Monday, September 10, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Thor

(or "The Eternal Dance")

There's a phenomenon in comics that I've been itching to talk about for awhile now, because it's...well, not exactly rare, but not necessarily all that common either. It's why 'Aquaman' struggles to get readers, why 'Thor' keeps getting relaunched, and why Walt Simonson is one of the best writers to work in the industry. 'Thor' is the best example of it, and so let's take a moment to break down Thor's storytelling engine and see what I'm talking about.

Thor is a "Shazam"-like comic about a mild-mannered individual (usually Doctor Don Blake, but there have been others) who finds an ancient cane, and who can strike it on the ground to become imbued with the power and spirit of the Norse thunder god Thor. When he's Thor, he's a powerhouse superhero, capable of defeating virtually any foe, but he has an Achilles heel--he must strike the cane on the ground to gain his power, and if he lets go of the hammer that the cane is transformed into for too long, he loses it again. He's a noble, good-hearted man who uses his powers to fight a variety of costumed criminals.

No, wait. That's not right. Let's try it again.

Thor is a fantasy comic set in the fabled realm of Asgard, the land of the Norse gods. Thor, son of Odin, must protect Asgard from a wide variety of threats, from the sinister trolls to his own brother, Loki, god of deceit and treachery. He has a wide variety of allies and enemies among the gods of Asgard, such as the beautiful Sif and the Warriors Three, and fights godly battles.

Notice the important point? 'Thor', the comic, is actually two storytelling engines, both featuring Thor, the character. The dual identity isn't merely a gateway from his mundane life to his superhuman one, like it is for Superman or Batman, but an actual point of convergence between two separate storytelling engines, each of which tells an entirely different type of story.

On the surface, this would seem to be great. And in a lot of ways, it is. Two storytelling engines means twice as many opportunities for a writer to find ideas for the next issue. If you can't think of a good super-villain, grab an ancient dragon. If you're stuck on how to spring Loki from Odin's latest punishment, have Thor fight the Absorbing Man for a few issues while you work it out. By bouncing back and forth between the two, you're pretty much guaranteed never to run out of ideas.

Except that every storytelling engine caters to a different audience. There are people who like outlandish fantasy stories, and people who like modern-day superhero action, but by definition, there's a smaller subset of people who like both. Every time you jump to Asgard, some of your fans grit their teeth and wade through the book until they get back to the cool stuff with the Avengers. Every time Thor fights Mr. Hyde, someone is really wishing they'd get back to the Warriors Three. The two storytelling engines swing around each other with Thor as a pivot, in a sort of dance.

The best Thor runs, of course, hide these jumps seamlessly. They mingle the two elements; Thor escapes from Ulik the troll by teleporting to Earth, only to find his foe has followed him. Loki empowers a petty criminal by accident, giving him the power of the Norn Queen and causing a rampage only Thor can stop. Walt Simonson, one of the true geniuses, blended the two so elegantly that his run is still talked about as one of the best in the history of the series. But the dance is always there, even if hidden well. Some people never get comfortable with it.

You can still see this today, in the current relaunch of 'Thor'. The thunder god has returned, and he's brought Asgard with him to Earth. That's certainly one way of solving the problem of dual storytelling engines; only time will tell whether or not it works.

4 comments:

Bret said...

Well, to be fair, everyone with sense always wants more Volstagg.
Too much Volstagg is never enough.

Puma said...

I might even check out the new Thor... JMS is writing it, and he's put Asgard in the right place: Oklahoma. :)

Monkey Migraine said...

Perfect explanation for why I've never cared for Thor. I'm not a big fantasy fan, and if you take that out, he's just a muscleman with a hammer instead of a muscleman with a shield or a muscleman with a gun or a muscleman with big fists, etc.

I also never thought the secret identity thing worked. Thor is so powerful and proud, that I could never understand why Thor would tolerate being pulled into existence to fight some bad guy and then shunted back to wherever like he's a doctor on call. That kind of duality is present in the Hulk, but they address it by Banner and the Hulk in conflict with each other, fighting for control of their lives. Talk about a story engine...

Thenodrin said...

I find it interesting that Monkey Migrane's reason for not liking the Thor engine is the in-character reason given for why no one asks what Superman's "real name" is.

Why would he tolerate being less than Superman?

Theno