Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Thor: God Of Thunder #18. Written by Jason Aaron (Wolverine And The X-Men, Scalped) and drawn by Das Pastoras (Wolverine: Revolver, Heavy Metal), this standalone issue flashes back to the days of young Thor for a story filled with humor, wonder, and beautiful painted artwork. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
In this week’s Thor: God Of Thunder #18, a young Thor fights a dragon in 894 A.D. It’s a simple but alluring plot, and Marvel is fully aware that the simplicity is part of the appeal, soliciting the issue with a brief, blunt synopsis: “A tale of Young Thor, in the age of Vikings. Here be a dragon. ’Nuff said.” The accompanying Esad Ribic cover released with that synopsis also cultivates significant excitement, showing Thor with ax in hand, ready to face off against a dragon lit by the sickly green glow of the flame he’s about to expel at the thunder god. It’s a bold, captivating image, and indicative of the interior artwork’s high quality, even though Ribic doesn’t illustrate this issue.
Instead, Aaron is joined by Das Pastoras for #18, a Spanish artist who did some work for Marvel a few years back, but has primarily worked on books for European publishers like Humanoids. Pastoras provides lush painted artwork that is an inspired pairing with Aaron’s script, which tackles a high fantasy concept with a decidedly grounded point of view by making this a story about two new friends, burdened by the expectations of their fathers and pulled apart by circumstance. Young Thor is an exceptionally amusing character because he’s essentially pure id, but amid all the ax-swinging and drunken debauchery of the god’s exploits in this issue, Aaron also plants seeds for the wiser, more sympathetic Thor of the future.
Aaron writes a short piece at the end of the issue that discusses where this series has been and where it’s headed, and his breakdown of the last three “volumes” of Thor: God Of Thunder shows just how well-planned this book has been since the beginning. The first two volumes told one epic story about the nature of gods by looking at Thor in three different time periods, establishing a massive scope in both story and artwork. While the art became more traditionally superhero when Ron Garney took over for Ribic on the last arc, the story continued to expand, giving a tour of the nine realms of the World Tree as it assembled a League of Realms composed of classic fantasy characters like trolls, giants, and elves. Now that Thor’s cosmic and mystical worlds have been defined, it’s time to bring him back to Earth, and the next arc sees the return of Ribic as Aaron pits the present-day thunder god against the Roxxon Corporation while his older self fights Galactus in the future. It sounds like a story that will deliver all the bombastic action that made the “God Butcher” arc so memorable, and #18 provides a huge boost in momentum that is also an excellent jumping-on point for new readers before the next volume.
Aaron broke into the industry writing gritty, naturalistic characters with his Vertigo series The Other Side and Scalped, and that ability has helped him tap into the relatable human emotions and motivations of the fantastic figures in his superhero writing. In the case of Young Thor, the emotion is overwhelming pride and the motivation is sex, booze, and a hearty fight. For his dragon friend, Skabgagg, the emotion is alienation and the motivation is finding people that will accept him. The issue opens with Thor waking up in Skabgagg’s mouth, covered in saliva and vomit, but the two only fought because they got wasted on rancid liquor after killing the trolls that were threatening the nearby She-Vikings. Creating a friendship between the two characters is a clever move on Aaron’s part, setting them up as interesting foils when it comes to how they react to paternal pressures and how those reactions affect the lives of human mortals.
Readers have been exposed to Thor’s shaky relationship with his father, Odin, for decades, so Aaron chooses to primarily focus on Skabgagg’s daddy issues. When drunken, stinking Thor returns to Asgard via a beautifully painted rainbow bridge, he gets berated by Heimdall and told to beg his father for mercy, but instead he goes to his room and passes out in his underwear, showing just how much respect Thor has for his father at this point. (Thor’s room is also a total mess, suggesting he either threw a violent temper tantrum upon returning to his quarters or stripped down to his underwear for other business.) That little moment is all the reader needs to see of Thor’s situation to get the whole picture, and his more self-assured stance against his father contrasts with Skabgagg’s weakness when faced with a similarly restrictive patriarch.
After getting in a fight with his dad and flying off, Skabgagg feels like he needs to prove that a dragon can coexist with humans, sending him down a self-destructive path that clouds his judgment and causes him to kill a neighboring She-Viking in a moment of drunken confusion. After that, it doesn’t take long for Skabgagg to give in to his primal dragon nature, and Thor has to make a tough decision in order to protect those that worship him. Thor does what needs to be done, but he’s not happy about it, and there’s a palpable sense of melancholy in the images of Thor after he takes out his friend. The first shot after the battle shows Thor sitting on a fallen tree in the middle of a singed forest, his ax wedged in the bark as he physically and emotionally recovers. The image emphasizes a feeling of weary isolation, with the burnt trees adding a strong sense of devastation, and those emotions return for the final splash page.
As Thor flies away from Earth on his chariot pulled by two goats, Skabgagg burns in the background, creating a trail of smoke that bleeds into a depressing gray sky. Rather than appearing triumphant in his victory, Thor is looking back at what he’s done. What is he feeling? Pity? Regret? His hair covers his mouth, so he could very well be smiling, but the somber atmosphere of the image suggests a more morose set of emotions. It’s not explicitly stated, but the visuals suggest Skabgagg’s alienation has been transferred to Thor, adding an extra layer of complexity to the story through the art.
The choice of Das Pastoras to join Aaron for this issue shows just how talented Marvel’s editorial team has become with pairing creators to characters, and Pastoras’ painted artwork brings a heightened level of technical skill that is far from the norm in ongoing superhero titles. His style combines the delicate, evocative painting of Milo Manara with the textured, occasionally grotesque detail of Richard Corben’s linework, making each page a visual feast that looks like it took as long to illustrate as entire issues of other comics. This is one of those Marvel books where the $3.99 price tag is justified; while it looks nice in print, it’s even more beautiful when viewed on a backlit tablet screen, and readers are encouraged to redeem the code for a free digital copy. Reading this issue with guided view on a mobile device highlights the meticulous specificity in each panel, and it’s easy to get lost in the detail of the linework and paints when staring at a panel of Thor and Skabgagg slaughtering a horde of trolls.
No other superhero comic this week can match the visual splendor of Thor: God Of Thunder #18, a book where every panel could potentially be a splash page. Das Pastoras’ action sequences have a dynamic sense of movement, and there’s an impressive depth of frame in the staging of his panels that helps immerse the reader in the setting. He does excellent work creating specific textures like the scales on Skabgagg, the fur on Thor’s goats, and the fetid mix of bodily fluids Thor wakes up covered in at the start of the issue; this artist shows off his mastery of color application in how those surfaces interact with different light sources. (A small but very fun detail in the artwork is the bubbles that appear about Skabgagg’s head in the second half of the issue, incorporating a more cartoonish element to show that the dragon is wasted.)
This issue is a sterling example of Marvel thinking outside the box for talent and finding the perfect creator for the perfect project, delivering a superhero comic that tells an engaging story with sophisticated, stylish artwork. As the publisher gets ready to unroll a load of All-New Marvel Now! titles, it would do well to continue exploring the hugely diverse landscape of graphic storytellers, especially if the results are as remarkable as Das Pastoras’ work this week.