Say it with me: DOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM!!!!!!
The Mighty Thor by Walter Simonson (writer; artist, issues #337-354, 357-367), Sal Buscema (artist, issues #355, 368-369), Terry Austin (inker, issues #342, 346), Bob Wiacek (inker, issues #348, 367), Al Milgrom (inker, issue #367), Geof Isherwood (inker, issue #369), George Roussos (colorist, issues #337-341), Christie Scheele (colorist, issues #342-363, 365-369), Paul Becton (colorist, issue #364), and John Workman (letterer, issues #337-355, 357-369).
Published by Marvel, 32 issues (#337-355, 357-369), cover dated November 1983 – July 1986.
You could be forgiven for calling this an opera. Walter Simonson’s epic run on Thor has all the hallmarks of an opera except for, of course, the music. Thor has always been the most operatic of Marvel’s or DC’s superheroes – the Nordic theme evokes The Ring of the Nibelung, of course (although I guess we should call those Gesamtkunstwerken, to be specific), but even other characters who might seem to be operatic – the Greek mythic heroes, Hercules and Wonder Woman, would fit, as would Kirby’s New Gods – don’t quite reach the heights that Thor and his cast of characters often do. Simonson, more than any Thor creator except Kirby (the most operatic comics creator ever) understands the value of spectacle, and in his best works (Thor and Orion, I would argue), he is able to blend this spectacle with excellent storytelling, so that the emotions the characters feel isn’t just a façade for the gigantic plots but an integral part of the whole. Simonson is so good at this that at the end of his first issue, he gives us a full-page splash of Donald Blake, stripped of his power, standing in a driving rainstorm and screaming to the heavens after Odin, mistakenly, takes Beta Ray Bill back to Asgard because the alien has picked up Thor’s hammer and been transformed. Simonson, of course, was building on the years of characterization that others had done before him, but there’s still a desperation in Blake that stirs our hearts, more than the foreboding from the first few pages of the issues, in which we catch our first glimpse of Surtur and his preparations to break the universe. The first three pages set up the epic in amazing fashion, while the final two pages, with Blake scrambling over the wreckage of Bill’s spaceship, trying to reach a father who has abandoned him, show us that Simonson isn’t going to ignore the human element of the book, either. Issue #337, with its logo-smashing and Thor-alien cover, is a tremendous announcement to the comics world that Simonson will pull no punches. His opera had begun.
Simonson began Thor at a good time in comics history. When Kirby, Ditko, and Lee were re-inventing comics in the 1960s, they tended not to do long-running story arcs, packing a ton of content into each issue but generally resolving things after a few issues if they didn’t in the same issue that they began something. In today’s trade-focused world, there are fewer pages per issues and fewer panels per page, and while writers still do long-running sagas, they tend to stick to one story over the course of a trade and then move on to something completely new. (N.B.: I’m totally aware that these are broad generalizations. Work with me, people!) In the 1970s, comics writers had begun to craft long-running stories that went on in the background before exploding into the forefront, and that trend continued in the 1980s. Chris Claremont and John Byrne showed how well this could work with the Phoenix Saga, which basically lasted 38 issues before resolving. Simonson had the benefit of longer actual comics (issue #337, for instance, is 24 pages long, and the extra four pages that he got as opposed to today’s Marvel/DC comics is extremely significant) and the benefit of the “way comics were made” – issue #337, again, has 115 panels, which is 4.7 per page, and if we take out the two full-page splashes, we get 113 panels over 22 pages, which is 5.1 per page. Issue #337’s panels number is a bit low for Simonson’s run, but it lines up pretty well with a lot of today’s comics, except that Simonson got 10-30 more panels in his comics because the page count was higher. That’s a lot for a skilled creator like Simonson, and he took advantage. Because he started Thor at a time when this long-term storytelling had become the norm, and because he had so much room in which to work, and because he was so good at it, Simonson’s Thor feels meatier than a lot of comics. He can take his time with Surtur, because he has room to delve deep into Thor’s false romance with Lorelei and Malekith trying to open the Cask of Ancient Winters and even Balder’s journeys through the Nine Realms, while he checks in on Surtur every so often. Surtur appears on the first few pages of his run, as I noted above, but we don’t even see him completely until the end of issue #348 and we don’t find out his name until issue #349. Simonson plays the long game on Thor, and he does it well. It’s a function of where comics were in 1983, and Simonson took advantage of the way comics had evolved since the 1960s.
So: the long game. Surtur lurks in the background while Thor and Beta Ray Bill fight it out for Thor’s hammer (Simonson splits the baby effectively on that, giving Bill a second enchanted hammer while Thor keeps Mjölnir); while Thor, Bill, and Sif fight the demons trying to kill Bill’s people; while Lorelei and Loki plot to brainwash Thor; while Thor fights Fafnir; while Malekith and Loki force Balder to kill again, something he swore he’d never do (but Balder does get to decapitate Loki – although Loki gets better quickly – so there’s some satisfaction in that); while Balder saves Agnar’s life and meets the Norns; and while Thor and Roger Willis fight the Dark Elves to secure the Cask. During the battle against Surtur, Simonson takes time out to show how the refugee children of Asgard are faring. When Thor and Roger Willis head to Fairie to fight the Elves, we learn that the souls of innocent mortals are being held in Hel, which Thor swears to change. Simonson never forgets this, leading to the classic story in issues #360-362. The intricate plotting of the series never lets up, giving readers not much time to catch their breath. It might seem detrimental to enjoying the book, but Simonson is excellent at piling up the plot while spending just enough time with the characters to give them depth, so the insanity of the action isn’t just for action’s sake. By throwing a lot of plot elements into the book, Simonson is able to keep them all simmering, which means he can reveal character by how they react to different pressure points. Balder, for instance, is almost a co-protagonist of the book, as he changes the most during the run. There’s a reason why the great issues of this run end with #369 even though Simonson wrote the book until issue #382, and it’s all to do with Balder.
I mentioned the spectacle of the run above, and it’s important because Simonson is the kind of writer/artist who can sell spectacle, unlike some others (he’s not the only one, of course, but he’s been probably the best heir to Kirby that we’ve had in comics, and Kirby, of course, could sell spectacle). The run begins with an exploding galaxy, for crying out loud, and Surtur forges his sword in space, “perhaps beyond the nine realms themselves,” and Simonson doesn’t hold back. On the second page of issue #337, we get: “Mark well this figure [Surtur, of course] and listen. Can you hear it? The wind is rising. The sound of thunder reverberates throughout a billion billion worlds.” On the first page of #338, he writes: “The forge is the forge of destruction. The smith is a breaker of stars. And this sounding anvil rings more loudly with every blow.” In issue #340, we find: “Meanwhile, beyond the fields we know, a mighty figure, surrounded by a shadow host, swings again his mallet high above the glowing anvil … and the echoes of his blow ring across the cosmos. In the deeps of the earth, the monsters are waking.” Many writers, when they want to unleash a world-conquering villain on our heroes, do very little work making him seem much scarier than your average bad guy. Simonson isn’t doing anything too unique here – an entity greater than anything needs to be stopped, and the hero will have to make sacrifices to do it – but because he slowly introduces Surtur and because he adds the ominous narration, by the time Surtur unleashes his host in issue #346, he is far more frightening than most villains, even though readers are confident that Thor will defeat him eventually. It’s not about the outcome, it’s about how the outcome is reached, and Simonson uses the spectacle to build Surtur into an indomitable foe. Simonson didn’t create Surtur, of course, but it had been over a decade since Surtur had appeared in Thor, so Simonson was able to make him his own, and Surtur is a truly mighty foe for Thor to battle.
Surtur’s defeat doesn’t end the spectacle, of course. Even as Thor and Loki grieve Odin’s disappearance, Hela arrives to take the All-Father’s soul, but she can’t find it. Thor attacks her and tells her he’s going to retrieve those innocent souls I mentioned above. After a relatively quiet issue #355, in which Thor unknowingly meets his great-grandfather and an inventory issue #356 by Bob Harras and Jackson Guice, we get Loki and Lorelei still plotting (Lorelei’s original plan took a bit of a turn, but it’s still moving along) and Beta Ray Bill and Sif actually fighting “normal” villains, bank robbers who wear fancy armor and disappear strangely. In issues #360-362, Thor and his allies ride into Hel, which is a spectacular plot with a devastating ending, and then, of course, Thor gets turned into a frog. As crazy as it is, it’s still a wild spectacle, and it dovetails into the choosing of the new Asgardian king, which leads to Balder’s coronation, which comes at the beginning of issue #371 but is resolved at the end of #369. Simonson never topped the Surtur saga, but he came close, and Skurge’s stand on the bridge is more stirring than the final fight against Surtur, so there’s that. Simonson knew that this is what readers want from Thor, and he was able to deliver. He was able to succeed where so many others didn’t because of a few factors, I think. He drew most of the book himself, and his art is staggering (I’ll get to it below). I’m not sure if the final 12 issues of his run would have been better had he, and not Sal Buscema, drawn them, but that’s neither here nor there. As far as the writing goes, the final 12 issues suffer because Simonson eased back on the spectacle – we get generic Thor supervillains like Crusher Creel and Zaniac, the Mutant Massacre crossover, Thor’s death curse in which he is able to be injured but can’t die, and Loki’s fairly lame plot to use the giants to take over Asgard. Only Thor’s fight with the Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent is worthy of being mentioned along with these issues, and unlike Surtur, Simonson didn’t build up the Serpent’s threat – it just showed up, cosplaying as Fin Fang Foom (seriously), and fought Thor. Simonson retreated somewhat from the epic nature of the book after issue #369, and while the final 12 issues of his run are decent, they aren’t nearly as good as the first 32 issues.
Despite all the epic nature of Simonson’s Thor, at its heart it’s a story of family and a story about political transition. Every Thor story, of course, is a family story, because Loki and Odin play such large roles in the Thor mythos, but Simonson expands on this a little by essentially killing Odin at the end of the Surtur saga. Odin doesn’t really have to atone for entering Muspelheim and provoking Surtur (which story he tells in issue #349), because he and his brothers were just traveling around and Surtur is kind of dick about it, but when it’s time to throw down with the demon, Odin decides that he need to do it instead of Thor. While Thor is the defender of Earth, Odin is the defender of Asgard, and he doesn’t let Thor or Loki take that from him. Simonson cleverly shows that Loki is conflicted about Odin’s disappearance – he reacts like Thor does, with desperate fear, but he quickly realizes that this presents an opportunity for him to take over Asgard. The reactions come on consecutive pages, but they’re in two different issues, so reading them as a serial makes Loki’s moment of fear last longer before he reverts to form. It’s also clever that Simonson uses the end of issue #337, when Donald Blake is left on Earth by what he thinks is an uncaring father, and mirrors it at the end of issue #353, when Odin disappears and Thor reacts, not out of desperation because he thinks Odin has abandoned him, but out of desperation because he thinks Odin has been killed. Simonson uses one word on each page – “Father!” – but they mean completely different things, and it’s a nice way to bookend the Surtur saga by showing that it is, after all, a family story.
But because Odin is the king of Asgard and Thor is the Crown Prince, Odin’s disappearance sends the realm itself into a spin, and this is where Simonson’s epic saga and family drama intersect with prosaic, almost mundane concerns. I took a Shakespeare class in college (because English Majors rule!!!!), and the teacher told us why directors almost always ditch the parts of Hamlet that deal with Fortinbras – Hamlet is already a seriously long play, and Fortinbras doesn’t seem to have much to do to our modern eyes. Shakespeare put him in, though, because for Elizabeth and then James, a kingdom without a ruler – which Denmark is after the slaughter at the end of the play – would have been extremely disturbing, if not downright treasonous. Shakespeare was no dummy, so he made sure that a king rode in and restored order. Simonson didn’t have to worry about government censors coming in and demanding that someone take Odin’s place, but he understood that for Asgardians, who would rule them would be a great concern, and in Simonson’s eyes, that couldn’t be Thor (other writers have decided to make Thor king, but it never really works out). Thor has to give up his claim to the throne because he’s the protector of Earth and he’s a superhero. So the second half of Simonson’s great epic is the Asgardians trying to figure out who should take the throne. Obviously, it can’t be Loki, even though he schemes for the crown. It can’t be any of the Warriors Three, who are even more ill-suited for it than Thor. It has to be Balder, and so the final section of this part of the run is largely about Thor convincing Balder to become the king. Political machinations don’t necessarily make for great comics, but, of course, Simonson takes lots of detours to get to Balder taking the throne. Beta Ray Bill and Sif fight some bad guys, Thor gets even more enchanted by Lorelei (and manages to break free of her curse, as well), Thor goes to Hel (leading to the epic scene of Skurge on the bridge with automatic weapons), and Loki turns Thor into a frog. Yep. But ultimately, the second half of the run is about Simonson making sure Asgard is in safe hands so Thor can go back to superheroing. Simonson does a nice job not making a big deal about how unsuited Thor would be as a king but how good he is at being a hero. Whenever there is a chance to be the hero, he takes it, and Simonson even parallels his need to save people with the “replacement Thor’s” – Beta Ray Bill’s mission is, after all, to save his people. So Thor always picks being a hero, and Simonson does a good job implying it’s not just because he’s good at it and wants to do it, but because it takes him away from the messiness of real life. Obviously, he goes off and fights the demons harassing Bill’s people because he feels like he has to, so that’s not really a good example. But he gets set up with a new secret identity and almost immediately ditches it, preferring instead to go find Vikings in Antarctica. He runs away from Lorelei to deal with the Cask of Ancient Winters, and even though he’s slowly being enchanted by Lorelei, it’s still interesting that he feels the need to leave a woman to save the world. After Surtur is defeated, he leaves Asgard, and he specifically tells Heimdall it’s because he can’t deal with the real-world implications of Odin’s disappearance (“I see my father’s ghost here wherever I turn and I am not at peace with it” … even though Odin is not, in fact, dead). That leads him to Frigga and the Asgardian children, to whom he can play the hero (although he turns into a kindly uncle because the kids can take care of themselves). Then he rides into Hel itself instead of figuring out what to do about the throne of Asgard. Even as a frog, his heroic sense can’t let him leave the other frogs of the Central Park Reservoir at the mercy of the rats. Obviously, this is a superhero comic and Simonson has to pack it with action, so Thor’s constant seeking of that action isn’t some psychological defect, just the way superhero comics work, but it’s fascinating that Simonson doesn’t just put him into action – there’s almost always something else Thor could be doing, but he always chooses the fight. Yes, he’s saving people and being a hero, but it adds a bit of nuance to his motivations that Simonson does show that he’s neglecting other parts of his life – parts that could be considered more mature things he could be doing.
Of course, a good part of the reason why these comics are remembered so fondly is because of Simonson’s amazing art. When Sal Buscema became the regular artist, with issue #368, the book lost a lot of its epic nature, as Buscema is a perfectly fine draughtsman but is no Genuine Heir To Kirby™, as Simonson is (it’s not a coincidence that the best-looking issue that comes after issue #369 is #380, on which Simonson is credited with layouts and Buscema with finishes). What’s fascinating about Simonson is that Thor is his first big book, even though he’d been working in comics for over a decade and was pretty famous. He never stayed too long on a comic – he did the great Manhunter series with Archie Goodwin, but those were back-ups in Detective Comics, so they were far shorter than regular issues. He drew some issues of Metal Men and actually drew Thor for 10 issues in 1977-1978. He drew several issues of Battlestar Galactica and some other Marvel books – Star Wars, most notably – but perhaps by 1983 his two biggest successes were the illustrated adaptation of Alien (also with Goodwin) and Chris Claremont’s X-Men/Titans crossover, which is an amazing piece of work. So Simonson writing and drawing a solid and foundational book like Thor, and drawing 29 issues of it, was a big deal, and Simonson made it an event. Thor is a visual feast, from the first pages with Surtur beginning his task to the quieter moments of Sigurd Jarlson (Thor’s new civilian identity, courtesy of Nick Fury) falling asleep as Lorelei gives him a massage meant to put him in the mood for sex. Simonson is a master storyteller, so he’s able to pack each page with a lot of visual information, whether it’s full of small panels or if he opens up to show the spectacle of it all. One would think that when Thor is fighting Fafnir, a frickin’ dragon, that Simonson would use a lot of full-page splashes, but he doesn’t. He forces Fafnir into small panels, showing him almost crowding his way past the borders, which makes him, if anything, more impressive. During the two fights with Fafnir (the dragon comes out of the water in New York at the very end of issue #340, Thor fights him in #341, Fafnir reappears in #342, and Thor’s final battle against him is in #343), the only time Simonson uses full-page splashes is at the beginning of #343, showing Fafnir demanding to see Thor (and even that shows him crouching in rubble, so he’s not that impressive) and, more tellingly, when Thor asks for a steed for Eilif and gets Cloudrider, the majestic horse of the Valkyries. Simonson doesn’t use a lot of full-page splashes because the ones he does use (and during the Surtur saga, a lot of them are reserved for the bad guy himself) are that much more stunning. I already mentioned the end of issue #337, when Donald Blake is left behind on Earth by Odin, which Simonson draws beautifully. The outsized word balloon gives us the impression that Blake’s voice is booming into the void even as it shows how plaintive he is, while we get him holding his arms aloft and his legs apart, a vague Christ-like pose, while he’s framed by smoke and pelted by solid lines of rain, heightening the Jesus imagery a bit more. But Simonson doesn’t overuse full-page splashes, preferring instead to use three-quarter page panels, which makes the pages still pop but also allows him to get in some more information on the same page. It’s a clever technique, and it works well.
In order for this to be the epic Simonson wants, he has to do well at the big moments, and that’s not a problem for him. To make it a relatable epic, he has to excel at the smaller moments, too, and he does a wonderful job with those. The most affecting love story in this run is Sif’s and Bill’s, and Simonson does a great job with it, visually, because he rarely addresses it openly with words. Sif often talks or thinks about Bill in positive ways, but she never quite gets to “love,” and Simonson shows us this leap with the way they interact. Early on, when Bill tells her he has no humanity left, Simonson focuses on her hand, which was about to take his, freeze, hovering over his, as she reconsiders. It’s a bit obvious, but it’s a good way to get their relationship started. She leaves with Bill to protect his people, telling Thor that she is like a weapon that has been blunted due to living peacefully, but it’s also clear she wants to be with Bill. When she and Bill stay in New York after Surtur’s defeat, Simonson draws them playfully, flirting before the bank robbers show up and then being more serious when they have to separate so Sif can go back to Asgard. Simonson draws her a bit wild, with jet-black hair that will not be tamed, in contrast to Lorelei, whose hair is always beautifully lush and in place. Lorelei is the contrast to Sif in other ways, too – she is serpentine, slinky and curvy, the ultimate temptress, and as these are the two prominent women in the book (there are others, notably Hela, but Sif and Lorelei are the major ones), it’s impossible not to compare them. Lorelei is more classically beautiful, of course, and Simonson draws her wonderfully as “Melodi,” her disguised Earth self, as she tries to seduce Sigurd Jarlson – Simonson gives her just that touch of innocence, so when she shifts to “Lorelei” mode, it’s jarring and very effective. Thor’s frog adventure is terrific partly because Simonson draws frogs and rats so well, giving the frogs some interesting personalities even though they’re, you know, frogs. And Frog-Thor is just something to behold – how Simonson made him dignified even though he’s a six-foot frog in Viking regalia is perhaps the most amazing thing in the book. Because Thor has always been so epic, Simonson has to bring the characters’ emotions out through their facial expressions and body language, and he nails this. Balder’s tragic decision to slaughter every demon he sees outside of Loki’s castle after swearing never to kill is amazing because Simonson shows him slowly breaking down as his heart shatters. Of course, Skurge’s stand at the bridge in Hel is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. He is spurned by the Enchantress, so he wants to go to Hel to take his mind off his heartbreak, and he proves himself a true hero there. First, he destroys the ship that the dead will use to invade Asgard (which is an old Norse legend – Simonson read up on his myths!). Then he volunteers to hold the bridge out of Hel to give the rest time to escape. It’s a quick moment – only four pages – but Simonson draws it superbly, as Skurge regains the dignity he feels he has lost, and we see the joy he gets from battle, as he gleefully kills the demons until he runs out of ammunition, and then he uses his rifle as a club. The writing is excellent – “… and when a new arrival asks about the one to whom even Hela bows her head … the answer is always the same … he stood alone at Gjallerbru … and that is answer enough” – but in conjunction with the art, it’s a moment that is justifiably one of the most famous and favorite in comics history.
(I didn’t say anything about Simonson’s amazing sound effects or John Workman’s tremendous lettering, because let’s just assume that if Simonson is doing the art, the sound effects will be amazing and Workman’s letters will be stunning. Workman is, what, a Top Five Letterer in Comics History? It’s not surprising the lettering on the book is superb.)
There’s nothing really wrong with the rest of Simonson’s run (which includes the Balder mini-series and issues #371-382), but it does fall off a bit. I don’t want to blame Sal Buscema, because his art is perfectly fine, but it doesn’t sing like Simonson’s does. It’s also clear that Simonson wanted to pull back a bit on the epic nature of his stories and give us more superhero stuff, so while making Thor weaker is interesting, it never feels as powerful as the first part of the run. Simonson wanted to show that Thor is a hero even if he’s not the strongest dude around, but we already knew that – he fights against overwhelming odds in the first 30 issues of the run, so he doesn’t need to be weakened in the final 12 to “prove” that he’s a hero. In the 1980s, it was somewhat rare in mainstream superhero comics to think in terms of “runs,” so Marvel might have just signed Simonson up for another year and Simonson didn’t think anything of it, even though it’s pretty clear Balder taking the crown of Asgard is a perfect place to end. It doesn’t really matter if the final year of Simonson’s run isn’t quite as good as the first three years, because issues #337-369 are so good. They’re an amazing amalgam of Norse legend and good solid superheroing, which is always the best way to do Thor. Simonson’s great plotting, raw emotional dialogue, and superb art combine to bring us as close to a classic opera as we’re probably going to find in comics. There’s a reason why many people think this is the definitive version of Thor, not anything done by Lee and Kirby or anything done with the character since. You really should find out why it’s so highly regarded!
Simonson’s Thor is collected into five trade paperbacks, and the way Marvel splits them up now (mine are older and out of print), issue #369 comes halfway through volume 4. It’s not a bad thing to get all five, but if you can find single issues, you can stop at #369 and you won’t miss too much. There’s also the 1200-page Omnibus that collects the entire run, with everything recolored by Steve Oliff. I’ve seen some pages from it, and while Oliff hasn’t exactly butchered the book like I think Brian Bolland did to his own artwork on The Killing Joke or Pete Doherty’s absolute hack job on Flex Mentallo, I’m still not a huge fan of it. Digital coloring tends to be a bit rendered, overwhelming the line work of older comics, while the flatter colors that Christie Scheele and others used on Thor is perfectly in tune with the way Simonson was drawing the book (he would have drawn it differently had the coloring been digital). But it’s not too bad, and I’m sure Simonson is one artist whose work can resist the over-rendering of digital coloring. Either way, you should read this comic!
I’d link to archives of these posts, but this is the first one I’ve done for the new blog. I’ll eventually migrate the rest of them over here, but that’s a labor-intensive job, so it will be a while. So today we only have Simonson’s Thor to ponder. Next time: Who knows? More Thor? We shall see!!!!