Monday, July 9, 2012

Thor Retrospective Part 11: Fear Itself

Matt Fraction's first arc for "The Mighty Thor" released very close to the big Marvel Summer Event, dubbed Fear Itself. Also written by Fraction, Fear Itself detailed the relevant idea of fear growing in the world. While in this story, this of course meant the world would be in danger - the backdrop, though, was based on a very real subject, of our struggling economy, endless wars, political upheaval; essentially all the things going wrong with the world that make us scared about the future. Thats what Fear Itself was using as a backdrop - with radical new elements being introduced into Thor's mythos to explore this subject.

The story began with daughter of the Red Skull; known as Sin, now acting as the current Red Skull -- she was uncovering a lost piece of knowledge that her father had previously never got to during his lifetime. The Nazis, if you didn't know, had a disturbing connection to the Norse Myths. The myths about Odin and Asgard had origins in Germany - the Swastika, most notably, is actually a symbol for Thor's power, appearing on art and sculptures depicted on Thor's hammer. Its an unpleasant idea, of the Norse Myths being used for inspiration and propaganda by the Nazi's. Thor's hammer, understandably, isn't going to be bearing any Swastika these days-- given the repugnant connection the symbol now idealizes.

I mention this, to explain that it is somewhat of a natural out growth for the Red Skull and his daughter to be looking for Asgard-Derived artifacts or knowledge. What the daughter of the Red Skull found was a mighty hammer which transformed her! In this new form she immediately seeks out a long kept dark secret buried beneath the Earth -- and a tremendous evil she unleashes,who she refers to as "All-Father".

This supposed All-Father, known as the Serpent, is released to spread terror and destruction on the world anew. He first unleashes a number of hammers, like the one that Sin held which transformed her - sending them flying across the world -- weapons to create his army of "The Worthy".

Unlike Thor's hammer, there's really nothing Honorable about the power these hammers contain - or that they unwillingly possess a number of heroes and villains across the world.

The Thing, the Hulk, the Grey Gargoyle, the Absorbing Man, the Juggernaut, and many others where consumed with the power these hammers possessed - taking over their minds and making them warriors in the Serpent's cause.

Odin, who has been acting erratic and off-putting (really ever since his unwanted return from the dead) - took drastic action when he senses the Serpent's release. Leaving the rubble of  fallen Asgard behind, Odin creates a new land in Asgardian Space (where the old Asgard use to be) - and took all of their people away from Earth. Instead of a majestic and wonderful kingdom - this new place Odin created was nothing less than a War Factory -- the building of armaments, weapons, and defense being of paramount importance. Everyone was very confused about this - Thor especially - who Odin had locked up and placed in chains when Thor failed to fall into line with Odin's erratic demands. (The young Loki would eventually help his big brother escape, where he joins the rest of the Avengers in battle later.)

On Earth the Avengers don't know exactly what to think of the Asgardians disappearance - but are soon dealing with the evil hammers plummeting out of the sky across the world.

Sin, now empowered by a hammer, acts as the Serpent's right-hand in their war against the world. Sin already was ready for a war against America and it's heroes - and now personally has the power of a god, to unleash on America.

Dubbed Blitzkrieg U.S.A. - the Red Skull unleashed an army of Nazi war robots on the country. The two main targets, of course, being New York and Washington. The Avengers are split up, as the crises are happening all at once. The Worthy where busy spreading destruction on various spots across the globe, causing destruction everywhere!

The Avengers fight this onslaught of enemies on multiple fronts - with the new Captain America, Bucky Barnes, taking the fight directly to the Red Skull's daughter. Although their forces are eventually beaten back, Bucky becomes a casualty of war - as Sin violently killed the new Captain America.

The death of Bucky, really, is what made me drop both the Fear Itself series - and Mighty Thor. After issue #3, where Bucky dies at the end, I dropped off the series. I recently went back and got the final 4 issues - to see how the series ended. Essentially, while the entire mini-series wasn't bad - it's events like this, the needless and hallow death of a hero, seeming just for shock value - that undercut the mini-series. What was really outrageous about Bucky's death wasn't just the fact that Ed Brubaker had put so much work into the New Captain America (bringing Cap's former WWII sidekick back from the dead as the Winter Soldier) - it was also that it was a big fat lie. Fraction seemed to take pleasure in killing off Bucky, and described in an interview that he was so pleased about how much better his story was going to be, because he was killing off Bucky. Seriously -- this is what derailed me from even finishing the mini-series, initially; so Fraction's glee about it was supremely dissatisfying to see.

We later find out, though, that it was all a big scam -- Bucky's death had been planned out with Brubaker, and the character would quickly be revived and made the Winter Soldier once again. Fraction was keeping this secret during interviews - and even with Ed's blessing, this was an utter bull$&^% move on Marvel's part. It was just a needless move, and completely disingenuous on Fraction and Marvel's part - since they planned on reviving Bucky straight away.

This all, of course, was to get Bucky out of the Captain America costume - and get Steve Rogers, who up until then was acting as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., and get him back into the costume in time for the Captain America movie. (Why they couldn't do this, without momentarily killing Bucky, is beyond me!)

Recently I read issues #4 through 7 on the iPad - generally out of curiosity about how the mini-series ended, and how it affected Thor's universe. While the mini-series, as a whole, was still riddled with missteps and unnecessary deaths -- it was still a bit of fun.

After escaping from Odin's imprisonment, Thor joined his fellow Avengers on the battle field once again, and personally took on the hammer-influenced Thing and Hulk - in a really brutal battle! Stuart Immonen, who was artist on the series, came in with some very effective and wonderfully drawn scenes. I don't know if it was because I was reading the issues on the iPad or not - but all the art just looked really gorgeous!

In a second needless death, Thor is forced to kill the Thing - having Mjolnir blow right through his chest! This death at least was fixed right away - as Franklin Richards was able to use his Universe-Creating powers to heal his Uncle Ben, and save him from death.

Thor eventually is able to defeat the transformed Hulk as well - but is severely wounded after the battle. The rest of the Avengers took care of him.

The point of all this destruction and chaos? It was all meant to inspire and create fear! With the whole world gripped in terror - the Serpent was re-energized, and became youthful and powerful again. The Serpent, it should be pointed out, appears very similar to Odin.

With Sin again at his side, the Serpent is able to use his renewed powers to create a dark mirror image of Asgard, floating over the Country, heading right towards the ruined Asgard and the World Tree.

So, who exactly is the Serpent? He is revealed to be Odin's brother, Cul. The Serpent claimed to be the true All-Father, with Odin being a usurper and traitor to his own kin. Not only did Odin steal the Throne of Asgard from Cul - but Odin sealed him away, deep in the Earth where Sin had released him - and erased all knowledge of him ever existing in the first place.

While I don't believe Cul is any based on any part of the real Viking Myths -- this revelation is quite striking, and would have great consequences down the road.

The release of the Serpent -- this is what Odin was so worried and fearful of! I believe this is why he wanted the power of the World Seed -- because there was a prophecy Odin had received, concerning the fate of Thor.

Strange thing is - this Prophecy, that is referenced in Fear Itself, and Journey into Mystery isn't actually stated much at all for the reader. Maybe they thought this poem was known well enough; but it left even me scratching my head. When I first heard about Thor's fate - I barely realized it was being derived from an actual Viking Poem; which quite frankly impresses me, to suddenly realize that there was more depth and foundation in the Fear Itself series, and how it ended, inspired by this poem.

"In anger smites the warder of earth,—
Forth from their homes must all men flee;—
Nine paces fares the son of Fjorgyn,
And, slain by the serpent, fearless he sinks."

While the Serpent that poem speaks of is suppose to be the Midgard Serpent, who kills Thor during Ragnarok - the alteration and melding of this poem into the Fear Itself storyline is actually quite inspired. It also gives a lot more validity to the decision to kill Thor, which before I knew about all of this, I counted as yet another meaningless death occurring in this mini-series.

The idea of a Fear-Based Serpent, also, has some basis in a line from another translation of the same poem.

"Nine feet will go Fiörgyn's son,
bowed by the serpent, who feared no foe.
All men will their homes forsake."

While it sounds like the first translation of the poem, by Henry Adams Bellows, seems more descriptive - I think the inspiration for Cul came from the high-lighted line above from Benjamin Thorpe's translation. Ultimately it doesn't matter - Cul doesn't seem like he's inspired by anything else from Viking Mythology. Yet I'm nonetheless still impressed that this was built into the mini-series.

Now, back to the story -- Iron Man goes to the ruins of Asgard to find Odin. Odin, though, is up on his Asgard-War Machine - so Tony sacrifices the one bit of dignity he has left to loose, to humble himself and gain Odin's attention. Drinking himself into a stupor, Tony's plan to goad Odin into appearing before him works! Iron Man wants a chance to save Earth - and tells Odin all he needs is a forge, and the technology Asgard has at his disposal. Odin agrees to this - and Iron Man begins working on new armor and weapons, made with Asgardian materials, to empower the Avengers.

The rest of the Avengers soon follow - arriving at the World Tree, and given access to the Asgadian-War World - seeing as they carry the injured body of Odin's son. Captain America is able to stand up to Odin, which startles the One-Eyed All-Father - as people usually don't speak to him in such a matter.

Despite Captain America attempt to reason with him, Odin is not being dissuaded from his ultimate plan. He's only giving the Avengers a chance, unlikely thought it be, to save the day before Odin must do the unthinkable. What exactly is Odin's plan? Its really quite simple; Cul is fueled by the fear generated by mortals. Scour the Earth, kill all the mortals, and suddenly Cul is weakened. Its an unthinkable and barbaric strategy - but one Odin knows will work... Because he did it before. (More on that next post.)

Thor, meanwhile, is recovering from injuries - where he has a frank conversation with his father. Odin tells his son the truth - that Cul is his brother, and that Cul was suppose to be the All-Father. While Odin has acted like an unmitigated jerk, of late, he seems to finally find a real connection with his son when he bears all his sins. All of Odin's actions are because of the prophecy - that, if Thor fought against the Serpent, he would die from his wounds after taking 9 telling steps before collapsing. While Odin still has his plans to destroy the people of Earth, he gives his son his armor, and the sword Ragnarok, to be able to fight and strike Cul down, before Odin needs to take action.

So as the Dark Asgard approaches the World Tree - the Avengers last stand takes place. The weapons and armor Iron Man created give the Avengers a much needed boost. I know that this scene, in particular, was mocked by a number of fans - who felt it was a prime example of why they disliked this mini-series, and how it was handled. While I do agree the series was, over all, a disappointment - it is more to do with the needless deaths, radically different character portrayals, and other issues with the plot. This scene, with the Asgardian Armor for the Avengers, really didn't bother me at all. (It wasn't even a big part of the end - that shot, right there, is pretty much the beginning and end of those costume re-designs.)

Thor takes the fight directly to Cul! With the boost from Odin's armor and the sword Ragnarok, Thor is able to fight Cul.

Cul transforms himself into a huge snake-like dragon! Thor's hammer, Mjolnir, is knocked out of his grasp - where it falls to the ground.

While Thor deals with the Serpent, Captain America and the Avengers fight against the remaining forces of the Red Skull's army. Captain America receives his own boost in power - when he finds Thor's fallen hammer and, because he's worthy, is able to pick it up and lead the final charge against their foes!

Thor ultimately prevails in his battle with the Serpent - though it comes at the expected cost. Cul is beaten, and Thor walks away from the fight -- and after 9 steps he falls, and dies from his injuries.

The Red Skull's army is beaten, the Serpent likewise defeated. So, the heroes saved the day - but at a cost. A funeral is held for Thor, where his body is placed on a pyre and set ablaze - to honor him and all that he has achieved.

Odin, though, takes his leave of Midgard -- and transports all Asgardians on the War World to Midgard and the ruins of Asgard -- and seals the way between. Cul has been beaten - but, apparently might be alive (or something, it's not clear). Odin, though, is prepared to pay penance for his sins - by finally being his brother's keeper. So up on the Asgardian-War World, Odin alone stands guard over the body of his brother.

So, Thor is dead! Where does that leave the regular series, after the fear in Fear Itself has passed? Don't worry! Your favorite Celtic god of Thunder will be back next post!

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