As milestone issues of long-running comic-book series go, Thor #200 is a fairly odd duck, for a number of reasons. The first, of course, is that it’s not really the 200th issue of “Thor“ at all; rather, it’s the two-hundredth sequential release of a periodical publication that began its existence in 1952 as Journey into Mystery, an anthology title which had nary a thing to do with the Norse God of Thunder until the Marvel version of that mythological figure made his debut in its 83rd issue, ten years into the book’s run.
Since the title of the publication wasn’t changed from Journey into Mystery to Thor until issue #126, there hadn’t ever been a Thor #100. (To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been one in later years, either, despite multiple relaunches of the series over the last few decades; and given Marvel’s current publishing model, which simultaneously incorporates both successive restarts and “legacy” numbering, there probably never will be.) The actual 100th issue of “Thor” as a continuing feature had been #182 — and though that was a pretty good issue, featuring a battle with Dr. Doom as well as marking the beginning of John Buscema’s multi-year tenure as the series’ new regular artist, it hadn’t taken any special note of the occasion. By the time issue #200 rolled around, however, Marvel had made the 100th issues of Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man causes for celebration — and they were about to do the same with Avengers #100, which would arrive on stands one week after Thor #200 (it’ll also arrive on this blog one week from today, just in case you were wondering). With 200 being such a nice round number, it would have been surprising if Marvel hadn’t chosen to commemorate Thor‘s issue numbering reaching it, as arbitrary as the milestone was in some ways.
But all of that represents just one way that Thor #200 was somewhat off-model as commemorative issues go. Another was that the main story was a retread of a tale originally presented in 1966 (right around the time Journey into Mystery became Thor, coincidentally enough). And yet another was that that story was a fill-in — or, at least, it read like one.
Before we get into all that, however, let’s quickly review where we were at the end of last month’s Thor #199. As regular readers of this blog will doubtless recall, All-Father Odin had sadly perished in battle with the Mangog in #198. but Thor had frozen time around his father’s form, hoping that this action would keep Hela, the Norse Goddess of Death, from claiming Odin’s soul when Asgard finally completed its journey across interdimensional space. That journey, made necessary by Odin’s own earlier action of sending the Realm Eternal off into a remote corner of the cosmos to spare the rest of the universe from Mangog’s ravages, got interrupted by Hela nevertheless — though, to hear her tell it, she was showing up to save Odin’s soul from being scooped up by someone she deemed a lot worse — namely, Pluto, the Greco-Roman God of the Underworld. When Pluto and his horde did in fact attack soon thereafter, Hela stood with Thor and his fellow Asgardians in Odin’s defense — though it seemed to be all for naught, as Pluto managed to repel Hela, and eventually drove Thor himself into unconsciousness. Thor #199 ended with Pluto standing over the insensate Thunder God, about to end his life with one blow of his axe; and that’s just where things stand as #200 begins…
These three weird sisters had come into the storyline earlier, in Thor #197, where they identified themselves as the Norns (goddesses of destiny in Norse mythology) as well as the Fates (a name more frequently associated with a very similar trio in Greco-Roman mythology). Interestingly, although the Norns are given names of their own in the original Norse sources — Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, to be specific — scripter Gerry Conway opts here to use the names of the trio’s Greco-Roman analogues — i.e., Klothos (aka Clotho), Laecius (Lachesis), and Atropos (for the record, while the third Norn’s name doesn’t actually get used in this issue, it does turn up in #201). But considering that Conway has already furnished the Greco-Roman Pluto with an army of Norse trolls, we probably shouldn’t be surprised to see him mashing up his mythologies in this instance as well.
Having thus established continuity with the preceding issue via this one-page prologue, our narrative now proceeds to what is, for all intents and purposes, the story’s true first page:
Prior to turning the job over to Gerry Conway with issue #193, Marvel’s editor-in-chief Stan Lee had scripted the “Thor” feature for most of its nearly-ten-year existence; so it’s hardly surprising that he would want to be involved in writing this “Special 200th issue”. And Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, is unquestionably a Big Subject, whose gravitas seems appropriate to the occasion (even if a bit of a downer). But the way Lee’s contribution is incorporated here, shoehorned as it is into Conway’s ongoing “Twilight Well” storyline, is decidedly awkward. As I indicated earlier, the bulk of Thor #200 ends up feeling rather like a fill-in issue, though that’s almost certainly not what actually happened. Did Lee simply go off and do his “Ragnarok” story with artist John Buscema all on his own, and then leave it to Conway to work it into his narrative however he could manage? Or could it have been produced earlier as a stand-alone — intended for a Thor Annual, maybe? — and got pressed into “milestone issue celebration” service after the fact?
Questioned on this subject several years ago for an article in Back Issue #69 (Dec., 2013), Conway himself had to admit he could no longer recollect the specific circumstances:
Really don’t remember. As far as I can recall, regarding Thor #200 and Stan’s involvement, it probably had something to do with an unpublished Thor story Stan had scripted, rather than original work by Stan specifically for that issue—but I could be wrong.
At this late date, that’s as probably as much of an explanation as we’re going to get.
When your humble blogger first read this story in 1972 at the age of 14, I had no idea that the Marvel version of the myth of Ragnarök had been related once before. But longtime Marvelites would have recognized that not only was the myth itself an already told tale, but that even this framing device involving the prophetess Volla* (which, in the context of Thor #200 as published, is actually a frame within a frame) was a road traveled once before, back in Thor #127-129:
The Ragnarok storyline in “Tales of Asgard” had actually begun sometime earlier — all the way back in Journey into Mystery #117 (Jun., 1965) in fact. In “The Sword in the Scabbard!”, Odin had revealed to sons Thor and Loki that the Odinsword had a crack in it, signaling the approaching end of the universe. He’d then charged the duo with taking a ship full of Asgard’s finest warriors out into the cosmos to find and destroy this unknown menace. The saga that followed was perhaps the high point of the entire “Tales of Asgard” series (among other things, it featured the introduction of the characters Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg, though not yet styled as the “Warriors Three”); but the quest was brought to an abrupt end in Thor #126, when Odin summoned the “hardy band of argonauts” back to the Golden Realm. It seems that the All-Father had known all along that the secret to the coming cataclysm could be discovered by simply asking Volla the prophetess, but due to his concerns over how Asgard’s finest had grown restive of late after a protracted period of peace, he’d decided to send Thor and company on an ultimately pointless quest, evidently just to give them something to do. Oh, well, it was a fun ride while it lasted.
Obviously, there’s no quest leading up to the summons to which the Thunder God and his companions are responding in Thor #200 — though, in the long run, the end result is the same, as Volla calls upon the vapors of time to rise from her cauldron and reveal the future…
It should be noted that although Stan Lee’s script for Thor #200 follows the same basic outline as the ones he wrote for the Ragnarok episodes of “Tales of Asgard”, his two versions of the story aren’t identical. That said, the prose does synch up pretty closely on occasion, as a comparison of the next to last panel shown above with the one from Thor #127 shown below will demonstrate:
Also worth noting here: the events leading up to Ragnarok, such as the Fimbulwinter and the conflict of brother against brother, which in the Marvel version(s) are only shown affecting Asgard, are in the original Norse sources characterized as happening everywhere — in Midgard as well as in Asgard. The mythic Ragnarök, then, is a universal catalclysm, not just a disaster for the gods.
Thor immediately leaps to Volla’s aid, and seizes Loki — but before things can get too out of hand, Odin commands them both to stand down. Both acquiesce — Thor gracefully (“I beg forgiveness, Father.”), Loki rather less so (“Thou art father! I am son. ‘Tis enow.“).
As already noted, this version of the Ragnarok story follows the same basic outline as the earlier, “Tales of Asgard” version. Among other things, that means that if Stan Lee and Jack Kirby included a particular element from the original Norse sources in their telling, then Lee and John Buscema do as well; conversely, if Lee and Kirby ignored something, Lee and Buscema do likewise. Thus, in neither version will we find such memorable bits from the Völuspá as Loki’s arrival for the final battle at the helm of a ship made of dead men’s fingernails and toenails, or Odin meeting his death when he’s devoured by the great wolf Fenrir. This makes for what feels rather like a double set of missed opportunities.
On the other hand, what John Buscema (in collaboration with inker John Verpoorten) is able to portray, working within the confines of what Lee and Kirby had established six years before, gets visualized in pretty spectacular fashion…
One of the major differences between Thor #200’s Ragnarok and its predecessor is the way in which the story is told, both verbally and visually. In Thor #127-128, Lee largely eschews captions, while Kirby’s art presents us with a succession of largely static (if still highly dramatic) tableaux. The overall effect is that of a heavily illustrated storybook at least as much as of a superhero comic, as seen in Thor #127’s version of the battle between Thor and Loki:
Conversely, Lee and Buscema’s version of the same scene allows the narrative to be carried largely by the dialogue, while the art emphasizes the flow of action from panel to panel:
It’s probably just a fortuitous coincidence, but the visual contrast between the two versions of our story is definitely aided by the replacement on inks this issue of Vince Colletta (who’d embellished the five Thors leading up to #200) by John Verpoorten, whose bolder, more vigorous lines are better suited to the more action-oriented approach to Ragnarok taken here than would be Colletta’s fine-grained style (though the latter had worked very well for Kirby’s “storybook” take back in 1966).
As Thor lies stunned, his noble companions leap into the fray. But even as their blades shatter harmlessly against the Midgard Serpent‘s hide, the monster’s attention is drawn away by an explosive attack from another quarter…
This probably goes without saying, but you won’t find any super sci-fi cannons in the Poetic Edda, or any of the other traditional Norse texts that tell of Ragnarök. No, this sort of thing is all Marvel — or perhaps I should say, all Jack Kirby.
Here’s another striking example of divergence between the Lee-Buscema and Lee-Kirby versions of Ragnarok — as well as of how both significantly modify the original Norse myths that are their ultimate inspiration. In the old tales, Thor slays the Midgard Serpent, then walks nine steps before succumbing to its venom and dying. But though in Thor #200 Buscema shows us a Thor seemingly at the point of death as he delivers the final, fatal blow, the Thunder God’s actual demise is not shown — rather, it must be inferred from the final panel, where we’re shown all of Asgard “rent asunder” in an explosion.
Both of these accounts stand in contrast to that presented in Thor #128, in which Kirby refrains from depicting Thor’s smiting of the Serpent, and Lee’s text actually tells us that the final cataclysm occurs even as “the universe-shaking battle continues to rage” — implying that both Thor and his foe are likely both still living up until the point of the “monumental explosion”:
Following this climactic moment of destruction, the Lee-Buscema account follows the Lee-Kirby one pretty closely, all the way through to the end of Volla’s prophecies:
Again, it should be noted that the Marvel version of Ragnarok deviates sharply from the Norse myths, in that in the myths, it’s all of creation which is destroyed (and ultimately reborn anew) — not just Asgard. (Interestingly, Jack Kirby seems to have adopted this same, more limited conception of “a time when the old gods died” when creating his “Fourth World” mythos for DC Comics.)
The aftermath of Volla’s presentation goes down quite differently in Thor #200 than in Thor #129-129 — at least as far as Loki is concerned. First, here’s the Lee-Kirby version:
This narrative continues with Thor #129’s “Tales of Asgard” installment, whose splash page shows Loki — who’s being held responsible for Ragnarok by dint of his “uniting the forces of evil” for the final battle — dragged off at Odin’s command to “the Well of Eternal Sleep!”
From there, Lee and Kirby segue into a whole new adventure, in the classic Marvel manner.
And now, the Lee-Buscema version of Loki’s fate:
Did Stan Lee rethink the idea that Loki should be blamed for Ragnarok? If so, I can see why; after all, in both of the versions of Ragnarok that he scripted, it’s not Loki that brings on the evil winter, makes brother fight brother, or raises the Midgard Serpent, so it’s hard to make the case that the whole thing is his fault. Or, alternatively, did the writer simply decide that Thor #200’s subtler takedown of Loki made for a stronger ending — or at least a less somber one — than Thor #129’s scene of Odin “weeping without tears”? Whatever Lee’s reasoning might have been, I personally prefer the way he wrapped things up in Thor #200. (Though I’ll admit that the notion of Odin purposefully ordaining all that death and destruction gives me some pause… on the other hand, that sort of high-handed, drastic action is pretty consistent with how Lee had characterized the All-Father all the years he wrote him.)
With Stan Lee now having had his literal last word where the God of Thunder is concerned, Gerry Conway’s framing sequence returns for the book’s final page…
And that’s that for Thor #200. As we noted at the outset, this issue is an outlier among milestone-commemorating comics (incidentally, your humble blogger refuses to use the phrase “anniversary issues” for these kinds of books, except in cases where we’re actually counting years), and that’s especially true as far as Marvel’s “first generation” of such comics is concerned. Without a doubt, Thor #200 celebrates an arbitrarily-selected occasion with a story that’s awkwardly inserted into the title’s continuing serial narrative, and is a remake of previously-published material to boot (though, as I hope this post has demonstrated, it’s also more original in its adaptation of that material than might first appear). On the other hand, at least it doesn’t center on Thor fighting a gallery of his all-time greatest foes (only not really, because it’s a fever dream, or the bad guys are all robots), so points for doing something different. Besides which, it looks great, with Big John Buscema successfully putting his own distinct stamp on scenes previously (and dauntingly) visualized by the King of Comics. In the end, I’d call Thor #200 a pretty good comic book — and not at all a bad way for Stan Lee to wrap up his tenure as the series’ writer.
And now, with the hope that this blog post hasn’t already worn out its welcome, we’re going to go ahead and dip into the pages of Thor #201 to give you that “ending!” promised by #200’s closing “next issue” blurb. We’re doing this primarily because we figure that at least some of you out there were expecting to have seen more progress made on Conway and Buscema’s ongoing storyline than actually occurred in #200 — and since we also figure that the blog’s schedule isn’t going to allow us to return to Thor for several months, we’d hate to leave you in suspense until summer. So, here goes…
Behind a cover by Gil Kane and Vince Colletta that, as nice-looking as it indisputably is, doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo about Pluto’s axe having been shattered to bits at the end of #200, Jim Mooney takes on a large share of the art chores, providing full pencils as well as inks over John Buscema’s layouts.
Mooney arrives just in time to assist Conway and Buscema in revealing whether or not Pluto losing his axe is enough to turn the tide of battle, or not…
Taking a glance around the battlefield, Pluto notes that the Warriors Three are in the process of routing his troll forces; this inspires him to a gambit by which he hopes to kill two birds with one stone:
Having trapped Thor’s buds in “a timeless bubble of sheer energy”, Pluto demands that the Thunder God surrender. And as the Son of Odin grimly weighs his options, our scene shifts to Odin’s funeral bier, where Asgard’s royal Vizier, joined by Karnilla, the Norn Queen, keeps vigil… until they’re both startled by a voice out of nowhere which declares, “…somewhere, Odin lives!”
When we last saw Hela, in Thor #199, she was magicking herself away from Asgard to prevent being dragged down to parts unknown (but presumably nasty) by the clutching talons of Pluto’s Demon Hounds of Hades. But now the Hounds are gone, and she’s back…
Immediately following Hela’s departure, Karnilla and the Vizier’s eyes widen in wonder at a sight we’re not privy too, but can readily guess at. Meanwhile, back at the battle, Thor has made a wrenching choice…
After watching his friends vanish, leaving behind only the stench “of burning sulphur“, a newly vengeful Thor throws himself at Pluto. But the God of the Netherworld warns Thor not to start yapping to him about “loyalty and love“. Pluto, y’see, is perpetually pissed off at the fate which saddled him with the throne of Hades for all eternity, while his brother Zeus gets to live it up on lovely Mount Olympus — and therefore, he isn’t prepared to cede the moral high ground to the Odinson…
And that’s where we’ll leave things for now, faithful readers. The Twilight Well saga has come to an end, with Odin restored to life and throne, and dark Pluto banished. All is well in Asgard once more, and… what was that? You say you don’t care how chill Thor is about the whereabouts and well-being of his beloved Lady Sif, you’ve been keeping up with the Blackworld subplot that (like the Twilight Well storyline) kicked off in Thor #195, and you want to know how Sif — and Hildegarde, and Tana Nile, and, whassisname, Silas Grant — are all making out against Ego-Prime. Well, all that business does move forward in the pages of Thor #201, even as the last storyline is wrapping up; but, alas, I’m afraid I really am going to have to ask you to wait until summer for more details. Have no fear, however — rather, just keep reading this blog, and rest assured that you won’t see the end of June before all is revealed unto you… including the debut of Marvel Comics’ very own
New Young Gods! Catch you then, OK?
*The presentation of the tale of Ragnarök as a prophecy uttered by Volla at the request of Odin seems to have originated with one of the primary sources for our modern knowledge of the myth, the Old Norse poem Völuspá (part of the Poetic Edda). In this work, Odin learns of Ragnarok from the recitations of a völva, or seeress — just like he and his fellow Asgardians do in the Lee-Kirby and Lee-Buscema versions of the story.
Of course, I have no idea whether any of these creators worked with an English translation of the original poem handy — it seems more likely to me that they would have worked from a secondary source, such as one of the many compilations of Norse myths available to English-language readers of all ages, then as now — but either way, it’s an authentic approach to the source material.