Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

11 August 2009

Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, v. 1

Collects: Thor #337-48 (1983-4)

Released: May 2001, as Thor Legends, v. 1: Walt Simonson; with current title, December 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 288 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785131892

What is this?: The mythological hero Thor deals with the noble alien Beta Ray Bill, the evil faerie Malekith, the dragon Fafnir, and the temptress Lorelei.

The culprit: Walter Simonson

There are some things comic book readers argue about constantly, and some things are taken as an article of the faith. That Walter Simonson’s run on Thor is one of the title’s few claims to greatness belongs to the latter group. But can we see that greatness in the beginning of the run, as collected in Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, v. 1?

First of all, let’s start with the high point: This book has the first appearance of Beta Ray Bill, the noble alien whose spirit is transplanted into an engineered / cyborg body to protect the rest of his race, who have been loaded onto sleeper ships on their way to a new planet. He gets in a fight with Thor — of course — and during the fight picks up Thor’s hammer, which only the worthy can do. Bill is probably the greatest thing to come out of Thor post-Kirby, a reflection of Thor’s dichotomy of mythology and space / cosmic adventures. Bill starts in the latter, but Simonson brings him into the former effortlessly. An impressive accomplishment, and one that helps show why Bill has remained a favorite part of the Marvel Universe for so many.

Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, v. 1 coverHe’s not the only impressive creation Simonson came up with in v. 1; there’s also Malekith the Accursed, who, if nothing else, has a striking visual. It’s he and the other villains that give Simonson the most room for creativity. He draws and writes an excellent, if somewhat restrained, Loki; his Lorelei looks like the temptress she is. But I’m not sold on Fafnir, who is a dangerously dull for a dragon, or v. 1’s hidden villain, a flaming giant who looks laughable rather than frightening when he’s finally revealed.

It says something about the character of Thor that in what is hailed as the title’s best run, the main character shares the title with a large supporting cast. A large part of v. 1 deals with Baldur coping with his post-traumatic death disorder and Sif wondering what her part in the mythos is now; the villains get a lot of time to plot and scheme, and Simonson isn’t afraid to shunt Thor to the side and give the guardians of the Cask of Ancient Winters center stage for a couple of issues. Thor spends a couple of issues with his mind altered. I think this crystallizes my feelings about v. 1: it’s a large mythological tale without a real center — or perhaps with a big, bland, blond center who is more impressive when he’s off stage.

I can’t help feeling Simonson might have been better off creating his own mythological tales without the baggage of the Marvel Universe tied to his work. In many ways, Simonson’s Thor has a lot in common with Mike Mignola’s Hellboy: mythology heavy, lots of neat-looking monsters, with an ensemble cast, dealing with world-ending threats. But while Mignola’s Hellboy is a strong character, Simonson’s Thor isn’t, even if he gets a new civilian identity.

That’s really the problem, and there’s not a lot Simonson can do about it. He gives Thor small flares of personality when he feels abandoned by his father or when he fights over his hammer (in a spectacularly stupid plot point). But Simonson doesn’t really follow up on that, even though Thor has more than enough daddy issues to keep a series going. Thor doesn’t have a romantic life; he has some interest in Lorelei, but it’s impossible to tell how much. Thor’s character seems based on respect of other heroes. So Simonson has to turn to his supporting cast to keep interest high. It’s a lot like making cauliflower soup; you have to add a lot of other stuff to make it interesting, and after you add enough spices, meat, flavored broths, and salt, it isn’t cauliflower soup any more, and you wonder why you even thought cauliflower soup was a good idea in the first place.

And I will never ask for cauliflower soup, no matter how little it tastes like cauliflower. Even if it’s Asgardian cauliflower, and it’s dressed in a Kirby helmet.

Rating: Thor's hammer Thor's hammer (2 of 5)

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