The best Marvel comic ever? Dudes....dudes....it just might be.
A couple of years ago, Warren Ellis had one of his many highly quoted bon mots in which he averred that no one cared about Thor circulate around internet. In case you've forgotten, here's a snippet:
"No-one's cared about THOR since Walt Simonson did the book. And what was the first thing Walt did? Got rid of Thor and replaced him with a horse from space. And the sales quadrupled. A horse from space.
The quote makes me laugh, as much as I disagree with the sentiment (I hold some fondness for Thor, I have to admit. That said, I will no doubt give the forthcoming JMS/Coipiel abortion a miss come summertime), largely because it reminds me of another point altogether: Walt Simonson's Thor run is maybe the best thing Marvel ever published?*
Simonson knew the meaning of epic, dudes. His run lasted nearly fifty issues (there were some fill-ins here and there), and it's basically one huge story. It's broken up into acts, definitely, but it doesn't have the lame feel of "arcs" that modern comics do. Each issue led into the next, which led into the next, and everything was brilliantly interwoven.
The cast was large, relatively speaking: Thor, Odin, Sif, Beta Ray Bill (the aforementioned horse from space), the Warriors Three, Loki, Enchantress, Lorelei, the Executioner, all the Einherjar of Valhalla, Hela, Malekith, Surtur, etc, etc, etc., and they all played continuous roles, showing up again and again, each masterfully playing their part, and without any single character overwhelming the others. A lesser writer would have been tempted to just let Loki dominate the scene, but in Simonson's run, he's just one threat of many, and in fact is often the least of multiple evils.
The run is brilliantly innovative for a Marvel comic, seamlessly weaving the pre-existent Norse mythology with established Marvel fakelore and making something beautiful out of it. One issue can have Thor battling frost giants on a bridge on one page and Beta Ray Bill and Sif battling dudes in armor that turns into credit cards funded by Titanium Man on the next, and it's not really that jarring (I promise). It's pretty rad.
All that to say, if this is the best run ever, surely the best issue of that run might well be the best issue of anything of all time?
If you answered yes to what was just barely a question, then here is some more answer for you:
And I'm going to tell you about this comic. But in order for it to be meaningful, there's so much background. I'm telling you, that's the beauty of this run. It all builds and flows. So good.
So Thor and Asgard are reeling from the aftereffects of Surtur attempting to destroy the nine worlds (including Midgard**) with his giant sword Twilight. Asgard has nearly been destroyed and Bifrost, the rainbow bridge between Asgard and Midgard, has been shattered. Despite all this, Thor has made a promise to rescue the mortal souls of dozens of people made into soulless zombies by Malekith the Accursed, an English faerie who was aiding Surtur, when he fed them faerie food (this story involved another fantastic issue that really plays on your expectations on every page. So good).
In order to rescue them, Thor must lead all the warriors of Valhalla down to Hel, because he knows Hela, the goddess of death, will not just hand them over. He also takes his dear friend Balder the Brave, because Balder, having recently died and come back to life, is the only one who knows the way to and from Hel. One other companion on the trip is Skurge, the Executioner, a traditional villain in the old Thor comics.
Thor's ulterior motive, however, is to scope out Hel and see if he can find Odin, his father, who seemingly perished taking out Surtur in their final battle.
The road to Hel, of course, was easy, with little standing in their way. Once Thor and his warriors get in, though, they are faced with alluring visions of both temptation and despair. This comes into play later. Meanwhile, Thor challenges Hela to single combat for the souls of the enchanted mortals. He dons his gauntlets and covers his face with his cape, as any touch from Hela means instant death. He defeats her in battle, but Hela gets the last laugh by landing a blow called the hand of glory, which severely damages Thor's face (this is important mostly because it inspires Thor to grow a beard to cover his scars. And beards, children, are for winners).
As Thor leads the souls out of Hel, they cross paths with Naflgar, the ship of the dead, which is made from the nails of corpses, and once its construction is complete, the ship will sail on Asgard, and the dead will attempt to raid it. Meanwhile, in an attempt to further stall the Asgardians' escape, Hela summons another one of those tempting visions, in this case, the Enchantress, in order to sway Skurge into doing something drastic. Skurge, however, had recently been spurned by the Enchantress, who now favored Heimdall, the watchman of Bifrost. Skurge sees through the deception, and in his wrath, hurls his mighty ax at Naflgar, shattering it back into its fingernaily components.
Hela is completely enraged by this action (dude totally wrecked her fingernail boat), and so summons the armies of the dead to stop the Asgardians' escape. Our dudes are able, using automatic rifles they scored from the Midgardian military when they teamed up against Surtur, to speed past the army of the dead and make their way to the bridge back to the land of the living.
But the trip through the bridge will not be quick. Someone will have to hold off the opposing forces while the others escape. Thor leaps off his chariot in order to take this position. But he is struck from behind!
Quoth his attacker, Skurge: "No, Thunderer! You shall not hold the hordes of Hel at bay before the bridge."
And Balder is like, dude wtf.
Skurge: "Balder, hear me out. They made a fool of me, Balder. They laughed at me. Everybody laughs at Skurge. Hela, Mordonna, even the Enchantress I love, they all laugh at me. [...] So I will stay and the last laugh will be mine. You and Thor have a drink when you are next in Asgard and laugh Skurge's last laugh together. I will hold the bridge."
Skurge arms himself with three automatic rifles and awaits the hordes of Hel. "And the warriors of death ride hard down upon him. [...] And though the Executioner stands alone...and the warriors of Hel seem numberless...no one sets foot upon the bridge across the river Gjoll."
WAIT FOR IT
"They sing no songs in Hel, nor do they celebrate heroes...for silent is that dismal realm and cheerless...but the story of the Gjallerbru and the god who defended it is whispered across the nine worlds...and when a new arrival asks about the one to whom even Hela bows her head...the answer is always the same...he stood alone at Gjallerbru...and that answer is enough."
And that doesn't even scratch the surface, my friends.
*This statement excludes runs on various titles made by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Nothing by anyone will easily topple their FF run, for example. This, I feel, should have gone without saying. But some people (internet people) are picky.