Thor: Tales of Asgard

Posted by on December 21st, 2010 at 12:01 AM


Image nicked from Mickey’s Tavern.


Thor: Tales of Asgard
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Marvel Entertainment
304 pp.; $29.99
Color hardcover
ISBN: 9780785131218

This volume gathers up almost 50 episodes of a back-up series begun in 1963 in the last issues of Journey into Mystery and continued into the first issues of Thor. To my eyes back then, they were some of the most awesome and best-looking comics coming from Marvel. To my eyes now, the initial installments stand among selected arcs as the absolute peak of the partnership of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Some credit goes to the nature of the material itself. Here was the primal, epic drama of Norse mythology, adapted to suit. Narration was straightforward, immediate, immediately comprehensible and emotionally resonant. It offered Kirby the opportunity to go cosmic in a most unconstrained fashion: glistening towers and sprawling antechambers of the godly realm, infernal wastelands of the cursed, outlandish costumes for friend and foe alike, imaginatively configured monsters and demons. In terms of content, this one had it all. Throughout this material Kirby sustained a stately grandeur he achieved only intermittently elsewhere and then chiefly with splash pages.

For Lee the series was felicitous as well. Its point of origin was already elevated and classy, all sweep and pageantry with no need for a writer to labor for majesty, with no compelling need to exaggerate for effect. It left the mundane behind. There was no street level savvy to be established, no snappy banter as white noise, no petty criminals out robbing banks. This was heavens-shaking stuff, creation myths, the foundation of worlds and the origins of gods, with profoundly human emotions as touchstones. Lee was at his most purple, Old Testamental thunderings burnished by Shakespearean accents (and often channeled through yesteryear’s screen stars, like Douglas Fairbanks Jr.: “Make way, thou base and lowly varlets!”) yet here it did not seem so terribly out of place. Plots were simple and at their very best at the beginning, when much of the narration was carried in captions.

Credit too goes to the strategically fortuitous marriage of content to format. The monthly template was that of a full-page introductory splash followed by four pages divided into neat quarters, as providential and rigid as the stanzas of the earliest heroic poems structured for recitation. Kirby excelled and the telling was tight: the formation of Asgard in five pages; the overthrow of elemental demons at five pages per demon; the boyhood of Thor in tidy, rounded five-page installments; and “biographies in depth” of Heimdall and Balder which could be dispatched by Lee in two segments each. These were like bedtime stories that could tide you over when you were unable to drop immediately off to sleep.


From “The Thunder God and the Troll!,” written by Stan Lee, penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Vince Colletta, in Thor #137; ©1967 Marvel Comics, Inc.


But after the commendations, the carping: as series moved along, extended multi-part yarns became the norm, growing longer and shaggier at every new angling branch. Plotting becomes more seat-of-the-pants, less rooted to its wellsprings. Overarching outlines were lost while one hook replaced another in driving the action at hand: retrieve the Warlock’s Eye; duck the Dark Horse of Death; check out Nastrond, a land Odin once laid to waste; wind up in Hindi or The Mystic Mountain or Xanadu /Zanadu to fight Fafnir, Ogur, Mogul and his giant jinni, Alibar and the Forty Demons and all manner of grotesques and towering monsters reminiscent of J.i.M.‘s pre-superhero days when huge brutes and supernatural creatures dominated the covers. The universe’s demise though the cataclysmic cracks in the Odinsword and/or inevitable Ragnarock were graphically forewarned then forgotten, a cosmology afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Lee grows ever more verbose, crowding panels with voluble, redundant balloons in a runaway fabrication he can’t even keep track of. (“If it all sounds too complicated, stay with us, true believer… We’ll try and clear it up for you… somehow!”) Kirby churns out dashing postures and titanic clashes but it’s all special effects, like car crashes and explosions filling the screen for different paying customers, my own eyes having wandered away by then.

That transition occurs too early and it’s too bad but what happens from the get-go in this volume is a real shame. It’s been recolorized, presumably for modern tastes, forgoing authenticity and handcraft for something worse. Chromatic shades are graded to add surface appearance, to accent, to supply “character” to smoke, flames, icepack, fur, water, background, etc. There’s an attempt to make scenes and things more molded, more sculpted, more 3D. Page and panel palettes are narrowed to more sympathetic proximity. Some clustered objects are lumped together with the same brush, fusing them together under one tone, others made to pop out.

The net effect is to diminish the significance of forms. The impact of inked lines for contour and texture is blunted. Figures are dulled, softened, made less stark, less elemental. Regardless of what one thinks about the actual choice of colors (I’m not crazy about them as a whole), this is Kirby shrouded, smoothed out and tarted up. The loss is significant. (To be fair, revisionist recoloring began as early as the first reprint comic of the Asgard stories back in 1968.)

This volume is rounded out by a similarly recolored reprint of Thor’s origin from J.i.M. #83, maps of Asgard and the The Nine Worlds, pages of character profiles from (I’m presuming) the Marvel Universe index, the interlocking covers in fold-out form from the most recent reprinting of the Tales that formed this book, sketches and various other goodies. Fine for those who care about that sort of thing but everybody would have benefited from a table of contents.


From “To Die Like a God!,” written by Stan Lee, penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Vince Colletta, in Thor #139; ©1967 Marvel Comics, Inc.


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