“Thor” by Walter Simonson

 

For nearly as long as I collected comics, I heard about Walter Simonson’s “Thor” as part of the trifecta of legendary 1980s comics. The 1980s were a time when the writer-artist novelty began to dominate the medium and that approach proved notably successful for Frank Miller, John Byrne, and Walter Simonson. Many cited Mr. Miller’s initial “Daredevil” run as the best Marvel comics of the 1980s. Others enjoyed the ‘back to the basics’ approach of John Byrne’s five years on “Fantastic Four.” Both runs were very different from each another and both were also very different from Walter Simonson’s four years on “Thor.”

Being different was a good thing though, as each title deserved their own identity. Nearly thirty years later, all three runs still stand up very well.  Most critics would continue to cite all three runs as essential reading for any comic book fan  All three somehow retain a ‘timeless’ feel to them.

Simonson did something that seemed very innovative for the time with “Thor,” in that his issues were often splintered between several storylines. That decision to bounce between several ongoing storylines in a given issue also made the resulting issues very unique.  Readers received a satisfying single-issue experience, but Simonson always left several intriguing overarching threads dangling that made readers want to jump into the next issue.  As a result, his writing managed to feel quite ‘modern’ when compared to many of the major 1980s works.

 

 

Issues #337-340 – The Ballad of Beta Ray Bill

Simonson’s first major arc involved the introduction of Beta Ray Bill, an alien warrior who managed to win a Thor-like hammer of his own.  Simonson’s first issue apparently sold out very quickly and his entire first arc was wildly popular upon release.  The epic cover of issue #337 would have certainly caught the eye of any comic book reader, demanding that they give the title a chance.

A love triangle between Thor, his on-again-off-again lover Sif, and Beta Ray Bill’s (in his more-human alternate form) began during this arc.  The romantic dynamics that would develop were surprisingly mature in tone, rather than the ‘catty rivals’ approach that fans might have initially expected.

Unlike many critically-acclaimed comic book runs, fans seemed to know that they had a winner in “Thor” right out of the gate.  Even more impressive regarding this instant success was that the book had been dwindling in sales at the time.  Simonson didn’t have the benefit of a following up on a previously successful creative team.

 

 

Issues #341-343 – Fafnir the Dragon

Thor’s multi-issue battle again Fafnir the Dragon evoked a certain “Godzilla” tone.  It also gave glimpses of the kind of mass destruction, epic scale clashes on Earth that Simonson would revisit several times.  Through this arc, the elder ‘lost’ Asgardian Eilif would be drafted to ultimately help Thor defeat Fafnir.  Eilif had made his home on Earth, but was called into service again at what was the end of his days.

Elsewhere, Lorelei, the younger sister of the sorceress Enchantress, became involved in a love scheme that would develop into a long-running story thread.  Lorelei assumed the human disguise ‘Melodi’ and tricked Thor into drinking spiked mead.  The mead made Thor fall in love with her.

Readers also found themselves checking in on the hot/cold romance between Balder and Karnilla, a longtime enemy of Thor.  Karnilla would later play a bigger role in a separate Balder mini-series that Simonson produced mid-way through his Thor run.

 

 

Issues #344-348 – Malekith & The Casket of Ancient Winters

The retiring of Thor’s Donald Blake identity and the introduction of Thor’s Sigurd Jarlson identity on Earth provided some of the lighter moments in Simonson’s run.  After Nick Fury helped ‘Jarlson’ get a job at a construction site, the foreman became curious about which super-hero Jarlson might be.  During this initial arc, the foreman came to the conclusion that Jarlson was surely Spider-Man.

Back in Asgard, Balder was ordered by Odin to give a message to Loki, who ended up fighting him.  Simple tasks such as message delivery could never be easy in the world of “Thor.”

The longtime Thor villain Malekith appeared, lending issue #345 a surprisingly dark and brutal tone.  Malekith set his plan in motion by murdering a number of individuals connected to a particular object that he was seeking.  Malekith’s goal was to obtain the Casket of Ancient Winters to unleash terrible snow storms on Earth.  A man named Eric Willis and, later, his son Roger were the guardians of the Casket, which caused the casket’s guardian to not age.

After Eric’s demise, Thor and Roger headed to the Cotswalds of England to rescue Melodi, who had been kidnapped by Malekith as bait.

While Thor’s attention was otherwise distracted, things continued to became very problematic Asgard.  Odin revealed that he needs all of Asgard’s warriors to assemble in preparation for war.  What war?  The figure behind it was teased via a long build-up throughout Simonson’s first dozen issues.  Those teases involved a mysterious creature hammering a sword on an anvil to a sound effect chorus of the word “DOOM.”

No, it wasn’t Doctor Doom.  Rather, it was a hint to what would be a truly epic clash with Surtur.  Surtur had long been prophesized as bringing about the complete destruction of Asgard.  The teases in every issue for nearly a year did get a bit trying though, as one really wanted the hints to end and the real battle to begin.

At the end of #347, the building storylines came together.  Malekith stood ready to open the Casket of Ancient Winters, just as Surtur’s army was about to attack Earth.

While Thor and Roger defeated Malekith in issue #348, their efforts were too late to stop Surtur.  He remained poised with his army to begin his invasion of Earth.

 

 

Issues #349-353 – Surtur & Ragnarok & Roll!

Issue #349 continued to serve as a prelude of sorts to the looming war against Surtur.  Much of it centered on a flashback that Odin used to illustrate for Thor and Balder the scope of the challenge that they faced.

Odin had confronted Surtur in the past and the price of stopping the monstrous foe then was the lives of Odin’s brothers.  As much as I wanted to get to the main event, the prelude flashback tale that Simonson spun was so incredibly emotional that it was a worthwhile interruption.

The war against Surtur finally took center stage in issue #350.  It was worth the wait.

Simonson delivered payoff after payoff that not only involved the full Thor pantheon, but also many of the Marvel Universe’s heroes, primarily the Avengers.  The battle against Surtur and his Earth-invading horde lasted several issues, going well past the initially planned conclusion in “Thor” #350.

With the distraction of an invading horde on Earth, Surtur had to himself a virtually-empty Asgard.  He initially only had to fight Odin.  In a minor, related plot thread, Odin’s wife Frigga saved the children of Asgard after they had been fooled by Odin into fleeing to remote safety.

The ultimate defeat of Surtur came about via an unlikely source:  Loki.  After Thor had joined Odin back in Asgard to face Surtur, both had fallen.  That left Loki temporarily alone, but Loki mischievously hid Surtur’s magic sword Twilight to help even the odds.  That gambit bought enough time for Thor and Odin to recover and face Surtur again.

Ultimately, the trio was successful in pushing back Surtur.  However, Odin was presumed lost during Surtur’s final defeat.  The pair of Odin and Surtur fell together into the quickly-sealed chasm of Muspelheim.

Simultaneously, the invasion of Earth was thwarted by a combination of both the Avengers and the Asgardian forces that were led by Beta Ray Bill.

Years later, many speculated that the idea of a mass attack on New York City that Simonson presented was repurposed by director Joss Whedon in his film “That Avengers.”  The crazy part of that theory was that the ending of that film was actually smaller in scope than what Simonson presented with Surtur’s invasion.

 

 

Issues #354-355 – Surtur War Postlude

One could say that the remaining two-thirds of Simonson’s entire run dealt with the fallout of the confrontation with Surtur.  An immediate problem for Thor was dealing with the seeming death (or at least disappearance) of Odin.  Hela came from her domain of Hel to claim Odin and ended up battling Thor.

Despite being beaten back, Hela would repeatedly cause problems for Thor.

Thor’s next challenge involved being caught in an avalanche while in the wilderness.  He was rescued and brought back to health by a mysterious man whom readers (but not Thor) later learned to be Thor’s grandfather, Buri (aka Tiwaz).

Back on Earth, there was a touching sequence in which the immortal Sif admitted to the mortal Beta Ray Bill that she still loved Thor.  This turn of events brought the potential love triangle between Thor, Sif and Beta Ray Bill back into focus, but Simonson would let that thread linger.

The fallout from the disappearance of Thor remained the series’ primary story.  On that front, Hela wasn’t Thor’s only adversary.  Thor’s brother Loki wanted to take over as rule of their mythical home realm of Asgard, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen without many of the Asgardian heroes standing in his way.

 

 

Issue #356 – Not Walt

Issue #356 was a non-Simonson fill-in issue that didn’t directly relate to his run.  Much to the chagrin of comic book run completists, this issue has been ignored by Marvel in various reprints of this era of “Thor.”

 

 

Issues #357-359 – Loki for King

Although Lorelei’s scheming had taken a back seat after being featured throughout the issue #340s, she ended up being a key part of Loki’s new plan to become king of Asgard.  Lorelei continued to have multiple schemes in motion that involved manipulating Thor into being attracted to her, usually through magical means.

Loki and Lorelei’s joint plotting came to an end when their plans were eventually discovered by Asgard’s heroes.  Amid that discovery, Thor used an ingenious gambit involving his hammer’s ‘boomerang’ properties to compel Loki to free him from Lorelei’s spell.

While Thor was fighting for Asgard, most of the Asgardian warriors had remained stuck on Earth.  Prior to being brought back home, Beta Ray Bill ended up leading them in a ‘cleanup’ effort on Earth against the crimes of the Green Liberation Front (GLF).  With Cold War-era tie-ins, this criminal group turned out to be affiliated with the Russian KGB.

 

 

Issues #360-362 – Thor vs Hela in Hel

The Asgardian warriors who had fought on Earth didn’t have much time for rest and relaxation.  Upon returning to Asgard, Thor readied them to go to Hel to rescue the souls of humans from Earth who were trapped there.

When they arrived in Hel, they found it to be an idyllic paradise, but that impression was later revealed to be an illusion.  The paradise that many glimpsed was interesting though, as it brought to life some of the regrets that had weighed on various characters.

For instance, Balder encountered his former lover Nanna.  Nanna had died back in “Thor” #306 and had to deny her love to Balder in Hel to avoid him dying or committing suicide over the anguish that he would surely feel for her.  She had been killed in a triangle involving Karinilla.

Thor’s grand fight with Hela and the escape of the humans from Hel was pulse-pounding, a peak nearly on par with the best of the Surtur war.  I had not given much attention to Skurge the Executioner during earlier events.  However, his famous moment in issue #362, referred to in lore as “He stood alone at Gjallerbru” ended up being perhaps the single most memorable scene of Simonson’s entire run.

With the souls of many humans freed, Thor would wear a beard throughout the remainder of Simonson’s run to cover scars sustained from the fight with Hela.

 

 

Balder Issues #1-4 – Mini-Series

While Balder was fighting in Hel, his on-again-off-again romantic partner Karinilla was kidnapped by the frost giants of Jotunheim.  The frost giants were preparing to invade Asgard and the first part of their plan was to get rid of potential Asgardian allies, such as Karnilla

Balder, of course, saved Karnilla and her people, but the frost giant menace would continue to be a problem for the Asgardians.

This mini-series had a nice romance in it that involved Karnilla.  Those familiar with her history with Balder’s other love Nanna might not have been enthralled by it.

The involvement of the confusingly-named Ice-Loki led to too much time being spent on the story buildup.  As a result, the conflict ended too quickly.

 

 

Issues #363-366 – Thor, Frog of Thunder

The first issue in this arc happened to tie in with the “Secret Wars II” event that was occurring at the time across the Marvel Universe.  That event involved the omnipotent ‘Beyonder’ coming to Earth and learning about being a human.  Fans generally panned that maxi-series, but the “Thor” tie-in was better than most others.

The Beyonder resurrected Algrim the Elf as ‘Kurse’ and pitted him against Power Pack.  Thor then helped the team out by defeating Kurse.  In the end, Kurse was more of a pawn than a villain and would remain in the background of future stories set in Asgard.

Issue #363 ended with Thor being turned into a frog by Loki in order to prevent him from claiming the throne of Asgard.  The famous (or infamous to some) Thor-transformed-into-frog storyline then began in earnest in issue #364.  Thor-as-frog became involved in a secret frog kingdom that was operating out of Central Park in New York City.

Loki had wanted to get Thor out of the picture in Asgard, since eliminating him would eliminate the most likely next ruler of Asgard.  With Thor out of the way, Loki assumed that he’d easily find his way into the throne of Asgard.  Of course, Loki’s plan was eventually foiled by Thor’s allies, who used a Thor doppelganger to buy time until they could figure out Loki’s plot.  At the same time, Thor managed to not only help the frog kingdom overcome their rat rivals, but also returned to Asgard to humiliate Loki.

I found myself enjoying the ‘Frog Thor’ storyline more than I had expected.  Yes, it was a lighter change of pace and a touch ridiculous.  However, after all of the epic events during the past two dozen issues, it was nice to take a break and have some fun.

 

 

Issues #367-369 – King Balder

The Asgardians were likely surprised when Thor deferred to Balder as ruler of Asgard at the end of issue #366.  Balder’s coronation in issue #367 was a mess though, as Kurse returned to seemingly kill him.

In issue #368, readers learned that Malekith had in fact been disguised as Balder and it was Malekith who had been killed.

With Balder thus missing, Thor and the Warrior Three went to Nornheim to try to find him.  Once there, they encountered a branching road that forced them to split up.  One by one, the group’s members were seemingly seduced by fair maidens living in a floating castle.

Thor eventually discovered that the maidens were a ruse of the troll mother Uglitha.  He then ended up rescuing the rescue party, and also Balder, from the troll maidens and their mother.

 

 

Issue #370 – Not Walt… Again

Issue #370 was another fill-in issue and another issue usually skipped in the reprints of Simonson’s run.

 

 

Issues #371-372 – Justice Peace

With Balder finally crowned the ruler of Asgard, Thor found himself mixed up in an adventure involving an old flame back on Earth.  His former love, Jane Foster – since married with children – was murdered by the b-list villain Zaniac.  Although Zaniac was a brutal villain responsible for a gruesome string of murders, he was not a particularly legendary member of Thor’s rogues’ gallery.

Aiding Thor was a new character named Justice Peace.  Justice Peace was a time traveling mercenary sent back in time by an organization known as the Time Variance Authority.  That organization would later appear in Simonson’s “Fantastic Four” run.

In terms of character behavior, Justice Peace was very much an analogue Judge Dredd.  Dredd, later known to American comic book fans, and later movie goers, was a British violent comic book sensation of the era.

Thor’s solution to Jane Foster’s murder was to approach the situation in a manner similar to what was performed during the  conclusion of “Superman: The Movie.”  He used his hammer to power Justice Peace’s time travel bike to head back in time.

The duo arrived in the near-past in time to stop Zaniac from killing Jane Foster.  However, they were still not able to prevent two boys from losing their mother in an earlier Zaniac murder.  Those human boys, Mick and Kevin, were soon adopted by Volstagg back in Asgard.

 

 

Issues #373-374 – Mutant Massacre

Most would agree that Thor didn’t logically figure into the X-Men ‘family’ of title’s first big crossover event – “Mutant Massacre” – but, Walter Simonson and his wife Louise were both involved in the “X-Factor” title at the time that it occurred.  Louise was also involved in the similarly-unrelated title “Power Pack” and, along with “Thor,” that trio of titles ended up accounting for the majority of the different “Mutant Massacre” issues.

Thor’s contribution involved rescuing the Power Pack gang and X-Factor member Angel from the mutant hunting group the Marauders.  Thor was very much just a passing element of that crossover though, with readers needing to search out the other issues in the crossover in order to get a sense of conclusion from the event.

One nice callback did occur in issue #373 though, with Thor referencing his recent time as a frog.  Issue #373 was also notable for being part of Marvel’s 25th Anniversary cover event.  That issue’s cover featured an iconic portrait of Thor by Simonson.

 

 

Issues #375-376 – Vs. The Absorbing Man

One problem that had plagued Thor since leading the captured humans out of Hel in issue #362, was a curse that Hela had placed upon him.  Under the curse, he could have his bones broken, which made him more vulnerable to physical threats than usual.

With issue #375, Loki continued to pull different strings in his long-running plan to antagonize Thor.  If anything, Loki was persistent and smart to use proxies when attacking Thor head-on.  In the case of this arc, he set up what would be alliances with both the Frost Giants and Hela.

In the meantime, Loki put the pieces into place for Thor to first have confrontations with fake versions of the Man-Beast and then the Wrecker.  After defeating that pair in issue #375, Thor faced the real Absorbing Man in issue #376.  The Absorbing Man’s powers were a good match for Thor, leading to a compelling slugfest.

 

 

Issues #377-380 – The Frost Giants & Fin Fang Foom

Although Thor crafted body armor to protect his newly-fragile body, he found himself soon testing it against an attack by the Dark Elves.  Loki was seemingly never content to let Thor die at another’s hand though, rescuing Thor at the last minute from the Elves.

Using Iceman from “X-Factor,” Loki was about to restore the frost giants back to ‘normal.’  They’d previously been defeated by Balder back in his mini-series and their plan to conquer Asgard was halted.  Ironically, Loki found himself double-crossed by the frost giants that he had just helped.

Thor and Loki both fought off the Frost Giants, but they proved to be persistent villains.  The Frost Giants sought assistance from Jormungand (aka “Fin Fang Foom” aka “The Midgard Serpent”).  Fin Fang Foom was an oddly-intelligent giant dragon, who monologue his way through a lengthy battle with Thor in amusing fashion.

Issue #380 was the final issue on the run to contain Walter Simonson’s pencils, but he went out in grand style.  Thor’s confrontation with Fin Fang Foom was composed entirely of a mix of splash pages and double-page spreads.  It was impressive to say the least.

 

 

Issues #381-382 – The Destroyer

Most of the lingering story threads involving plots against Thor were wrapped up in Simonson’s final two issues.  By ‘merging’ with the seemingly-invincible Destroyer armor, Thor was able to blast his way into Hel and demand that Hela lift her curse on him.  She eventually did so, but only as part of a failed gambit to have Thor’s ‘normal’ body destroyed.

After encasing the Destroyer in unbreakable crystal and returning to his normal body, Thor sought out Loki.  By this point, Loki had a large number of schemes to answer for, but all had been defeated.  As a reminder to not scheme again, Thor broke Loki’s arm with his hammer and then flew off to undertake future adventures.

This final Simonson issue was actually the 300th issue featuring Thor, as he had been first introduced in the precursor title “Journey into Mystery” issue #83.  Coincidentally or not, since Simonson needed to tie up his many loose ends, the issue was double-sized in page count.

 

 

Conclusions

In short, Walter Simonson’s “Thor” was an amazing comic book run.

The Ballard of Beta Ray Bill gave readers a nice introduction to what Simonson had planned in his handling of the Thor mythos, but it was the Surtur War that was his most epic storyline. The omnibus edition of Simonson’s run related how that particular storyline had been in Simonson’s head since he first began seriously drawing.  Essentially, he had planned that storyline out before becoming a comics professional, nearly 15 years before it appeared.

In comparison, the latter half of Simonson’s run seemed more aimless at times.  Nearly a year’s worth of issues was spent on the direct fall-out of the Surtur War, ending with the invasion of Hel.

After those epilogue stories, Marvel crossover tie-ins impacted the title.  When those crossovers ceased, the storylines again became more focused.  The final major centerpiece of the run was a combination of Thor’s skirmishes with Hela, Loki, and the Frost Giants.  While entertaining, that combination of storylines was simply not as exciting as the grand heights reached during the Surtur War.

Bear in mind, the fact that the latter issues were not as good as the Surtur War shouldn’t dissuade readers from experiencing them.  Even at its worst, Simonson’s “Thor” was much better than most comic books of any era.

I was not a giant fan of Simonson’s artwork as a young collector, but I came to appreciate it more as an adult.  His work on “Thor” was clearly that of a master craftsman at the top of his game.  I was also never a fan of Sal Buscema’s work, but he did an impressive job filling in on the art duties during much of the latter half of Simonson’s run.  Buscema seemed to intentionally ape Simonson’s style at times, but that wasn’t a bad thing.  By doing so, he ensured that the run had an overall cohesiveness to it.

One final note – much like Frank Miller did with “Daredevil,” it was surprising at times how Simonson put a darker-than-expected edge on some of his stories.  While most issues were not what one would call ‘Mature,’ characters certainly died, often in horrific fashion.  Also, romances were complicated and didn’t always have a happy ending.

Many modern comic book creators have spoken about Simonson’s run with reverence and it was easy to see why.  Simonson made what had become an uninteresting character relevant again.  In doing so, he gave future creators a template by which to revitalize Thor again if such a need ever arose.

 

 

Appendix: Marvel Omnibus Remarks

Those experiencing Simonson’s “Thor” for the first time would be hard pressed to not simply buy the gigantic Marvel Omnibus edition of the work.  For those on a budget or simply looking to sample the material, the original comics might still be found quite cheaply as sets.  Trade paperback collections exist as well.

The Marvel Omnibus release did draw some controversy from purists for featuring a completely new, modern recolor by legendary colorist Steve Oliff.  Fortunately, the results were so spectacular that most fans were too pleased with it to complain. I respect fans wanting the original colors preserved, but Mr. Simonson was directly involved in supervising the re-coloring effort.  The new coloring added such depth to the work that I was glad to have it as an option.

For omnibus buyers, there were also a healthy number of ‘special features’ in the back of the book.  Much of it involved text pieces, sketches, and other ancillary “Thor” artwork by Mr. Simonson.

My biggest complaint about the entire package was that it should have been broken up into three volumes of four hundred or so pages each, all placed in a slipcase.  Marvel had done other such slipcased omnibus products in the past and I would have gladly paid the extra $25-$50 that such an enhancement would have likely added to the product cost.

As a single volume, the book was shockingly thick and could be unwieldy at times.  It was an item best read on a bedside or in one’s lap.  Traveling most anywhere with the omnibus was not very practical.

In terms of construction, the omnibus was obviously very solid.  It featured the omnibus line’s standard sewn binding and quality paper.  This omnibus was one of the first in the line to use slightly-thinner paper and the texture was somewhat different than that in other omnibus volumes, but that was not necessarily a bad thing.

 

 

Appendix: Artist’s Edition

Super-fans of Simonson’s “Thor” would want to seek out Idea and Design Works’ (IDW) “Walter Simonson’s Thor Artist’s Edition.”  It ran 176 pages, featuring reprints of the original art pages from issues #337-340 and #360-362 in their actual 12”x17” size.  This book originally retailed for $100, but went up in price after selling out.  The construction of Simonson’s work is very apparently line-by-line, page-by-page.

On a personal note, I picked up a copy of this book at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con and was able to get it signed by Mr. Simonson.  He was, as expected, a true gentleman.  Besides being able to exchange a few words of thanks with him, I also had the opportunity to thank Mr. Oliff for his coloring job on the omnibus collection.  Mr. Oliff happened to be visiting Mr. Simonson at the same time that I was in the area and was also very gracious.

Hopefully similar great works from that 1980s era will continue to see such lavish reprint treatments in the future.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Simonson, Walter. Thor by Walter Simonson Omnibus. Combined volume. Marvel, 2011. Print.
—. Thor Visionaries – Walter Simonson, Vol. 1. New. Marvel, 2009. Print.
—. Thor Visionaries – Walter Simonson, Vol. 2. Ed. Mark Gruenwald & Ralph Macchio. Marvel, 2009. Print.
—. Thor Visionaries – Walter Simonson, Vol. 3. New. Marvel, 2009. Print.
—. Thor Visionaries – Walter Simonson, Vol. 4. Marvel, 2007. Print.
—. Thor Visionaries – Walter Simonson, Vol. 5. Marvel, 2008. Print.
Walter Simonson’s The Mighty Thor: Artist’s Edition HC. IDW Publishing. Print.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *