The new gender-swapped Thor is currently outselling the old Thor by 30%. And as She-Hulk and Storm would tell you, numbers matter, as it’s precisely the lack of single-issue sales that led to the cancellation of both of those characters’ series. Marvel’s much-publicized decision to depict the new Thor as a lady is proving to be a double-edged sword (hammer?), but I finally got around to checking out this run of the comic out and regrettably, it’s also one with an entirely dull blade.
Some of the other ladies at WWAC have expressed that the first issue was lacking. I agree, and part of that has to do with the fact that Thor Odinson (son of Odin, like the name says, AKA dude-Thor) spends most of it visibly emasculated because he can no longer wield Mjolnir.
My first thought was “is that really the type of conflict they want to be setting up?” It’s funny on one level, sure, (very large, hypermasculine dudebro has his ego bruised, LOL) but also reinforces that Mjolnir is supposed to be Odinson’s alone, because it’s his birthright, a narrative trope which emphasizes time and again that men can just have things, but women have to earn them. Furthermore, women usually get harshly criticized while doing so (see: this issue’s treatment of Freyja’s attempt to rule Asgard in Odin’s absence.) Lady-Thor doesn’t even make her appearance until the last couple pages. “Finally!” I thought. “Let’s see where this goes.”
Five issues later, and I’m still feeling pretty lukewarm. Which just isn’t going to cut it when there are vicious Frost Giants afoot. I should be thrilled that Thor passes both the Sexy Lamp test and the Bechdel test, with some truly excellent dialogue between our heroine and Odin’s wife Freyja, both of whom Odin have “accused” of being too willful. I should be excited that a mysterious lady has unabashedly inserted herself into the Thor canon, and, in subsequent issues, has proved to be just as big of a badass as Odinson is, fighting like a “Valkyrie sent straight from Hel” (hmm, clue, or red herring?)
I should be rooting for a small, blonde, “chosen” woman who deftly wields a giant magic hammer that no man could lift, just like superheroine Buffy Summers did back in Season 5 (granted, Buffy wasn’t without its problems as well.) I should be glad for all of these things, but something about the new Thor still seemed a bit off to me, and when I figured out why, the reason landed like a blow from Mjolnir itself.
There are no women directly writing or illustrating this project.
Why, Marvel, why? If this reboot is supposed to be the Big Deal that it’s been touted as, would you not want the input and collaboration of the very audience that the dudebros have accused you of pandering to? And honestly, without any women writing or illustrating this comic, it does feel more than a little bit like pandering (though, to Marvel’s credit, the new Thor annual does boast some female talent, and looks quite excellent.)
The fundamental problem with the current run of Thor is that it doesn’t seem to be very invested in Thor herself. We still don’t know who she is, and the fact that Jason Aaron is keeping her identity from us for some big reveal in May feels gimmicky. Gimmicks aside, not knowing who Thor is as we read keeps us, the audience, at an arm’s length from her. Masking Thor’s identity (both literally and narratively) means that we never really get to know the heroine we’re supposed to be rooting for as a complex, well-rounded, humanized character.
Though the art in Thor is quite beautiful, Dauterman and Wilson’s version of Asgard leaping off the page in vivid shades of silver and blue, the same depth isn’t given to its leading lady. Just seeing a female Thor on the page isn’t enough. Thor’s identity matters because Marvel made a deliberate choice to depict Thor as a woman, so her personhood as a woman also needs to matter. The baffling thing is that Marvel absolutely understands this concept; check out the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel, both series which feature dynamic female leads, and, incidentally, also have ladies working on them. I am not saying that men can’t write women (see: the last, particularly excellent run of She-Hulk), and I am also not saying that a torch can’t be passed from one character to another; again, see Ms. Marvel, wherein Carol Danvers, formerly Ms. Marvel and currently Captain Marvel (interestingly, also a character who has been depicted as both men and women,) anoints Kamala Khan as the new, titular heroine.
So, what, then? Well for starters, one of the biggest problems is the framing of Thor’s ability to wield Mjolnir as the hammer’s decision. In doing so, Aaron gives us a classic case of a character’s superpower being both more important and more interesting than the character herself, especially since the ability to sling the hammer isn’t really Thor’s decision. More pertinently, it isn’t Odinson’s, either. Instead of passing Mjolnir down to Thor with good faith, he treats the hammer as a lover who has left him (for a woman, no less), claiming: “Mjolnir never flew like that for me” after seeing Thor maneuver it in battle.
During the Highlander-esque Thor vs. Thor showdown of issue 004 (after we discover that Odinson has lost not only his hammer, but the entire appendage that he’d been using to swing it thus far,) he finally cedes Mjolnir to Thor. He does so only because the hammer trusts Thor and not him, and also not before surmising that if Thor is so powerful, she must actually be his mother (since, in Odinson’s eyes, only Asgardian royalty could be worthy of Mjolnir.) Instead of a snarky comment about how she never would have raised such a fool if she were, in fact, his mother, Thor plants a kiss on Odinson, souring my stomach like a bad batch of Asgardian mead.
Again– why, Marvel, why? Maybe I am alone in this, but I hadn’t read any sexual tension at all into the battle for Mjolnir up until this point; the power struggle between Thor and Odinson seemed to genuinely be about the hammer, and both parties actually seemed as though they were on equal footing, skill-wise. It’s also worth mentioning that Dauterman’s depiction of this PDA doesn’t even look romantic. Neither party looks particularly attractive (as Thor is, of course, still masked), or even like they’re having a good time. Going by Odinson’s surprised, slightly frightened look, this is definitely a stolen kiss as well, one meant to assert Thor’s power, but also begging the question of why the heroine felt the need to resort to “feminine wiles” in a fight she’d already won. As we are never given the answer, the entire garish panel just seems gratuitous, but also troubling, framing the kiss as a consolation prize for Odinson, in Thor’s own story. If this kiss had happened much further into the narrative, so that more tension could be built up between the two (and so that we might hopefully know more about Thor’s personality and motives) I might be more forgiving. As it stands though, no amount of potential retcon is going to change my mind about it.
The idea of Thor and Odinson as equals is further undermined by the fact that our mystery heroine does not affirm her identity as Thor until after Odinson essentially gives her permission to, stating that he is no longer worthy of the name. He later remarks to his father that it is only okay that Thor has Mjolnir because he gave it to her. We know that’s not what happened, but what is Odinson’s motive? Is he protecting his ego? Is he protecting Thor? Is he smitten? We have no idea, all we know is that without Mjolnir, he’s been exiled from Daddy’s boys club, and replaced by the dudeliest-dudebro (yes, that’s the technical term) that Odin had ever laid his eye on— Cul Borson, god of fear. Usually, exile, inadequacy and Daddy issues are best left to Loki (whom I choose to believe is absent from this narrative only because he’s too busy getting his butt kicked by Ms. Marvel,) but apparently not anymore. Here, Aaron tries to get us to empathize with Odinson only by further vilifying the other men around him (interestingly, by amplifying their machismo) and assigning him the narrative usually relegated to his fey (and diminutive) adopted brother.
Like the kiss, attempting to garner empathy for Odinson in this manner (without providing us with any of his thought processes or actions) doesn’t feel earned. It actually feels especially lazy, given that the mystery shrouding Thor means that this is still very much Odinson’s story, as we are set up to read with him. We are only really given access to Thor’s Thor-ness, as it were, through Odinson, as he struggles to figure out that which affects him, namely why he can no longer control Mjolnir, and more importantly, the identity of the mystery woman who’s claimed his precious hammer. Compiling an inventory of women that reads like a little black book (hilariously enough, listing his mother at the top) he first approaches Lady Sif, sweet-talking her with lame apologies before working up to asking her about the hammer. He gets a faceful of mead as her answer. Again, is this funny, or unsettling (the underlying assumption being that a jilted woman will always badly treat a man who spurned her?) Welcome to Asgard, where the men are all idiots and the ex-girlfriends are mean.
And hey, while we’re working in absolutes, let’s talk about the thing that actually bothered me the most– the actual depiction of Thor. Because Odinson is, and has always been, hypermasculine, Dauterman draws Thor as hyperfeminine, thin, muscular and blonde, the exact kind of woman who made poor Kamala Khan feel insecure that she was none of these things. If Marvel is actually looking to secure female readers with this title, they need to diversify ASAP, Thor’s one-note character design being an obvious reflection of its creative team’s own lack of diversity. I’ll give Thor a pass regarding racial diversity because of its origin in Norse mythology, but since Marvel has always played fast and loose with those origins anyway, there’s still a little room to move (see: the racial diversity in Marvel’s big-screen depictions of Asgard,) especially if Thor ends up being a Midgardian woman. That being said, I am less willing to forgive Dauterman’s glaring lack of varied female bodies in Thor (which again, Marvel has generally been wonderfully aware of as of late.)
I’m especially troubled because the lack of attention here may just be an oversight, but it is not a harmless one. It is actually a bit dangerous, and here’s why. Instead of fleshing out its supposed leading lady (both physically and emotionally), Thor’s depiction of womanhood is delivered, as Bad Feminist scholar Roxane Gay eloquently points out, “in the right package,” in this case, by deploying “a particular kind of beauty,” a kind that is both easily recognizable, and of the most celebrated sort in mainstream culture. The reason this matters, as Gay explains, is that the idea of men and women enjoying the same rights (or swinging the same enchanted hammer) is at its core, so disagreeable that “the person asking for these rights must embody the standards we’re supposedly trying to challenge.” Thor embodies these standards to such a degree that the lack of diversity in her depiction (and her lack of identity as a woman) makes me feel as though all Aaron and Dauterman really did here was swap Odinson with a female doppelganger. And frankly, that’s nowhere near good enough, especially for a project that purports to make room for women in comics. Master’s house, master’s tools, friends.
Because we are never set up to read with Thor, we never really get the sense that she is actually the protagonist of her own story, as any protagonist’s narrative journey should be bound up as much in motivation as it is in action. Thor is granted agency, but only as a weaponized female body; since we aren’t shown her motives, how are we to tell how willful she is (without simply taking Odin’s word for it?) Due to Aaron’s lack of attention to these key elements of storytelling, the whole series seems quite watered-down and even a bit disingenuous; while Thor is a woman, there still seems to be a genuine fear of losing male readership, which would explain the decision to position Odinson as front and center. So, who is this comic even for, if it’s really not that interested in exploring the nuances of female personhood? If you ask Marvel, it’s for women and girls. If you ask Carl “Crusher” Creel (“absorbing” the attitudes of every internet troll who raged against a female Thor,) it’s for the “damn feminists [who] are ruining everything!”
And therein lies the problem. We shouldn’t be asking Crusher Creel to begin with. We shouldn’t be defining feminism strictly against sexism and misogyny, because how can we counteract these harmful ideologies by relying on the same tropes that uphold them? Such an approach is too simplistic and evidently, is also unyielding towards any additional forms of diversity. It’s also the dichotomy that Thor has been trading in since issue 001. (Side note: the irony of quoting not one but two feminist scholars of colour to explain some of the problems with this very white series is also not lost on me.) The most consistent (and unnerving) problem with Thor is that the glaring lack of investment in Thor as a heroine causes the series to read less like a genuinely feminist comic made for women and girls, and more like a comic that highlights what Marvel’s male writers think we “damn feminists” might want to see (instead of y’know, hiring some of us to write it.) Furthermore, Thor’s writing team is being plainly self-congratulatory about its supposed feminist alignment to boot, like a male “ally” on social media who just wants to appear as progressive and empathic to women, but has no real investment in feminism. For the third time (say it with me, now)— why, Marvel, why?
Since Marvel seems as confused about its audience as Odinson is about who took his hammer, what exactly is the endgame here? I’m not even sure I want to stick around to find out, because I don’t think this series is really written for readers like me (even though it keeps trying to tell me that it is.)
Honestly, it feels as though Thor isn’t even written for Thor, and Marvel needs to fix that. They need to treat Thor as though she is actually worthy. They can start by actually caring about her personhood, because she is worthy, and because I want to care about her too.