Thor, like almost all comics written by Donny Cates, is a rollicking good time. From the moment Galactus crashes into Asgard in the first issue, Cates raises the stakes until Thor, trapped beneath the World Tree, finds himself in a grudge match with his insane alter ego, Donald Blake.
Blake was created as a host body for Thor while on Earth, but now has gone insane after finding himself imprisoned in a simulated reality. This issue, the fifth in a six-part arc centered around Blake, is all about rallying the troops—Throg, delightfully, among them—to defeat him.
Few writers know how the raise the stakes as well as Cates. His set pieces are magnificent and the way he ratchets up momentum keeps each comic moving at a brisk pace. Artist Nic Klein, whose superb fantasy scenes are reminiscent of some of Esad Ribić’s best work, gives each issue the gravitas a Thor book deserves.
As blockbuster storytelling, this issue clears the bar, but as coherent storytelling, it leaves something to be desired.
Cates quickly assembles Thor and his allies for the big fight against Blake, but not much work is put into having the reunion make sense.
How do Lady Sif and the other Asgardians escape from the hell dimension? (Some hand-waving from Doctor Strange and, as Beta Ray Bill puts it, “having faith.”) How does Blake not recognize that the blood from the World Tree is re-powering Thor? (Who knows). How does Jane Foster so quickly spur Odin out of his drunken malaise? (¯\_(ツ)_/¯).
You can do this kind of nebbish critique with most superhero comics and Cates certainly makes the occasional logical leap well worth your while. In this issue alone, there are no fewer than four splash-page reveals and all of them are—formally speaking—very cool.
I’m willing to excuse some plot threads not adding up in a comic about a Norse mythological god, but after 13 issues of this same thrill ride, the effect starts to wear off.
Cates has made his brand at Marvel as a master of doing what Comic Book Herald founder Dave Buesing once called “these balls-to-wall no-cards-left-on-the-table ‘WHAT IF’ style narratives seen through to completion.” His Thor run has been an exemplar of that style of thinking. What if there was an entity even Galactus was afraid of? What if Donald Blake broke bad?
The concepts are all interesting and, sure, I’m not going to complain about seeing Thor fight Galactus. Even Blake’s reintroduction was an intriguing idea. But rather than explore what it means in a metaphysical or moral sense for Thor to co-exist with Blake, Cates often takes the easy way out. Blake began this arc with a compelling case for feeling aggrieved, but now he more resembles a standard egomaniac than a character in continuity with the Blake of past Thor runs.
If all there is to this person is a lust for power, what makes him different than any of the lesser villains that populate nearly every superhero story? I’m not sure Cates is interested in an answer. These issues all feel like blockbuster events—not character studies or deep, psychological portraits and that seems to be the point. I don’t need to see Thor brooding every issue and I certainly can excuse a preference for action in a comic about gods and monsters. There just needs to be something Cates is building toward beyond the next great set piece or page-turn reveal.
Any fan of Cates’ Venom run knows how he loves to play the long game and, like Beta Ray Bill, I have faith he will tie everything together in the end—from Galactus and the Black Winter to Blake and Odin.
What is missing from these comics is not good craftsmanship. Cates has all of that in abundance. (The opening monologues he uses to begin each issue—a sort of Star Wars opening crawl on steroids—are among my favorite bits in any superhero comic.)
His structure is solid and all the essentials are there for an entertaining story. I just can’t shake the feeling that the center is hollow.
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