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Thor Vs. Thor! Graeme Compares DeFalco/Frenz To Fraction/Ferry

Graeme McMillan

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.

15 Responses to “ Thor Vs. Thor! Graeme Compares DeFalco/Frenz To Fraction/Ferry ”

  1. A large part of the problem on the current series is the artwork as much as the writing. Pascal Ferry’s artwork is a gorgeous thing to behold, but a bit effeminate and better suited for fairy tales or for example, “The Runaways.” Thor requires an artist like Marko Djurdjevic, whose art is more Sturm und Drang. Whatever happened to Djurdjevic by the way?

    Fraction’s storytelling is of course best suited for the trade. I remember back when stories told and done in one, but with an underlying thread that connected the storyline into something larger. (See, e.g. Roy Thomas’ run on the Avengers and the lead up to the “Kree-Skrull War” or Steve Englehart’s “Celestial Maddona” run on the Aveneger’s, or “Korvac Saga”, etc.). Those were the days my friend.

  2. I’m loving these full-out reviews lately, Graeme.

    And it’s nice to see Defalco’s Thor examined from this perspective, of being retro before retro was acceptable and recognized as such.

    Defalco did perfectly good comics work back in the day. It wasn’t revolutionary, but it kept things going while being sufficiently entertaining.

  3. I grew up with the DeFalco/Frenz Thor and I loved it. Even migrated to Thunderstrike with them (I used to buy them – and, yes, his FF run as well – from the local bodega).

  4. Great review, btw

  5. I think Mr McMillan is right that there is something lacking in the storytelling but I don’t think it’s generational. Basically the writing here just looks like an attempt to bluff that something is happening when in fact nothing is.

    I’m afraid I don’t buy Robert’s rationale of it being Writing For The Trade. Surely the fact that the second chapter is simply the first chapter remixed would be even more noticeable had the reader just read the two in rapid succession. C’mon, in the second chapter the only new thing that occurs is some old women make some soup for some girl with pointy ears. These parties were not introduced or explained and remain neither. Mystery soup shenanigans!

    There’s also a worrying lack of (melo)drama if Thor just hits something and Odin just…comes back! Or Thor turns a corner and, hey, there’s Loki! It makes me fear that the climax is going to involve all seeming lost until…magic! Everybody dance now! If it’s Writing For The Trade it isn’t going to be a very good trade paperback.

    I’m not totally unsympathetic to the fact that writing a self contained comic that acts as a satisfying narrative chunk in and of itself while contributing to the greater narrative will seriously eat into time that could be spent reading a How Sell To Hollywood book. But I can’t help thinking that the current mainstream prevalence of making nothing seem like something has led to a corresponding failure to provide value for money. This may have taken some time to bite genre Comics in the fundament but it was clearly time it spent sharpening its teeth.

    I think I’ll be dropping the Fraction/Ferry Thor (I might keep it on but only for the art) but I’ll surely be adding the DeFalco/Frenz Thor to my massive list of Things To Check Out. Thanks, Mr. McMillan!

  6. First, thanks for a great contrast piece. (NICE catch on the Simonson thing! How cool!)

    Second, thank you VERY much for the increased output across the board on SC. It’s not gone unappreciated in this corner.


    “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…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…”

    What a wonderful summation! It’s a whole second level of plotting that doesn’t get used nearly enough. While people talk about comics becoming more and more sophisticated I would say that it’s actually much less the rule than the rare exception. Think how many unique devices we’ve given up in mainstream comics over the last ten – twenty years.

    First, we’ve given up the window into the character’s thoughts that balloons provided in the name of “realism.” A style choice employed to mixed results.

    Second, we’ve lost the level of small victories and achievements – hell, even largely the “second story” sub-plot has gone by the wayside. Everything is written with at least three to five issues to the payoff and is very narrowly focused. It seems a shift designed to provide that impetus to buy subsequent installments. Previously, this drive was delivered via the aforementioned, “You think we can’t go any further? Well look at this!”

    Finally, the publishing schedule has become a trainwreck and this is from a complete outsider to the industry. How are we making it so difficult to publish consistent material? If you look at newspapers – even the dying dinosaur of print media still puts it out there everyday on tight, tight deadlines.

    All these losses sever us from the page turning excitement comics used to deliver. When I look at my collection I have comics from all over the spectrum 15 – 20 years ago when LESS variety was available! Why did I pick up that little run of Hulk issues? Or the Classic X-Men reprints? Why don’t I prospect more now?

    Answer: Fewer hooks, less ability to connect with characters, slower paced stories, and maybe most importantly art and writing that don’t effectively use the inherent advantages of the comics format.

    Good –
    (btw, who gets clobbered by women from behind more than Hex?)

    If you think I’m going back too far you can sub in a good portion of Phil Jimenez’ work instead. He serves the story with a level of dynamism that’s missing in the following examples.

    Bad –

    Isolated examples, yes, but indicative of the larger trend certainly.

    I seem shrill, I’m sure, but when a form that grew to prominence by being fluid and explosive becomes posed and largely still you can only conclude that the leaders have lost their way. By not demanding that writers show instead of tell editors have ceded control to people who love THEIR written word more than the necessities demanded by the chosen format.

  7. Robert: “A large part of the problem on the current series is the artwork as much as the writing. Pascal Ferry’s artwork is a gorgeous thing to behold, but a bit effeminate and better suited for fairy tales or for example, “The Runaways.” Thor requires an artist like Marko Djurdjevic, whose art is more Sturm und Drang. Whatever happened to Djurdjevic by the way?”

    I think that’s sort of why I actually prefer Ferry on the book, because a more “painterly” high fantasy or whatever style kind of feels just sort of…maybe not cliched, exactly, but kind of…expected? Whereas the clash between the Norse-ish characters and the more “cartoony” art with the glowy Tron bits works for me on an odd level. I agree with Graeme that Hollingsworth’s colors are a big part of that. (Along similar lines, I’m really glad they ditched the fakey-Olde-English fonts in favor of Workman’s lettering.)

    As for the pacing issues with Fraction et al…did anybody used to watch Sports Night? (The sitcom, not the actual sports show.) There was that episode where Jeremy cut his first highlight reel, and it came in at eighteen minutes instead of the expected thirty seconds because he threw in all this extraneous stuff that he felt told a story — “the storm clouds gathering” and all that. Thinking about decompression reminds me of that.

    I think writers honestly feel like they’re doing the most artistically satisfying thing by doing the long build-up; they’re planning and writing months in advance, so *they* can see the big picture. But they’re not the ones who are being asked to pay $3.99 a pop for it.

  8. I too am really enjoying your more regular contributions to the site Graeme!

    As a kid/teenager new to comics in the late 80s and early 90s, I vehemently disliked the Defalco/Frenz combo; I remember being completely baffled as to why these guys were allowed to have such a long Thor run and disgusted too when they began the Spider-Girl series. It seemed like such a waste to me.

    But, for some reason I actually READ a copy of Spider-Girl a few years ago and just enjoyed the hell out of it. It had self contained stories (A beginning, middle AND end in each issue????) but also well paced continuing sagas; it felt like it had everything that was lacking in the majority of today’s books. Frenz’ artwork was solid in every respect and today’s glossy paper and computer coloring made it pop just beautifully. I’m enjoying the duo’s current work on the Thunderstrike mini too and, honestly, will follow these two to whatever projects the future brings for them.

    In all my 24 or so years of reading comics, I don’t think I have ever more misjudged a writer or artist: I was dead wrong and I still feel like an ass when I think back to the feelings of the young me. I haven’t read their Thor run or original Thunderstrike work but I’m definitely going to.

  9. I talked to Frenz this morning and doing DeFalco this afternoon for a Thor piece for a magazine, so when this popped up on my blogreader I called it fate.

    I believe Fraction/Ferry’s THOR run was years in the making — Marvel probably had them working in advance going as far back as the Fraction THOR one-shots he did. I liked those, but the THOR run itself has been all exposition and no real explosions. It’s like a prequel to the story itself, when it might eventually emerge.

  10. I don’t see anything controversial here! As I was was reading I couldn’t wait to reply “And they’re still doing it today!” but Luke beat me to it with his comments about Spider-girl and the current Thunderstrike. Just like Luke I’m not sure why I ever started reading Spider-girl as I was sure I would hate it and “knew” DeFalco was terrible – but once I did start I couldn’t stop, and have now followed them onto Thunderstrike, another character I somehow hated without having ever read an issue. Fast pace, forward momentum, civilian identities – a breath of very unexpected fresh air.

  11. Count me as a guy who discovered Frenz and DeFalco on one of my favorite runs ever of Amazing Spider-Man but only followed Thor a little after Simonson left. I totally skipped Thunderstrike and only got into Spider-Girl a few years ago. After rediscovering all of that stuff when I got back into comics, it made me realize that those two make comics that I like. Great article!

  12. DeFalco and Frenz is my favorite creative team. I love their work on Spider-Girl, and that was the BEST Spider-Book that Marvel put out. Shame Marvel end it last year. Currently their Thunderstrike mini is the only book I’m reading from Marvel at the moment.

  13. DeFalco and Frenz came up with a derivative Marvel Bullpen “House Style” that tried hard to emulate the best of the exciting early days of Marvel, and much of the time, they succeeded.

    The word, used in a comment above, was momentum. Early book those two guys work on has an individual momentum that pushes the story forward, and makes you want to buy the next issue. It is a style of storytelling and pacing that is perfect for serialized periodicals like comic books.

    I would love to see DeFalco and Frenz take over Superman. They would nail it.

  14. I’ll be the contrarian here and say that I’m enjoying Fraction and Ferry’s run so far and still find DeFalco and Frenz pretty bland after having read a handful of their work over the years. They’re old school Marvel without the charm and verve that made actual old school Marvel so damn fun. Maybe I’ll have the same awakening that some of the other folks did after rejecting them out of hand.

    I will say that I liked Frenz’s stuff 1,000% better inked by Sal Buscema in the Spider-Girl backups that they did in Amazing Spider-Man Family (which I picked up in a similar dollar sale) than his other work.

  15. You might have only been reviewing Fraction and Ferry’s Thor but from my perspective your comments are applicable to a distressingly large number of Marvel and DC comics today. It’s so bloodless, not in the graphic violence department (we’ve got plenty of that…) but in the sense of how dull and lifeless it feels.

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