(In case anyone is keeping track of the “Actually” bit, vol. 16 was “War of the Realms.”)
My biggest complaint with “War of the Realms” was that it was focused too much on spectacle. There were lots of epic showdowns and conflicts on display, but it was lacking in smaller character moments to help flesh out the war and its stakes. Given that the event spun out from the pages of Jason Aaron’s run on “Thor,” my expectation was that we’d get those kinds of stories with this volume. That doesn’t quite happen here, though the double-dose of epiloguing just about makes up for it.
So, remember when Laufey ate Loki? Were you wondering what the Prince of Lies was up to while he was being digested by his father? Well wonder no more because Aaron has you covered with this volume’s first story, “The War of the Lokis.” As this Loki is being slowly eaten away by stomach acid he gets the full “Christmas Carol” treatment as he visits versions of himself from the past, the (somewhat recet) present, and the future.
There’s some satisfaction to be gained from seen presently digesting Loki suffer through these meetings with his other selves. Mainly because it’s so rare to see the character realize that maybe he’s made the wrong choices in life along the way. The story about what happened to the wizard who taught Loki magic, which is told through the issue in captions, is also pretty good.
My problem with this is that the Loki we see at the end of the issue really doesn’t seem like the one who burst out of Laufey’s stomach at the end of “War of the Realms” or even the one who’s hanging around in this volume’s final issues. This could be a rather large plot hole, or maybe there’s more going on with the character than we’re seeing. Maybe it’s even connected to the return of “King Thor’s” other major villain. Until then, this is a story whose good points are almost rendered negligible as a result of how it teeters on the edge of said plot hole.
Next is “The Ballad of Cul Borson, God of Fear.” Cul is a character who came out of nowhere to serve as the antagonist of the “Fear Itself” event, and who has since been hanging around Asgard as Odin’s angry and unlikeable brother. He’s not a character who has endeared himself to any particular writer or the general audience. So one might start to wonder why Aaron figured now was a good time to start fleshing out the character’s backstory as he’s sent behind enemy lines by Odin to find out what Malekith’s plans are.
To Aaron’s credit, he does a good job of making Cul more sympathetic and interesting than he’s ever been before. The revelations about his childhood and present-day mindset help dilute the story’s saccharine twist as he sacrifices himself to save some poor Dark Elf children. That’s right: “The Ballad of Cul Borson” is just like one of those episodes of a TV show were a background character finally gets the spotlight, only for them to be SURPRISINGLY killed off by its end. So while the writer does good work with the character here, it’s basically a zero-sum game. Odinspeed Cul, may your inevitable return to the pages of “Thor” see you treated with at least half of the respect you got in this issue.
“To Hel With Hammers” is the last of the tie-in stories and it’s also one that shouldn’t work as well as it does. Not only does it try to retcon a major character development into the climactic battle of Malekith, but it’s also the wrap-up to Young Thor’s story as well. To the extent that his storyline can be said to have had an arc over the course of Aaron’s run, it’s all been about his immaturity. That’s on full display here as the issue opens with him trying lift Mjolnir before Reed Richards and Ben Grimm come to invite him to the War. He was in a bad mood then, and it doesn’t get any better when he meets up with Present-Day Thor, King Thor, Jane Foster Thor and sees that he’s the only one without a hammer.
Young Thor is in surly teenager mode for most of this issue, though that’s to be expected. Yet understanding a bit of his angst is necessary to see him recognize it himself and finally overcome it when he sees his mother threatened by Venom. That’s when he finally puts someone else’s life above his own and the magic finally happens. Helping sell this all is the seriously energetic art from Scott Hepburn who really makes Young Thor’s moment of glory truly come alive on the page.
After that, it’s time for the first epilogue. “War’s End” wraps up and expands upon the lingering threads from the event to give it some welcome closure. Out of all the issues here that should have been appended to the “War of the Realms” collection, this is the one. Jane’s future as a Valkyrie is hinted at, the supporting villains are either tried, locked away, or hunted down, Loki assumes leadership of the frost giants, and Malekith gets to endure a fitting punishment in Hel.
Featured most prominently is how Thor(s) deal with Odin turning the throne of Asgard over to him. Even if it may look like he’s initially intimidated by the responsibility, he’s ultimately determined to own up to the responsibility lest Gorr be proven right. While this is good stuff, better still is seeing Odin finally work past his own issues to tell his son something he’s needed to hear for a good long while now.
This is followed up with “Once Upon a Time in Asgard” which feels like an epilogue to Aaron’s run with the adventures of Present-Day Thor. While everyone in Asgard is planning a big party to celebrate his new role as king, Thor is nowhere to be seen. In fact, he’s out doing what he was at the beginning of the writer’s run: Doing the business of a god and answering the prayers of the people. More threads are wrapped up here as well, but it’s satisfying to see Thor putting the needs of others above his own celebration here. If this were the end of Aaron’s run, it’d be a conventionally satisfying run.
Except we’ve got the final pages to remind us that there’s more to the story. The saga of King Thor isn’t done yet and it looks like the Loki/Thor fight to end them all is being set up here. Mike Del Mundo does a good job sending things out on a high note -- and generally doing a stylish job with all of the other issues in this collection -- but it’ll be great to see Aaron’s original “Thor” collaborator, Esad Ribic, back for this final story. Given the way things have turned out here, and with Aaron’s run in general, I’m expecting the very best from this finale.