Thor ’77-’78:

On the Never-Ending Road to Ragnarok, Part 2

The story: all the Asgardians (Thor, Sif, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg), with the Recorder, battle against the Odin-force body, created and controlled by the alien within the spirit mold. All fail, until somehow the voluminous Volstagg finds unexpected power within him, striking ably and causing the Odin-force body to dissipate. As the spirit body fades, the alien power storage units begin to explode, presumably acting like a dangerous electrical short. Thor then asks Volstagg to lend some of his newly found power to Odin, hoping to revive his father. The transfer does not seem to be working, while the alien from within the spirit mold comes out to battle with a sense of desperation. He attacks Thor, who easily manhandles him, just as Odin does indeed sit up, alive.

The aliens are left in despair on their destroyed world as the weakened Odin is lifted up and carried to the Asgardian ship. Odin reveals he transferred some of his power into Volstagg – just in case something like that might be needed. Of course, it was! The group returns to Asgard, even as Odin falls into the Odin-Sleep, a regenerative rest during which he is unconscious and unable to be awakened. As they enter the throne room, who but Loki – Thor’s villainous half-brother – sits on the throne. The Enchantress and the Executioner, two powerful villains in their own right, stand at his side.

This issue can be referred to as an “all-battle issue.” Very little character development or story advancement takes place: it is only through battling, and plot devices such as Odin’s ploy, that problems get resolved. However, there are still a few events to point out and discuss further. On the cover of this issue, four different captions read as follows: “The Thunder God defeated—helpless before the monstrous power of the Odin-Force unleashed!! But One Shall Save Him! And we guarantee you’ll never guess WHO! The most startling surprise of the month!” And this refers to Volstagg, a god who was included in The Warriors Three mostly for comic relief. He is voluminous (i.e., occupying much space) and as drawn, is huge in size and rather overweight. He is usually not a fighter. Though incredibly loyal, he prefers the post-battle feast and celebration. He certainly does not often save the day, so the cover blurbs do indeed tell the truth. Volstagg is never going to be expected to win the battle.

Even Volstagg himself is surprised, crying out, “That b-burst of searing power… from my gauntleted hand? Can it truly be? Have I somehow tapped some hidden wellspring deep within me?” (1) We find out, yes, it was power hidden within him, but it was power that Odin gave him. We can see myth at work here. Anyone and everyone has abilities; though this power may not have been inherent to Volstagg, his bravery and the good results that came from his willingness to try will always serve him well. Perhaps Volstagg will be a bit more capable the next time around. The idea of personal responsibility and trying to live up to ideals perfectly coincides with the teachings I received at Catholic school and church. A main tenet of Christianity is that each person is special because they hold Christ within them. One only needs to believe and act on those beliefs to succeed, even if one only succeeds in trying. A good lesson to learn, no matter whether you learn it by identifying with Volstagg or from a priest through a Sunday morning sermon.

Volstagg is then called upon to heal Odin. Healing is often connected to religion; even today, though we have modern medicine, people still pray to be healed. Priests and preachers try to heal the sick and lame. In the attempt to cure Odin, our superheroes are no different. Volstagg lays hands on Odin, the laying of hands being a common ritual of religious myth concerned with healing, and the others pray: “and though those of Asgard are a warrior race, not truly given to old wive’s tales, still do they part their lips in prayer…,” (2) which is an interesting choice of words by the writer, to be sure. To whom are the Norse gods praying? Presumably it is to Odin, who lies powerless before them. In the Judeo-Christian America of 1977, however, it seemed, perhaps expected, that the Asgardian immortals were praying to the Christian God, an intersection I was not too fond of (as I already mentioned).

In any case, there are tears, with love and loyalty expressed, as Odin does indeed rise. He regains his life from the life-force energy he had given to Volstagg and now receives back. Regarding the questions of religion found in the text, sublimated but present, an interesting panel depicts the Norse gods when they are ready to leave the alien world. Odin is weak so they must carry him. Thor becomes a carpenter, forging a wooden stretcher with ornamented detail fit for a god. Of course, Jesus in his younger years learned the skill of carpentry from his father, Joseph. If not for the previous religious overtones, i.e., praying for Odin’s health, this parallel might go unnoticed, and probably was when I was eleven. However, it was rather striking upon re-reading: “Thus, it soon becomes obvious that the Thunder God’s skill with his mystic hammer is not limited solely to destruction!” as well as in the image (3) that accompanies this text.

The religious elements get stronger as the issue ends, showing Loki as a false ruler of Asgard sitting on the throne. The featured teaser for the next issue promotes the title of that story as “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me!” This is the First Commandment of the Ten Commandments the Judean God gives to his people through Moses. We shall see if this has any relevance to the actual narrative in the next issue, but it certainly caps off an issue featuring two things: battles – and religious overtones. Is it blasphemy to use the First Commandment as a teaser? I suppose it might be to some religious folks, but as my younger self, it was easy to see that this meant Loki was a false god, and more relevant, a false ruler. The stage was set for an Asgardian power struggle.

Now – what do we find in the letter column and Marvel Bullpen Bulletins this time around? Sticking with the theme of religious overtones, the first letter in “The Hammer Strikes” speaks to comics’ incessant cycle of killing off a character only to see them rise again. In today’s comics, heroes get killed and somehow come back in many different ways. Such “rebooting” of a character is actually a clue that a character is probably well on his or her way to becoming a myth. By endlessly retelling a character’s story, the essence of the hero remains timeless. That essence, the myth of the character, can seemingly live forever. Back in September, 1977, it was mostly only the villains that were getting resurrected (of course, we just saw Odin pulling off this feat, but as we will see, the Norse gods – all of them – go through a cycle of life and death called Ragnarok, which was often used as a storyline in the Thor comic, but more on that later…). The letter writer is discussing the death of a villain from issue #259, The Grey Gargoyle and suggests: “…don’t bring him back! This is my first biggest hate – the continual resurrection of characters who should stay dead and preserve credibility. Nearly all of Marvel’s major villains […] have been killed two or three times, yet they always come back”. (4) Yet another reader who is looking for a real experience in the Marvel Universe – yes, leave such characters dead, because that is what happens in real life.

However, as the editor responds, “For every Faithful One like yourself who wishes to see a character (especially a villain) who is killed stay dead, there are dozens, upon dozens of other Marvelites demanding said character’s return…and, to be honest, we have to agree with them.” The Marvelites – disciples of Marvel, supposedly – are the group to which all the readers of Marvel comics belong. The Marvel Universe is theirs, to be discussed, argued over, and in the end, treasured as a reality, a mythology, just like any other set of narratives uniting people. Resurrection – if it works in other myths, it certainly can work in the Marvel Universe!

Now let’s see what Stan is up to in his Soapbox…amidst the announcements for new comics (a Howard the Duck newspaper strip, various movie adaptations, and a comic devoted to a real life stunt man, The Human Fly) and new artists coming on board (the legendary artist Carmine Infantino, who did his most memorable work at DC Comics, but had a few good runs at Marvel), there is an interesting note from Stan Lee about visiting college campuses. Apparently just back from the University of Alabama, Stan writes, “I enjoy visiting various colleges around the country more than anything else. I can’t begin to describe the excitement of meeting Marvelites on campuses all over America (Canada and Mexico included) and being turned on by their awareness and enthusiasm!” (5) Part of the reasoning behind Lee’s college tour entailed the fact that Lee’s marketing genius had him out promoting current Marvel Comics to the kids that had grown up on them. Good portions of Marvel’s early readers were now college students.

However, for my seventh grade self, this brief note emphasized the reality of the Marvel Universe. “They were learning about Marvel Comics in college! That must mean comics are taken seriously, so obviously there is nothing wrong with how seriously I take them,” I might have said to myself. The goal of the lower middle class in America at that time was always to go to college, to move up a notch or two. Stan’s visit to the University of Alabama suggested comics could take me there, or at least be part of the journey. Knowing the ranks of Marveldom Assembled included college students – and apparently university staffs were on board as well, if they invited Stan to speak – helped me accept my own thoughts about the importance of these comic narratives to my own imagination and my real life, regardless of their being set in a mythological time and space all their own.

Excerpted from “Everything I Needed to Know about Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics)” ©2017 Joseph P. Muszynski

1. Wein, Len (writer), Walt Simonson & Tony DeZuniga (illustrators), Glynis Wein (colorist), and John Costanza (letterer), “Holocaust and Homecoming,” THE MIGHTY THOR #263, Marvel Comics Group, 1977, 11, panel 4.

2. THOR #263, 16, panel 4.

3. THOR #263, 26, panels 1-2.

4. Gubbin, Dan, “The Hammer Strikes,” Letter #1, THE MIGHTY THOR #263, Marvel Comics Group, 1977, 19.

5. Lee, Stan, “Marvel Bullpen Bulletins – Stan Lee’s Soapbox,” THE MIGHTY THOR #263, Marvel Comics Group, 1977, 28.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joseph P. Muszynski, Ph.D., is a managing editor at the University of Chicago Press. Joe earned his doctorate in Mythological Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute with a dissertation titled “Structure, Form, and Content: Mythology and Comics.” He blogs on comics and myth at “Into the gap…” (mythandcomics.blogspot.com). Check out his book “Everything I Needed to Know about Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics)” on Amazon. Email him at joemuszynski@earthlink.net

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