Let's start 2011 off with a controversial statement: Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz's THE MIGHTY THOR is great. No, wait, that's not controversial enough. How about this? Comparing it to the current Matt Fraction/Pascal Ferry run only points out the latter's flaws all the more clearly. I picked up #393-400 of Thor at the recent Excalibur 50% off New Year's Sale, here in Portland; there wasn't a great deal of forethought in the purchase, I admit. Pretty much, it was "Wait, each issue will be less than a dollar? And it's a pretty heavily Kirby-influenced run, I seem to remember... How bad can it be?" The answer turned out to be "Not bad at all," with issues that pretty much hit all my highpoints in terms of what I'd want out of a Thor comic's tone, (melo)drama and scale. In many ways, it made me convinced that DeFalco and Frenz were a creative team out of their time - If the exact same run had been published ten years later, it would've been lauded as a wonderful retro pastiche and exercise in Kirby revivalism, but instead, it came as Marvel turned towards a new style in artists like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee and was still too close to leaning on Kirby and Buscema clones visually to really appreciate those styles as styles just yet.
(Frenz channels Kirby amazingly well in these issues, but he also does something that's very subtle and very, very enjoyable: He also channels Walt Simonson. It's only for Lorelei, the Simonson-created sister of the Enchantress, but look at the body-type and the finishes that Frenz gives her. It doesn't look out of place with the rest of the characters, but it's definitely there: He's reinforcing the looks given to each character by their creators, instead of just blindly turning everything into Kirby pastiche.)
For all the ridiculously overwritten dialogue - intentionally so, and with tongue-more-in-cheek than DeFalco gets credit for, I think; there's a line in #400 where Ron Frenz "tells" DeFalco in story that Stan Lee should get royalties for every word DeFalco writes, which shows a nice sense of self-awareness - there's a wonderful pace and economy to the writing, as well: Each issue advances the story but also has an arc of its own (Thor starts one issue captured and imprisoned, and by the end of the issue, he's escaped and on the run, for example - the villain isn't defeated, but our hero has accomplished something and the reader gets a sense of a beginning/middle/end in the chapter), and the overall storyline constantly builds in intensity and overblown scale as it goes on. There's a real sense of "Think we can't go any further? Well, look at this!" to it, and that's very much to its benefit; by the time we've reached the final issue, so much is going on, and so much seems out-of-control, that the pace alone convinces that this battle "means" something.
It's that sense of... I don't know, intensity? Pace? Scale? that really pulled me to contrast these issues with the first four Fraction/Ferry issues of the current Thor run. I've said elsewhere - Wait, What?, I think - that one of my biggest problems with the run to date is that things don't really make sense, but upon reading the DeFalco/Frenz issues, I realized that what it really is is that I'm given too much time to realize that things don't really make sense. There's been plenty of commentary that Fraction's Thor is slow, and that's true, but it's not just that it's slow-going - there's also a lack of kinetic energy to keep going, keep reading to find out what's going to happen next and oh my God you won't believe what's on the next page. Instead, Fraction and Ferry have mistaken acres and acres of foreshadowing and portentousness for epic scale and importance, and spend too long telling us that bad things are coming instead of showing us why we should believe them.
(I'm sure that many out there will complain that the scenes of destruction on various realms by the World Eaters demonstrates why we should care, but I don't think that's true; it's destruction without any context and without any characters to empathize with - 52's issue of alien apocalypse without the familiar PoV concepts like the Green Lanterns or characters like Captain Comet, if you will - and so it's almost meaningless. "These are bad guys who can do bad things, they're important," the pages say, but it's all intellectual, there's no heart. And isn't heart one of the things that we should expect most from epic tales? Aren't they stories that stir our emotions, more than anything?)
It doesn't help that we see re-runs of these scenes of contextless foreboding and destruction taking up precious real estate of the issues time after time. Familiarity breeds boredom, if not contempt, after all, and by now we've had four issues of being told that "something terrible is coming" but it's still not here yet, and in the meantime, very little else has happened. Again, it's about pace: Fraction and Ferry's Thor isn't exciting or engaging on an emotional level because everything seems to take so long that there's no urgency or intensity to any of it, and the characters are... well, unheroic: "The bad guys are coming and the good guys don't have any time to prepare! I mean, sure, they've had four issues if they'd only listened to the guy explaining everything over and over again for pages at a time in the first three issues, but Thor was busy sulking."
(Another aside: I wonder if the difference between Marvel heroes' reactions to tragedy - From stoic inner angst that would rarely seep out in public in Stan's day, to self-involved disconnection with what's going on in the rest of the world today - could be seen as a reflection of the times, or some comment upon them? It's amusing to remember the idea that Dark Reign would make all of Marvel's heroes into put-upon Spider-Mans, because what's happened is that they've all somehow become Spider-Man in attitude, as well. It's not just Thor's attitude in this story; look at Balder, as well, in #618: "What can Asgard do for you? The same thing we can do for ourselves. Nothing.")
Maybe it's a generational thing. Maybe I'm just too old for Fraction and Ferry's adolescent Thor, all pretty, if static and oversized, pictures - Ferry's line is very particular and great, I know, but I think that Matt Hollingsworth deserves equal praise for his work on the book. That said, I really do think that there's something lacking in terms of storytelling in the book... an energy, perhaps, or timing being thrown by the constant, massive panels dominating pages or spreads for empty emphasis - and promises of satisfaction delayed. I do feel like an old man for preferring DeFalco and Frenz's take on the same ideas (Literally, in some cases; both arcs feature an overwhelming attack on Asgard and the return of Odin), as if I'm steps away from telling people to get off my lawn and turn down their rock and roll music, but there just seems more interest, more happening, more life in the stories from 1988 than the ones from 2010. The latter may be cooler, I'm sure, but the former has much more to say and wants you to give you reason to listen.
Thor #393-400: A surprising Very Good, Thor #615-618: A pretty Eh.