As of this writing, Thor’s been dead in the Marvel Universe for over a year, while scattered miniseries have feebly attempted to fill the mythological void, and rumors hint at a returned God of Thunder in the form of a teenager. Surely, Thor fans have seen better times.
Perhaps times had never been better than under the pen and pencil of Walt Simonson. His name seems eternally attached to the character, and vice versa, despite a run that concluded nearly 20 years ago. I myself have been a fan of neither creator nor character, having only dabbled in random issues of Simonson’s Orion and the first year of Thor’s relaunch, but the hype finally won over my curiosity.
I have to preface this review by noting that many consider the subsequent collections of the run to be the seminal moments that defined it as a must-read, and though I’ve only read this first collection, I can see much evidence in this first book that may lead to this conclusion. There are multiple plot threads that begin incredibly slowly and subtly and don’t manifest themselves in the main plot for many issues – for example, Surtur appears in shadow in the very first issue, but doesn’t make a full splash appearance until nearly ten issues later! It can’t be denied that Simonson knows how to build suspense and interest, but at the same time it’s nearly impossible to let this collection stand on its own.
Because so many subplots build so slowly over so many issues, it’s often hard to grasp their purpose for introduction and how they’ll be integrated into the main plot. For the life of me, I’m utterly confused, not to mention rather bored, with the solo adventure of Balder, and by the end of this collection it’s still in progress. Too often I felt confused as to where the plots were leading and why a certain subplot was being told. Not only subplots, but entirely new main plots would sometimes enter a story at the very end of an issue that was devoted to finishing a wholly separate story. Plotting of this scope seems retrospectively innovative for its time, which could be why it didn’t always succeed.
The main plots, though standard superhero fare, are definitely the strength of the series. Thor runs into foes like Fafnir the dragon and Malekith the dark elf, meets unlikely allies in Nick Fury and Beta Ray Bill, and even establishes an absurd-yet-effective secret identity for himself. His adventures span the streets of Manhattan to the depths of space. There is a distinctly epic feel to the scope of the conflicts and the stakes often involve the lives of entire civilizations. I don’t think it’s too early to wager that this epic scale was the primary draw for fans the first time around.
And speaking of epic scale, there’s the art. Like I said, I’m rather unfamiliar with Simonson, but there’s no denying he can render page after page of power and energy. Such depictions are raw and dynamic, infused with a titanic and mythological weight, and yet there’s a simple elegance to the style that brings emotive expression to all the characters, from the background bystanders to the monsters and beasts.
Assuming the successive collections really pick up in quality, I find it difficult to recommend collections like this and Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller Vol. 1. On one hand, they’re lead-ins to what many consider the greatest creative runs on the characters, and yet the initial collections often lack the depth, cohesion, and energy achieved in later issues; clearly, these creators didn’t have trades in mind when they sat down to plot out a single issue. Completists and longtime fans of the creators and runs will likely get the most out of the earlier issues, and yet new readers will likely be lost if they jump right to the second volume. As long as latter volumes live up to the legendary hype, this mediocre first volume is a necessary purchase.