This issue of THOR was another book that I got coverless in one of those plastic-wrapped bundles of supposedly-destroyed comics that my drugstore was selling. That’s a Jack Kirby cover on this issue, but one that’s a little bit difficult to recognize as the King’s work given all of the changes and corrections that were done to it. This includes Thor’s face, the Grey Gargoyle’s face, Sif’s hair and a number of other smaller bits. For whatever reason, Kirby’s covers were recognized to sell and be eye-catching, but his approach to characters that he had created such as Thor had strayed too far from the accepted look for Marvel’s editors. The sail on this flying ship has been colored red inexplicably, so as to make the logo pop better. But that’s still a weird choice.
Like the other recent issues in this run, the book itself was written by Len Wein. Len was a solid craftsman in this period, whose work always hit the mark. I don’t know how enthralled he was to be writing THOR, however, as many of his stories on the title felt like riffs on older elements within the series. The artwork was crafted by the always-reliable John Buscema, here being finished by the heavy hand of Tony DeZuniga. I’ve always felt that DeZuniga’s work was better suited for the black and white magazines, as his inking on the color comics often printed muddily.
We left off last issue with the star-spanning Viking flying ship of Thor and his fellow Asgardians being sighted by a ship piloted by space pirates, who are being led by Thor’s old enemy the Grey Gargoyle. So this issue opens with the pirates laying siege to the Asgardian craft. As you’d expect, Thor and the Warriors Three give a decent showing in a colorful-if-empty battle sequence, but then the Gargoyle himself enters the fray. He uses his ability to petrify his enemies with a touch on a number of Thor’s allies, then threatens to shatter Sif’s immobile form unless the Thunder God surrenders. Despite his rage, Thor realizes that he has no choice but to acquiesce.
While Thor and his fellows are taken prisoner, the scene cuts back to Asgard, where Balder is holding the Throne in the absence of the missing Odin. I had been getting and reading this run entirely out of sequence, so it was no great surprise to me when this subplot ended with the Enchantress and the Executioner bursting into the chamber of Balder and Karnilla. But that would be a problem for another issue. Meanwhile, back in space, the Gargoyle’s petrification only lasts for an hour, and so Thor and the gang wake up to find themselves shackled and collared by the gargoyle as slaves. The pirates intend to use them as they use all of their captives: to stoke the cosmic furnace which provides power to their ship.
The remainder of this issue is primarily given over to backstory. As Thor and his team are put to work, they begin to interact with their fellow captives, and learn how the pirates had been traveling from world to world, marauding, capturing and killing. Those that survived their attack were put to work in the furnace room, from which there is seemingly no escape. But the fact that the Asgardians aren’t intimidated by their captors gives the other slaves a spark of hope that escape and liberation might yet be possible.
A word here about Volstagg the voluminous, one of the Warriors Three. When he was first introduced some years earlier, he was described as a warrior of great renown who had perhaps supped a little bit too heartily upon his retirement from active battle. Over the years, though, this interpretation was eroded away, and by the mid-1970s, his sole purpose seemed to be as a figure of mockery, because he was fat and cowardly and gluttonous. In other words, he was the butt of every obvious joke, even among his supposed friends. Not being the most slender of kids myself, I hated Volstagg as a result. But now, looking back at it, what I hate is the depiction itself. In later years, future writers beginning with Walt Simonson would give Volstagg back his dignity by remembering his good, heroic qualities as well as his foibles. But for the THOR books of this period, the character was insufferable.
Anyway, it turns out that the Rigellian Recorder holds the key to Thor and the Asgardians’ escape. Being not a living being but rather a device in humanoid form, the crippling slave collar has no great effect on him, and he is able to compute how to remove it. Thus freed, Thor begins to stir up the crowd to fight for their liberty. But before he can half get into it, the Grey Gargoyle appears once again before them–and they still have no defense against his stony touch. To Be Continued!