Featured Post

NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, September 17, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: THOR #154-157 ("THE MANGOG SAGA," 1968)

In contrast to Lee and Kirby's FANTASTIC FOUR, which enjoyed a number of mythopoeically strong issues from its inception, the duo's MIGHTY THOR got off to a rockier start. I've cited the first "Enchantress and  Executioner" story  as one of the few Thor-tales of the early 1960s that displayed some symbolic complexity. But there were an awful lot of ho-hum tales that pitted the Asgardian powerhouse against the Cobra, Mister Hyde, the Super-Skrull, and so on. In contrast to the "straight superhero" treatment of Thor in the featured tales, many fans preferred the backup strip "Tales of Asgard," which offered simplified versions of old Norse myth-tales.

For whatever reason, Asgard began playing a more substantial role in Thor's adventures in the year 1965. One might speculate that Lee allowed Kirby to build up the Asgardian cast-- Sif, Balder, the Warriors Three-- because epic fantasy had just turned into a bestselling genre that year, as Ballatine issued the authorized paperback edition of Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS. That said, Lee in his capacity as editor apparently made sure that the action never stayed in Asgard for a protracted period. The episodic continuity I mentioned in COMBAT PLAY PT 2 constantly oscillates between adventures in Asgard and on Earth, as if Lee still wasn't too sure about straying too far from the Marvel formula.



Issues #154-157, which some fans have dubbed "the Mangog saga," begins with Thor and his evil brother Loki on Earth, where their battle has just been broken up by Odin. In #153 Odin has some presentiments of approaching danger, but he doesn't confide any of these foreshadowings to either of his sons, nor does he summon them back to Asgard. At the beginning of #154 Loki skulks off and Thor waxes philosophic at Marvel's version of "the silence of God," who is also a literal "God the Father" to the noble but very confused star of the story. Little does Thor suspect that he's about to experience his first real-time encounter with Ragnarok.

Ragnarok had been referenced in the "Tales of Asgard" feature, but the "Mangog saga" doesn't attempt to reproduce the details of the cosmic conflict as we have them from Christian redactors of the Norse mythology. Rather, Lee and Kirby took the essence of the Ragnarok-tale--  that Asgard was imperilled by all the evils that had been kept down for eons-- and the two creators chose to give birth to a single monstrous figure who embodied a less traditional form of evil.




The Mangog-- a huge bulky fellow with a vaguely cow-like face-- is the danger that Odin has foreseen, though apparently not clearly enough to stop his advent. Ulik the Troll, left over from a plotline in the previous continuity, stumbles across the hidden prison where Odin has imprisoned the monster. Hoping to gain an ally against Asgard, the troll breaks down the prison-door (not one of Odin's sturdiest constructs, it seems). The savage almost immediately regrets freeing the Mangog, for not only does the horned wonder refuse to team up with Ulik, he states explicitly that his sole reason for being is to tromp all the way to Asgard, unsheathe the magical artifact known as the Odinsword, and to bring about Ragnarok, the destruction of the known universe. Ulik understandably exits the premises, as well as the story proper.

In the archaic tales of Ragnarok, the agents of the world's demise are a motley crew of malcontents-- giants, trolls, Loki himself-- who have been opposed to Odin's reign since forevcr. But Mangog is a more original take on the embodiment of evil, for he is only one being, though possessed of seemingly limitless strength and invulnerability. His nature is not immediately clear, however, and Lee's dialogue initially gives conflicting pictures:

In #154, when Mangog emerges from his prison, he wants vengeance on Odin, who "crushed the invasion of my race." Ulik affirms that he knows of the story-- and that's all we get on Mangog that issue. These lines convey the impression that Mangog is the last living survivor of a race that attacked Odin and Asgard-- and indeed, in #155, Loki-- who makes his way to Asgard ahead of Thor, refers to Mangog as the "sole survivor of a long-dead race." Possibly when Lee wrote these lines, he wasn't entirely clear on Kirby's concept for the character-- or it may be that he simply didn't want to get into the more involved aspects. For it's also in #155 that Mangog-- relentlessly stomping his way to Asgard, thrashing storm giants and Asgardian outposts-- finally clarifies his origins. Odin destroyed Mangog's race, but Mangog was not precisely an ordinary member of said community. "Before [the invaders[ fell," Mangog yells to anyone listening in the midst of his carnage, "they created mighty Mangog!" A couple of pages later, Mangog finally holds forth on his full origins: "When my race was dying-- they took the limitless strength of all-- the billions whom Odin had doomed-- and they found a way to store that matchless power within one living being!" Thus, Mangog is (or believes himself to be) essentially an artificial construct; a living concaternation of a "billion billion beings."

For his part, though, Odin does not comment on these allegations. Despite his forebodings, at the beginning of #154 the All-Father somewhat arbitrarily decides to enter "the Odinsleep," a deep sleep designed to preserve his immortality-- and one from which no one can disturb him, lest it cost Odin his life. Obviously, since Odin is supposed to be all-powerful, the story's creators had to find some way to keep him out of the action-- though this plot-device may not be purely a device for authorial convenience. More on this later.)



What makes Mangog a radical metaphysical concept is that in essence, the monster is the spirit of a slaughtered people, unified in death as they could not be in life. It's questionable whether or not the original Norse worshippers of Thor would have worried about whether or not they might be haunted by the ghosts of their vanquished enemies. But denizens of the more rational (or maybe rationalized) twentieth century had been subjected to a number of such haunting spectres, Obviously a comic-book cow-monster doesn't have the gravitas of real slaughtered tribes, and Kirby and Lee aren't asking anyone to sympathize with the Mangog. In visual terms Kirby wants readers to fear his presence, since he seems proof against every force that Asgard, Thor, and Thor's companions can hurl against him, and Lee is careful to keep reminding readers that Mangog's people were not innocent victims.
In #156, Thor himself confronts the unstoppable monster, and responds to the charge of murder Mangog makes against his father:



"My father did but end a living cancer" is apparently the view shared not only by denizens of Asgard, like Thor and Loki, but also by Asgard's enemy Ulik. By such remarks it should be clear that we're not dealing with the incarnation of a maltreated people here (though I imagine current ultraliberals could read this passage in no other way). Finally, even Mangog himself admits to his people's ineluctable evil, claiming in #156: "Though none who lived were more truly evil-- more deserving of our fate than we-- since death hath been decreed us-- then let the cosmos perish!" What Lee and Kirby have produced is not some facile justification for racial slaughter, but an insight into the nature of evil. Milton's Satan makes it his mission to mar Creation with the excuse that "misery loves company," but the Mangog, infused with the idea that his "people" died, can desire nothing but to see the rest of the cosmos die, Possibly, then, the Mangog speaks less to the fears of racial holocaust than species-holocaust, as represented by the Shadow of the Bomb.



In the concluding issue, the rough beast slouches all the way through the defenses of Asgard and tries to draw the Odinsword-- which is, in a visual that should delight Freudians, a massive sword far too big for any regular-sized Asgardian to draw it. Though neither the thunder-god nor any of his companions can best the beast by force, Thor manages to defeat the monster by creating a massive storm. This ruckus allows Odin to awaken of his own accord. Why this is less intrusive on the Odinsleep than a simple shake on the shoulder is not explored, but Odin does awake, and then lowers the boom by revealing that everything the Asgardians knew was wrong. Under Odin's power Mangog dissolves into nothingness, and the All-Father reveals that his people neither died nor created Mangog. Instead, the body of Mangog was a "living prison" for all those who had dared invade the Realm Eternal-- and then, in a further show of clemency, Odin separates out all the still-living alien invaders (seen only at a distance, and signified as "alien" by their possession of Spock-ears). Then the All-Father sends them back home, claiming that their "penance" is over.

Now, from the standpoint of dramatic verisimilitude, this solution is a complete mess. This time, I think probably both Lee and Kirby were to blame, for throughout their careers, both creators showed a depressing tendency to indulge in "surprise endings" that they didn't properly set up, I've already mentioned the inconsistency of Odin's actions, in that he gets worried about some coming catastrophe and separates his quarreling sons because he expects them to be available for Asgard's defense. But does he transport them to Asgard to keep them on the lookout for the unknown menace? No, even though this would be a totally logical action, particularly since he suddenly feels the need to descend into the Odinsleep. One would like to think, at least, that he goes to sleep without knowing that Mangog is the source of his misgivings, but one might have expected him to check on the cells of all known malefactors before, so to speak, checking out. Because Odin does not do so, an indeterminate number of Asgardian spear-carriers get killed--  though admittedly, these are the sort of nonentities who get killed whenever the forces of chaos come knocking.

Of course, all these logical actions would have deprived the story of at least some of its suspense. It's a mark of superior artists that, even when they act in expedient fashion, they're still capable of rendering interesting effects, as when Thor wanders around Earth, observing "signs and portents" of a coming apocalypse before he ever hears the name "Mangog."

In addition, it must also be admitted that even though Odin's clemency for Mangog's people doesn't make much sense, it does provide an attractive "eucatastrophe," to use Tolkien's term for a miraculously favorable turn of events. It vindicates Odin as a fount of mercy, rather than as a monarch capable of committing mass slaughter, which is hard to reconcile even under the most vexing circumstances.  And I would not be a good Jungian if I didn't mention the possibility that in a sense Mangog may not be just the avatar of a group of aggressive aliens. He may even be the "shadow" of Odin himself, the part of Odin that is unleashed when his conscious mind goes to sleep, and breeds chaos for the realm he's supposed to shelter. Certainly the "Mangog saga" doesn't represent the first time in the THOR mythos that Odin's power or one of his constructs gets turned to evil purpose-- though never before had Lee and Kirby exerted quite so much effort, to bring to the purchasers of twelve-cent comics a spectacle of Wagnerian proportions.

No comments: