The Mighty Thor #271:
Thor – with other members of the Avengers – calls on Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which stood for the rather awkward “Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division;” were there other Divisions?). Together they attempt to destroy F.A.U.S.T. with rockets launched toward the orbiting computer. The shells explode but simply bounce off F.A.U.S.T.’s adamantium armoring (adamantium was the strongest metal in the Marvel Universe at the time; I think vibranium may have surpassed it in the current Marvel Universe). The heroes then hatch a plan to destroy F.A.U.S.T. from the inside. More missiles are launched. F.A.U.S.T. destroys them, but Thor and Iron Man use Thor’s hammer to teleport inside the distracted computer’s vessel. An internal security defense keeps the two heroes busy, almost killing Iron Man in the process and forcing Thor to revive him; he uses his hammer to call down the energy of a storm to re-energize Iron Man’s armor (and heart).
When they reach F.A.U.S.T.’s core, the computer advises them to stop and threatens to destroy the Earth with a laser cannon. Iron Man realizes that when the computer “uploaded” the box (stolen for him by the Stilt-Man) into its circuitry, the invincibility of F.A.U.S.T.’s original wiring had been compromised. The polarity of the box had been damaged when Thor hit the Stilt-Man with his hammer’s electrical storm. (The same power that saved Iron Man damaged F.A.U.S.T.) Thor and Iron Man continue their attack as the laser cannon harmlessly causes an atmospheric explosion before reaching Earth. F.A.U.S.T. is then finished off rather easily.
So, what is going on in this issue? Mythology interests me partly because of the diverse pantheons found in different cultural mythos. Judeo-Christian religions are focused on God, with the Trinity being three aspects of one god, but there are multiple gods and personalities in the Greek, Norse, and Egyptian pantheons to excite our tendency to enjoy variety. Depth psychologists use various gods with different personality “domains” to illustrate the multiple possibilities we have within ourselves. So the Norse god Thor is a god of war and his personality has attributes fitting for that domain; he is brash, brave, and likes to fight. Each god in a pantheon expresses aspects of our personality through their domains and actions. Thor, in the Marvel Universe, is a part of multiple pantheons, and the cover of issue #271 expresses this in full-color before we get inside the issue. The cover features Thor and Iron Man in action, while a pantheon of heroes hangs over them – Nick Fury, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, and the Beast. Not counting Nick Fury – Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. – these are the Avengers, the preeminent superhero team in the Marvel Universe, and what can be called a pantheon of superheroes.
In previous issues, we saw Thor as part of the Marvel Universe pantheon of Norse Gods – with Odin, Sif, Balder, Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun, Loki, and even Heimdall the guard of the Rainbow Bridge – all playing a part in the narrative. As Thor returns to Earth, he steps into his role in the pantheon of the Mighty Avengers. Though not the first Marvel team of heroes, they have now become the most prominent. But Thor does not stop there, as he is truly a depth psychologist’s playground, being a god whose roles can be defined in ways to suit almost anyone’s life. Thor is the Norse Thunder God. He is one of the Avengers, pledged to keep the Earth safe. He is Dr. Don Blake, a human man, pledged to cure the sick of the Earth. And he is a superhero on his own, dedicated to protecting his adopted home. There are multiple personalities, duties, and allegiances, but Thor always tries to stop criminal and evil activity. He always remains true to his pledges of protection.
The superhero that is Thor is a useful archetype to gauge our own lives against, whatever role we try to play or attain. Again, the test of being worthy to lift Thor’s hammer is a key mythological trope becoming prominently embedded in our culture. As the narrative in this issue states about the Avengers, “these people are professionals.” Their profession is “hero”. Even a twelve year old can see that the real world could use some real super-powered heroes, heroes true in heart that protect the powerless of the world, using their superpowers to back up their good intentions. Superheroes act, and back in the ‘70s, before the heroes turned dark, gloomy, and even fascist at times, they always seemed to act with the best of intentions. It is difficult to go back to such simpler concepts, but it might be worth considering what we have lost by turning our heroes darker. After exploring what “real” superheroes might do, we still might need the tales of what superheroes in a better world would do.
What in this discussion is relevant to an issue about Thor and Iron Man sneaking through traps to find their foe? Two points stood out to me on my re-read. As the Avengers fly to a secret base, their journey is described in this way: “[It took] far less time than the architect Daedalus could ever have thought possible when he and his son Icarus first took flight.” This omnipotent narration immediately reaches back to connect the narrative to the mythical. Instead of referencing the Wright Brothers, the celebrated first human scientific flight, the Avengers instead surpass the mythical Greeks. Instead of burning up their wings and falling, these new mythical heroes have attained their advanced powers that allow them to explore new realms and possibilities without falling to their doom.
There is also an unsatisfying element in the narrative: the deus ex machina that ends the story. This Latin phrase means “god from the machine,” designating the appearance of a god into a story with the ability to change the story simply by using omnipotent powers. Plots could change however an author wanted them to using such a device, no matter what internal logic had already suggested should be a story’s natural conclusion. Gods can do what they want, no matter what has gone before. We now use this phrase when a solution that ends a narrative is one that comes out of nowhere, out of thin air, just like the god being lowered on a machine into the action of an old Greek play. In this comic, the power box disabling F.A.U.S.T.’s power – with its polarity having been reversed due to Thor’s lightning attack – comes out of nowhere. Mythology recognizes life’s internal order, but the gods of this Marvel editing team, just like any gods, are advised to stay out of our narratives unless what they do makes sense. Real life rarely has a solution appear from absolutely nothing to save the day.
To wrap up this issue, we go straight to the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins because there’s no letter column. In Stan’s Soapbox, there is an interesting confession from Lee regarding his role in selling comics vs. his creator’s view on comics within the larger scope of the Marvel Universe. He tells the story of a college professor who came up to him after a lecture to ask about what happened to Stan’s Soapbox and why it had changed. Lee says it didn’t, but he gets told bluntly that it “used to be a place where you really leveled with us, where we’d discuss the philosophy of comics […]. It was a place to get together, let our hair down, and get to know each other better. […] But now, it’s like a tv commercial – you’re always selling something!” And there is no doubt Stan Lee’s main role has always been to sell Marvel; he created the Marvel Universe to hopefully sell comics, and he remained around to increase sales after the comics became a phenomenon. The professor’s statement clearly demonstrates how Marvel readers had connected to Marvel and to each other. Through the comic book narratives – but also in discussion about the stories – a mythology had grown into being. Through visual images and narratives offering a cohesive worldview, a variety of readers had found myths that resonated with the multitude and variety of their lives. So it happened that readers who connected so directly to the Marvel Universe noticed when sales became more important than connecting to the “true believers.”
Lee, to his credit, writes in response, “He was dead right! […] From now on […] I’ll leave the hard-sell to the ad pages, where it belongs.” I find it hard to believe he was able to keep his promise; Lee was born to sell the Marvel brand. Some will only know Lee as the guy who had a cameo in almost every Marvel film, but that is all good fun. Stan did work hard to get Marvel superheroes on the big screen. His response to the professor – directly acknowledging me and all his other readers – clearly stated that the Friends of Ol’ Marvel were important to Marvel in more ways than just their money. The adult me cynically says that is ridiculous, and yet, the Marvel Universe remains with me still. In it I encountered a pantheon of heroes and villains, gods for our age like no other pantheon I have encountered. I remember as a twelve year old not caring about the 35¢ cover price. The story and the art within were all that mattered. Excuse me while I exclaim, once again, “Excelsior!”
Excerpted from “Everything I Needed to Know about Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics” ©2017 Joseph P. Muszynski