Thor, the latest Marvel superhero movie, opened this weekend, and although Thor debuted nearly a half-century ago—and the character is a key part of the Marvel Universe—he hasn’t quite got the name recognition of Spider-Man or Captain America.
Created in 1962 by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby—although perhaps “interpreted” is a better word than “created” since the character and much of his supporting cast are drawn from Norse mythology—Thor present newcomers with a baffling bulk of backstory, with dozens of volumes of collected material to choose from, both in trade paperback and hardcover. Here, follows a highly idiosyncratic Top 10 list of favorite Thor moments, to serve as a guide for the curious reader.
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Words of Advice for Young People. While keeping the focus squarely on feats of derring-do, Thor’s creative team would occasionally slow the action to deliver a point about the human condition. As a legendary god operating in the world of mortals, Thor’s unique status makes him a perfect philosophical mouthpiece. In this sequence from the mid-1960s, Thor asks the assistance of three counterculture-types:
Thor is saddened by their passivity and upbraids them in no uncertain terms:
“When life doth seem too much to bear, ’tis not the time to renounce the struggle,” he says. “The ostrich hides—the jackal flees—but man—and god—do persevere!”
On one level, it’s corny—two middle-age fellows giving a stern talking-to to Those Crazy Kids These Days. But consider that Kirby spent his 20s kicking Hitler’s ass in Europe, doing his bit to save the world from Nazi tyranny. Are you going to tell him that it’s best to hold yourself aloof from the battles of life? (Images from Thor #154: collected in Marvel Masterworks: The Mighty Thor, Volume 7)
Space Pilgrim vs. The World. One of the storytelling challenges with Thor is coming up with enemies who present a challenge to his godlike power. After flailing around in the title’s early years, sending Thor up against Communists and bank robbers, Lee and Kirby began escalating the stakes with a heady mix of mythological and sci-fi elements. They even sent Thor into outer space to face Ego, the Living Planet, introduced here in a bizarre photo-montage that shows Kirby’s experimental side:
Ego is a single planet-wide consciousness that controls every aspect of the globe’s environment, Ego is the ultimate in unbeatable foes. (Images from Thor #132 and #133: collected in Marvel Masterworks: The Mighty Thor, Volume 5)
Immortality Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be. The story “To Become an Immortal” is perhaps Thor’s finest cocktail of epic action and humanist homily. The setup: Thor is forbidden to marry his mortal girlfriend Jane Foster. He appeals to his father Odin, King of the Gods, and Odin agrees to make Jane a goddess so the two can be wed. Thor whisks Jane away to Asgard, home of the gods, where Odin gives her a godly makeover:
But Jane, confronted by sights no mortal eye was ever meant to see, starts freaking out. And when, to complete her initiation, Jane must face down a creature called the Unknown (real subtle, guys), things get worse:
For her inability to confront the Unknown without fear, Jane is disqualified from goddess-hood, and it all ends in tears. As a metaphor for reconciling daydreams of a thing long wished-for with the reality thereof, it’s pretty big and obvious—but effective, nonetheless. (images from Thor #136: collected in Marvel Masterworks: The Mighty Thor, Volume 5)
“He is the Word, and the Way, and the Wonder—Yet Him Do I call—Father!” Not so much a bit, here, as an observation on how Lee and Kirby use the character of Odin, the All-Father, as a way of approaching their own Jewish heritage. The Odin described in the Poetic Edda is a troubling figure—capricious, greedy, even bloodthirsty. He was famously the wisest of the Asgardians; but to the bards of old, “wisdom” meant something far different than it does to us today, something more akin to craftiness or cunning. The comic book Odin is stern, and ultimately unknowable; but as the character evolves, it becomes clear that, even with his occasional moments of wrath, his essential nature is love. By approaching and recontextualizing the contradictory God-concepts of Scripture in sideways fashion, Lee and Kirby come up with one of the most affecting images of the divine in all of popular culture.
Giants in the Earth. Beginning in 1979, Thor recaptured its cosmic wonder with a storyline masterminded by writer Roy Thomas. Thor had occasionally trafficked in the idea of “gods to the gods”—entities of such power that even Odin must fear them. The two-year “Eternals Saga” gives this notion a sci-fi twist with the Celestials, gigantic creatures from beyond the stars. How gigantic? Try a half-mile tall in their stocking feet:
These armored colossi last visited Earth eons ago, and seeded the planet with human life. Now the Celestials have returned to judge the results of their experiment. It’s a grand, operatic story, but the pace never slackens, and the art (mostly by John Buscema and Keith Pollard, with inks by Chic Stone) is old-school Marvel at its slick, dynamic best. (Image from Thor #283: collected in Thor: The Eternals Saga, Volumes 1 and 2)
“Whosoever Holds This Hammer, If He Be Worthy…” In 1983, writer/artist Walt Simonson took over the book. An innovative draftsman and storyteller, as well as a scholar of both Norse legend and Marvel Universe backstory, Simonson immediately set about shaking up the status quo. His very first storyline finds Thor’s power stripped away from him and bestowed upon an alien called Beta Ray Bill:
It all goes back to Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, enchanted by Odin with the words, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Odin, for all his omnipotence, never dreamed that there might be another creature in the universe who might be worthy of that power. But Beta Ray Bill—lone protector of his race—proves equal to the challenge. From the ingenious “what if” premise comes an impossible dilemma, as so the two warriors, each with a righteous cause, each the other’s equal in courage and nobility, are forced to battle for the right to hold the hammer. It’s riveting stuff, leading to a surprisingly moving denouement. (Image from Thor #337: collected in Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, Volume 1)
Hopping Mad. Simonson’s run on the book mined classic folk-tale and fantasy tropes for grandeur. But those sources also inform a keen sense of the absurd—never moreso than when the Prince of Asgard finds himself magically turned into a bullfrog. The transformed Thor falls in with a frog colony in Central Park, and helps them in their struggle against marauding rats:
But the true, glorious madness begins when our transformed hero stumbles across his discarded hammer, and, after a mighty struggle, manages to lift it, and… well, remember that bit about “Whosoever holds this hammer”?
That’s our hero, kids—a 6-foot-6, thunder-wielding man-frog. No wonder my generation is all screwed up. (From Thor #364 and #365: collected in Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, Volume 3)
Valhalla, I Am Coming! In a way, 2008’s “Ancient Asgard” stories bring Thor full circle. Matt Fraction’s scripts evoke the tone, if not the content, of the old legends. The gods squabble and snipe and are made stupid with lust and drink. Their Asgard, as rendered by artists Patrick Zircher and Khari Evans, is not a golden city of sci-fi spires but a dingy mead-hall where they wait out the endless northern winter. And when the action kicks in, well…
These are the gods before they grew into their latter-day nobility, rough deities for a rough culture. This is heavy metal comics, as funny, raunchy, and brutal as the myths that inspired it—ancient and modern all at once. (Image from Thor: Man of War one-shot: collected in Thor: Ages of Thunder)
…And David Caruso as Fandral the Dashing. Thor projects usually avoid pop-culture pastiche—the property is, by its very nature, an ill fit for that sort of riffing—but the 2009 one-shot The Trial of Thor, by writer Peter Milligan and artist Cary Nord, is pure Hollywood high concept. The action takes place in the realm of the gods, where Odin has asked the Warriors Three to investigate a string of killings that appear to be the handiwork of the Thunder God himself. Along the way, they interview eyewitnesses, and even call upon expert testimony—in a scene eerily similar to a certain TV franchise:
Yup, it’s CSI: Asgard! While it may not be a story for the ages, The Trial of Thor makes the list for its sheer brazenness and high spirits. Yeeeeeahhh!
These two panels from Journey into Mystery #116. Had to throw in one more Kirby bit:
Geez, what does an omnipotent multidimensional entity have to do to get a little “me time”? And how lovable is the Lord of Asgard hustling off to manage a crisis in his robe and fuzzy slippers? I’m telling you now, if Anthony Hopkins as Odin recreates this scene in the upcoming film—there’s your Oscar moment, right there. (Collected in Marvel Masterworks: The Mighty Thor, Volume 3)
Wheresoe’er thou findest the innocent who cry for justice, there shalt thou find Jack Feerick. There, and at Popdose.com, where he be Critic-at-Large. Forsooth!