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Hammering Away at the History of Thor

Heavy is the hand that wields the hammer. Or something.

There’s never been a better time for fans that pledge themselves to the Mighty Thor. He’s got a top-selling book, a major motion picture active in the works, and a central role in “Siege,” Marvel’s next major miniseries event. But amidst all of this prospective excitement, a great change has occurred: The much lauded run by writer J. Michael Straczynski came to a close a few weeks ago with “Giant Sized Thor Finale #1,” and the creative baton was passed to Kieron Gillen and Billy Tan. With the spotlight burning brightly on the god of thunder, it marked the perfect opportunity to explore a rough guide to many of the nuanced takes on Marvel’s mightiest hammer wielder.

Kirby, Lee & the Early Years: For every legend must have a beginning!

Early “Thor” was the pinnacle of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s most perfectly balanced chemistry, where they made a Nordic god somehow fit seamlessly into a world of mutates and misfits. Stan Lee’s vainglorious language gave the character the pomp and weight needed to define Thor among his heroic peers, while Kirby’s rendering provided the title’s godly power,and capturing the magnificence of the realm of Asgard.

There were many other books about good battling evil, and even a few with cripples that transformed into religion-based superheroes, but there was only one book that looked and read like “Thor.” The early adventures never rested, moving between Earth-bound tales, struggles of mythological royalty, or even galaxy-spanning space fare that set the mold for the character. Verily.Buscema and Thomas’ In-the-Middle Age: The torch is passed on!

Not quite held in the same sphere of reverence as either of the bookending eras, Roy Thomas and John Buscema’s take on Thor continued the tradition set forth by Stan and Jack, with strong mythological ties set against grandiose celestial… um… Celestials. The battle of Norse gods versus space-gods was a clear case of upping the ante and scale, creating beings that would cower even gods. These stories were ambitious and full of spectacle, but their resonance over time has not shone quite as brightly as the spires of fair Asgard.

Simonson’s Age of Auteur: And lo, there shall come a definitive run!

Walter Simonson was to “Thor” what Frank Miller was to “Daredevil.” Both cartoonists forged their legends’ by committing to their respective titles for the long-term, finding new ways to create excitement around central characters, and generally blowing people’s minds with unparalleled writing/ artistry. Knee-jerks will generally remember Simonson’s “Thor” for two things: the horse-faced spinoff character Beta Ray Bill, and the silly saga of the Thor-Frog.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a healthy love for all things anthropomorphic, but to focus solely on the most gimmicky aspects of his work seriously undersells the breadth of Simonson’s run. With the number of creative leaps and risks Simonson took during his tenure, no one story fully encompasses the scope of his storytelling ambition.

Simonson dug deep into the mines of Nordic myth, and found innovative and organic ways to weave those legends into the cosmic Marvel tapestry. Setting precedent for the many who would follow, he forged a new secret identity for Thor, upset the power and balance of Asgard’s ruling class, toyed with Thor’s godly might and invulnerability, and even fashioned a costume change or two. Simonson didn’t create Marvel’s version of Thor, but he damn near perfected it.

DeFalco, Frenz & Making Things Marvel: Fear to tread in the footsteps of legends!

When Walt Simonson concluded his beloved tenure as the caretaker to the God of Thunder, the current creative team behind “Amazing Spider-Man” — Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz — were brought in to take the reins. Their tenure was not the most celebrated of the Asgardian, but it wore its influences on its sleeve, and did enough to make a lifetime fan out of at least one young “Thor” reader.

Once again, a new secret alter-ego for Thor was created in Eric Masterson a down-on-his-luck, self-deprecating everyman in the tradition of Peter Parker who became tethered to Thor. Masterson and the Odinson were separate personalities occupying the same body, a la Captain Marvel, and Masterson came with his own set of Earthly troubles, most notably a life fraught with the struggles of a divorced parent. The intentions were fairly clear; let Thor be Thor, a stately god who spoke in “forsooths,” and whose stature was above us all, but find an access point to give the book a tether to the human world, complete with human problems. Thor himself was his same classic self, but now his alter-ego was a new face for readers to identify with.

This concept was taken to the next level when the classic personality of Thor was removed from the scene, leaving Masterson’s mind in control of Thor’s body. (The real Thor was trapped by Mephisto in a garbage bag, basically.) Suddenly, the mightiest hero of them all was a rookie mortal at the helm of an immortal body. He had a new costume, no longer spoke in the affected manner of the classic Thor, and he was constantly struggling with his own competence, trying to fill the shoes of one of the Marvel universe’s greatest heroes.

This culminated in the return of the classic Thor to both his mind and body, and with Eric Masterson being rewarded with his own enchanted mallet, muscular alter-ego body, and his own storm-bringing identity as the “it-could-only-happen-in-the-’90s,” Thunderstrike, who looked a lot like Thor, only he had a lightining earring, a leather vest, and a sweet ponytail.

Frenz and DeFalco seemed to be trying to please many masters; depowering the god of thunder to make him more relatable, making spin-off characters in the mold of Beta Ray Bill, giving the title the proper “edginess” to compete with its 90′s contemporaries, and telling stories that were evocative of the traditional Marvel feet-of-clay formula. They were light and fun, but in the end it seemed as though there was more effort put forth to recapturing the creative efforts of others than towards their own innovations

Ellis, Millar & the Ungodly: Man, He Shall Have a Crisis of Faith!

There was a long while when no one seemed to know what to do with the God of Thunder. A character designed for bright heroics, his square peg seemed less and less like a fit for a round-holed audience. Despite being, ‘y’know, a viking, Thor was out of sync with the grim’n'gritty era of comics.

As a result of waning relevance, opportunities arose to take daring risks with regards to characterization. Shortly before the book was put on hiatus during Marvel’s post-Onslaught “Heroes Reborn” era, a young Warren Ellis was brought in to collaborate with Mike Deodato Jr. and seemingly given a blank slate from which to work. What followed were some of the most far out creative liberties taken since Jack Kirby decided that the Norse god of thunder should wear a ca
pe.

Ellis’ worked seemed to be an attempt at reconciling the divinity of the Asgardians with the science-fiction tradition of the Marvel Universe. He suggested that the Asgardians were simply advanced parasitic aliens who had a millenia-long relationship with the human race. The story’s plot revolved around those intersections of science and myth, and hinged on Thor’s own disillusionment. It was the work of a skeptic, and as such it challenged the conventions of the character. And while its detachment from the narratives that preceded it made the work difficult to reconcile, that was also what made it so enthralling.

Years later, when Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch were constructing their own team of Avengers in a vacuum for “The Ultimates,” similar choices were made with regards to the hammer-holder. Here, Thor was an escaped mental patient, whose godliness was constantly a point of doubt. Again, skepticism was a core component, placing a man with god-like powers and capablities in a world conditioned to write him off as a loon with access to unfathomable technology. The is-he, isn’t-he controversy was a point of intrigue throughout their run, always preying on the practical suspicion of the 21st century.

The two takes on the character were not connected, and nearly a decade apart, but the fact that the paradigm of the character could still be so wholly reinvented so long after its creation speaks to the strength of the model. Simply put: It’s interesting to read about gods, even if, and maybe especially if, we don’t believe in them.

Jurgens Spans Opulence and Obscurity: That which is old, is new anew!

Thor was stripped of his ongoing series after his “death” at the end of the “Onslaught” saga. For a few months, the book returned to its original “Journey into Mystery” title, and followed the escapades of the Asgardians who were lost and amnesiac on Earth. The resounding lesson of that era is that it is mighty difficult to sell a book about Asgardians without the touchstone character; it just didn’t work without him.

Naturally, Thor did make his eventual return, along with the rest of the iconic Marvel heroes, and was given a new ongoing series. Writer Dan Jurgens was paired with the logical successor to the Jack Kirby throne, John Romita Jr., and the duo set out to once again reinvent the character. This time, Thor’s new alter ego was Jake Olson, an EMT, and once again the mighty warrior spent his off-hours as a healer.

This spoke to the overall strategy of Jurgens and Romita, which was to instill the most classically familiar aspects of the character while also updating and pushing the narrative forward. Unlike past alter-egos, Olson was an existing individual who Thor outright replaced, taking over his mind and body.

In a way, it was an inversion of the Eric Masterson-as-Thor story; Eric Masterson had to maintain the portrayal of Thor, even the god was lost. He was a man pretending to be a god. Here, Thor had to pretend to be a man — a man with a fiancee, a job, and a life the thunder god knew nothing of. It was a new way to bring the character down to earth. Adversarial new Dark Gods were introduced, and Thor was once again asked to defend the people of Earth as well as the people of Asgard, toeing the line between worlds.

What set apart Jurgens’ take was the steadfast way the story pushed forward. Finally, Thor was allowed to grow from prince of Asgard to take Odin’s perch as its king, and was quickly handed both greater power and greater responsibilities than he had ever known. It was the third act no one ever expected to actually see, and as such it was wholly new. Thor even made the executive decision to bring Asgard’s golden spires down to the Earthly realm, so that the gods could live among humanity.

What followed were among the most daring stories ever told in the pages of “Thor.” However, they were also tempered by a lack of immediacy throughout the rest of the Marvel Universe. Asgard was literally perched over Manhattan, but with the exception of the brief “Standoff,” crossover, it went unreflected in the rest of the Marvel narrative. Asgard was in the throes of an epic power struggle with the United States government, but even within the context of a superhero comic book, the stakes never felt real.

This was heightened by the decision to progress the story out by decades, speeding ahead of the rest of the Marvel books. It was interesting to see humans and Asgardians uneasily coexisting under the rule of Thor the All Father, but the story’s ending tipped its hand by taking place in a sort of pocket universe, and concluded with a deux ex machina that would make even a god blush.

These stories’ strengths were ultimately their greatest weaknesses. Huge risks were taken, but they never seemed to matter. While it was a story Thor fans had long dreamt to see, the grand story’s validity was undermined by being neatly tucked away in such a fashion that it would never be revisited again. It was a romp for the hard-core fans of Thor, but unfortunately, it was told in such a way that they were the only readers to whom the story would matter.

JMS & Copiel bring gods to the masses: And thus did metalurgy converge with dramaturgy!

By now, it should be obvious many plot points of the latest iteration of Marvel’s “Thor” were not pioneered by the current creative team of J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Copiel. But while these story-trappings had been explored before, but never had they been explored so fully, and so effectively.

JMS and Copiel, (along with a constantly-improving Marko Djurdjevic) brought the gods down to Earth again, but did so with a sense of Shakespearean drama befitting its regal cast. Politics and betrayal became as integral to the book as was thunder and lightning. The Asgardians were reborn, but were relegated to a world of alien rules and laws.

Taking hold in the middle of rural Oklahoma, Asgard became a part of middle-America, and Asgardians’ struggle became one of entitlement and assimilation. Here, Thor was a leader first, and a warrior second. His greatest battles were acclimating his people to the mortal plane. Once again tethered to his original alter-ego, Donald Blake, they were now equal peers in the world, and their relationship exemplified the Asgardians’ relationship with the people of Earth. The series was a slow burn, and it resulted in a pinnacle for the character’s popularity and cache.

Here, Thor is an isolationist. One might infer that this was due to the wishes of the creators, in hopes of avoiding inference from the rest of the publishing line, but the interplay of the royal characters was replete with enough demagoguery and betrayal that there was no urgency to fit in with the rest of the spandex set. Still, Marvel Comics’ long legacy is that of a shared universe, and the prospect of reintegrating one of the founding Avengers with the world at large seemed looming and inevitable. It was only a matter of when.

The tragedy of this just-concluded era is that the book’s greatest strength during that time was its unerring patience, and now there is a danger that at least some of that potential might go unfulfilled. Conflicts in this book took time to go from seedling to smashing, but when they did boil to the surface, they were satisfactorily earned. Perhaps it is better to make an exit too soon, rather than too late, but if the next team in line fails to wield the hammer as ably as did this creative team, it could obscure the successe
s of this run, and undermine the merits of the new foundation laid down for Marvel’s Norse gods.

Gillen & Tan: The Past Is But Prologue: And thusly did the legend continue…

And so we arrive at today. The early impressions from Thor #604 indicate that the creative plan is to fold the cast and world forged by JMS and Copiel into the broader Marvel Universe. The sprawling “Siege” event is ever closer on the horizon, and Asgard sits at the eye of the storm.

A war is imminent, and as warriors born, Asgardians will no doubt find themselves on the battlefield. But will the prospect of high-kinetic action overwhelm the nuanced character dynamics of the series? Will it become a fight-of-the-month title? Or will the interplay between Thor and his heroic bretheren breathe new life into the title’s urgency? Will pitting Mjolnir’s master against the greatest villains of the Marvel Universe remind readers that Thor is the baddest mamma-jamma what ever lived?

Not even the all-seeing All-Father can know for sure. But chances are, it will end with thunderous applause.

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