Two key images make Thor: God of Thunder’s first issue so successful. The first involves Thor discovering the gargantuan corpses of alien gods. The second, a broken, elder Thor in the far future leaping defiantly into battle against a horde of monsters. They are pages that are worlds apart in genre and tone, yet cohesive and universal in the way only a good superhero comic can be. Each lends a mythic yet simultaneously unsettling air, courtesy of Esad Ribic’s art and Dean White’s colors, to the comic’s potboiler pace.
It would be a stretch to call it “subtle.” Jason Aaron’s writing could never be accused of that, even on his best days. After all, the first hint of the menace lurking behind those two images is a god’s severed head washing ashore, near a village where a young(er) Thor celebrates another victorious battle. What Ribic and White bring, however, is scale. Like with Walt Simonson, every scene either exists on a grand canvas (Scandinavian countryside; an alien city) or depicts boisterous emotion. There’s an apparent, goofy joy they bring to a scene where present-day Thor brings rain to a far-off planet suffering drought, both for the aliens and for him (where he waves like Silver Age Superman as he flies in). Everything in God of Thunder goes larger-than-life, sharing adventure comic zeal Marvel had ditched in favor of Brian Bendis’ snark and 90’s grit.
Ribic and White also compensate, quite unexpectedly, for Aaron’s deficiencies. While the writer’s Simonson-esque embrace of the superhero comic’s full range of emotion and styles is commendable, too often he’s unintentionally goofy. His themes – fears of obsolescence, mortality, and loss of spirituality – are facile and obvious, bordering on camp when Thor is offended by the mere idea of gods not existing. Aaron spreads his themes out over three tales: the age of Vikings, the present Marvel universe, and the distant future, with Thor (of course) standing alone against “the God Butcher” in the ruins of Asgard. While nipping at its heels, this weakness in A World Without Gods never overtakes the narrative. This is partly due to Aaron’s own ADD-writing style (see also his Ghost Rider run and the uneven, but often humorous, Wolverine and the X-Men), which keeps him from navel-gazing self-destruction (as with Bendis, Jonathan Hickman, or John Byrne). The rest is down to Ribic and White striking the right tonal balance, especially in the comic’s back half. During the present-day vignette, Thor seeks out the gods of the aliens he aided, discovering their dead bodies in a scene that recalls Ridley Scott’s Alien. White’s dark colors and Ribic’s layout (making Thor a relatively tiny presence on the page) lend cosmic dread to the scene, similar to Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’ Journey Into Mystery #645.
When Old-Thor, in typical Jason Aaron fashion, smack-talks the God Butcher’s horde (in quasi-Shakespearean, of course), Ribic gives it a desperate quality. Thor looks haggard, sporting an eyepatch and alone in the spacious throne room. He even (briefly) forgets everyone else is gone. It culminates the arc of Thor’s increasing distress at his own oblivion, introduced when “young,” brash Thor sees his foe’s handiwork, and grown when he then realizes that death is still coming for him (middle-age angst). That he chooses to go down swinging is expected, but done so triumphantly, which puts to shame the miserable, guts’n’gore approach to DC’s New 52 or Marvel’s crossover events.
Mainstream superhero comics like this rarely come along these days. Silly in spots, challenging in others, but never limiting itself to a select few emotions. The pull between Aaron’s simplistic narrative, Ribic and White’s grandeur, and the genuine ambition of the premise gives Marvel what they sought for so long, and through many convoluted methods: a comic book for everyone.