Monday, March 18, 2019

The Most Important Choice Of All

Aside from their obvious differences in character and background, Thor and the Silver Surfer have one distinctive feature in common: they are both reviled by the demon, Mephisto, for their nobility and virtue. Yet for Mephisto, the difference between the two goes a bit deeper when it comes to the Thunder God, which can be best described by something Mephisto once pointed out to the Surfer: "Yours is the quintessential soul of humanity, not divinity." By that, he likely means that, unlike the Surfer, who has often been mistrusted and even feared by humans, Thor is the one who can inspire humanity to greatness and serve as a symbol of altruism and even glory. The Surfer, of course, embodies those qualities, as well--but only Thor is looked to by the humans he protects as an example that they can aspire to.

It's that aspect to Thor which is the central theme of a 1981 story where Mephisto is once more targeting Thor--not for enslavement, as was the case in their previous encounters, but to bring an end to his immortal life altogether. And it all begins on Earth, where Thor intervenes in a mugging taking place in Manhattan--an altercation, however, that is destined to have a profound effect on one of the guilty youths who is faced with a simple choice between right and wrong.

Before the discussion can go further, however, the meeting is interrupted by a police chase where lives are endangered, and gasping New Yorkers are witness to a sight not many of them see every day--a daring rescue, Thor-style.

But Thor's business here is still unresolved--and he awaits a decision.

(If you watched closely, you perhaps noticed that artist Keith Pollard has provided our rather indignant lady victim with plenty of opportunity to speak her mind, yet writer Doug Moench isn't taking the bait. She doesn't seem very confident that this leopard is going to be able to change his spots, does she?)

But far below the scene, in an environment that reeks of brimstone and, most certainly, suffering, there is one who reacts alarmingly at Thor's ability to reach and heal the human spirit--a demon who sees his role diminished and his domain of the damned threatened if the God of Thunder continues to walk the Earth as a guiding example for those mortals who might, left to their own devices, have otherwise followed Mephisto's temptations to their doom. In Mephisto's eyes, Thor has crossed the line--and his interference can no longer be tolerated.

Mephisto wastes no time in what he sees as balancing the scales vis-à-vis Thor's meddling where he shouldn't, taking a "what's good for the goose" approach and feeling justified in causing his own interference. For those in New York City, that translates to paying a subtle visit to a number of people who find themselves at pivotal moments where they must make a choice between good and evil; and thanks to the Lord of Evil, who has doubtless perfected his role as tempter over the span of his existence, they're easily swayed by the justification and assurances he's all too ready to provide.

As a result, it doesn't take long before pandemonium reigns, and the area is in flames--for when it comes to manipulating human beings, Mephisto knows his business.

Thor, as you might expect, is aghast at the sudden chaos and violence that has erupted without warning, and in the same city block he'd left earlier. But his night of surprises is just beginning, when he not only encounters those youths who had seemingly turned over a new leaf, but is also witness to the street itself suddenly becoming a chasm that swallows everyone in sight.

Everyone, that is, except one determined god--whose course is clear.

Contrary to the demon's usual methods of toying with and tempting those he confronts in his domain, Mephisto in this case is interested not in Thor's soul, but in his death--so while it may seem out of character for him to cut right to it and unleash his forces en masse against the Thunder God, it's perhaps an indication of how seriously Mephisto regards Thor's threat to his existence that he again wastes no time in dealing with his foe.

Still, he isn't the only one to expedite matters.

And so it comes down to Thor vs. Mephisto, in a rare one-on-one battle that promises to finally take the gloves off of Mephisto and demonstrate the limits of his power, assuming there are any. After all, there is no soul for Mephisto to fret about securing; his goal is to slay the Thunder God, and so, against the likes of Mephisto, we have to assume that Thor is in for the fight of his life.

And yet, Thor seems convinced that, because he is an immortal, it's not within Mephisto's power to slay him. Is that truly the case? Frankly, saying something like "it's not within Mephisto's power" to do anything that comes to his mind is absurd, given what we've seen of this demon's capabilities in the past--and if a being of Mephisto's might isn't a threat to Thor, who does that leave?

But try telling Mephisto that he battles in vain...

Of course, one of Mephisto's traits that has never failed him is his talent for duplicity--and applied by a master, it's something that even the hammer of Thor cannot prove a match for.

Mephisto's assumption proves true--the fateful seconds pass, and it's Donald Blake who is at Mephisto's mercy. Since Mephisto is now poised to end Blake's life, we can only assume, as ridiculous as it sounds, that Odin rigged the enchantment of the transformation to also deprive Blake of Thor's immortality--otherwise, what holds true for Thor in regard to being slain by Mephisto would hold just as true for his mortal facade. What a tangled web that Moench has woven here.

Yet we know that, in some fashion, Blake will regain his identity as Thor and settle Mephisto's hash; but if that's all that this story amounted to, it would be a waste of the Mephisto character and arguably a cheat on the book's readers who would have ended up flipping the pages of a fairly pointless encounter between Thor and Mephisto where nothing really came of it. Fortunately, however, there is symmetry at work here, in the form of our young muggers who earlier had listened to Thor's earnest words and decided to take a leap of faith in regard to the redirection of their lives; and now their leader resists the will of Mephisto to renew that faith and ensure that the hero who had faith in him is not lost to the world.

With those words, Mephisto banishes his captives back to the world above, his stalemate with Thor once more taking the form of tempter vs. iconic example. As for those who ended up being pawns in their struggle, none of the mortals retain their memory of their experience in Mephisto's realm, which is regrettable in the case of one of their number in particular--a young man who, without realizing it, became just as much of a hero as the god who once trusted him to make the right choice.

Mighty Thor #310

Script: Doug Moench
Pencils: Keith Pollard
Inks: Gene Day
Letterer: Joe Rosen


Big Murr said...

Not a bad story. I had, with much heaviness and bitterness in my heart, given up on "Thor" by now, so I had missed this tale. Much better than the previous encounter with Mephisto.

All too often, though, these Mephisto stories bug me on some fundamental level. These plots always center around an event triggering a raging hissy fit, then Mephisto abruptly goes and kicks the snot out of humanity to goad the object of his rage. There's never any mention of why he doesn't all-but-mind-control humans to do evil and rip open fissures to hell on a 24/7 basis. Some system of cosmic checks and balances must be in play, or every Marvel comic would be watching the heroes fighting the demons of Mephisto in a chaotic judgement day battlefield.

I guess I wish for some mention that Mephisto being so blatant and overt is a risky gambit on the Great Cosmic Chessboard. A sacrifice his queen sort of move. The story tells us what happens if his plan succeeds. I desire a hint at what losing will cost him.

(on a side note, I had to go do a spot of research as to where Dr. Strange is when Mephisto is stomping thru town with big boots. I'll accept he's legitimately busy.)

Comicsfan said...

Murray, if Mephisto's domain is as packed to capacity with damned human souls as he maintains, my guess is that, on some level, he has been tempting humans to indulge their worst instincts all along; his plans for Thor simply required a more focused intervention on his part (i.e., targeting the area of New York that Thor had only recently served as an example to and capturing the humans on that block to affect him on a more personal level). In the case of the Surfer, he instead captured and used Shalla Bal in much the same way.

As for the "risk" he takes for acting so blatantly (which was a good way to put it, I thought), Moench appeared to make it clear here that to Mephisto, Thor had crossed the line once too often, and his influence on mortals had now become such a danger to Mephisto's culling of those humans who gave in to their personal demons that he felt he had to act directly to remove the Thunder God, rather than take a more circumspect approach as would normally be his habit. As we've seen, seeing his gambit fail returns Mephisto to his stalemate with Thor, where the former has no choice but to continue as he has and trust that he will still prevail--after all, Thor isn't the first such being to pose a threat to Mephisto insofar as being a figure that would sway the masses as an object of goodness and nobility, and he probably won't be the last.

And you raise a good point about Strange; I suspect that if Bleecker Street had fallen into Mephisto's chasm, Strange might have rearranged his priorities and shown up along with Thor. Naturally, Marvel can't have him saving the day with every incursion Mephisto makes, but he did come through in a pinch in the case of Franklin Richards and Elspeth Cromwell.

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