As I mentioned in an earlier post on the D'Aulaire's Mythology books, the Norse Myths have always had a powerful symbolism for me; they were the mythology of half of my ancestors and I always liked the myths themselves. Oh, the Norse Gods were far, far from perfect, but overall they seemed more likeable and less, well, dicks than the Greek Gods, which were the other mythology that I was most exposed to. But their stories were, after all, relatively static; their stories were finished, their race was run.
But then in 1980, I moved into an apartment with two other guys – Steve Reed, whom I've talked about previously, and Ed Lord. Ed and Steve both had considerable collections of comics, and I read my way through them all, meeting many new heroic friends along the way – the New Teen Titans as they were just being published, Spider-Man, the X-Men…
… and The Mighty Thor.
At first, this version of the God of Thunder left me scratching my head. Thor's a big, red-bearded, boisterous bruiser of a guy. Okay, this guy's big, but where's the rest of it?
But in a superhero context, this blond Thor was fun, speaking in his faux-ancient English and wielding an entertaining suite of powers. And then Marvel showed they were perfectly aware of the true mythology, doing a special in which cameraman Roger "Red" Norvell becomes a red-haired and bearded Thor, complete with the gauntlets and girdle of legend.
At that point I grinned and accepted their modern take, and enjoyed the comics for what they were. I certainly liked this new Thor, and I even played a character based on him in Villains and Vigilantes (one of the earliest superhero RPGs). He wasn't written as a dumb bruiser, either, but often would use a combination of brains and powers to get the job done, something that always makes me happy – in either heroes or villains. Spider-Man was always in my top tier because that was pretty much his schtick, and it was nice to see that even someone like Thor, who was way up there in terms of sheer power, would not forget that brains complement brawn very nicely.
He was also a character who worked well solo or as part of a team – although there were times when you had to wonder why he bothered with the "team" bit; I'm particularly thinking of one comic – I think it was when Graviton went particularly over the top and ripped up most of Manhattan Island – where the tunnels were flooding and so Thor, to prevent that disaster from killing hundreds or thousands of people, dives into the ocean and blows the entire sea back with a hurricane that he summons underwater, making Moses' parting of the Red Sea look like a kid playing in a bathtub. Iron Man is there, and if I recall correctly the caption says something like: "And Tony Stark suddenly feels very small, next to the power of a living god."
He also had a fun stable of bad guys to fight – his scheming brother Loki, of course, plus The Enchantress, the Absorbing Man, and many others. But Thor didn't quite get into the very top tier of my comic heroes…
… until Walt Simonson took over.
Simonson's run on The Mighty Thor is generally held up as one of the finest accomplishments of American comics – and rightly so. He took the acknowledgement of the old legends that occasionally popped up in the original comics, combined it with the established history and characters in Marvel, added in a heavy dose of the real legends, and from this built a multi-year saga that I read as it came out, one torturous issue at a time, filled with more wonder and flat-out genius than I had expected to see in comic form.
I could try to describe what Simonson did that was so awesome, but in all honesty I'd probably end up simply recounting his entire run. There was hardly an issue where he didn't have some sequence that was either heartrending, inspiring, incredibly amusing – or all of them together. Even ideas that seemed ludicrously stupid were, in his hands, made the stuff of legend (Thor: Frog of Thunder?). He brought out the Norse legends and polished them, fit them into the Marvel universe, and shook the foundations of that universe from one side to the other. He gave Thor an equal and brother in arms, brought Loki, Thor, and Odin together to fight a single enemy, cursed Thor with a terrible weakness that simply gave him the opportunity for greater heroism… and through it all, let us see both Thor's humanity, and his alien nature, the true power of Asgard and the powers from which it sprang.
Two particular sequences burned themselves into my mind more than any others. The first is one that anyone who has read the comic will remember from this simple quote: "He stood alone at Gjallarbrú." It represents one of the purest and best examples of the trope "Heroic Sacrifice", and is one of the greatest "Crowning Moments of Awesome" in the entire run, when Skurge the Executioner faces the entire army of Hela alone, fighting them to buy time for the others – including his once-enemy Thor and Balder – to escape.
The other may well be the single greatest comic book published, at least to my mind: the final battle between Thor, God of Thunder (then suffering under the curse of Hela), and Jormungandr, the Midgard Serpent (who in legend was destined to slay Thor in Ragnarok). Written and drawn entirely in splash pages, with a double splash page in the center, it is designed to project the epic nature of this duel between a god and a monster so immense that it literally circles the entire world. The narration, too, is literally epic – written in the style of ancient epic poems. "Nine steps the hero took, striding like a giant; he fell to earth, reckoning not his resting place. Would you hear more?"
Simonson's run on Thor solidified his place as one of the three top heroes of my comicbook reading, and his was one of the last Marvel comics I stopped buying (which happened around the time the Inferno crossover ended). In my heart, I maintained the image of the Simonson Thor as the "real" Marvel Thor.
One can imagine I was… a bit nervous… about what would be done with Thor when they made a movie about him. He'd be an easy character to screw up; certainly the one prior time to bring him to video was a failure (in one of the Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk movies). I hoped – after all, the more recent superhero films had done pretty well – but I was still very nervous when I walked in.
And then we open on a slow, dramatic shot of Asgard, pure Kirby and Simonson gorgeousness turned into a live-action image of incredible, impossible grandeur, and I knew that the people doing it had understood. Thor lived on the screen, and lived well.
Oh, there were some changes – they compressed the "learning of humility" which was supposed to have taken a lot longer into the single movie; they eliminated his dual Donald Blake identity (though they did make a nod to it); and they carefully avoided claiming they were actually Gods, which somewhat annoyed me since that was part of the point of their existence in the Marvelverse – that the Asgardians, and especially Odin, were not just some advanced alien race but something very different, ancient, and mystical.
But overall, they did capture the essence of the Thor that I had known and loved all those years – and given us a new, and I think far better, version of Loki, one whose fall is more poignant because we can see what could have been if he had been just a tiny bit more willing to swallow his pride, just once more.
My ancestors would not, immediately, recognize this Thor and his Asgard. Yet, in some ways, he is not all that far from the original. The original Thor was seen as the defender of the mortal world, a friend to the common man, one who might walk among them, eating, drinking, and fighting alongside those who caught his eye and favor. Marvel's Thor, too, fights for the mortals around him, and has sought to live as one of them. Especially in Simonson's hands, and in this new movie version, there is I think a respect for the origin as much as there is for the comic-book tradition.
Thank you, Marvel – and especially thank you, Walt Simonson, for taking an ancient legend and making him as powerful in our era as ever he was in the past.
I'd like to think that the real Thor would approve.