While any specific memory of the occasion has been lost to time after half a century, I feel pretty sure I was at least mildly startled when I dropped in at my neighborhood Tote-Sum in the first week of August, 1971, and discovered that all the new Marvel comics — including the latest issues of three series I was buying regularly, Daredevil, Iron Man, and Thor — were now 25 cents (up from 15), and 48 pages, not counting covers (up from 32).
I wasn’t completely surprised, of course. After all, DC Comics had raised their prices and page counts by the exact same amounts two months earlier, and it only made sense that Marvel would eventually follow suit. (The only other comics industry price hike I’d experienced personally — the move from 12 cents to 15 cents back in 1969 — had been effected by both DC and Marvel more or less simultaneously.) What was more, several Marvel titles, such as Conan the Barbarian, had already made the jump to the new format/price point back in July — a move that Marvel had at least hinted could be a harbinger of things to come via a comment on that month’s Bullpen Bulletins page. (“As for what the future holds in store for the rest of our magniloquent mags — well, keep lookin’ forward, pilgrim, ’cause that’s where the future’s coming from!”) But a hint’s not the same thing as a promise, and just because one expects something to happen eventually, doesn’t mean one won’t still be surprised when said thing happens right now. So, I’d say that at least some mild startlement was in order for my fourteen-year-old self, as well as for most of my comics-buying peers.
The lead two items on August’s Bullpen Bulletins page put a highly positive spin on the changes, the timing of which they tied to the 10th anniversary of the publication of Fantastic Four #1 in August, 1961:
“ALL-NEW Marvel masterworks of 33 (count ’em, 33) pages or more!”?? If the similar blurb on the cover of Thor #193 hadn’t already caught my eye — or if my flipping through that book’s contents hadn’t already confirmed that it did indeed feature brand-new content from cover to cover — this news would likely have floored my younger self. Because it was a significant step beyond what DC had done with its own price and page increases; to wit, every single “new” 25-center DC had put out since the beginning of June had included a substantial amount of reprinted material. For Marvel to go to an all-new giant-sized format across their whole line seemed like a very bold move — and, if I recall correctly, I was pretty excited about the idea of getting more than 10 additional pages of new art and story every issue. And while I didn’t necessarily welcome the concurrent reality of paying an extra 10 cents for that privilege, I was lucky enough to receive a generous weekly allowance from my parents (it helped that I was an only child), and I was pretty sure my budget could absorb it.
Of course, not every Marvel comics buyer was as fortunate as I was; and someone at Marvel must have realized that the celebratory tone of the Bullpen Bulletins page might not go down great with everyone. Thus, the letters pages of August’s Marvels all included the following text box, which struck a more conciliatory note:
Compared to the Bullpen Bulletins page announcement, this missive’s explanatory references to inflation, increased costs, etc., were more in line with the letter to DC Comics readers that had appeared in that company’s June comics — as well as with the “Stan’s Soapbox” column that had accompanied Marvel’s 12-to-15 cent price change, back in 1969.
Interestingly, as well-planned as these messages make Marvel’s major moves seem to have been, a number of factors were still in flux even as these books went to press in the summer of 1971. Take the third “ITEM!” on the Bullpen Bulletins page, for example (the first half of which is shared below):
Daredevil and Iron Man were evidently both having sales problems around this time — there’s really no other credible reason for Marvel to consider combining two titles into one — but although this merger never actually happened, both DD #81 and IM #43 (which, as mentioned earlier, came out in early August, simultaneously with Thor #193) were published with new lead stories oft the old standard length, and supplemented by reprints from Marvel’s earlier days (a 1965 Human Torch and the Thing short from Strange Tales in Daredevil‘s case, a 1964 Giant-Man and the Wasp adventure from Tales to Astonish in Iron Man‘s). And since both titles shifted back to a 32-page format with their following issues, neither ever got to enjoy the greater room afforded to their marquee heroes’ exploits by the larger size, in the way most of the company’s other series did — if only for one month.
The announcement about Astonishing Tales is more curious. That title had actually gone to the 25-cent giant-sized format the month before, with a line-up of brand-new stories featuring Ka-Zar and Dr. Doom (who’d shared the book since issue #1) as well as a new feature, the Brothers Link (a one-off, as it turned out) — and no sign of any Inhumans. I’m inclined to think that whoever wrote the Bullpen Bulletins page this month got the bi-monthly Astonishing Tales momentarily confused with its sister title Amazing Adventures, also a bi-monthly, which up through June had double-featured the Inhumans and the Black Widow. There would in fact be an issue of Amazing Adventures published in August, and it would even feature “a 20-page Inhumans extravaganza”. What it wouldn’t feature, oddly enough, is a 25-cent price tag, or 48 pages between its covers. Rather, AA #9 came out in a 20-cent, 32-page format, anticipating what would happen with most of the rest of Marvel’s line in September (though there were a few other titles, all or partially reprint in content, that made the 20-cent jump before the end of August as well). To the best of my knowledge, the reason for Marvel’s releasing this one single all-new comic in the 20-cent format in August has never been explained; but whatever the reason for the decision, it seems to have been made at the last minute, as the comic’s letters page includes the same text box explaining the price hike to 25 cents as do all the books which really did cost a quarter that month.
But that’s probably enough analysis of August, 1971’s Bullpen Bulletins page, or speculation about what was going on behind the scenes of Marvel during that tumultuous summer half a century ago — at least for now. Some of you — maybe most of you — came here to read about Thor #193’s story and art, and your humble blogger is eager to oblige you. Though, since we’re going to be coming in in the middle of an ongoing storyline, some scene-setting will doubtlessly be helpful — and since the series has really been chugging along without a clean narrative break ever since the last issue we blogged about — Thor #188, back in March — we might as well go ahead and briefly catch you up on everything that’s gone down since the end of “The End of Infinity!”
As regular readers will doubtlessly recall, that story — the climax of a five issue arc that itself began in issue #184 — revealed that the universal threat known as Infinity was actually a dark portion of the self of Odin, Lord of Asgard, which had been created by the Goddess of Death, Hela, in a scheme not only to destroy Odin and Asgard, but to overwhelm the rest of the living cosmos as well. Odin’s son Thor and his allies ultimately stymied Hela’s plans, but as the All-Father darkly warned on #188’s final page, since Hela had been robbed of her main prey (Odin himself), she would now come after Thor.
In fact, Hela had already tried to kill Thor once earlier in the storyline, simply to keep him from interfering with her plans. On that occasion, Thor was saved via the self-sacrifice of Hela’s servant, the Silent One; but in Thor #189, readers are told that nothing can stop the Death Goddess this time, short of utterly destroying her. (My guess is that scripter Stan Lee and artist John Buscema decided after the fact that they hadn’t made quite as much of the earlier scenario as they should have, and opted to do another take.) Odin thus sends his son to Earth to hide out in the mortal form of Dr. Don Blake, which works fine for a while; but then Thor’s stepbrother Loki betrays him (of course), and Hela hunts our hero down on Midgard.
In issue #190, Odin decides that he must intervene, and strikes Hela down before she can take Thor. The result is chaos: Hela, it seems, isn’t just the ruler of a Norse underworld; she is in fact Death personified, and in her absence, nothing can die a natural death. Across the Earth, harmful insects proliferate, vegetation overgrows human habitations, and so forth; it’s a bad scene, folks. Ultimately, Odin must accede to his son’s plea to let Hela live for the sake of the whole universe, even though it will mean Thor’s own demise.
Once resuscitated, Hela promptly begins to rapidly accelerate the Thunder God’s aging process, in a sequence that’s a virtual reprise of an earlier one in issue #186. But before our hero wheezes out his last breath, his lover, the goddess Sif, appears to beg Hela for his life. Unexpectedly moved by the depth of Sif’s love, especially when she offers her own life in place of Thor’s, the Goddess of Death at last relents. She reverses the aging process, restoring Thor’s youth and health — and then she vanishes, promising that she won’t be so lenient next time.
A happy ending all around, right? Well, no; because when Odin came to Earth to save Thor, he was evidently in such a hurry that he forgot to get completely dressed. And as he, Thor, and Sif discover upon their return home, that’s going to be a problem:
“Thou knowest well, the ring spells power absolute“, Loki continues. “Not even thee [Odin] may challenge it”. And according to Asgardian law, he’s right. “The prize is his — and we must yield“, confirms Odin. “For, him who wears the Odin-Ring — let no man tell him nay“.
All you have to do to gain absolute power in Asgard is wear a certain ring of Odin’s? Though I’d never heard of this law before, it sounded like a really bad idea. And if Odin really was stuck with it (for a guy who’s always going on about how he’s the “sovereign supreme of all that was and is, and yet shall be“, the All-Father sure does seem to be subject to a lot of arbitrary rules), you’d think he’d be a little more careful about leaving such an important piece of jewelry just lying around, evidently unguarded.
However, readers who (unlike myself) had read Thor #175 (April, 1970) were likely even more dismayed by this turn of events than I was — because Loki had pulled almost this exact same stunt in that issue, published only fourteen months previously. On that occasion, Loki had stolen the ring from his stepdad while the latter was undergoing the “Odin-Sleep” — meaning he had to at least try a little that time. But otherwise, it’s the same bit, which makes Odin seem incredibly foolish and irresponsible for not taking better care with his damn ring ever since then. And it also makes it appear that Stan Lee was really flailing for story ideas as Thor approached the first anniversary of Jack Kirby’s departure from the book, given that he and current artist/co-plotter John Buscema would so baldfacedly nick a plot element from so very late in the Lee-Kirby run. (Buscema even recycled the “imperial” costume for Loki that Kirby had created especially for that storyline.)
Rehash or no, Thor #191 found Lee and Buscema carrying their story forward, with Joe Sinnott, who’d also embellished issues #189 and #190, continuing on inks. As the issue begins, Loki inaugurates his reign by ordering Odin to once again undergo the Odin-Sleep, and the All-Father acquiesces. Thor remains defiant, of course, and attempts to fight his brother, but it seems hopeless — for the Odin-Ring not only confers political authority on Loki, but also increases his power by an exponential amount. Loki therefore toys with Thor for awhile, but then seems to decide that he’ll have more fun watching a surrogate fight — and ultimately kill — the God of Thunder. He thus orders his ally, the Norn Queen Karnilla, to aid him in creating a being for that purpose:
As Thor and his friends watch in horror, a figure slowly takes form, until at last…
Once he’s brought Durok to life, Loki magically transports him to Earth, with orders to kill every living thing he sees. Thor, of course, follows after him immediately, and the stage is set for battle as we move into Thor #192 — “still 15¢”, as the cover tells us, and also still by the team of Lee and Buscema (though Sam Grainger replaces Joe Sinnott on inks with this one).
Finding Durok running amok in a city celebrating Mardi Gras (unnamed, but clearly New Orleans), the Thunder God manages to hold the Demolisher at bay, keeping him from seriously harming any of the local populace. Eventually, Loki gets bored and teleports his mute but mighty servant to yet another unnamed locale, this time a “small South-American [sic] nation”, where much the same scenario plays itself out.
Meanwhile, back in Asgard…
Balder had sworn eternal loyalty to Karnilla back in issue #189, on the condition that she help him try to save Thor from being betrayed to Hela by Loki. And the Norn Queen had done as she’d promised, although it hadn’t made any real difference in the long run — leaving Balder with little to show for the dark deal he’d struck. Now, however, he convinces Karnilla — who has no love or even respect for Loki, when it comes right down to it — that she can help him help Thor, without either of them needing to confront Loki directly. And so, while the Warriors Three (Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg) create a momentary diversion, Karnilla transports herself and Balder to Midgard — more specifically, to the island of Manhattan…
Meanwhile, in South America, Thor continues his battle against the Demolisher until the latter once again suddenly vanishes. Then, upon hearing a familiar, mocking laugh, Thor turns and sees…
With that, the images of Loki and Sif dissipate, leaving our hero distraught, yet still resolved to do his duty by once again going after Durok…
Wow — the Silver Surfer?! If I recall correctly, this last-panel revelation came as a complete surprise to me in July, 1971. But it actually made sense of a sort, since Balder had in fact met the Surfer, if briefly, back in the classic Silver Surfer #4 (Feb., 1969), whereas he’d never crossed paths with the Avengers or the Fantastic Four, to the best of my knowledge. And since Silver Surfer #4 just so happened to be one of my very favorite comic books (then and now), I was captivated by the prospect of Lee and Buscema offering up what looked like a sort of sequel to it — a notion which seemed even more apt once I discovered that, just like SS #4, Thor #193 would be a giant-sized, 25-cent comic. Wow, indeed.
Of course, things didn’t turn out precisely the way I expected — since, when I finally was able to open Thor #193 to its opening splash page, I quickly saw that although John Buscema was still on board — and what was more, had been joined by his brother Sal, who’d inked SS #4 as one of his earliest jobs for Marvel — Stan Lee was not, in fact, the writer:
As we’ve covered in a previous post, in mid-1971, Stan Lee took a sabbatical from his comic-book writing so that he could work on a film screenplay; although this was announced as being only for a couple of weeks, the break actually extended through four months’ worth of comics — and as far as a couple of Lee’s regular writing gigs (Thor and Captain America) were concerned, the sabbatical never really ended; Lee was off Captain America for good as of issue #141, and while he’d return for a single issue of Thor in 1972 (the commemorative 200th issue, which featured an out-of-continuity retelling of the myth of Ragnarok), issue #192 was essentially his swan song on the series, as Gerry Conway came on with #193 to begin a run that would last almost four years.
Interestingly, Lee actually hung on to Thor for one month longer than he did either Captain America or the other two books (Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four) he relinquished just for the duration of his sabbatical — which leads me to speculate that he really did want to write this second major encounter between Thor and the Silver Surfer,* the latter character being one he was still notoriously reluctant to let other writers handle — but ultimately just couldn’t pull it off, schedule-wise.
The Silver Surfer doesn’t appear to recognize Balder, which may be a lapse on new scripter Conway’s part — though, as best as I can recall, in 1971 my younger self simply chalked it up to the two characters never having been formally introduced back in Silver Surfer #4. We may as well run with that in 2021, too.
“The Silver Surfer bows to no female.” Jeez, I don’t remember Norrin Radd demonstrating that kind of casual sexism in earlier stories, though I may be forgetting something. Thanks, Mr. Conway.
Though Balder is banged up pretty badly, the Surfer is able to restore him with a therapeutic dose of his “power cosmic”; and presently…
Wait — “the city called Washington“? But didn’t Loki say in issue #192 that he was sending Durok “to where the United Nations building stands”? Yeah, he did — and even in the Marvel Universe, that would be New York City, not Washington D.C.. But that particular plot detail seems to have gotten lost in the transition between Lee and Conway.
In any event, the District of Columbia is indeed where the Thunder God and the Demolisher have resumed their battle. We see them trade blows for a couple of pages, and then Durok attempts to resume his more general, Loki-given mission of death and destruction by lifting and toppling a whole populated building. To prevent him, Thor has to knock the very street out from under them both…
Following this very nice full-page splash (one of four in the issue, including the title page), Loki suddenly realizes that Karnilla and Balder have gone AWOL; enraged, he immediately brings them back to Asgard by the power of the Odin-Ring. He then punishes Balder by giving him a green, scaly monster-face, but soon relents in the face of Sif’s pleas for clemency, stating: “…a god must be merciful, methinks. Yea… merciful and kind.” Reversing the disfiguring spell, he continues: ” And, above all, it must ne’er be said — that Loki were not the best of gods.”
Arriving on the Rainbow Bridge, Thor finds his way blocked by its guardian, Heimdall, who, like everyone else in Asgard, considers himself duty-bound to obey Loki. Thor quickly overcomes Heimdall, and in his battle-rage almost kills him by sending him falling from the Bridge into the void below. Thankfully, the Thunder God comes to his senses in time to rescue his longtime comrade…
Putting his new idea into action, Surfer takes Durok for a ride in the sky — but things quickly go awry when he flies a little too close to the Washington Monument, and the Demolisher grabs onto the landmark, sliding down its surface to escape his foe. Moments later, Durok begins shooting force-beams from his hands (yes, that’s new), threatening the tourists and other folks occupying the National Mall, and the Surfer inevitably comes to their defense. “Though they hate me,” he says, “the humans must not be destroyed!”
The shattering of the Surfer’s board, though ultimately ineffectual, makes for a startling, memorable moment. It’s also probably the most interesting thing that the personality-free, history-less Durok — who, when all is said and done, is a dull character, no matter how powerful he is — ever does over the course of the whole storyline.
That final panel on page 28 is the last we’ll see of the Silver Surfer — not just in this issue, but in the overall storyline, which (as we’re about to see) will spill over into #194. This abrupt exit irked me fifty years ago, and I still think it’s a poor storytelling choice (assuming it was a choice, and not simply a matter of forgetting to follow up) for Conway and J. Buscema not to show us Norrin Radd’s return from the far future, or to have a short scene with him and Thor — if only to allow the latter to say something like, “Thanks, dude, and BTW, how’d you get rid of Durok?”
Um, does Thor commending Kaggor’s soul to Hela mean that he just killed the guy? Looks like, based on what he says one page later, after felling the third and last of the Storm Giants:
Weary and aching as he is, Thor presses on until he reaches the royal chambers — but there, rather than the expected Loki, he finds…
Ah, well — I guess we don’t have to worry about Thor killing those three giants after all, because they’re baaaack…!
And that’s a wrap for this first (and last) giant-sized issue of Thor, even if not for the overall storyline. Judging it just as an extra-length installment of the Thunder God’s continuing adventures, I’d say it’s a pretty good comic book. But considered as a sequel to Silver Surfer #4, it’s a bit disappointing.
Part of that disappointment stems from the fact that, as already noted, Durok is a pretty blah adversary for our two mighty heroes. Another part comes from the failure to let Thor and the Surfer actually team up for more than a couple of the book’s 34 pages. But perhaps the most significant area in which Thor #193 fails to match Silver Surfer #4 i in its artwork.
Readers of our SS #4 post may recall how, in an interview John Buscema gave years later, the artist remembered how he had attempted to expand the parameters of his style with that job, “to try something different” — and was completely demoralized when Stan Lee was highly critical of the result. In the words of Roy Thomas, a Marvel assistant editor at the time: “From that day on, John bent his efforts to becoming more of a Kirby clone than he had been heretofore…” The work he turned out following Lee’s rejection of his more personal approach wasn’t bad, by any means; indeed, it was very good comic book art. But especially as regards John Buscema’s efforts in the superhero genre, I believe it’s fair to say that a certain amount of excitement went out of his artwork after Silver Surfer #4 — and it’s particularly evident in that comic’s unofficial sequel, Thor #193.
This has been a long post already, but we’re going to forge on ahead with a recap of Thor #194 — mostly because there really isn’t enough story here to justify giving the book its own post in September, and as regular readers know, we never like to end on a cliffhanger here at Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.
“The Fatal Fury!”, by the same team of Conway, Buscema, and Buscema, opens a moment after the conclusion of “What Power Unleashed?” as — with considerably fewer than sixty seconds remaining until Thor turns back into the mortal Dr. Donald Blake — Loki decides to spare Sif’s tender eyes the sight of her beloved being smashed to a bloody pulp by the Storm Giants, and escorts her from the premises before the transformation actually occurs…
Thor uses Mjolnir to whip up a whirlwind that he then uses to send the three giants out of Asgard, and presumably all the way back to Jotunheim. Then, it’s on to Loki’s next line of defense — the smaller, but much more numerous trolls.
Meanwhile, as he waits for his wedding ceremony to begin, Loki’s not feeling so great…
Moments later, Thor comes bursting into the throne room, and makes short work of all who attempt to stop him. “Thy guards be dead, Loki,” Thor snarls as he advances on his brother — and it looks like these dead trolls won’t be as fortunate as the three giants the Thunder God slew earlier, because Loki is going to be too busy with other things to resuscitate them…
Odin had been roused from his slumber a little earlier by the Warriors Three, but had refused to interfere in the battle between his sons. Of course, as we now learn, he didn’t need to…
Having dispensed with Loki and his allies, Odin goes on to explain to his loyal subjects that the reason he didn’t interfere earlier was because he knew that “traitorous Loki was already doomed.”
You gotta hand it to the All-Father… he never, ever learns. (Nevertheless, he’ll keep on referring to himself as “all-wise” for years, maybe decades, to come, as will Thor and the other Asgardians — always without a trace of irony.) So, what sort of crisis has his monumental carelessness unleashed upon the universe this time? That’s a question we’ll have to leave for another day, and another post.
As you may have noticed, Thor #194’s “The Fatal Fury!” came in at only 15 pages, compared to 34 for #193’s “What Power Unleashed?” That’s because after just one month of the new 25-cent, 48-page format, Marvel’s standard size comics all dropped back down to the old 32-page format — though at the new, higher price of 20 cents. For many of Marvel’s titles, which already had stories at the longer page length in production, that required some last-minute editing to convert one issue’s worth of new content into two. For some, that also meant filling out the page count with reprinted material. (In the case of Thor #194, the last five pages were given over to a re-presentation of a classic Lee-Kirby “Tale of Asgard”, “The Golden Apples”, which had originally appeared in Journey into Mystery #114 [Mar., 1965].)
We’ll have more to say about Marvel’s sudden change of course, and its ultimate impact on the whole comics industry, later this month. For now, however, we invite you to look forward to the next installment of our special series commemorating Giant-Size Marvel Month — as, in just four days, we join Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, and Tom Palmer on “A Journey to the Center of the Android!”
*Thor and the Surfer had met one other time in between the events of Silver Surfer #4 and Thor #193 — but in Sub-Mariner #35‘s fracas between the Avengers and the proto-Defenders called the “Titans Three” (Surfy, Subby, and the Hulk), their direct interactions had been minimal.