Thor has been a mainstay since the early days of Marvel’s shared superhero universe. Some of the most iconic comic images from 1960s are Jack Kirby’s fantastical and psychedelic visuals from his time on the book. The character, while playing second fiddle to more marketable heroes, has had a resurgence of sorts with the MCU. Donny Cates and Nic Klein’s current run on the book takes the best from the character’s past and brings it into current sensibilities, but with a character as old as Thor, there are thousands of stories to mine from. Where to begin? The current Epic Collection reissues from Marvel provide a fine, curated look at specific eras in these classic character’s histories.
In this collection, titled Into the Dark Nebula, the 1972-73 issues of Thor (#195-216) are reprinted in vibrant color and paper stock far superior to their original newsprint. This era in Thor’s mythos is one I was completely unfamiliar with. Most comic aficionados likely have some experience with the classic Kirby work, but the 1970s generally found Thor floundering as a character. That isn’t to say there were not standout stories and art throughout the decade, rather the character often fell into common previously established tropes. While Spider-Man pushed superhero comics forward with emotionally stimulating stories and intricate melodrama, the Thor books from this era were often forgettable.
This run of issues focuses on the work of artist John Buscema. John was an accomplished mainstay from this era, often earning nominations for Eagle Awards, but his work on Thor comes across as second-rate. Clearly, Buscema was trying to capture the Kirby vibrancy, but the work looks phoned in and simplified when placed next to those 60s story arcs. Even when you compare these issues to the work Buscema was doing on Conan, you can see his heart (or time) was not in Thor. Much of the writing is handled by Gerry Conway, and this element also suffers from similar problems. The characters feel flat, with the conflicts feeling inconsequential and pointless. Many of these stories, even with a proficient writer and artist at the helm, simply don’t land in the way many contemporary Marvel books were.
Having said that, I still enjoyed a number of these stories. Issue #207 finds Thor battling The Absorbing Man (a recurring villain in many of these issues), only to have Loki intervene all while the townsfolk dress as Marvel heroes for Halloween. It’s silly, retro (even for its time), and captures a lot of the tone from this era of Thor. The subsequent issue also was a standout, with Thor encountering Mecurio from the Death Dimension. Buscema’s cosmic layouts, while less detailed than Kirby’s, still have life and energy.
It’s unlikely that any of these stories are seen as quintessential by Thor fans, especially when one considers what came before and what would come after this era. Nonetheless, I am glad to see Marvel continue to physically publish these collections. It honors the work of its creators, especially those who are not placed in a pantheon of creators like Claremont and Lee. Especially when coupled with an understanding of comic publishing and Marvel specifically during these years, this book can serve as an excellent history lesson into this Avenger.