by Wayne Markley
Marvel has a long history of rich characters who are well known to the public, ranging from Spider-Man to the Hulk to the Fantastic Four to the X-Men. Over the last 50 years, Marvel has been able to build a world of characters and worlds that have seeped into the mainstream consciousness. Most of these characters originally came from the minds of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and a long list of characters since then. Of all of the original Marvel releases of the Silver Age starting with the Fantastic Four, the one character who was not an original concept, and is not a mainstream icon, is Thor. The Marvel character of Thor is very different from the original Norse myths of the God of Thunder. They both share the same name and a bit of the same origin myth, but Marvel’s character has become one of the cornerstones of the Marvel Universe and next year may become of Marvel’s biggest movies. (If you can find it, check out the Thor movie trailer online. It is stunning).
As I have read Marvel Comics from the beginning of time, well since the early 60s at least, Thor was never a character I ever cared for. It always had amazing art. The first 100 plus issues had a sense of cosmic grandeur in the art by Jack Kirby and John Buscema that was only rivaled in the pages of the Fantastic Four. The text by Stan Lee always struck me as second hand Shakespeare and a pain to read. If I wanted to read the Bard, I would read old Will. But I would always look through the comics to see Kirby’s stunning views of Asgard or Midgard or numerous other places. And to see such great characters as the Warriors Three, the Destroyer, Absorbing Man, Ego the Living Planet (one of my favorites), Loki, the Enchantress, Hercules, and many more. But I never really sat down and read the words with all of those pretty pictures. Till now.
Over the last month I have taken the time and read a number of trade collections of different periods of the Marvel Universe adventures of Thor. I must say I was wrong all of these years in ignoring these stories. Whether it is the Lee/Kirby early stories, the Thomas/Pollard run in the 80s, Walt Simonson’s epic run on the title which made it a best seller at its time, to the Dan Jurgen’s revival of the character in the post Heroes Reborn stories or the recent Michael Straczynski run, Thor is an excellent book, despite my prejudices’ against it. With almost 50 years of history it can be daunting to read all of these books, so I thought I would discuss a handful of collections that spotlight different eras of the Thunder God’s life in comics.
The first place to start would be the first Marvel Masterworks with Thor. This book reprints Thor’s earliest appearances in Journey into Mystery by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The stories are typical of the time period with lots of monsters and hokey villains, but you can see the groundwork for the stories that they would do together in later years. You can also see Kirby’s art getting more and more bold as time goes on. I am guessing it was because Jack was having more fun with the book and the more he did, the more he liked to experiment. In his later Thor work you can clearly see where Jack Kirby got his Fourth World characters from. If terms of reprint,s there are a number of choices here. The is the first Masterwork with Thor is in paperback which is a cheap and a beautiful package that reprints the earliest stories and there is a second collection coming in paperback next spring. There are nine hardcover Masterworks volumes that currently reprint all of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby material and are now onto the John Buscema era. But at $50 each, this can add up. There are the large (mostly 500 pages plus) Essentials of Thor which reprint all of the Thor stories in order and they are up to the 180s now. These are relatively cheap collections, under $20, but they are black and white, and to really appreciate these you should read them in color. I addition to these collections, there is a beautiful Tales of Asgard hardcover book that reprints all of Stan Lee’s and Jack Kirby’s short stories from the back of Thor that told the back stories of Thor and Loki when they were young and other origin pieces of the Thor mythos. And all of these stories were re-colored to they look as vibrant and as beautiful as modern comics.
One of the most popular runs of Thor was done by Walt Simonson. Walt took the character of Thor and not only reinvented the character and his world, he brought back a sense of wonder and grandeur to it that had not been seen since the Jack Kirby days. He introduced such memorable characters as Thor frog (currently in the excellent Pet Avengers books – sort of), Beta Ray Bill, and a whole new mythos. His run has been collected into a series of 9 books called the Walt Simonson Visionaries: Thor series. These are all full color collections of all the Thor work Walt did on the series, including the stories where he wrote the stories and they were drawn by Sal Buscema. But if you really want to appreciate the story and grandeur of the Simonson Thor Universe, Marvel is doing an over sized Omnibus collecting all of Walt’s Thor work in one stunning full color hardcover. And Walt Simonson has gone back and tweaked, re-drawn, and fixed every issue he did. Well worth the price tag of this collection. And to top it off, if you would like the back story of Simonson’sThor run, there is an excellent book called Modern Masters: Walt Simonson by our own Roger Ash. (Which is, unfortunately, out of print at the moment. – Roger)
In the mid-1990s, Marvel turned a number of books over to the original Image creators to re-imagine the characters. While this made for some interesting stories, and a different column down the road, out of it emerged a new look at Thor by the highly underrated Dan Jurgens. Dan took Stan Lee’s original concepts and tweaked them to modernize them, yet he brought a storytelling style to the book it had not seen since the Simonson days. He wrote stories that were both compelling and entertaining. And he was able to utilize the lost art of subplots to drop hints of what was coming in future stories years before the story would emerge. While maintaining the cast of characters of Lee/Kirby, he was able to mix it up to the point of making it one of the best periods of the Thor. There are five trade collections of these stories in full color, called Thor by Dan Jurgens & John Romita Jr. Vol. 1-4 and Thor: Across All Worlds, (which is the fifth volume of the series, even though it is not called that.) I would particularly like to point out volume two which reprints a Thor Annual with the amazing artwork of John Buscema inked by Jerry Ordway.
Finally in my little history trip. there is the modern re-telling of the Thor story by J. Michael Straczynski. Thor had vanished from the Marvel Universe (he was in hibernation, don’t ask), Straczynski once again started the Thor mythos fresh with Asguard being rebuilt in Oklahoma, and the various Norse gods being brought back one by one. It is an excellent story that ran almost two years. All of his work has been collected into trade paperback collections as well as a very sharp oversized Omnibus. Recently Matt Fraction has taken over Thor and we will have to see where he is going with the character as his direction is currently not clear.
Thus wraps up my apology tour. I have ignored a great book for 40 years dues to an impression the book made on me when I was a little kid. I would have hoped I would have matured enough somewhere over the years to have given the book a second try before now. (To be honest I did read the Simonson books when they first came out, but after he left, so did I.) Do not make my mistake and overlook this fascinating character. I am confident when the movie comes out next year that Thor will soar to the top of popularity of Marvel characters, and here is your chance to get ahead of the curve. One final book I would recommend is Thor the Mighty Avenger. This is aimed at younger readers but it is one of the best books Marvel publishes. It is light hearted and the art is perfect and it is a great read for all ages, and of course, Marvel has canceled it with issue number eight. Anything written in this column is my opinion and does not reflect the opinions of Westfield Comics or their employees,. Any comments or complaints or review copies can contact me at MFBWAY@AOL.COM. Have a great Thanksgiving.