When J. Michael Straczynski began speaking about “Thor” when it was first announced, he made a point about saying that Thor wouldn’t speak in the faux-Shakespearean diction that Stan Lee saddled him with back in the 1960s. He may have drained the pseudo-Shakespearian lingo from the series, but he’s brought a different Elizabethan element to the fore: the machinations of the court.
In Shakespeare plays — along with those of Marlow, or Kidd, or Webster — the court was a place for political maneuvering and personal betrayal. Think “King Lear” or nearly any of Shakespeare’s dramas or histories. That’s the kind of thing Straczynski brings to “Thor,” particularly in issue #10, which makes no pretense at being a superhero comic, or an action/adventure comic, and instead settles into the mode of Renaissance drama, where the subtle unfolding of fate overlaps with personal ambition.
This new incarnation of “Thor” hasn’t been what you would call fast-paced. The series has little action and slowly developing character arcs. It’s not that kind of comic. Instead, it’s a drama that lingers on moments without feeling the need to artificially amplify the spectacle. These are gods walking the Earth. These are ornately costumed characters interacting with one another and speaking of grandiose events. There’s no need to throw in fisticuffs just because that was the norm a generation ago. And I, for one, appreciate the restraint. In some ways, this comic feels like a Vertigo comic of old — sort of a Neil Gaiman riff, although more reliant on art rather than dialogue. And I think it’s nice to see the Asgardian characters handled this way.
In issue #10, Loki (now in the form of a woman) presses Baldur to verify the truth about his parentage — to find out that he is, indeed, the son of Odin and brother to Thor. We know Loki’s not to be trusted, and so does Baldur, but like a classical tragedy, he cannot ignore his fate. He cannot walk away without seeking the truth, even though he must know that nothing good will come of it. It’s not even just Shakespearean — it goes back to Sophocles, as we stand like Jocasta and beg him to look no further, because it cannot end well. The reasons Baldur’s family secret was kept from him for so long are almost irrelevant — it had to do with a prophecy — but what does matter is how Baldur will handle the situation now, and when Loki suggests that Baldur accept the mantle as Prince of Asgard, Baldur cannot resist. Baldur, although skeptical, gives Loki the benefit of the doubt. Surely a mistake, but a classic one.
In addition to the court intrigue, Straczynski shows a bit of Earth drama as well. We see some of the repercussions of the Asgardian presence. He doesn’t simply use the humans as foils to show how superior the Asgardians are, but, instead, Straczynski uses the humans to tie the story together thematically. The humans are struggling with temptation and curiosity, just as the gods are. And the characters on each level interrelate, but not in a heavy-handed way.
Olivier Coipel’s art is fantastic, too. He’s come a long way since “Legion Lost,” and his work on “Thor” shows a grace and level of detail that surpass anything he’s ever done. He gives Baldur the right mixture of dignity and uncertainty and his Loki is serenely devious. He’s a great fit for Straczynski’s interpretation of this world.
There’s a danger, though, to what Straczynski is doing in “Thor.” It might be too little story development for some, and if the intrigue and manipulation doesn’t build to a suitably Shakespearean climax then it will all amount to nothing, but I like what he’s doing so far, and I appreciate how different this book feels. In a sea of bland similarity, “Thor” sails along like an elegant warship.