Covering Comics #15 – Walt Simonson’s Thor

I’ve often said that I miss the comics covers of old. Those covers were designed, unlike many of the ones being produced today which are merely mini-posters spotlighting the titular character without giving any indication of the story contained inside, to draw readers in and make them anxious about actually reading the stories contained therein. Of course, this was also a time when comic books could be found all over the place, from newsstands to the local drug store, as opposed to only in specialty comic-book shops, and they were largely focused on catching the eye of someone just passing by the comics rack instead of depending pretty solely on regular readers who are willing to go every Wednesday to get their weekly fix, but that’s a discussion for another time, I suppose. Anyway, “Covering Comics” is going to be a probably irregular series of posts where I take a look at various covers from the past, highlighting some of my personal favorites, or other covers of note for one reason or another.

This time around we’re going to begin a look at another game-changing run of comics, one which began when Walt Simonson took over the reigns of Marve’s The Mighty Thor.

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Though this run is less well recognized than those of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams on Green Lantern/Green Arrow or that of Frank Miller on Daredevil, it was no less ground breaking at the time, and no less influential even today, when, though most people may not realize it, a lot of the concepts that made up the last Thor movie and will likely do the same for the next one were either introduced or brought to the foreground.

Plus, they’re just one hell of a good read.

Again, much like when Frank Miller was handed the reigns of Daredevil, at the time that Simonson took over Thor -and I should note here that when I say Simonson “took over” Thor, I mean that not only was he the artist on the book but also the writer, so the artistic vision that it took for most of the run was almost completely his – it was a comic that had been in a downward spiral both creatively and sales-wise for quite awhile. Honestly, for those of us who were around at the time and still largely picking up our comics off the spinner racks or even at the local comics shop, it had become one of those easy to ignore, standard, pretty much the same month to month titles. Not that it was terrible, it just wasn’t particularly good either. Here are a couple of examples of preceding covers to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

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Not too bad, in their way, just pretty standard for Marvel at the time. And the stories inside were unfortunately just as standard.

Now at the time (this was 1983) I was a freshman at Western Kentucky University, and the bookstore there stocked a fairly decent comics selection,  and I can remember being there with my comics-reading buddy “J” looking over the new issues, and suddenly, there was this cover screaming out at both of us.

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Hokey smokes! Yeah, not THAT was different. Obviously, with the breaking of the logo, there was something different going on, and who or what was that swinging Thor’s hammer. Yeah, now this was an issue that we needed to check out.

And when we actually opened it up and took a look inside, it was obvious that a change from the standard house style was taking place. Here’s a look at one of those interior pages:

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And here’s the summary for the issue courtesy of the Grand Comics Database: [btw, from here on out, the summaries from the GCD will appear in italics, while my own comments will be in regular type]

Nick Fury asks Thor’s aid in investigating an alien ship heading for earth; Thor arrives and triggers the awakening of an alien protector, Beta Ray Bill; Bill bests Thor and takes up his hammer only to be accidentally summoned to Asgard by Odin who thinks he is summoning Thor.

The issue ended with this splash page/cliffhanger:

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Yeah, obviously we were going to be back for the next issue. And sure enough, when it hit the stands, it was with a cover that shouted “Things have changed!” Not only did it follow through on the breaking of the old logo from the one before with an entirely new one, but there was the old Thor fighting that alien in the Thor get-up, but you have the emphasis on the inscription on Thor’s hammer, suggesting that somehow this horse skull-faced guy was also deemed “worthy” to wield it.

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Again, here’s the GCD synopsis for the issue:

Bill and Thor fight in single combat for the honor of wielding Mjolner and the alien bests the god of thunder.

Yep, you got that right. “Bill” (so dubbed because his real name is unpronounceable by the human – or Asgardian – tongue) beats the original Thor and wins the right to wield the hammer. So where does that leave Odin’s son? Obviously, that’s a question which will have to be answered in the next issue.

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Obviously with Thor 339, more changes were coming, and sure enough…

Odin has the dwarves create a hammer for Bill and sends the alien and his son into space to rescue Bill’s people.

This, of course, leads to an epic fight, which would take place in Thor 340.

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Thor, Sif and Bill save the latter’s people from alien demons; Odin gives Bill a civilian identity when he strikes his hammer on the ground.

That “civilian identity”? Yeah, not exactly human looking, but civilian enough for Bill to fit in with his own people and to not stand out too much should he ever need to return to earth.

Of course, that still left open the question of what to do about the “civilian identity” of the original Thor, a question which would be addressed in the next issue.

thor341

Thor loses the Don Blake identity and gains secret i.d. of Sigurd Jarlson courtesy of Nick Fury (his disguise being, you guessed it, a pair of glasses); Sigurd gets a job as a construction worker but the site is wrecked by Fafnir looking for the god of thunder.

Oh, it should also be noted that Thor no longer has to strike his hammer on the ground to change back and forth. Also, when he is in his Sigurd Jarlson identity, he has his hair pulled back into a pony tail. You also have to admire Fury’s reasoning when it comes to figuring out how to disguise Thor – basically “Hey, it works for that other guy” – a point proven when Sigurd bumps into a certain reporter later in the issue and neither quite recognizes the other.

So, now we have completely transitioned from the previous “same old same old” status quo for Thor, and it’s time to move on. However, for Simonson, “moving on” actually means beginning to explore Thor’s Norse heritage, and bringing in what would eventually become one of the hallmarks of this run: the connection between Thor’s past and his present-day adventures on Midgard. The emphasis on this connection became clear with the very next issue.

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Thor is called to an old viking village in the arctic wastes where an old viking, last of his people, tries to trick the thunder god into killing him so he can enter Valhalla

And that’s a pretty good summary of the issue. Again, though, what makes this issue stand out is that it cements Thor as a god of two worlds, both Asgard and Midgard and what will become one of Simonson’s major themes, the idea that what transpires on one has a definite impact on and connection with the other, mostly because of Thor’s love for both of them.

Oh, and at this point I feel like I should note one other feature of Simonson’s run, and that is the obvious long-term planning that went into his plotting. For instance, from the very beginning of his takeover of the title, there were indications that something mysterious was happening that would have a major impact on Thor and his world(s). Just what this was was kept shrouded in mystery, but there were indications. At first they were just perhaps single panels sprinkled maybe one per issue, or even full pages that would pop up mid story to remind the reader that something was happening involving a mysterious sword, it’s forger, and, well, as this example shows, a sound effect which was also a prophesy:

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Anyway, let’s move on. Issue 343 saw the conclusion of this two-part story and cemented the connection between  Thor’s Norse heritage and his current incarnation:

Eilif is granted strength by Odin so he can assist Thor in fighting Fafnir. (Eilif, btw, is the last Viking that was introduced in the last issue.)

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The next issue, #344, began the next phase of the rehabilitation of the title, as it introduced another of the themes which would be a hallmark of Simonson’s tenure on the book – the re-envisioning of Thor’s supporting Asgardian cast. Actually it may not be fair to say that that phase began here, as it really was something that began as soon as Simonson took over the reigns, but it definitely brought it to the forefront with – as we see reflected in the cover, a focus on Thor’s perhaps most stalwart companion, Balder the Brave.

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Balder is sent by Odin to make the perilous journey to Loki’s realm to ask the god of mischief for aid in combating an ancient evil. Malekith makes it there first and sways Loki to his side. Balder, forced to break his vow of non-violence by a taunting Loki, cuts off the schemer’s head and wanders into the desert to die.

Of course, Balder doesn’t die, nor does Loki – as a mater of fact, he actually seems to make it to the end of the issue more intact than Balder.

Okay, so if you saw the second Thor movie then you will already be familiar with the name Malekith mentioned above. As a matter of fact, much of the material for that film was taken from the next part of Simonson’s run.

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Yes, that is the comics version of the evil elf-lord depicted on the cover of #345, which the GCD summarizes thusly:

Lorelei continues her seduction of Thor. Malekith and the Dark Elves try to capture the Casket of Ancient Winters from its keeper, but the Casket is passed on to his son for protection.

 

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At this point, the Dark Hunt (which is what you see depicted on the cover where Thor is not the hunter, but the hunted) was on.

The Dark Elves try to capture the Casket of Ancient Winters from its new guardian, Roger Willis. Thor helps out. Malekith captures Thor’s true (or at least enchanting) lover, Melodi, and threatens to kill her if the Casket is not given up.

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“Melodi” is actually the Asgardian villainess the Enchantress’s sister Lorelei who has managed to bewitch Thor into loving her. Meanwhile, other forces also have their sights set on Earth:

Thor and Roger invade the realm of Faerie to rescue Thor’s love while keeping the Casket of Ancient Winters out of Malekith’s hands. They don’t quite succeed. Balder has a chat with a Norn. Odin prepares for battle. Surtur prepares to invade earth.

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Yep, Surtur, the mysterious forger of that Doom sword that we saw earlier, is on his way. But first there’s a more immediate threat:

Thor and Roger save Lorelei, but fail to keep Malekith from opening the Casket of Ancient Winters. The Norns convince Balder that life is better than death. Surtur begins his advance.

However, before the actual showdown with Surtur begins, it’s time for a history lesson in issue #349

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Thor returns to New York and reunites with Lorelei, but Roger smells an enchanted rat. Thor later brings Malekith to his father in Asgard and Odin tells all the tale of how he and his brothers faced and defeated Surtur when the world was young.

Now you might think that issue #350 would be a good place to wrap up some of these story lines, but not for Simonson. Nope, he still had a lot more story to tell at this point.

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Odin alone stays to guard his realm as all of Asgard travels to earth to battle Surtur in New York.

Hmmm… Odin standing by himself to defend Asgard? That might not be the best idea at this point, as we see in issue #351:

On Earth, the Asgardians and heroes try to stem the tide of Surtur’s demons. Surtur, meanwhile has made it to Asgard where he shatters the rainbow bridge before taking on Thor.

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Btw, you may note that that description mentions “the Asgardians and the heroes”. This is one of those times when the integration of the Marvel Universe works very well as the story crosses over into concurrent Avengers stories, and even other Marvel titles reflect (at their discretion) the effects of the opening of the Cask, even if it’s only by noting a very odd snowstorm in the summer. This integration is reflected in the cover of Thor #352:

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And, of course, in the story contained therein:

Odin faces off with Surtur in Asgard. The heroes of Earth and Asgard try to figure out how to close the gateway to Surtur’s dimension and stop the ever increasing number of invading demons.

That, of course, brings us to issue #353 and the finale of this epic tale

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With Odin and Thor both down in the battle against Surtur, it’s Loki to the rescue?! The heroes of Earth and Asgard stem the tide of Surtur’s demons. Roger reconstructs the Casket of Ancient Winters, ending the chilly enchantment. Odin and his sons have a final showdown with Surtur.

And just where does that finale leave us? Well let’s just say that there’s an echo of Simonson’s first issue with this final page:

 

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So where does Simonson’s Thor go from here? Aaahhh… that, I think, we’ll save for next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the way, I should note that although I wrote about Mr. Steranko and his art in the past tense above, he is still alive and well, and does still produce a piece of artwork every now and then. I simply used the past tense because that’s when the artwork I was focusing on today was produced.

http://www.comics.org/issue/39014/

 

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