When my thirteen-year-old self picked up Thor #184 in November, 1970, I hadn’t read a single issue of the title in over a year. The last issue I’d bought, Thor #169, had featured the conclusion of Stan Lee and Kirby’s long-running (and, apparently, extensively reworked) Galactus storyline; it also led directly into Thor’s confrontation with the Thermal Man, the culmination of a subplot that had woven through the last couple of issues. Apparently, I wasn’t interested enough in seeing the God of Thunder and yet another of Kirby’s super-powerful but personality-free robots (of whom the King gave us a few too many in the late ’60s) whomp on each other for twenty pages, and so I passed on #170. Then, a month later, I opted to pass on #171 as well; and then on #172, and then #173…
My break from Thor coincided with the title’s adoption of Marvel’s new policy of “no continued stories”, and also with a growing general disaffection with comic books on my part (which was probably strongly influenced by the former circumstance, truth to tell). And I don’t think I necessarily made a bad call with those first few Thors, which were eminently forgettable “done-in-ones” (though, of course, the mere fact that Jack Kirby drew them meant they weren’t entirely without merit). But by the time the book returned to the multi-issue storylines I preferred, with #175-177’s Surtur trilogy, I’d stopped paying attention. So, I also missed the following issue, which was the first in six years not drawn by Kirby; rather, Thor #178 was pencilled by John Buscema, as a one-month “trade-off” with Kirby, who instead drew the 18th issue of Silver Surfer (previously Buscema’s assignment). instead. It may also have been a sort of tryout for Buscema’s taking over Thor full-time, as Kirby was presumably expected to have his plate full with Fantastic Four as well as the new “Inhumans” and “Ka-Zar” strips that had just started up in Amazing Adventures and Astonishing Tales, respectively, not to mention the odd story here and there for Marvel’s new horror anthology titles.
Kirby came back for just one more issue, which, like his final Fantastic Four, turned out to be the opening chapter of a three-issue storyline. The plot, which involved a body-swap between Thor and his evil stepbrother Loki (there was a lot of that sort of thing going around back then) ended up being finished by scripter Lee in collaboration with Neal Adams, who got a head start by drawing the cover for Kirby’s final issue, #179. But Adams was gone after a mere two issues, departing as soon as the Loki storyline was wrapped up. John Buscema then came on board as regular penciller with #182 — a gig which, save for a couple of brief interruptions, he’d handle for the next six years (and would return to on occasion even after that). Buscema’s first two consecutive issues featured the Thunder God squaring off against Marvel’s premiere Earthbound villain, Doctor Doom, in a two-part tale; in retrospect, this feels rather like a transitional storyline, setting the stage for Thor‘s first major multi-part epic since Jack Kirby’s departure.
Stan Lee went to some lengths to promote the new story arc, taking the (then) fairly unusual step of devoting an “ITEM!” to it on the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page:
Despite the typically self-deprecating humor of that last “you know how we hate to brag!” line, Lee is making a bold claim here, suggesting to longtime Marvelites that what’s coming up in Thor is comparable to the introduction of the Inhumans in Fantastic Four back in 1965 — a storyline that inaugurated a legendary three-year run that to this day is generally considered to be the zenith of Lee and Kirby’s work on that title (and, indeed, a high point in the history of Marvel Comics). Without mentioning Kirby’s name, this item — like a number of other pronouncements appearing in Marvel’s text pages around this time — seems to seek to reassure Marvel’s longtime readers that the departure of “the King” doesn’t mean that the glory days are all in the past — either for Marvel in general, or for the specific books he had been working on, in particular.
This particular Bullpen Bulletin ran in Marvel’s comics shipping in November. Thor #184 itself was released among the first batch of Marvels that month, so it’s likely I didn’t read the promotional item concerning it until I’d already purchased the comic. On the other hand, I didn’t necessarily get to a Tote-Sum (the name of our local convenience store chain in Jackson, MS) every week, and a comic might linger in the spinner rack until the next month’s issue of the same title showed up to replace it — so it’s at least possible I was sold on picking up “The World Beyond!” by “Smilin’ Stan’s” fulsome claims. I’ll never know for sure, one way or the other.
I should probably note here that the departure of Jack Kirby from Thor — or from Marvel in general — didn’t cause me tremendous consternation as a young reader in 1970. I liked Kirby’s art, and I understood that he was considered Marvel’s leading artist — “the King”. But I didn’t really understand the extent of Kirby’s contributions to the plots of the stories he drew, or to the creation of the characters that appeared in them. Besides which, Marvel had always had other artists whose work I enjoyed just about as much as I did Kirby’s, “Big” John Buscema being one of them. And as Buscema’s depiction of Thor and his milieu in Silver Surfer #4 had made a very favorable impression on me a couple of years earlier, there was little reason to worry about his taking over the Thunder God’s series. After all, Stan Lee would still be writing the stories, right?
The Vizier — or Grand Vizier, to use his full title — is an interesting, if minor figure in Thor’s supporting cast. (Well, interesting to me, anyway.) Most reference sources will tell you that he first appeared in the “Tales of Asgard” backup in Journey into Mystery #102, but if you check that story out, you’ll find that the robed, elderly adviser to Odin we meet there (see left) is never called the Vizier, but is, rather, referred to as the “Master of Prophecy”. The “proper” Vizier that 1970s-era Thor readers would soon come to know seems to have made his debut in issue #180, courtesy of Lee and Neal Adams (see right). Both Lee and his successors in writing Thor seem to have found the Viz a handy guy to have around, as he became all but ubiquitous for several years — though, truth to tell, none of those writers ever gave him much of a personality, let alone a real name. Curiously, he doesn’t seem to have turned up in a non-flashback capacity since Journey into Mystery #513 (Oct., 1997), suggesting that, unlike Thor, Odin, and most of the rest of the gang, he never made it out of the “Heroes Reborn” era. (Or maybe he’s just retired now. Yeah, let’s go with that.)
Many modern comics fans have become rather inured to the notion of cosmic crises that threaten to bring “the end of all life — the end of the universe itself!” After all, every year seems to bring at least one such event, usually more, from one or both the two major American comics companies. So it’s probably worth noting that such events were still quite rare five decades ago, and that the scope of the menace featured in this storyline virtually justified Lee’s “Soapbox” characterization of it as “so special, so unusually exciting” all by itself.
Thor’s assumption that their foe must be Galactus makes a lot of sense, as circa 1970 the fearsome world-devourer was the most powerful enemy he or any Marvel hero had ever faced. But Galactus can’t be the culprit, Odin informs his son; as revealed by the Cosmic Coals, the BIg G is currently enjoying a nice long nap (no, really) after consuming what must have been an especially large as well as tasty planet. Other likely suspects, including Loki and the Mangog, have been accounted for as well.
Still, whoever is responsible, Thor is ready to journey to the World Beyond and put the kibosh on ’em. But his dad has still more to tell him…
The Odinsword, aka the Oversword, had been introduced years earlier in another “Tales of Asgard” backup (from JiM #117 [Jun., 1965], this time), and was one of those great ideas that seemed like it could have come out of authentic Norse mythology, but was in fact a pure Lee-Kirby creation.
On pag 8, one of those new “mysterious characters” heralded by the Bullpen Bulletin finally shows his not-so-handsome face. True to his name, the Silent One keeps absolutely mum as Thor first charges him (and is effortlessly repelled) and then throws his hammer at him (which passes right through him before returning to Thor’s hand). Odin commands Thor to cool it, and then…
The scene now shifts to a distant, unnamed world, where Loki has been laying low since his last trouncing by his stepbrother, back in #181:
A little while after this, Thor is giving a pep talk to some of his fellow Asgardian warriors when he gets word that Loki and his army of Storm Giants (and Trolls, apparently recruited off-panel) are at the city gates — and they’ve taken one of his best buds, Balder the Brave, captive. Our hero immediately flies to the scene, and…
Thor is more than a match for a few Trolls, of course — or even more than few. Still, it’s nice when some help shows up to help even the odds a bit:
It’s interesting to note that the rendering of Sif’s face in this issue, particularly around her eyes, is strikingly different than that in virtually any other story drawn by John Buscema, either before or since. For whatever reason, either Buscema or his inker, Joe Sinnott, seems to have forgotten exactly what she looks like for this one single story. (UPDATE, 10/4/21: As several readers have noted in the comments section below, Sif’s appearance suggests that John Romita may have had a hand in the art, and according to the Grand Comics Database, Romita did indeed draw Sif on pages 18 through 20, uncredited. [In addition, Bill Everett appears to have inked a few pages of the story, also uncredited.] My thanks to Jeffrey Clem for pointing me to the GCD.)
It’s somewhat ironic that Sif is depicted a bit “off-model” in this issue, as the first panel on the next page would become perhaps the single most widely disseminated image of the character for the next few years, thanks to it serving as the basis for one of The Third Eye’s series of 24 Marvel blacklight posters in 1971.
And thus ends the first chapter of the “Infinity Saga”, which I think holds up fairly well after fifty years. The stakes are as high as they get, and Lee and Buscema skillfully convey the sense of impending doom permeating Asgard. They give us just enough information about the mysterious World Beyond to keep our interest piqued, while also delivering an adequate quota of action via the assault by Loki and his allies. In any case, they were unquestionably successful in engaging the attention of my younger self, back in November, 1970; I’m sure I never even considered not buying Thor #185.
Of course, the ultimate success of this comic would depend on how the storyline played out. Could Lee and Buscema deliver a resolution to the mysteries of Infinity and the World Beyond that would justify the dramatic buildup? Who was the Silent One — and would we even care, in the long run? Had Marvel seriously overstepped in comparing this story arc to the introduction of the Inhumans, back in 1965?
Those are all questions we’ll attempt to answer in a future post. For now, however, we’ll leave you with this special bonus — a reproduction of the Third Eye blacklight version of that Thor-Sif smooch panel from page 20:
Dig it, people! (And, oh, by the way, if you happen to be reading this blog entry on the first day it’s posted, and you haven’t already taken care of this particular matter — get out there today and VOTE, alright?)