As a general principle, I do appreciate the courtesy of the introductory page of text in the first issue of "The Mighty Thor". I think that it's as compassionate and laudable as it is commercially sensible for Marvel to try to offer its readers the background knowledge they need to enjoy the stories before them. I would, however, have preferred that that introductory text had actually made sense.
What most concerns me is that the weaknesses of the introduction have a great deal in common with the limitations of the story which it was designed to support, in that neither can be easily understood by anyone other than an experienced and unquestioning reader of today's superhero books. It's as if many of Marvel's editors and creators are aware that they ought to be producing work which is accessible to a broader audience, and yet they just can't seem to imagine how they might achieve such an end. And so, Matt Fraction and Olivier Coipel's work on "The
Galactus Seed 1" is often bafflingly obtuse and opaque, as if they thought that the presence of an even more intense version of a typical modern-era superhero book would, by dint of the enthusiasm and genre commitment on display, appeal to the uncommitted and inexperienced reader of such comics. That a better solution to the question of how to sell more comics might have been to focus on producing transparent narratives with an obvious emotional appeal doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone, despite the presence of the Thor movie in the world's film theaters delivering exactly such a product.
Such a puzzling business can't be the consequence of a lack of ability or concern on the part of Marvel's editors and creators. No-one wants to alienate readers, no-one wants to appeal to little beyond a profoundly constricted niche audience. The very existence of a page of text designed to help readers make sense of, and thereby enjoy, "The Mighty Thor" # 1 tells us that the publisher very much wants to reach out beyond its title's core readers. Yet both the introduction and the tale itself are as unintentionally impenetrable and unengaging as they are quite obviously framed by good intentions. This is a familiar problem which can be regularly encountered in the superhero books of both Marvel and DC. We can only assume that there exists a common culture in the comic business which prevents many individuals grasping how their books might be perceived by those who are unfamiliar with their content and uncomfortable with their storytelling methods.
Here, for example, is the second half of the supposedly informing prelude setting up the new reader for the experience of reading "The Mighty Thor" # 1;
“During battle with tremendous foes from beyond the World Tree, the Mighty Thor drew the powerful Odinsword from its eternal scabbard and split Yggdrasil in twain – the bridge of worlds was thus rendered permanent and fixed. A spewing geyser of strange light shooting upwards forever from the American - - and Asgardian – heartland ….
Some see it as a shining beacon. (*1)
Some see it as a warning.”
*1:- That's the second use in the intro of "shining" in 90 words, by the way. For professional editors, that's a worrying sign of a careless attitude to, yes, editing.
I’ve been reading comics with Thor as a presence in their pages for more than forty years now, although I jumped ship away from the character's most recent incarnation by J. Michael Straczynski because it was both poorly written and quite nasty in its no-doubt unintended sexism. Yet if I'm absolutely lost with what’s supposedly being explained in the above, then there's little hope that this introduction might assist anyone beyond Thor's existing circle of readers. Enthusiastic and well-meaning this introduction might be, but it's almost entirely unhelpful too.
Some of this confusion is rooted in the imprecise use of the English displayed in the text, where words appear to be being employed as vague approximations of meaning rather than as precise determinants of it. This is true on even the most basic level, for whoever produced this seems not to have had a clear idea of who it was that they were writing for. For example, if these words are supposed in any way to constitute a helping hand for readers who are new not just to Thor’s more recent adventures, but to comics themselves, then wouldn’t it make sense to place words in a way that reflects their most common general usage? “Tremendous”, for instance, can of course refer to an exceptionally great measure, but it’s more often used in a sense that indicates an excess of approval. As a consequence, the phrase "tremendous foes" isn't one which is immediately easy to process, which surely means that an alternative ought to have been found, and yet it's the least unhelpful of such sloppy choices on display. The following sentence, for instance, means absolutely nothing to the reader who doesn't already know the fine details of Thor's backstory, making it as redundant an offering as can be imagined;
"The mighty Thor drew the powerful Odinsword from its Eternal Scabbard and split Yggdrasil in twain --"
How many aspects of this sentence require explanation to any beyond the adept? Well, assuming for the moment that every name and term is essential for the reader's secure progress forwards, or why else mention these matters at all, then it might have been useful to have had a brief mention of who this Thor is, and of what his relationship with characters such as Odin, Loki and Sif actually is. However, perhaps we're going to assume that the basic facts about Thor are common knowledge. What surely isn't generally known is the meaning of terms such as "Odinsword", "Eternal Scabbard" and "Yggdrasil". I myself have no idea what Yggdrasil is, and though its implied that it's "the Bridge of Worlds", that neither explains the matter nor establishes why a "Bridge of Worlds" might be so very important, let alone why we might be concerned with it having been "split ... in twain". Reading onwards only adds more confusion. "The Bridge of Worlds", we're told, has been "rendered permanent and fixed". Well, what does this mean? Common-sense knowledge can't inform this impossible vagueness. Words such as "permanent" and "fixed" when applied to the concept of a "Bridge" would seem to suggest a solid structure capable of bearing the load that it's been designed to. Whyever would the neophyte reader be worried about a "Bridge" that both existed and would continue to do so?
The only conclusion that can be reached from reading this introduction is that those who wrote it, checked it and recommended its publication literally cannot imagine what it is to not be a regular reader of Thor. The task of informing the reader prior to the beginning of "The Galactus Seed 1" isn't, therefore, one of identifying the key information which is required for an innocent outsider to begin to make sense of the tale ahead. Instead, it's apparently been assumed that all that is needed is a checklist of terms which will, in themselves, and despite the vagueness of their use, re-awaken and inform a pre-existing understanding of who Thor is and of how his world works, as if by fanboy osmosis.
Everyone knows this stuff really, don't they? It's obvious, really.
Complicating this linguistic imprecision and the counter-intuitive assumption of prior knowledge is the presence in the text of a mass of irrelevancies. Why, for example, is the audience which may know nothing of “the powerful Odinsword” being told of its “eternal scabbard”? There's no mention of either sword or scabbard in the 22 pages of "The Mighty Thor" # 1, and so it's hard to know why the 'eternal scabbard' is important to the neophyte when Thor's relationship to Loki isn't. Why, when so much in these sentences is vague or conspicuous by its absence, is that scabbard being mentioned at all? Why tell us that “Thor and Sif stand ready for whatever may come next.”, since that implies that all the other characters don’t, and that Thor and Sif stand actually in some kind of opposition to their fellows. Why inform the reader that Odin had “awakened from uneasy sleep”, a phrase which will baffle even occasional readers from recent years, who have known a quite different tale, while adding nothing to the understanding of the newcomer? Why is the fact that Odin's sleep was 'uneasy' an essential piece of information to impart? Who, facing the prospect of reading this comic without knowledge of the stories which have preceded it, needs to know anything about the sleep patterns of Odin?
It's as if the writer of this can't grasp that there is a difference between keenly showing everyone what he knows and diligently informing the reader of what they need to be told. This, of course, is exactly the wrong attitude where the matter of creating an introduction is concerned. Even for a writer who doesn't seem to grasp that double-hyphens are completely unnecessary in any writing of any kind beyond that of the experimental or the outsider artist, the purpose of identifying a core of priorities and then explaining such in as clear a manner as possible must surely be the obvious starting point for helping new readers.
|Here it is, the Shining City On A Hill, with an All-Father on the throne too.|
Yet there is, in addition to this great weight of the extraneous, a conspicuous absence of absolutely key information. And so, though it's helpful to be informed that Loki has been “resurrected as the young god he once was”, we're not told anything of what that means for his character, his memory or his motivations. The reader needs to know who Loki actually is, which isn't mentioned at all, and of how his present state compares to his previous existence. Without that knowledge, the part played by Loki in the following pages is exceptionally hard to make sense of. That doesn't mean that anything more than a brief statement of such matters is required, but it is needed all the same.
Similarly, there’s no specific mention of Broxton, Oklahoma in the introduction, or of the town's vital connection to Asgard. And so the new reader turning to the first page of the story will be immediately faced with the community affairs of a town which apparently passed quite unmentioned in the preparatory reading they’ve just completed! Worse yet, there’s nothing in the text of Mr Fraction’s script for page one of his story to explain how introduction and text relate to each other, of how Broxton and the American Heartland and Asgard are connected. Perhaps the presumption is that the mere mention of that “spewing geyser of strange light shooting upwards forever” in the prelude will enable the reader to link Broxton with the aforementioned "American Heartland". This is something of a long shot, and it relies very heavily, of course, on Broxton being shown close to a phenomena which is recognisable as a spewing, shooting light. Sadly, the sky as shown in Mr Ciopel's panel at 1/1 shows no sign of any 'spewing geyser ... shooting upward forever', although there are some subtle indications of 'strange light' in the heavens above the only church in America which has a sign showing service times but no information concerning religion or denomination. In short, there's no way of understanding where the reader is on page 1 in connection to the events detailed in the introduction, because even that little information doesn't apparently match up with what's on the page. And so, not only are both prologue and story unsympathetically shaped for the needs of the more-casual reader, but they've clearly not been created in such a way as to effectively compliment each other either. All of this makes the whole purpose of the introduction seem more and more mysterious.The information it gives is almost entirely unhelpful. The data that the reader requires is almost wholly absent.
It may be that some of the problems with the introduction stem from an attempt by its writer to evoke a comic-book Godly tone. Regretfully, the addition of one "thus", an individual "twain" and a single "rendered" doesn't create a sense of Asgardian-speak so much as that of a piece written by someone for whom English isn't their first language. Juxtaposing contemporary phrases - "There are some who will never forgive him." - with only partially cod-Shakespearean ones - "thus rendered permanent and fixed" - produces an effect which must surely had led some casual and literate browsers to decide that comic books really weren't for them, despite so much enticingly credible publicity to the contrary. Certainly, if this page really does reflect an attempt to mirror the speech patterns of Odin's people, then there's an absence of the glee and irony put to use by those writers who've most succesfully risen to the challenge of making ham-archaic speech enjoyable as well as informing.
But the problem isn't just a question of an unthinking selection of material combined with a thoughtless and inconsistent choice of tone. Some of what's on this page actually makes no sense at all, and by that, I mean not that it's full of references to the minutiae of the Thor mythos, but rather that its truly senseless. For example, what is meant by “strange light shooting upwards forever from the American - - and Asgardian - -heartland"? It's another one of those statements which requires prior knowledge to even begin to make any sense of, of course, and, as is typical, the essential relationship between the 'American Heartland' and that of Asgard is entirely unexplained. But it's that word "forever" which takes an obscure and unhelpful sentence and makes it an utterly confusing one. How does a light shoot up "forever"? Does this mean that the light will always be shooting up, or that it's somehow projecting through time, or does 'forever' refer to space instead? No, the mystery is impossible to solve. The writer and those who edited the piece were so confident that their own knowledge could be transmitted through such shorthand that they quite missed the fact that no-one else could possibly know the meaning of what was being written.
Certainly, a touch of writerly restraint and a measure of editing might have freed up the space to explain what the likes of “Yggdrasil” might be. It’s as if whoever wrote this piece assumed that the audience possessed the ability to deduce the meaning of the details associated with Thor's recent adventures simply by casting an eye over a piece of text containing certain key headline words and terms. In this, the introduction seems to reflect an understanding of language which regards it as nothing more than a vague aide-memoire, a collection of flat symbols which serve to do nothing more than jog the memories already laid down by the essential experience of reading comic books. And so, words and terms which are useless to the new reader seeking the bare minimum of essential information are sprinkled through the introduction as if their presence was in itself a sign of virtue, a marker that the writer knows their comic-fan stuff, as well as an infallible way of getting the reader up to speed without having to actually explain anything. This, matched with what appears to be a lack of knowledge of little beyond comic books and the comic book fans who read them, means that the possibility for misunderstanding and even offense is always present, as indeed we've seen in so many unintentionally controversial books in the past 12 months. Both Marvel and DC are constantly being shocked to discover that their books contain material which others find offensive. The right can attempt to create moral panics over the depictions of the Tea Party and the issue/non-issue of Superman's citizenship. Liberals are appalled by the treatment of heroic
characters from a non-white background and the pathetic depiction of the 'realities' of drug abuse. And yet, the publishers don't ever seem to spot that trouble is on its way, don't appear to work to either proactively prevent problems or ensure that contentious stances taken are expressed in the most productive way possible. It would be one thing if Marvel or DC had set out to make genuinely purposeful and well-informed political statements in the incidents referred to in passing above, but it's usually obvious that the problems are caused by accidents and half-thought through stories. Such a lack of engagement with the detail and the broader meaning of their own product can be seen in the introduction which we're discussing here. Why declare that Odin is the “All-Father”, for example, an irrelevancy in itself, given that Asgard is also referred to in these few hundred words as “The Shining City”, a phrase precious to a great deal of American Christian and political ideology. To add 'All-Father' to 'Shining City' is to create the possibility for a charge of cultural insensitivity, given that it does raise the possibility of Marvel being seen to equate Odin with the Christian God and Asgard with Heaven. Now, Marvel may have decided that two such terms are unlikely to attract any unwanted attention, and I'd agree with them, but my point is that anyone who was paying attention to the language they were using would have spotted that "Shining City" isn't a phrase that should appear without it being deliberately chosen for a particular purpose. These are words and terms which have a specific meaning when placed in combination with each other. To use them respectfully or satirically is one thing. To appropriate them without any specific purpose is a sign that language means little to the writer beyond the barely-functional exchange of basic information.
Anyone who describes a comicbook kingdom of Gods as a "Shining City", especially given that Asgard does indeed appear in "Thor The Mighty" # 1 to have been built upon a hill, just isn't thinking. A minor matter in itself, no doubt, but an exceptionally telling example.
|Look carefully; there is a spewing geyser of strange light shooting upwards forever in this panel.|
Of course, it might be argued that these introductions don’t really matter. A prologue is, perhaps, merely an extra page in a comicbook which doesn't count.. If so, why have an introduction? If its job isn’t so much to inform as to be seen to have made an effort to do so, why not add some crayon pictures or Rorschach tests with multiple choice questions attached? That at least would carry some measure of fun and interactivity, and a few comicbook terms could be scattered around the page to indicate enthusiasm and good will too.
But what a shame, that the editorial staff associated with a new comic starring the character which is proving so popular in this summer's movie box-office charts should have made no effective effort to welcome new readers to the book's pages.
In truth, the introduction to "The Mighty Thor" is no anomaly where much of Marvel's product is concerned. If it's notably incompetent, it shares a great deal in common with the work of the creators of many of Marvel's books, who too assume that comic books are easy to read, that the details of continuity are more important than the construction of clear and touching stories, who regard effect as far more important than craft and substance.
All of this dreadfully poor writing can't be the result of people who don't care, and it certainly isn't a reflection of a lack of talent. Instead, what it seems to be is the product of a group of people who can't perceive that their common norms and values aren't those of the audiences which they're trying desperately to appeal to. The talent is there, the good intentions are obvious, the craft can often shine; but the culture is an obviously crippling one, for how else can we explain the problems which are so evident in so many of each month's books?
To be continued, with a look not at the editorial content associated with "The Galactus Seed 1", but, rather conventionally, with a discussion of Mr Fraction's story and Mr Coipel's art, in tomorrow's "The Campaign For Real Pop Comics V "The Mighty Thor" # 1".
|Well, no shooting geysers, but there are some odd clouds and some floating blue balls.|