“What’s the best Thor run?” used to have an easy answer, or rather two easy answers: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did more than create Marvel’s version of the Norwegian thunder god in the ‘60s—they crafted a sprawling cosmic epic that was at times even more creative than their Fantastic Four run. Then in the 1980s, a long creative drought ended when Walt Simonson brought a cosmic scale and sense of humor back to the title, along with his gorgeous, dynamic art.
Unworthy Thor #2 Cover Art by Olivier Coipel
But these untouchable runs are in touching distance, thanks to Jason Aaron and a string of talented artists. Since taking over the Odinson in 2012, Aaron has been crafting a multidimensional, multi-Thor saga that’s more ambitious and fun than anything else Marvel’s been putting out in the same time frame, or maybe any time frame. With the promising debut of The Unworthy Thor—whose second issue releases tomorrow and features the titular character’s quest for redemption and maybe another hammer—Aaron might have a legit claim to the best Thor run ever, building on his other two series, Thor: God of Thunder and The Mighty Thor.
From the beginning of this run, and long before former love interest Jane Foster hoisted the devastating hammer Mjolnir in the Mighty variant, Aaron has been all about Thors, plural. Embracing multiple versions of a character is all the rage these days, but most are pulled from the multiverse—a branching group of parallel realities. Aaron, by writing Thors from several ages, has made the thunder god’s immortality feel important. In the epic “God Butcher/God Bomb” stories that kicked off Aaron’s tenure run in Thor: God of Thunder, he and artist Esad Ribic tell the story across three time periods: young doofus Thor, familiar Avengers-era Thor and old King Thor, ruler of Asgard and Odin lookalike. Aaron’s Thors give the story psychological heft, showing that the character, just like a mere mortal, never gets over his daddy issues and ego. Through the preposterousness of immortality, Aaron makes Thor feel more real than ever.
Thor: God of Thunder #9 Cover Art by Esad Ribic
Along the way, Aaron and a murderer’s row of artists have explored everything that makes him (and later, her) a great character. The nature of godhood—and whether gods deserve to exist at all—remains a constant question. Thor’s personal limitations are on display throughout, but so is his heroism, and not just through smiting giants and trolls. In one issue, Thor brings a rare food from across the universe to a death-row prisoner, showing a super-heroic kindness that recalls Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman. Aaron’s sense of humor is also spot-on. Just as he leavened original series Scalped and Southern Bastards with dark humor, Aaron makes the reader laugh several times an issue, often at Thor’s boozing. Each issue, much like the whole run, is a complete meal.
The author’s run has the feel of a creator-owned book, and it might as well be since there’s little reference to the rest of the Marvel Universe. Aaron has either been lucky or protective of his time with the character, as the ongoing hasn’t gotten mixed up in any crossovers, unless you count a Thors series that tied into Secret Wars and can be safely skipped (though it’s not bad), and that whisper from Nick Fury in the miniseries Original Sin that caused the Odinson to lose his worthiness, godhood and pet hammer. Like other recent Marvel classics Hawkeye, Silver Surfer and The Vision, Aaron’s Thor has stood alone and benefitted from that isolation tremendously.
Unworthy Thor #1 Interior Art by Olivier Coipel
Like crossovers, artistic inconsistency can kill a potentially great run in its tracks. As soon as a fill-in artist appears, the company might as well say, “Quality, schmality.” Fortunately for Aaron (and readers) his collective run has been blessed by one great artist after another, nearly all of whom have kept pace with and elevated Aaron’s epic. The two most significant artists so far are Esad Ribic (on God of Thunder) and Russell Dauterman (on Mighty). Ribic, of Secret Wars fame with Jonathan Hickman, highlighted the fantasy qualities of the story through gorgeously painted pages and often hilariously expressive faces. “God Butcher/God Bomb” wouldn’t feel like the best Thor movie ever without Ribic making the visuals so cosmic and pretty. Dauterman has been the artist for most of the Jane-Foster-as-Thor issues, and he’s done every aspect of the story proud, with detailed, lavish artwork befitting a story that goes everywhere from the austere giant breeding ground of Jotunheim to a chemotherapy ward.
Recent issues have continued the trend of artistic quality, as Frazer Irving illustrated most of The Mighty Thor #12, which focuses on Mjolnir’s backstory, and Steve Epting is up next for a two-partner, presumably giving Dauterman a chance to catch up. The Unworthy Thor debuted with Olivier Coipel on art, and he brings appropriate dinginess and claustrophobia to the down-on-his-luck kind-of-former god, who is surrounded by enemies and his own mistakes. An impressive one-shot was illustrated by Das Pastoras, who brought a heavy-metal feel (not unlike Simon Bisley) to a story in which young, dumb, drunk Thor has a few too many and wakes up inside a dragon’s mouth. We’ve all been there. Who knows the circumstances that landed these terrific artists on Thor, but it’s easy to imagine them clamoring to be part of Aaron’s run.
The Mighty Thor #11 Cover Art by Russell Dauterman
Aaron has kept this series connected to the real world in impressive ways. Through the buildup to the War of the Realms, Aaron has managed to comment on real-world politics, creating a cosmic United Nations full of elves, trolls, giants, gods and mortals. With the Jane Foster Thor saga, Aaron has incorporated a meta-element into the comic seamlessly, as Odin’s rejection of female Thor represents comic fans who can’t handle change, especially change involving women. Odin—the ultimate old white man—stands for male domination at its worst, and he’s supported by dumbass followers who hang “False Thor” signs that mirror the complaints of change-hating and/or misogynist fans. When Foster clobbers Odin with Mjolnir, it’s a beautiful moment. As she puts it, “…when you’re a ninety-pound woman dying of cancer…it does feel pretty good to punch god in the face.”
The greatness of this run will depend on how Jane Foster’s situation is resolved. Right now, she is a fantastically compelling character as Thor, not to mention an inspiration to anyone touched by cancer. But if her cancer gets brushed away by magic, that will be as tough to swallow as DC waving off Barbara Gordon’s spinal injury. A heroic death could be satisfying or not: if Foster sacrificed herself to win the War of the Realms, would this feel like a heroic conclusion to the saga or just another example of a female hero getting “fridged”? Let’s just hope that ending is still a few years off.
If Aaron does end his epic in a way that brings all his realms, hammer-holders and eras together, it’ll be one of the mightiest feats in comics history…and probably enough to nudge his run just past the Lee/Kirby era and Simonson’s. If that sounds like blasphemy…to quote Odin, “So be it!”
Mark Peters is the author of Bullshit: A Lexicon. Follow him on Twitter.