The Mighty Thor #268:
Damocles escaped from Thor, but events take place leading Thor right back to him. To begin this issue, the police contact Dr. Blake and ask him to contact Thor. Being one and the same, Thor quickly arrives to confer with the police commissioner. Bennett Barlow, the brother of Damocles, has come to the station: Bennett saw his brother Eric was involved in the recent criminal activity. Eric Barlow is Damocles, an intelligent man never able to find his place in the world. His lack of success and stability led him to become moodier and meaner as life went on. At the same time, Bennett became a peace advocate and a physics teacher, ultimately losing track of Eric until he saw him on the nightly news.
Meanwhile, Damocles is almost finished building his “cobalt cannon.” When his gang demands payment, Damocles coldly turns his gun on them. They back down, but he worries, “Things are definitely starting to get out of hand!” Yes, they are indeed. However, next we get a brief interlude showing a prisoner getting busted out of jail, but there is no explanation as to who he is, why he is being freed, or why we should care. Hopefully more on this later! Then, back to the main plot: Bennett leads Thor to the building where the brothers lived when they were younger. Damocles appears with his cannon, intending to blast his old life and its associated bad memories out of existence. He obliterates the building then turns the cannon toward Thor. When he fires again, the Thunder God is blown away in a “cobalt storm.” As he gets away, Damocles tells his brother that it was Bennett’s own research that led to the cannon’s construction. From this information, Bennett realizes the synthetic cobalt being used is unstable and dangerous, but has no time to tell Damocles.
When Thor and Bennett track down Damocles once more, he is leading his gang in a bank robbery. Bennett finally tells him the cannon is unstable and will explode. Damocles chooses to let it, hoping to kill everyone with him. Bennett gains an opportunity and shoots his brother, even as Thor hurls the cannon into space to explode. Thor finds a brother grieving over having killed his brother, which echoes Thor’s own state of mind from the previous issue as he looked for mercy for his own brother, Loki. The problems of gods and men are always the same.
It seems appropriate for this issue to take a look at the story of Damocles and the “Sword of Damocles.” Just as the word myth is incorrectly used in modern society to mean a story that amounts to a lie, the phrase “the sword of Damocles” is also often misused by the media and the public. In common usage, the sword of Damocles is mentioned when there may be some impending doom, the possibility of which is going to decide how events will play out. An example from recent American politics that kept this phrase in use are the scenarios over funding deadlines and the possibility of government shutdowns leading to doomsday events. However, the actual tale of Damocles is more nuanced than such fear mongering.
The king Dionysius had a sycophantic hanger-on in court by the name of Damocles. Damocles was jealous of the wealth of the king and his apparent life of ease. So Damocles told the king how fortunate he was to have such luxury. The king offered to switch places with Damocles, who immediately accepted. When he finally sat on the throne, Damocles noticed a large and sharp sword hanging by a thread over him. Damocles suggested to the king that perhaps he did not want to be king after all. The sword is a metaphor for the struggle of a king: with the benefits of being king also come great responsibilities and the fear that such a position holds – both for one’s life but also for being able to make correct decisions.
Thus the sword is less about impending doom and more the constant possibility of events turning bad, leading to the stress of being responsible. Damocles in this issue really does reflect the actual story. Damocles wants what his brother has, but unable to find a positive life, decides to make himself the “big man” by stealing his brother’s research to get the power he needs. The comic book Damocles demonstrates that being the boss means worrying about every detail. The earlier example, when his gang almost turns on him, clearly visualizes the actual intent of the original story of the sword. The story of the sword of Damocles was not one for which I knew the details as a twelve-year old, but it is rather welcome to see the mythological name and narrative used here, correctly evoking the original tale.
A story I was aware of in 1977 was the Bible story of Cain and Abel. It focuses on the evil Cain slaying his brother Abel. On re-reading this issue, that story immediately came to my mind, even though this narrative reverses the events. We see Eric Barlow (Damocles) constantly bullying his younger brother, and just like in the Sword of Damocles story, we see Eric was jealous of Bennett. Though he does not try to kill his younger brother, he does try to kill in his name by using the weapon he helped design. In the end, it is the “good” brother, or at least the non-psychotic brother (Abel / Bennett), that is forced to kill the evil one, Cain / Eric / Damocles.
When Bennett does shoot Eric down, Thor offers an odd coda that seems rather ambiguous for these events. When Thor hurls the cannon into space, a huge explosion takes place, supernova-bright and it remains, lingering in the sky. Thor ends the issue by looking at this intense burst and saying, “Though thy brother lived in infamy — truly did he die in glory! For how many other men have left a star to mark their passing?” Perhaps this is an ironic and cosmic joke by Thor, because Damocles did not die in glory, but was shot down. The constant pressures of being a great, evil man, figuratively dropped the sword down on his head. He never had the luck of Damocles to be able to hand back the responsibility and be grateful the blame would never fall on him. Perhaps the “star” stands in for the sword – a symbol of the problems of power and ruling. For everyone who holds power over someone else should also have an accompanying need of compassion for them. The dual pressures should tear at the nerves of the one in power. An exploding star seems a suitable metaphor. Or, perhaps Thor is reflecting on Loki here, with no star to mark his life, just the ignominy of being made to forget his glory as he wanders as a broken human.
The ambiguity of this ending circles back to the narrative’s beginning. When Thor learned the police wanted to see him, he declares, “Whate’er dares threaten this city I hold dear, it shall face the swift and righteous wrath of — Thor!” Thor’s care for the Earth is not because the people worship him, but simply because he holds it dear. He likes, respects, and admires the people of the Earth. And perhaps, in a way, he is like the king Dionysius, over whom the sword hangs constantly. But unlike Damocles, he is ready to act to make sure that sword never comes falling down on anyone without it falling on him first. The Church wants each person to do the right thing and offers an unseen God to be there to help. But bad things that make little sense still happen. In clear opposition to this, Thor takes on the mantle of responsibility and goes up to meet the falling sword. Thor is a true hero for our times and an exemplar of one of Marvel’s key myths: with great power must come greater responsibility.
The letters in this issue feature fans’ comments regarding the death of Odin (as seen in issue #262). One way in which comic book narratives are structured in ways similar to myths is in the portrayal of the death of a superhero. The letter writers point out their inability to believe Odin has really died, as this can only happen when Ragnarok is going to occur (which, if it ever did, would be the end of the Thor comic). Comics generally have few true character deaths, because those that do die rarely stay dead for long. Even if a character’s death is said to be final, there is always a parallel timeline, or an alternate world, or some other plot device, through which a character’s narrative may continue whenever the publisher and a writer want. The plasticity of “reality” in comics includes multiple versions of characters and is one of the defining characteristics of a mythology. The same myths can be told in different ways by different people with different emphases. In the sum of those versions, there is a reality of a myth that is created. Each version is only one facet of the meaning found in the entire narrative. Thus, a myth actually contains all the versions of the story being told.
Multiple versions lead to the discussion of continuity in Marvel comics, in general (found in the Bullpen Bulletins in this issue). The editors make a related point when they respond to letters about how the actions in one comic could possibly be happening when they contradict something in another published comic. Their response is that, “Obviously, all of the adventures taking place in all of our various titles are not happening at the same time.” Fans try to put all the adventures in various comics into a timeline; this is what the “Marvel Universe” means – a connected reality of narratives across all the comics published by Marvel. What is included in that connection and what is not may vary according to each reader, with some “believing” some stories and disregarding others (sometimes if only because they were unable to read a comic they couldn’t find on their newsstand).
As the editor of the Bulletins writes, “We may not always agree on the exact course of Marvel history…,” which verifies the reader’s perception of the malleable Marvel Universe, but also tests their ability to exclude events, or change details, and still remain invested members of Marveldom Assembled. However, as all these Marvel characters are still featured in comics today, possibilities excluded from one era may very well be present years later. The details of a character’s narrative may completely change over time. However, remember that in mythology all these varied versions do exist. Part of the very powerful draw for a young reader is that what is, what is wanted, and what could be, are all possible, at any time.
Excerpted from “Everything I Needed to Know about Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics” ©2017 Joseph P. Muszynski