For any that might be curious, the first part of this discussion of the JMS Thor can be found in the September 2010 archive to the right of this page;
Given the freedom to radically reboot the Thor franchise, I wonder why J. Michael Straczynski choose to populate the book with such a host of exceedingly stupid characters.
Readers have surely learned to brace themselves when they note that Mr Straczynski is bringing out the nature talk again. For one of the signs that a JMS character is supposed to be taken very seriously indeed is when they're speaking about the seasons and the fertility of the earth. It's a trick seen recently in "Superman" 701, where Jonathan Kent is summoned up in a flashback to explain how "Anything that stays in the the same soil too long withers and eventually dies", a statement that sounds very worthy and yet makes little apparent sense in the context Mr Straczynski has placed it into (*1). And the JMS nature metaphor can be observed at work again in Thor # 10, where Baldur tells Loki that;
"... if we are to learn anything from the seasons, it is that change is inevitable. I do not know that you have changed within as you have changed without. But for the first time, for the moment -- I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt." (10:20:4)
What's most interesting about Mr Straczynski's nature metaphors is how they're used to lend a spurious authority to the characters who're saying them. It sounds very grounded and wise, after all, for Balder to justify his thinking concerning Loki, the God of Mischief, with reference to "the seasons". It's as if Balder is in touch with some profound and ancient wisdom of the soil, some centuries old folk-knowledge that sagely informs the new King's principled thinking. But the truth is that Asgard's newest King is just clearly speaking nonsense, and all the references to the cycles of nature can't obscure that. For surely Balder has noted that every single God that he and the readers knew before their recent Thor-assisted reincarnation have been reborn with exactly the same character as they'd had before? "I do not know that you have changed within as you have changed without" says Balder to Loki, as if the fact that Thor's half-brother has been recast in a woman's body means that his character might have altered where everyone else's has stayed absolutely constant, as if an immortal's personality fixed over a period of at least a thousand years can have suddenly radically changed because he no longer carries a set of external sexual organs.
After all, it's not only common sense, or the matter of a simple observation of the consistent nature of the Gods brought back from their Ragnarokian deaths, that should tell Balder that Loki shouldn't be trusted. He has, after all, schemed openly to raise Balder to the throne of Asgard alongside Thor, an act that's brought a coldness to the warm intimacy previously enjoyed over the centuries by the now twin Kings of Asgard. Is Balder so naive, so impossibly empty of guile, that he isn't disturbed and suspicious by the fact that Loki has created a new political status quo in Asgard?
Because, I think you'd agree, the fact of a few tens of hundreds of years of having Loki betray his fellow Gods, to the point of constantly seizing the throne of Asgard, should surely lead Balder, and all his fellow Gods, to be far more than exceptionally careful in their dealings with him. But, quite contrary to common sense and experience, Loki is allowed back into Asgard's apparently-tiny elite and given the freedom to act and advise as if he were merely a head-strong young man who'd been guilty of a touch of petulance if not spite in the past.
But Loki is as irredeemably evil, as absolutely toxic, as the Gods go, and given that no-one else's nature has changed, why on Earth, or anywhere above or below it, should Loki's?
Balder, we must assume, is a fool with a head full of nature metaphors and very little practical wisdom indeed, no matter how sage and in touch with the seasons Mr Straczynski is trying to portray him as.
*1 - As discussed in "The Hero As Survivor Of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" in the July archive.
But perhaps there are some grounds for thinking that significant changes have occurred to the gods since their rebirth on Mr Straczynski's watch. Their personalities, it's true, may seem more or less consistent with what went before, and their fundamental morals certainly are, but they all seem to have lost a good few IQ points in their latest incarnations. Balder, for example, is a God who's fought with the Avengers and who respects them greatly. He's no stranger to Earth and he's shown a capacity to operate successfully on Terra Firma. And yet he permits the exodus of Asgardians to Dr Doom's Latveria without seeking the advice of a single significant mortal. It's an act of, yes, stupidity, which seems quite unimaginable. Perhaps it was intended as a marker of a developing regal hubris on the part of Asgard's new king, although there's nothing in the text to support any such suspicion. In Mr Straczynski's scripts, Balder is portrayed as a wise if over-trusting god, capable of debating the finer points of constitutional politics with Dr Doom in such a way that it seems inconceivable that Asgard's people could ever be allowed to move into Latveria under his rule. But off they go with barely a hint of a public debate, or a courtly one either.
Indeed, given that Latveria exists on Marvel Earth in a region which the Norse Gods are unlikely to feel any nostalgia for, the Vikings never having been more than a raiding presence in the land carved out by the Bullpen between Hungary and Serbia and Romania, the reader is surely entitled to wonder why Balder didn't just petition Sweden, Norway, Iceland or Greenland for use of a chilly mountain or two. (Perhaps, we might surmise, because that wouldn't have permitted a team-up between Loki and Dr Doom, a story that was apparently far too beguiling a prospect for writerly restraint to come into play.)
But it's as if many of the major characters in Mr Straczynski's work in "Thor" lack any such thing as a fixed identity. They shift from one position to another as it suits the plot. And so Balder, as we've discussed before, now appears in the presence of a train of naked women adopting the poses of porn models in his court, and he removes Asgard to Latervia, two decisions which this reader for one finds utterly out of character. But then in all honesty, JMS's Balder is consistently daft, and ineffective, and often just plain wrong even when the text demands that he be taken quite seriously as a noble king. It's a stymying contradiction between how we're supposed to see Balder and how the character is made to act, and it can be seen again in his decision to support great fixed battles between the reincarnated gods of Asgard as a common leisure activity because;
"It is good for them to have something to do, to release their high spirits." (11:2:1)
This again sounds like a very good idea, except for two matters which we might expect a bright God who's for so long held senior positions in the court and armies of Asgard to note. Firstly, he's not grasped that the common Asgardians are now so exceptionally stupid that they can't understand straight-forward and fundamental truths when they're spelt out to them in very simple language indeed. "Do you not understand? Do none of you understand? While we are on Midgard, we are vulnerable." he shouts at his fellows after one has killed another for a drunken insult, but the shame isn't entirely theirs. For surely a good and able king should understand the needs and limits of his people, especially after he's known them for so many centuries? And if the common godly folk, or the male ones anyway, are incapable of grasping that death is final for them when they're so near the Earth, why is their co-King allowing them to fight at all? Shouldn't Balder have instead taken radical measures to ensure that his people are educated and policed beyond the gesture of giving them a grand mass punch-up or two at times?
Because the truth is that no matter what the surface of each JMS script seems to testify to, Balder, and indeed Thor, are appalling leaders. It's not merely that the decisions they make are questionable, although I can't remember either taking a single sensible political stand. It's far more that they seem to have no idea that they're capable of doing more than reacting to events, a puzzling business since Thor himself has been King of Asgard before. In truth, they've assumed power without assuming responsibility. Asgard, after all, was once a city with a vast hinterland, an empire, a nation constantly at war, a city of warriors, traders, scientists and magicians. Brought back from extinction with so much of what it once was now absent, Asgard and its people surely can't be expected to rule themselves in a laissez-faire fashion.
The complexity of Asgardian society and its previous adaption to a life of extreme challenges and constant duty can perhaps be best expressed by referencing "The Mighty Thor" # 136, in which Thor's then-girlfriend Jane Foster is brought to Asgard and temporarily given godly powers. Nurse Foster's first appearance on the Rainbow Bridge (136:3:1) occurs as ".. the loyal cavalry of Asgard" ride out because "The powerful and sinister Kingdom of the Trolls hath risen against us." And before Jane Foster can catch her breath, a huge troll "prisoner--for interrogation" (136:3:2) is carried past her, surrounded by weary but determined troops. Asgard, we learn, as we've learnt so many times through the past decades, is a mighty power engaged constantly upon the business of war and diplomacy, preparation and indulgence. It's a state characterised by an ill-explained but obviously complex social hierarchy, with a thousand years at least of formal and informal codes of behaviour, and simply experiencing it leaves Nurse Foster absolutely shell-shocked.
For Odin's city was the most fantastic, most exciting destination in the nine worlds, a place so incredible that the typical mortal mind could barely cope with the simple matter of experiencing it.
But now Thor Odinson, and for a fair period Balder too, have been content to leave Asgard floating without purpose above the grasslands of the American mid-west, and to strand the Asgardians therein without anything to do at all beyond the occasional organised bout of mass hair-pulling. Bereft of their previous roles, and without anything to do in their place, the previously thoroughly well-drilled and purposeful Asgardians have swiftly degenerated into a brawling, murdering, disloyal mass, but neither Thor nor Balder seem able to grasp what's going on at all.
It may be an interesting way to generate conflict, to reduce the men of Asgard, in the absence of any women beyond Sif and Balder's naked followers, to a macho mob longing, as Dr Doom puts it, for "mountains and snow and year-round hunting (601:5:5)". But it requires Thor and Balder to be quite frankly idiots, as poor a pair of Kings as any in human history, to allow the very situation to arise, and it also reduces the male-folk of Asgard to a nation of brutes, to a mass of folks who once loyally served Odin, his state and sons for centuries and who've now collapsed into thugs and ignoramuses in the space of weeks. And the choice for the Gods, when the threat of social collapse became obvious even to its rulers, was never, as Loki advises the dense Balder at 11:20:3, between staying in Asgard or leaving. The choice was between doing nothing beyond arranging a few mass fights while allowing the culture and state of Asgard to decay, and embarking on a deliberate programme of nation-building. Simply taking the godly brawlers to Latveria, as occurs later, solves nothing, as any half-capable King or Queen should know.
And it seems to me inconceivable, as well as utterly irresponsible, that the Kings of Asgard could have spent their reigns engaging so little and to such slight effect with the lives of their subjects.
Or as the youthful Tim declares to Dr Blake (600:6:4-5-6) while explaining where his black eye came from;
"Jimmy Miller thumped me in the eye .... Thumped him back. ... We were playing Asgardians.... That's what they do. One of 'em thumps the other, then he thumps the guy back ... thump, thump, thump, thump ...."
Well, big little Tim couldn't have seen all that thumping going on in Asgard, which means he's watched the Gods knocking the immortal life out of each in the land around his hometown. (Perhaps they've even brawled their way through the streets in front of his home.) In fact, Tim's seen so much mindless violence from the gods that he and his pals have invented a game called "Asgardians".
And that's what Mr Straczynski has done to the Asgardians too, turned them into a game where they're stupid people hitting each other. They hover above one of the quietest parts of the world in a dull and uninteresting shell of a celestial capital, they descend to Earth and beat each other up, they clamber back up and then they repeat the process, no doubt, the next day too. Dull, stupid, too-bored-to-do-anything-but-fight Asgardians, ruled by supposedly capable Kings who can't imagine doing anything to save the nation beyond a few mead-fuelled games of hair-pulling.
Why would anybody care about these characters and their city-state? Why would anyone care about a story in which everyone is stupid, and in which they've been written to be so uncharacteristically stupid because otherwise the story could never happen? For only Loki is anything close to intelligent, but he's torturing idiots, which leaves him looking far less like a fearsome super-villain and far more like a sixth-form bully let loose in the lower school for an afternoon's cruel japery.
But then, who is there to advise the Royal Courts of Balder and Thor about the degeneration and disorder that's afflicted the Godly people? Where are the many and varied men of the great city? For in the JMS take on Asgard, there's simply four immortal classes as far as can be seen, and none are characterised by an excess of brain power; Kings and their immediate family, favoured heroes, the mass of very-male Gods who live to fight and drink, and, of course, those naked ladies serving Balder's court. And so there doesn't appear to be anyone except the royal family to steer the ship of state, and clearly they're not up to the business of government at all.
And any magical realm that relies on Loki for constitutional advice is obviously in serious trouble.
But this was a nation of magic and technology, of spaceships and super-artillery and far-seeing view-screens, a state which was so unbelievably technologically advanced that its science, in the very best Clarkeian tradition, seemed like sorcery. Where, therefore, are the scientists, the magicians, the craftsmen and scholars and engineers? Indeed, where is anyone of learning in Asgard at all? Where are those who helped Odin build and maintain the Empire of Asgard in the first place? The complex social hierarchy of the Gods has collapsed, their intelligentsia disappeared, the imperial bureaucracy evaporated, and the accumulated knowledge of the centuries has not only apparently vanished, but is seemingly quite unmourned too.
Even the ranks of the military seem utterly decimated and denuded of leadership. Where are the loyal captains of the Asgardian Army, those fine and loyal men who'd led the Gods in their wars of self-defence and conquest through the long centuries? Why are they allowing their men to behave in such an undisciplined fashion, and why aren't they warning Thor and Baldar about the crisis in their ranks?
Or is it, perhaps, that none but the souls of the supposed rabble and scum of Asgard were reincarnated? Perhaps only the stupidest, most beastly, and most damaged made it through to this rebirth of the people of Odin. Perhaps all that's left is the sort who sit around and allow themselves to be bored all day, dreaming of fighting and hunting and little else but.
If Asgard is the depressingly violent, sexist and empty-headed place that a closer read of the JMS "Thor" reveals, why should we care for it at all? And if, as the shade of Donald Blake declares at 1:12:5; "Where ever there is Thor, there is Asgard", then what does this Asgard say of Thor? Why should we care of a character who rules this hollow, thuggish land with its boring and beastly people?
Why should we care for an Asgard that's a dull and dirty castle where the Gods are so thick that they throw their own feces over the walls because they've never heard of hygiene or sewers, and where the common godlings spend their hours fighting for fighting's sake before the impressionable eyes of Tim and his mates. (11:3:1) Why, Norman Osbourne was actually right! If this is the common herd of Asgard, you wouldn't want even a small group of them anywhere near the smallest human settlement, and you certainly wouldn't be happy with them operating in full force in a major city, as the soldiers of Asgard once did, for example, when Thor fought Malekith (349). We know from history what happens to cities when undisciplined, disloyal and ignorant men are allowed to fight there, don't we, and it's impossible to believe that today's Asgardians have changed so much in such little time. How New York City hasn't been sacked by Asgard's men before on their various and occassional active duties there escapes me. Perhaps Odin was using his Odinforce to keep them in check?
Or perhaps those men of Asgard and these of Mr Straczynski's haven't very much in common at all?
Volstagg's declaration that Asgardians have no sewers, or knowledge of such, and that the godly excrement of the Golden City have always been "traditionally" fired "over the wall" (6.:3:1) is a gag which establishes once and for all that Mr Straczynski's Gods are a ignorant people unable to even come to grips with their own refuge problem. A culture which inhabits a huge metropolis and solves its waste problems by "firing" detritus over a huge wall into a void is a profoundly stupid culture unworthy of respect. It's certainly a culture which would require a whole class of underling Gods, or perhaps Trolls and other slaves, to collect all the waste produced by a city of so many tens of thousands of creatures, to collate it and then, using a specific technology, fire it off into the unknown. (They have no sewers at all, or concept of them, so gathering up the muck for disposal must surely always have been quite a considerable task considering all the ale-houses, barracks, private homes, and stables at that end of the Rainbow Bridge.) Quite frankly, the skies of Asgard must have been darkened throughout history with either flying unheavenly filth or the containers filled with it, and that just seems daft for such a mighty, space-faring race of godlings.
But perhaps JMS was joking? Perhaps Volstagg is supposed to be having a non-too subtle laugh at the expense of his Mid-Western neighbours? Amusing, no doubt, but it would leave us with a Volstagg that's aware of the offense he's causing his American hosts, with all that dumping of godly waste, and yet cares not a whit about it.
And there, using the evidence of just that single scene, is evidence of another problem with these scripts. On the surface, Volstagg's comment is funny and illuminating. It's an example of playing to the groundlings, of throwing an amusing obscenity out to break up a quiet moment in a generally glum tale. For all their long-life and power, it says, the Gods exist in a mundane reality just like we do, and nothing humanises a godly people so much as knowing that they simply dump their foul-smelling poop over the walls of their city.
But dig just a little and expect the script to still make the sense that it appeared to on first reading and it doesn't. It's simply unbelievable that the gods could be that ignorant, and if they're not, if they're actually somehow far brighter than they seem, then they're cruel and they're mocking with their own foul-smelling ordure the good Oklahomans who they're sharing that little corner of the USA with.
One thing that I certainly couldn't dispute is the popularity of Mr Straczynski's "Thor". As the man himself said about the book's commercial success in an interview with Matt Brady at Newsarama;
"It's been amazing to watch, because for Thor, which was always a mid-selling book, to be in the top ten for every single issue since the reboot is just a great compliment."
But the case I'm trying to make here is not that JMS isn't capable of writing popular books, but that he didn't seem concerned with "Thor" to create a comic that makes sense and rewards further reading. There's absolutely nothing wrong with these scripts that a rigorous editing process and a rewrite or two wouldn't have solved, but as things stand, this is showy but shallow work. There really is a sense of words being written at great speed, of scripts, particularly as the series continues, being produced in haste, perhaps in a blur of inspiration and perhaps not. But, whatever the facts of the circumstances of their construction, the scripts don't make sense, and that can be plainly seen in the scene in Thor # 11 where the Thunder God decides to mark the anniversary of Captain America's supposed death, by, as a newsreader explains, shutting down for;
"... sixty seconds, every newscast, every radio, every satellite and cable broadcast around the world (which) suddenly went totally silent ... Then came back again a minute later as if nothing had happened." (11.12.1)
It's another of those JMS moments which seems deeply touching, or at least sentimentally affecting, until the reader actually thinks about it. On the surface, Thor's explanation for his shutting down of the Earth's media communication systems seems quite laudable; he's trying to honour the anniversary of Captain America's passing. "I can .. give you a moment's peace from the vultures." (11:22:2), explains Thor over the Captain's memorial, and by "vultures", he means each and every media organisation involved in discussing Steve Rogers's life and passing on that apparently sacred evening.
But Thor is quite indiscriminate in who he means by "vultures", given that he shuts down all communications everywhere across the globe, including that great mass of the world that probably wasn't debating Steve Rogers in any fashion. Even those who were might hardly be expected to be doing so in a prurient and intrusive matter, and the truth is that in a democracy they have every right to do so anyway, as long as they're not breaking the law. But the law means nothing to King Thor, and nor does it doesn't matter what the people of, for example, Mongolia or Namibia are discussing, because only his concerns and his feelings are important. If he believes that the people of every nation on earth should have their media disrupted, then that's what he's going to do.
Thor is every bit as much the selfish musclehead as the rest of Mr Straczynski's Asgardians, an emotional fascist, and yet the script clearly places the reader in a space where they're meant to be touched by his actions.
Of course, it's quite impossible to imagine that shutting down all those means of communication for those sixty seconds didn't cause casualties. How could such a blackout not do so? That minute chosen by an arrogant, self-obsessed god at random might gave been the time when a damaged airliner sought help, or a desperate individual phoned a radio station for much needed advice; indeed, the reader can perhaps play a game of counting the social problems potentially created by Thor's arbitrary action during those long 60 seconds. Who knows how many lives were blighted to a lesser or greater degree by the incredibly self-indulgent antics of this supposedly heroic God?
Yet this moment is presented as a heroic one by Mr Straczynski. There's nothing of ironic distance in the text to suggest that this was the inconceivably callous act of a god commandeering the communications of the entire Earth to celebrate his own private concerns, nor is there anything to point out that Thor's loathing for the media is incredibly all-encompassing and quite frankly unfair. But, if there had been, this scene might have made sense. It might have shown us a Thor who is not only arrogant, but ignorant, who feels he has a right to dominate the lives of most of the earth's people in the name of his own feelings, who grasps nothing of other's rights, and who thinks that his experience of the worst of America's media justifies disrupting the entire globe and its business.
Although, in fact, that's exactly what Mr Straczynski has shown us. Regardless of how the text presents it, of how the art depicts it, this is the action of a tyrant, and, given that we learn in our lives as time passes to trust people by their deeds and not their words, it's another sign that Mr Straczynski's Thor is a profoundly selfish and anti-democratic force who shouldn't be trusted by anyone not in his immediate circle.
And that, in a snapshot, is how the JMS take on "Thor" functions. It looks like "Thor", and it often sounds like "Thor", but scratch the surface and ask for sense rather than sentimentality, and it's a story of ignorant, callow and selfish male Gods behaving like spolit and supernaturally powerful children. And so, when Thor is exiled from Asgard at the end of 600, I must admit that I couldn't care less. For who could be concerned about what happens to this Thor, unless watching a character who looks like Thor and hits things hard with a hammer is enough in itself? And who's concerned with what's going to occur to this empty, soulless Asgard, with its stupid inhabitants and the stinking mountain of godly feces piling up beneath its walls and floors suspended high above the Oklahoman grassland? (*2)
*2:- I know Asgard's not there anymore, but this is a review of the JMS Thor, and it was there when he jumped ship for DC.
Ah, well, I would remind the casual reader that they might find several good reviews of JMS's work in the archive, so please do consider that fact before perhaps deciding that I've got something against the man rather than a few problems with some very specific areas of his work. Next time? I suspect something of Halloween is on the way, and beyond that, well, something else. My best to anyone who's made it this far, and I really do, as always, hope that your day is a splendid one.