The Mighty Thor #269:
The splash page shows Thor reading a newspaper at a New York City newsstand. As a crowd gathers, he gets pressured into signing autographs. Telling his fans he has duties to attend to, he eventually leaves, but thinks to himself, “There are times I would rather face an army of my fiercest foes than a crowd of my most ardent admirers.” He enters an alley and turns into Dr. Blake, startling a homeless woman. She harangues him, and strangely, he offers her a dollar for her trouble.
Meanwhile, the man who was mysteriously freed from prison last issue is revealed to be Wilbur Day, the true identity of a super villain named the Stilt-Man. We do not yet discover who freed him. His mysterious benefactor works for another mysterious benefactor. Wilbur is offered improved Stilt-Man armor and criminal employment. He, of course, accepts. As the Stilt-Man, he attacks a helicopter and steals a sealed box from onboard. When Dr. Blake sees the copter falling, he becomes Thor and saves the crew. The mystery person that freed Wilbur has followed the Stilt-Man, and sees Thor pursuing him after the rescue of the helicopter.
Meanwhile, in Asgard, Odin tells The Warriors Three they need to fix a mysterious problem occurring in the Realm Eternal.
Back to Thor. He catches up to Stilt-Man and they battle. We see the second mysterious other who sent the first mysterious other to free Wilbur Day; the secrecy is getting complicated and, rather uninterestingly, this appears to be a computer watching Thor and Stilt-Man fight. Stilt-Man is no match for Thor, who uses his power to call down lightning to short circuit the armored villain. But victory is not yet achieved. Thor immediately gets knocked over by a blast which also sends his hammer flying away. The mysterious other following him is revealed to be the blaster. His name, of course, is Blastaar, The Living Bomb-Burst.
Aside from the opening interaction between Thor and his adoring public and Dr. Don Blake with the startled homeless woman, issue #269 is really another “All Battle” issue. Marvel superheroes were often shown drawing crowds in the street (or, somewhat infamously, in an ice cream shop, as Lee and Kirby portrayed Thor drinking the “Asgard special” ice cream soda in issue #143 from 1967 – this has been going on a while…). Gathering a crowd seems like an accurate portrayal of what would happen on our streets if a Norse god superhero truly existed in our world. Thor endures the attention, including one young lad stating, “Ah, Thor’s okay — but he’s not half as neat as Iron Man!” But a god can only endure so much. We get the feeling this crowd of admirers would never dissipate, so Thor lies, I mean, he suggests, “The clarion call to duty hath been sounded” as an excuse to take his leave. Thor has basically fibbed to get away from a public crowd becoming too much to handle. In many myths, gods are found to invent excuses in order to get mere mortals to do what they want them to.
Immediately following is the scene showing the homeless woman Dr. Blake encounters in an alley. This woman wants nothing to do with the doctor, berating him for making noise in the alley where she is napping. But her perspective changes when he gives her a dollar. As Blake is shown thinking, “When things get too harried for Thor, he always has the mortal Dr. Don Blake to fall back on — and frankly I love it!” To be completely honest, and perhaps this is sacrilegious if you are a believer, my twelve-year-old self found it much easier to understand – and maybe even believe in – the dichotomy of Thor / Dr. Don Blake than that of Jesus being god and man at the same time. Unless you simply have faith in the arrangement, Thor’s annoyance with humanity and Blake’s revelry in the same makes for easier belief than both existing at once.
The secrecy of the villains in this issue creates odd interludes between the battle scenes, during which we believe great things will be revealed but which are not so amazing once they are. The payoff in the end is a plot device used often in Thor, but one that remains fun to explore. When Thor is without his hammer for a minute, he reverts back into Dr. Blake. The cliffhanger of what will happen if Blastaar is attacking a foe that changes from the Mighty Thor to brave but weak Blake is always a good way to end an issue of Thor!
On to the letter column. In my dissertation, I argued that one of the characteristic structures of comics inherently creating mythology is the nature of time and space as represented through comics’ physical structures (panels, pages, borders, etc.) and how the narratives are shaped by and incorporate these layouts. The letters in this issue address this directly. Time in comics – as it is in myth – is, in a sense, out of time. Myths enclose a special time and space not in our own timeline. A mythical narrative is separate and on its own, and thus the time and space defined in a myth is accessible directly only in that narrative. This explains why myths affect us individually, and are so personally felt, while at the same time they can be universal, applying to the human condition of any number of different humans. Anyone can resonate with a myth, but that does not mean everyone does with a specific narrative.
The first letter comes from a reader who read the previous story arc all in one sitting. The serial format of comics – in Thor’s case, an issue every month – creates a perspective on time that helps to invest an individual in the narrative personally. The monthly schedule creates a relationship between reader and comic, infusing each issue with something of a sense of ritual, for which the reader finds space and time to read each issue as it’s published. Long story arcs leave more space for a reader to contemplate between issues. On the other hand, a reader who reads all the relevant issues at once finds a more dynamic experience. The saga runs over the reader, setting the narrative apart from the real world through its separate space, but also through its expanse and, finally, its completion.
The complete narrative immediately separates the reader from the tangible world. Perhaps not everyone can see themselves as a character in Thor, but they can understand the emotional possibilities inherent in the narrative as a whole. The letter writer expresses this as, “Imagine all your despair and all your energy voiced by a seething vow, intense and as savage as could be; then, that long, seemingly eternal drive to your destination, as well as an array of encounters, ultimately softening those surging emotions.” Obviously this writer was overrun by the experience and by resonating with the narrative, has amplified the story into a myth – “despair,” “seething,” “intense,” “savage,” and “eternal” are descriptions of the power of myth at work in a narrative as well as in the reader’s life.
Whereas a monthly comic captures a myth in space and in time, another structure of the comics functions similarly: panels capture space and time within their borders. In the second letter of this issue, the reader articulates the power of the narrative from Thor #263, page 30, as expressed in a single panel. In the writer’s words:
…it showed Thor kissing his father, Odin, as he was laid in bed. Usually, I try to be an unemotional guy, and so I was lucky that I was by myself when I read this issue of THOR. I didn’t actually break down in tears, but it was very touching. It reminded me that, even though Odin is all-powerful, he is still a loving father. And […] Thor still loves Odin dearly. Believe me, that one panel was worth the entire cost of the magazine.
Encapsulated in one panel, the archetypal power of an image – and even more so of one image within a longer myth – becomes resonant with a reader and makes the entire narrative that much more meaningful. This writer has detailed a good example of how we start with an image but end with a myth offering deep meaning for a reader.
The panel is striking when it’s taken out of the sequence of the panels before and after, but also from out of the context of the page and entire comic. Thor, splendidly helmeted, leans in and kisses the wearied, sleeping face of his father. Panels like this can get overlooked by commentators assuming superhero narratives are simply action stories for young boys. Such panels don’t fit expectations, and the presence of such content merits some explanation. If these stories are seen as myths, explanations become evident. Because here they are – the archetypal son with his archetypal father, the strong younger fully realizing the frailty of the older. Instead of taking advantage of perceived weakness, as we often see brash warriors do, here Thor gently embraces Odin and adds a promise to always protect and love him. Visual narrative art is the ability of one image to express a larger narrative, to contain a contextual power in its frame that is felt by a viewer to be applicable in a larger way to the viewer’s own life. It is difficult to be authoritative about a single image, because in the specifics of how this works, anyone can experience an image in many different ways. But when an image affects you, you know it. A myth in one single image; images put together in a sequence; sequences strung together into a myth; myths expand into a mythology. Our letter writer here understood that comics can most definitely contain myths.
It was exciting to encounter this commentary in the letter column, but the content of the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins this month was equally relevant to mythology. Stan Lee writes about his lectures on college campuses and what he actually talks about. He lets the readers know he tries to discuss comics in ways that develop a sense of legitimacy about them. Every point he describes from his lecture notes lends credence to my contention that Marvel Comics created a mythology of the Marvel Universe. He begins with a history of how Marvel Comics came to be, and in true Stan fashion, “it rarely comes out the same way twice!” As we have seen, a key characteristic of a myth is that it can have multiple versions and each version is equally truthful and part of the whole. Partly due to oral tradition, by which a tale is told by any number of tellers though never in the same way twice; myths almost always have multiple versions. As myths get written down, paradoxically there is even more of a possibility that multiple versions will exist. As technology allows more people to write more down, the versions of a myth multiply.
However, myths do get messy when we accept they are made up of every version. A myth’s depth increases through the multitude of attributes a character may exhibit over all the versions, but these details can often conflict with each other. However, the idea that conflicting personality traits are found in a mythical character makes a myth more real and more resonant to us. We often have conflicting thoughts and behaviors, sometimes making our world a crowded jumble of contradictions. Myths, especially the psychological examination of myths, often remind us of that fact. Lee, by giving out varied and sometimes conflicting histories of Marvel Comics, sows the seeds of a mythological perspective not only on his comics, but also on the company itself. Through this process, Marvel becomes less of a company and more of a Universe.
In his lectures, Lee then goes on to discuss “the psyches and gestalts” of his costumed heroes. Marvel is known as the comics company that intentionally brought psychology to its characters, imbuing them with the problems and limitations that any human being might have. Referring to his character’s “gestalts” directly suggests Lee saw his creations as complex beings, made up of the conflicting thoughts and emotions that create multiple versions of both personalities and myths. As readers, we identify with a variety of possibilities because we hope to have our own variety of possibilities. We want choices, not being pushed into accepting the only option. Again, comic book structures emphasize possibility: through visual art, depicting emotion and behavior in single-frame panels featuring the specific emotional possibilities and choices of the characters, these choices are amplified in their singularity and allow an empathetic reading which can turn a comic book narrative into a myth for the reader who feels that empathy.
Lee ends his lectures by discussing “the philosophy of comics […] what’s right with them and […] what’s wrong with them; why Marvel has a […] flavor all its own […] and what lies ahead…” which may sound like Lee blowing a horn for his creations, but it also acknowledges how a Marvel Universe has grown around these narratives and flourished into a mythology. Lee off-handedly tells us his lecture plan is “probably the most sought-after info,” “next to the secret of the Rosicrucians.” But even this is a mythological comment, as the Rosicrucians are a society founded upon the idea that there is a secret knowledge, beyond or behind what is known, which can enlighten and inform our lives with true understanding and knowledge. If you believe me, the Marvel Universe is just such a compendium of knowledge, a mythology that enlightens and informs our lives. That’s an apt comparison to drop into the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins.
Mythology is widespread, valid, and even ubiquitous; though our culture holds religious wisdom up as a standard for judging the world – some even calling it a necessity if you are to be part of society – simple recognition will show that the stories people live by come with all sorts of creeds, in many different genres, and in tales both spoken and read. The variety of religions pales when compared to the variety of mythologies found in the world today. We all have narratives special to us, in which we believe we have gleaned secret knowledge – secret because it is our knowledge helping us to live in our world. Even in religions, different believers actually believe different things and in different ways. The secrets of the Rosicrucians may or may not exist, but the narrative of the Rosy Cross, the possibility of the secrets its existence implies, becomes a living mythology for some.
So too, the Marvel Universe. The wonders of Howard the Duck, a duck mind you, trapped in a world he never made. Dr. Don Blake, a lame physician, able to fathom the secret heights of this world to become, not as a god, but a true god, the God of the Thunder. Dr. Strange, a damaged physician, who finds his pride is worthless in the eyes of the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto. Or Captain America, a World War II soldier, awakened in an America that just doesn’t seem to have learned any lasting lessons about the nature of the world. Mythology and the myths that matter to an individual have a meaning only when they mean something to that individual. Marvel’s Universe of characters – and for me, the Universe of these comics starts from their beginning in the early ‘60s through the ‘70s as discussed here – has stuck with me and informed my perspectives on my world at least as much as the Catholic religion I was formally taught and asked to believe. Lee’s college lectures simply acknowledged the ability of superhero comics to continue the human traditions of myth-telling.
The rest of the Bulletins mostly put the spotlight on upcoming comics, but do manage to “wish the very best of Season’s Greetings to you one and all.” Unfortunately, they also sadly note another passing of one of Marveldom’s own. This time it is Ron Haydock who has passed, whose work at Marvel was in contributing articles to their black-and-white magazine, “Monsters of the Movies.” As a comic book reader, I would not have known the name. However, it turns out Haydock was born in my hometown, Chicago. He started out in rock and roll music in the ‘50s and was a genre actor and writer of horror tales. He died from a lightning strike. Marveldom Assembled as a whole was a group of really interesting people, and the breadth of those involved from the start adds up as the years go by. It’s no wonder that Marvel films are dominating American cinemas right now and, perhaps even more generally, American culture. A lot of creative people were involved over the years and created a mythology many can relate to.
Excerpted from “Everything I Needed to Know about Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics” ©2017 Joseph P. Muszynski