Back in November of last year, we took a look at Thor #184 — the premiere installment in the first multi-issue, large scale epic that editor-scripter Stan Lee had attempted in the title since losing his longtime collaborator Jack Kirby to DC Comics. Hyping the comic in the Nov., 1970 Bullpen Bulletins, Marvel went so far as to compare it to the debut of the Inhumans in Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four, some five years previously. And upon my thirteen-year-old self’s actually reading it, it really did feel like Lee and his collaborators, penciller John Buscema and inker Joe Sinnott, had pulled out all the stops for this one.
This opening chapter of what would prove to be a five-issue story arc introduced us readers — as well as the mighty Thor, himself — to the menace of the World Beyond: a mysterious realm somewhere out past the farthest reaches of space, which was, somehow, devouring our universe from the edges in. Associated with this menace was a word — perhaps a name — of unknown significance: “Infinity”. We and Thor also met an intriguing new character, appropriately dubbed the Silent One, who had recently shown up in Asgard unannounced; All-Father Odin had since decided to let him hang around, sensing that he was in some way the key to the mystery.
Ultimately, Odin himself departed Asgard for the World Beyond, intent on dealing with the encroaching calamity; he was accompanied in this quest only by the Silent One, as Thor was bound by his father’s command to remain behind and guard the Golden Realm. And indeed, no sooner was Odin gone than Thor’s brother Loki led an army of Storm Giants and Trolls to storm the city’s gates; Thor and his allies successfully repelled the attack, but immediately thereafter, The God of Thunder was confronted by a vision of Odin, sorely beset by an unseen adversary. This apparition faded quickly, but in its wake, Thor decided that that he, too, must journey to the World Beyond.
For the saga’s next chapter, in Thor #185, Sam Grainger replaced Joe Sinnott as inker (though Sinnott would return for the next two issues). The story picked up with Thor’s departure from Asgard — but while Odin had traveled to the World Beyond simply by striding through a mystic portal, his son was compelled to utilize the power of his hammer, Mjolnir — a method which essentially involved hurling himself outwards into the cosmos, warping space in some unspecified fashion, and then flying very fast until he got where he was going. (Scripter Lee wasn’t specific about just how long this epic journey took, but it was at least of sufficient duration for Thor to be able to fill in any late-arriving readers about what had happened in the previous issue via an expository monologue; or, to put it another way, roughly three pages long.)
With no further preliminaries, this self-styled Guardian attacked Thor, and the two mixed it up for awhile — until Thor asked his foe if the name of the latter’s mysterious “master” was, in fact… Infinity! At that point, the master in question (whose name was Infinity, thank you very much) became a bit peeved, and sent his servant into a deep sleep until such time as he felt like giving him another chance; but though Thor could now hear Infinity’s voice, the only visual representation of the malevolent menace remained “a vague and mystic hand“, seemingly large enough to engulf whole planetary systems.
Next, the Silent One showed up. Thor immediately demanded to know where Odin was and what had happened to him — but the enigmatic figure responded only by showing the Thunder God a vision of what was actually happening each time the hand of Infinity “took” a planet:
This revelation that Infinity was not actually destroying whole worlds, but rather placing their inhabitants in thrall, would seem to be a really big deal — but, oddly, it would never be referred to again, with the saga’s three remaining chapters (and even the remainder of this issue) relying rather on conventionally apocalyptic language and imagery in describing the fate awaiting Earth and its fellow worlds.
The Silent One next proceeded to direct Thor to his long-missing buddies, the Warriors Three, who’d been incommunicado since Odin sent them on a scouting mission to the World Beyond, some indeterminate time prior to Thor #184:
Of course, Thor’s pals were under the thrall of Infinity, every bit as much as those poor extraterrestrials in our hero’s just-concluded vision; predictably enough, they attacked him, though their might proved no match for that of the God of Thunder. Needing to subdue them without hurting them, Thor ultimately opted for sending his friends back home to Asgard, via the Mjolnir Express:
Meanwhile, in an observatory on Earth, several astronomers noticed that there was some really weird stuff happening way out there:
Over the next couple of issues, Lee and Buscema would revisit these scenes as a way of demonstrating how the situation was rapidly growing more dire — showing us the Odinsword in Asgard moving a little bit more, the astronomers on Earth growing more frantic, and the Earth itself experiencing ever more serious physical distress, progressing from heavy storms to floods and earthquakes.
Meanwhile, back on (in?) the World Beyond, Thor discovered that he might have miscalculated in using Mjolnir to send the Warriors Three home — because regardless of the exact length of time it might take for the mystic hammer to traverse the distance between the World Beyond and Asgard, it was evidently more than a sixty-second-long round trip. And in this era of Thor stories, if the Thunder God were to be separated from his hammer for longer than sixty seconds, he’d automatically be transformed into his mortal persona of Dr. Donald Blake — which, as you’ve likely already guessed, is precisely what happened here next.
And, of course, no sooner had that happened than Infinity decided to resuscitate the dormant form of his Guardian…
The story continued the following month in Thor #186, which opened by showing us Odin — who. though still locked in mystic battle with his unseen enemy, Infinity, could, fortunately, still spare the time to check in on his favorite son, and — seeing the jam he was in — provide him with a few moments’ reprieve, albeit remotely:
The rules of the enchantment governing the transformation of Blake’s cane to Thor’s hammer and back, were, it must be said, handled pretty inconsistently throughout the decades that it was an ongoing element in the Thor series. Sometimes, the hammer would change back into a cane after being separated from Thor for sixty seconds; other times, it wouldn’t. If truth be told, the rules seemed to vary based on the requirements of a given story. Obviously, in this instance, it would hardly have done for Mjolnir to turn into an ordinary walking stick halfway in between Asgard and the World Beyond — and so, it didn’t. Rather, it came right back to the spot from which it was thrown (though not, you’ll notice, directly into Blake’s hand) — and just as soon as the mortal physician’s fingers touched it, he became the God of Thunder once more.
The restored Thor proceeded to give the Guardian a beat-down — several of them, actually, as Infinity kept zapping the guy with rejuvenating energy, until Thor finally used Mjolnir to create an impenetrable force-sphere around his four-armed foe. That done, the son of Odin set forth to finally join his beleaguered father — only to find the Silent One blocking his way:
Yeah, it must have been a bit of a bummer for our hero fly all the way across the universe to rescue his dad, only to have the All-Father go all, “Darest thou to question me?“, and “Am I not the word and the way — the wisdom and the light?” on him. Sure, Pops, whatever. But there wasn’t much Thor could do about the situation but fume — which may be why, when the Silent One beckoned him to follow him elsewhere, Thor was willing…
Hela, Lee and Kirby’s version of the Norse mythological figure Hel, had first turned up in a “Tales of Asgard” story way back in Journey into Mystery #102 (Mar., 1964), but hadn’t entered the present-day continuity until Thor #150 (Mar., 1968). In the past, she’d been presented as something of an impersonal force, who had no power over Thor save at a point when he’d already been wounded to the point of death. Here, though, she made a turn into straight-up villainy, telling the God of Thunder that he was “but part of a mystic master plan” (hers, presumably) and that his time had now come — and then, when he defied her will, felling him with a blast of mystical force…
But Thor’s brave words fell on deaf ears. Hela promptly vanished, leaving behind both the dying son of Odin and her own servant, the Silent One:
And that’s all she wrote for the Silent One.* After Marvel’s hyping of the guy as an exciting new character on the covers of both of the last two issues of Thor, as well as in the aforementioned Bullpen Bulletin, it might come as rather a letdown that the mysterious, unknown purpose of “the sensational Silent One” turns out all along to have been nothing less mundane than his serving as Hela’s secret spy. Frankly, it’s hard to avoid the nagging suspicion that Lee and/or Buscema came up with this character and, full of enthusiasm about his potential, dropped him into Thor #184 without knowing exactly what they were going to do with him — only to discover that they really couldn’t think of any truly significant part for him to play in their developing storyline, and so opting to write him out early. (None of which, of course, alters the fact that, in March, 1971, my thirteen-year-old self found the death of the Silent One to be genuinely moving, as well as unexpected. So, there’s that.)
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, right? A month later, the saga reached its penultimate installment with issue #187. Thor spent the first few pages of this chapter alternating between trying to reason with his Infinity-enthralled dad and avoiding his deadly force-blasts, all while refraining from raising his own hand against the All-Father.
But Odin was relentless, giving his son the ultimatum: “Swear obedience to Infinity — or die!”
Not looking at all good for dear old planet Earth, you’d have to say. Meanwhile, in Asgard, Balder the Brave and the Lady Sif traveled to the the Land of the Norns to enlist the aid of the Witch Queen, Karnilla. Although a sworn foe of the Golden Realm, Karnilla carried a torch for Balder, and so agreed to help. Once back in the city, the sorceress cast a spell to restore the wills of Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg, the Warriors Three — but was unsuccessful until her efforts were supplemented by the power of Loki. (The God of Mischief had apparently been hanging around the royal palace ever since his failed insurrection of issue #184; since that time, however, he’d realized that if the universe met its end, so would he (duh!), so maybe he should help out.)
But no sooner were the Warriors Three back to their old selves, then…
With the return of Thor to Asgard, the storyline had basically come back around to where things stood at the end of issue #184 — excepting, of course, that everything was now 1,000 times worse.
Deciding at this point that it was time to try something new, Thor transformed himself back into Dr. Don Blake. Why? As the doc himself explained:
One obvious question — why did the Odin-screen immediately call up this scene of the last time the All-Father slept his Odin-sleep? (Also, a second, mostly irrelevant question — has there ever been another comics character this side of Batman as intent on slapping his brand on random stuff as the Lord of Asgard? But, I digress.) Nothing in previous chapters had given any indication of a connection between this episode from Thor #177 and the present crisis. If the Vizier and/or others were already aware of such a connection, why hadn’t he and the other Asgardians explored it before now? This is a pretty large plot hole for the story to race so blithely past.
Having finished his semi-private viewing session, our hero rejoined his comrades — and the fact that, even having changed back to Thor, he was still staggering under the weight of what he’d seen, was rightfully taken by them as a not-so-good sign:
And on that ominous note, we come at last to the ostensible focus of today’s discussion — Thor #188, and “The End of Infinity!”:
For this final chapter, Lee and Buscema are joined by inker Jim Mooney. Mooney is, perhaps, a less crisp and polished inker than either Sinnott or Grainger, but here he provides a look that’s largely consistent with the saga’s previous four chapters — a testament, perhaps, to the tightness of Buscema’s pencilling in these stories — while also, through his somewhat more soft-focused style, adding a slightly eerier atmosphere to the proceedings than had his predecessors.
In the book’s opening pages, Thor initially postpones telling his fellow Asgardians what he’s learned, stalling for several pages while he imagines all the terrible things going on outside the palace walls and throughout the universe. (Confusingly, this sequence includes scenes featuring Balder, Karnilla, Loki, and the Warriors Three — none of whom can currently be doing the things Thor imagines, as they’re all right there in the palace with him.) But, at last…
The three-panel sequence in which Balder nearly ages to death is closely based on a similar sequence from Thor #177 by Lee and Kirby, as shown below (inks by Vince Colletta):
In the original version of this scene, however, there was no indication of Hela’s presence — rather, the aging effect seemed to be a natural consequence of Balder having entered the Dimension of Death. This flashback thus provides readers with new information, just as it does for Thor’s Asgardian listeners.
If memory serves, my younger self was a teensy bit disappointed at this sequence’s revelation that Infinity was, essentially, no more or less than Odin’s evil twin. (I probably wasn’t all that surprised, however, as #188’s Buscema-Sinnott cover had pretty much given the game away before I’d even opened up the comic.) I think that I’d expected some sort of cosmic super-entity, along the lines of a villainous Eternity** — and a “portion” of the All-Father’s soul didn’t quite seem to cut it. Still, if I recall correctly, I got over my mild disappointment pretty quickly — an attitude adjustment that was probably greatly facilitated by the art of Buscema and Mooney, which did a bang-up job of selling me (and I expect many other readers) on the idea of a “Dark Odin”.
On the other hand, something I don’t recall being concerned about in 1971, though it certainly stands out to me in 2021, is the question of what happened to the notion of enslaving the cosmos, as we saw back in issue #185, versus returning it to “nothingness“, which is what’s indicated here. Probably, the simple fact that I was reading this saga as it was released, with whole months between chapters — and reading a number of other comics in between those chapters, of course — meant that by the time I read page 8 of #188, I didn’t remember what I’d been told on page 11 of #185. (Perhaps Stan Lee had forgotten, as well.)
Similarly, I don’t remember giving too much thought to the very matter-of-fact way Thor appears to have learned the all important “secret of Infinity”. In issue #187, it had been implied that “the clear, calm, analytical brain of a surgeon” would be necessary to decipher the meaning of what the Odin-screen revealed. But from what we’re shown here, in #188, it appears that the Vizier simply cued up the recording of the All-Father’s last big nap for Dr. Blake, and then pressed “play”. Which begs the same question we raised earlier — why didn’t the Vizier, et al, do this in the first place?
But I’m afraid we’re just going to have to roll with it, gentle readers, or else we’ll never find out how our story ends… Having finished sharing all his gloomy new knowledge with his comrades, Thor suddenly seems to find new resolve (hey, he’d better, since we only have twelve pages left to wrap everything up). And so, by whirling his hammer really, really fast, the Thunder God proceeds to “clear away the mists of night” — allowing him and his fellow Asgardians to see all the way to the World Beyond. (Evidently, it’s a lot closer to Asgard now than it was at the beginning of the storyline; still, these folks must have really good eyesight.)
Um, has Mjolnir ever been shown to be this powerful before? Though perhaps the better (or at least more urgent) question is: Isn’t it a bad thing for our noble hero to cause such widespread destruction? Especially if it’s just so he and his allies can get a better view?
Anyway, now that she has a clear line of sight, Karnilla attempts to cast a spell to wake up Odin and/or drive back his shadow-self. Her power is insufficient for the task, however, so Loki decides to lend his might to her efforts. This leads to the tableau, also shown on the cover, of the two enchanters using Loki’s iconic horned helmet as a means of mystical focus — a silly idea, perhaps, if you think about it for very long (the God of Mischief’s headgear had never been shown to have special significance before this moment, as best as I recall), but a cool visual, nonetheless:
It’s still not enough — but Thor, realizing that the not-so-heroic duo are on to something, calls on his comrades to draw near…
OK, let’s pause for a tick to think about this… Back in issues #184 through #186, Odin was barely able to hold his own against Infinity (and, indeed, couldn’t keep him from continuing to consume worlds, even while the two battled). And then, when Odin finally learned who Infinity actually was at the end of #186, the shock of it allowed his dark twin to subsume his will. But in the climax of #188, Odin has his will suddenly restored to him, as well as his awareness of Infinity’s true nature — and this time, that knowledge, in and of itself, gives him the power to destroy his adversary with a single stroke. All I can say is, if you can figure out how that’s supposed to have worked, I hope you’ll explain it to me.
But, moving along… now that Odin is back, baby, he immediately picks up his “regal power scepter“, and proceeds to set everything to rights. “In every land — on every world — where carnage hath occurred,” he proclaims, “I wave my power scepter thrice — and all shall be restored!”
Not only has all the physical damage on Earth been reversed (including, one assumes, that caused by Thor’s own hammer-whirling antics earlier this issue), but even everyone’s memories have been wiped clean. That is convenient, as it removes any necessity for our planet’s near-destruction to ever be referred to in any other Marvel comic. Presumably, all the other worlds that were wholly consumed by Infinity (to be either enthralled or destroyed, take your pick) have been restored, as well, though we aren’t shown that.
Did I say before that this was the final chapter of the Infinity saga? Well, it is — and it isn’t.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog (or just happen to be up on your late-Silver Age Marvel comics), you may recall our discussion of the Stone Tablet storyline in Amazing Spider-Man, where the main plot wrapped up in issue #75, but the narrative went straight into a two-issue coda featuring the Lizard, a villain who’d surfaced in the latter chapters of that story arc. This situation is very much like that one, with the end of the Infinity crisis setting up a more direct conflict with Hela — who, as we’ve learned, was the guiding power behind Infinity all along. That conflict will play out over the next two issues — and if I wanted to follow the precedent of my Amazing Spider-Man #75 post, this is where I’d give you a synopsis of what goes down in Thor #189 and #190 — at least enough to let you know how the Thunder God gets out of this latest pickle. (You know how I hate to leave you hanging.)
Unfortunately, Lee and Buscema pull the same trick at the end of Thor #190 as they have here, with our hero leaping from Hela’s frying pan into a fire newly lit by our old pal Loki, and thereby into a “new” story arc which proceeds to run for another four issues. Honestly, if we were to try to account for everything that happens to Thor between the cliffhanging end of #188 and his next opportunity for a nice, quiet lie-down, we’d be here all day. Or, to put it another way, it’d be September, and Stan Lee would no longer be scripting Thor. (I’m serious.)
All of which I offer in explanation as to why, this time, I am going to leave you hanging. But never fear, faithful readers — you’ll eventually see a recap here explaining how the favored son of Odin once again escaped Hela’s icy grasp. And it may not even be September yet. Stay tuned.
I’d like to close this post by returning briefly to its beginning, and to the matter of Marvel’s promotion of the Infinity saga as a high-water mark in epic comic-book storytelling — worthy of being compared to such earlier glories as the introduction of the Inhumans in Fantastic Four. If we take it as a given that Lee and company were swinging for the fences with this one — even, perhaps, attempting to prove that they could still pull off this sort of thing following Jack Kirby’s departure — did they succeed?
If you’ve been reading closely all this time, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that as far as my sixty-three-year-old self is concerned, they did not. Circular, sloppy plotting; intriguing new characters that never really paid off (looking at you, Silent One); a central mystery with a disappointing solution; and a final resolution that seems to have been pulled from the creators’ nether regions. I could just say that this “epic” wasn’t going to make anyone forget the Absorbing Man/Norn Stones/Destroyer/Hercules sequence from Journey Into Mystery #114 – Thor #130. and leave it at that.
And yet… if I’m to render judgment on this particular run of fifty-year-old comic books, I believe it’s only fair for my sixty-three-year-old self give equal time to my thirteen-year-self. And the thirteen-year-old me remains awfully fond of these comics. He — I — can’t forget that it was this run that cemented Thor’s status as my favorite Marvel hero, ultimately resulting in my buying every issue of the guy’s book off the stands without fail for the next eighteen years, as well as sparking a quest for back issues that would become my major project as a comics collector throughout my teenage years.
Perhaps the success of these comics in capturing my loyalty had more to do with the enduring appeal of the mythos and milieu that Kirby and Lee had imagined in the mid-’60s (as well as to that of the Norse myths that inspired them) than it did to the quality of the Infinity saga itself. On the other hand, I don’t want to downplay the impact of John Buscema’s artwork for these books. Following Kirby on Thor was a frankly thankless task, but “Big John” managed to make the title his own, as much as any artist succeeding the “King” possibly could have. Over the next several years, the stories in Thor would only rarely rise to the level of quality of even the more minor efforts of the Lee-Kirby collaboration; still, however lackluster the scripts might become, the series would remain a consistent pleasure to look at, thanks to Buscema and an assortment of talented inkers.
In truth, future issues of Thor would never surpass what had gone before, at least so far as your humble blogger is concerned. (Though we’ve certainly seen some excellent runs over the past half-century, and several stories which, in my opinion, do indeed deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the best of Kirby and Lee.) But back in 1971, my younger self had not only all those future issues to look forward to reading, but the vast majority of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Thor tales as well — those already published treasures which were awaiting my discovery in the longboxes of America’s back-issue comic book dealers. In that sense, at least, the best really was still to come.
*Of course, the natural laws of mainstream comic-book universe storytelling being what they are, someone eventually had to bring the Silent One back. That someone — or, rather, those someones — were writer Dan Jurgens and penciller Tom Grummett, and the occasion was the 2001 Thor Annual, where good ol’ Mister Zipped-Lips showed up in Olympus, evidently once again alive (or whatever working facsimile of same he was to begin with), and ready to spook the hell out of Thor and his allies, Hercules and Beta Ray Bill. The story offered no explanation as to his return, and since Thor didn’t seem surprised to see him once again among the ambulatory, methinks that there must be an untold tale out there somewhere.
**And, of course, Marvel did eventually getting around to giving us an independent Infinity character who, though not villainous, was indeed on the same ultra-cosmic, semi-abstract level as Eternity — in fact, she was his sister. (Art by Greg Capullo and Keith Williams, from Quasar #24 [Jul., 1991].)