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The Reread Reviews – Introduction and Thor #491-494

by  in Comic News Comment
The Reread Reviews – Introduction and Thor #491-494

Hey there. As Brian said earlier today, I’m Chad Nevett and I will be contributing to the blog from now on. I figured I should begin with a little introduction and then jump into the first post in a regular feature I’ll be doing called the Reread Reviews. So, join me below the cut and we can get a little better acquainted. There will be spoilers.

As far as introducing myself, I’m not sure exactly what to tell you. I have a blog, GraphiContent, which I’ve been posting at for a bit over four years with Steve Higgins. I do a (supposed-to-be-) weekly column, “The Splash Page,” with Tim Callahan, and we’ve collected the columns we did on Final Crisis at the Final Crisis Dialogues. I also do do reviews for CBR. Beyond that, I’ve been reading comics my entire life thanks to my dad, currently live in Windsor, Ontario, and received a Master’s in English with a specialisation in creative writing last year. Over on GraphiContent, I’ve devoted a lot of time into analysing the works of Joe Casey one issue at a time, and that’s become my little niche area of comics criticism it seems, so it wouldn’t be a big leap to expect the odd post on Casey’s work here, albeit not in the same form (or for the same purpose) as it is on GraphiContent. Also, like Brad Curran, I’m a big wrestling fan, so maybe I’ll work that in at some point.

I want to do something a little different here, not merely take what I’m already doing at GraphiContent and move it over, but since I do a little bit of everything there, I wasn’t sure exactly what I could do here that’s unique. But, I think I’ve come up with something: the Reread Reviews. (And I know, it’s kind of a dumb name, but it tells you what you’re getting and I have a weakness for alliteration.) Each week, I will review something that I’ve read at least once before in the past. Reviews are usually geared at the new and first impressions, but I think there’s something to be gained by coming back to works with a fresh set of eyes at a later date. How does knowing what happens change the experience of reading? How do the changes in your taste affect your enjoyment? What new things do you notice in the work? I have many stacks of trades and boxes of back issues to draw upon and I think it could be interesting. There will be no logic behind my choices other than personal whims. The work can be something from my childhood that I haven’t read in a decade or more, or it can be a recently concluded storyarc that I feel like rereading. I will contextualise my initial reading experience(s) and, when applicable, reference reviews or thoughts I’ve written online previously.

For my first Reread Review, I’ll be looking at Thor #491-494, “Worldengine,” by Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato, Jr.

As far as comics go that influenced and changed my direction as a reader, these four issues may top the list. Published in the late summer/fall of 1995, I was 12 and these issues blew my pre-teen mind. I was a dedicated reader of Thor, having come aboard with The Mighty Thor #471, which was the concluding chapter in the “Blood & Thunder” crossover with Warlock & The Infinity Watch, The Warlock Chronicles, and The Silver Surfer. My dad was a regular reader of all of those titles except for The Silver Surfer, so I had access to the crossover and got interested in it. However, the issues that comprised that story were my dad’s last with each of the books–but, since I was showing an interest in Thor, he continued to buy that title and gave the issues to me. If you’re familiar with those 20 issues that stretch from “Blood & Thunder” to “Worldengine,” you’ll know that they were pretty bad. And by that I mean, they were garbage, absolute wastes of paper, what the hell was I thinking? During that time, Thor began hanging out with the High Evolutionary, got a very lame costume change, learned that Donald Blake never existed, was replaced by Red Norvell as the Thor in Asgard, fought various superheroes known for their strength like the Thing and Hulk, and provided a conclusion to the cancelled Thunderstrike series (which starred Eric Masterson, the second human host/co-entity/whatever you want to call it for Thor). All of it was sub-mediocre, but I was a kid and what did I know?

Then came Thor #491. Then came Warren Ellis.

While Thor #491 wasn’t my first experience with Warren Ellis since I had read the odd issue of his Excalibur run (particularly his “Age of Apocalypse” X-Calibre), it was my first conscious experience with his writing. Prior to his coming on board, I learned in Disney Adventures that he would be taking over the book soon with the small news bit describing him as the British king of grit or something like that. My 12-year old self was intrigued and the expectations were high. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, honestly, but I was excited about what promised to be a new, different direction for the character. Little did I know how different it would be.

Thor #491 begins with Thor writing in a notebook not in his traditional manner of speech, but in the same way that “regular” people speak. We close in on “a skyscraper, abandoned by its builders” and find Thor living in a small, one-room shack on the roof. His hammer lies on the floor, his helmet too, while he is hunched over a desk, looks like utter crap, and is dying. Ellis’s narration is blunt, Deodato’s art is dark, brooding, detailed yet sketchy. Thor calls for Odin, who arrives a giant in the sky, his word balloons rendered in a rune-like font, and he tells his son that he’s glad that he’s dying. Thor is a proud, selfish little brat and he’s no longer any son of Odin. He chose life on Earth and if that means dying like everyone else on Earth, so be it.

This was not the sort of Thor comic I was accustomed to. And things only got stranger, darker and more intense. Thor battles rotting warriors made of ash wood and cheap radio parts, is kidnapped by and hooks up with the Enchantress, Beta Ray Bill has a seizure and goes into a coma, Odin is a rambling old man, a British cop on loan to Code: Blue in New York yells a lot about smoking and how he hates New York, while an insane old man who had a vision while on drugs and ate his wife is trying to create post-apocalyptic humans that die immediately because there’s simply not enough atomised bits of human flesh in the air. Yes, in hindsight, it’s a Warren Ellis comic, what else would you expect? But, I was 12 and Ellis was new to me, and, yeah, I loved every page of it. I devoured these four issues, I poured over them, I read and reread them. I had never encountered anything like this in regular superhero comics. I’d seen this sort of thing in Marshall Law and Watchmen (both of which I read without my parents’ knowledge at a shockingly young age), but not in a Marvel comic! This was beyond killing Superman or breaking Batman’s back. Thor wasn’t dying in battle, he was dying the horrible sort of death with vomiting blood and cramps. His enemy was a small, insane old man who took drugs and ate people. He slept with an old enemy and she strutted around half-naked, and made various sexual innuendos. The cop was rude and shouty, seemed to hate everyone and everything around him. And this was a Marvel comic! I was accustomed to Thor running around with weird animal people and getting into fights with other heroes through misunderstandings, not this sort of thing.

Now, I’m 26 and I’m very used to that sort of thing. In fact, rereading these issues this morning, a lot of what Ellis does here seems very antiquated and clichéd for him. The British cop, Curzon, is the standard Ellis POV character that changed gender to become Jenny Sparks in Stormwatch a year later. Or was already present in Excalibur in Pete Wisdom. The dark humour is present in all of his work, the insults and jabs at superheroes and their juvenile conventions, too. The drug-taking, twisted, insane “villain” wouldn’t look out of place in any other Ellis comic, either.

That said, I enjoyed these issues quite a bit in rereading them. Ellis’s changes here aren’t meant to be cosmetic but to actually push Thor in a new direction, beyond his roots. His proposal for “Worldengine” begins with his mission statement for the story:

Worldengine is a four-episode story intended to rip apart the Thor we know and retool him for the next century or, at least, until the next time you fancy retooling him. There are, of course, sound economic reasons for doing this, which have been explained to me in length, but they are less important to me, in the long run, than the artistic needs of the book. It’s been the same for thirty years, this comic, and as much as we all respect the legacy of Jack Kirby, I honestly think he would not be pleased to find the comic the same as it was when he started it. Kirby was foursquare for change.

Or, as Ellis writes in his editor in #492:

In the earliest THOR stories, Thor was arguing with his Dad (Odin, the Ultimate Authority Figure — not only does he act like God like most authority figures, he is a God!), not being terribly Norse, and he didn’t have a girlfriend.

Of late, Thor was arguing with his Dad, not being terribly Norse, and he didn’t have a girlfriend.

To accomplish this (necessary) change, Ellis pulls the book in two directions that may seem at odds: putting Thor in a contemporary context in speech and attitude, and emphasising Norse mythology. Those two elements don’t seem like they would work well together, but Ellis pulls it off, mostly by forcing them to interact and commingle. Thor is a character heavily rooted in Norse mythology that also makes a conscious choice to live in contemporary Western society, so what issues would come about as a result of those two very different worlds coexisting? Forget typical superheroics for a moment since there’s no room for them yet–the basics need to be laid down, which is what “Worldengine” is all about.

The first issue focuses purposefully on Thor, establishing his new persona as a mortal. Aside from two pages to introduce the Enchantress at the Manhattan Ash Hotel, everything in 491 is centred on Thor. Pages are filled with his narration so we (and Ellis) can grow accustomed to his new voice. Even Odin loses the trademark faux-Shakespearean dialogue tics, while still maintaining an air of authority. He addresses the Odin question right off the bat in a harsh manner. When Thor says he’s dying, Odin responds, “Good.” Ellis cuts off the ties between Thor and Asgard, which would seem to put the Norse mythology aspect behind him in favour of… I don’t know, Thor becoming an urban vigilante with guns and a new horribly designed costume, flanked by a pair of big breasts attached a disproportionately small woman. Okay, so some of that actually happened, but it was the ’90s and there was no escaping that sort of nonsense completely. No, what I love about Ellis’s approach is that he follows up the Odin encounter with Thor resigning himself to death before being attacked by a rotting corpse of a Norse warrior that creeps up with a broadsword, growling, “DYING. LOVELY. COME TO HELP YOU DIE.” Deodato depicts the warrior in an exquisitely creepy manner, rain pouring, lighting flashing, evil grin, clawed hands, and Thor looking scared out of his mind, a weak shell of a man–who decides to fight back and live.

After dispatching the first warrior, a dozen more arrive, and Thor works his way through them despite his illness. Deodato’s work continues to impress, because the fight is messy (since the warriors are “shards of long-dead skull, cheap radio parts and splinters of ash wood, he could depict the fight as explicitly as he wanted) and Thor always looks equally messy. He looks like he’s struggling to defeat these things; while he may be spurred on by the desire to live, he’s still ill. He realises that the warriors were sent to kill him since he wasn’t dying fast enough, meaning his current illness is caused by someone. When he investigates by following the sole survivor of the encounter, he finds Yggdrasil, the World-Ash hooked up to giant pieces of technology and is knocked unconscious by someone.

The second and third issues of “Worldengine” alternate between Curzon, the British Inspector Detective on loan to Code: Blue as he’s handed a stack of reports of psychics having odd visions of a tree hooked up to a machine, homeless men having similar dreams, and the head of one of those weird warriors faced in the first issue. Curzon’s cynical attitude is typical Ellis (as I mentioned above), but he also acts a way for the reader to get into the story. As he researches the case and discovers the connections to Thor and Norse mythology, he’s a useless tool in relating that information to the readers. Part three of the story has several pages of the books and articles Curzon reads on Norse mythology and Thor. The most interesting one is an article on the nature of the Norse gods in the Marvel universe, speculating that they’re aliens whose technology has grown so advanced that it seems like magic even to them. In the passages “quote,” Ellis reveals an element of his writing that most tend to gloss over in favour of the cynical, violent, shocking bits: a genuine love for the world. Ellis’s writing always has in it something that points to The Way Things Should Be. It’s said that every cynic is really just a hopeless optimist and Ellis is no exception. Take Spider Jerusalem, a horribly brutal and violent man whose main goal in life is to expose corruption and stop those who would screw over the average person. There’s a hint of wanting the world to be better here as he writes,

No matter. Here today, they represent a thing which we, on the verge of the 21st Century, are in terrible danger of losing.

The sense of wonder.

This is laid atop a shot of Thor flying through the air, mouth open in a wide smile, birds surrounding him as he obviously has the time of his life just enjoying being him. The “sense of wonder” is key to Ellis’s approach here, because he doesn’t just want to drag Thor into the muck (which is what some may think he’s doing initially), he wants to grow him up a bit, but maintain that magic that the character possesses. Thor rejoices in these issues when he uses his powers. He loves what he can do, especially since he almost died. Wait, did I just jump ahead? Sorry.

The introduction of the Enchantress as Thor’s new love interest is a fairly obvious move as Ellis shifts Thor from childhood to, at least, being a teenager or young adult. He’s moved away from home, his father’s disowned him, he sheds his old, childish clothing, hooks up with a hot girl that he knows he shouldn’t be attracted to but can’t help it… Amora is the logical choice and Ellis has her initiate things and keep Thor alive using her magic. While this may be Thor’s book, Ellis clearly wants to treat the Enchantress as an equal, thankfully. The way she’s drawn is downright laughable with her legs literally taking up three quarters of her body and her back arched constantly in a manner that cannot be healthy. Again, it was the ’90s… not an excuse, merely an explanation. Their interplay reads very much as two teens or young adults who are trying to move past their childhoods. Yes, when they were kids, they had issues in that way boys and girls do, but, now, they’re grown and have realised that, hey, maybe the other one doesn’t have cooties. Not the approach many would take, but Ellis handles it deftly, everything feeling very natural and not forced. More than that, the amount of growth Ellis lends to Amora is impressive (albeit deceptive), as she says to Thor, in #493:

NO. YOU ALWAYS DID WHAT YOU FELT WAS RIGHT.

YOU ANGERED ME, YES, AND I WAS CHILDISH IN THAT ANGER, YES.

WHEN YOUNG, I PROBABLY BROKE A LOT OF THINGS I LOVED IN TANTRUMS.

I’M FLAWED.

The dialogue a little cheesy and overwrought, but attempts at sincerity usually are. What comes out explicitly is that childish love/hate relationship the two had: the Enchantress joined the Masters of Evil (a name that doesn’t pass without mockery on Ellis’s part) for the same reasons little boys tease little girls — misplaced affection that has no other outlet.

The final issue of “Worldengine” has the big reveal as Thor and the Enchantress return to the place where Amora’s men found Thor and discover the World-Ash still hooked up to giant pieces of machinery, all orchestrated by an old man by the name of Price. Price looks like he’s rotting despite still being alive with long finger nails, greasy long hair (despite being bald atop his head) and a weakness for cannibalism after he learned of the belief that knowledge is passed on through food. After an experience with fly agaric mushrooms (which he also mentions that certain Vikings ate in worship of Thor), he had a vision of Yggdrasil where it talked to him and told him of the race of humans that would spring from it following Ragnarök. So, he decided to fool the World-Ash into thinking Ragnarök had already occurred so it would produce these future humans. This is why Thor and Beta Ray Bill became ill as Red Norvell is the “official” Thor in Asgard, and there can be only one Thor at Ragnarök. In a post-Watchmen move, Thor and Amora arrive too late to stop Price’s plans, so they witness the births of future humans, giant, blue, alien-looking humanoids that promptly die since the atmospheric conditions are not what one would expect after all life died in flames. Price is torn apart by his minions (cloned from Thor’s DNA) and Thor manages to reverse the World-Ash’s internal clock.

Price’s odd mixture of mythology and technology is meant to be a sign of Thor‘s new direction. It’s no longer the schemes of Loki or the Absorbing Man, it’s just a small man who didn’t think things through, so obsessed in his own little world that nothing else mattered. Deodato’s work really shines here as he has Price ham it up as one would imagine his type to. His designs for post-Ragnarök humans is also very interesting and creepy.

Only one final bit of business remains: Curzon, who has gotten a device that tracks the radiation Thor emits. Here, we get a clue that Amora isn’t quite nearly as matured as she would like everyone (including herself) to believe: she kills him. Vaporises him without much thought. Of course, Curzon must die since his two purposes are no more: introduce us to Thor’s background and Norse mythology, and to act as Ellis’s stand-in. Since Ellis left after this issue, it’s only fitting that his stand-in exit stage left as well.

Overall, “Worldengine” was a rather good attempt at moving Thor forward. Although, I’m not sure where Ellis expected the character to go after this. He’s in Manhattan, mortal, wearing no shirt and living with the Enchantress. While the plot here involved Norse mythology, Ellis has closed the door on Asgard (for now). It’s no wonder that William Messner-Loebs’s run, continuing the direction that Ellis began floundered for the most part. That, immediately, Messner-Loebs had to tie Thor in with the other Avengers books didn’t help matters, but I’m still concerned over what Ellis intended here. He did update Thor, but as what exactly? That’s not entirely clear and I’m not sure this story is successful in that regard.

Deodato’s art was a bit part of why I enjoyed “Worldengine” the first time around. His style hasn’t changed a great deal in the 13 or so years since, although his skill has grown. His women aren’t nearly as poorly rendered as Amora is here. His art is more complete. His work here is very sketchy and incomplete in parts, lines left unfinished in ways that, while purposeful, don’t entirely work. He also tries to be inventive with his panel layouts in “Worldengine” with mixed results. There are numerous spots where his attempts to do new things made the book difficult to follow with no clear indication on the order of panels.

I should also mention the lettering of Jonathan Babcock, which plays a huge part in this story working. He uses numerous different font styles for Thor’s narration, word balloons, Odin’s dialogue, regular captions, the captions used for the books and articles that Curzon reads… And that it’s hand-lettered shows and is an asset. For Thor’s narration, we’re meant to think he’s writing it, so the sometimes uneven words work well to suggest that. It’s the odd little bit that just adds something special.

I’m glad “Worldengine” hasn’t lost much of the power it had when I first read it. Nothing is worse than revisiting something from your childhood and discovering that it’s absolute crap. I’m also glad that there are elements in “Worldengine” that I didn’t pick up my first time reading through, like the exact dynamics of Thor and Amora’s relationship. You miss out on those sorts of things when you’re young.

There you go, my first post here on Comics Should be Good. I won’t always be this long-winded, but I wanted to make my first post a big one. I will probably be doing the Reread Reviews on Sundays from now on, so look for the next instalment then. Maybe I’ll jump ahead to something a little more recent. Who knows? Thanks for reading.

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