Jason Aaron’s Thor is now the longest run with a single character at Marvel besides Dan Slott’s Spider-Man. With Jane Foster’s chapter in that story seemingly coming to an end soon, it felt like a good time to revisit the issue that really started her whole arc and is one of my favorites of the run so far.
Written by Jason Aaron
Illustrated by Nic Klein
THOR RETURNS TO MIDGARD! What does it mean to walk the Earth as a god? Where does Thor go and who does he see when he’s not out saving the world with the Avengers? Also, the return of long-time love interest, Dr. Jane Foster.
‘Once Upon a Time in Midgard’ is the perfect palette cleanser after the epic first 11 issues of the series, both in pacing and theme. After the all-out action of ‘God Butcher’ and ‘Godbomb,’ the small, interpersonal interactions in this issue are even more effective in contrast to what came before. The battle with Gorr in the previous arcs acted as a deconstruction of what it means to be a god, and now Thor shows what it means to him to be a god, through the people of Midgard. It also serves as a sort of relaunch of the series, laying out story elements that are still evolving in the current ongoing “The Mighty Thor.”
After any big battle, Thor returns to Midgard to ground himself. While Young Thor and Old Thor’s trips bookend the issue, we spend much of the time with the current Thor, as he catches up on responding to prayers and reconnecting with the people he’s missed. There aren’t any big action set-pieces, but Aaron and Klein make sure the small emotional moments are just as powerful. They constantly play with the dichotomy of Thor making himself accessible to humans while still exuding a godlike presence. The first visit Thor has, is to bring a death row inmate his last meal. He’s depicted casually walking into the prison and sitting with the prisoner, before turning the page to a stark shot of Thor helping to escort the prisoner to the execution chamber. Thor towers over everyone in the room, and it communicates the gravity of the situation and how out of place he should be.
When revisiting this issue after reading all that came after, it’s remarkable how much of a major jumping off point it was. One of the “prayers” that Thor answers, is to be Roz Solomon’s date for the S.H.I.E.L.D. Cadet’s Ball. Roz is now a major player in the series, and it was really fun to revisit their first meeting. Along with Roz, the Roxxon Energy Corporation appears for the first time as well later in the issue. When Thor glibly tells Agent Solomon, “Please tell me how I can help you to save the world,” I don’t think he realized how involved that would actually get.
This issue is also the reintroduction of Jane Foster to the Thor universe, and the revelation that she has been diagnosed with cancer. The reveal is handled masterfully, with Thor already knowing as the reader joins the pair mid-conversation. It’s evident that something serious has happened, and then the next few panels and bits of dialogue clue us in that Jane now has a heartbreaking disease. After reveling in how he can make such a difference in people’s lives, Thor is forced to reckon with the fact that he is helpless in this case, since Jane doesn’t want any super-powered intervention. She knows “that sort of thing always comes with a price,” a theme that Aaron would later explore in even more depth with “Doctor Strange.” I remember the gut punch when I first read those pages. These iconic supporting characters sometimes feel as invulnerable as the heroes that surround them, and Jane is no different. (Although I guess she can’t be considered a supporting character anymore.) The scene is devastating, but the heavy moment is immediately followed by some extreme cheesiness when Thor tells Jane that she’s “breathtaking,” as they watch the sunrise from the moon. The cheerful beat deftly lightens the mood before it gets too dour.Continued below
By this issue, Jason Aaron has fully locked down Thor’s speech and cadence, and perfectly voices a whole range of emotions through him. The boisterousness of Young Thor is captured when he’s asked why he returns to Earth saying, “You fight amongst yourselves for the most petty of reasons, Fornicate like brazen animals. Pillage and defile every new land you discover. In other words… How could I ever stay away?” Thor emotes his pain from being unable to help Jane fight her cancer when he asks her, “Are you sure there isn’t a mountain I could move for you, Jane Foster?” In a dialogue-heavy issue, Aaron also knows when to just let the art take over, like the page where Thor escorts the death row inmate to the execution chamber: three panels of silence as they walk into the room and the door closes behind them.
Like the issue itself, Nic Klein’s artwork similarly acts as a breather. Esad Ribić’s light linework leaves room for a more painterly style, which contributed to the feel of an illustrated epic that the Gorr arcs were. Klein’s heavy lines and liberal use of negative space enhance the grounded feel of the issue. You can almost feel the rough lines of Thor’s cheek bones and the bags under Jane Foster’s justifiably tired eyes. There are also nice moments that come from Klein’s colorwork. The way he depicts the yellow light of the sun as it hits Thor and Jane’s faces during their difficult discussion about her cancer, is another way to highlight what should have been a joyous reunion. Then he transitions to a somber blue wash, when Thor brings Jane to the moon and reconciles and accepts the devastating news. Klein uses similar color transitions throughout, to help ease the reader into each new scene in an issue that jumps around a lot. There were a few issues with the panel-work where it wasn’t clear where to go, but that is my only complaint in an otherwise stellar artistic showing.
‘Once Upon a Time in Midgard’ subtly ended up being one of my favorite issues of the whole series, and it still holds up. It’s the perfect stand-alone issue to transition between the epic opening story, and the expansive series that came after and is still going. It is one of the first examples of Jason Aaron and company showing that they have a multitude of different kinds of stories to tell with these characters, and perfectly sets the stage for what is becoming one of the best runs on Thor of all time.