Next month, Marvel’s first crossover event of the year, War of the Realms, will act as the capstone to Jason Aaron’s six-year run with the character. Over the course of Aaron’s tenure, Thor has fought foes new and old, travelled across the galaxy and through time, and been found unworthy of wielding his magical hammer Mjolnir, forcing someone new to step into the role.

The run has been instrumental in defining the character in Marvel Comics at a time when global audiences has just been introduced to his cinematic version, and alongside artists like Esad Ribic, Ron Garney and Russel Dauterman, Aaron has managed to create an epic story where the seeds of this climax were planted in the very earliest issues.

…At least, that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve never been a huge reader of Marvel’s Asgardian Avenger, and despite the critical acclaim that Aaron has received during his run, I’ve not read more than half a dozen issues over the years. As with every aspect of my life, it took an imminent deadline to spur me to action, and the idea of trying to read all of Aaron’s run ahead of War of the Realms kicking off seemed just doable enough to try, and just ambitious enough to be stupid. So here we go.

Covered, and thoroughly spoiled, in this instalment:

Aaron’s run kicked off with Thor: God of Thunder, and an ambitious 11-part story that spanned three different periods in Thor’s long life. As well as the Thor we were already familiar with (often identified as Thor the Avenger within the book), the arc introduces us to Young Thor, a brash version of the character circa 890AD who was not yet worthy of lifting Mjolnir, and King Thor, the aged monarch of Asgard who’s closer in appearance to Odin than our usual blonde-haired hunk.

The three different time periods are united through a story surrounding a new foe: Gorr the God-Butcher, a sort of militant atheist armed with a shape-shifting shadowy weapon who was easily capable of going toe-to-toe with entire pantheons. While the story eventually brings features time travel, enemies being thrown into the sun and Young Thor punching a shark (a defining trait of all Good Comics), it’s notable that this feels a lot like Thor stripped down to the essentials.

While Thor boasts one of the better-developed supporting casts of Marvel’s characters, thanks largely to Walt Simonson’s character- and genre-defining run in the ‘80s, these two arcs feature almost none of them. Thor the Avenger has a chat with Iron Man, requests help from a divine librarian and meets the mad god Shadrak. Elsewhere in time, Young Thor interacts with a number of Norse warriors, and we are eventually introduced to King Thor’s granddaughters, the new Goddesses of Thunder – but the underlying sensation I was left with was of Thor’s loneliness.

Thor is a hero with an almost uniquely huge scope in the Marvel universe, and by stretching the story across not just space but also time, we are given a sense of the duty that comes with his enormous power. This idea is reinforced both early and later in the story. In the first arc, we follow our various Thors separately, and each is confronted by a situation that isolates them.

Young Thor is captured and tortured by Gorr, an experience that instils terror in the immortal for the very first time. In the present day, Thor the Avenger finds signs that Gorr survived their first encounter, and the responsibility of being the sole hero aware of the threat that he poses weighs heavily on him. Finally, King Thor is literally isolated, besieged and exhausted by Gorr’s black berserker constructs.

In the second arc, the three Thors meet each other, and while we get plenty of light-hearted moments from their interactions, they are also forced to confront how the ages have changed them. For ‘our Thor’, who gets to see both his past and his future, this is an especially reflective moment. Combined with Gorr’s argument that the gods are irresponsible and bring their worshippers nothing but false hope, it leaves our hero filled with self-doubt – a thread that will prove central to Aaron’s run down the line.

We should take time to lavish some praise on Esad Ribic, the artist for this first story. In concert with colourist Ive Svorcina, he lends a beautiful storybook appearance to the comic, with gorgeous expansive landscapes and mythic-feeling characters. Ribic manages to make the alien Gorr and other cosmic characters feel perfectly at home in a story that also features Vikings, longships and Icelandic caves, while Svorcina’s colours fill every page with unearthly light.

Of special note is the living darkness that forms Gorr’s main weapon – rather than a uniform matte black created with digital colouring, the black is rendered like it has been coloured with pencil, all scratchy lines and intersecting scribbles. While it prevents Gorr’s darkness from feeling like a truly empty void, it also evokes the kind of child’s drawings you’d see in a horror film, and creates an effect I’ve never seen elsewhere in comics.

Svorcina follows Aaron on to the third arc of God of Thunder, providing a consistent tone as pencilling duties shift to Ron Garney. It’s with this third arc that the elegance of Aaron’s storytelling and long-term planning really starts to shine through. First, we have a one-off issue following Thor the Avenger’s return to Earth, where he checks in with ex-girlfriend Jane Foster and discovers she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, Thor has to deal with Malekith the Accursed’s escape from his prison in Hel (the Asgardian afterlife) and his rampage through the Nine Realms.

While we do finally see more of Thor’s usual supporting cast in this arc, his companions in pursuing Malekith’s Wild Hunt are the League of Realms, made up of representatives from the various worlds connected by Yggdrasill. As well as establishing Malekith as a capable and sadistic villain, the arc helps to establish the various realms in the reader’s mind. In my mind, the Nine Realms (Midgard aside) had previously fallen into two camps: stalwart allies of Asgard, and straight-up villains. This arc paints a more complex picture of squabbling worlds that are often paralysed by internal conflicts, and barely tolerate each other, as well as giving us a whistle-stop tour of some of the key locations throughout the World Tree.

Let’s talk a little about Malekith, who will return in the War of the Realms as one of the primary villains. In a tidy bit of corporate synergy, this arc was timed to coincide with the release of Thor: The Dark World in cinemas, which also featured Malekith as the antagonist. While the film version of Malekith is a damp squib, perhaps the MCU’s most underwhelming villain, Aaron, Garney & Svorcina present the dark elf as close to the Asgardian version of the Joker – simultaneously a schemer and an agent of chaos. While many of those labels could equally apply to Loki (who at the time was regressed to a teenager and hanging with the Young Avengers), Malekith is distinguished by his cruelty, as well as the devotion that his followers display. In our introduction to the character, he is freed from his prison by dark elves willing to die simply to provide him with a ladder, a chilling level of fanaticism that Loki has never inspired.

By the end of the arc, Malekith has been restored to the throne of Svartalfheim, realm of the dark elves, and Aaron has rooted us in the cosmology of the Nine Realms as they currently stand. We even get fantasy-novel-style maps at certain points, a nod towards both the tone of this arc’s story, and the scale at which readers should be thinking. One can’t help but be reminded of Game of Thrones with its various kingdoms and shifting alliances, a considerable step up from the ‘ally or enemy’ mode that had seemingly prevailed before.

All this world-building (or, perhaps more accurately, world-reminding) does come at a cost, though. We take a step back from Thor himself, with a reduced sense of his internal conflicts. Some of this is due to the change in art; while Garney is a more than capable replacement for Ribic, he lacks some of the latter’s subtlety when it comes to character expressions and acting.

But more importantly, with Thor no longer isolated, his conflicts become a lot more external. Thor’s main role here is to try to maintain the shaky alliance between realms, and while his approach of getting drunk with the male characters and sleeping with the sole female representative works, it certainly doesn’t paint a picture of a subtle, wise statesman.

The story of Gorr may have shown us how Thor changes over time, but it also showed us how he remains the same. No matter how much he manages to temper his impetuous nature with the wisdom of age, Thor is going to take the most straightforward (and probably hammer-centric) approach to fixing problems, and that’s certainly true here.

I don’t know if War of the Realms was always Jason Aaron’s endgame – modern comics writers seldom get to enjoy runs longer than a year or two on a title, but as one of Marvel’s biggest names, it’s possible Aaron was able to guarantee the time he needed for this story to unfold. Whether he came to Thor with an ambitious six-year plan or was able to craft one as he went, it’s an impressive achievement. Looking at his earliest days on the title, there certainly seems to be a great deal of thought at work, not just in how he approaches the character, but in how he shifts focus from Thor alone to Thor as part of the Nine Realms, and how each arc builds on what has come previously.

Stray Thor-ts

  • These three arcs makes sure to let us know that Thor Fucks. As well as Waziria the Dark Elf, we see Young Thor bedding numerous Norse women over the course of his appearances. As well as demonstrating Thor’s straightforward, often id-directed approach to life, it forms a nice contrast when his sweeter, more romantic side comes out when dealing with former girlfriend Jane Foster.
  • As well as playing up the Game of Thrones-esque nature of the Nine Worlds in the third arc, the League of Realms that accompanies Thor feels like an adventuring party that’s fallen straight out of a game of D&D, complete with that one player who insists on trying to blow everything up. Towards the end of the arc, the League is explicitly compared to the Warriors Three and the rest of Thor’s usual supporting cast, but let’s face it, a party made up entirely of Asgardians would be kind of boring. A good general rule: if you can throw a troll in there, you probably should.
  • The “Accursed” arc closes out in #17, and the final issue covered in this post is a one-off featuring Young Thor and Skabgagg, a dragon with similar daddy issues to our hero. It’s a nice issue, with great art from Das Pastoras, and returns us to the themes of duty and responsibility that Thor confronted in the Gorr arcs.
  • Gorr bears more than a passing resemblance to the Empirikul, the villain of the first two arcs of Aaron’s later run on Doctor Strange. Both feel let down by the supernatural forces that pervade the Marvel universe, and so undergo a campaign to eliminate them.
  • Thor’s chariot pulled by his flying goats Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder makes an appearance. I don’t have much more to say about that, other than I love that Thor has goats
  • Thor: Ragnarok‘s “What are you the god of?” line is taken from this run, and Hela’s infinite supply of obsidian blades looks an awful lot like Gorr’s shadowy, shapeshifting weapons. One of the producers, Brad Winterbaum, even acknowledged that they borrowed Gorr’s powers as a way of providing Hela with a more concrete, visually-interesting ability set than “god of death”.

Next time: Thor: God of Thunder comes to an end, and someone new takes up the hammer… but who could it be?