Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tales of Asgard

As Marvel changed its focus from monsters to superheroes, the new characters quickly took over the featured spot in some of the line's existing comics. The Human Torch quickly became the headliner in Strange Tales, while Tales of Suspense picked up Iron Man and Tales to Astonish (initially) featured Ant-Man, while Journey into Mystery became the flagship of the Mighty Thor.

However, those comics did not drop their monster/horror stories entirely. At least, not at first. Journey into Mystery #95 (the 13th issue featuring Thor) included a Steve Ditko thriller called The Tomb of Tut-Amm-Tut and Save Me from the Lizard Men, in addition to the cover feature, The Demon Duplicators. Stan was hedging his bets at least slightly on the costumed crimebusters. But with JiM #97 he made it clear that he was going to push Thor in that magazine, by adding a five-page Tales of Asgard feature, which ran for several years. The stories were clearly intended to give us more background on the supporting characters of Thor.

The problem, back then, is that the feature ran a relatively brief five pages, and seldom tied into current events in the main Thor stories, so that it was hard to get excited about reading each one. Plus even with a friend's pretty good collection of Marvels to read back then there were always missing issues to contend with, so I never really took a hard look at the series.

I'm going to rectify that a bit starting today; I'll do it like the Iron Man run where I'll tackle several issues in a row so that I can hit on larger themes than just plot points.

In the first story we just get the who begat who stuff. Odin was the grandson of the first god, who's name was Buri. The gods battled constantly against the Frost Giants; one suspects that those from Scandinavia might have special concerns about the cold. The only signicant negative I see to the opening tale is that it is told completely by narration and not dialog.

I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but one of the singular reasons why comics have been so successful is because all readers instinctively hate long narrative passages and love dialog. The art obviates the need for the boring descriptions and thus we can get to what we really like, which is the interaction between characters.

However, by the second story Stan is more on his game, as he lets Odin and the Frost Giants exchange some insults before the former disposes of the latter. I do have to chuckle a bit at Odin's throne:

I can only think of one kind of throne that a ruler should be on where his knees are higher than his stomach. ;)

The third story is back to the narrative style. Odin battles Surtur, king of the fire demons. In the course of the story, we learn it was this battle that causes the earth to rotate on its axis and also resulted in the creation of the Moon. Note that many religious systems originated in attempts to explain the nighttime sky and other observed cosmological phenomena.

By the fourth story, Thor as a boy (and his vile brother Loki) have been introduced. They collaborate to recover some apples stolen by three storm giants. And in the end:

That's an interesting little detail that I didn't know before; earlier in the story I noticed that Thor was using a sword instead of his famed hammer.

The fifth story returns to the form of the prior one, where Loki plots to get the hammer rather than Thor, but fails, when his brother delays an invasion of Asgard (that Loki had orchestrated) long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

We continue with the story of Thor rescuing Sif from Hela, Goddess of Death; IIRC this was one of Sif's only appearances before she became Thor's official girlfriend at the end of Thor #136. Thor offers his life for hers; the nobility of this (offered but not accepted) sacrifice is what finally wins him the hammer.

In JiM #103 we learn that Thor had a key part to play in the Norse version of Adam and Eve:

Interesting stuff; I wonder if it caused any controversy at the time. You know how it is; if you present the Norse myths as real aren't you denying the myths of other religions?

It is announced at the end of this story that the next episode will feature bios of the major characters in Asgard, starting with Heimdall, so this seems like a good breaking point.