The year was 1976.
I was just a whippersnapper, eight years old and already obsessed with comics.
Even at that age, Marvel Comics were the titles that I gravitated toward. I don’t know if it was the colors, the action, or the characters that made them my favorites, but by 1976 I was already collecting The Avengers (and reading Avengers reprints in Marvel Triple Action). Before the year was out, I was also getting into The Invaders, The Defenders, and enjoying the one-off character issues in Marvel Spotlight and Marvel Premiere. Captain America and The Mighty Thor were also favorites before that year was complete.
Marvel had also, around this time, started producing collections highlighting stories from over that past thirteen years, as in the already mentioned Marvel Triple Action and in one of my favorite books from that time, Bring On The Bad Guys. The most eye-catching of these ventures were the Marvel Treasury Editions.
These bad boys were 10″ x 13″ square-bound collections, reprinting obscure classics.
They were freaking huge. Especially to an eight year-old.
The previous year, I’d found The Avengers Treasury Edition, just as I was becoming good and addicted to the title, and also discovered Doctor Strange the same way. This year, Marvel Treasury Edition #10 was released, and upon seeing it on the newsstand, I had to have it, even though, aside from his appearances in The Avengers, I hadn’t really read much about the main character, Thor.
I mean, look at that cover! How could I pass it up?
The only other Thor story I’d read was in Marvel Spectacular #8, which reprinted the first appearance of the Troll, Ulik, from Thor #137. And Lo and Behold! Who should be on the cover of this gigantic Marvel Treasury Edition, but Ulik battling Thor, with a title that demanded attention: “The Hammer and The Holocaust!”
I didn’t know what it was, but I had to read it.
The book collects The Mighty Thor issues 154-157 and opens with a rapturous Thor wondering why his father, Odin, had stayed his hand, keeping him from killing his brother, the “Prince of Evil,” Loki. If there was any way of opening a story that would set it apart from other titles on the shelf, this was it.
“Father, why won’t you let me kill my brother?”
It turns out that Thor is ready to murder – sorry, execute – his half-brother because Loki had nearly killed Thor’s love, the warrior, Sif. Then, as Thor visits her at her hospital bed, he is visited by the Goddess of Death, Hela, who gives him a vision of the afterlife in Valhalla, where even Thor’s dead foes praise him and can’t wait for him to arrive and lead them in never-ending battle.
Thor’s response? An extremely hesitant, “I say thee nay!”
As long as there’s evil in the world, Thor’s on a mission to destroy it.
You have to understand. When I was eight years old, my heroes were Robin Hood and Old Yeller. Part of the appeal of both characters was the fact that they gave their whole heart to fighting and defending those they loved. And both died horribly, put down by the very ones they’d spent their lives trying to protect.
This sort of hero worship at such a young age has scarred me to this day.
It has also warped my definition of masculinity, I’m sure, but that’s a discussion for another day.
In just these few opening pages, Thor was defined for me in a way that made him one of my favorite characters to this day.
Meanwhile, back in the story, who should arrive on the scene but the only Thor villain I was actually familiar with, Ulik the Troll. Now, Ulik was a badass. He survives the deadly “Endless Fall” only to discover the long lost “Odin Cave.”
This is where we are introduced to the mixture of Mythology and Science Fiction that helped cement Thor in my heart. Buried in the Odin Cave is the last survivor of an alien race that eons ago attempted to invade Asgard. Odin sealed the survivor in the cave and ordered no one to fiddle with him.
Of course, Ulik sees this as his chance for revenge, so he frees the monstrous creature known as Mangog.
Look at that thing. Imagine being eight years old and turning the page to see that thing staring out at you with a face nearly as big as your own.
I was hooked.
The rest of this first chapter is spent setting the scene and reinforcing Thor’s character. Ulik is humbled by the power of Mangog. We discover that Odin has entered the Odin-Sleep, where he sleeps to renew his Eternal Life and cannot be awakened prematurely – because it will kill him! Plus, Loki seizes the throne in Thor’s absence.
And where’s Thor? Stopping muggers and teaching hippies that life isn’t about dropping out, it’s about plunging in.
Thor’s dropping life lessons while a gigantic monster is awakening and vowing to destroy all life on Earth. How awesome is that?
Chapter Two establishes that something bad is brewing, and even though our heroes don’t know exactly what it is, there’s a general sense of unease. Not only are the skies darkening, but even Sif, on her sickbed suddenly comes to life. She and Thor transport themselves to Asgard via Thor’s magical hammer.
Meanwhile, in the far reaches of space, crazy big-headed aliens also realize something bad is heading for Earth. They, as one might expect, send a humanoid robotic Recorder to Earth to see what’s what.
I had no idea who these aliens were, and the shot of Recorder leaving Ego, The Living Planet was so bizarre a concept that I was stunned.
Which left me emotionally open for a scene right out of a Robin Hood adventure. The Warriors Three, Fandral the Dashing, Hogun the Grim, and Valorous Volstagg, are in the middle of a huge bar-room brawl. I think it goes without saying that I was immediately in love with The Warriors Three.
Again, for better or worse, I think my concept of what makes a Man was partially formed by these characters.
The rest of this issue is essentially scene after scene of chaos and destruction as Mangog beats the living hell out of Storm Giants, Asgardian warriors, and the Warriors Three. Although that last bit happens off-camera.
I suppose I should mention at this point that this is a classic Stan Lee & Jack Kirby production. Over in my Mondo Marvel column, I’ve been reading and commenting on the first Thor stories and lamenting the fact that the main Thor stories are nowhere near as epic and entertaining as the “Tales of Asgard” short pieces. Well, this “Mangog Saga” captures everything I’ve been longing for over in that column.
And this chapter epitomizes it all.
Not only do we get a truly god-level threat to Life Itself, we get full-fledged Kirby Big Action. Those people bitching about the upcoming Thor film looking too sci-fi with not enough Norse Mythology need to sit down and take a look at the source material. The Asgardian warriors
are wearing space-age armor and firing gigantic science fiction missiles at a humongous space alien. And the space alien is killing them right and left.
If anything, the movie doesn’t seem to be epic and sci-fi techy enough.
Anyway, this is where we learn the source of Mangog’s power. It seems that the alien race Odin destroyed all those years ago, created Mangog as their doomsday weapon. They stored the “unimaginable might of a billion, billion beings” in the entity they named, Mangog!
Yes. You read that right. Odin destroyed an entire alien race, and before the genocide took place, they put all their power into an unstoppable killing machine. A billion, billion people. Holy crap!
Who’s the bad guy here?
My eight year-old brain was spinning! And my Forty-two year-old brain is digging the moral ambiguity!
Kirby’s action pages are some of the best in the history of the business.
Go on. Argue that with me.
And this issue is almost entirely devoted to a massive, earth-shaking, sky-rattling battle between the God of Thunder and a monster with the power of a Billion, Billion Entities.
Needless to say, things get rocked.
The action only pauses for a brief look at Loki on the throne, the arrival of The Recorder, and the realization at the end of the chapter that Mangog is coming to draw the gigantic Odinsword and end life as we know it, while Sif vows to die defending us all.
It doesn’t get much more epic.
One of the things that I still love about this story is the scale of it all. This is life or death conflict where heroes are defined by their actions. It’s exactly the sort of maelstrom where a developing sense of masculinity can find role models.
And the action! Oh lordy.
It’s like a Led Zeppelin or a Jimi Hendrix song come to life. Mountains crumble, tornadoes rage, and volcanoes erupt. White-hot lava balls are hurled and earth-shattering floods are let loose.
This is how you do it, ladies and gentlemen.
I give you, Jack “King” Kirby.
It doesn’t get much better than that, to this very day.
I don’t know what it was about me as a kid. Maybe it was the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, my heroes all ended up dead.
But this story, along with “The Korvac Saga” over in The Avengers a couple of years later, was one of the most powerful and influential to me as a child. If you know anything about “The Korvac Saga” then you know that that’s the story where all of The Avengers die and it turns out the god-like villain might not have been so bad after all. Of course, there’s an out in the end, and all the heroes who sacrificed their lives to save the world aren’t really dead, but the effect was the same on my young mind.
“The Mangog Saga” hits most of the same notes. This is a threat that proves one’s mettle. This is a threat where people die. And they don’t die pretty. They die facing overwhelming odds and they do it because it’s the right thing to do. They know they’re going to die and they fight on anyway.
For an eight year-old kid with practically no knowledge or experience in the Real World, this was huge stuff. Defining stuff.
This chapter is all about the inevitability of death and how one chooses to face it. It may sound stupid now, but as a child, this comic showed me an ideal about how to face fear and oblivion.
It’s all about simple acceptance and the absence of ego.
Death is inevitable and not to be feared. When that is understood, Right Action (as the philosophers call it) is clear. You give your all for the good of others. It’s that simple.
You get smacked down and you get up again. You hurt, but you keep fighting. If there’s a meaning to life, it’s in this concept. The meaning of life is to live. Nobility is living for the betterment of others. And there’s nothing so noble as giving everything you have, even your life, to protect and ensure the lives of others.
That’s what I get out of this silly, superhero comic, anyway.
The point is that everyone (except Ulik and Loki, of course) in this story, gave their all to fend off the inevitable. As you would expect, our heroes all live, but countless others did die. We don’t know their names. We don’t even see most of it happen. But again, that’s not the point.
The point is, especially to that eight year-old me, that they sacrificed their lives for others even though there was no hope of victory, and that was the right thing to do.
That’s what comics can communicate.
That’s what comics can teach.
And even better, in the end we discover that Odin didn’t commit genocide on an entire alien race. Mangog was not their final weapon, but their prison. Those billion, billion souls were still alive, doing penance for their warlike ways, and in the end they are set free to live in peace.
Such is Odin’s judgement! Such is Odin’s Will!