Tuesday, December 15, 2009

J. Michael Straczynski's Thor in Review

The final issue of J. Michael Straczynski's acclaimed run on Thor has come to an end with the publication of Giant Size Thor Finale #1, so it seemed like a good time to take a look back at what JMS managed to accomplish and, of course, what he failed to accomplish with this run.

In many ways the Giant Size Thor Finale perfectly embodies all the things that frustrated me about this run. Firstly. it's published as an oversized special rather than a regular issue for no apparent reason other than to tack an extra dollar onto the price point. Not only do the events in this issue flow directly from all the previous issues, it's not a finale at all, as it is open-ended and leads right into Thor #604, the first issue by new (temporary) writer Keiron Gillen. Plus, the story is the same length as every other issue of Thor, with the "Giant-Size" aspect simply being more reprints.

This is an all-too familiar scenario for Thor readers since JMS took over back in the summer of 2007. That first issue of Thor, cover dated September but actually released in July, was a full two and a half years ago, which by normal publishing standards would mean that JMS should be completing a 30-issue run if the indica of the comic, which claims to be monthly, weren't a bald-faced fib. Instead, JMS managed only 17 issues during that time period, meaning the rest of the Thor publishing slack was picked up by a series of fill-ins, one-shots, reprints and specials, some of which, it should be noted, were actually better than the main product (thanks to the presence of Matt Fraction on many of them).

Giant Size Thor Finale is also symptomatic of JMS's modern (that is, slow) writing style, as it doesn't tie up his run so much as extend it yet again, continuing the pattern of dramatic deferral that JMS has perfected. About the only thing that is resolved, if you want to call it that, is the long-running, ongoing subplot of Oklahoma beef slab Bill and his erstwhile Asgardian lover Kelda. This ends with Bill dying to protect Balder and Kelda rushing off to confront Dr. Doom, who has teamed up with Loki to capture and dissect Asgardians in order to study their immortality. In the first few pages of Gillen's Thor #604, she shows up and Doom promptly rips her heart out. So after two plus years of this subplot, the point of it turned out to be... what exactly? I'm wondering just what these characters were intended to bring to the table, because if it was just this sequence, that's a ton of wasted pages to set up something that could have been accomplished without either of them existing in the first place.

If all this sounds overly harsh, it's because the real frustration with JMS's Thor is that parts of it were really good -- good enough to make the weaknesses especially glaring and annoying. Mostly, of course it's the pacing that was an issue, as even if these comics had come out on time there's no real reason it should take 17 meandering issues to get to this point. For those keeping track, the first arc of six issues brought the Asgardians back from their seeming death; the second arc, which was the high point of the series, gave us a glimpse at Loki's origin and his plot to have Thor exiled; and the third arc, still in progress, has the Asgardians moving to Latveria where they run into Doom.

Along the way we've had an inordinate amount of monologuing, especially between Thor and his alter-ego Don Blake; an extended series of vignettes in Oklahoma apparently designed to show the contrast between Asgardians and normal humans (something they didn't do particularly effectively or compellingly); this long-ass subplot with Bill and Kelda, which went nowhere; Loki as a woman for a year or more (why, again?); and basically one single issue with any action in it (the battle between Thor and Bor). And what does JMS has to show for all this? One compelling story (Loki's, trying together the two-part flashback origin with the death of Bor) and the much-needed reduction of Thor's powers to manageable levels by removing the Odin-force and re-introducing Don Blake to the mix, both of which are good moves in terms of making Thor a viable character who can actually interact with the Marvel Universe without overpowering it.

Was JMS's run on Thor bad? No, not by any means. But was it as good as some critics and fans (like the slurpers at IGN.com) would have you believe? Hell no. In the end his run was a solid if plodding reintroduction of Thor to the land of the living and in the process he did a lot of important infrastructure work on the character. Unfortunately, it came at the expense of actually telling interesting stories. Let's hope those who follow him on the book can take this two and a half year setup and actually -- finally -- do something with it.

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And this is precisely why I haven't bought a comic book in years (plus the 40 mile drive to the closest comic shop).