Months ago, Marvel Comics passed the mantles of some of their most popular heroes to newcomers. Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon, became Captain America. And someone new — a mysterious masked woman — started swinging Thor's hammer. Now, we know who she is. Let's see why she's worthy.
(Spoilers follow. Click on the images to expand them.)
If you only caught the headlines, maybe the reaction and the backlash, you might have thought this was all a stunt. Really, though, it's a story. It's a very good story that's been unfolding for a few years in a confident, coherent and captivating way.
The revelation that Jane Foster is the woman wielding Mjolnir comes after a long and winding journey, all steered by superstar writer Jason Aaron who started writing the series in 2012. Even though Thor Odinson isn't the guy flinging the uru hammer around in this newest series with his name on it, the stories in it are the fruit of seeds laid down over the course of 30+ issues.
When Aaron's run on the Norse superhero deity started in 2012's Thor: God of Thunder, he was already showing us the end of the character's life. In a multipart story arc, readers got to see the Son of Odin as a young adventurer before he got Mjolnir, at his prime as an Avenger and as the battle-scarred king of a haunted, hollowed-out Asgard.
The series' first arc, God Butcher, got its title from a malevolent being named Gorr who went around mass-murdering deities across the universe. He fought Thor in each of the aforementioned stages of life but the true thread of the story is how a centuries-old warrior decays under a secret shame.
An inherent nobility has always been the core conceit of Marvel's version of the Norse thunder god. Thor isn't his best self without his hammer, and the requirement for wielding Mjolnir is a loosely-defined worthiness. Aaron cleverly centres his Thor run on the idea of the character falling short of being an upstanding hero. Thor screwed up and, even worse, he's made to live with that failure for the rest of his immortal life.
Despite the obvious influence of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on Thor, the God Butcher arc is pretty much the tonal opposite of those legendary creators' execution. There's no valor and glory to be found in Thor's struggles here, only a centuries-long trail of doubt and regret.
Ribic's art throbs with a lush, science-fantasy quality that invokes medieval European times. But, with the contribution of colourist Ive Svorcina, it also channels the majesty of previous creators such as Moebius, Michael Moorcock, John Buscema and Howard Pyle, linking this Thor to an impressive lineage of granite-thewed warriors. (Little bit of Frazetta in there too, at times.) The Odinson isn't invulnerable, and it's another triumph of Ribic's arc that none of this seems easy for the Prince (and King) of Asgard. Scratches, punctures and rivulets of blood mark Thor's body. His face shows strain.
Another story arc called Godbomb starts with issue 7 but it's really just a continuation of the larger tale, one which introduced a time-travel twist that gets all the Thors fighting side-by-side. Aaron manages to make it feel like we're seeing the same character at different stages of his life. Even when he's depressed and spiritually broken, King Thor still manages to trumpet bluster that sounds reminiscent of his younger more callow self. And, yeah, they all love to drink, too.
The first big arc of Aaron's Thor run reinvigorated the character in a meaningful way. This guy wasn't just the Class 100+ bruiser who held forth in stilted Shakespearean. Here is Thor struggling — both physically and psychologically — as never before with his entire strata of celestial society hanging in the balance. It's a rare thing to see Thor doubt himself. So when he overcomes that uncertainty in these first 11 issues, the Odinson comes across as stronger than he's ever been.
And, 13 issues later, Aaron rips that all away. (We'll get to that.)
The epilogue to God Butcher is an issue full of examples of the Asgardian prince's rapport with Midgard (read: Earth and the rest of the known universe). There's an excellent panel where Thor divinely disperses a group meant to be read as the infamous Westboro church protestors.
It also reintroduces Thor's ex-girlfriend Jane Foster, who's fighting a fatal illness.
The arc that starts with God of Thunder's 13th issue brings back an archvillain from one of the most acclaimed Thor runs ever — a classic four-year stretch written and drawn by Walt Simonson — and sketches out the political complications of Marvel's version of Asgard. When imprisoned dark elf Malekith returns from the underworld of Hel, he begins slaughtering his own kind for the collective sin of moving on after his defeat. In these stories, Ron Garney's art is less grim than Ribic's, occasionally brightened by colorist Ive Svorcina's switch to watercolor-style tones for appropriate moments.
The Accursed arc is the best counter for those who'd like to argue that the existence of the female Thor is just ham-fisted cultural pandering, because it shows that Aaron isn't writing a Thor who is disconnected from the real world. The League of Realms that Aaron introduces in this arc alludes to the League of Nations, the multinational global organisation that preceded the United Nations. And the way that the heroes from the Norse mythological realms bickers similarly recalls the way that old-country European rivals used to snipe at each other with propaganda. Aaron is pulling on the idea that a gap between perception and reality can cause huge, often needless conflicts.
(You have to love the way that the Troll talks big but, later on, doesn't make good on any of his boasts.)
One of the recurring themes of Aaron's tenure on Thor has been interconnectedness. He's showed how gods need mortals, how the folk of the Nine Realms need each other and how the lack of true friends or family can lead to rotting away from the inside. Thor's symbiotic relationship to the Earth has been a hallmark of Aaron's work with the character. The writer's last story arc for God of Thunder has the Avenger-era Odinson and his older self trying to save the planet.
In The Last Days of Midgard, the present-day Thor wages war against evil super-corporation Roxxon...
...while, in the distant future, King Thor tries to stop Galactus from eating the near-lifeless Earth.
When Galactus gets the better of King Thor, his three granddaughters — recurring characters throughout the God of Thunder series — pick up his cause.
Both Thors emerge triumphant but the present-day Odinson's victory is a pyrrhic one. Roxxon's corporate spin machine works its magic on god and man alike. Asgardia — the floating celestial city that hovers over Broxton, Oklahoma — decides to cut its tether to the Earth. This puts Thor on an uncertain path, one that he then crashes off during Marvel's Original Sin crossover. Written by Aaron, the 2014 event had Thor suddenly become unworthy to lift Mjolnir after hearing a whispered secret from an aged Nick Fury, Sr.
That God of Thunder run is superb and clear in its themes. The Prince of Asgard is a guy who's capable of going it alone in most circumstances but Aaron continually put him in scenarios where he needed to lean on or play off others. While readers got a tour of the Thor mythos' mythological Nine Worlds, they also saw him learn different ways to be a leader.
The Last Days of Midgard story arc pit Thor against an mortal enemy he couldn't just pound into oblivion. So it's a significant swing of the pendulum to have the new Thor's adventures be solo affairs where she's had to prove herself. That's what we get when Original Sin ends and Aaron's monthly Thor stories resume with a new first issue for the series under its latest title, simply, Thor.
To the extent that anything is a stunt, the renumbering is. The new series could easily have been yet another arc in God of Thunder. It continues all the plotlines but introduces a new one, showing us that a mystery woman now wields Mjolnir. The former Thor is still all over the book, as is God of Thunder's large supporting cast. New to the whole affair is Aaron's latest creative partner, penciller Russel Dauterman. Dauterman's art makes a nice match for the thematic shift of the new series. His linework is more elastic and cartoony than the pencils laid down by Ribic, Garney and the other God of Thunder artists. He plays up the horror and humour of what it's like to suddenly find yourself wielding a mythological hammer, but he still manages to make the import of each development feel weighty.
Aaron wrote this new arc as half-rookie-adventure and half-mystery. Before yesterday's big reveal, Aaron set up a trail of clues for readers speculating on the identity of the new Thor and invalidated them in pretty entertaining fashion. Is it his mum, Queen Freya?
His on-again, off-again warrior girlfriend the Lady Sif?
Jane Foster? Still dying from cancer and still refusing any kind of magical help.
SHIELD agent/environmental lawyer Roz Solomon — who'd caught the Thunder God's fancy in the previous series — appeared to be the most likely suspect.
Looping back on the themes set up on interconnectedness in the God of Thunder series, the royal court drama of Asgardia's first family returns in the new Thor series. Thor's evil uncle has Odin's ear and the All-Father doesn't look too kindly on his son's decision to let someone else use his first name and hammer. The intrigue seen in these moments harkens back to other writers' past Thor runs and finds added urgency as the political subplots Aaron set up start to bear fruit.
When Lee and Kirby anchored Thor to crippled doctor Don Blake back in the '60s — Jane Foster was introduced as the love interest back then — it was their twist on the superhero secret identity trope.
But it had the deeper consequence of grounding Thor amongst the people he was supposed to protect. Jane Foster's embodiment of Thor is reminiscent of the Donald Blake era. She thinks as a human but speaks as a god. You can hear godly awareness and human incredulity jostling against each other under that helmet.
This dynamic makes Lady Thor an appealing counterpoint to the more assured Thor who preceded her. She's a living example of the themes Aaron has brought to bear in his Thor writing: resilience, benevolent symbiosis and the fight to find the strength to change course on a life that seems pre-destined.
Is the Odinson going to smash things with Mjolnir again? It's almost a certainty. The newest Thor series wears its metatext proudly, gleefully poking fun at those who get sanctimonious at Aaron's execution of long-lived superhero tropes.
Even before Jane Foster picked up the magic uru hammer, Jason Aaron's tenure on Thor has been a meditation on identity, on what we're supposed to be in the sight of others. This long story about the loss — and recuperation — of faith in one's own immortal self now has two major players, each trying to be a God of Thunder. The story is not done and, frankly, is a must read. This whole run has been worthy.