Oct 10, 2017

Thor's Replacements, and Going Back to Basics

Thor's got a movie coming up soon (and it's gonna be the best superhero movie of the year, natch), and with that, Thor Odinson is gonna get his hammer back, taking over from Jane Foster, who's held the hammer for the better part of four years. Thor's always getting his hammer taken from him though, ever since 1978, and it's only going to be matter of time before he loses it again.

Thor's Replacements and Going Back to Basics
by Duy

As far as I'm concerned, Jane Foster is the best replacement Thor. That's not even close for me — she's far and away the best one, not just as a character, but also because of what she does for Thor Odinson himself.



In Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's run on the character, which I will maintain forever is better than their more-lauded run on The Fantastic Four, Mjolnir has a very specific enchantment: "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor." That's established in Journey Into Mystery #83, the first appearance of Dr. Don Blake, who holds the hammer and gets the powers of Thor. That he was always the real Thor to begin with isn't revealed until the 159th issue, six years later. That's kinda nuts.



The first replacement Thor was a human cameraman named Red Norvell, created to resemble the Thor of myth with his red hair, beard, and barbarian-like stance. There's a bit of a "cheat" in this one, as the story specified that Odin was specifically trying to create a substitute Thor to die in Ragnarok, rather than his own son. In this story, Red wasn't "worthy," but rather needed to wear a bunch of Asgardian paraphernalia to lift Mjolnir. He was later rewarded a hammer of his own, called a "War-Hammer." There isn't really much to Red, other than being a dude with the powers of Thor.


The second replacement Thor is Beta Ray Bill, introduced during Walter Simonson's incredible run on the character. Bill is, in fact, introduced in the very first issue as an antagonist, and I can only imagine that if you were there at the time, the moment is very powerful, seeing this horse-faced monster beating the hell out of Thor, and then lifting Mjolnir. Bill never actually "replaced" Thor, unless you count the fact that during Simonson's run, he had adventures on Earth, while Thor had adventures in Asgard.


Bill was eventually rewarded his own hammer, called Stormbreaker, and has been a fixture in the Marvel Universe since. This is also where Odin removed the enchantment that could change Thor to Don Blake and gave it to Bill, in effect ending Don Blake's existence.



Despite his vocal fans though, he's managed to co-star in a couple of team books and a few miniseries, never really holding down a title of his own. This strikes me as strange, and I always wonder how he got such a loyal following since even his appearances under Simonson were limited. (It might also be a numbers thing. Beta Ray Bill fans tend to be the hardcore Walt Simonson fans, and there are currently just under 7,000 members of The Walt Simonson Appreciation Society, if that's anything to go by.) In the end, I think a lot of it is the fact that Simonson really showed us how awesome Bill was, making us want more, but no one since has really taken that ball and run with it.

Instead, once Simonson was off the book, Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz did a one-off story introducing Dargo Ktor, a punk kid from the 26th Century who finds Mjolnir when Thor is missing.

How does one take an iconic costume and ruin it?
You become Dargo, that's how.

I actually really hate Dargo, as he's so late 80s/early 90s while talking in pseudofuturistic speak. But Bill broke the wall down, is the thing. At this point, anyone can tell a story about someone worthy holding Mjolnir. The difference? With Bill, it was legitimately new.

DeFalco and Frenz later would remove Thor Odinson from the book altogether for two years, giving the hammer to New York architect Eric Masterson, who, like Don Blake, was lame. By lame, I mean they needed canes to walk. But in the case of Eric Masterson, I mean the other, more colloquial meaning of lame. He was a generic everyman who doubted himself, and it frustrated me to no end, even as a kid, that he wasn't the real Thor during the Infinity Gauntlet and the Infinity War.

Such... bad... dialogue

I should make it clear that I actually love the DeFalco and Frenz run in the middle of these two stories. I just can't sit through these two stories.

Masterson would eventually get his own hammer (see a pattern here?), called the Thunderstrike. His name was... also Thunderstrike. And his costume was a vest and a ponytail, because that's just how the 90s rolled, baby.



The mass destruction known as Onslaught, which removed the Avengers and the Fantastic Four from the Marvel Universe for a year, came soon after, and in Thor's final issue at the time, Jane Foster, who had not been a regular in decades, showed up to say goodbye.


This was also a good time to remind us that Thor was once a doctor.


Upon his return, the changes in Thor's world after that came not in the form of people replacing him or lifting the hammer, but in the changes of his alter egos and his roles. Dan Jurgens and John Romita, Jr. brought back the Don Blake dynamic, this time merging him with a paramedic named Jake Olson.


It's also in this run that Jane Foster is brought back as a supporting character, and where we learn that she'd become a doctor. I think this is where the most character development for Jane Foster came prior to the current series.


Also, can we just take a minute here to appreciate how perfect JRJR was for Thor?



Olson started out as a decent idea, bringing the character back to basics, but then got unbelievably convoluted. Y'see, he was really a drug dealer who was pretending to be a paramedic cop and his partner was trying to get the goods on him and somehow Loki was involved and there may or may not have been a twin brother...

Soon after that, Thor took over as King of Asgard, and then Ragnarok happened and Marvel shuffled the Asgardians away for a while. Then they got brought back by a writer who somehow overlooked the fact that what made landmark Thor runs great were momentum and nonstop action, and made the title the slowest and talkiest it's ever been, so let's just skip over that.

And then Jason Aaron got on the book.

Look, the greatest Thor run of all time is up for debate. It's either Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's run, which introduced Thor to the Marvel Universe, or it's Walt Simonson's run, which broke all the rules and infused the title with a level of high fantasy that had never been reached. It all depends on what you're looking for. I could go either way on that debate.

What I'm not going either way on? Jason Aaron is number 3.  With Esad Ribic providing gorgeous painted art that looks positively mythical, Aaron worked with the concept of Thor being a god that doubts. Fighting Gorr the God Butcher, who goes through time killing gods, it takes three Thors to win. These are Thor the Avenger of the present-day; young Thor, back when he was still unworthy of Mjolnir and held on to the axe named Jarnbjorn; and King Thor, far off in the future when the Earth is dead, the last god of Asgard. This gives current-day Thor cause to doubt everything, including the place of gods in the universe.

Can I just say I love this so much?
"Then struck Thor.
With the fury of a billion storms."

And that's what causes him to lose Mjolnir. Being told that Gorr was right, Thor immediately becomes unworthy. The person who ends up picking the hammer is Jane Foster.

The first time we see Jane Foster in Aaron's run is in the excellent 12th issue, which shows a day in the life of Thor. We learn that Jane has been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment, so Thor, attempting to make her feel better, takes her to the moon.


I've talked before about how I think it makes sense that Jane was worthy, but I'll just do a quick recap: this is a woman who's been through Thor's side and devoted her life to saving people. She's brave, she's caring, and she's hung with the gods. She's worthier, and certainly more interesting, at least, than Eric freaking Masterson, and we've been through more with her than we have with Beta Ray Bill. And Dargo is better left unmentioned. Let's never mention Dargo again.

What makes Jane more interesting for me than Eric Masterson, which, really, is the only one we can compare her to, is the overall package. She's a doctor, which kind of brings us back, full circle, to Don Blake, but she's also a cancer patient, and becoming Thor reverses the treatment of her chemotherapy every time. It's an interesting twist and underscores her bravery, in that she would pick becoming Thor and saving people rather than saving herself. And there's the fact that Odin has always hated her as Jane, and hates her even more as Thor. Compare this to Masterson's generic New York everyman persona, and it's easy to see Jane win out.


Aaron and Jane's artist, Russell Dauterman, have also introduced a new aspect of Mjolnir: the Mother Storm, which is a retcon to explain how the hammer can control the thunder to begin with, and how, in this run, the hammer is able to defy the wishes of Odin. It's always weird to introduce retcons, but remember, Thor always being Thor and Don Blake not being real was a retcon they did as early as 1968. There's no Marvel hero, and very few characters, that I find lend themselves to retconning as much as Thor. I actually think the contradictions give the tales an air of myth. The visuals of the new dynamic with Mjolnir are beautiful.



I think it's pretty awesome that Thor Odinson is still around, holding Jarnbjorn, being a badass, doubting himself and working himself out of that doubt. Seriously, read The Unworthy Thor. You'll know that Thor Odinson doesn't need the hammer to be a positive role model.



And yes, I think it's pretty awesome that a woman is holding Mjolnir, because I think it's a great visual and I think it's empowering. My niece's favorite Marvel hero is Thor, and although I have not given her these books to read, I look forward to doing so when the run is over. Whether or not she processes it consciously, she'll know that a woman can be Thor as well.

And yet...

It's disconcerting to me how many people in the Thor fandom seem to have an issue with that last part. There's a frequent commenter in several Thor groups, whose first name on Facebook is meant to sound like the primary male hormone, who continually says that women shouldn't hold Mjolnir because women weren't warriors and women aren't Thor, says that Odin doesn't like Jane and therefore she isn't worthy since Odin has to approve, and complains that Thor has been shuffled off the stage and is going through too much hardship. This person also takes issue with the Mother Storm retcon, which, since it was revealed around two years into Jane's run, makes me wonder why this guy stuck with a book he had already decided he didn't like. When I brought up the fact that he was a fan of Beta Ray Bill, he dismissed it by saying that Bill is a warrior and therefore was worthy. When I brought up the fact that Dargo and Masterson weren't warriors, he brought up that they were worthy — Mjolnir said so. Plus, they were going through hardships that proved they were worthy.

This person is an extreme example, of course, but those sentiments in general seem to permeate an undercurrent of fandom. Let's look at those sentiments one by one.
  1. Thor isn't a woman. Well, the mythical Thor isn't a woman, no. But if you count alternate realities, Thor's been a woman in at least two of them, and here's one. But more importantly, Thor isn't supposed to be a crippled doctor, a lame architect, a horse-faced alien, a cameraman, and a punk kid from 2588 either. If we're complaining about Thor being a woman because of what Thor isn't, we should be prepared to complain about those too.  If we're not, then there's really only one thing that separates Jane from the others, and I don't have to tell you what that is, and I don't have to tell you what it looks like to complain primarily about her if the complaints apply to the others just as much.
  2. Women weren't warriors in the Viking era. Well, archaeologists are continually finding exceptions. But even without that, this is a genre that's supposed to stick up for the underdog. The hammer is meant to turn you into Thor if you're worthy. Are we going to say all women aren't worthy? How does that sound?
  3. Odin doesn't like Jane and therefore Jane shouldn't be worthy because Odin is in charge of the enchantment. This is addressed within the story, making Odin himself unable to lift the hammer, because of the Mother Storm retcon.
  4. Thor Odinson is off the stage. Thor Odinson is still around, making appearances here and there, recently headlining his own miniseries and returning to the pages of Thor. Back when Eric Masterson was Thor, Thor Odinson was gone for two years. You know where he was? In a bag.

    No, literally, he was in a bag.

    Spoiler alert: he's not really in the bag. They just teased it for two years.

    Don't complain to me about Thor being gone because of Jane if you were okay with Thor being in a bag for two years.
  5. Jane has been established as not a warrior. Of all the replacement Thors, exactly one was a warrior: Beta Ray Bill. But being a warrior was never specified in the worthiness clause. That's kinda the thing with magic; it's all subjective based on how you interpret the text. It's like in Gargoyles, when they say that the Gargoyles will remain stone until the castle reaches the clouds, so Xanatos just literally lifts the castle and rebuilds it on top of his tower so it touches the clouds. Or on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where it says no weapon known can kill the Judge, and Buffy realizes that was written centuries ago and fires a rocket launcher at him. Jane Foster saved lives. Jane Foster fought for her life. Jane Foster has been with gods and stood up to gods. Jane Foster is worthy. The Mother Storm said so.
  6. The Mother Storm. Granted, there's always going to be resistance to a retcon, and you either ride with it or you don't. Me, I ride with this one because when they introduced it, I'd been entertained up to that point.
The Mother Storm also gives us an easy loophole, one that I hope is used. The Warhammer, Stormbreaker, and Thunderstrike exist. I want Thor Odinson back as Thor as much as anyone. But I also want Jane to stay. Isolating the Mother Storm and creating a hammer out of it? That'd be fun. It'd be a lot of fun.

Jason Aaron has written the third best Thor run of all time, and at this point more than half of it has starred Jane Foster. I can't wait for him to resolve the Thor-doubts-himself angle and bring him back, but he's made me love Jane as Thor so much, that I hope he keeps her on board.

Let's close this column off with the greatest line in Thor history:

"Today my hammer comes for your face!"



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