Review: Thor Visionaries: Walt Simonson Vol. 3 trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

[Review by Doug Glassman.]

If you needed proof that Walt Simonson’s tenure on The Mighty Thor wasn’t written for the trade, Volume 3 of his Thor Visionaries trades provides it. This isn’t a slam on the content; Volume 3 contains two of the most memorable stories of the entire run. But these stories are so different in tone that at times, it feels like two different books. It also relies on events that happened over a dozen issues beforehand.

Picking up right where the previous volume ended, the Asgardians return home after being stranded in New York. They’ve been given gifts by the US military: crates of M-16s. I highlight this because not only will these guns be important later, but it’s also an insight into Asgardian culture. They may be an ancient warrior society, but they don’t mind using new armaments.

Thor immediately marshals his forces for a march into Hel to reclaim lost souls. If you’ll recall, back in Volume 1, Malekith turned humans into his slaves with elf food. This forced their souls out of their bodies and into Hel -- a grave crime in the eyes of Midgard’s protector. Walt Simonson’s use of actual Norse myth goes into overdrive in this issue. His portrayal of Hel and its various features and inhabitants is incredibly accurate, from Garm at the entrance to the presence of Naglfar, a ship made of the toenails of the dead [ew! -- ed.]. Only in The Mighty Thor could such a bizarre thing be mythologically-accurate set-dressing.

Hela becomes an utterly terrifying force here, and in a twisted way, she’s in the right, as she came into the souls legitimately. Despite Thor's best attempts to avoid her touch, including donning the Iron Gauntlets of Thor -- another detail from the myths -- she strikes him and scars his face. He then either has his face framed in shadow or wrapped in his cape until he starts growing a beard towards the end. We also get a rare appearance of Hela’s true face, and it’s suitably horrifying.

One more accurate detail is the bridge called Gjallerbru, leading to one of comics’ most famous deaths: the last stand of Skurge the Executioner, who is tired of years of torment at the hand of the Enchantress. After knocking out Thor so that he won’t sacrifice himself, complimenting Balder for being polite, and arming himself with M-16s, he holds the bridge against the forces of Hel. Even though he was an original Master of Evil, Skurge has never come back, and the Thor: God-Sized Special (collected in the Ages of Thunder trade) revealed that doing so would cause the end of reality.

Surprisingly, Skurge’s last stand doesn’t end issue #362; it ends a few pages later with the return to Asgard. At this point, the stories split up once again. Balder the Brave had his own self-titled mini-series (also by Simonson) to explain his whereabouts. The children of Volstagg find a mysterious ship while searching for Surtur’s Twilight Sword, resulting in his oldest daughter, Hildy, getting sick. Loki, now smitten with the sorceress Lorelei, plots to take over Asgard using her control over Thor to get his permission to be king. With Thor gone, Harokin, his aforementioned doppelganger, briefly takes his place with the help of Heimdall. On Earth, Beta Ray Bill and Sif get embroiled with Secret Wars II. (This overdone fiasco of a crossover stretched into every Marvel title, turning the Beyonder from the first Secret Wars from a mysterious force into an insufferable, waffling, Jheri-curled jerk.)

This is the closest Beta Ray Bill has ever come to truly “replacing” Thor, and it isn’t his best outing. He’s put up against Kurse, one of Malekith’s fallen henchmen who has been given great power by the Beyonder. The battle doesn’t go well, and Bill teams up with the Power Pack, leading to a crossover issue which isn’t collected here. I certainly don’t mind seeing more of the Pack, especially as this was during the “Simonsonverse” era when Thor, Power Pack and the various X-books Walt and Weezie Simonson were working on crossed over frequently. This would eventually culminate in Mutant Massacre, which explains why an X-Men crossover features Thor.

And speaking of Thor? Well, he’s a frog now, thanks to a magical kiss.

It shouldn’t work . . . and yet, it could be the greatest non-crossover sequence in comic book history. (The crossover honor goes to the “raising the gauntlet” fight in Infinity Gauntlet.) Thor is a sentient frog, teaming up with another man who has become a frog and a frog society against the rats of Central Park. It’s played with utter seriousness while still completely aware of how bizarre it is. Eventually, Thor hops over to his parked chariot -- which is pulled by two giant goats -- grabs Mjolnir and becomes the Frog of Thunder. Issue #366’s title is “Sir!,” because the cover asks “What do you call a 6’6” fighting-mad frog?” He even returns to Asgard in this state and uses the confusion to unseat Loki and install the returned Balder as the king of Asgard.

There’s much more, including Volstagg’s epic journey to heal Hildy, proving himself to be the unofficial Norse God of Fatherhood. Thor changes his looks by the end, growing a beard to cover his scars and wearing armor to hide his lessening strength. This marks the transition to Sal Buscema’s tenure as the title’s artist, moving over from Balder the Brave. The change isn’t really noticeable, as Simonson and Buscema share similar styles, and I love seamless art changes. Skurge’s death is marked with an amazing set of fading panels; you can see how he laid this out in Walt Simonson’s Thor: Artist’s Edition. Despite the mood whiplash, Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson Volume 3 forms the core of this epic tale, linking everything that came before it together.
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