Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dig the Longbox (Redux): Thor #126

I wrote this review of Thor #126 as part of 'Dig the Longbox,' a column on The RCB site is on ... (only, hopefully) temporary hiatus. Vive la' Longbox!


Marvel comics in the mid-1960's groove like nothing else. It was in the air. When Thor #126 makes its debut in March of 1966 the notes of Chuck Berghofer's sliding double bass in 'These Boots Are Made For Walking' would have been slinking out of every transistor radio in every college dorm in America. In the Bullpen Bulletins column there's mention of the September issue of Esquire which reported: 'Hulk and Spidey among the 28 people who count most on campus.' The counterculture was Marvel culture.
Unlike his fellow hep heroes who have anxieties over a sick aunt, being a mutant or uncontrollable anger, Thor is a god and above such mortal concerns; however, like many an immortal before him the Thunder god falls down (mightily) in matters of the heart and is not immune to the fickle nature of love. Thor #126 proves even a golden god can lose the girl to the new B.M.O.C.          

The synopsis Stan Lee pens on page one points an alliterative action-packed exclamation point laden account squarely at the collegiate wing of the Merry Marvel Marching Society: ''Hercules has come to Earth! He's got the big eye of Thor's chick! Goldilocks is bugged, but good! So, they're fighting it out!'' Show me a pre-pubescent (now or then) who gets bugged when another snot nose has 'the big eye' for his chick and I'll show you a liar.

With its iconic cover Thor #126 advertises exactly what it sells. Thor and Hercules go god on god, mallet to mace for fourteen pulse-pounding pages. Save for a couple of cutaways to Asgard for some ostentatious headgear, parental interference and glorious Kirby krackle, these two titans fight and fight and fight and fight and fight. When the hurlyburly's done the final two pages of this instant classic reveal Jack and Stan aligning themselves with ancient mythmakers to show, yes, even gods get hurt, 'the mighty' fall and love makes fools of us all. 

An argument could be made that this rumble in the urban jungle is the superhero fistfight on which all other such scraps are based -- at least the third acts of every superhero movie in recent memory. The son of Odin and the son of Zeus fight on the streets, atop a train and round out their roundhouses at a demolition site. Hercules hurls giant tires at Thor and even drops a building on top of his opponent. Thor whips the tread from a bulldozer at Hercules and together the two of them turn a truck into a pile of jackstraws. It goes on and on.

Between the body blows and haymakers, the two immortals brag and bluster, in the third-person of course: Thor: ''Thor is not impressed! Thy words do little more than bolster thine own faltering confidence; ''Hercules: ''Not whilst Hercules can hurl the first blow! Let this teach thee caution Asgardian.'' Each panel brims with braggadocio (and such nonsense) as Kirby and Lee pack in as many archaic pronouns as they can with a ''By the cloven hooves of Pan!!'' and a ''By the bristling beard of Odin,'' tossed on top for good measure.  

For the majority of the issue Kirby's page layouts are straightforward, balanced and symmetrical: four equal-sized panels and one double-sized or 'widescreen' panel. This consistent pattern creates a hypnotic effect as Kirby lulls the reader into a kind of compositional rope-a-dope before he delivers the literal full-page knockout punch.

I've spent hours staring at this image for over thirty years. I first saw it in a huge oversized Marvel Treasury edition and it left its mark. The physiology of Thor’s fists alone keeps me in thrall and forever a devotee of Kirby's work. Thor's balled-up hands are huge (as are Hercules's) and remind me of Rodin's 'The Thinker' or Ugolino from The Gates of Hell. The more I try to parse, the more I'm struck by the notion that for all their heft and bulk, the most Thor seems to land is a good-natured chuck on the chin. To me, it feels like little force transfers in those fifteen tiny hash marks. Perhaps Hercules left hand stays Thor's thump more than the Kirby's cartooning lets on? I don't know, but I can't look away.
Read top-to-bottom and left-to-right the action forms a backwards 'S,' the eye follows from Hercules's speech bubble across to Thor's winged head, down his arm, through Hercules's chest, onto Hercules meaty mitt and then towards Thor's forty-seven word bit of bombast. Kirby compresses both fighters into the same frame (only Thor's feet extend off of the page) which makes each play big, but (somehow) not entirely out-sized, confined by the page borders. Even squeezed into such tight quarters, Kirby uses these exaggerated bodies to create great depth as Thor's left arm and Hercules's right leg appear the correct distance apart for such check by jowl combat; and still, I'm left feeling something seems off. I'm like Alice, amazed and wandering wary all at once. Jack Kirby, you magnificent son-of-a-gun.

For all the ferocious fisticuffs at the start, Thor v. Hercules turns into a rout. Prior to his punch-up with Hercules, Thor goes rogue in the Golden Realm and pisses off the sovereign of sovereigns. To put it in Odin-speak: ''Thor has dared to pit his will against mine! For that, he must pay!''. Talk about 'being bugged but good.' Odin watches the fight on a closed circuit i.e. 'the cosmic crystal' and decides to punish his son by weakening him with some sort of 'Odin-power' (yes, he actually calls it 'Odin-power') which he outsources to Seidring the Merciless who pulls the trigger. Cut to ½ power, Thor falls and Hercules wins the day, the people's champion or as one mortal says: ''that cat's the livin' end!''

Thor is broken, slightly magnanimous, but still an egotist: ''I am no longer the one I was! No longer am I worthy to wear the mantle of Thunder God!''. Asgardian, please. Jane Foster shows up on the last page, admits her folly and tells the (newly) fallen god: ''I only wanted to make you jealous -- nothing more!''. That (Odin)ship has sailed and Thor walks away to (I suppose) wander the Earth.

By '66 Kirby and Lee have it figured: make it real and make it relate. It's easy to sympathize with a perennial down-on-his-luck teenager like Peter Parker, not so much for Thor, unless he feels human emotions like love or jealousy. Gods have girl problems, they always have since time immermorial. In myths and ancient religions, gods are human projections, frames in which writers and artists hang all sorts of earthly desires and pursuits. Think what thou will of Ms. Foster, but as 'the man' says, she is 'Thor's chick' (Jane's choice to choose aside) and god or no god, Thor can't have some curly-haired Greek god think he can 'make it' with his lady. Teenagers relate to such stuff, such drama.

It's as if Lee adds exclamation points (a lot of exclamation points) to the outline of one of Joe Simon's old Young Romance scripts and Kirby redraws everyone in silly hats, adds in a (really) overbearing father, an extended fight scene and voilà, Thor #126 -- call it the Marvel method and you've got something to build a universe around. Dig it?


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