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Thor has been an alien space horse and a frog – is a woman really more fantastical than that?

Marvel have announced that the new Thor will be a woman. Cue outraged cries of “PC gone mad” and “publicity stunt” from a particularly vocal segment of the fandom.

Image: Marvel

Welcome to superhero world, where the most vocal fans are constantly outraged about the same things happening over and over again. Yesterday The View, an American daytime talk show, announced that that an upcoming Marvel comic will star Thor, as a woman.

“It’s a huge day in the Marvel Universe,” announced Whoopi Goldberg. “Thor, the God of Thunder, he messed up. He is no longer worthy to hold that damn hammer of his. And for the first time in history that hammer is being held by a woman.”

Which isn’t entirely true – back in the ‘70s a “What If?” comic showed Jane Foster as the earthly version of Thor, in all her feminine glory as Thordis. And Wonder Woman is among the large crowd of people who have previously wielded Mjolnir. But as writer Jason Aaron emphasised about October’s Thor #1, “This is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before.”

The reaction to the news was immediate, the story spreading like wildfire across not only comic news sites but with the mainstream press pouncing as well. It isn’t everyday that a new comic is revealed on daytime television, not least for a superhero character that just two movies ago was mostly unknown by the general population.

Character switcheroos are common in superhero comics, with Spider-Man recently putting Doc Ock behind the face of Peter Parker, Loki becoming a child before reverting back to adulthood, and Batman’s cowl being worn by, well, just about all of Gotham. A character switch is not exactly news then, so why the kerfuffle?

Here we have the character of Thor being changed not to a different male character, but to an unknown female character. And thus, much like when Miles Morales, a black Hispanic teen, became Ultimate Spider-Man, or when Alan Scott was reimagined as a Green Lantern who happened to be gay, there are cries of “PC gone mad” and “publicity stunt” aplenty from a vocal segment of fandom.

Superhero comics are ultimately tied to a never-ending cycle: no matter what changes are made by writers, those changes almost never stick as characters are reset to their original status as heroes, villains, or background scenery. Creators can have great fun playing in the superhero sandbox but when it’s time to move on, all the toys have to be put back where they were found, all in time for the latest round of merchandise or cinematic releases.

And yet it’s what happens in those changes that drives people to keep reading their otherwise nostalgic titles – the ingenuity that can be found by each new generation of writers and artists is the spark that results in the genre still producing genuinely great works.

Only lately, and in increasing numbers, those changes are different than before. The cinema, the comic cons, the comic shops, and the fan communities are filled with women who are asking for titles more than ever before. With everyone asking for more titles. People who aren’t just white, straight, and male. Just like the real world!

And all those people have money. An expanding audience who pick up the comic trade collections and turn out in cosplay of their favourite characters. Just days after a new, funkier Batgirl was announced the fans were sharing their new drawings with excitement and hope. Just one day after the new Thor was announced, Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook are full of excited fans (and creators!) looking forward to the new title and wondering what the story will be.

After all, in the 1980s Thor was replaced by an alien space horse and temporarily turned into Frog Thor. Can a woman really be more fantastical than that? Thor’s brother, Loki, has indeed been his sister many times now so whether Thor is hit by some gender-bending persona-splitting lightning, or is banished (again) from Asgard, or goes into witness protection, the Asgardians themselves will be terribly unsurprised.

The ladies of The View though were very excited, as was the whooping audience. “Where did she get her bra from?!” joked Sherri Shepherd, as Goldberg pointed out that this Thor was actually in better proportion than a lot of female superheroes. “She’s got some guns!” co-host Jenny McCarthy added.

The new Thor is indeed a strong looking woman, which doesn’t entirely detract from the boob armour, but it will be interesting to see how her outfit and portrayal plays out.

“The inscription on Thor’s hammer reads ‘Whosoever holds this hammer, if HE be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.’ Well it’s time to update that inscription,” stated Marvel editor Wil Moss. “The new Thor continues Marvel’s proud tradition of strong female characters like Captain Marvel, Storm, Black Widow and more. And this new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute – she’s now the one and only Thor, and she is worthy!”

It’s not a brand new character as such, those are incredibly rare in an industry filled with septuagenarian heroes, but it does show that Marvel are looking outside that usual default box when it comes to character changes. And when considered alongside a multitude of female led titles from the publisher – Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Elektra, Ms Marvel, She-Hulk, and Storm – it’s hard to be too snooty about temporarily changing Thor in this manner.

Temporarily yes because permanent in superhero comics really means “until we change it again”. But if we’re lucky, new Thor will be fabulous and popular, receiving her own ongoing title at the end of it. And maybe she won’t get stuck with a name like Thordis.

Of course as any comic reader will tell you, Thor is a name rather than a title. But so is Bruce Wayne and he hasn’t always been, well, Bruce Wayne. This is superhero comics, where anything can happen and usually has happened before. 

But this time it was announced by Whoopi Goldberg. That’s one change that is definitely brand new.

Thor #1 is out in October, written by Jason Aaron with Russell Dauterman on art duties.

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses