The appeal of the “What If?” line of comics is to give writers the freedom to play in the Marvel Universe toy box without the constraints of continuity. The opportunity to explore what could have been. It’s the butterfly effect applied to the heroes and villains we read about monthly, albeit turned on its head to discover new avenues of storytelling. Therein lies the premise of What If? Thor #1.
Writer Ethan Sacks dips into the pivotal moment that fostered the temperament between Thor and his stepbrother Loki — the legendary battle between Odin and Laufey, King of the Frost Giants. Rather than emerge the victor of the historic struggle, Odin is defeated by Laufey. Subsequently, Laufey stakes his claim over Asgard. Freya is subjected to a near-infinite prison sentence, and Thor is raised as a Frost Giant, cultured in the ruthless existence of Jotunheim.
Like many of Thor’s backlog of comics, the story is driven by the nature of Loki and Thor’s relationship. Despite the change in settings, Loki always remains second fiddle to Thor. Sacks portrays Loki as a sympathetic character, still seeking his father’s favor to little avail. All the while, Thor gains clout with the despot for buying into the Frost Giant’s brutal way of life, his inherent strength and penchant for battle strengthening his favor with Laufey. In an instant of fate, Loki finds Freya’s prison. Over time, the relationship between Freya and Loki breeds an almost maternal bond.
The best aspect of the What If? Thor #1 is the focus placed on the dichotomy of nurture vs. nature. Thor’s development under the callous eye of Laufey changes Thor’s very being, yet some characteristics remain. Thor is brutal, and more rash than the god we know, but glimpses of remorse and empathy remain. On the other hand, Loki is the mischievous imp we know him to be, but Freya’s touch has softened his disposition. The battle of wills culminates in the final pages as Loki sets Freya free. Thor and Laufey give chase leading to a battle of wills; paternal cruelty meets maternal compassion. For the sake of readers, I’ll leave the strong finish for your enjoyment.
Artist Michelle Bandini does lovely work on the issue. I find it hard to find a fault in either her artistic style or panel composition. So much story is crammed into one issue, but her choices work in concert with Sacks’ writing. One such example is the moment Odin falls to Laufey. The image is both fierce and delicate. Odin’s gratuitous demise is cast in shadows. Matt Milla’s colors complement Bandini’s art. Overall, the writing and art works to complement the tone of the story.
If there is one complaint, it’s in the double-edged sword nature of a single issue. So much is forced into every panel. Years of storytelling are crammed into one comic. Freya and Loki’s rapport is built into two pages which feel rushed. Sacks deserves credit for managing so much with so little. The issue ends ambiguously, leaving readers to glean what they will for what remains on the horizon. The “What If?” series of comics can be off-putting to some readers for being non-canonical, but if you appreciate a unique story they are always worth a read.