Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Cry Of Thunder--A Flash Of Silver!

Since we've already taken looks at some of Marvel's 25¢ issues from the price/format adjustment that briefly went into effect for its titles in late 1971, the PPC has come to the same conclusion about reviewing those issues as it once did about the consumption of potato chips or dark chocolate M&Ms: It's out of the question to stop with just one or two. Consequently, having started with the Iron Man and Fantastic Four stories published during that very strange Do-si-do interval, we move on to one of Marvel's heaviest hitters, which catches him in the middle of one of his most hard-fought battles.

As we can see from the cover image, we're actually getting two heavy hitters for the price of one, as the Silver Surfer enters the fray to take some of the heat off Thor, who continues to wage a hopeless battle with the formidable Durok, the Demolisher. It's become a no-win situation for the Thunder God, having sworn to put an end to the rule of evil Loki, who has usurped the throne of Asgard and wields the power of the stolen Odin-Ring; but thanks to his scheming step-brother, Thor has been diverted to Earth to head off the destructive power of Durok, a soulless creation of both the Ring and Karnilla, Queen of the Norns, sent to wreak havoc on the world of mortals, and, inevitably, to slay the God of Thunder.

In the meantime, Loki tightens his grip on Asgard, and prepares to wed Thor's betrothed, the lady Sif. These are dark days indeed for the valiant of Asgard, who must nevertheless bend their knee in allegiance to he who holds the Ring. Is there hope for either the realm eternal, or for its embattled prince who, on Earth, faces almost certain death?

Whatever else artist John Buscema might have had on his plate for the the period he was working on this issue, hopefully it was nothing he couldn't get out of, since the 68 pages of artwork he turned in for both this story and the one he pencilled for Fantastic Four likely involved burning the midnight oil; and to his credit, both amount to some of his finest work to date. (Writer Gerry Conway was also hard at work, scripting not only Thor but also the Sub-Mariner, Iron Man, and Daredevil issues, though the latter two thankfully were set at the standard twenty pages each.) As the story with Loki heats up in this penultimate issue of the arc, Buscema doesn't skip a beat, keeping the action at a hectic pace as Thor fights on. As a bonus, Buscema also returns to his work on the Surfer after an eight-month hiatus from the character, something the opening splash page of the issue seems to make the most of.

Balder, with the help of Karnilla, has slipped away from Loki's scrutiny in order to seek out aid for the Thunder God in his one-sided clashes with Durok; and not that there are any complaints with Balder's choice, but it's rather curious why Balder would settle on the Surfer, since it's assumed that his only exposure to the sky-rider was during the Surfer's arrival in Asgard where he almost immediately sought conflict with Thor. We can presume that Balder saw enough of the Surfer in action to conclude he would be a valuable ally to Thor in his time of need; on the other hand, Balder has no reason to believe that the Surfer has resolved his differences with Thor and would even consider Balder's request for aid.

As for Karnilla, it's no doubt odd to see her giving such assistance to Balder, when she's of like mind with Loki and even played a key role in creating Durok. We'll certainly see hard evidence soon enough of the fact that she prefers to keep a tight rein on Balder's loyalties; but suffice to say that her feelings for him tend to mitigate her actions to the degree that she'll cut him some slack on occasion, as long as he realizes that her generosity isn't to be taken for granted.

Unfortunately, the timing of both of these gods regarding the Surfer is inopportune, given his mood the last time we encountered him--finally having it up to here with the human race and the treatment and betrayal he's suffered on the planet Earth. Obviously he's cooled down somewhat since then, appearing to have settled for isolation rather than indulging in aggressive or hostile behavior; nevertheless, he doesn't consider Balder in any different light from mortals, and the Surfer flatly turns down his petition for aid. What follows is an example of how violent overreaction isn't exclusive to mortals, and a confrontation that proves that there are yet those who will not falter in challenging even the gods.

(I would have been more impressed with the Surfer rewording his response to, "The Silver Surfer bows to no aggressor--to no queen." Why would the arrogance of a woman be more distinguishable to the Surfer than that of a man?)

Balder's character, however, has a history of shining through, and his pleas have convinced the Surfer to reconsider and lend his assistance.

As the Surfer speeds to the site, Thor continues to have his hands full with the engine of destruction called Durok, who doesn't tire or feel pain as Thor does. Previously, it's amused Loki to transport Durok to different locations on Earth after every fierce clash with Thor--graphically proving to Thor how ineffective his assaults are against this creature, while increasing the extent of the damage and injury that Durok can dispense; but Loki has now turned his attention to Asgardian matters (as well as to Balder and Karnilla, who appear to be conspiring against him), leaving Thor and Durok to face each other without quarter, a pace which suits the relentless Durok just fine.

Conway and Buscema inject some odd scenes in this story; imagine, for instance, a god who wields the incredible power of lightning bolts (lightning bolts, mind you), succumbing to cabled electrical voltage, particularly when he's well aware of what his foe was planning. And how about something equally unlikely: a being created to survive in the airless void, yet vulnerable to being drowned.

Thor lies at death's door--the Surfer barely escapes being killed--and Durok remains a threat. Clearly, Loki has set in motion events which play in his favor, as illustrated nicely by Buscema in the following scenes where the God of Evil reflects on his good fortune--as well as his upcoming marriage, which acts as the final knife in his step-brother's back.

This issue obviously takes place before more classical elements of Norse mythology were brought into the pages of Thor--such as Sigyn, Loki's current wife, or Balder's invulnerability to anything which might bring him harm (other than mistletoe). We also see that Sif is nowhere near the strong, assertive, confident warrior woman she grew into being under writer Walt Simonson's watch.

As for Thor, the Surfer restores him to health in the same way as he helped Balder, through the use of his cosmic power. It's at this point in the story where the two formally join forces, yet split up--the Surfer offering to deal with Durok, while Thor returns to Asgard in an attempt to depose Loki.

It's a sensible move on Conway's part, since the Surfer battling Durok on his own makes for a more interesting display of force than seeing Thor at his side; after all, we've already seen 25 pages' worth of what Thor can do against this foe, to no avail.

Conway's Silver Surfer takes some getting used to, as introspective as he comes across (perhaps an attempt to align him with Stan Lee's handling of the character), to say nothing of overconfident. Durok was carefully tailored by Loki and Karnilla to be supremely powerful, invulnerable, and merciless, aspects which are overlooked by the Surfer to an extent as he calmly muses on how to deal with him. That said, he settles on a solution which seems apropos for a being of Durok's nature.

Exit the Surfer, who has fulfilled his obligation and hasn't the ability to join Thor, even if he wished to. Which is too bad because, back in Asgard, Thor finds that he will have to fight his way to Loki every step of the way.

Buscema, still pencilling at his usual high standard in the early 1970s, pulls no punches in this story, giving us some amazing scenes of Thor in battle against odds which you or I would be staring wide-eyed at. In a way, the scenes reminded me of Thor's struggle against Goliath during the siege of Avengers Mansion by the Masters of Evil, with Thor taking advantage of the long-range striking properties of his hammer.

His giant foes dispatched (we'll be seeing them again, by the way, so try not to take Thor's word on their fate), Thor moves on in both fatigue and rage, to find Sif being prepared to be joined to Loki. Sif is naturally relieved to see Thor having survived Loki's plans against him--but accusing Loki of being "mad," while arguably correct, isn't the best choice of words when your fiancé is within hearing range.

It's a decent cliffhanger for the story's climax in the next issue, though Conway seems to rush through his prose in his effort to ring the curtain down. For one thing, "all of Asgard" is already completely Loki's; but even if it wasn't, Loki is boasting that it will be in the sixty seconds it will take for Thor to revert to his mortal form, and that he and Sif will be wed in that same minute. That's some Odin-Ring. I don't think he could pull that off even if he ordained Quicksilver and had him officiating. I'm also having trouble picturing what a scream would sound like if it's both faint and fading. The main oversight in this scene, of course, is the mistaken assertion that Thor can still revert to Donald Blake while he's present in Asgard when he's bereft of his hammer. The transformation does occur in the next issue, and it's what saves his life--but the letters page dealing with the goof was forced to declare a mea culpa.

"...we could say it's because Loki's will, aided by the Odin-Ring, commanded it be so--we could say that normally Thor controls his Blake alter ego on Asgard out of pure strength of will, and that having that will weakened allowed the change to occur--we could say a lot of things. It boils down to--we goofed! Sorry, folks."

Actually, the first idea would have worked pretty well, had it been scripted into the following issue's opening pages; the other line of reasoning, not so much, since strength of will on Thor's part would be moot when the guy falls asleep in his chamber in Bilskirnir.

All in all, "What Power Unleashed?" is a lot of comics entertainment for two bits, and those involved deserve their accolades (and no doubt a good night's sleep!) for turning in this level of work.


Mighty Thor #193

Script: Gerry Conway
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Sal Buscema
Letterer: Artie Simek


Anonymous said...

Well, here we got Thor and the Surfer facing off against...some bald guy.
Hey, if I wanna see some bald guy on a mindless rampage, I can just walk downtown to the Top Hat Bar on payday.
I get the feeling that Gerry Conway is kind of phoning it in here, and that business about the Odin-ring is pretty lame. Great Buscema art, as per usual, but thankfully Conway would go on to give him much better material to work with.

Colin Jones said...
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