Back in October of last year, this blog took a look at Thor #195 — the initial chapter of incoming writer Gerry Conway’s first full story arc for the series, following two issues devoted to wrapping up a multi-parter begun by his predecessor, Stan Lee. If you’ve been wondering if we were ever going to get back to the God of Thunder’s quest for the Twilight Well at the World’s End, well, thou need’st worry no longer. Though, since it’s been a few months, we obviously have some catching up to do on the three issues that fall between #195 and the main topic of today’s post, Thor #199.
But before we jump into a recap of issues #196-198, it would probably be useful to briefly refresh our collective memory about what went down in #195. We have discussed a lot of other comic books in the last four months, after all.
As you will hopefully recall, Thor’s quest (on which he was joined by his best buds, the Warriors Three) was ordained by All-Father Odin, who simultaneously sent Thor’s beloved, the Lady Sif, off to yet another remote locale, Blackworld, accompanied by the warrior Hildegarde. But even as these two groups embarked upon their separate adventures, the realm of Asgard faced invasion by the malevolent Mangog — the living incarnation of the hatred of a billion billion beings.
Towards the end of the issue, Thor and company were beset by a horde of trolls (as shown on the cover). They fended off the attack, along the way saving the life of one of their assailants who’d fallen into quicksand; this grateful troll, name of Kygar, then offered to be the Asgardians’ guide as they continued their trek across the inhospitable landscape of World’s End.
And that’s where we pick up the story in #196 — which, like the issue before it (and the three that will follow) is produced by the creative team of Conway, penciller John Buscema, and inker Vince Colletta. As this episode begins, Thor and his companions espy an entirely unexpected sight, standing on the path ahead as though waiting for them — “the visionary form of a lovely woman!“, in the words of Volstagg the Voluminous. The troll Kygar counsels caution, but this mysterious newcomer assures the band of questers that there’s no reason for concern.
Really, why in the world should they have any misgivings about this tall woman in red, whose headgear not so subtly suggests horns (two sets of them, in fact), and whose name has certain, shall we say, infernal associations. No reason at all, I’m sure.
Satrina invites our boys to come over to her place and take a load off their feet for a spell, and they agree. “Our bones, indeed, are heavy,” admits Thor. But hardly has the group entered their host’s sumptuous lair, known as Darkhold (no, not that one), than she proceeds to point a bizarre contraption in their general direction, and then lets ’em have it with “the Crimson Mist!”
When Thor comes to, he finds a lovely young woman hovering over him, offering him food and/or drink. Um, no thanks, he tells her. “My mind doth seem oddly… clouded.”
Only Kygar is immune to the charms of Satrina and her attendants…
So much for poor Kygar, whom Conway seems to have tired of so quickly as a supporting character that one wonders why he bothered to introduce him in the first place. But at least the untimely demise of Thor’s all-too-brief companion has brought the Son of Odin to his senses — not that that prepares him for what he sees when he takes another gander at his pals and their new acquaintances:
Several months after this issue’s publication, the letters column of Thor #200 carried a missive from Juan Cole of Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, noting the similarities between this scene and the “Bower of Bliss” sequence in the second book of Edmund Spenser’s 16th century epic poem, The Faerie Queene. This fact made quite an impression on my fourteen-year-old self at the time — enough, I’m sure, for me at least to look Spenser up in our family’s World Book Encyclopedia, if not to actually check a copy of the poem from the public library and, y’know, read it.
But to return to our story… When Thor tries to wake Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg from their entrancement, they resist — violently. Ultimately, he’s able to subdue them without causing them harm by firing energy-bolts from his hammer that freeze them in place (a nifty property of Mjolnir’s that sure seems like it’d be handy in a real fight, but which I don’t believe has ever been used on any other occasion, before or since). Now, finally, he figures he’ll get some answers…
And with that, Satrina and her minions vanish in a burst of pink energy, leaving our questers to resume their journey… though now without a guide, of course.
Meanwhile, back in Asgard, Mangog has breached the Golden City’s outer defenses, and Odin’s warriors wait for their liege to lead them into battle…
Back in 1972, my only real exposure to Marvel’s version of Hela had been by way of the recent “Infinity” saga (Thor #184–188) and its two-issue follow-up. In those stories, the Goddess of Death had been portrayed as the implacable enemy not only of Odin, Thor, and Asgard, but indeed of all life throughout the cosmos; my younger self was therefore slightly surprised, but also intrigued, by her more ambiguous treatment here, as well as in later sequences of this storyline.
Odin now realizes that he can delay no longer. He tells his troops that victory may still be theirs, should Thor complete his quest and return in time. “Yet — there be no time! Now, we must needs attack —”
Among the warriors riding in Odin’s vanguard are his four old (and I do mean old) comrades whom we readers had met for the first time in issue #195; alas, the disaster on the bridge goes especially badly for one of them…
Having found neither information nor hospitality in this little village, Sif and Hildegarde resign themselves to sleeping rough on a nearby hillside, but even as they begin to trudge wearily in that direction…
As you can imagine, these recreant knights soon discover that the two women warriors they’d thought of as prey are much, much more than they can handle. Still, as satisfying as it is to trounce these louts, the activity brings them no closer to understanding the nature of Blackworld, or the identity of this “he” of whom everyone’s so terrified.
Meanwhile, back in Asgard, Odin is forced to watch helplessly as Hela solemnly performs her duty by claiming the soul of Khan. Then, turning back to the still-raging battle, the All-Father cries, “Enough! Too many good men have died this day… I have seen enow!”
“…forevermore…” Gosh, that sounds pretty permanent, doesn’t it? Well, just hold that thought for now.
Meanwhile, on the world somewhat confusingly called World’s End, Thor and his brothers in arms have been attacked by a fie-breathing dragon, which, after they’ve eluded it, they learn was sent against them by (who else?) Satrina. But then there cometh a twist, as upon learning that our guys seek nothing more than the Twilight Well, the
scarlet crimson witch capriciously offers to guide them the rest of the way… and indeed, that’s just what she does. Which brings us at last to this episode’s final page, and to this scene:
… which, of course, is virtually the same scene we were shown on the book’s cover. Don’t you just hate it when comics pull that one?
But, OK, moving on… In Thor #197, we do finally get the throw-down between the Odinson and the Keeper of the Well promised by the last issue’s cover. (As for the fight betwixt Thor and Mangog guaranteed by this issue’s cover… well, we’ll just have to see.) It’s a fight that kicks off on page 1 and continues non-stop on into page 6. at which point this happens:
Thor gets a vision — and a voice-over — explaining a lot of the other stuff that’s been happening that he doesn’t yet know about, such as Odin sending Sif to Blackworld, and Mangog’s invasion of Asgard. It’s obviously a very useful recap, not only for our hero, but also for any reader who’s wandered in late.
On a rock ledge high above the Well, the Warriors Three and Satrina wait to see who will ultimately emerge from the waters’ depths. Finally, a hand breaks the surface — and it’s Kartag’s. The Keeper then slowly climbs out of the Well, an unconscious Thor held in his arms. “‘Tis done,” he says, addressing someone we don’t see at first. “Kartag hath obeyed thy ignoble commands.”
Thor’s not actually dead, announces one of the mysterious robed figures — just overcome by the visions they’ve granted him. They congratulate the Keeper on having done such a fine job guarding the Well all these years, and promise he’ll be rewarded.
About this time, Thor wakes up — just in time to hear one of the robed trio intone, “All this has been but a test, to see if thy race be worthy of saving. Now, we know it truly is… and so…”
This isn’t the first time that Marvel’s versions of the Norse mythological figures known as the Norns have ever shown up, but it has been quite a while since their first (and up to this point, only) appearance, in a “Tales of Asgard” installment that originally ran in Journey into Mystery #102 (Mar., 1964). There they were called only by the name that here seems to be their secondary moniker, “the Fates” — a name also associated with a very similar trio of destiny-weaving goddesses in Greek mythology, the Moirai.
Of course, Marvel also has a “Norn Queen”, Karnilla, who’s a significant supporting character in Thor, as well as a set of very powerful magical gems called the “Norn Stones”. You’d suppose that all this Norn-ish stuff would have a common source, or at least be formally connected in some way; but though Marvel’s writers would eventually work out the relationships between the characters and concepts sharing the Norn label, most of that information wouldn’t come out until some years after our current story. In 1972, therefore, we could only wonder.
Satrina turns out to be not really so bad after all (she’s just drawn that way). And her line about her form having been “changed” a thousand years ago hints at a potentially interesting backstory… which we’ll never learn, alas, as the character never appears again after Thor #197.
Per decree of the Norns, Kartag opts to accompany Thor and his friends back to Asgard. The Thunder God then proceeds to give Mjolnir a few twirls…
“And mayhap — in some way we cannot understand — Asgard’s fate be cast with our own.” Having declared thus to his companions, Thor then muses silently to himself, “Yea, and another’s fate,, too…”, as his mental image of Sif crowds the panel. That provides our storytellers with a perfect segue back to Blackworld, where Sif and Hildegarde continue to meander through the countryside, looking for answers. None are as yet forthcoming — indeed, following a brief skirmish with a river-monster, the two warrior-women find the mystery of Blackworld growing even more baffling…
Accepting Silas Grant’s offer to join him aboard his steamship, Sif helps him load Hildegarde (temporarily unconscious following the fight with the river-beast) into the rowboat, and away they go… not to be seen again until the next issue. Meanwhile, back on Bifrost, Thor and company come upon a grim sight…
Certain that Odin (and everyone else in Asgard) must be dead, Thor doth begin to lament most piteously. Then Fandral the Dashing, evidently having nigh-immediate second thoughts about his “All, all — be destroyed!” remark, offers this:
The well-water-drenched Mjolnir does indeed take Thor and his comrades straight to Asgard’s current location: “… a place where no star burns, where the sky is scarlet — and the battle for Asgard still doth reign!” (Um, I kinda think that the word Conway was looking for at the end of that sentence was “rage”, rather than “reign”. But, maybe not.)
Thor and the Mangog finally come to blows, as heralded by this comic’s cover — and since there are still two pages of story left, I guess we’ll have to allow that Marvel did at least a little better on that score than they did with the Thor-Kartag confrontation shown on the cover for #196.
Speaking of Kartag, he leaps into the fray here — but while his blow is mighty enough to make Mangog drop the Thunder God, it’s not enough to knock the creature flat. And so…
Thor #198 picks up right where #197 leaves off — how could it do otherwise? — with our hero itching to fly to his dad’s rescue, but stymied by Mangog’s threat to end Odin’s life right then and there should Thor make a move to attack. “My hands be tied!” the Asgardian Avenger cries ruefully.
While Hogun and Fandral continue to engage Mangog in battle, Thor flies Odin away to relative safety; then, he charges Volstagg to take what remains of the Twilight Well-water to the royal Vizier, whom he figures will know what do do with it…
Even as the mystic waters begin to boil and bubble, Odin starts to stir. But with Thor having already returned to the fight against Mangog, he’s greeted upon his awakening by the three of his old friends who yet live following the fall of the bridge in #196:
That Odin. Some “friend”, amirite? One begins to suspect that these elder gods might not have been all that bummed to have kept themselves out of the limelight all these years — and not so much “so that the young gods might find their own glory” (as Bulwar put it in #195) as because it spared them this kind of obnoxiously high-handed treatment.
Anyway, Odin and company ride to once again close with Mangog in battle, arriving just moments after Thor himself has been battered into unconsciousness. At this point, the scene shifts to Blackworld, as Silas Grant’s vessel arrives back at the medieval village Sif and Hildegarde had left hours before, only to find it’s not a medieval village anymore…
Silas explains to the Asgardians that he himself had been the owner of a mere sailboat, when “in the blink of an eye, it all changed!” As the group enters the city, they find the residents in a panic; Silas, who’s never seen an automobile until this moment, tries to hail down a fleeing citizen to ask for help in operating one of these “contraptions“:
As the editorial footnote says, the Rigellian Colonizer named Tana Nile had first appeared back in Thor #129 (Jun., 1966). I hadn’t been reading Thor then, but I had caught the two chapters of her inaugural storyline that had been recently reprinted in Thor Annual #4 (Dec., 1971), so I had a grasp of the basics — I knew that she and her fellow Colonizers had started out as enemies of Thor (and Earth), but had ultimately become allies of the Thunder God. (Tana had returned one time since then, showing up for the first and third parts of 1968-69’s “Galactus vs. Ego” three-parter; unfortunately, your humble blogger only managed to pick up the middle chapter of that one.)
But even as Odin powers back up, Mangog has reached the chamber of the Odinsword — which, once unsheathed, will usher in the death of the universe…
Having done what he came to do, the All-Father collapses. Enraged, Thor leaps into battle against Mangog once more…
And with that, Mangog is gone — never to return. (And if you believe that, I’ve got a slightly broken Rainbow Bridge I’d like to sell you.)
In 1972, I was certain that Hogun the Grim’s comment, “…thou art not the only son whose father must needs lie dead — !” meant that Hogun’s dad had been among the warriors that had perished in battle with Mangog — and not only that, but that said dad was the elder god Khan (who, like Hogun, had something of a Mongol air about him, at least to my mind). I’m less certain of that now, though I still think it’s possible; in any event, it was never followed up on in any later story, just as Hogun’s cryptic reference in #195 to a significant “she” in his life never was.
“Finis?” Not on your life. Sure, the Big Bad of Mangog has been dealt with, and the Quest for the Well at World’s End has come to an end; but not only is there still plenty of story left to tell, what follows next is the best part of the saga — at least in your humble blogger’s opinion. Which is why it, and not the more obviously climactic Thor #198, gets to be the focus of this post.
But as long as the Son of Odin has his “time-freeze” in place, it might be a good time to consider one of the broader aspects of Our Story Thus Far — namely, whether the aforementioned Quest plotline actually “works”. Does the ultimate payoff — some bags of magic water which 1) allow for the return of Asgard to its normal home in space and 2) give a depleted Odin enough of a recharge to sever Mangog’s link to his own power source — follow logically from issue #195’s setup? I’m prepared to grant that it does, but only barely; and that’s despite Gerry Conway almost certainly not having any idea what the “secret” of the Twilight Well was when he started his storyline in that issue. The writer was flying by the seat of his pants (as he’s acknowledged in later interviews was his regular practice during his first years writing for Marvel), and this time, he got lucky — luckier, at least, than he had in the case of the woeful “Mister Kline” storyline that had recently run through most of the other books he was writing.
And now, we come at last to Thor #199…
… although it just occurred to me that I’ve said virtually nothing about the artwork in these comics up to this point, so maybe while time is still frozen I should remedy that. Obviously, John Buscema’s draftsmanship is impeccable, as is his storytelling; not much new to discuss there, really. But I think it’s worth noting that “Vinnie” Colletta really seems to have brought his “A” game to this saga — as indicated on the splash page shown above, where the famously corner-cutting inker has gone to the time and trouble to apply screentone to enhance the graphic effectiveness of the outer-space background. It’s somewhat surprising, considering the minimum of effort he appears to have been putting in on some of his other assignments around this same time (Lois Lane, anyone?).
OK, having said that, we’re going to allow the flow of time to progress again (even if Thor isn’t)… After seeing off Kartag (who, considering how much difference his presence actually made in the battle with Mangog, could probably have just as well have stayed at home… and just in case you’re curious, the character has yet to make a return appearance fifty years later, same as his lover Satrina), Thor heads for Odin’s tomb, accompanied by the Vizier. The latter wonders why Thor is worried about what will happen to Odin when they return to Asgard’s normal location in space: Odin is dead, after all. Thor explains again about his freezing time (helpful for any new reader who’s just climbed aboard, though surely it’s redundant where Viz is concerned), concluding with what he was probably hoping would prove a rhetorical question: “… I ask thee, old one — where be grim Hela?”
The god of the dead “forever known as — Pluto!” (except to the Greeks, of course, who knew him as Hades) had made his Marvel Universe debut in Thor #127 (Apr., 1966) — coincidentally, just a couple of issues prior to Tana Nile’s first appearance, in storylines that overlapped but didn’t intersect. His first encounter with Thor (at least during the Marvel Age) centered around a scheme to get out of the onerous job of ruling the underworld by tricking Hercules into taking his place; his second, which took place in Thor #163-164, represented a significant escalation in the danger he posed to ordinary humans, as it involved an attempt to conquer Earth with the help of “mutates” from the future.
Paralleling my younger self’s experience regarding Tana Nile, I’d come to Marvel too late to read the first Pluto-centric storyline in Thor, though I’d recently caught the first part of it via a reprinting in Special Marvel Edition #4; I’d also missed the two issues featuring the Lord of the Netherworld’s return engagement, despite being an occasional buyer of Thor by the time they came out. Still, I’d at least read enough Greek myths to know the basics about Zeus’ older brother…
As I’ve already mentioned, my knowledge of Hela in 1972 was all by way of recent storylines in which she’d tried to kill both Odin and Thor, and destroy the whole universe (or enslave it, depending on how you read those issues). So I was stunned — though quite pleasantly so — to see her teaming up with the God of Thunder, even if only in a temporary (and understandably uneasy) alliance. And the ruler of the Norse realm of the dead was going to go toe-to-toe with her Greco-Roman counterpart? That kind of mythological mashup was just my jam (and pretty much still is).
But before plunging into that battle, our story needs to drop back in on Blackworld for just a little bit. We finally get a look at the fearsome sight that had the doughty warrior Hildegarde screaming in horrified disbelief when we were last with our motley little band, back on page 11 of issue #198:
Frankly, “he” is something of a letdown, visually speaking, especially given the buildup. Still, you can’t blame Tana, Sif, and the others for wanting to skedaddle out of his way as fast as they can manage…
As Sif and her companions flee into a nearby subway entrance, she notices an advertising poster encouraging the purchase of a Ford automobile in 1964, and realizes that Blackworld’s rapid evolution is bringing it closet and closer to the present day of the “real” Earth. What will happen when the two worlds’ timelines sync up, she wonders?
Pluto’s minions are here called “trolls”, and in their physical appearance, they do seem to have a lot in common with Ulik and his underground-dwelling kindred, as seen in various issues of Thor from #137 on. (In contrast, the Netherworld legions of Pluto battled by the Thunder God back in Thor #130 were a decidedly more human-looking bunch, by and large.) Of course, being derived from Norse folkloric tradition, trolls don’t really mesh with the classical mythological milieu of Pluto… but hey, maybe he contracts out. (It’s also worth noting that earlier in this same storyline, Gerry Conway gave us a rather different-looking set of trolls — namely, the late, lamented Kygar and his fellows on World’s End. One might therefore surmise that for Conway, the word “troll” simply represents a generic designation for any short, ugly, ill-tempered humanoid given to gathering in hordes.)
Unfortunately for the brave Balder — and unbeknownst to his comrade, the mighty Thor — he is swiftly felled from behind by a trollish blow, and left for dead. Much more fortunately for him, however, he doesn’t lie there bleeding and broken for very long — rather, he’s discovered by his would-be paramour, the Norn Queen Karnilla, who swiftly revives him with her magic…
Even as the Warriors Three valiantly guard Odin’s (hopefully not final) resting place, and Thor continues his battle against Pluto’s horde on another front, the Main Event proceeds apace nearby:
Um, shouldn’t “hounds” — even the demonic variety spawned by Hades — resemble dogs? Nothing very canine about these grasping, taloned hands, at least not to my eyes. Honestly, I’m starting to wish that Gerry Conway had sprung for a decent pocket dictionary way back when. (Of course, even if he’d had one — and who knows, maybe he did — that doesn’t mean he would have looked up “hound” in it… or “reign”, either. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. You know?)
Thor quickly flattens Pluto’s vanguard with a single blow from Mjolnir. And so it seems that, in the end, it’s going to come down to Thor against Pluto, hand to hand and hammer to axe — except that Pluto, who has zero interest in fighting fair, opts to “flame on”, Human Torch-style. (Well, he does hail from Hades, after all…)
And that’s where we’ll have to leave things for this post, faithful readers… with Thor on the brink of being beheaded, and Thor on the brink of its milestone 200th issue. Be sure and come back next month, when we, together with the God of Thunder and his courageous compatriots, will all bear witness to the awesome spectacle of… Ragnarok! (Yes, again.)