The Essential Thor, Volume 4. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, John Buscema et al. Marvel, 2008. $19.99, 600 pages.
Of all their collaborations, it’s the Kirby-Lee Thor that is my favourite. Yes, that means I like it more than their Fantastic Four. Not that I don’t like their Fantastic Four, but when Kirby cuts loose in Thor, he really cuts loose. There’s a savage, primal energy to the best of Kirby’s work on Thor that seems only fitting for a series about a Norse god with a really big hammer and a penchant for talking smack — ye olde schoole style.
Kirby’s pencils on Thor are so strong that they can even, for the most part, overcome inks by Vincent Colletta, surely Kirby’s least popular inker. Colletta’s inks actually work fine over Kirby’s romance comics — he softens the sharper edges and smooths out faces into something more conventionally attractive — but they are catastrophically ill-suited for the gotterdammerung of Thor. Colletta’s line is too feathery, too scratchy for the bombast-turned-up-to-eleven that fills the pages of Thor. (And that’s without even getting into Colletta’s overzealousness with the eraser)
So it should come as some relief to find that many of the Kirby-pencilled tales in Volume 4 of The Essential Thor are inked by Bill Everett. It should, but it doesn’t. While there are some nice panels here and there, Everett’s inks are, overall, too crude to do Kirby justice. Everett may have had considerable cartoonist chops himself, but he doesn’t acquit himself too well here.
Or maybe some of the blame for crude rendering should go to the great man himself. Kirby certainly seems to have run out of enthusiasm for the character in his last year and a half (collected here). He recycles characters and plots from earlier issues and, when he does create new characters, the results are, uncharacteristically, visually dull. It’s dispiriting stuff, really, much in the way that his last year and a half on Fantastic Four (reprinted in Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 5) is dispiriting. It all smacks of someone who was just going through the motions. Granted, Kirby going through the motions is still better than anything else Marvel was probably printing at the time, but it’s a long way from the feverish pitch of earlier issues. Unlike those earlier issues, these ones don’t shimmer with invention, or that mad headlong rush into new territory that we associate with Kirby’s best work.
But that’s only the first half of the stories in this volume. As for the rest of them, they’re fairly typical of the sort of thing that filled Marvel’s books once Kirby and Ditko left. Neal Adams turns in a very restrained two issues, with nothing much to recommend them; he’s followed by John Buscema who does yeoman but unremarkable work.
In all, it’s a disappointing end to an otherwise excellent body of work.
Recommended? Kirby completists will still want it, caveats and all. Others should stick to the earlier, better volumes — particularly volumes 2 and 3.