Jason Aaron began his run writing Thor: God Of Thunder by introducing the villainous Gorr the God Butcher. For millennia Gorr travelled the cosmos, killing all immortal beings he encountered in the most macabre fashions he could imagine. The story is obviously rich with theological implications, considering both the nature and purpose of our ideas of the divine as well as introducing the question that will form the core of Aaron’s run to date – what is a worthy god? In preparation for a paper I’ll be presenting on Jason Aaron’s use of the Divine Feminine in The Mighty Thor at the ACA/PCA Conference on Popular Culture next month, I’ve been reading all of Aaron’s work with Thor (both Odinson and Jane Foster). My research also led me to many articles interpreting Aaron’s work as a sort of atheistic manifesto, something I felt warranted further discussion.
There are two very different ways to approach the theological meaning behind the stories Jason Aaron has told with Thor, beginning with Odinson and continuing through Jane Foster’s time wielding Mjölnir. The first read is this story, at its core, is an aggressively atheistic tale warning of the dangers of theism and outlining the selfish and narcissistic nature of the gods we create. It would be akin to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy (which, if we’re being honest, offered some healthy critiques of a certain brand of religious thought even as Pullman’s been open with the fact that it’s goal was to be a sort of anti-Narnia in its message). It’s not hard to see how this idea arose.
Thor: God Of Thunder #1 begins in 893CE, with Thor celebrating in a Viking village after he’s slain a Frost Giant plaguing the people. During the celebration a cry rings out as a young woman finds butchered body parts washing up on shore. Thor informs the people it was a god who was killed in such a brutal fashion, a god whose eyes held fear Thor’s never seen on the face of a god before. Aaron’s run begins with the death of a divine being. The gods, Aaron is telling us right from the start, aren’t as safe/strong/immortal as we may think.
Young Thor eventually tracks down Gorr the God Butcher and, as they battle, Gorr asks Thor, “I cannot help but wonder, little god, to all the poor damned fools below us who worship you…what are you the god of? Axes? Drunkenness? Vanity? Of war perhaps? I have killed so very many gods or war. And gods of fear. Gods of chaos. Gods of blood and wrath and jealousy and lies. Of plagues and earthquakes. Genocide and revenge. Of degradation and death. Very few gods of poetry and flowers. Though I killed those just the same.”
Religion and gods, it would appear Aaron is saying, are often used in unholy ways. These are not noble nor holy attributes – war, fear, chaos, blood, wrath, jealousy, lies, plagues, earthquakes, genocide, revenge, degradation, and death – yet they are the types of gods Gorr finds most often. Gorr is killing gods because he sees them as a plague, causing more damage than they are worth. This creates an interesting juxtaposition. He is a monster who kills gods indiscriminately. But he isn’t killing indiscriminately. Gorr only kills gods. It’s clear he’s proud of what he does too. He sees gods as toxic so there’s a purpose behind his actions, a reason this needs to be done – at least in his own mind.
Thor: God Of Thunder #5 begins with Gorr reflecting on his past. “That’s how we were taught to honor our gods. Through fear. But where were those gods whenever we needed them, I asked. Where were the gods when I needed them most? They were where they always are, all throughout the universe…they were nowhere to be found.” This is the struggle at the heart of the Book of Job as well as the cries of countless devoted people through history. Why do bad things happen to good people? How could God let this happen? Where is God??
In Issue #6 we learn, as a child on his home planet, Gorr’s father died from the “sun fevers.” His mother died saving him from a sand tiger attack. Years later, his wife Arra died in a rock slide, while pregnant with their fifth child. Months after Arra’s death, three of his remaining children were dead – also from the sun fevers – and his youngest would die in his arms from starvation and dehydration. Through it all his mother, his wife, and his clansmen all tell him the gods will provide and the gods will protect and save them…yet nothing happens. After the death of his final child Gorr proclaims they are all damned as the gods do not exist. Banished from his tribe, Gorr wanders the desert waiting to die until he sees two immortal beings fall form the sky. In the crater he finds the weapon which will give him the power to murder gods and he begins his millennia-long quest to kill them all.
As he murders through the millennia, Gorr has, “one simple dream…strong in [his] heart…the dream of a godless age.” When the Viking soldiers come to aid Young Thor in his battle with Gorr in 893, Gorr tells them, “Listen to me, you fools! Do not throw your lives away on something as useless as a god! He isn’t worthy of your devotion! None of them are! Just listen to me! Listen and let me tell you of my dream! A dream of a [godless age].” The implication is clear. Gods are not worthy of devotion because they are not there when we need them.
This (potential) negative depiction of divinity will continue as Marvel’s “Original Sin” crossover event culminates with Thor Odinson coming to believe Gorr was right. This realization – that no god is worthy – will result in Thor being unable to lift his hammer, Mjölnir calling to Jane, and Odinson willingly abandoning the name “Thor” to the one who is clearly worthy to be Thor. The stories of Jane’s time as Thor continue to wrestle with the question of where the gods are when we need them, as she picks up Mjölnir to protect the universe while simultaneously fighting the cancer that rages through her body – a cancer untouched by any prayer or god she knows, a cancer growing unchecked (as her transformation to Thor purges the chemo from her body) because she won’t let others suffer.
When Thor faces the Shi’ar gods K’ythri and Sharra in the Challenge of the Gods in The Mighty Thor #’s 15-19, we see the harsh characterization of gods continue. Issue #15 opens with this narration over the Shi’ar invasion of Asgardia, “And battle unparalleled did rage. And as usual when it comes to conflagrations involving the gods, most combatants seemed unaware of why the battle was even being waged. Or what they were fighting for, beyond their own lives. And the thrill of the combat itself. No words were said about how tensions had arisen of how they might be resolved. Or who, if anyone, was to blame.” The gods create pointless death and violence because it entertains them. Yet Thor arrives to halt the violence and this is important to understand what Aaron’s doing.
This brings us to the second and, to my mind, more accurate way to read Jason Aaron’s run with Thor. Rather than rejecting all understandings of divinity and religious thought, Aaron is offering a far more complex narrative about what is worthy of worship. First, it is not unimportant that the most anti-god character to appear in Aaron’s run (even while acknowledging many characters have offered doubts and challenges to the divine) was the villain Gorr the God Butcher. While Gorr is a fascinating and layered character, we are not meant to sympathize with him over and against Thor – much less the three Thors who face him (that’s right I said three Thors! (I know I haven’t mentioned it until now but this story involves time travel and even if you’re not feeling a brilliant theological reflection you should read this for the time travel (you get Young Thor (893CE), Thor the Avenger (our current Thor), and King Thor (the ruler of Asgard from millennia in the future) all battling Gorr! (a trinity of Thors if you will (oh, there’s that theological significance again))))).
Second, for all of Aarons critiques of gods and what is done in their name, he still always clearly presents Thor as the model of “the greatest god.” His critiques are valid – there have been, is, and will continue to be great evil done in the name of God and not all images of God are equal. To ignore this is dangerously naïve. But there’s something worthy of worship when we move past all of that. In Thor Odinson and, even more importantly with its rich theological implications in Jane Foster as Thor, Jason Aaron shows us what a worthy god, deserving of worship, looks like. Alongside all the honest and informed critiques of corrupt and self-serving images of gods, we see again and again that Thor is the greatest of all the gods and Jane Foster is the greatest Thor (the full implications of which are the story for another post).
We see this theme is present from the beginning of Aaron’s run. Thor: God Of Thunder #1 has Thor the Avenger arrive on the planet Indigarr, where a young girl is praying, “I’ve…I’ve never prayed before so I’m not exactly sure how to do this, but here goes. Dear Thor, my people need your help. It hasn’t rained on my planet for many years. Everything here has died. Soon we will die too. Everyone throughout the spaceways says you’re the greatest god who’s ever lived and that you can do anything. Please, Thor…save us.”
Thor does just that underscoring how Thor is seen as “the greatest god who’s ever lived” (something that is key as Mjölnir will respond for Jane in ways she never has for Odinson, illustrating her greatness/superiority as a god). It also shows us he’s worshipped as a god all over the cosmos, not just on earth. This is an interesting dimension to the narrative as the Asgardians – while they see themselves as gods – are also clearly defined in the Marvel Universe as aliens who were worshipped on earth. Thor tells the young girl, “I heard your prayer, little one. And what kind of god would I be if I did not answer prayers?” This line indicates gods are to answer prayers and gods are to protect us. We know this because Thor does so and Thor is the greatest of all the gods. When Thor learns Indigarr has no gods, he goes off in search of them…only to find they’ve been murdered by Gorr.
Continuing with Thor as our model, we see the greatest of all the gods can also admit to mistakes. As Thor begins to seek out gods who have been missing for a long stretch of time he uncovers how far Gorr’s reign of murder has reached. Exploring the cosmos Thor thinks, “Each book from the Hall Of The Lost leads me to more carnage. More eyeless attack dogs. But no God Butcher. There’s no pattern to his spree. For 2,000 years he has simply crosscrossed creation, killing anything immortal he finds. What does it say about the gods in this universe that no one has ever even noticed or cared? What does it say about me?” The majority of the gods are disconnected and self-involved. They are so self-involved they failed to notice genocide raging through their own kind because it didn’t directly affect any of them. Thor is greatly pained as he realizes the complicity inherent in his ignorance.
Thor’s willingness to grow and to change may seem surprising when we apply it to our notions of the Divine but it’s a trait anchored in the Judeo-Christian tradition. To name but a few examples, the story of the flood in Genesis is followed by the covenant God makes with Abraham. God realizes that promise and fulfillment – a real relationship – is the better way to work with humanity than wiping everyone out in anger and starting over again. When God is ready to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for being inhospitable to strangers, it is Abraham who bargains with God on behalf of the innocent living in the cities and gets God to change God’s mind.
On this note of change, we see Thor is willing to wrestle with doubt. As Thor the Avenger sails through the cosmos alongside King Thor to face the God Butcher, “He struggled to put doubts from his mind. Worries that buried within Gorr’s vengeful rants…there was some small ember of truth. A truth that threatened to consume him. Thor sailed on, craving combat with every ounce of his being. Combat, and just a bit more ale.” Arriving at the Unholy World of Gorr, they learn Gorr is building a “Godbomd.” Once it’s detonated it will ripple through creation killing all gods that were, are, or ever will be. Young Thor, Thor the Avenger, and King Thor lead the battle against Gorr to destroy the Godbomb.
As Gorr battles the Thors, he hurls a planet at them. Thor the Avenger realizes it’s populated and saves it from impact. Then Gorr tells him, “At last I understand you, little god. The old you, the king, he’s always been fueled by regret. He thinks if he kills me, he can erase his own history of wretched failure. And the young one, the Viking god, he uses arrogance and rage to mask his crippling shame. But you…you I could never quite figure out. Until now. You know I’m right. That’s why you fight so hard. Why you try so desperately hard to seem noble. Because you see just how petty and useless your kind truly are. You know what I know. That gods have never created or cared for anything. Except themselves. The god who doubts. Heh. I change my mind. You’re my favorite Thor.”
This doubt will continue to grow as we see Mjölnir’s passage from Odinson to Jane. As Jeff pointed out when we were discussing this earlier, it is not insignificant the traditional masculine, warrior image of god personified by Odinson is ultimately unable to lift the hammer. Yet Jane, personifying the wisdom and compassion that are hallmarks of the Divine Feminine, embodies both the strength and the faith needed to be the greatest Thor and thus the greatest of all the gods.
Returning to this story arc, with the bomb about to explode, Young Thor leads the other gods Gorr has enslaved against Gorr’s berserkers while King Thor battles Gorr himself. Thor the Avenger uses both his and his future self’s Mjölnir to pummel the Godbomb. As he brings the power of the hammers to bear, “The Godbomb seethed with power. The roaring of Mjölnirs shook the stars. Thor fought to choke down fear. But it bubbled up like bile. And Gorr’s words burrowed deep into his marrow. What if they really are better off without us, Thor wondered in fear. Even as he swings his hammers. What if a godless age is what they deserve? What if Gorr…isn’t a madman at all? Gods help us, what if he’s…”
Thor the Avenger dies in sacrifice, pulling all of the explosion into himself to keep it from rippling across time. But he will be resurrected three days later (not a simple comic plot device here but a narrative element carrying great theological significance) by King Thor. As is the case with time travel, “The Thors would not remember having met themselves. And chances were, they would not meet again in such a way. Instead they returned to their own separate worlds and lives. Their own ambitions. Their own fears. Their own callings. And also, their one common destiny…to be the greatest god who ever lived.”
Again we see the affirmation that Thor is the greatest god who ever lived. We can’t ignore this point. Yes, Aaron offers a healthy indictment of religion and gods but we have a history of doing a great many things in the name of God (not to mention the images we make of God) that merit indictment. To say that all Aaron is doing with this tale is championing the idea of the death of God is to miss the forest for the trees. The man’s command of theological concepts in this story is unlike anything I’ve seen in a comic book before. It’s so nuanced, layered, and informed. Jason Aaron isn’t dismissing all notions of the Divine. He’s making us consider what is God and what is truly worthy of our worship? We have a dangerous habit of making God over in our own image and not always reflecting on the implications of doing so. Here we’re called to reflect on what we give our faith, heart, soul, and love to.
This is a constant theme, increasingly developed through Jason Aaron’s entire run. This first arc, running from Thor: God Of Thunder #1-11, lets us know that Thor is “the greatest god.” Why? Well Thor answers prayers. Thor defends those who need defending. Thor protects innocent life. Using the time travel narrative and moving from Young Thor to Thor the Avenger to King Thor we see that Thor is willing to grow and to change. Thor learns from his mistakes. Thor is also willing to doubt and to change, showing the truth that just as we seek a working relationship with the Divine so too does the Divine seek a working relationship with us. Lastly, Thor is willing to sacrifice himself to protect others, allowing for the transformation of the darkness left in the wake of evil into new light.
A story with such profound theological implications doesn’t happen as the accidental offshoot of a Nietzschean inspired pop parable about the death of God. No, rather Jason Aaron knows what he’s doing and he’s consistently giving us the most intentional and complex theological narrative I’ve ever found in a comic. The scope of his tale impresses me more with each issue I read. Every new story adds depth and dimension to Thor and, in so doing, adds a layer to the definition of what a truly worthy god is until we get his ultimate answer in Jane Foster’s beatific vision of the Divine Feminine as Thor.
If you’d like a little more theological reflections care of Jason Aaron’s The Mighty Thor than you can check out this post where I explore how Jane’s turn as Thor outlines the nature of the Divine.