While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections and are always worth revisiting...
Writer: Stan Lee
Art: Jack Kirby & Vince Colletta
Andrew B: We all know that Marvel's version of the God of Thunder has only to whirl his enchanted hammer Mjolnir around his head a few times in order to soar imperiously into the heavens. It took a while for Thor as a comic to join its eponymous hero in gaining similarly lofty heights, however.
Apart from the occasional appearance of evil Loki, the first three years' worth of Thor's adventures saw the Asgardian Avenger battle a distinctly unimpressive list of opponents. There was the Cobra and Mr Hyde, the Tomorrow Man, the Grey Gargoyle, small fry every one. No wonder Stan and Jack found the opening to launch a 'Tales Of Asgard' back-up feature. Thor only needed sixteen pages to trounce these guys.
Things began to improve with #114 in 1965 with the first appearance of the Absorbing Man, and by 1966 the book was taking off in a big way. Storylines were becoming more complex and requiring several issues to develop. Admittedly, this could be said of most of Marvel's output as the '60s really started to swing, but with Thor, the reader got the sense that Lee and Kirby had finally begun to see the full potential of the character.
And we're talking considerable potential. Potential of cosmic proportions.
Which brings us to Thor #132, cover-dated September 1966. The alien Colonizers of the planet Rigel have claimed Earth as their own and seized it in a deadly space lock which "is slowly pulling Earth out of its natural orbit". Of course, Thor's not putting up with that and is on his way to Rigel itself to have words. Bearing in mind those words rather undiplomatically include "I command thee to remove yon space lock from the planet Earth... or suffer my boundless wrath", to which the Rigellians respond "none threaten the Colonizers of Rigel", we're only on page two and we're already expecting words to be swiftly replaced with blows.
Before long, we and Thor together learn that the space lock isn't the people of Earth's only problem, that "there is a far greater danger with which they are soon destined to be confronted." Seems this inconceivable horror lurks within "the most dramatic, the most mysterious, the most dreaded galaxy of all..." A No-Prize for the first person to correctly name that - yep. The Black Galaxy. Who'd have thunk it? On the other hand, we're talking scale here as the issue of importance, the grandeur of Stan and Jack's conception. Now we've got to wonder what kind of creature might inhabit a black galaxy.
Within three pages we find out.
At the bottom of page fourteen, Thor and a Recorder, "an immortal thinking machine... created in the image of man", embark upon an unprecedented journey into the dark heart of that mysterious stygian realm. Page fifteen adopts the classic six-panel format of the period, the layout applying order and control to the material, as if Jack's imagination is being deliberately restrained here to maximize the impact of the crucial moment in the story which is imminent. This is a right-hand page keeping the secret of overleaf from us. Regular readers also know page fifteen is this issue's penultimate page. What will we see when we flip it over?
Each panel brilliantly builds the tension. Thor's tiny spaceship is plunged into illimitable darkness "blotting out the comforting glow of a thousand stars". Thor and the Recorder themselves gaze warily out at us, little more than silhouettes in the night, the Thunder God noting that "we have left the known universe behind". But the effect is more than that. It is as if our hero has been transported back through the aeons to a time before the universe was even created. When we witness "strange, unstable, writhing shapes... some as large as fiery stars", we realise we are entering a new universe, the boiling, volcanic furnace in the next panel a living cauldron giving birth to - what? "An incredible universe, composed of living, biological matter... a bio-verse!" Thor gapes in astonishment. Again, Jack draws him looking out beyond the reader at something we cannot yet see, "the menace which makes even Colonizers tremble..." Yeah, but what in the name of the All-Father is it?
We can wait no longer. We turn over.
A splash page. Mixing art and photography, a technique always both daring and ludicrous. Here though, the impact is beyond expectation. The grave, bearded face of a man who is more than a man looms out at us, filling the space as its owner scrutinizes Thor's spaceship. A face that emerges from a planet; a face that is the planet. "I have been waiting for you," declares a voice that if comics came with sound would probably boom - well, like thunder. "I am EGO!" In big red letters, to match the promise of next issue's wonderment below: 'The Living Planet'.
A living planet. The mind boggles. How's Thor gonna beat an entire world? Only we know he will. Somehow. And putting down Thor #132 we know something else as well. We'll never be happy seeing our favourite son of Asgard fighting the Cobra and Mr Hyde again. Now that Stan and Jack have firmly set their sights on the stars, living planets and all, we realise that a turning point in Marvel's ambition and adventure has been reached.
And when I sink into my cinema seat to watch Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, I'll be thinking of that moment again, after all these years. Imagination can't be confined to a single world, not even our own. Imagination can bring life to a universe. Just as the Marvel Universe for the past half century has brought life to our imaginations and continues to do so.
Here's hoping it always will.