Why is Thor boring?
Martin Skidmore — 19-Oct-11
[In the third of our extracts from the Martin Skidmore archive, we present, by popular request, his very first ever fanzine article, from his first ever fanzine, Worlds Collide 1, in 1982. To give a bit of historical context, this was written before (but not much before) Walt Simonson’s run as writer-artist (and later just writer) on Thor, from #337 (November 1983) to #382 (August 1987), which many saw, at least in its early stages, as revitalising the title and character, by taking him back to basics in the way John Byrne had with the Fantastic Four, and emphasizing the mythology in a way that had not been done since Jack Kirby’s run. It seems likely that there is something in the FA archives where Martin discusses Simonson's 1980s Thor, and if we find it we’ll put it up here. The Simonson period on Thor mentioned below is an earlier run when he was only the penciller, from #260 (June 1977) to #271 (May 1978). The article is also notable for Martin assuming that his readers knew who the comics superstars of the day were, and so he refers to them by their surnames alone. I’ve added first names for clarity.
Martin revisited this article when writing a review of Essential Thor 5, and considered that the opinions expressed still held up three decades later. – TK.]
Thor is one of Marvel’s oldest and most powerful characters, and a prominent member of the Avengers. He has also been fortunate in having had stable creative teams. Why, then, has he rarely aroused interest in fans over the last decade?
Very few titles have managed to escape the focus of fandom so consistently, and for a comic which should be a major flagship title for Marvel to do so is rather surprising. In comparison, Thor the character has been much more interesting, particularly when written by [Steve] Englehart and [Jim] Shooter, at various times in The Avengers. This article will attempt to analyse the reasons for ten years of apathy towards Thor, the comic.
Responsibility for a comic’s success falls on its creators. In the last ten years only three pencillers have worked on more than four issues. Keith Pollard has taken care of the last three years, Walt Simonson the twelve months prior to that, and John Buscema the rest. Buscema was regularly placed in the Eagle awards during his long stint on the comic, but this may have had more to do with his work on Conan, and even so, he has never generated the excitement which such as [John] Byrne or [Neal] Adams have proved capable of inspiring. Also, there were frequent changes of inker during his stay, and it can’t be easy for an artist to produce his best work if he does not know what the end product is going to look like. I am very keen on the versatile Walt Simonson, but I don’t feel he produced his best work on Thor, and Tony DeZuniga, who inked all but two of his issues, was the wrong partner for him. Simonson’s work is better suited by the bold, flowing lines of an [Terry] Austin or [Bob] Layton. [When Simonson returned to the title, he inked his own pencils. – TK] Keith Pollard is one of those dependable, yet commonplace, artists that Marvel is so expert at producing (or finding). He has also been cursed with inks from Chic Stone and, more recently, uncharacteristically slapdash work from Gene Day.
The main responsibility, however, belongs to the writer. Gerry Conway, previously hailed as a major new talent, did this job until the middle seventies. The impression he gave was one of competent, yet regularized, plotting. His dialogue and characterization were a bit weak, however. He particularly fell into the trap of stereotyping many of the characters, especially the ‘Warriors Three’ [Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg; Martin gives them nicknames below – TK], and not even attempting to scratch beneath the surface. His stories are particularly forgettable because Thor’s adversaries always seemed fairly minor, and difficult genuinely to worry about. To his credit, though, he did create Firelord, whose appearances have always been welcome.
Conway left in the summer of ’75, and did not show his true ability until quite recently at DC, and he was soon replaced by Len Wein, who scripted the book for 2½ years. Wein sent Thor into the future to battle the Time Twisters, to Asgard to remove Mangog from Odin’s throne, out into space on the Odinquest, and back to Asgard to find Loki had seized power. These were more memorable stories, which used the potential inherent in the book to much greater effect than Conway had done, but there was a slight flavour of déjà vu in the plotting, and he never quite came to terms with Stan Lee’s Shakespearian mode of speech, making various grammatical errors. The main fault with these issues, however, was the almost complete absence of characterization-oriented subplots. Incidentally, sales plummeted under Len Wein, from around 200,000 in Conway’s days, to less than 150,000.
Roy Thomas took over in June 1978, and stayed with the book for two years, which encompassed the False Ragnarok (six months) and Celestials (eighteen months) sagas. As usual, Roy’s scripting was practically flawless, but his pacing was too slow, presumably due to his being allowed to edit his own work. The only break from the two sagas written by Roy was a gem of a parody of the Superman films, additionally blessed with some beautiful Wayne Boring/Tom Palmer artwork.
Given a tough editor forcing the pace a little, Thomas’ sagas could have been classics. They remain satisfying, particularly the Celestials storyline, as they resolved so many long-standing puzzles, but this probably was more to do with Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio, who are obsessed with such things.
They took over the scripting for the last three months of the Celestials saga, and followed with a few one-issue stories which returned Thor to more conventional superhero role. These were acceptable enough as such, but wasted the extra scope which Thor’s nature offers. Still, the comic needed a rest from Asgardian epics at that point, so they’re forgiven.
Last summer Doug Moench took as regular scripter, and he began immediately to devote more care and attention to Don Blake, while Thor has continued being a superhero. After such a short time (made even shorter by the Gruenwald/Macchio backup story for three months) it’s impossible to judge his version. Hopefully he’ll get around to resolving the Sif/Jane Foster dilemma which has been ignored for years. [In the end this was resolved by Simonson, who at a stroke wrote Don Blake and Jane Foster out of Thor, though in more recent years they have both returned. – TK]
The title has great potential. No comic featuring an individual character at Marvel has so many available types of setting for its stories, but the writers have not always made the most of this, not balancing cosmic/SF stories, Asgardian/mythical stories, and traditional superhero fare, as Stan Lee managed to do in the comic’s early years.
The supporting cast has been very badly handled over the years. Odin has never seemed remotely all-wise and Grim, Dashing and Fatcoward, the ‘Warriors Three’, must be prime contenders for the most stereotyped characters in comics, Volstagg being especially offensive. Balder, Sif and Heimdall have never been very interesting either. Another albatross around the writer’s neck is the corny dialogue, which must make scripting Thor very hard work.
The main reasons for the boredom which this title generates, though are twofold. The first is the repetition of plotlines, such as splits between Odin and Thor every couple of years, regular battles with Ulik, who doesn’t deserve such frequent appearances, and, worst of all, Loki as the main villain in every third story or so. Whilst Loki is obviously a major part of Thor’s life, it’s very difficult for a writer to do a fresh story with him, but everyone seems to feel obliged to try.
Secondly, it must be remembered that comics fail if they don’t appeal to kids, and thus we have the phenomenon of the ‘Compulsory Fight Scene’. As research for this article, I read the last ten years of Thor, and the vast majority of these scenes were almost indistinguishable from each other, due to most of Thor’s adversaries having very similar powers: Thor level super-strength. Even Loki, who appears so often, almost always uses somebody or something else for the physical stuff (Maurglon, a snow giant, Ulik, a different Thor, the Destroyer, Firelord, Armak (the first man), etc., etc.).
Thor is a great (pitiful?) example of wasted potential, due to its stereotyped supporting cast, Thor’s speech patterns, the repetitious plotting, and monotonous adversaries and fight scenes.
That is why Thor is boring.