Female Thor, black Cap & Marvel’s history of ‘shock’ changes

Thor is a woman? Captain America changing skin colour? Thor Croaks? Rob looks back at the history of Marvel's 'shock' changes...

Recently, the news dropped that a woman would be taking up the mantle of Marvel’s iconic hammer-holding hero Thor, in the world of the comics. The change was announced as part of ‘Avengers NOW!’, a Marvel comics initiative aiming to rejuvenate their brand, spice things up a little and provide jumping-in points for new fans.

But before we start preparing the irreplaceable Chris Hemsworth for some sort of pre-op treatment to prep for the movie version, it’s probably important to make sure we’ve got all the facts right with regards to Marvel’s decision to ‘change’ Thor into a woman. To ensure we had said facts straight, we dug a little deeper and had a rummage through Marvel comics history, with some interesting results. We found that this decision to switch-up an iconic character’s gender is only the latest in a long run of initially bizarre-seeming changes Marvel have made in print.

So, here’s our low-down on the female Thor story, some of the stranger changes from Marvel lore and the nature of big shocks as publicity stunts…

Wait, what?!

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Such was a popular initial reaction to the female Thor story. Shock, alarm and outright confusion were prevalent responses doing the online rounds when this story first broke. While these were fairly understandable gut-reactions for skim-readers or headline-glancers, thankfully those who read the whole story will have discovered a more palatable truth behind the decision.

Yes, the idea of everyone’s second favourite Asgardian prince swapping sexes was initially shocking for some, presumably due to years of enforcement which cemented the character amongst comics’ manliest. Thankfully, we don’t actually need to worry about a ‘Bring back Thor’s penis’ campaign, seeing as Thor Odinson growing girl’s parts isn’t actually on Marvel’s gender agenda at all.

The actual crux of the story was that a woman was becoming Thor, not the other way around. Those familiar with comics lore, or indeed Marvel Studios movies, will of course remember Mjolnir, Thor’s power-bestowing mallet of might. If someone worthy manages to lift said hammer, they are granted the power of Thor. And that’s exactly what’s happening with the new ‘Avengers NOW!’ version of Thor.

“The inscription on Thor’s hammer reads ‘Whosoever holds this hammer, if HE be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.’ Well it’s time to update that inscription,” said Marvel editor Wil Moss in the official Marvel press release, while series writer Jason Aaron added, “This is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before.”

With that information in mind, the idea of a female Thor stops being a potential cause for concern (gender-swapping a centuries-old established character would surely have been more cringe-inducing than anything) and actually begins perking up interest. With the original Thor being deemed unworthy by Mjolnir, mystically passing the mantle to another promises to be genuinely thrilling reading.

What about the other changes going on?

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The same goes for the rest of the changes flying around the vast world of Marvel comics. If you didn’t know, Marvel has also revealed a new version of the Iron Man suit which completely redesigns the iconic colouring and also introduced a black Captain America as part of ‘Avengers NOW!’

Again, these changes are not as confusing as they might seem without any background information. Much like the way Thor hasn’t actually decided on an Odin-outraging gender choice, Cap certainly isn’t taking a leaf out of Robert Downey Jnr’s Tropic Thunder play-book here. Instead, he’s passing the mantle to Sam Wilson, better known as Falcon. Many may have got their first real taste for the character in Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier cinematic offering, and it’s hard to deny that Sam has the righteous good-will-loving attitude to successfully take up the role from the soon-to-be-depowered Steve Rogers.

Iron Man’s suit re-jig also has strong creative reasoning behind it, with the decision being made to push Tony Stark into a darker place (namely San Francisco, apparently) and make the character less likeable again. If these changes get more people into reading comics, and supporting the industry by encouraging investment beyond buying movie tickets, Marvel will be very pleased indeed.

It’s worth noting that Marvel aren’t killing anyone off either. Another press release explained that “neither Steve Rogers nor the artist formerly known as Thor are going to be vanishing from the pages of our titles any time soon”, and that’s according to Marvel Comics’ Executive Editor Tom Brevoort . He added that “their stories are not over and they’ll have a role to play in what comes next. It’s just a different role than anything we’ve seen them doing before – which is interesting and exciting!”

Indeed it is. Shaking up the formula and granting new roles for old faces to play, and letting underused/new characters do the heavy lifting could well lead to some of the best comic book narratives in years. Seeing how the ever-prideful Thor reacts to losing his powers and discovering another take them could be really interesting, while Roger’s reaction to Sam’s shield-slinging could be cause for some emotional moments, as well as some laughs.

Tony Stark is arguably most engaging when he’s on the rocks too, with his human vulnerability making him a very three-dimensional character in a world full of flag-waving patriots and super-powered Gods in capes. For now, this writer isn’t ruling out the idea that all the ‘Avengers NOW!’ changes might just be brilliant.

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What’s the history of such changes?

Additionally, as you probably already know, this isn’t the first time Marvel has made a drastic character change in the world of comics. Gender, species and brain-occupier have all been fair game for writers in the last few years, even if roles do almost always return to the accepted status quo after a while.

To name a recent example, Marvel’s 2013 initiative ‘Marvel NOW!’ saw some pretty big shake-ups for several old favourites. Deadpool was given new purpose searching for former American Presidents, Marvel’s first family the Fantastic Four had a completely new roster (Ant-Man, Ms. Thing, Medusa and She-Hulk to be precise), the Hulk had gone AWOL and Iron Man jetted off to space to join the Guardians Of The Galaxy (brilliant movie idea, anyone?). It isn’t unprecedented that Marvel would want to rejig its universe slightly, then.

Perhaps most famous of all the 2013 ‘Marvel NOW!’ changes was Marvel’s decision to ‘kill off’ Peter Parker. With the inverted commas there signifying the fact that no-one but Uncle Ben stays dead forever in the world of comics, as the legend goes. Spidey as we had grown to know him was absent for over a year though after an evil plot by a soon-to-die Doc Ock caused a mind-swap which let Peter seemingly perish in Ock’s deteriorating body while the mad scientist stole Peter’s form and swung off to start a new life as the self-proclaimed Superior Spider-Man.

Much like the female Thor story, this decision to recast Spider-Man as the morally-ambiguous alter-ego of a long-standing supervillain was initially met with a large amount of worry in the online realm. But did the decision pay off?

Undoubtedly. Through replacing Peter, Marvel managed to create a world where readers had next to no idea what would happen next or whether the hero could be trusted, thus injecting a huge dollop of tension back into one of Marvel’s longest-running characters. Well written, well drawn and well received , Superior Spider-Man is proof that drastic character changes are not necessarily something to be scared of. When they bring back Peter Porker, the Amazing Spider-Ham, that’s when you need to worry. (Although this hammy Spidey alternative does have a hilarious cameo in the Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions game.)

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It’s worth remembering too that the character of Thor has been no stranger to big changes since its introduction in 1966. Documentary crew-member Red Norvell took the mantle to save Thor’s life in the late 70s, genetically-enhanced green alien Beta Ray Bill held the hammer for a while, Eric Masterson (later a hero in his own right as Thunderstrike) did the job for years and Dargo Ktor had a stint as the Thor of the far flung future and appeared over several issues as a member of Thor Corps, a time-travelling team-up of Mjolnir’s past, present and future wielders. Whatever your stance on these varying versions, the legacy of Thor survived all of them, proving that the central idea has enough quality to be played around with a bit from time to time.

And we’ve not even mentioned the alternate reality versions which have seen Thor recast as long-dead crazy man with a hammer (Marvel Noir), an undead cannibal with a makeshift concrete-and-pipe mallet (Marvel Zombies), a dog called Thrr (Spider-Ham), and, perhaps most brilliantly, during a stint entitled Thor Croaks in 1986, a frog. If you’re a long term Thor fan, you’ll know that handing the mantle to a woman is very far from the strangest or worst things to happen in the comics. In fact, Jane Foster also held a Thor-esque role once, becoming Thordis in a one-off What If? story.

So, is this a good idea?

This is the difficult part. Is it a good idea to make big changes to established characters? It’s impossible to say definitively. The decision to do so hasn’t always worked well in the past, but has equally created some fantastically thrilling stories too.

It’s probably fair to say that it comes down to the reasoning behind the creative decision, in this writer’s opinion. If the only incentive behind the decision is to make “the most unusual Thor story ever published” (as Thor Croaks was billed), then it’s probably not the wisest move. Tag-lines like that scream of a slightly-desperate attempt at pulling in a few more sales through a one-off bizarre scenario designed only to draw attention on a newsagent’s shelf.

This kind of ‘increase interest through sheer randomness’ technique was hugely popular a few decades back, and DC was in on the act too. Marvel’s main rivals were battling the random character swaps by delivering such clangers as the Joker’s deadly fish-guns and repeatedly hammy dialogue from Gotham’s Dark Knight himself. Including, but certainly not limited to “Robin, I must wear a different coloured Batman costume each night!”

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The cheesy, transparent nature of some random sales push attempts shouldn’t put us off the whole idea of character swaps though. When they’re done right, they can be a much-needed adrenalin shot to a fledgling creative process. By swapping Doc Ock and Peter Parker’s minds, Marvel opened a door for over a year of tense, engaging Spider-Man adventures. Who’s to say that the addition of this mystery woman as the new Thor won’t have a similar effect on the standard of Thor comics?

The new Thor and the Captain America switcheroos aren’t all there is to be excited about either. Overlooked in lots of the news coverage is the fact that the original Thor isn’t being killed off or written out – he’s becoming unworthy of his own powers. Russell Dauterman sketches of this new Unworthy Thor (one of which is above) look pretty cool, with Odin’s son bearing a snazzy axe and wearing a tatty-cape over a bare torso. As well as this intriguing visual, the narrative possibilities of Thor losing his powers are pretty interesting too.

Will he be on a quest for redemption? Will he go bad? Does he get possessed? Does he fight the new Thor in a cross-gender bust-up of epic proportions? Is there Thor on Thor romance? Will we see the original Thor back in his amphibian form? We don’t know, but we’re very open to the idea that the new Thor stories will be all kinds of awesome.

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