Back in the early ’70s, when Stan Lee was on the upward trek to Peak Wheelin’ and Dealin’ Pitch Man, a memo went around the Marvel offices warning writers away from changing things too much for fear of upsetting potential, unnamed merchandising partners. Lee wanted movies to be made — or at least weird cartoons — and so he issued a mandate that necessitated an “illusion of change”. Make the characters feel like they’re going through momentous events, but never truly alter the core concept in any major way.
There is a character who sometimes feels as if that mandate was never lifted — the fact that one of the most poignant, jaw-dropping moves made around the character in the last twenty years was killing him and leaving him dead for a handful of years seems particularly telling — and that character is Thor.
Jason Aaron’s monumental tun on the character felt, during its tenure, as if it was anything but an illusion of change. Major shifts were taking place, characters were being irreparably altered, Asgard felt fresh and exciting for the first time in years. Thor was a woman, for chrissakes; a stodgy, verbose, muscle-man mentality was being shed for brighter, forward-thinking storytelling.
The third volume of Aaron’s complete collection deals with The Mighty Thor, which started in 2015. Previously, we spent a good chunk of issues with Jane’s identity a mystery, and so this book begins delving into getting to know her. Living with cancer, sitting on the Congress of Worlds, Jane is a much more compelling character than Odinson often is. She’s got her own life happening outside of the Asgardian malarkey (though just barely), and is paying a steep price for the privilege of hammer-slinging: every time she changes, the chemotherapy she needs to beat her illness is wiped away. Being Thor is ultimately killing her.
It’s a brilliant bit of storytelling, this contrast between mortality and godhood. Jane is, ultimately, instantly endeared to the reader, and all the lofty, myth-heavy moments are anchored by an understanding that this hero is suffering and human; while her cancer is never dealt with as the threat it maybe should be, its presence nonetheless tethers us to our own level of humanity. It’s a level which Thor, by his very nature, cannot reach, and that creates a barrier between reader and hero that does not exist for your Peter Parkers or Kamala Khans. It’s a welcome change for a book that deals almost exclusively in abstracts.
The book has an up-in-the-air quality that rides the razor’s edge of that illusion of change. Even as we commit to Jane’s role, the volume keeps reminding us of the past Thor via single-issue myth-building segments that toss us back in time. We spend an issue with Loki, telling the story of a dragon-born, Viking Hulk with which a pre-Mjolnir Thor is entangled, and while it’s a great setup for later conflict (and a moment to revel in guest artist Rafa Garres’ particular brand of epic excess), it’s an abrupt aside. We’ve left Freya wounded, current Thor enraged, and old Thor revealed to be imprisoned in an unknown location in space, and we return to a montage as if the book feels the need to re-establish itself before getting back to the proper story.
Even with these world-building interruptions, the book allows Jane to traipse all over creation, engaging in Malekith’s elven wars and jumping into Shi’ar space. She even gets a moment with some X-Men. She deals with concerns both new and old, with intergalactic gods and the return of Kurse. It’s a volume that needs to be savored, though, knowing as we do now that Jane’s time as Thor is quickly approaching its end, even as we get excited for her contemporary role as a Valkyrie.
Revisiting the stories, it’s almost overwhelming to recognize how deeply realized and carefully considered each relationship is — it feels neglectful, that is to say, to read this volume without preceding it with the previous two so that the full impact of this book can be felt. Aaron’s run was one of consistent, ever-growing weight, a snowball of change rolling downhill over the Big Two’s ever-constant return to normalcy. An intricate web of through-lines fill each issue, and questions are raised that cannot be fully satisfied in these 19 issues alone.
It’s a cherished era of a much larger, almost perfect epic, but with copies of the preceding volume going for upwards of a hundred dollars on the secondary market, the lush, almost decadent feeling of these Complete Collection volumes (Thor or otherwise) is almost overshadowed by the financial burden of collecting; jumping in between printings is bound to stress even the most casual completist’s compulsions.
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