In another reality, I made a different selection for the Spotlight, and you can ponder the question of what that other reality is like – what this reality might have been like – but in the reality in which I made this choice, there are spoilers ahead for…
What If? Thor #1
Writer: Ethan Sacks
Artist: Michele Bandini
Cover: Marco Checchetto
“In the stories, does not the noble hero always vanquishthe monster? Well…this is not one of those stories.”
Yeah, I know – two Thor comics in a row. But this one just seemed a bit more fertile for discussion than some of the other comics I bought this week.
I’ve written before about “Imaginary Stories” and “Elseworlds”over at DC, and in writing about them have mentioned Marvel’s similar What If…? comics, but I’ve never actually taken a look at any of them here, even though some of my favorite stories have been told in the pages of those comics.
As I’ve talked about before, while in their non-canonical, outside of main continuity stories start from the same basic premise – asking “What if…?” – in DC’s case, generally, the resulting story was one that didn’t necessarily have any connection to any specific events. They were just simple high-concept ideas, like, “What if Batman was around in the late 1900s and fought Jack the Ripper?” or, as was one of the more commonly-answered questions, “What if Superman married Lois Lane?”
Marvel, on the other hand, would use an existing story as a starting point, asking the question of what might have happened if at some pivotal moment things proceeded differently than they had. Thus, you had stories like “What If Wolverine Had Killed the Hulk?” or “What If Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four?”
The other difference was that, for a time, What If…? was a regular, ongoing series, whereas “Imaginary Stories” were just one-offs that, by the time I started reading comics, were a thing of the past, and didn’t start popping up again – rebranded and reformatted as “Elseworlds” – until the late eighties.
Interestingly enough, by that point Marvel had long-since cancelled their ongoing What If…? series, but the time seemed to be right to revisit the idea of alternate realities, and Marvel launched volume two. The new series had its moments, but it was more misses than hits. For example, in “What If the Punisher’s Family Had Lived?” the answer ends up being that they eventually get killed anyway and Frank Castle becomes the Punisher in all but name. So…there was a slight delay, and he wore a different outfit. Not quite the same stakes as the entire universe being destroyed, as was the case with the earlier “What If the Avengers Had Become the Pawns of Korvac?”
After that series ended, Marvel – as they’re doing this month – would occasionally revisit the concept with a series of specials, which brings us the question posed here: What if Thor had been raised by the Frost Giants?
It was an intriguing notion, at least in theory, though the execution leaves a bit to be desired, but that’s what we’re here to talk about.
Our story begins with the well-known – I mean, if you’re familiar with Thor comics or the Thor movies, at any rate – tale of the battle between Odin, the All-Father of Asgard, and Laufey, the king of the Frost Giants. In the normal state of affairs, Odin defeats Laufey in single combat, demoralizing and driving away Laufey’s armies. On the battlefield, Odin finds Laufey’s infant son, a runt named Loki. Odin takes pity on the child and brings him to Asgard to raise as his own, as a brother to his son Thor.
Loki grows to become the God of Mischief, and an eternal thorn in the side of the God of Thunder.
But…what if Odin had lost?
That is, of course, the idea at the core of this story, which finds Laufey eventually leading the Frost Giants to the conquest of Asgard, where they slaughter everyone except Freyja and Thor, who is a young boy at this point. Laufey views it as a fitting revenge, believing that Odin will know no peace in Valhalla while Laufey holds Odin’s wife prisoner and raises his son as his own.
Besides, the son of Odin is much more likely to be a fitting heir than Laufey’s own son, the tiny – by Frost Giant standards – Loki, who has no interest in the pursuit of war and conquest.
In Jotunheim, Loki shows kindness to his new brother, giving Thor a necklace featuring a – poor – carving of a Jotunheim beast, to symbolize their brotherhood, and to remind Thor that no matter how cold and cruel his life may be in that frozen realm, he’s never alone.
In time, Thor adapts to his new life, and becomes exactly the kind of son Laufey wanted – and that Loki could never be – and despite his love for his brother, resentment takes hold Loki’s heart. After failing in an attempt to use magic to defeat an actual Jotunheim beast, resulting in Thor, the Prince of Winter, having to save his – worthless, in Laufey’s view – hide, Loki is cast aside entirely by Laufey, and left to his own devices.
Which, with Loki, is never a good thing. While off having a good sulk, Loki happens upon Freyja’s cell, and the two become friends. Throughout the years, Loki frequently visits Freyja, who is glad of the company, and she instructs him in the way of magic. However, in that time, Loki never tells Freyja about Thor, nor does he tell Thor about Freyja.
From Freyja, Loki also learns about the Bifrost, and a Realm called Midgard, and he speaks often of the two of them making their escape to the world of mortals.
That plan gets put into motion when Thor informs his beloved brother that their father wants both of his sons at his side as he leads an invasion of Musphelheim. This holds no appeal to Loki, who helps Freyja escape her cell and the two make their way to burned-out husk that is Asgard, where Freyja sets to work on repairing the Bifrost.
However, Laufey is no fool, and had been paying more attention to Loki than seemed to be the case, so he and Thor – who is armed with the hammer Ice Crusher, a family heirloom that Laufey passed down just as his father passed it down to him – are there waiting. Thor is confused as to why they’re in Asgard, but Laufey asks him if, now that he has returned to his former home, he feels any connection to it. Thor asserts that he feels none, that Jotunheim is his home, and Laufey is his father.
That loyalty is put to the test when they find, as Laufey intended, Loki and Freyja attempting to escape to Midgard. Thor begs Laufey to show Loki mercy, but he has none to give. Laufey makes a fatal error in allowing Loki to get too close, getting a knife jammed into his brain for his carelessness.
Though he loves his brother, Thor cannot allow this treachery to stand, and sends an icy blast at Loki, but it’s intercepted by Freyja, who jumps in its path to save Loki. As she dies, she hears Loki cry out Thor’s name, and realizes that in attempting to save the man she loved as if he were her son, she lost her life to her real son.
Thor, too, realizes what has occurred, and though he is angry, he can’t bring himself to kill his brother. Thor tells Loki to leave, and that he never wants to see him again, and then returns to Jotunheim to take his place as the king of the Frost Giants.
The story ends with a bit of an epilogue on Midgard, where we see a father wrapping up the telling of this tale to his children, mentioning that Loki went on to become a great champion to the people of Midgard. His storytelling is interrupted by his wife telling him that getting more firewood is more important than telling stories, and as thunder rumbles, he steps outside and we see that the father is, of course, Loki, and he finds the necklace he had given Thor lying in the snow.
As I was reading the story, I felt like it was moving too quickly and just felt sort of…off, as if something were missing, though I couldn’t say what. It was only as I began writing this that I realized that after all these years I’m not accustomed to reading one-and-done stories that aren’t decompressed and paced for trade. It was especially noticeable, I think, because this was a regular-sized comic rather than over-sized special.
It’s just odd to think that this is what comics used to be like, but I’ve become so accustomed to the current narrative approach that it felt…wrong somehow.
Mostly it was that it felt rushed, and I would have liked to have seen a bit more time devoted to the early lives of Thor and Loki. I did like that, as is the case with the best stories of this type, the writer allowed the characters to remain true to the core of who they are, to be recognizable, despite the very different circumstances in which we find them. Thor is Thor, and Loki is Loki, it’s just that Thor and Loki are Thor and Loki in a completely different environment that requires that their essential selves manifest in novel ways. Thor is noble and focused on doing the right thing, but the “right” thing for Frost Giants isn’t quite what we’d normally think of in those terms. Loki is mischievous, but cautious, given that there’s an even greater likelihood of being killed for his mischief in Jotunheim that there would be in Asgard.
Ending with a cliché “The End?” hints at the possibility of further explorations of this alternate reality, but I guess we’ll see.
The art is fine, and has a good storytelling flow, but I was most taken by the simple, clean color work of Matt Milla, and though I seldom mention it – for which, shame on me – I also liked the lettering by Joe Sabino. Lettering is one of those things that you – or at least I – tend not to notice unless it’s done poorly, but this is an instance of being done well, and being an aspect of the overall production that I should mention.
The old What If…? stories used to have a framing sequence that featured Uatu the Watcher, telling the audience about how watching just one Earth gets boring sometimes, so like Rick & Morty with interdimensional cable, he’ll occasionally change the channel and see what else is on, following the divergence that occurs at some pivotal decision point and seeing how it plays out and telling us about what he saw.
I had wondered if, now that Uatu is gone, the Unseen – formerly Nick Fury – would take on that role for these specials, but that wasn’t the case.
I think doing these specials on occasion is the better approach to having any sort of ongoing series, but Marvel could probably benefit from doing them somewhat more regularly. Still, we do have one of my current favorites, Exiles, to scratch that alternate reality itch (and that does feature the Unseen).
What If…I Had Written About These Other Comics I Bought?