Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Hammer Time

Posted by Don MacPherson on October 19th, 2010

Marvel’s hitting its customer base fast and furious with Thor comics these days, and anyone familiar with Marvel Studios’ slate of upcoming movies can tell why. Just as it did with its Iron Man franchise when the movie of the same name launched a couple of years ago, Marvel is pumping out the Thor material in anticipation of a demand that could arise after the Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor flick is released next year. I would’ve thought Thor would be a hard sell to a mass-media audience, but after seeing the trailer, I see the potential for a big hit. Anyhoo, let’s turn our attention to three recent Thor comics…

Regular coverVampire variant coverThor #616
by Matt Fraction & Pasqual Ferry

Writer Matt Fraction has transformed Marvel’s main Iron Man title into one of the smartest serial comic books today, as he explores thoroughly relevant economic, social and political realities of the real world in the unreal confines of the Marvel Universe. The writer’s shines through, and it’s fitting, since the central protagonist is one of the smartest people on the planet. So when Marvel announced Fraction was going to take over as the regular writer on Thor, I had high expectations. Given the title character’s status as a god (not only a god, but the chief god of an entire pantheon, as things stand at the moment), I imagined the writer would touch on themes involving faith, destiny and free will. I didn’t really find that here, but this is just his first issue. Still, he sets the stage for a cosmic conflict between Thor and what appears to be a rather generic villain. In fact, this issue felt incredibly familiar. I’m reminded of the Thanos storyline in Ultimate Fantastic Four from a few years ago. This opening chapter was a bit of a let down, to be honest, though I did appreciate that Fraction is picking up on the mourning Kelda subplot.

I suppose one of the reasons this comic book reminded me of that UFF story arc is that they’re illustrated by the same man. While the plot didn’t excite my imagination, Ferry’s art was a treat for the eye. His energetic linework is well suited to a story of cosmic proportions, as he’s demonstrated in the past. Again, the villain’s design is disappointingly ordinary and derivative. He looks just like Konvikt, the alien brute from DC’s weekly Trinity title from a couple of years ago. Matt Hollingsworth’s colors really add to the cosmic look and soften the divine figures somewhat. The colors even make the art looked as though it were painted at times. 5/10

Thor the Mighty Avenger #5
by Roger Langridge & Chris Samnee

While I’ve never been a big Thor fan historically, Roger Langridge’s recent Muppet Show work made me a convert to his creative efforts, so his involvement along with that of Chris Samnee made this is an easy addition to my pull list. Langridge hasn’t disappointed, though I’m surprised that since the third issue, the focus of the storytelling has shifted. While the amnesiac Thor’s main motivation is to learn humility on Earth, the title could easily be renamed Thor Team-Up. We had Giant-Man and the Wasp in the second issue, Captain Britain and the Warriors Three in the fourth, and now Namor turns up. Of course, there’s a certain logic to it. With next year’s anticipated Thor feature film, Marvel’s anticipating a demand for material featuring its Norse thunder god, and it clearly intends to use that potential boost in Thor’s profile to foster interest in other characters (with the collected editions that will no doubt be available once the movie’s in theatres). Fortunately, these teamups don’t derail the main plot, and Langridge’s takes on these classic Marvel characters unencumbered by continuity have been a real treat. Namor is much more level-headed and logical here, and as a result, this incarnation of the character is much more likeable.

Chris Samnee has always been a solid performer when it comes to comic art, but it’s with this project that he’s really showing the industry what he can do. He has managed to humanize the larger-than-life figure of Thor incredibly well. One can really see the youth and inexperience in the face of this interpretation of the character. His work is full of detail, but at the same time, he never loses his loose, flowing style. I was particularly taken with his take on the Sub-Mariner. He has a swimmer’s build — a much more logical design for the character than some of the muscle-bound, weightlifter looks we’ve seen for him from other artists in the past. Colorist Matt Wilson adds to the novel approach to the character, given him an ashen tone (even on the cover). Again, for someone who lives on the ocean floor, a pale look makes a lot of sense. Like the artists, the writer also delivers a novel take on Namor. He’s not the arrogant blowhard that we’ve seen in other Marvel comics. He’s much more reasonable and purpose-driven. A story in which Namor is the voice of reason isn’t the sort of thing we’re used to seeing, and I enjoyed the change of pace. 7/10

Regular coverCampbell variant coverUltimate Thor #1
by Jonathan Hickman, Carlos Pacheco & Dexter Vines

Jonathan Hickman established his reputation as a writer of intellectual comics with his various limited series published under the Image Comics banner, such as The Nightly News and Pax Romana. His star is rising at Marvel Comics these days, and this is his highest-profile assignment to date. He brings his smarts to bear here, cleverly connecting the Ultimate incarnation of Thor with World War II Germany. The Norse connection works well, and it brings an entertaining mix of history and mystery. It also offers the writer the opportunity to use more grounded antagonists — namely, the Ultimate versions of classic Captain America villains, the Barons Zemo (father and son). I’m genuinely excited to read this story. There’s a weird blend of genres happening here, and Hickman has really surprised me with the clever choices he’s made for characters to include. He also wisely works to humanize the powerful, lofty title character by taking time to emphasize the kinship among three brothers in a flashback that also serves to bring a moment of light into an otherwise dark, foreboding plot.Choi vVariant cover

This may be some of the strongest, cleanest comic art we’ve seen from Carlos Pacheco. He captures a sense of the mythic with seeming ease; of course, he’s always been adept at rendering powerful, larger-than-life figures, and this story’s full of them. I can only assume that collaborating with inker Dexter Vines has added a crisper, more polished quality to Pacheco’s line art. Furthermore, Edgar Delgado’s colors also bring a more refined look to bear. Delgado “lights” key scenes with those colors perfectly, enhancing the tension in the story. And the crystal blue tones he employs for the Frost Giants really pop off the page. 8/10

It’s understandable that Ultimate Thor and Thor the Mighty Avenger are more accessible titles, as they’re set in new or relatively newer continuities, lacking the heavier baggage of the mainstream Marvel Universe Thor title. Still, it is a bit surprising that this two newer books are so much better. To be fair, though, I need to give Matt Fraction more time to find his voice on Thor; the strength of most of his past efforts would tend to indicate that it will improve.

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