So the dust has settled following Marvel Studio’s Thor, which did quite well at the box office and managed to please most folks, as well as increase anticipation for Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie. No doubt the studio bean counters are very pleased. What remains problematic is translating movie box office into comic book sales. This is a hoary old chestnut by now, no need to rehash all the usual complaints – although consider that the movie Blade did more to kickstart this current superhero film glut than it is generally credited with and yet still Marvel are incapable of putting out a successful book surrounding our favourite British vampire slayer – so instead let’s focus on one point. Five months before the release of Kenneth Brannagh’s Thor a book which did more to make the comic book mythology of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee accessible, fun and very entertaining was cancelled. This is a comic that could have been handed to audience members emerging from cinemas with a big goofy grin on their faces. No Thor clones, no Disassembled storyline nonsense to unravel, and perhaps most importantly no J. Michael “I’m taking my ball and going home” Straczynski. Just an updated take on the original premise that introduced Thor in Journey Into Mystery #83.
I am speaking of course of Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee‘s much missed Thor: The Mighty Avenger. On Langridge’s site he describes the book as follows – ‘an out-of-continuity “re-imagining” of Thor’s early days on modern-day Earth. Part romance comic, part old-school superhero nerd-out’. Which sums it up quite nicely. The recent trade from Marvel happens to feature the Thor strips from Journey Into Mystery #83-84, affording the reader the opportunity to compare Chris and Roger’s take on the character to Jack and Stan’s. Honestly, their take sits quite comfortably beside the original.
The Mighty Avenger, despite being out of continuity, also touches on several interesting aspects of Marvel history, featuring cameos from Hank Pym the first Marvel superhero, Captain Britain and Namor. In addition, it also compliments the film quite nicely, anticipating Idris Elba’s performance of Heimdall. To cut to the chase, Langridge and Samnee presented readers new and old with the perfect jump on point to get to know Thor. So what went wrong?
Well the first instinct is always to blame the comic book store customers, because after all, if they had been reading the book it would most likely not have been cancelled. The icv2 stats are quite chilling:
151. THOR: THE MIGHTY AVENGER
07/10 #1 – 20,076
07/10 #2 – 14,315 (-28.7%)
08/10 #3 – 12,112 (-15.4%)
09/10 #4 – 10,887 (-10.1%)
10/10 #5 – 9,673 (-11.2%)
11/10 #6 – 8,420 (-13.0%)
12/10 #7 – 8,244 ( -2.1%)
01/11 #8 – 8,323 ( +1.0%)
According to Langridge the book was cancelled with four issues to spare. The drop off between issues #1 and #2 was huge, which no doubt did not help matters. However, given the quality of the book itself, could Marvel not have done more to support it during this time? Whatever sales the title did enjoy seemed spurred on by passionate word of mouth instead of publicity. It could also be the case the sales were split. There has a huge upsurge in Thor books over the past year or so, in anticipation of the film’s release. Saturation may have been prematurely reached. From the Fear Itself crossover event, no doubt designed to attract cinema-goers and introduce them to the broader Marvel canvas, to the Iron Man/Thor miniseries (the association between the thunder god and Marvel Studio’s previous successful film franchise is clear), to Simone Bianchi‘s Thor: For Asgard, readers were spoiled for choice!
Of course Thor: The Mighty Avenger had the advantage over all these books because it was an introductory title that just happened to tell a good story too, yes? Well…not so much. Turns out there was another comic on the stands that also retold the first adventures of Thor on Midgard, meeting Jane Foster for the first time, suffering a punishment from Odin and enduring the trickery of Loki. The book in question was called Thor: First Thunder and it came out just two months after the debut of Langridge and Samnee’s comic. Its sales figures were as follows:
THOR: FIRST THUNDER
09/10 #1 of 5 – 21,228
10/10 #2 of 5 – 16,126 (-24.0%)
11/10 #3 of 5 – 14,038 (-12.9%)
12/10 #4 of 5 – 12,620 (-10.1%)
01/11 #5 of 5 – 11,799 ( -6.5%)
If this is the case it is a tragic example of property mismanagement. Thor: The Mighty Avenger opens from the point of view not of Donald Blake, absent from this iteration of the character, but that of Jane Foster. Her previous comic book profession of nurse has been abandoned in favour of an academic role within the Bergen War Memorial Museum in Oklahoma. In the first issue she is awarded directorship of the museum’s department of Nordic History – her predecessor having left to join a company known as K-Tech, which reappears throughout the series – and it just so happens on her first day in charge a bum tries to crack open an ancient urn. The urn, it is soon revealed, contains the hidden Mjolnir. The bum is of course a grounded Thor, punished for his arrogance by his father Odin with forced exile to Midgard. Jane prevents the museum security guards from roughing up the weakened Thor too badly and her compassion is rewarded with a smile from the humbled god. This marks the beginning of a touching romance between the two, spurred along by an attack from the nefarious Mister Hyde, which leads to this exchange:
This Earth so full of wonders. Where are they? All I have found since arriving here is brutality…hunger…dirt and dishonor. Show me your wonders, Jane! Show me something beautiful in this ugly world of yours!
Capped beautifully by Samnee’s depiction of a rainbow. These two opening issues help define this new vulnerable Thor, as well as introduce readers to a far more proactive Jane Foster. The love triangle between Thor-Donald Blake-Jane is dropped, although there is a nod to it with the appearance of Foster’s ex, a doctor more concerned with career advancement than saving lives.
One of the reasons given for the book’s cancellation was that all-ages books do not actually work. Here all-ages means ‘for kids’, but in fact this book is intended to be read by everybody. The art is quirky and detailed, helping to make Thor seem a lot more personable and animated than previous depictions of the earnest thunder god. Also while the comic features no explicit sex scenes, it is made clear by issue #7 that Thor and Jane are sleeping together, their tender courtship having come into full bloom. Langridge’s script even manages drops plenty of references to familiar sources. The mischievous Loki vanishes in a puff of green smoke, leaving his Cheshire Cat grin behind. Mister Hyde seems more like his original anachronistic literary self, as opposed to his recent appearances in the likes of Brian Bendis‘ New Avengers as a proxy Hulk (ironically Alan Moore featured him in League of Extraordinary Gentleman as exactly that). Then there is the appearance of Doctors Halliwell and Meeker, who bare a certain resemblance to two well-known muppets (no accident given that Langridge’s work on The Muppet Show comic). But the coup de grâce for me is what I call the ‘Kirby Bible’, in acknowledgement of Grant Morrison’s plan to introduce a Kree religion in the sequel to his Marvel Boy series that worships a series of hieroglyphs inspired by the art of Jack Kirby. Look – there’s Metron!
Still the accusation that the book’s failure could also be put down to its status as an out-of-continuity book sticks in the craw. If anything, if Marvel or DC were to look for an example as to how they could streamline their respective continuities, they should copy Langridge and Samnee’s work here. Superhero couple Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne are effectively revamped here as science adventurers. The couple has never really recovered from Jim Shooter‘s decision to have Pym suffer a breakdown and physically abuse his wife in Avengers #213. It is a moment that has forever left a bad taste in the mouth after any later heroic depiction of the character. It is comforting to think that in this world of Langridge’s devising – that never happened! Although in a sly nod to that event, the script has Janet van Dyne deliver this line:
“Just remember you’re a scientist. Stay objective. You’re here to serve justice, not vengeance. I’d hate to see you lose control.”
Followed immediately afterwards by a panel showing a mind-controlled Thor backhanding Jane Foster across the face. The sequence admittedly does disturb, but it is not dwelled upon and again Langridge is to be admired for his ability to echo pre-existing continuity and then to make it his own. What has gone before does not prevent Thor: The Mighty Avenger from telling its own story. This Thor is young, brash, arrogant, but the only thing that gives him pause is the threat that Jane will be taken away from him. Romance, action and humour are perfectly mixed together here – basically it is a lot of fun – and the book’s cancellation continues to wrankle as a result.
This is what comic book readers need right now. A comic with a well-told story that manages to be ‘mature’ without being adolescent in its emphasis on sex and gore. If you have not already picked it up, hunt down the first trade and the remaining back issues. Canvas Marvel for the book’s return in some form. This is the gateway drug the cinema audiences are missing.