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Catching Lightning

Longbox Graveyard #15

Continuing my appreciation of Walt Simonson’s seminal run on Thor

Two weeks ago I looked at the way Walt Simonson handled Thor’s mythological background and supporting cast. This week I’ll dig in directly on the first part of Simonson’s celebrated era with a look at issues #337-353 of Thor.

There were a lot of parts scattered on the floor when Simonson took over this book. Thor has been many things through the years — cosmic hero, earthly doctor, Avenger, thunder god, and good old fashioned superhero. Unlike Jim Starlin, who would reinvent his cosmic heroes by sending them off into a corner of space he could make his own, Simonson roots his Thor in the Marvel Universe, giving him a stake in mortal affairs and having him turn to Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. to fashion a new civilian identity — Thor even absurdly calls into work to explain his absence when he was distracted by saving the universe.

At the same time, Simonson expanded Thor’s canvas, by teaming him with Beta Ray Bill to battle an alien invasion from the heart of the galaxy, and putting Thor on the front lines of a fire demon invasion of Asgard. It is this juxtaposition of the infinite and the mundane that gives Thor its unique strength — and as I enthused in part one of this review, Simonson was unequaled in the way he handled this aspect of the series.

I won’t cover Simonson’s storyline in detail — Chris Sims already did a great job of hitting the highlights of this run over at Comics Alliance — and I don’t want to spoil the tale should you choose to read one of the many reprints that are presently available. But to paint in broad strokes, this first part of Simonson’s run sees Thor called to defend earth and Asgard, first against a mysterious alien spaceship, then later against a “wild hunt” invasion led by dark elves, and finally a last stand of the gods against Surtur, the fire demon fated to destroy the universe (a DOOM-driven subplot Simonson developed, one page at a time, for the better part of a year before bringing events to their climax).

Along the way we see Thor gain a new civilian identity and attend to the prayers of “the last Viking,” and we’re also treated to rich subplots revolving around Sif, Baldur, and Odin. The run examines themes of duty, destiny, depression, and obsession, but mostly it is a broad and fast-moving adventure story told with style, humor, and joy.

It started with a bang.

Simonson literally blew up Thor when he took over the book with issue #337, with his signature creation — the “alien Thor,” Beta Ray Bill — shattering the old Thor logo on cover. But Simonson wasn’t kicking over the card table, however it seemed at the time — when Beta Ray Bill does the impossible, and lifts Thor’s hammer, it reminds us of Thor’s original virtues, and serves to deepen our appreciation for Thor when we see his noble reaction to being replaced, however briefly, by an alien interloper.

It’s a clever storytelling judo-flip, and it wouldn’t be the first time Simonson took the book in unexpected directions. But even when Thor turns into a frog (!), the book remained on the rails, thanks to Simonson’s life-long study of the series. Simonson grew up on Marvel comics — in the letters column of issue #347, Simonson reveals how his life was touched when Stan Lee sent him a missing Thor back-issue when he was a teen — and by building respectfully on the foundation established by Kirby & Lee that he absorbed as a youth, Simonson restored a book that had foundered for several years to the top of Marvel’s line with expansive pencils and deft scripting that made everything old seem new again.

One of the things that makes this series sing is that it is a tale that can be told only in comics. This isn’t a novel masquerading as a comic — the action is relentlessly visual, and while Simonson isn’t afraid to write thought balloons or have his characters speak aloud their inner monologues, neither does he descend into long dialogue sequences at the expense of action. Likewise, this book isn’t auditioning to be a movie — the action is cheerfully compressed, without regard for cinematic conventions, and we crazily jump between storylines in the best tradition of serial adventure comic books. With dozens of speaking roles, and action that sprawls across time and space, Simonson’s epic would require three movies and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring to the screen — and that film would still be inferior to this comic book form, where we effortlessly change focus and dip in and out of multiple characters’ minds in a fashion that comics, of all forms of fiction, still does best.

This is a big story, drawn with bold lines — Simonson’s landscapes are wide and clean, with the night sky above Asgard swarming with rainbow rays and Kirby Dots. Those landscapes are peopled by heroes with heart — tormented champions like Baldur and Beta Ray Bill, wise Odin, and steadfast Thor — but Simonson’s epic vision is leavened with the absurd, such as when Simonson cheerfully hangs a lampshade on the impossibility of Thor masquerading behind a simple pair of glasses … by having Thor bump into Clark Kent himself!

(for those who don’t obsess over the differences between DC and Marvel comics, this was an entirely unauthorized two-publisher cross-over)

The run is not flawless. Some of Simonson’s solutions smack of fiat — such as that possibly-too-cute-for-it’s-own-good secret identity bit with Clark Kent; or an ancient Casket of Winters, seemingly shattered beyond repair, but put back together by a determined old veteran with a tube full of superglue.

The story also expands as it goes along, and the series gets away from Simonson a bit. Compared to the brisk Beta Ray Bill stories that opened the run, the conclusion of the Surtur saga feels a little bloated. With so many supporting characters competing for spotlight time, there’s an entire issue (#352) where Thor does not appear at all — he’s knocked cold while Odin battles Surtur at the gates of Asgard — and Beta Ray Bill, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the gods of Asgard wrestle with demons all across the earth.

But these are quibbles. Long time readers of Longbox Graveyard may remember my reply when this blog was invaded by Mars last July, when I wrote Simonson’s run was “… in some ways is a bridge (a rainbow bridge?) between the Bronze Age and what was to follow.” A dozen “issues” later, I stand by those words. Simonson’s Thor really is a bridge between the Bronze and Modern comics ages — a modern take on Silver and Bronze age comics tropes, fast-paced like the comics of old, with the big moment sensibility and epic visual scale of modern books.

This is how you reinvigorate a series. Simonson didn’t kill Thor, and he didn’t blow up Asgard. There was no rebooting, re-chewing, or renumbering. Just solid, fundamental storytelling, brilliantly drawn and scripted, respectful of the past but freshly framed and unafraid to adorn the mythos with new characters and legends. Simonson caught lightning with this classic run, giving us the finest Thor stories ever told and leaving the title better than he found it.

If you haven’t read these books, read them now. And if you’re already read them, then read them again.

And again.

And again …

  • Title: Thor
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1966-present
  • Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #337-353, October 1983-March 1985
  • Your Opera & Chrome Overblown Big Hair Rock Soundtrack: Live Killers — Queen
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: A+

NEXT WEEK: #16 Top Ten Marvel Comics Characters

The Stuff Of Legends

Longbox Graveyard #13

Aside from my rave for Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, my Longbox Graveyard reviews have been pretty qualified. I danced around the fact the Micronauts wasn’t very good. I damned Captain Marvel with faint praise, and feasted on my own liver in reviewing my brief run on Rune. Even my sentimental favorite Conan the Barbarian couldn’t score better than a “B” on the LBG Report Card.

Much of this blog is about revisiting stories I enjoyed in my youth and it is inevitable many will pale on reexamination, but Walt Simonson’s Thor is a rare example of a comic improving with age. I admired these books in the early eighties, but having read them twice in recent weeks, I can say that admiration has grown into an arrested development, fifty-year-old fanboy crush. Without qualifiation, these are pitch-perfect books. They’re straight-A efforts, ten-out-of-ten, Full Stop.

I need little excuse to write about Thor. He’s one of my favorite comic book heroes, and one of the founding impulses for this blog. But with the (quite entertaining) Thor movie coming out this week on DVD, this seems an especially good time to look at the Odinson, and also to linkbait random degenerates with promises of Chris Hemsworth naked (continuing my shameful tradition of Chris Evans naked, and Jason Momoa naked, too!).

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There’s a lot to cover with this book, so I’m going to break my appreciation of Simonson’s run into multiple columns, beginning this week with the first of a two-part examination of issues #337-353, from the introduction of Beta Ray Bill to the conclusion of the “Surtur Saga.”

But before getting to that specific story, I want to concentrate on what I think most sets this run apart from other books and other interpretations of Thor — the way Simonson handled the mythological aspect of the series.

While Thor was born in an era where Marvel would try just about anything, the concept of a mythological character as superhero was still pretty “out there,” and basing the book on Norse myth (rather than the Greek and Roman stories American kids get in school) made the idea more bizarre still.

But somehow, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee made it work (most of the time), and since the strip’s birth in 1962, Thor developed a rich supporting cast and mythological continuity that transcended the superhero-inhabited New York City that was home to the rest of the Marvel line. Seemingly every troll, giant, god, and goddess mentioned in Bullfinch’s Mythology got the Jack Kirby treatment and showed up in the book as some crazy combination of swords, horns, armor, and fur.

Those mythological roots are both the promise and the peril of Thor. Mishandling this aspect of the book is a one-way ticket over the Rainbow Bridge (and that the recent movie did such a good job with its Asgardians I count among its greatest achievements), but ignoring this problematic backstory makes Thor just another superhero book, with a dude in a winged helmet babbling pseudo-Shakespeare and clobbering bank robbers with a hammer.

The best runs on Thor strike a balance, using Thor’s mythological origins to provide a fresh spin on the superhero story, constructing subplots and story arcs that can’t be told with more earthbound superheroes, mixing up the action between Midgard* and the eternal realm of Asgard. Simonson’s plotting, dialog, and pencils during this run were all superior, but it was in his masterful handling of Thor’s rich mythos where Simonson proved himself the finest Thor creator of all time.

Walt Simonson, master of Gods and Man!

Central to Simonson’s mythology is the way he handled Thor and his fellow Asgardian gods. Simonson’s gods are prey to all the longings and jealousies of mortal men, but with the operatic scale of immortals. Simonson keeps all the hair and horns of Kirby’s most outrageous character designs but keeps the characters simultaneously relateable and awesome (in the original sense of the world).

Taking us inside the minds of the immortals requires an even greater commitment to the fundamentals of storytelling. With all the gods, spaceships, dragons, and fire demons flying around this series, it would be easy to get lost in spectacle for its own sake. Simonson keeps us grounded with brilliantly rendered characters with meaningful external and internal struggles.

These larger-than-life characters require larger-than-life storytelling, and Simonson delivers. His characters aren’t superheroes in godly clothing. Simonson treats his gods like Gods, bound by strange conventions and limitations, fully aware of their own archetypal nature, and frequently imprisoned by it. Odin and the Asgardians sometimes seem prisoners of their own legends, and when Thor hears the prayers of “the Last Viking,” he answers — and leads that follower to a warrior’s death.

Thor does his “God thing”

But for all his godly majesty, Simonson’s Thor is also a down-to-Earth character who enjoys dwelling among mortals. He is refreshingly free of angst or guile. This Thor is so forthright he’d be boring if not for his engaging tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve, and for the genuine stock he puts in his friendships, both with mortals and his fellow Asgardians.

Simonson’s Thor is heroic, headstrong, dutiful, and happy to be Thor! Rather than burden his thunder god with Scandinavian melancholy, Simonson concedes that, yes, ‘tis good to be the God of Thunder, which is really the only sensible conclusion to reach about a character who is immortal, handsome, supremely powerful, and heir to a kingdom of gods.

’tis good to be the God of Thunder!

For all his unequaled power, Thor is at his core the firstborn trying to make good in the eyes of his father; that he exceeds all expectations save his own gives the character a rooted and endearing humility. Thor is the most powerful being in his universe, but he still needs his friends and family — and he knows that he needs them. That gives the audience a place to enter Thor’s story, and feel that his struggles have meaning, even if we know Thor’s conquest of the trolls/giants/supervillains are literally foreordained.

Simonson likewise finds the archetypal heart of Thor’s supporting cast. Simonson’s Asgardians are painted in broad strokes, but because Simonson understands the core of these characters, their interstitial scenes are genuine and memorable. He takes the characters seriously and gives them meaningful character arcs. Simonson makes heavy use of subplots in this run, cross-cutting between Thor’s story and those of his supporting characters; checking in on Sif, Beta Ray Bill, Loki, Volstagg, Baldur, and especially Odin (yes, Odin!) from issue to issue is one of the distinctive joys of this series.

Volstagg is still used for comic relief, but Simonson gives Volstagg a kind of self-aware wisdom, casting him as an aging warrior for whom food is the last pleasure in life. This Volstagg isn’t a clown — he inhabits his own legend, and uses his bulk to cloak his quite canny objectives with oafishness:

Baldur is a creature of light spiraled into depression after having returned from death. As the most cheerful and optimistic of the Asgardians, Baldur’s depression is felt by all — if this guy feels doom, then the doom must be real:

Loki is largely in the background in this run, but his few scenes are ace, as when he lets himself be decapitated for the sake of a jest:

Sif has a nice little empowerment and self-discovery arc, getting over her infatuation with an emotionally distant Thor to find glory in battle and love in unlikely places:

While not a proper Asgardian, Beta Ray Bill proves immediately likeable as the guardian supersoldier of a dying alien race. While introduced as a villain who steals Thor’s hammer and powers, when we learn Bill is a feared outcast who sacrificed his humanity for the good of his people, he becomes a paragon of selfless duty. Bill’s heroism and nobility reminds us of Thor’s best qualities, and when Odin restores Bill’s humanity (by neatly subverting the obsolete enchantment on Thor’s hammer that permitted Thor’s transformation into mortal guise), there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Simonson’s handling of Odin is especially deft. This Odin is a troubled liege, haunted by prophecies and the sins of his past (as when with his brothers he taunted the fire god destined to destroy the universe, leading to his brothers’ deaths and setting off the main events of these particular issues). Odin is a loving father not just to Thor, but in turn also to Sif, Baldur, and even Beta Ray Bill, giving them what they need, but not necessarily what they want. He probes the cosmos for signals of war but censors himself from observing Thor’s romances, saying that sons should have secrets from their fathers. In god-like fashion, Odin’s attention is given equally to the infinite and to the needs of a single worshiper, when he appears as an old hermit to bless the spear of Elif, the last viking, before he rides to battle.

Odin demonstrates his wisdom by sending other gods to do what he could better do himself, to help those gods grow and heal, and by putting aside past disputes by summoning the Enchantress, the Executioner, and Tyr to defend Asgard in her hour of need. Even with his realm facing its darkest hour, Odin shows himself a legitimate “all-father” by taking time to see to the emotional and physical safety of Asgard’s children.

Odin is not blind to his sons’ faults so much as he is eternally optimistic of their virtues, leaving a light on in the window for Loki, and letting headstrong Thor gain wisdom the only way he can — by getting his ass kicked. He thinks nothing of laying his son’s identity and life on the line in mortal combat with an alien warrior, and to laugh behind-hand when his son is humiliated by defeat. It is only later that what seems cruelty is revealed as wisdom, when we come to suspect Odin intended only to teach Thor a lesson, and that the loving father would have intervened had Thor been in genuine jeopardy.

Thor, Odin, Sif, Baldur, Volstagg, Loki, Beta Ray Bill … and Simonson is still just getting started!

Click HERE for part two of this review, where our mighty host takes on an alien invasion, a talking dragon, and a sword-wielding fire god who spells DOOM for Asgard itself!

NEXT WEEK: #14 X-Ratings

*Midgard = Earth

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