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Thor by Walt Simonson Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” We’re also taking a look at some of the notable stories featuring individual Avengers.

Read our review of The Avengers here.

Walt Simonson’s run on Thor is one of the truly great Marvel runs of the eighties – along with Frank Miller’s take on Daredevil and John Byrne’s tenure on The Fantastic Four. It’s great to have that entire run – and the Baldar the Brave miniseries – collected in one absolutely giant omnibus, which stands as one of the greatest accomplishments of Marvel’s collected editions department. Did I mention that it has been lavishly recoloured for the occasion? Because it has. And it’s spectacular.

A snake in the grass (and pretty much everywhere else)...

I’ll begin with a confession. Early comic books don’t necessarily age particularly well, and sometimes it’s quite tough to hand an older comic book to a new reader and expect them to pick it up straight away. I think it’s possible to underestimate the impact that Miller and Moore had in how comic book stories were told. There’s a lot of exposition, and a lot of thought balloons in these older stories, and a fair amount of corny dialogue – all of which can be quite jarring. I even found it so while reading the (relatively ahead of its time) Frank Miller run on Daredevil.

That said, I think Thor handles that sort of stuff much better than most other classic superheroes, if only due to the nature of the character. Asgard and its population of Norse gods are bright and colourful, fitting perfectly with the hyperactive imagination of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. You could describe it as cultural relativism, but it’s easy to excuse Thor declaring “I say thee nay!”or other attempts to butcher Shakespeare than it is to read a supposedly modern businessman like Iron Man thinking in awkward purple prose.

Hammering the opposition...

And, in fairness to Simonson, he crafts his Asgardian dialogue well. I remember being very excited when Brian Blessed was rumoured to play the role of Odin in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (only to be a little bit disappointed when he was replaced by Anthony Hopkins), and a lot of Simonson’s dialogue and captions demand to be read in the style of that famous British thespian, in a strong mock British accent with no indoor voice to temper the words. It does, to be honest, sound a little bit awkward when Simonson attempts to write dialogue for heroes who aren’t gods, because that sort of pompous, self-important tone doesn’t work so well coming from a normal joe.

It leads to some awkward situations where Simonson clearly has a tight grasp of a character’s motivations and perspective, but can’t get the voice quite right. “You know, Thor,” Iron Man states at one point, “there are times when, as a 20th century man, I’m not quite sure how much to believe about Asgard and her gods.” It perfectly captures the wonderful Thor/Iron Man dynamic among the three principal Avengers, but that’s a very strange sentence to read out loud. On the other hand, the melodramatic style is perfectly suited to the trials and conflicts of the gods. It really doesn’t seem too clunky to hear Thor declare, “I’m falling into a river of lava! Can this be the end of my quest?”

Chariot of the gods...

However, that’s a minor nitpick in the grand scheme of things. There’s a whole lot to love about Simonson’s run, but it’s the smaller elements that I think really hit it out of the park. Consider the way that Simonson very consciously and carefully blends science fiction and fantasy in telling his story. The dwarf forge looks like it could easily have been lifted from James Cameron’s The Terminator, and the writer even has Tony Stark develop a bionic arm at one stage to throw the famous mystical hammer. Surtur’s flame is referred to using a pseudo-scientific reference to “energy-giving radiation.” Even Loki is a cross between a sorcerer and a mad scientist, purifying a potion through what looks like a chemistry set, using Ice Man’s mutant powers for his own end, and referring to the attempt to turn Thor into a frog as his “most audacious experiment.”

The run pits Thor against a time-travelling law enforcement officer, has the character find his worthy replacement in a fleet of alien refugees, and reimagines the villain Zaniac as some sort of eternal parasite that might have been Jack the Ripper (which seems like a reference to the classic Star Trek episode Wolf in the Fold). Even when enemies from classic Norse mythology appear, they wear futuristic suits of armour. It’s a nice cheesy cocktail that Simonson brews, effortlessly blending science and magic, creating the impression that Thor merely operates on a plain of understanding far beyond our mortal comprehension.

Blade of glory...

Some of the best moments in the run play off a rather wonderful urban fantasy. Thor discovers alligators in the New York sewer system, a modern day urban myth. “The fables of New York City are true!” Thor gives up the throne of Asgard that he “might still walk the mean streets of Earth”, like some sort of Norse version of Kung-Fu. I honestly couldn’t stop smiling at the line, “Yonder is the lawyer’s office.” See what I mean about this cheesy old-school dialogue fitting the character so well?

And Simonson does this while leaning rather heavily of the original Norse myths that inspired Thor. While he pays homage to the classical Lee and Kirby supervillains that would face down Thor, having many pop in for an issue or two at a time, Simonson’s run most obviously draws rather heavily from those early Scandinavian legends. Simonson, for example, introduces Marvel’s Thor to comic book versions of the demon Surtur and the evil Grendel. He has Thor grow a beard. “After all these years,” Thor remarks to himself, “I begin to resemble the storied thunder god of earthly legend.”

The Mighty Thor...

Aside from these elements, perhaps the largest change that Simonson made to the character was to effectively abandon the “secret identity” of Doctor Donald Blake, who would tap his stick on the ground to transform into the mighty Thor. In fairness, there’s a sense that the idea had pretty much run its course, something the story concedes, acknowledging that Blake was “an enchantment that had outlived its purpose.” After all, surely Thor had been suitably humbled?

Instead, Simonson has a bit of fun with the ideo of a superhero’s secret identity, creating a new alias for Thor as Sigurd Jarlson. “Here!” Nick Fury insists, handing the guy a set of glasses, “Put these cheaters on! They always worked for that other guy!” You can guess who “the other guy” is because he makes a cameo (like his cameo in The Ultimates) in the same issue. Simonson does look to have a bit of fun with the idea, playing off some classic superhero riffs. “This darkened alleyway should serve my purpose,”Thor declares when he needs to change costume.

By Odin, this is good!

I do love the recurring joke with Thor’s boss trying to figure out which superhero his new, massive, long-haired Scandinavian employee might be. “Jarlson is really Spider-Man!” he deduces at one point, only to later observe, “If he’s working for SHIELD, he probably isn’t really Spider-Man. Wonder if Sigurd is really Captain America?” Later on, despite the rather obvious nature of his disguise, a character observes, “Everybody was fooled by Thor’s disguise. That’s how secret identities work.” It’s a nice little allusion to one of the most frequently derided secret identities in comic books, and it also does an excellent job of suggesting Thor exists as Marvel’s counterpart to Superman.

Unfortunately, nothing really happens with this plot thread. Even Simonson himself seems to acknowledge this, having Thor confess, “I never really established Sigurd Jarlson’s identity on Midgard.” There are a few other instances where plot threads seem to stop and start randomly, though Simonson never quite reaches the level that Chris Claremont was famed for (due to his work on X-Men). perhaps the strangest is the reappearance of Jormungand, the world serpent. The confrontation is particularly epic – “now at last is come the hour of greatest trial!”Thor declares as we read an issue literally composed entirely of splash pages – but there’s relatively little foreshadowing. Arguably even the return of Zaniac was more skilfully foreshadowed.

No mean feet...

That instance is a great shame because it’s very much the exception rather than the rule. One of the better facets of Simonson’s run is the way that most of his big threats are subtly introduced and gradually developed before the gigantic confrontation. I honestly think that the famous “DOOM!” build-up to Surtur and the eventual confrontation are easily among the best Thor stories ever told, and they are more powerful because of Simonson’s care and skill in leading into them. Even moments like the confrontation between Thor and Hela work especially well because there is a lot of anticipation built-up. That makes it all the more noticeable when a gigantic and epic and important confrontation just arrives out of nowhere.

I get the sense that the World Serpent might have actually served to put a bit of structure on the middle and end of Simonson’s run, which seems to meander a bit after the death of Odin. Again, most of the stories are entertaining and well-told on their own terms, but the rest of the run lacks a powerful central narrative thread, or at least a little bit of structure. The story does find its feet towards the end, as Simonson pulls out all the stops and even drafts in that famous Thor foe, the Destroyer.

If you're looking for someone to hold Thor's hammer, he fits the Bill...

Along the way, it’s genuinely hard to resist the wit and charm of the author. I mean, honestly, how many writers of that time (as the Silver Age was becoming more and more of a distant memory) would have dared to compose a story about Thor being transformed into a frog with colleagues with names like “Puddlegulp” and “King Glugwort.” Although, Thor is quick to point out, “I still possess powers and abilities far beyond that of any mortal frog.” It’s a very silly story, which reads like a classic old-school “how was it not made on drugs?” Superman or Batman story, and it only really works because of the nature of Thor and the skill of Simonson.

There are other old-school touches that I really liked, betraying a strange comfort with the hokey nature of mainstream comic books you really don’t see anymore. I really loved, for example, a late appearance from the dragon Fin Fang Foom, complete with his inexplicable green underwear. There’s a hilarious moment where he ambushes Thor, and then awkwardly apologises when he doesn’t recognise his old foe with the beard. “I fear that I mistook you for someone else. The red cape, you know.” Explaining his plan to ambush a weakened Thor, the dragon concedes, “One hates to do the dishonourable thing and take unfair advantage but really, history only loves winners, Custer and the Alamo excepted.” This is all dialogue coming from a gigantic orange dragon.

All fired up...

Indeed, one can see a lot of the same humour J. Michael Straczynski would later bring to his run on the title, with the Warriors Three adapting to life on the mortal plain. As Volstagg tours Macy’s, he declares in awe, “Observe! A cooking pot so constructed that it claims cooked food will ne’er stick to it!” These sorts of jokes work really well with the characters in question, and it’s a testament to Simonson’s wit that they are still being used today.

However, credit where credit is due. While Simonson’s Thor run might lack the impact of Alan Moore’s take on Swamp Thing or Miller’s Daredevil, there is a healthy dose of well-observed social commentary to be found, if relatively subtly hidden amid the humour. A Senator declares that a random dragon is “undoubtedly a tool of the Russians.” An invasion by Surtur’s hoards prompts the question, “Have the Russians finally made it across the Atlantic?” Later on, while Thor is on the verge of death, he is stalked and harassed by fickle reporters asking pointless questions and pondering about the effectiveness of modern-day heroes.

Rainbow warriors...

In a well-observed line, when the god collapses after wrestling with The Absorbing Man, somebody pauses to ask, “Did anyone remember to call 911?” It’s a single line, but it raises a whole host of thought-provoking questions about the dependency that mortals might have on superheroes in the Marvel universe. It’s very telling that the entire city could be brought to a stand-still for an epic battle, but nobody really bothers to phone the police anymore because… well, what can they do? Simonson doesn’t linger on the thought, but just cleverly throws it out there, and it’s one of the nicer touches I honestly appreciate.

Indeed, while it’s hardly the most cutting social commentary, Simonson does give us the GLF, a villainous team of “disaffected veterans of Vietnam who feel they have been ignored by their country.”Granted, this book was written in the eighties, but many would claim that America never really came to terms with the veterans of that foreign conflict. However, Simonson skilfully balances all this with machine-gun-totting gods, and the sight of Thor wrestling in a make-shift luchador mask. It’s fun comics!

Thor didn't want to be seen punching a lady!

And there’s any number of truly epic sequences on display here. Personally, I love moments like Skurge singlehandedly guarding Thor’s escape, declaring, “I will hold the bridge.” Or that fantastic moment where Thor’s eternal foe and half-brother Loki makes one defiant last stand against the demon Surtur, standing with his father and his brother in the ruins of Asgard. He introduces himself to a befuddled enemy, casually cleaning his nails. “Many questions, Mighty Surtur. One answer.”

I, personally, found it interesting how many crossovers there were over the course of the run. I am very quick to deride modern comic book crossovers for disrupting stories in an author’s book (Ed Brubaker’s Captain America and Matt Fraction’s Iron Man being two relatively recent examples of books derailed), and it’s interesting to watch them here. Most of the crossovers are actually skilfully integrated into the book, with Thor stumbling across another character, continuing his line of thought, and leaving on a cliffhanger that goes into his next story. I don’t feel I need to read The Mutant Massacre to appreciate the crossover in Thor. Similarly, the Casket of Ancient Winters crossed over into other stories (like Wolverine and Kitty Pryde), but didn’t draw them into a larger plot.

You'd have to be a bit Loki to stand up to Surtur...

The only crossover that runs the risk of confusing a reader is the one with the Mephisto miniseries. I think it’s not really important, but it seems rather strange. The World Serpent turns Thor into a fine paste (or, in its own words, “immortal pudding”) within his armour, and the issue ends. Then, in the next issue, the Frost Giants glimpse Thor fighting Mephisto, before the rest of the Avengers go on their business and Thor is (again) a bunch of goo inside his armour. The story continues on fine, but it’s a very strange set of pages that I’m not really sure I follow.

What’s remarkable though, is the sense of scale and pathos that Simonson manages to evoke, even in the midst of the cheesy dialogue and corny thought-bubbles that accompany more than a few hokey premises. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that we do feel a sting of pity for an old sentry longing sorely for a warrior’s death against a giant freakin’ dragon over New York, or the wonderful issue where Thor comes to terms with the loss of his father through a series of conversations with a mysterious figure in the mountains of Asgard.

The devil you know...

Sure, we might all remember the stories that feature “frog Thor” or the time-travelling Justice Peace, but it’s far too easy to overlook the genuine skill that went into crafting these powerful little moments – moments that worked because, though wryly aware of the hokey nature of some of the stories, Simonson never seemed to be ashamed of them. And quite right, too. It’s these moments that add depth to the character, and I think they stand the test of time. One can, among many other things, trace Matt Fraction’s take on the Enchantress in Ages of Thunder back to a single page conversation in this run that she shares with Heimdall.

In short, the run is great. Simonson clearly has a grip on all the characters, and is telling a truly epic story that he evidently has long wanted to tell (since he was a fan of the original comics, according to a note in the back of this lavish edition). There are a few flaws, and I’d hesitate to describe the run as “singularly important” on the scale of Miller’s Daredevil, but very few runs truly are. It’s just a really great run that helped define a given character, written with an infectious sense of fun and enthusiasm. Seriously, read some of those notes or hints for the next issue, and then try to tell me the crew weren’t having the time of their lives. One such note smartly promises the next issue will contain “Thor! Eilif! Lorelei! Fafnir! Odin! Doom! Ravens? And everything else we can fit into a single issue! (Of course, it will all be very, very tiny.)”

Jaw dropping...

Simonson himself provides the artwork for about half the run, before Sal Buscema takes over towards the end. Both men are rather wonderful artists, and capture the brightly-coloured fantasy of the title character and his world with tremendous skill. Simonson in particula deserves special credit. These days it’s tough enough for a team of an artist and an artist to get a monthly book out the door, so it was amazing that he was able to both write and draw Thor consistently for so long. It’s no mean feat, and something that is perhaps too easily overlooked when considering the superb quality of the final product.

The production on the omnibus is absolutely stunning. It’s put together with love, with the original artwork recoloured for the collection, and a healthy selection of extras included with the 1,100-page adventure. I’d honestly measure the omnibus with Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and perhaps Peter Milligan’s X-Statix as the finest entry in the (quite wonderful) collection. There’s really no better way to own the comics, and – if you are in any way fond of Simonson, I recommend it. I would advise sampling some of his work beforehand, if only because old comics aren’t for everyone.

All three working together? A sight for Thor eyes!

Thor by Walt Simonson is truly an omnibus worthy of the character, and a fitting tribute to a skilled storyteller who clearly has a lot of affection for Asgard and its residents.

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9 Responses

  1. Hey Darren: Really liked your review of this collection. I first came across Thor in one of the issues Simonson wrote in the 70s, but didn’t get that much into it — I really didn’t know any of the characters. Later, in the 80s, when I was a bit older, I really got into his run on the title, even if I wasn’t a regular reader. I first learned about Norse mythology through his stories.
    Many years later, after studying the myths and while working for an Icelandic ethnic newspaper, I wrote a feature on Norse myths in the comics and managed to get an interview with him about his work on the title. He was clearly having fun with the title, and when I saw this huge tome was being published, I didn’t wait to buy it.
    I agree with you that parts of it don’t quite hang together, but overall, it really reads like an epic series that stood above some of the other series of the time. Maybe because Thor didn’t have to appear in multiple monthly titles like Spider-Man or the X-characters, there was better unity in his stories and place in the Marvel universe.
    Anyway, really enjoyed your review. I’m linking to it in a post I’m writing about Grant Gould’s graphic novel The Wolves of Odin.
    Cheers!

  2. Hi Darren: Finally got around to posting this, just in time for the Avengers movie: http://bit.ly/JVYkl5 Wish I had transcribed the entire Wlat Simonson interview — I’d written originally for print and couldn’t include as much as I would have liked. Would have been nice to add more to it.

  3. Hey Darren, I’m not much of a Thor fan so I may only acquire wither the Lee/Kirby run or this one. Which do you recommend? (And of the the Lee/Kirby stuff, should I read all of it or just the Tales of Asgard series?)

    • I’d go with Simonson. The second Lee/Kirby is great, particularly the Galactus stuff, but Simonson’s Thor is one of the great eighties Marvel runs. It’s just below Miller’s Daredevil and above Byrne’s Fantastic Four. But apparently my opinions on Byrne’s Fantastic Four are… controversial. (I like it, but I also think it has issues.)

      • I think Byrne is really great as writer/artist.

      • I think he’s a great artist. I think he’s a good writer. I like his Fantastic Four, I just don’t rate it as highly as the stronger books of the time. (I don’t think that Byrne’s solo stuff was ever as good as his X-Men with Claremont, for example; and it’s fair to say that Claremont did benefit from the collaboration as well.)

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