"Journey into Memory with The Mighty Thor"A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Kelvin Green, Paul Brian McCoy, Samuel Salama, Dave Wallace, & Thom Young
Marvel's latest venture into live-action filmmaking, Thor hits theaters in America this week, after a very strong opening in Europe. As the day approaches, the films rating on Rotten Tomatoes is dropping into the high Eighties, but that's to be expected. You just knew there was going to be some blowback after the first week or two of release overseas saw the rating in the high Nineties.
American critics are nothing if not nitpickers.
But word of mouth is strong and it has almost made its budget back already, before the US premiere even begins, so we can fully expect to see more Thunder God in the future. This bodes well for both Captain America and The Avengers, if you ask me.
If the world can embrace a huge Viking god, then Marvel should have no problem selling anything for a while. This was the riskiest of the Marvel properties to hit the screen so far, and it is both a critical and financial success, and I can't help but keep stressing this, before American audiences even get a look at it!
Here at F.O.O.M. (Flashbacks of Ol' Marvel), we like to take a look back at the history of Marvel Comics and Films, as well as celebrate our personal attachments to characters, stories, creators, toys, and whatever else we loved with the Marvel Brand on it as we grew into Comics-Loving Adults.
So, without further ado, here are the Comics Bulletin All-Stars, and their Thor memories.
Jack Kirby defined the visual language of superhero comics, certainly at Marvel — despite the involvement of a number of other artists, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way is more or less How to Draw Comics the Kirby Way — so his importance cannot be overstated, but with that also comes a kind of received wisdom that his work is always untouchable and definitive, and I'm not sure that's fair.
His X-Men wasn't a patch on what came later, for example, and we should all be grateful that he didn't provide more than a cover for Spider-Man's first outing. I would argue that his Thor work also falls into this category. Kirby's Thor was dynamic and operatic and set the tone for the franchise for years to come, and I will always have a soft spot for it, particularly as one of the first comics I ever read was Thor #151, but for all that it's only the second-best run in the character's history, because the best was by Walt Simonson in the mid-80's.
Simonson came in as the title was in something of a slump, yet again rehashing the same old Ragnarok-and-romance cycle, and made it his own. His art has always been superlative, with simple lines and shapes that nonetheless evoke real larger-than-life weight, but it's the writing which impressed then and still does today, resulting in a period of inventive and epic storytelling, in the Kirby mould certainly, but more vibrant and spectacular than even the King of Comics could manage.
Simonson used the existing mythology — both Lee/Kirby and Norse — but never restricted himself to it, so while there were plenty of stories about frost giants and dark elves, there were also stories in which Thor was turned into a frog by a spell, or in which Thor had his powers stolen by humanoid horse from another galaxy, and who later in the same run became one of his greatest allies.
Simonson's stories never sat still and there was always lots of stuff happening, sometimes minor tweaks — like Thor growing a rather fetching beard, or the comic's logo being smashed by the aforementioned alien prior to a redesign — and sometimes big, epic events that somehow managed to come across as true, lasting changes even though as comics fans we all knew better.
This epic scale was also a characteristic of Simonson's incumbency, starting with Surtur forging a planet-killing sword in the collapsing heart of an entire galaxy, with pages dominated by a huge "DOOM" sound effect — the word choice quite appropriate, as we would later discover — and ending with Thor's battle with the Midgard Serpent in an issue consisting only of splash pages, an approach that gave the story an appropriate dramatic weight, back in those happy and innocent days before the technique became cheapened through overuse.
In truth, Simonson's run ends a couple of issues later, but the battle with the Serpent is the defining climactic moment.
Even so, perhaps the most memorable moment of a memorable run of stories did not surround Thor at all, but the long-standing yet rather bland villain Skurge the Executioner, who was redeemed in #362 as he proved his true worth in a heroic and poignant final stand against the armies of Hel, buying enough time for Thor to whisk a group of prisoners to safety.
In all fairness, just as Kirby had his off days so did Simonson, and not every new idea works. The American capitalist terrorists in #358 were a bit of a misfire, the Judge Dredd homage in #371 is just baffling, and as mentioned above the run as a whole sort of dribbles to an end after the impressive final battle, but the weak points are few and far between and the run as a whole stands as a true epic, as befits the traditions of the original source material.
Paul Brian McCoy
While it's not my absolute favorite Thor moment, I do have a soft spot for Thor's first live-action TV appearance: in The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)!
The only real spin on what is essentially a standard plot for the Incredible Hulk TV series is the inclusion of Dr. Donald Blake and Thor, and this is what makes it interesting. The origin story shared here is vaguely similar to Thor’s origin in the comics, in that Blake discovers Thor on a trip to an unnamed Scandinavian country and he can summon the Viking hero when trouble strikes. However that’s really where the similarities end.
This Donald Blake is a screw-up who signed on as the team doctor for an amateur archaeological group rather than the lame but honorable and successful doctor of the comics. Instead of finding a magical stick that, when struck against something, transforms into Thor’s hammer, Blake actually finds a tomb with a skeletal warrior inside along with the magic hammer.
The most distinct difference between the two stories is that rather than sharing an existence like in the comics, in the film when Blake summons Thor, he holds out the hammer, shouts “Odin!” and in a flash of lightning, Thor appears alongside him. Blake and Thor are both living beings existing at the same time, interacting and working together to fight crime.
Blake has dominance over Thor, though, having been "chosen" by Odin to guide Thor from arrogance to nobility (sound familiar?). This provides for an interesting dynamic as Blake learns responsibility on a parallel track with Thor’s heroic quest.
The performances of Steve Levitt as Blake and Eric Kramer as Thor are energetic and believable, given the material they have to work with.
The moments that really shine are the character moments between Blake and Thor. Kramer gives everything he’s got during a speech where he explains to Blake just how horrible, and vaguely horrifying, it is to exist as a disembodied spirit waiting to be summoned into flesh. And it’s hard not to like a guy whose list of needs includes beer, food, women to laugh with, and men to fight. He’s just a big lovable Viking goof.
This is emphasized with the bonding montage, as Blake takes Thor out to a biker bar where the Viking enjoys arm-wrestling contests, slamming entire pitchers of beer, dancing with the ladies (two at a time, of course), and tossing around a bully or two. Someone in the crowd even shouts, “You’re the best, Thor!” during all this. And the evening ends with Thor demonstrating his awesome cab-calling skills.
Is there nothing this man can’t do?
Add to all that a little bit of beefcake as Thor strolls around Banner’s apartment wearing only a towel after a shower (again, sound familiar?). Of course, he's got an entire pitcher of beer in his hand while doing so. It seems they were pulling out all the stops to appeal to a wide (read, female) audience in the hopes of getting picked up for a series. Sure, Thor’s not as cut as the Hulk, but he’s got the long blonde hair going for him.
Unfortunately, a series was not to be.
Yours might have been Green Lantern or Daredevil, but mine was always Thor, that honorable god of thunder with the mallet in his hand and the larger-than-life attitude, while at the same time just another, humble avenger who devoted his life to protecting Midgard, also known as this little Earth of ours.
My relationship with Thor comes a long way back, dating to when I was just an 8 year child who loved reading, well, devouring all kinds of books and comics.
You see, of course there were a few more favorites, like Cap, Spidey or Conan, but my man Thor had that something . . . mainly because he was a god walking amongst mortals, and because his stories were always full of a completely unique cast of characters, like Balder the Brave, Hogun, Fandrall, Volstagg, Heimdall, the Lady Sif . . . and, of course, his half-brother Loki, god of mischief, and the All-father Odin.
But, anyway, you could tell me that there have been many deities in comics, some of them of such importance as the one humans call Wonder Woman, or the sometimes foolish Hercules, demi-god and son of Zeus, from the Greek pantheon of gods.
Ok, you might be right, but the thing that makes Thor such a lovable, rich and important character is not just what Stan & Jack and all the others that came after did with him . . . no, the key thing here is that old Goldilocks and I have a long history. I’ll explain:
At primary school I had a great and passionate teacher who taught us all about the many gods on the Greek pantheon. Some of it I have forgotten, but that professor achieved his goal, as my child-self, a human sponge in those early days, saw something magnificent in all those heroic gods, definitely different from math or geography. Much, much, different.
And then I went to the comics, and found other, different gods than the ones I knew from school. Norse gods. And I started reading about them, about their struggles to defend their kingdom, Asgard, from all kinds of invaders, be it giant trolls, creatures of ice, or demonic creatures of fire, such as Surtur.
Whether the title was Journey Into Mystery or Mighty Thor, there was a unique truth for me: Thor was the mightiest, and he would usually restrain himself from using full force when attacking his enemies.
Thor would always fight for noble purposes. For Asgard. For Midgard. For Odin.
And, yes, every time he threw that hammer at an enemy, while spouting the words "have at thee!", of course adding "vile miscreant!" when and where his rage and his heart told him his enemy deserved them, I felt something bursting inside me, it was as if I was fueled by those incredible, heroic acts . . . and I still feel that way, because of that child inside of me that will never die.
I’ve been twice to Norway, seen Jotunheim, the land of trolls and giants, and I assure you, seeing this wonder of nature one feels and understands everything; and Thor’s cause is much clearer.
So the next time you see the lightning first and then hear the thunder, don’t worry. That means he’s still out there, protecting you.
It might be heresy to say it, but my favourite take on Marvel's Thor isn't Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's version, or even Walt Simonson's interpretation - it's the Ultimate version that was (re)created by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch.
As a member of the Ultimates, Thor's function as the team's conscience was made abundantly clear by his first action sequence. After initially turning down Nick Fury's offer to join the team, Thor nonetheless appears at the very moment when the team needs him most, to aid them in smacking down a rampaging Hulk in the middle of New York.
The catch? His help was on condition that President Bush doubled the US foreign aid budget there and then. This was Thor re-imagined as a politically-aware and highly-intelligent superhero with an overwhelmingly benevolent global agenda, whose (ambiguous) godhood was just a very small part of what made the character so much fun.
The second great moment featuring Ultimate Thor is one that comes in the second volume of Millar and Hitch's Ultimates, and it's a sequence that functions as an uneasy parallel to the team's takedown of the Hulk.
Framed as a traitor by his evil half-brother Loki, Thor is forced to battle his former comrades, and after an epic battle (in which we see that an entire team of super-soldiers is only just a match for the Thunder God - who's holding back for fear of hurting his friends, by the way) there's a beautiful scene in which the character's role as martyr is made abundantly clear.
Not for nothing was this issue - Ultimates 2 #5 - entitled "The Passion Play". It's crushingly tragic to see Thor burnt and beaten by his allies, vainly crying out to his father for help before being carted off to a S.H.I.E.L.D. holding cell for much of the rest of the series.
But it only makes his eventual resurgence towards the end of the series - and the long-awaited confirmation of his true godhood - all the more satisfying.
When I was a kid, my neighborhood friends and I would play "Knights and Vikings" rather than "Cowboys and Indians"; I always chose to be the Vikings. At the elementary school library, I was checking out books about Leif Eriksson and his father, Erik the Red. By the time I was in junior high school, I was reading books on Teutonic mythology. Thus, when I began collecting comic books at the age of 11, it seems like my favorite character should have been Marvel’s Thor rather than DC’s Batman.
However, up until the age of 16, I don’t believe I was more than vaguely aware of the fact that Marvel even published a Thor comic book series. I probably knew about Marvel’s Thor, but I knew nothing of the Marvel character other than that he was a character that Marvel published. That ignorance disappeared one day when I went to lunch and a kid I barely knew sat across the table from me with a Thor lunch box (yes, he had a Thor lunch box in high school).
I stared at his lunch box and even asked to see it so I could study the drawings. It had panels on it from the first Thor story -- "The Stone Men from Saturn" from Journey into Mystery #83. The lunch box had the entire origin of Dr. Donald Blake wandering into a cave, finding a walking stick, striking it on the ground, and turning into Thor.
I had no idea who Jack Kirby was at that time -- my discovery of Kirby would come about a year later when I discovered the New Gods -- but I was instantly fascinated by the story of Thor. The guy with the lunch box then let me read a reprint of "The Stone Men from Saturn" that came with the lunch box.
It wasn't enough to make me seek out Thor comics at my local 7-11 stores -- for one thing, I didn’t like the fact that Don Blake wasn’t really Thor, he was just turned into a superhero who had the power of Thor in the same way that Billy Batson was turned into a superhero who had the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. I obviously was ignorant of the fact that Marvel had long abandoned that idea and had revealed that Don Blake was actually Thor in a mortal form.
Eventually, though, I got around to buying Thor when Roy Thomas adapted Richard Wagner’s Ring Saga with the Thunder God as Sigurd, and I enjoyed that enough to buy all the issues as they were coming out. I also bought Thor regularly during Walt Simonson’s incredible run in issues 337-67. To this day, they remain my definitive notion of Thor -- partly because Simonson’s issues are so great, partly because I have yet to read all of Kirby’s issues, and partly because I have never really followed Thor after Simonson left the character.
Still, with my interest in Teutonic mythology, he’s a character that is dear to my heart if not always to my mind.
That's it for this time! Please feel free to stop by the message boards and let us know your favorite bits of Thor history across all mediums! I'm still waiting for someone to mention Adventures in Babysitting or Ego, The Living Planet!