Comic Book Review – Thor by Walt Simonson

Thor by Walt Simonson Omnibus (2011)
Reprints Thor #337-355, 357-369, 371-382, Balder the Brave #1-4
Written by Walt Simonson
Art by Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema

I can’t say I was a fan of the Thor comic books growing up or even as an adult. I loved mythology as a child, and D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Mythology got me hooked. But something about Thor just didn’t hook me. I was certainly intrigued by the art I saw, but the stories, with their very austere manner of speech, were a little much. Every time a new creator comes onboard the title, I will give it a chance, only to find myself growing bored. I wish I could tell you I fell in love with Walt Simonson’s legendary Thor run, but I can only really say that I respect it, and there were parts I enjoyed a lot. He’s undoubtedly a lover of Norse myths and infuses the series with it from the first issue.

Simonson had done pencil work on Thor when Len Wein wrote the title. He worked on Thor for about a year in the late 1970s, but by the time Simonson took over as both writer/artist, he’d intentionally worked to change his style. I don’t know how to fully describe Simonson’s artwork, but it’s not like much else I’ve ever seen. It has traces of styles present in illustrations from the 1960s and 70s. Male characters are often “chunky,” square in shape, and broad-shouldered. Female characters are smaller but still powerful, agile, and muscular. That’s really just describing the heroic and villainous characters. Supporting characters come in a wider variety of shapes. Volstagg and his wife are both very plump and round but not drawn for comic effect, instead presented as just who they are. Movement feels fluid due to Simonson’s line work; there’s a visual path used to show characters flying through the sky or bringing a weapon down on an enemy.

Simonson opened his run by shaking things up. He introduces Beta Ray Bill in #337, a figure who, for people outside the comics, will sound insane. Bill is an alien, specifically a Korbinite. His people have been displaced from their home in The Burning Galaxy and have a massive space ark working its way through the universe to find a new home. The Korbinites use their technology and willing test subjects to create a champion. Bill is the one who passes the tests, and he is transformed into a fierce cybernetic warrior. SHIELD detects the ship crossing through our solar system, and Nick Fury calls on Thor to help investigate. Thor loses his hammer during the fight, and Bill can lift it, transforming him into a variation on Thor. Eventually, Bill and Thor become friends, and Odin is able to forge Stormbreaker, a new hammer just for Bill.

Thor had always been one of the more Jack Kirby-influenced Marvel comics, so blending high fantasy and mythology felt like a natural fit. Beta Ray Bill is also such a unique character that throwing him on the cover of that first issue felt like a declaration that Thor was getting a major shake-up. During Simonson’s run, Bill is paired with Lady Sif, one of Thor’s potential paramours, and I found their dynamic to be far more interesting than any relationship the title character ever had. Bill’s story also ties directly into the central story arc that makes up the first big chunk of Simonson’s run. His homeworld was overrun by fire demons who ended up being the acolytes of Surtur, a devilish figure in Norse mythology. 

Simonson had previously done art for the immensely popular Star Wars title Marvel published at the time, which is where his art style was really reinvented. When he gets Thor, he’s employing those skills to present large-scale space battles and showcase the scope of the mythology that runs through this pocket of the Marvel universe. Throughout the first year of issues, we’re constantly teased that something is happening in the background that will tie these stories together. A shadowy figure forges a large sword on an anvil, and the narration frames this as more than just a blacksmith. Making this weapon is a cosmic act; the hammer working the metal is cosmic thunder. Eventually, we’ll see this sword being wielded, and its swing will rent a chasm through the Nine Realms. It’s not a sword; it’s a manifestation of ancient dark power. 

While Simonson ties his epic stories to events on Earth, this run was the one where Thor’s human ties were quietly pushed into the background. Previously, Donald Blake had been Thor’s human form on Earth. It’s relatively straightforward that these are two separate entities, and Simonson has Blake disappear, and Thor simply never turns back into him. Instead, the hero establishes a secret identity of Sigurd Carlson, rents an apartment in NYC, and gets a job as a construction worker. Unfortunately, the Carlson identity doesn’t seem to be an element Simonson loved dearly, as it is used as a plot device and then discarded for most of the run. 

Thor having a mortal persona has just never made sense to me. It makes sense for Spider-Man or Iron Man; they were someone before they became the superhero. Thor is just Thor; that’s who he was born as. On the other hand, Thor had been handled a little like Captain Marvel/Shazam in his creation. Blake would smash his wooden cane down and, in a blast of thunder & lightning, be transformed into the hammer-wielding Norse god. By discarding Blake, it would be as if Billy Batson shouted Shazam and never went back. In Donny Cates’ current run on Thor, he’s had a storyline that addressed the abandonment of Donald Blake. If you are a fan of that aspect of Thor, I do not think you would enjoy how that story turns out.

Simonson also clearly loves the character of Balder the Brave, like a whole lot! Balder doesn’t exist in the MCU; maybe in the future? In Norse mythology, he plays the role that Thor has been thrust into in the movies. Balder is the golden child of the Norse pantheon; he’s the God of Light and, therefore, deeply beloved by Odin. In the myths, Thor is a cantankerous moody figure. It makes sense as he’s the God of the Storm; they pop up and are destructive, and suddenly everything is calm again. Balder is having an existential crisis when Simonson’s run begins. In the comics, he goes through the story of a myth where Balder is betrayed by Loki and dies. Balder is back in the land of the living but shaken up by that experience, growing overweight from depression and just hanging around Asgard doing nothing.

Balder’s story happens with small connections to Thor’s and feels like a separate comic book inside Thor’s title. Balder encounters the Norns, the triplet goddesses of destiny. They show him a vision of what will come for Asgard, which sets him off on a redemption arc. He transforms himself into the hero he’s supposed to be and fights entities from throughout Norse mythology. Simonson does some deep cuts to build out the world of the Nine Realms. Thor & Balder’s great-grandfather Buri shows up for a bit to cause problems while Odin is experiencing one of his many deaths. To his credit, Simonson brings out a lot of humanity from characters that so easily could have been written as distant from human experience.

Some new elements are also introduced, and I don’t think they are great. Malekith, the Dark Elf, is introduced here, and I was surprised at how inconsequential he feels. He’s certainly a threat, but one that is overcome easily to make way for the war with Surtur. Lorelei is the little sister of The Enchantress, and she just feels like a repetition of that character but less interesting. There’s also Kurse, a character that the writing seems to want you to believe is a possibly amnesiac Thor, but of course, isn’t. I like how Simonson took the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim and made them one and the same, essentially with the Faerie. I don’t think The Wild Hunt storyline here is entirely coherent, but I get what Simonson was going for. Also, I think this run does some interesting things with The Executioner, and I wish Simonson had used him more.

I can’t say this earned its spot as one of my favorite Marvel runs of all time. I think it was essential to read it as one of those benchmarks in the history of the comic medium. This clear vision remade Thor and influenced everything that has come after. It could be argued that almost every creative team that came after Simonson is actively repeating the stories & themes he told or pushing back against them with a deep awareness of how they transformed the book. If you are a fantasy fan or someone who enjoys the big, bold action-oriented stories that comics can tell, this omnibus will pack a mighty punch for you.

Comics 101: The Mighty Thor

The story of Thor really begins in Norse mythology. Thor was the son of Odin, king of the Norse gods. He wielded a powerful hammer named Mjolnir and was married to his fellow goddess, Sif. His greatest adversary was his half-brother Loki, the trickster god. Thor had grown too proud in the eye of Odin, and his father decided to banish Thor to Midgard aka Earth so he could learn what it was like to be mortal. Thor’s soul was placed in the body of crippled med student Donald Blake, and all his memories of godhood were taken. And for a few years, Thor lay dormant inside of Blake, until Blake takes a vacation to Norway and witnesses a fleet of aliens landing nearby. Blake scrambles into a nearby cave where he discovers a plain wooden cane. When he accidentally strikes the cane against a rock it transforms into Mjolnir and turns Blake into Thor.

Donald Blake defeats the alien invaders as Thor, and returns to the States to run his medical practice with help from nurse and love interest Jane Foster. Loki, Thor’s ancient nemesis, learns that his brother has returned and begins to dispatch mystical villains to challenge him. Among these were The Absorbing Man (whatever material he touches he becomes), The Wrecker (a construction worker turned behemoth), and The Destroyer (a mindless suit of armor powered by infinite cosmic elements). It was Loki who was responsible for driving the Hulk mad and bringing together Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man, and The Wasp to stop him. This group would serve as the foundation of The Avengers. Odin decides he wants Thor back amongst the pantheon and orders him to return to Asgard, home of the Norse Gods. Thor refuses which infuriates Odin and drives a wedge between the two. Thor would also occasionally team with his father’s favorite son, Balder to battle enemies like Surtur the fire demon. Thor also has allies in the Warriors Three (Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun), a trio of great adventurers with very differing personalities.

A turning point came for Thor when Nick Fury, the director of SHIELD, had the god investigate a mysterious spacecraft. The ship is the home to the Korbinites, an equine like race of people who are on the verge of extinction. The defender of the Korbinites is a man named Beta Ray Bill, who battles Thor, proving himself quite powerful. Thor loses the grip of Mjolnir and reverts to Donald Blake again. Bill manages to life the hammer, a feat only accomplished by those of great power and becomes an alien variant of Thor. Thor and Bill become allies and battle together against Surtur and his army of demons who storm Asgard. Odin is killed in battle and Thor remains in Asgard to take his father’s throne. During this period, the magical forces of Norse mythology began leaking into Earth. Bill and Thor would do battle constantly to keep them back. Thor would eventually learn Odin was being held captive by the Egyptian gods and do battle with them, rescuing his father. Thor learns Loki behind this trickery and kills him, so Heimdall, the ruler of Asgard at the time banishes Thor to earth again.

This time Thor is bound to the body of Eric Masterson, a construction worker in New York City. This would not last very long, but Masterson would keep some of the god’s power to become Thunderstrike. Thor would next bond himself to Jake Olsen, an EMT, and would find himself running into his old love interest Jane Foster again. Odin would die for good this time in battle with Surtur again, and Thor would take the throne. Only this time, he grew mad with power and began to impose the gods’ will on Earth. Thor would marry his long time enemy, The Enchantress, and she would bear him a child named Magni. Eventually, Thor realized he had been driven mad and attempted to use his power to reverse time. By changing the timeline he brought Loki back from the dead who amassed an army of giants wielding hammers made from the same mystic Uru metal that Mjolnir had been forged from. In the final battle called Ragnarok in Norse mythology, Loki and Thor did battle, ending with the complete destruction of Asgard and the gods.

It appeared Thor was gone and years passed. Then Mjolnir fell from the sky, creating a massive crater in Oklahoma. Many try to lift it but fail, until a stranger to the small town arrives. This is Donald Blake, long separated from him alternate persona. He wields the hammer and with its power seeks out the mortals in whom his brothers and sisters’ souls have gone to. Asgard is rebuilt on Earth, as a floating city in the Oklahoma wilderness. Loki also returned, this time in a female form, and became part of the Cabal, a shadowy collective of villains seeking to fool humanity into turning their backs on the heroes. Loki convinced his allies to go to war with Asgard, believing with Thor taken down she could become the ruler of the gods. In the last minutes of the Siege of Asgard, Loki realized what she had done and tried to stop her allies, only to be killed. Thor realizes he is not the one to lead his people, giving that title to Balder, and joining up with a newly formed version of the Avengers.