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August 22, 2017

Phoenix and the Three Thors: The Mighty Thor #19-21 (Review)


The Mighty Thor #19-21
Marvel Comics, July 2017
Writer: Jason Aaron

These new issues, the latest in a very entertaining run from writer Jason Aaron, continues the adventures of Jane Foster, who has taken on the mantle of the God of Thunder. The title is published by US comic book publisher Marvel Comics.

The benefit of a synopsis

As ever, a synopsis of previous events is set out on the very first page of each issue. One of our regular complaints about the nature of the monthly comic publication of American comic books is that this serves to compartmentalise the plot. The broad story often cannot be discerned from an individual issue.

We cannot underemphasise the helpfulness of the synopsis which we read every month in this comic. For readers new to the title, or who have skipped issues, this summary of the plot to date provides an immediate point of access to the comic.

Phoenix

In issue 19, Thor faces off against a cosmic force called the Phoenix. This entity was created by writer Chris Claremont in the pages of Uncanny X-Men in 1976. It has evolved over time. The Phoenix was originally a manifestation of the darker aspect of the personality of a character called Jean Grey. More recently it is defined as a separate entity which can take possession of a person. This “character”, in so far as it can be called that, has more recently been dubbed “the Phoenix Force”. But in this issue, the character is simply referred to as “Phoenix”.

Due to the vagaries of the parallel universes which appear in Marvel Comics’ publications, there is another character called Rachel Summers (the daughter of Jean Grey from a parallel timeline) who is also called Phoenix (and more recently, “Prestige”). Both the cosmic entity and Rachel Summers exhibit astonishing abilities, including telepathy and telekinesis. In the case of the cosmic entity, these abilities include the penchant for consuming and extinguishing stars. This was first seen in Uncanny X-Men #129 (1980).

Phoenix is also able to effortlessly travel vast distances across space and, in recent Part of the myth is of Phoenix within Marvel Comics’ continuity is that Phoenix is known as an apocalyptic death-bringer. It is capable of besting Marvel Comics’ other great cosmic devourer, Galactus.

Phoenix is appealing as an antagonist for three major reasons:

a. First, embodying Jean Grey, this was one of the first times in the superhero genre that a hero was recast as a villain. Jean Grey went from being a longstanding member (and love interest for almost all of the other members of the original group) of the Uncanny X-Men, to being a galactic threat. This re-purpose was without parallel at the time in the genre of American superhero comics. It has been emulated only a few times, notably by DC Comics with the transformation of its major character Green Lantern into the villainous Parallax in 1994 (a transition that was, sadly, later heavily caveated with third party blame and excuses), and with lesser significance in the engaging series “JSA: The Unholy Three” published in 2003 by DC Comics, where an alternative universe version of Superman is revealed as an escaped criminal.

b. Second, a character which capriciously consumes stars is a very different type of threat from the usual world-conquering tyrants. Phoenix is depicted as a force of nature, in the totemic shape of a fiery bird of prey. The character appeals to the subconscious – a Satanic demon of fire. It is powerful and primal in its malevolence.

c. Third, Phoenix is (almost always) female. This spins a feminist assessment of the concept in curious ways. Is the fact that the Phoenix is a cosmic devourer the manifestation of a subconscious fear of male writers of female power? Or does an all-powerful and fearless female entity almost without peer in the Marvel Comics universe assist a feminist agenda?

Pitting the Phoenix against Jane Foster, the Mighty Thor, is an intriguing plot development. For reasons we have previously articulated, the assumption of the hammer of Thor by a former female love interest is a feminist thunderbolt. Here, the character which has become Marvel Comics’ preeminent female champion faces off against Marvel Comics’ preeminent female adversary.

And the encounter is interesting. Phoenix creates a line of communication to Jane Foster through a blank telepathic space. Phoenix is capricious, belittling, bullying, and conniving. For an all-powerful cosmic threat, it becomes apparent that she fears the hammer of Thor and wishes to consume it.

The lure for Foster is the ability to recover from her debilitating cancer. Foster sees through the ruse, and Phoenix’s interest in the scenario is ultimately through an odd compromise offered by a supporting character in the Uncanny X-Men, Quentin Quire. Quire is destined to be the Phoenix’s avatar, and their relationship is amusing.

Another New Thor

Issues 20-21 introduce a new Thor. This time the title character’s long time friend and companion, Volstagg, has assumed the hammer (albeit a hammer sourced from another dimension, its former owner now dead). Volstagg is literally a god possessed, indulging in savage violence. This is so pronounced that the blood of the victims of his attacks falls from the sky like rain. Volstagg seeks vengeance for the deaths of a group of war refugees who were under his personal protection. These refugee elves were horribly incinerated by a fire goblin. It is sadly evocative of contemporary events in Syria.

The Enchantress, a frequent antagonist of the series, in issue 21 wryly notes the proliferation of Thors. The sentiment is shared by us. This storyline is unnecessary and dilutes the mystique of the assumption of godhood by Foster.

Where does it end?

The final pages of The Mighty Thor #21 feature Foster, on death’s door as the cancer takes its toll, being carried by her predecessor to the role. Now called Odinson, the original Thor desperately seeks medical assistance for Foster. Thor’s hammer suddenly appears, hovering, and he curses his former weapon and tries to shield Foster from it. In wielding the hammer, the chemotherapy Foster has endured is negated by the hammer. But Foster reaches for it and she disappears in a flash of lightning.

The final page depicts Foster in her guise as the Mighty Thor, and the text describes how and why she answers the hammer’s alert that peril stirs. It is not a siren’s call: it is self-sacrifice for a greater cause than her own life. The text on the final page tells us that Foster will, as a consequence, die.

Odinson lost his right to wield the hammer when he became unworthy. This was because he realised (at the prompting of another character named Nick Fury) that gods cause suffering to those who worship them. (This was revealed in “The Unworthy Thor” #5, published in May 2017.) That cause of realisation of unworthiness is a somewhat contrived trigger, but the effect has been to keep the original Thor from regaining his mantle as the God of Thunder. As we have previously observed, Odinson’s desire to regain control of his hammer looked very much like an addict struggling with withdrawal.

What would render Thor worthy again? Foster’s indicia of worthiness is self-sacrifice. Will Odinson sacrifice himself to save Foster? Apparently we will find out later in the year.

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