thorThor by Walter Simonson (5 volumes)

  • Author:  Walter Simonson
  • Published:  Nov. 1983 – Aug. 1987 (original cover dates) / 2013 (current 5 volume set – links below for each volume)
  • Publisher:  Marvel Comics
  • Pages:  1156
  • First Line:  “Far beyond the fields we know, the core of an ancient galaxy explodes!”
  • Last Lines:  “May his hammer ever strike in the cause of justice.  So say we all.”
  • Film Version:  none, although elements creep into the two Thor films and presumably some will show up in the third Thor film
  • First Read:  Summer 1994

I have two older brothers who are both very similar and very different.  They both collect comics, both love sports, both are runners, both are big U2 and Tolkien fans.  But one is gregarious and outgoing and likes the Lakers and Niners while the other is quiet and introverted and is a Celtics and Cowboys fan.  Perhaps because he is closer to me in age or perhaps because we shared a room for several summers, I followed my older brother in his preferences rather than my oldest brother.  I grew up rooting for the Red Sox and Celtics (not easy in LA in the 80’s) and I grew up collecting Avengers and JLA.  By the time their comic collections had really started growing, my oldest brother was off in college, and then off to Santa Barbara for grad school and Silicon Valley for his career.  It wasn’t until the summer of 94, when I was living at my oldest brother’s house in San Jose that I got a good read of his comic collection.  Some of his collection overlapped with me and my other brother (namely X-Men), but two of the things he collected that neither my other brother nor I collected turned out to be two of the greatest writer / artist runs in comic history – John Byrne in Fantastic Four and Walter Simonson in Thor.  I had been missing out on these for all of those years and I really didn’t know what I was missing (the Byrne run might very well appear in a future post).

I was never much of a Thor fan growing up.  I saw him a lot because I had a huge Avengers collection but the only two issues of Thor I owned were #373 and 374 because they tied in to the Mutant Massacre going on in the X books.  I wasn’t that impressed with them at the time, partially because the art was by Sal Buscema (more on that later) and partially because I didn’t know what had been going on in Thor for the three years prior.  As I have been perusing the amazing detailed work over at SuperMegaMonkey, I have been getting various Marvel collections out of the library.  I sold the vast majority of my comic collection back in 2009 when we were about to move away from the comic shop across the street and we needed money.  One of the things I got from the local library was the Thor Omnibus, an over 1000 page hardbound collection of the Walter Simonson run and I was floored by how good it was (the Byrne run on FF is also available in such an Omnibus – Marvel knows how good those two runs were).  It wasn’t just how good the art was – the art by Simonson is so perfectly suited for the story he tells and the art by Sal Buscema later in the run is still solid, if not to the all-star level of Simonson’s – but the epic story that he tells.  I have always been a mythology fan (D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths was one of the books I read the most as a kid and if this post interests you at all, I highly suggest their Book of Norse Myths) and the way that Simonson manages to merge the Norse myths with Marvel continuity is just amazing.  After finishing the book and returning it, I decided to get it out again and do a post on it.  However, in the few weeks since I had returned it, it had disappeared – it’s not listed as missing or withdrawn – it just has no listing with my local library anymore.  And it turns out the book is out of print and copies online run for more than $200 (the original cover price is $125).  So we headed down to a great comic shop in Boston called Comicopia and I found all five volumes in paperback that cover the whole run, just like the hardcover did.  And since I am much more likely to get Veronica to read it in paperback than in a 1000+ page hardcover, for the first time since I sold my collection in 2009, I bought comics.  That’s how good the Simonson run on Thor is.

thor1Volume 1:  collecting Thor #337-345

This is where it all begins.  And to give you an idea of what an amazing revelation this is, right from the first issue, first go here, where you will see a recap of #336.  That was the kind of stuff, both story and artwise, that had been going on in Thor prior to Simonson taking over.  But Simonson’s art and storytelling take us through the roof right from the start.  In the very first issue, first we get Surtur forging his sword that will set all the worlds afire and end life (we don’t know that yet – it’s a big buildup throughout the story).  Thor_Vol_1_337But even before we open to the first page, the very cover of #337 made it clear that this was something new and interesting.  Who was this creature with a horse’s head, with Thor’s costume and his hammer no less, smashing the logo?  Then we immediately leap into the story.  thor-mighty-simonson-1-flyingFirst, we get a humorous moment where Nick Fury reveals that he knows Thor’s secret identity and that he needs the thunder god’s help but isn’t quite ready for the transformation (Simonson actually does a lot of great humorous moments, some of which I will mention down below).  Thor rushes off to battle and that’s when he faces off against Beta Ray Bill, a cyborg of such incredible power that he actually manages to hold Thor at bay (Thor is often held up as the epitome of power in the Marvel Universe – “Thor level” is something you’ll see in reference to characters and how powerful they are over at SuperMegaMonkey).  And then, to cap it off, when Thor reverts to human form, Beta Ray Bill is able to pick up the cane (for those of you don’t know, part of teaching Thor humility and giving him a mortal identity involved an enchantment that if Thor is separated from his hammer for more than 60 seconds it turns into a cane because Thor’s mortal identity of Donald Blake is lame (literally)) and transform it into the hammer, Mjolnir.  He has done what no other has done – proven himself worthy of the power of Thor.  Suddenly, Odin appears, declaring that he has need of his son, and mistaking Bill for Thor, yanks him away to Asgard.  thor-337-last-pageThe final, full page image of the issue, is of Donald Blake, Thor’s mortal identity, standing there screaming for his father.  And all of that is just the first issue of a run that would last for four years!

That final page is emblematic of Simonson’s run on Thor.  Even though I never really read it at the time, several of my favorite all-time comic images come from this run, which I will be highlighting as I get to them.

The entire first half of the first volume deals with the Beta Ray Bill story arc.  But this is just a small part of what is a much larger story, hinted at in those very first panels of the first issue, with Surtur soon coming to bring Ragnarok (so, yes, though there is a considerable difference between the Thor on film and Simonson’s Thor, it will probably help you to understand the events of the third Thor film (Thor: Ragnorok) to read these volumes first).  Also, at the same time as all of this we get the great characterization that Simonson brings to Thor’s fellows Norse gods.  We see the leadership of Odin, the bravery of Balder, the fearlessness of Sif (Sif and Thor had long had a quasi-romantic relationship, but over the course of these issues, Sif falls in love with Bill and it is handled very well), the devilry of Loki, the seductiveness of Lorelei and the humor of Volstagg (there is a great scene covered over several issues where Volstagg the Enormous sits on someone who wants to attack Balder and then proceeds to tell him Balder’s story, all the while sitting on him).

thorsupermanThe rest of the first volume deals with several building storylines, all of them eventually subsumed into the Surtur storyline, including Thor’s battle with Fafnir the dragon, the seduction of Thor by Lorelei, the dissolution of Thor’s mortal identity (to get a new secret identity, Thor enlists the help of Nick Fury, who suggests glasses and we get the hilarious scene at left).  The first volume will end with the involvement of Malekith (yes, the same character played by Christoper Eccleston in Thor: The Dark World) in the Casket of Ancient Winters storyline, one that actually crosses over into every Marvel story as winter blankets the earth.

T341_VolstaggT341_BalderThe humor and characterization often go hand in hand.  At the same time that Thor is in an epic battle against Fafnir, Balder is leaving Asgard, unable to find any enjoyment in life.  Volstagg, who is always good for some comic relief, goes to seek out Balder.  We get the bit on the left, followed immediately below by the picture on the right, that both says something about Balder and Volstagg while also being a nice humorous moment in the pages between our battle.

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 2.54.55 PMOne of the most amazing things, aside from Simonson’s art and storytelling in the first place, is that Simonson is actually a triple talent.  He not only writes and draws but also does many of his own inks.  It’s rare enough to have a writer / artist doing this caliber work on both ends, but to also do his own inking (something which I have gotten a better appreciation of since reading SuperMegaMonkey) is truly amazing.  Just look at the amazing work he does on the left in this image from #337.  The drawing itself is one thing – but the way it is inked, with the shadows across Thor’s face are what make this panel really impressive.

thor2Volume 2: collecting Thor #346-355

The second volume begins with the Casket of Ancient Winters and a battle against demons.  But that’s really just a distraction to keep the warriors of Asgard busy so Surtur can arrive in Asgard and light his sword with the flame that will engulf the nine worlds.  Things look like they will build to a head in the big anniversary issue #350, which is titled, hilariously “Ragnarok and Roll”, but the battle is so epic it actually continues all the way on until #353.  T353_OdinAndSonsThor #353 is one of my all-time favorite comics, an issue that has not one but two of my absolute favorite panels.  The first, just below on the left, is after Odin, in a last ditch stand against Surtur, calls his sons to him.  We see them battle together one final time, the all-father united with the two sons who have ever been at war with each other.  And just look at their battle cries: “For Asgard!”  “For Midgard!”  “For myself!”  Ah, Loki.  You gotta love Loki.  But the end of that issue is where Odin takes it upon himself to make the ultimate sacrifice and he and Surtur fall into the abyss together and we hear that final desperate cry from the two sons, an amazing final panel to end upon.T353_End

thor4

Volume 3: collecting Thor #357-363 and Balder the Brave #1-4

The story continues to roll on and yet the brilliance doesn’t waver a bit.  First, we have the resolution of Lorelei’s plot to make Thor fall in love with her, followed by the epic trek into Hel itself to free human souls that had been consigned there during the Casket of Ancient Winters story.  Aside from the epic battle of riding into Hel to save innocent souls, there are two major moments that happen here.  The first is that Thor has a battle with Hela herself in which he is badly scarred across the face, the scars that cause him, for the first time in Marvel continuity, to grow a beard.  T361_FaceThat battle highlights some more of Simonson’s excellent inking over his own pencils, as you can see in the image on the left.  But that battle is also something I have already written about – the magnificent death scene for Skurge the Executioner.  Skurge had been a villain since the early days of Marvel but he had never been used particularly well.  So this gives him a truly legendary death, holding the line for all those innocents souls to escape back out of Hel (since I have already written about it here, you can find the image there).  Then, what might even be the best bit, is the last panel of #363, which also makes it the final panel of the volume: Thor is kissed by a woman under an enchantment from Loki and he is turned into a frog.

T365_Hammer3Volume 4: collecting Thor #364-369, 371-374

It’s so awesome that I can’t begin to describe it.  There are a lot of different ways you can react to this.  I have always been of the belief that it’s hilarious.  But what makes it truly amazing is that Thor doesn’t just turn into a frog for half an issue or something.  He is a frog for two full issues, at the end of which we get another of Simonson’s amazing splash pages – the one on the right.  Yes, we get the Frog of Thunder.  It’s silly and ridiculous and insane and because it works so well with the humor that Simonson has kept alive and because it works so well with Simonson’s art it is also truly awesome at the same time.  T366_HammerLoki has been conniving to get the throne (you didn’t just think they made that stuff in the films up did you?) and aside from turning Thor into a frog, he’s faked it so that it looks like he is worthy of lifting Mjolnir.  To help put an end to that ruse, we get this hilarious little scene on the left.

The down side of the fourth volume, which covers the frog issues, is that after Thor regains his normal form and after the decision is made that Balder is to be ruler over Asgard, Simonson actually leaves off doing the artwork, simply doing the writing.  Sal Buscema is a good artist and his style works well enough for the story.  It’s not quite the same, but it’s not as if it drops to someone who really isn’t very good.  At the end of this volume we get to the two issues I used to own.  I owned them because of the Mutant Massacre tie-in, but what is much more important is what happens to Thor at the beginning of #373.  Hela, having sworn vengeance for Thor freeing the souls from Hel and besting her in battle, curses Thor; his bones will now be brittle but he can not die.  Her goal is to weaken him until he begs for death and his battle to hold up against the curse, and then to have the curse reversed is what takes up the final volume.

thor5Volume 5: collecting Thor #375-382

The fifth and final volume deals with Thor’s battle against a number of villains while continually having his bones shattered, the forging of his new armor and then his battle with the Midgard Serpent.  Now, if you know anything about Norse mythology, you know that in Ragnarok, Thor and the Midgard Serpent will kill each other.  Their battle is in #380, and for that issue, Simonson returns to do the art in an issue composed entirely of splash panels (SuperMegaMonkey has a bunch of them that can be seen here).  This culminates in a magnificent death scene for both, though Thor isn’t done yet, and his spirit, controlling the Destroyer (yes, the same thing from the first Thor film) storms into Hel, determined to get his body back and whole.  T382_LokiAnd for those of you, like my mother, determined for some payback to the villain, well, you get this scene at the left to end it all.

As I said, this all unfolded over the course of four years.  People had to wait each month to find out what was going to happen next (Simonson seemed to really enjoy his little next issue blurbs, like this one for #342: “Thor!  Elif!  Lorelei!  Fafnir!  Odin!  Doom!  Ravens?  And everything else we can fit into a single issue!  (Of course, it will all be very, very tiny.)” or at the end of #363, when Thor has just been turned into a frog: “Not a hoax!  Not a dream!  Not an imaginary story!  Next Issue: Thor Croaks!”).  When this storyline began, I was just about to turn nine and had never actually bought a comic with my own money.  When it ended I had just finished seventh grade and basically spent all my money on comics.

If you want to pay a boatload of money for the hardcover omnibus, you can go here.  But don’t think that you’re missing out just because you don’t have the hardcover.  The paperbacks are chock full of extra stuff at the end of every volume – pin-ups galore, house ads, unfinished art, cover galleries.  It’s all a magnificent bundle of one of the great all-time comic runs, made especially significant in that the writing, pencils and inking were all done by the same person.

If you would like to see even more of this work, and get a dose of SuperMegaMonkey’s great sense of humor, you can find his own take on the individual issues at his site.  Because linking to all the individual issues would need about twenty links, I recommend you go here and scroll down to the relevant issues.  Then get thee to thine comic shop and taste more keenly the joys of living by getting these issues.

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