Better off Dead – Ennis and Fabry’s Thor: Vikings

Thor fights Viking Zombies with help of warriors from various eras. That sounds like a great premise for a Rick Remender style Grindhouse action series; and the writer, Garth Ennis, has been doing fine with such works long before Remender became a household name[1] so how come Thor: Vikings ends up feeling so underwhelming?

One must wonder what sort of a thought process went through the head of whatever Marvel comics official who commissioned (or approved) Garth Ennis’s Thor: Vikings – a mini-series wherein Thor fights some Nazi zombies in New York City in a decidedly R-Rated affair of blood and guts.

Ennis is, after all, a well known “hater” (though perhaps “scorn” is a better word) of Superhero comics and the values they represent. He made this position known in works such as Hitman, Marvel Knights: Punisher, The Pro etc… in which all superheroes get a metaphorical (and sometimes not even that) kick in the groin[2]. He has his own pet genres – war stories, black comedy, horror – and seem to stay away from the one that is most recognized with the medium in which he works.

This is all well and good: Ennis tends to stick to the things he likes / is good at whenever he can, instead of being coupled to write another spandex title for DC or Marvel, and the result of which is a back catalog of some of the highest quality in the medium. It is true that his work lacks the formalistic mastery of Alan Moore, or the sheer imaginative qualities of Grant Morrison – the things that made the creators of the 80s British invasion so popular amongst the intellectual sub-set of comics fans[3] – but Ennis is a master storyteller with a powerful grasp of the fundamentals and great ear for dialogue and character building. Ennis knows his stuff.

The thing is that “his stuff” does not include Superheroes. Even Thor, a Viking god in love with fighting, it too much of a “goody-two-shoes” as far as he’s concerned. So the series, named I remind you, Thor: Vikings focuses neither on Thor (who’s really only there as a plot engine and because he’s a bigger name than the other characters in the story) nor on his Viking opponents (who barely scratch the one dimension of character and wouldn’t even dream of two). The character who gets all the best lines insDoctor Strange, ostensibly there as an exposition mouthpiece, who gets re-imagined[4] as Noel Coward[5] – he provides both the magic that saves the day and all the dry wit the reader wants.

But it’s easy to see that Ennis cares more about Thor’s band of time displaced warriors (a northern shield maiden, a crusading knight, and a reluctant World War II German pilot[6]) – mostly because they satisfy his love of history and writing of ‘normal’ human characters instead of gods and wizards. Thor: Vikings feels like it’s their story, and the title character just gets in the way.

This is probably the main problem with this story – that I am not convinced Ennis wanted to write it. It is not the only one though – the story feels over long: with unending scenes of massacre in New York (drawn by the ever able Glenn Fabry[7]) whose excessiveness feels like something from a minor Avatar Press book, and a sense of filler early on (the first issue could have easily been compressed into a four pages prologue).

But with all that this is still not a bad book. It can’t be: The writer-artist team are too good at what they do, that even when they are working on a B-title they give it a professional treatment. Thor: Vikings is an above competent title by people who are able to give so much more, indeed- you can see glimpses of Ellis’ greatness as a writer in the smaller moments of introspection. But the series can’t shake the overall feeling that its creators have far better things to do with their time…

[1] It was Ennis, after all, who gave us the insane “Zombie Night in the Gotham Aquarium” two-parter in HITMAN. A story which just as good as its title suggests.

[2] Though Ennis does seem to be able to summon up some admiration to the famous, original, Superheroes: the short guest appearance that Superman had in one issue of HITMAN is quite possibly the best Superman story of the 1990s.

[3] In short – these are writers that appeal to the Lit students, to those of us who enjoy analyzing form and technique as much as, or even more so, than simply reading a good story.

[4] In the words of one clever reviewer whose name I’ve forgotten

[5] In what is quite possibly the best version of the character up until DOCTOR STRANGE: THE OATH by Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin.

[6] And this is a credit to Ennis’ writing talent that he uses the old cliché of ‘well-meaning-not-really-a-nazi-german-soldier’ without causing this Jewish critic to twist uncomfortably in his chair.

[7] Who has collaborated with Ennis of the likewise tone-uncertain KEV

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Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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Also by Tom Shapira:

Judging Dredd: Examining the World of Judge Dredd


The Mignolaverse: Hellboy and the Comics Art of Mike Mignola


Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston\'s The Filth in the 21st Century


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