Where are the women of Asgard to be found in J Michael Staczynski's reboot of "Thor"? For if the reader were to stack up the first three collections of Mr Staczynski's work on "Thor" and then search through them looking for anything other than male Gods, or the effectively-transvestite Loki, you'd reach the sixth chapter before a single female Asgardian appears, and then she'd be nothing but a silent and indistinct background character standing nameless and purposeless behind four lines of seated immortal men at an Oklahoma small-town meeting. Disappointingly, a second look at that figure reveals the likelihood that it actually is Loki, standing apart from his/her fellow Gods. And so, with the exception of the nymphette Kelda, all half-naked Hollywood-willowy, flimsy-negligee and blond flowing locks, who'll we have reason to discuss later, that's it for the women of Asgard are concerned for the first 140 pages of "Thor".
Book Two contains a similar absence of immortal women within its covers, despite Asgard having quite filled up by men by then, with Thor being carried through crowded hallways at 7.1 and 7.2 in which but a single very overweight woman carrying food of some kind can be seen in the background. It takes another 66 pages to catch sight of a few more shadowy and unimportant women, beyond the odd silent and characterless figure in the background of any short flashback. Unfortunately, after such a considerable wait, we're presented after those 66 pages with nothing of any substance beyond Kelda and two thin and faceless and passive goddesses watching three barechested gods playing sport, an audience and nothing more for the men baring their chests and their formidable biceps.
But at least by issue 10 we get to experience our first sign of a substantial number of Asgardian womenfolk, and indeed their substantial chests, collected together in one of Asgard's public spaces, although they're starring in a flashback of a time from long, long before the present day. (10:3.1) You can see the panel I'm describing directly above, for it might otherwise sound as if I'm making the following up. It must be as impossible for you as it was for me to miss the presence at the goldly gathering shown of what appears to be seven naked Asgardian sex workers, Frazetta-esque knock-offs naked except for the odd bracelet and gold-nipple-adorner, all displayed for the reader's attention as quite literally nothing but erotic objects for the male gaze. To what degree this pornographic continuity implant as depicted reflects what was asked for in Mr Stracynski's scripts, and to what degree it's a reflection of Olivier Copiel's artistic initiative, is quite properly impossible for me to say. It's certainly a scene which somebody at Marvel ought to have noticed and asked some questions of, if only for the reason that its interpretation of JMS's line that the women of Asgard competed "... openly for the affection of all those in Odin's court" reduces the previously demure Frigga to a slack mouthed godly groupie competing through sexual immodesty and excess for the sperm-jackpot of a night in the bed of Asgard's lord and master.
Though there are, of course, far more serious matters at hand here beyond the depiction of Frigga, a sadly relatively-minor character in Thor's back-history.
Beyond such brief exhibitions of dull-minded and contemptible pornography, however, the absence of women in the narrative continues. At Baldur's coronation at 10:19 to 10:21, for example, there seems to be but a single woman in the whole of the kingdom who's been permitted into the male space of the ceremony. She can be seen about two-thirds of the way down the right-hand side of the page, a tiny thumbnail head and shoulders semi-figure caught between the two silhouetted helmet horns of a presumably masculine wedding guest standing far closer to the front of panel's frame than she is. She isn't, shall we say, a very prominent figure, but, if you but care to squint, she's there.
I expect she's serving the salty hors d'oeuvres to go with the coronation mead.
But perhaps the single most telling depiction of women in the first three volumes of this reboot of "Thor" can be found at 11:2:3 and, in particular, 11.3.1, where we're presented with the travelling court of the newly-crowned King Baldur, and, wouldn't you believe it, the noble brother and best friend of Thor is journeying complete with at least three utterly naked courtesans. (The status-seeking god groupies mentioned above were at least shown in the context of Asgard's distant past, despite being drawn in the anachronistic style of some very modern pornography, but this scene is very much set in the present.) Most everyone else in the scene, with the exception of the bare-chested functionary with a cloak and polar bear's head over his own, are fully clothed. Baldur himself is dressed sturdily as if for the winter, but those lounging erotic models are obviously made of harder stuff.
But what are these naked and clearly sexually-available women doing there, beyond supposedly thrilling the unthinking make reader? It's never been part of Asgardian royal protocol, as far as I know, to have such pale and wan and explicitly sexually available treats as part of any royal progress, and it's pretty much destroyed at a stroke the forty years of liking for the character of Baldur the depraved I'd previously enjoyed. And I wonder what the other women of Asgard think of this matter, but, you'll not be surprised, they're nowhere to be found in the rest of Book 2 at all. Not a Valkyrie, or an elder Goddess, or a clothed kitchen maid, for that matter.
They don't exist, so they can't challenge the mindless sexism of it all.
There is at least the reappearance of Sif in the Third collection, though regrettably she has to be rescued by Thor from her imprisonment in the body of a dying women in a tale that never allows the goddess to participate, let alone take the lead, in her own resurrection. While the male gods Of Asgard reincarnated by Thor had suffered nothing more debilitating than a sense of purposelessness when trapped in mortal form, Sif, it seems, has to be utterly helpless and on the brink of complete extinction while Thor nobly battles for her soul. "My Lord -- I thought I would -- " she mumbles, a sentence she can't even finish after her ordeal and rescue, a little girl saved by the big strong he-man, who supports her nobly as she despairs. Unlike her lord and master, Sif is obviously not the kind of warrior who can face death with bravery and self-restraint.
In essence, Sif doesn't exist in the narrative to have her own story told. She's just there to be beautiful and helpless and to make Thor look heroic. It would certainly be hard to identify this Sif as an long-lived immortal woman who'd known Thor since childhood and fought beside him for quite literally centuries. You'd imagine, if she were such a long-lived and formidable character, that she would possess some sense of decorum, some concept of status and dignity which would, for example, prevent her dressing like a half-naked teenager as she does at 603:4:3, where not only has she forgotten her shirt, the careless thing, but the top button of her jeans, as if the most appropriate manner of dressing her according to artist Marco Djurdjevic is to cast Sif the goddess as Daisy from "The Dukes Of Hazzard". And later on, as if JMS and the Marvel editorial staff had never considered how all these incidents could be read in sequence, Sif makes a brave and determined start in defending Don Blake from the attack of some monster or other before solving the conflict by, yes, calling in the hardy and masculine Warriors Three to help her out. (Volstagg, that very big man, ends the punch-up and saves them all, and it's noticeable that far more energy is expended on making that fat boy a feasible character than is invested in every other single female character beyond the fragrant Kelda in this brave new reboot of "Thor".)
Never mind, dear. The boys are here now.
It's not as if Sif's calling in the Warrior's Three is by itself a problem, although someone might have noticed that it was something of a patronising scene for a character who's up until that point been shown as nothing but a clingy victim. It's not even that the dressing-down like Daisy Hazzard is of itself necessarily dubious, though it is undeniably stupid, and having Don Blake introduce Sif to his landlady as a "model" is absurd; she's an immortal goddess, Dr Blake, and I suspect, just suspect, that she'd be better characterised by a less shallow alias than "Sylvan the model".
No, it's the combination of all the carelessness touched upon above that leaves J Michael Straczynski's Thor reading as if it were a profoundly sexist book, a comic so appalling in its lack of compassion and good judgement that it really should have been edited into a less effectively-misogynistic shape long before it reached the presses. It's just an awfully regressive product for the 21st century.
And that goes for this reboots effect upon Thor's commercial prospects too, for it's the stupidest of products and carries no chance of accessing the wider marketplace beyond the massed and yet-ever diminishing ranks of hardcore fanboys. For Thor is at least in part a fantasy, and far more of a fairy story than a Howard-esque sword and sorcery tale, and we know, as Mark Millar said this week, that fantasy is one genre that does sell to women. Thor is the perfect breakout book, particularly with the movie on the horizon to raise the properties' public profile, and yet what do we have here? A book which utterly ignores women with the rare exception of showing them as sultry-eyed, bare-chested groupies, barbie-like romantic and sexual stereotypes, or victims in need of a male god's strong hand.
How could Marvel's editorial office ever think that this book could be sold to women, and if they didn't even ask that question, then why ever not? Obviously, more than half of the potential audience for comic books out there is composed of, yes, women, and comics need every fresh body handing over their precious cash that can be found. Women helped propel "Sandman" to the best-selling property it remains, for example, a sequence of collected editions far, far outselling anything of "Thor" that can be put in the marketplace. It's an absurd act of short-sightedness not to want to write for more than a few tens of thousands of, lets be honest about this, blokes.
But more than commercial suicide, it's ethically unsound. Why is Asgard so empty of women, and why is the majority of the narrative empty of any immortal women - beyond a brief appearance from the "evil" Enchantress - except for the girlish and yet immortal seductresses Kelda, shown here walking through darkened backstreets half-naked and picking up inexperienced burger-flippers in a small Oklahoma town? And why, again, isn't the story more informed about the fact of gender, since its attempt at a tragic love story surely founders upon the fact that if the genders of Kelda and Bill had been reversed, the story would have read in far less appealing fashion than it's intended to. There's a great story to be told about immortal goddesses pretending to be suitable lovers for men barely older than boys, but this isn't that. Instead, it's nothing more than ill thought-out masculine wish fulfillment, and it relies on the reader being male and so in love with the idea of an eternally blond and girlish lover that the moral and credible aspects of the whole matter are subsumed by a thin sexual fantasy.
Bill does finish off murdered, of course, but as a consequence of Asgardian treachery rather than Kelda's predatory selfishness, and Kelda herself ends up dead, quite literally heartless, and reliant upon Baldur of the travelling whore-house to restore her to life in writer Kieron Gillen's story tying off some of the JMS loose ends. The eternal old woman's love affair with the very naive young man was therefore quite laudable and romantically tragic where this comic book's take on the whole sorry tale is concerned, and Kelda's reliance upon another eternal and profoundly masculine character to save her some kind of marker of Baldur's strength and heroism.
It's as if nobody looked at this material and asked themselves what it might actually be saying beyond the narrow confines of superhero continuity. For there has to be more to the women of the reborn Asgard than Kelda in her silk nightdresses.
But the depiction of women as one or other of the age-old shallow gender stereotypes doesn't end with Mr Straczynski's depictions of the immortals. The apparently unnamed small town that Asgard borders upon, for example, is a largely male-dominated society. The meeting of the town council and the meal served for the Asgardians are both attended by far more men than women, and the town diner becomes more and more of a male preserve the further into the collections the reader goes. And with the exception of Dr Jane Foster, the only other appearances of mortal women in the story are when they pop up in throwaway and subservient roles, as, for example, airline check-in girls too ignorant not to take a huge pile of what's claimed to be gold in return for a plane ticket. (Er, did they test the gold, and did they then check with their line-managers that the procedure was a good idea? And does JMS ever turn down a good idea that occurs to him because it's utterly implausible and might throw the reader out of the story?)
Dr Jane Foster, however, is in many ways the most quietly astonishing example of how utterly insensitive Mr Straczynski is to the matter of gender in these tales. For Foster is here reduced here from a highly respected and competent Doctor who's rebuilt her life post-Donald Blake, to an emotional imbecile who's divorced her husband and lost custody of her child all in the hope that Thor's alter-ego might, just might, come back to her despite there being no evidence for such a hope coming true at all. Serves her right, the reader might think, that both Thor and Blake have no intention of doing so, or it would if it were it believable that this grown-up professional had suddenly devolved back to the emotional immaturity she displayed around 1963 in "Journey Into Mystery".
I have no idea what possible reason JMS had for creating the story line that reduces Jane Foster to a love-sick middle-aged idiot who sacrifices her child on the off-chance of getting back with an old lover, especially since the whole plot resolves itself with her all alone, with neither Blake, husband or child. Mind you, she does later, at the end of Book 3, get to fulfil the traditional female role of calling up Don Blake while helpless and asking if the big strong Thor can come out and protect NYC. I'd imagine that even Mr Straczynski couldn't bring himself to write a scene where Dr Foster screams so loudly in terror that the floating stone walls of Asgard-above-Oklahoma conduct the need for Thor's presence to his godly ears. (Especially since Thor had been exiled, again, from the woman-less halls of Asgard by that moment anyway, one of several points we might discuss in part two of this piece.)
But then at least the narrative is consistent where women are concerned; they're all defined by their desire for men and their reliance upon them too, from Frigga to Kelda to Sif and Jane Foster, and none of them possess a life worth a hoot, it seems, without that all-important male-other validating their existence and striving to protect them from all the many bad things that threaten helpless women. Whore, seductress, helpless princess, and daft man-less urban professional. All female life is very certainly not here.
Even brave Mrs Chambers, whose struggle to stay alive so that Thor's lover's soul can be rescued serves as the single unambiguously heroic act by a woman in these hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of pages beyond a few punches thrown by Sif, can do no more than persevere in silence until the tragically heroic Thor is summoned to save the day.
The matter of gender is without doubt the single most objectionable, and indeed utterly inexplicable, component of this reboot of Thor, but its not the only perplexing decision that Marvel's editorial office signed off on where the book is concerned. I hope you might join me in the near future for a look at some of the other quite baffling decisions made when this opportunity to reboot Thor was kicked into the marketplace.