Three weeks ago, I promised the readers of this blog that we’d be covering the beginning of Marvel Comics’ “Phase Two” era in today’s post. And we will definitely be doing that, before we’re done for the day — though, first, we still have some “Phase One” business to finish up with; namely, the conclusion of the Blackworld/Ego-Prime storyline that had been running in Thor (though only as a secondary plot to the series’ main action) ever since issue #195, which had come out in October, 1971.
As you may recall, in that issue All-Father Odin had sent the Lady Sif and another warrior, Hildegarde, to the mysterious planet Blackworld, concurrent with his seemingly unrelated dispatching of Thor and the Warriors Three to another previously unknown realm called World’s End. Over the next several issues, while the primary narrative had dealt with the exploits of Thor and his pals as well as the simultaneous invasion of Asgard by Mangog, writer Gerry Conway and artist John Buscema had also kept us apprised of what Sif and her new companion were up to, as they explored a world whose technological development seemed weirdly accelerated, with a medieval village giving way to a modern metropolis in a matter of days. Along the way, they allied themselves with a Blackworld native named Silas Grant, and eventually encountered a figure from Thor‘s past — the alien “Colonizer” from Rigel known as Tana Nile, who claimed to be responsible for the weird changes on Blackworld via her having brought there a crystalline giant she called “Ego-Prime”. Even as the giant rampaged dangerously through the city in which Sif and company now found themselves, Tana explained that Ego-Prime was an offshoot of Ego, the Living Planet, which had escaped her control.
That’s as far as this subplot had progressed as of Thor #199. It took a month off with the next issue: the milestone #200, which was largely given over to Stan Lee and John Buscema’s retelling of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s retelling of the Norse myth of Ragnarok. But then it came roaring back in the final pages of #201 — although not until Conway and Buscema had wrapped up the primary World’s End/Mangog/Pluto story arc that they’d begun in #195.
Actually, that’s not quite true — because issue #201 had opened with a scene that, at first glance, had naught to do with either the World’s End or the Blackworld plotlines… though, as they say, appearances can be deceiving…
We’ll pause here just long enough to note that the matter-of-fact way in which the story treats the servility of Heimdall’s “little friend”, Kamorr, hasn’t aged at all well, and then jump ahead to page 14 — which just so happens to be right where we last left the God of Thunder at the end of our last Thor post, a few months ago:
In case you’ve forgotten exactly what’s going on here… although they’d just witnessed the complete defeat of the evil Greco-Roman god Pluto, who’d attempted to claim Odin’s soul after Mangog had killed him (not fatally, as it turned out), Thor and his buddy Balder were sorrowing over what they believed to be the deaths of their comrades Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg, aka the Warriors Three. But then Odin revealed that those guys hadn’t been killed at all, but merely teleported away to Midgard (that’s Earth to you and me), and now Thor and Balder are hopping the Mjolnir express to New York City to pick ’em up. That doesn’t sit well with the Norn Queen Karnilla, as we’ll see in the very next panels:
The Grand Commissioner reminded Tana Nile that in return for Thor’s help against Ego way back when, the Colonizers had had to promise to never again try to colonize Earth — and that was a bummer, because they really needed (or at least really wanted) “a world of the Earth type”. The only possible other candidates were too “primitive” for their purposes — or would have been, had a workaround not been thought of… a workaround which soon found Tana en route to the Black Galaxy…
As will likely come as no surprise, Thor #202 picked up exactly where #201 had left off, albeit with one notable change in the creative team; after filling in for a single issue, Jim Mooney turned the ink brush back over to Vince Colletta, who’d embellished John Buscema’s pencils for every other issue of Thor since #195 (with the exception of the central “Ragnarok” sequence in #200, which had featured the finishes of John Verpoorten).
Thor and Sif have been apart for over half a year in “real-world” time (though it’s probably been no more than a couple of days in Marvel Universe chronology), but they barely have time for a brief embrace before the battle with Ego-Prime begins. Thor hurls his hammer at the creature, who instantly repels it — whipping up a maelstrom at the same time…
If you’ve never read this story before, but Ego-Prime’s grand plan still reminds you of something — well, you’re probably one of the millions of people worldwide who’ve seen the movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, in which Kurt Russell’s Ego has a similar scheme going on.
The response of Thor and his comrades to all this is, naturally, to go on the attack once more — although their efforts don’t seem to do much but enrage the giant:
As the battle rages on, the scene shifts to Heimdall and Kormarr. Since we last saw them on page 2 of Thor #201, they’ve somehow acquired a Cadillac, which they’ve driven to a particular address in Brooklyn…
As you can imagine, these thugs are no match for a couple of Asgardians. After a brief scuffle, Heimdall, Kormarr, and Jackson Kimball are the only humanoids left standing; and a grateful if bewildered Kimball agrees to go with his mysterious benefactors to join “the others”…
Four blocks north of where Balder, Hogun, and their comrades are trying to stop the transformed Manhattanites without killing or seriously harming them, Thor is going it alone against Ego-Prime. When the latter taunts our hero, asking him how he can persist in his struggle against all hope, Thor replies that at least he knows what hope is — Ego-Prime doesn’t, says Thor, and thus he’s to be pitied:
But despite the Asgardians’ bravery and skill, the transformed ants are overwhelming in their sheer numbers. Thor observes his comrades’ plight (evidently his own fight has moved south a few blocks), but refuses to consider retreat: “The Thunder God shall ne’er seek escape, when still his heart doth beat — when still his hand is firm!”
The way Sif is handled in the next-to-last panel above is, unfortunately, entirely consistent with how Conway and Buscema have dealt with her throughout this issue — i.e., she’s watched Thor and the other Asgardians fight without getting involved herself in any active way. It’s an odd sort of sexism — odd, because Hildegarde is allowed to get her knuckles bruised along with the guys. One must suppose that Hildy, being neither a love interest for the hero nor conventionally “hot”, gets an exemption from the “no gurlz in the clubhouse” rule, while Sif remains confined to the “warrior, but only up to a point” role she’s been pretty much stuck with ever since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby added her to the supporting cast back in Thor #136 (Jan., 1967).
Anyway, this cliffhanger brings us at last to the ostensible subject of this blog post: Thor #203, itself. As we peruse the issue’s opening splash page, I’d like to ask you to take a moment to check out the credits box as well as Thor and Sif’s dialogue, as there’s some information there pertinent to that “Phase Two” business we’ll be discussing later on…
…though we’ll defer saying just what that info is until later. Ah, the suspense!
The next couple of pages are mostly taken up with an expository rant by Ego-Prime which hits enough of the last couple of issues’ high points to bring late-arriving readers up to speed; quite fortuitously, it clocks in at just under one minute…
I have to confess, I’m not entirely sure what point Conway is trying to make in establishing that Chi Lo has abandoned her pursuit of higher education to return to her simpler village life. Are we supposed to view her decision as being noble, somehow?
A Black American man, a Japanese woman, a white Israeli man… whatever else this trio is, it’s certainly diverse — particularly for 1972. Which makes it notable, I think, that the characters themselves basically ignore their differences of nationality and ethnicity, and focus rather on their respective inner qualities, as in the panels below:
Not so fast, Heimdall tells Jackson — he still possesses his talent, and it’s for that very reason that he has been sought out “by order of the All-Father himself, him whom men call — Odin!”
With that, the narrative returns to the present, where the battle continues. Thor is caught and held in Ego-Prime’s giant grip, but although he wins free with Balder’s help, it’s obviously a very brief respite…
Conway and Buscema’s “cross-sections” show us where some of the story’s scattered cast members have ended up. After establishing that Tana and Silas have found temporary refuge in a tenement building, our storytellers move on to Volstagg, who had earlier been shown coming to the aid of a lone little girl…
(The little girl, incidentally, is actually a demon-servant of Mephisto; these scenes are setting up the next storyline in Thor, which will run from #204 to #205. None of that has anything to do with our current tale, but I thought you still might like to know.)
There’s a good bit to unpack here at the conclusion of the epic, starting with the introduction/creation of the “Young Gods”. It’s been suggested (by John Morrow, for one, in his book Old Gods & New: A Companion to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World [TwoMorrows, 2020]) that this development is the basis of the following news item from the October, 1971 issue of the fanzine Newfangles:
I believe that this speculation is off the mark, mostly because the “young gods” of Thor #203 do not in any way “mess things up” — indeed, the clear indication of the story is that they’re intended to do just the opposite. As I’ve stated in an earlier post, I think it’s much more likely that the story referred to by Newfangles was the one in Thor #195 that saw a group of literally “older” gods — Odin’s old drinking buddies, basically — return to active service to help in the fight against Mangog:
Morrow’s choice of Thor #203 for the upcoming story mentioned in Newfangles seems to be based mostly on its timing (which the October ’71-published Thor #195 fits at least as well, and probably better) along with the fact that one of the three mortals who ascend to godhood in the later story is an artist whose initials are “J.K.”. That is an interesting factoid, and I’m willing to entertain the notion that the “Young Gods” represent a tip of the hat by Conway and/or Buscema to Kirby in general, and the Fourth World in particular. But I think it’s highly unlikely that they were the (lowercase) “young gods” referred to by Newfangles. (Of course, as with all such speculation, I could well be wrong here, and John Morrow right; we’ll likely never know, either way)
In any event, however, regardless of how or why the Young Gods came to be, back in 1972 their advent seemed like a really big deal — or at least it did to my fourteen-year-old self. I fully expected them to show up again — if not in the very next issue, then within the next six months or so… or, failing that, within a year’s time… oh, all right, two years. But that’s as long as anyone should have expected to wait to see Marvel’s storytellers follow up on how Jackson Kimball, Chi Lo, and Carter Dyam were doing with their little project of breathing “fresh fire into the furnace of the cosmic all“, don’t you think?
As things turned out, we’d have to wait more than seven years before we saw this divine trio again, in Thor #291 (Jan., 1980), when they returned as part of Roy Thomas’ almost-20-issues-long project to fully integrate Jack Kirby’s Eternals mythos into the Marvel Universe, dammit, even if he had to use a crowbar (or a loose, multi-part adaptation of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas — no, really) to get the job done. As the penultimate issue of this epic (the milestone #300, which was in fact scripted by Mark Gruenwald) explained, the three Young Gods who were zapped into being such by Ego-Prime’s energies in Thor #203 actually represented the last in a set of twelve godlings, all of whom had been assembled over the past millennium by Thor’s birth mother, the Earth goddess Gaea, in preparation for the coming of the Fourth Host of the Celestials, and… hmm. Y’know what? As long as seven years seemed to me back in the days of my youth. that span seems like almost no time at all in these, my golden years. So I think we’ll wait until the blog actually gets around to that saga’s golden anniversary to go into more detail about all that stuff. Trust me, 2029’ll be here before we know it.
But to get back to 1972, and the conclusion of Thor #203: on the story’s very last page, Odin tells Thor (and us), “Twas my plan from the very beginning — e’en before the dread Mangog did reappear! For this did I send Sif to Blackworld — and thee to World’s End — and Heimdall here to Earth — !” In other words, what had appeared until now to be two separate plotlines (despite both being launched more or less simultaneously in Thor #195) had in fact been one single mega-story the whole time; in fact, everything that happened over the past nine issues (with the possible exception of Mangog’s invasion) had been part of a single, grand design of the all-wise All-Father.
Yeah, well… nope. I’m not buying it. Gerry Conway has obviously been flying by the seat of his pants ever since #195; and while I was previously willing to accept the somewhat shaky explanation he’d offered back in issue #198 as to the purpose of Thor’s quest for the Twilight Well of World’s End, this second, not-quite-what-I’d call-complementary explanation for the exact same event won’t hold water. How in the name of Hela is sending Thor to World’s End supposed to have served Odin’s ultimate goal of getting Ego-Prime into just the right spot at exactly the right time to apotheosize three mortal Earthlings? Yeah, I could probably come up with my own version of a backstory to make sense of it all, but why should I work harder on this story than Gerry Conway evidently did? And don’t even get me started on Odin’s apparent willingness to sacrifice the entire human population of Blackworld in a nuclear holocaust just for the sake of hatching his little godlings. Nope. Just… nope.
Of course, I don’t remember being nearly so negative about the resolution of this storyline back in June, 1972. As I’ve already said, I was intrigued by the whole idea of the Young Gods, and if the explanation for how they’d come to be seemed a bit dodgy, well, I probably chalked that up to Odin’s godly inscrutability and let it pass; meanwhile, the moral implications of the All-Father’s engineering of events on Blackworld seem to have passed me by entirely. All in all, I believe that I was pretty happy with this story; if I had any misgivings, they were probably due to the next-issue blurb’s promise that the God of Thunder’s immediate future would involve “Exile on Earth!!” — simply because, out of the three locales in which Thor’s adventures generally took place (i.e., Asgard, outer space, and Earth), Earth was my least favorite.*
The final irony is that even today, your humble blogger considers the World’s End/Ego-Prime saga — its massively flawed ending notwithstanding — to be the high point of Gerry Conway’s four-year run as Thor‘s writer. Which obviously doesn’t say much for my opinion of the next forty or so issues of the book starring my favorite Marvel hero.
But hey, don’t prejudge all of Marvel’s “Phase Two” based just on that, OK?
The Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page that ran in all of Marvel’s June, 1972 shipping comics, Thor #203 included, carried the header “SUPER-SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT!”. Beneath that header, readers found something unprecedented — for with the exception of the month’s “Mighty Marvel Checklist”, the entire page was devoted to a single item — an edition of “Stan Lee’s Soapbox” that ran a full two columns:
I’m not sure if Marvel’s “Phase Two”**— at least as a phrase — is recalled by most of today’s comic book fans any better than most modern Americans remember the economic policy initiatives of the same name announced in October, 1971 by President Richard Nixon (alluded to above as “a fella named Milhous”). But your humble blogger is comfortable in stating that the lasting significance to the American comics industry of the changes represented by the phrase is pretty much undeniable. (For the lasting significance of Nixon’s Phase Two, on the other hand, I’ll refer you to your local Presidential historian.)
The biggest change — which, ironically, Lee never comes right out and specifies (probably because it would make him sound too much like a stuffy ol’ businessman, rather than our pal, Smiley) — was Marvel’s former Editor’s own ascension to the dual role of President and Publisher.*** This was arguably the inevitable culmination of a series of events that had begun when Marvel’s founder Martin Goodman had sold his company to Cadence Industries (then called Perfect Film and Chemical) back in 1968. Goodman’s plan had been to continue to manage Marvel (and the other segments of his Magazine Management Co.) for a few years, then retire and leave the whole shebang in the care of his son, Chip. But Cadence understood the value of Lee to the Marvel brand, perhaps better than the elder Goodman did — and when Lee let its executives know that if Chip Goodman was made publisher he would quit,**** they did what they needed to do to keep him. (Chip Goodman would in fact become Publisher at Magazine Management [at least for a little while], meaning he was technically Lee’s boss — but it was understood from the moment of Lee’s promotion who was really running things at the comics division.)
Interestingly, the office-responsibility changes that Lee was specific about went a little less smoothly in real life than one might gather from the Soapbox column, at least at the beginning. According to Roy Thomas,***** his predecessor as Editor had some trouble letting go of the day-to-day responsibilities his promotion was ostensibly intended to free him from; originally, Thomas was only going to be “Story Editor”, and would answer to Lee on an equal basis with Assistant Art Director Frank Giacoia (Lee intended to hang on to the Art Director title himself) and Production Manager John Verpoorten:
It was an unstable little triumvirate that Stan created there, and it didn’t last more than a few weeks — because Frank Giacoia, as good as he was, just wasn’t up to the job of being an art director like [John] Romita was a little later…
I just didn’t really feel the story editor thing was working out. It was just too frustrating, because I’m having to deal with Frank, but he wasn’t under me—and he wasn’t producing cover sketches as fast or as good as we needed. So unless I went to went to Stan and he talked to Frank, there was nobody to tell Frank, “Do something.”…
And then… something came up and Stan called me in because he wasn’t happy with the stuff Frank was doing. He wanted to know why I wasn’t riding Frank, [laughs] to make him shape up. I said, “There’s a very simple reason, Stan. It’s because Frank is not under me. You made us equals, so therefore the only person who can give him orders is you. I can’t tell him what to do, because I’m not his boss.”
So Stan said, “I think maybe we’d better change that.” [chuckles] So that’s when I officially became editor-in-chief, and Frank was still assistant art director or whatever, and before long he was sort-of shunted back into being an artist and Romita finally became the official art director, as he should’ve been all along.
Beyond his reluctance to delegate authority in general, Lee also seems to have had some particular anxiety about the writing in Marvel’s comics going forward; note how he takes the time in his Soapbox column to list every single person then scripting comics at Marvel, something he doesn’t feel compelled to do in regards to the company’s artists. Of course, Lee’s own identity at Marvel was based more on his writing than on anything else, at least as far as we fans were concerned; still, it’s somewhat ironic that he appears to have been worried about losing that close connection with his audience, especially considering how much his comics writing output had dwindled over the past couple of years, and how what there had been of it had largely lacked the spark of his best days. (Obviously, a large part of the decline in quality was due to Lee’s losing the input of Jack Kirby’s creative imagination since the King’s decamping to Marvel in 1970, but that’s a whole other topic). Unless a significant percentage of your monthly Marvel intake was comprised of Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four — the only titles Lee was still writing regularly as of mid-1972 — his giving up that part of his job might not even have all that much of an impact on you.
To a large extent, it had for some time been Roy Thomas — and writers whom he’d helped bring to Marvel, such as Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway (and more recently, Mike Friedrich and Steve Englehart) — who’d been carrying the weight of chronicling the ongoing Marvel saga, month in and month out. And it would be these writers, as well as several yet to arrive as of mid-1972, who’d further refine and evolve the Marvel formula over the next few years — and who would be ultimately responsible for the publisher’s greatest creative heights during the “Phase Two” era.
Still, it would be a mistake, I think, not to give Stan Lee due credit for his part in the creative strides Marvel would make in the early-to-mid-1970s. Granted, a number of the “new, exciting projects” that the “tiger unleashed” turned his energies to never quite came to fruition; for example, we never saw any Marvel product from three high acclaimed writers Lee is reported to have talked to during this period — Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut, and Václav Havel — or from a couple of comics-industry legends he also had discussions with around this time, Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman. About the most unusual publishing project Lee did manage to launch during this era was Comix Book, an above-ground underground anthology edited by Denis Kitchen; while the title shut down after only three issues, it nevertheless brroke new ground both in the sort of content Marvel was willing to publish and in the rights it was willing to grant its creative personnel. (And, of course, it also gave Lee the opportunity to use the spelling “comix” somewhere besides a Soapbox column.)
Then there were the other Marvel black-and-white comics magazines — the genre material that competed directly with Warren Publishing’s horror titles, or with Mad and its imitators. Lee had wanted to get into this market since the late ’60s, but had been stymied in his previous attempts by Martin Goodman; with that obstacle no longer in the way, Lee quickly moved to develop a whole new line of books, beginning with Dracula Lives, whose first issue came out in early 1973. No, this stuff wasn’t cutting-edge in the manner of Comix Book, nor was it as sophisticated as what Eisner or Kurtzman (let alone Burgess, Vonnegut, or Havel) might have turned out. But the books did feature some great stories by a number of the era’s best writers and artists, who were able to address more mature subject matter than they were allowed to in Marvel’s Code-approved color comics; and complementing the color comics line’s concurrent expansion into non-superhero genres like horror, fantasy, science fiction, and martial arts (a trend that had begun prior to Lee’s promotion, but accelerated after it), the black-and-whites helped to broaden the scope of American comic books overall. Sure, most of the titles didn’t survive the end of the decade they were born in (though one, The Savage Sword of Conan, managed to hang on until 1995); nevertheless, they did their part in helping prepare the way for the more diverse field that would follow. And that contribution is due, at least in part, to Stan Lee, and his willingness to innovate.
Or so it seems to me, anyway. In any event, it’s a working hypothesis that I suspect we’ll have more opportunities to explore and discuss, in the months and years to come.
*For what it’s worth, that’s still the case, fifty years later.
**One must be careful, of course, not to confuse1972’s “Phase Two” with 1968’s “Second Golden Age of Marvel Comics”. (Aren’t you glad I’m around to help you keep these things straight?)
***Even in the comics’ credits , Lee’s actual role was kept vague, as we can see in the credits box from Thor #203 (you didn’t think I’d forgotten about it, did you?):
Lee’s name had always come first in the credits of Marvel’s comics, whether he’d both scripted and edited them, or had only done the latter. But the “Editor” credit, now unhitched from Lee’s name, would henceforth be appended to the end of the roster (which was also where it usually, but not always, appeared in DC’s books) while “Stan Lee Presents” became the new lead in every credits list (and, eventually, was added to each comic’s splash page title logo).
*****Jim Amash, “’Writing Comics Turned Out To Be What I Really Wanted To Do With My Life’: Roy Thomas Talks About Writing—And Editing—For Marvel During The 1970s”, Alter Ego #70 (July, 2007), pp. 18-19.