forces to meet two threats, and we at last discover the circumstances of Odin's return.

It's never made clear by DeFalco just why Seth decided to enter Muspelheim and capture Odin in the first place. Odin already had his hands full with Surtur--and, given the amount of time that had passed, obviously the two were in a stalemate of sorts and Odin wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. If Seth wasn't intending to use Odin's power in his campaign, why bother to capture him? And for that matter, how? Did he sneak up behind Odin and slap those power dampers on his arms while Odin was distracted with Surtur? And why would Seth deal with Odin and not Surtur, who could now escape and threaten Seth's plans for ending life with his own? It's a lot to side-step, all to lend flair to an epic.

At any rate, Odin and the rest return to Asgard, while Thor must battle alone against an enemy who is as capable of bringing an end to all life in the universe as Seth.

The exciting conclusion! Be here for the double-sized Thor #400!

(This post covers events taking place in Mighty Thor #s 395-399.)


Anonymous said...

As de-facto ruler of Asgard in Odin's absence, Balder appears to have access to the All-father's mighty collection of wondrous head-gear!
This was a great storyline! Cosmic and bombastic, the way I like 'em! Great stuff. mp

Comicsfan said...

mp, yes, it was a little surprising to see the lack of reticence in Balder's raiding of Odin's accessory closet!