Trouble with Comics

The Mighty Thor Omnibus

Writers - Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein

Pencilers - Jack Kirby, Al Hartley, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck

Inkers - Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers, Al Hartley, George Roussos, Paul Reinman, Chic STone, Vince Colletta, Frank Giacoia

Publisher - Marvel Comics. $99.99 USD

It’s appropriate that Thor finally gets the Omnibus treatment, as this book weighs as much as a sledgehammer. The Mjolnir-wielding Norse god made his first appearance in Marvel’s anthology series, Journey Into Mystery #83, starting a long, unbroken run that first had him in just half the book, but within a year or so the main Thor adventure was backed by the beloved Tales of Asgard. All the Thor material from #83-#120 and Annual (“Special”) #1 are here.

Jack Kirby had done a version of Thor in one DC comic before this, but the basic set-up of having Thor sort of sharing the body of lame (in both definitions) Dr. Donald Blake seems like more of a Stan Lee “hero with feet of clay” device, perhaps inspired by the Fawcett Captain Marvel/Billy Batson idea (and which would inspire Marvel’s own Captain Marvel/Rick Jones set-up). Blake finds a cane through improbable means and when he strikes it, he turns into the God of Thunder, aware of what happened while he was Donald Blake and yet not sharing or at least not interested in Blake’s knowledge; ie you wouldn’t ask Thor to perform surgery on you. 

There’s the added gimmick that Thor cannot be separated from his hammer for more than 60 seconds (Asgardians measure time the same as us, even if they are immortal), or he turns back into Blake. Lee handled a lot of Marvel books back then, so he only plots many of these stories, letting brother Larry or Robert Bernstein script them, and of course it’s difficult to determine how much Kirby himself added. Even at his angriest, most anti-Marvel/Lee period, Kirby probably wouldn’t want to take a lot of credit for the first year or so of Journey Into Mystery’s stories, as most were pretty poor. Blake’s medical practice was left vague enough that one day he could be performing surgery in a hospital, while another day he could be working at a clinic, or as a kind of proto-Doctor Without Borders in a banana republic. Whatever happened, he would have some reason to become Thor, who so excites his beloved nurse, Jane Foster, but she is always kept at arm’s length due to misunderstanding or a desire to keep her safe from his dangerous double life.

This romantic thread is often irritating, and invariably gets in the way of what should have been a grand, mythological adventure book from the start, though I suppose something can be said for Lee’s ability to make even godlike characters relatable with dating woes, or Thor’s difficult relationship with his dad, Odin. Odin is basically a bigot: he loves his son, but can’t understand why he wastes his affection on Jane Foster, a human woman, and thus beneath him. There is something charming about Thor pining away and moaning in public over his girl trouble. And of course, Loki is a classic villain, the evil stepbrother who might have been better if he had been the favorite son…but probably not.

It takes quite a while for the series to get going. Aside from Loki, who appears constantly, Thor’s rogues gallery is pathetic, with losers like “Sandu the Supernatural” and “The Carbon-Copy Man.” Even decent villains such as The Radioactive Man, The Executioner, The Enchantress, The Cobra and Mr. Hyde aren’t all that interesting in their first appearances. Lee really misses an opportunity to draw parallels between Thor and The Executioner, both saps for love. It has to be said, though, that unlike, say, the Superman books of this period, Lee/Kirby & Co evolved the series beyond its confining status quo. Little by little, the Tales of Asgard become not just abbreviated versions of myths, but original adventures themselves, and also the main series draws more inspiration from the wonders of Asgard, making room for characters like Balder the Brave and Heimdall to play more of a part in Thor’s life. 

—Christopher Allen

Don’t Let Your Noble Poobah Hardin

DC Universe: Legacies #6 & 7

Writer - Len Wein

Artists - Jerry Ordway, George Perez, Dan Jurgens, Keith Giffen, Brian Bolland, Scott Kolins

Publisher - DC Comics

Aside from one of Giffen’s goofiest styles on a ridiculous Superboy/LOSH backup story, and the ponderous, out-of-place stylings of Kolins on the framing sequences, this series has had some really nice art, particularly for those like me who grew up on a lot of these ’70s-’80s superstars now getting to take a tour with Wein down Memory Lane. Either penciling or inking, any of the pages with Ordway’s hand in them are better storytelling than the majority of what passes for it today. That said, the story—indeed, the entire premise of this series—is pointless. It’s just a jog through some of the DCU’s biggest events, kind of through the eyes of an average guy named Paul Lincoln (except the many times it’s just straight sooperhero action), from ’40s street kid to, as of #7, around a 40 year old police detective in the mid-’90s. Strangely, the Paul who introduces each issue is elderly, far older than the 60 years, give or take, that he would be if he was telling the story today. Maybe we’ll find he’s in the future, I dunno. 

Wein has no problem putting words in Lincoln’s mouth like, “A hero needs only an honest, noble heart,” that would make Superman gag, and the would-be Marvels-style regular guy story is really just a ’40s Warner Bros gangster film plot, with two kids taking different paths and the criminal one getting a chance to redeem himself. If you can swallow the dialogue, and convenient plotting that, say, allows a career criminal to get a job at S.T.A.R. Labs with easy access to experimental armor, all while cramming in the broad strokes of old stories great and small like Crisis, the Detroit JLA, Legends, The Killing Joke, Jon Stewart, the Bloodwynd/Maxima era of Justice League, Doomsday and Knightfall, then this is for you. Mostly, it’s nice to admire some solid artwork and ignore the story. Highlight: the Bolland-drawn “Camelot 500” story with the Atom, Shining Knight, Silent Knight, King Arthur, and Etrigan.

Wolverine #3

Writer - Jason Aaron

Artist - Renaldo Guedes

Publisher - Marvel Comics

Just because Wolverine goes to Hell doesn’t mean he has to take the readers with him. I gave this more than the benefit of the doubt, but man, what an unremittingly boring, repetitive storyline. Each issue is just this demon trying to break Wolverine’s spirit by making him fight more demons and hellish versions of old foes, and Wolvie is an ornery cuss who’s too stubborn to be turned, while Mystique, Daken and Wolvie’s girlfriend flit around trying to figure out how to get to Hell and help him, with zero results so far. Throw in some X-cameos and repeat. Aaron can write a fun, well-paced story, but this one is stuck in first gear. It also seems to have sucked Daken down with it. 

Batman and Robin #17

Writer - Paul Cornell

Artist - Scott McDaniel

Publisher - DC Comics

Yeah, I don’t know why they just didn’t retire Batman and Robin after Morrison left, but whatever. It’s a perfectly good name. So here we have a new creative team, with McDaniel bringing his usual bag of trick to scripting by rising star Cornell. I say rising star, and I like the guy, but with this new villainess The Absence (who we needed like the hole in her head), Cornell might want to be careful he doesn’t overextend himself and become this decade’s Paul Jenkins. It’s okay so far; pretty typical old 'Tec kind of mystery but with grislier details, and some fine is occasionally labored repartee between clenched Damian Wayne take on Robin and the more lighthearted Dick Grayson version of Batman. 

Detective Comics #871

Writer - Scott Snyder

Artists - Jock, Francisco Francavilla

Publisher - DC Comics

Like Cornell, Snyder is quick to start playing with his new toys, in this case having some fun exploring the differences in the Dick/Gordon relationship from the Bruce/Gordon one. For one, Dick doesn’t silently slip away when the conversation is over. It’s cute. Still, I’m looking forward to Snyder digging deeper into what makes Dick a good Batman vs. just a different Batman. This one’s a mystery involving an unseen villain named The Dealer, who deals in hard-to-obtain supervillain stuff like the serum that made Killer Croc the way he is (who would buy this?) and something Poison Ivy-related that makes a would-be squealer grow a tree root out of his mouth. It makes for some good visuals but not much of a coherent story as yet, and one suspects Jock would be put to better use drawing the grim Bruce Batman. That is, he draws Bats exactly the same, but it would make more sense aesthetically if it was Bruce. Snyder doesn’t have a lot of room to get this one going, as he also starts a Gordon backup story, this one with nice art from Francavilla in a stylistic range that seems to be gaining traction (see also Paul Azaceta, Matthew Southworth). My takeaway from these two Batbooks is that the editor(s) are pushing for new villains and shorter story arcs. I’m in favor of the former but it’s too early to judge the results yet, and it makes sense for the latter as well. Three issues + three issues = HC/TPB. Having two arcs per collection conceivably increases the chances of a purchase, and just as far as the monthly series, it’s easier to jump on. Plus, I would not be surprised if this doesn’t also make it easier to get some better artists on for a three issue arc that wouldn’t want to/be able to commit to something longer term. Like, I don’t really see Jock doing 10 issues of this book, do you? I could be wrong about all this, but even if so, it’s not a bad plan. Note: of our players this week, Francisco Francavilla has the most fun name to say out loud.

The Traveler #1

Writer - Mark Waid

Artist - Chad Hardin

Not to take anything away from Stan Lee and his amazing accomplishments, but I’d be curious if his name on a comic really had any positive effect on sales. And this is not even getting into whether he had anything to do with the contents inside. For the record, the comic is copyright both BOOM! Studios and Stan’s POW! Entertainment (we finally got BOOM! and POW! together, but where’s BIFF!?), but Stan’s only credit is the vague, “Grand Poobah.” I imagine Waid and others came up with it and Stan signed off, maybe offering some minor input. Whatever.

As one might reasonably guess, The Traveler is decidedly lighter in tone than Waid’s other BOOM! series, Irredeemable and Incorruptible. Stan doesn’t do scorched earth and kinky sex and psychotic capes. But it’s not even a “feet of clay” type of old Marvel approach, either. Tonally, it’s more like ’50s DC stuff, with a cheerful, time-traveling hero trying to stop some other time-traveling creeps, all the while chattering with a scared African-American mom (with Hardin playing up her MILFy BOOM! POW! attributes a little much). Normally, Waid would be your go-to guy for Silver Age homage, but this one feels a little flat, fast-paced but lacking a distinctive hook or much in the way of characterization, and like he saved his best jokes for another comic. I mean, it reads like an assignment rather than inspiration, and while many of us would take this assignment in a minute, it doesn’t mean it’s going to turn out well.

—Christopher Allen