In praise of Marvel Essentials (or, Thor is awesome)


September 4, 2012 by Julia

(contains spoilers for the Thor comics and live-action movie)

I’ve always been an X-Men fan (well, for as long as I’ve been reading American comics), so when Marvel FINALLY figured out that it could get a cut of what the secondary comics market was getting by re-publishing the entire runs of long-running series in compilation volumes for $20 each, well, I was planning to pick up the full run of X-Men (slowly, over time).  What I never expected was the Avengers.

I am somewhat distrustful of the rest of the Marvel Universe, because it has always seemed like nothing but a ploy to get more of my money by making me buy 30 issues per month instead of one or two.  Therefore, I studiously stuck to X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, although I did at one point own the entire run of the first Deadpool series, because duh, Deadpool.  But, with the exception of Wade Wilson, I was an X-Men girl (Gambit in particular, of course).  I first saw the cartoon, which I adored, but which gave me a somewhat incorrect history of the X-Men side of the Marvel Universe by completing re-writing Days of Future Past.  Once I started reading the comics, I was loyal through around 2002 or so, when I got sick of the terrible art; I had just started getting REALLY into manga, and whoever was drawing X-Men at the time seemed clearly incompetant when compared to CLAMP and Tanemura Arina.

I never knew much about other Marvel heroes other than what I learned through crossovers, or by simply existing in geek culture.  My husband is a huge X-Factor fan, so I started reading some of the new X-Factor series after we got married, but we’re still talking the X-Men side of the universe there.  I also despise the live action X-Men movies and I thought the first Hulk movie was mind-numbingly terrible, so I was very dubious of new Marvel movies . . . until Iron Man came out.  I agreed to go because the Spider Man movies were entertaining, and because I knew absolutely nothing about the Avengers or Iron Man, so there was little chance of my head exploding like it did after the first and second X-Men movies.  Obviously, as we all know, the first Iron Man movie was fantastic, and I thought the idea of putting together an Avengers movie franchise seemed like a great thing for the comic industry, so I was cautiously optimistic.  Captain America and Hulk have never especially interested me as characters, but I was starting to like Iron Man (although I understand he is a jerk in the comics) and I knew nothing about comic-continuity Thor.  When I first saw the Thor movie trailer, I was willing to see it in theaters, but there was so much potential for tackiness and bad effects that I went in with very low expectations.  I also don’t particularly like Kenneth Branagh, so that didn’t help.

OMG.  I walked out of the Thor movie IN LOVE with the character, the franchise, and Chris Hemsworth.  The effects were great, they put together a believeable Asgard and Bifrost that didn’t look like an acid trip, Chris Hemsworth took his shirt off, the character of Thor was an effective, sympathetic hero without sacrificing his Viking-ness . . . LOVE.  I had to know more about this franchise, so I went down to my library and took out Essential Thor volume 1, because my library system is awesome and has most of the Marvel Essentials.

Volume 1 collects Journey Into Mystery #83-112, which is where the Thor story was originally told (along with a flashback story called Tales from Asgard, which is also contained in the Essential Thor volumes); Journey into Mystery was eventually re-named Thor.  Considering that Thor first appeared in 1962, he fights the usual cast of 60s villains:  lots of space aliens, Communists, time-travelers, South American drug lords, and various mildly-characterized supervillains (mostly Mr. Hyde and the Cobra to start with).  There are two different villains called the Executioner, although only the Asgardian one sticks around and becomes a staple of Marvel villainy.

One of the things I found most interesting, though, was the completely different origin story.  I believe the movie version as an alternate universe version of Thor’s return to Earth, but I have to think that way to keep myself from having the same kneejerk reaction of utter contempt that I feel for the X-Men movies.  In the comics (i.e. canon), Dr. Don Blake finds the hammer Mjolnir in a cave, and when he picks it up (to fight space aliens, natch), he transforms into Thor.  I can understand why this didn’t make it into the movie–not due to space aliens, but having to characterize an extra person who is not actually the main draw.  People won’t show up in a theater to see Don Blake, but they’ll show up to see Thor.  I feel the same way about Bruce Banner/Hulk, but maybe that’s just the sheer boring-ness of the first Hulk movie talking (I never saw the second one; the first one totally ruined any chance Hulk had of interesting me).  It was much more interesting to start out with Asgardian backstory instead of Don Blake backstory.

This leads me to something else I found extremely interesting:  the Don Blake/Thor dichotomy.  Reviewers of volume 1 on complain about this, but I find it fascinating, although I’m not sure what that says about either me or them.  At any rate, in his first appearance, the character “Thor” is actually Don Blake, who can choose to turn into Thor when necessary.  Don Blake loves Jane Nelson Foster (yes, her name changes several issues after her first appearance), is a doctor, and maintains his own thoughts and speech patterns even when transformed into Thor.  Over time, though, he starts to talk like the Thor of Tales from Asgard when he is in Thor-mode and he starts to think like Thor when he is in Don Blake-mode (even calling Odin his father when he is definitely Don Blake).  By the end of Essential Thor volume 2, which I recently finished, he is in Thor-mode 24/7 and barely shows up on Earth to maintain his medical practice.  Indeed, at one point when he does go back, all of his patients have left.  He speaks entirely in the Marvel version of Asgardian English, and refers to Don Blake as his disguise or human form.  The only vestige of Don Blake left is Thor’s love for Jane Foster, and even that is waning (gone?) by the end of volume 2 (issue 136).

Clearly, the spirit of Thor has taken over the body of Don Blake, to the exclusion of the original Don Blake personality.  I suspect what really happened is that Stan Lee thought it was more fun to write about Thor as a god than Don Blake as a doctor who could transform into Thor, and so Don Blake slowly fell by the wayside.  What has not been addressed yet, though–and what I hope is addressed later on, but please don’t spoil it if it is, because I hate spoilers–is how in the heck Thor’s spirit got trapped in Mjolnir in the first place.  I don’t even know if that’s what Stan Lee was going for, but that is clearly what happened.  Also, I would love to have seen more of the struggle (WAS there a struggle?) as Thor gradually took over someone else’s body. Maybe Don Blake consented, feeling gratified that his formerly lame body could be the base for Thor’s powers; alternatively, maybe Don Blake is (at the end of volume 2) screaming inside Thor’s head that if it weren’t for Thor’s nature as a “deity,” Don Blake would be married to Jane Foster.

I put “deity” in quotes because it is obvious, even from the movie, that the Asgardians are NOT deities–they are space aliens who happen to be immortal.  They showed up on Earth, along with some other immortal aliens, and set themselves up as gods, but they are definitely aliens.  All of the Asgard scenes show a mix of magic and advanced science in use, even by Loki; the comics don’t even try to hide it, and the movie didn’t really either.

Anyway, I’ll close with a discussion of my favorite issue so far, which is #136.  Thor has finally revealed his identity to Jane Foster, gotten permission from Odin to marry her, and saved Hercules from Pluto (because somehow Olympus contains a whole bunch of Greek gods and demigods . . . and Pluto), and he shows up at Asgard with Jane Foster so that Odin can make her an immortal.  Odin gives her the power of flight, and directs her to prove her noble, godly character by defeating the monster Unknown (seriously).  What I LOVE about this is that Jane fails the test!  She can’t handle the power of flight because she doesn’t trust Odin, and she freaks out and gets too scared to do anything when Unknown shows up, and Thor has to save her.  In the end, Odin wipes her memory and sends her back to Earth to fall in love with a human doctor, and Thor is reunited with Sif.

In a series (nay, universe) where the hero almost always finds a way to succeed, however unlikely the success may be, seeing someone fail is almost refreshing.  Thor can find a way to win because he is a “god,” but Jane Foster is a human and she has human frailties and fears–and she is not strong enough to overcome them.  I’m not even sure that is a “weakness” that can be criticized, because the vast majority of humans would have the same problem were they to be suddenly granted the power of a god and told to fight a giant creepy monster.  I have to give Stan Lee tons of credit for acknowledging that never the heroine nor love always wins.

Anyway, if you’ve been thinking of catching up on a series, or starting a new one, I highly recommend the Marvel Essentials.  With a $20 cover price for a good 3 years of comics, they can be purchased at a great value.  Don’t forget to check your library as well, because that’s been very convenient for me.


3 thoughts on “In praise of Marvel Essentials (or, Thor is awesome)

  1. Ish says:

    The only thing I’ve never liked about the Essential Marvel line is that the books are all printed in black-and-white. DC Comics has a similar range of black-and-white reprint paperbacks, Showcase Presents, and the lack of color in those books bugs me too. The DC Archive Edition books and the Marvel Masterworks line, despite having a lower page count and slightly higher price, do print these classic comics in full color.

    I’ve always been more of a DC fan than Marvel… although both of the major publishers seem desperate to drive me away from comicbook fandom through constant gimmicks, reboots, and retcons.

    • Julia says:

      It doesn’t bother me one bit, to be honest. Jack Kirby’s art is great regardless, and printing in black and white allows me to purchase more content for the same price. For the folks who want to pay more for less quantity (with higher quality), like you said, there are other options–the free market at work 🙂 Each consumer has his/her priorities.

      DC’s characters just don’t interest me. The only DC property I have ever enjoyed is Batman, and even then only the cartoon. Marvel has more people to choose from, across a broad spectrum of criteria. There are more people written in a way with which I can sympathize.

      • Ish says:

        I could take that last paragraph, swap the names of the publishers around, and say the same thing about why I generally pefer DC to Marvel. It’s a debate that has raged amongst nerds since the 1960’s and will no doubt continue until the 2060’s, but really has no conclusion.

        I have learned over the years that comics are a lot less frustrating when I try to follow authors, rather than titles or specific characters. For example, I know that just about anything Gail Simone, Robert Kirkman, Joss Whedon or Kevin Smith writes is going to be something worthwhile… but my many attempts over the years to follow, say, X-Men, is thwarted by Marvel letting every new creative team that comes onto the book “reboot” or “re-invent” the title.

        Still, I cannot get over my insaitable love for all things Batgirl. No matter what crap DC does to the character, I still keep on reading… Seriously, I own the entire 73-issue run of Batgirl vol. 1 (2000-2006) which, quite frankly, sucks on almost every level: bad art, bad writing, inconsistent characterization of every main and supporting character, plot holes the size of Oa… but, dammit, it’s Batgirl.

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