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Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s Thor – The Might Thor Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

I am a massive fan of The Mighty Thor. There’s just something so clever and playful about the idea of a classic Norse deity reimagined as a Marvel superhero, a self-aware take on the whole “modern myth” approach to American comic book storytelling that it’s hard not to love. Indeed, I would rank portions of Lee and Kirby’s work on Thor among the best of their output from the Silver Age, a truly epic large-scale epic fantasy narrative that isn’t anchored or tethered to any limitations beyond the imaginations of those working on it.

While The Fantastic Four is a lot more consistent and a lot more important in the grand scheme of comic book history, Thor is a bit rockier. It took Lee and Kirby a considerable amount of time to find their creative voice on Thor – a difficulty compounded by the fact that heavy work loads on other Marvel often forced the duo to delegate the early issues of the book to other writers and artists. As a result, this mammoth tome of Thor serves more as a learning curve, building towards a point where the duo will have figured out quite how to tell compelling and exciting stories featuring the God of Thunders.

Taking the hammer for a spin...

Taking the hammer for a spin…

Stan Lee is a great storyteller and – as you might imagine – he has a nice origin story for the character of Thor, explaining how he came to choose a Norse deity as his next iconic character. Repeated in both the introduction and epilogue of this collection, Lee recounts how the idea came from an interviewer who described superheroes as a modern mythology:

It happened when I was a guest on a New York radio talk show. The interviewer kept referring to our colourful costumed cavorters as our generation’s new mythology. Then, when he asked what new creation we were preparing to unleash upon the defenseless reading public, it all came together! Enter the world of myth. Come up with a god!

It’s a very nice story, and one that hints Lee knew quite a bit about what he was doing when he created all these classic Marvel icons.

A stone's throw away from danger...

A stone’s throw away from danger…

Of course, like so many Silver Age Marvel creations, there is some debate about who was responsible (and to what degree they were responsible) for the creation of Thor. The fact that Lee’s version of events finds itself repeated twice in a hardcover collection published by Marvel suggests the publisher favours his version of events, but Jack Kirby famously accused Lee of minimal involvement in the creation of many of these characters, including Thor:

GROTH: Who came up with the name “Fantastic Four”? 

KIRBY: I did. All right? I came up with all those names. I came up with Thor because I’ve always been a history buff. I know all about Thor and Balder and Mjolnir, the hammer. Nobody ever bothered with that stuff except me. I loved it in high school and I loved it in my pre-high school days. It was the thing that kept my mind off the general poverty in the area. When I went to school that’s what kept me in school — it wasn’t mathematics and it wasn’t geography; it was history.

This is a part of comic book history that is still contentious to this day – with many historians and readers divided over how to apportion credit for various artistic decisions. It’s not something that is easy to navigate, and it’s not something that can be neatly resolved. While I suspect that Lee’s story might be embellished, it does have an endearing ring to it – a catchy and clever hook.

Return to sender...

Return to sender…

So Thor had a great premise, to start with. The notion of a literal god working alongside more modern icons like the Hulk or Captain America or Iron Man is a pretty neat hook. The character’s popularity grew to the point where he took over the anthology series where he debuted – Journey into Mystery first became Journey into Mystery with Thor and then The Mighty Thor. The fantastic Tales of Asgard stories took off in popularity, becoming a supporting featured that managed to earn its own separate re-coloured collection recently.

And yet, despite all this, there’s a sense that the early Thor stories were somewhat troubled. The series took its time to find its feet. In the introduction to the second Marvel Masterworks collection, reprinted here, Lee seems to implicitly accept that many of the early stories were clunkers, promising readers of this second set of tales “heralds the start of the really spectacular plots and premises for which these mags have long been famous.” There’s a tacit acknowledgement that the first set of stories weren’t really up to snuff.

On top of the world...

On top of the world…

It’s easy enough to account for the problems with the early issues. Lee and Kirby were both massively over-worked by Marvel, stretched very thin. The duo were each committed to several major books each month, and it was difficult to find the time or the energy to consistently work on a new feature – even one running about a dozen pages. So a lot of the early Thor stories were outsourced. Stan Lee is credited on plots, but the scripts were written by his brother Larry Lieber and by science-fiction author Robert Bernstein. Kirby delegated pencilling duties to artists like Joe Sinnott and Don Heck.

These are talented individuals, it must be noted. In particular, Joe Sinnott and Don Heck are reliable artists, even if neither can really measure up to the work of Jack Kirby. Larry Lieber and Robert Bernstein were solid writers, capable of churning out fairly standard superhero fare with relative ease. The problem is that Thor shouldn’t really feel like a standard superhero book, like a stable-mate to Captain America or The Invincible Iron Man. It needed a bit more vision, and – while those working on the title were solid workers – Thor needed something more.

A flash of inspiration... (As an aside, I love how Kirby draws the lightning to resemble an audio wave...)

A flash of inspiration…
(As an aside, I love how Kirby draws the lightning to resemble an audio wave…)

That said, let’s not be too harsh on Lieber and Bernstein. In particular, it’s easy to underrate Bernstein’s contributions. Credited as R. Burns, the author helped push the focus of the Thor features away from mundane superhero stories and towards Asgard. He writes our first big trip to Asgard – treating it as more than just “that place Loki escapes from” in The Day Loki Stole Thor’s Magic Hammer. In Thor and Loki Attack the Human Race!, Burnstein makes it clear that Loki really isn’t too bothered about Earth, that Asgard is where it’s it at.

Using Thor to further his evil ends, Loki boasts, “That’s my plan, Odin… to make Earth my hostage till you yield control of Asgard to Thor and me!” Still, there’s a hint of conventional Silver Age superhero storytelling in the way that Odin and his friends conspire to save Thor, by impersonating the UN and installing a trap door in the general assembly stage. As you do. Still, in Burnstein’s contributions, you can see Asgard’s importance to the mythology of Thor increasing.

"Captain America will totally think I'm ripping off his bit!"

“Captain America will totally think I’m ripping off his bit!”

In The Demon Duplicators, Thor makes it clear that Asgard is where his heart is. “Forget Asgard?” he asks after returning home following an adventure on Earth. “Never, my father! For no matter what adventures may summon me to the world below, this is the land my heart calls home!” This would be come the root of the strongest personal conflict in the stories collected here – Thor’s need to decide whether he belongs to Earth or to Asgard.

Of course, the book takes a while to figure out what it wants to be. In many ways, it’s hampered by a desire to cling to what has worked in the past. Thor comes saddled with all the trappings we expect from a Silver Age Marvel comic, and most of those elements just bog it down. Let’s start with Donald Blake, who is probably the single most problematic part of the Thor mythos. It’s easy to understand why so many later writers tend to ignore Blake and focus on Thor.

Loki's a little tied up at present...

Loki’s a little tied up at present…

The use of Blake here is particularly troubling because of the way the narrative leans on his physical disability. Not only is it treated as one of Blake’s major defining attributes – in The Mysterious Mister Hyde, Blake is identified as “the famous lame doctor!” – but it’s also used to contrast him with Thor. The narrative paints Blake as the inverse of Thor, with all of Thor’s admirable qualities mirrored in appealing ways. While Thor is courageous, for example, the stories frequently contort to make Blake look cowardly – a negative attribute. As such, Blake’s physical disability seems to exist to contrast Thor’s strength and to mark Blake as “lesser.”

Similar to the portrayal of Charles Xavier in those early X-Men comics, there’s a sense that Blake can’t really be a functioning member of society because of his disability. Like a more wholesome (yet still unsettling) version of Xavier’s crush on Jean Grey, Blake views his disability as something that prevents him from being a suitable lover. “Jane is so beautiful! If only I could tell her how much she means to me! But I daren’t… for a girl so lovely would never marry a — a lame man!”  It’s decidedly creepy.

Donning the identity...

Donning the identity…

As the the wonderful Colin Smith argues, the subtext is less than pleasant:

Nowadays we’d hope that Donald Blake would have been raised to feel a great deal more positively about himself. For though we’re never told directly that he’s a man haunted by his disability and alienated by that reason from the wider society, most everything else about “The Stone Men From Saturn” tells us that Thor’s creators expected us to feel almost as much pity for Blake as we would a decent-hearted sympathy for the character. It’s implicit in the text, for example, that it’s Blake’s lameness and its broader consequences which has driven him to holiday alone on “The windy coast of Norway”. He’s identified from the very off in terms of his disability, labelled as “frail” even before anything of his character and his qualities can be revealed. He is, in the terms of the story, there to be pitiful and pitied, to be apparently perpetually damned by the cruelties of fate while awaiting a miracle so that his life can truly begin. And so, there’s little of him in the text that’s explicitly admirable or actively heroic.

You can see what Lee and Kirby are trying to do – trying to create a contrast between Blake and Thor – but it feels markedly ill-advised.

Here there be dragons...

Here there be dragons…

Then again, there’s a sense throughout these early stories that nobody knows exactly what the relationship between Blake and Thor really is. Much like the early Hulk stories, it seems like nobody really thought this through before they started publishing it. Initially, it seems like Thor is just Donald Blake’s brain in a muscle-bound Nordic body. When he encounters Loki, he doesn’t talk about his half-brother, he instead recounts half-remembered facts from high school. “Loki, the Norse God of Mischief! According to ancient legends, the most cunning and wicked of the gods!” There’s no real hint that this is first-hand information.

Then again, the whole comic takes a while to figure all the relationships out. Loki isn’t identified as Thor’s “half-brother” until much later in the collection, despite the fact that you’d imagine Lee and Kirby would want to push that familial feud to the foreground. Instead, Loki is Thor’s “sworn enemy”, arguably no different from the Red Skull or the Mandarin. Again, this seems more like standard superhero stuff than grand modern myth-making.

Thor is grounded...

Thor is grounded…

At the same time, the comic spends quite a few of its early issues struggling to figure out what Odin is supposed to be doing. He serves as a nice visual – a talking head in the clouds – but seems to exist merely to convenient escalate dramatic tension, or to provide a handy deus ex machina ending when an early story needs it it. In Sandru, Master of the Supernatural, Odin pops in to send his Valkyries down to give Thor a magic belt. In Trapped by the Carbon Copy Man!, he pops by purely to inform Donald Blake he can’t reveal his identity to Jane, thus keeping the comic’s angst levels suitably high.

Similarly, the comic struggles to deal with the fact that this is a superhero who happens to be a god. It’s interesting that so many early stories feature familiar names and concepts, but used in entirely different contexts. The second story here pits Thor against “the Executioner”, but it’s not the Asgardian villain that we meet later on. Similarly, a robot from the 23rd century bears a remarkable similarity to the Destroyer, which would be incorporated into the comic’s central mythology.

Faster than a speeding missile...

Faster than a speeding missile…

So these early comics don’t tether themselves to Thor’s mythological roots. And so we end up with weird tales where Thor gets involved in the Cold War, helping out with military tests and toppling communist regimes. In a scene that could easily have been lifted from a Silver Age Superman comic, Thor tests his might against the best of American military technology. “We appreciate your helping us test our newest experimental weapons, Thor!” an officer comments. “I’m happy to play a part in keeping the free world safe and secure against the forces of tyranny!” Thor responds.

The next story is called Prisoner of the Reds! Later, The Mysterious Radio-active Man! opens with “Red Chinese attackers” in India, who need to vanquished by Thor. This sort of geo-political story arguably suits the Cold War mentality of The Invincible Iron Man or even the patriotic fervour of Captain America, but it feels strangely out of place in Thor. This just isn’t the type of material that lends itself to a reincarnated Norse god wandering around the modern world.

Talk about your long-distance calls...

Talk about your long-distance calls…

Similarly, the comic runs into trouble when it tries to fashion standard super villains for Thor. Aside from Loki, these earliest tales pit Thor against second-stringers like the Cobra and Mister Hyde. Lee can’t really seem to figure out a hook for either character, even though there’s something absolutely hilarious about Cobra’s disbelieving “I’ve been bitten by a radio-active cobra??!!” when he gains his superpowers. After all, that’s got to be an occupational hazard in the Marvel Universe. If you get bitten by anything, assume that it’s radioactive.

There’s no real reason why Hyde and Cobra should be foes of Thor. Lee tries to suggest a connection between Hyde and Donald Blake, but it’s so shallow that it doesn’t really work. “You represent everything I hate, Blake!” Hyde advises the good doctor. “You are honest… hard-working… successful! While I… I am the evil nature of man, personified!” It’s no wonder that these characters eventually wandered away from Thor in the wider Marvel Universe, as they didn’t even fit the character when they were created.

Picking up where he left off...

Picking up where he left off…

Even Loki calls them out on it in Every Hand Against Him, which seems to be the point where Lee and Kirby figure out what it is their doing. Addressing the pair Loki asserts himself as the grand-standing break-out theatrical supervillain in this comic book. “Strong as you both are, your strength is nothing to mine! Evil as you both are, your evilness is nothing to mine!” Thor himself is less than impressed. Addressing the captured Cobra in The Mysterious Mr. Hyde and the Serpentine Cobra Feel… the Power of the Thunder God!, he assures the fallen foe, “Although your heart is evil enough… neither you nor Hyde have the wit or cunning for true arch-villainy!” 

In storytelling terms, this creates its own problems. The writers are constantly trying to de-power Thor in order to keep him at a bit of a disadvantage, to help make the fights seem a bit more evenly-balanced. To put that in context, Thor can use his hammer to casually time-travel. (“By swinging it at exactly twice the speed of light, I can move backwards or forwards in time!”) Odin is constantly removing part of his son’s power, just when Thor needs it most.

Oh, half-brother!

Oh, half-brother!

It feels a little contrived and awkward, and it seems like Lee and Kirby are trying too hard to make Thor fit the mould of what they think a Marvel comic should look like. We get a lot of angst involving Donald Blake’s secret identity – and who he can or can’t tell – and various attempts to restrict or limit the power of a god in order to raise dramatic stakes. “If I let go of it, in about sixty seconds I revert back to my normal self!” Donald tells us at one point, giving us an early limitation on Thor’s power that has been slowly eroded over time.

The comic becomes much stronger when Lee and Kirby begin to realise what Thor could be, instead of trying to shape it into something that it is not. In the issue immediately following Robert Burnstein’s departure, the duo launch the Tales of Asgard supporting feature. Initially serving as loose adaptations of classic Norse fables, it eventually develops into its own complex comic-book back story of this version of Asgard. It’s one of the best things about Lee and Kirby’s Thor, because it represents genuine world-building, and a willingness to embrace something a bit different than standard superhero narratives.

The chains that bind...

The chains that bind…

In particular, Tales of Asgard allow us an opportunity to see Loki’s origin story, turning him into one of the best-developed Silver Age villains by default. We watch him grow up alongside Thor, and to develop his bitterness or hatred towards his half-brother. As illustrated by Kirby, these stories do a wonderful job bridging the gap between mythological and comic book sensibilities. For example, Heimdell’s shield is branded with a “H”, in the style of a superhero’s uniform. Kroda the Duellist is drawn so that he resembles a cyborg.

In a moment that Grant Morrison would riff on with Kirby’s New Gods in his Justice League of America run, the climax of Gather Warriors features Odin revealing the words “Ragnarok is coming!” scrawled across a wall to a bunch of assembled deities. This is truly epic large-scale storytelling, and this hints at the potential of Thor as a comic book character. In fact, Thor feels like something of a precursor to Jack Kirby’s later works – in particular the New Gods mythology at DC and his later Eternals at Marvel.

He's no dummy...

He’s no dummy…

For example, there’s the familiar suggestion that the Asgardians were once more active on Earth than they are today – an advanced civilisation tinkering in early human history. Introducing the Destroyer, To Kill a Thunder God! features a secret Asgardian weapon buried in “a monstrous temple — from some by-gone age!! It must have stood here — hidden beneath the concealing plateau — since time immemorial!!” Later, Thor more firmly identifies it as something left over from a darker time, “For the Temple of Darkness, which was built to house the most destructive living force on Earth, shall now bury it beyond the power of any mortal ever to unearth again!”

You can see a lot of Kirby’s interests and influences playing out on Thor, and the comic is at its strongest when it’s indulging Kirby’s far-out concepts and big ideas. Indeed, Thor riffs heavily on religious iconography, but not just that associate with Norse deities. In his afterword, Lee insists, “I couldn’t – I wouldn’t – do a series about God as a comic book character.” However, a lot of Thor is filtered through a decidedly Judeo-Christian lens. Odin is consistently defined as a paternal voice speaking from the clouds, with Thor frequently journeying to a high mountain top to hear his father’s proclamations.

Summons on the mount?

Summons on the mount?

Much like Jesus Christ, Thor finds that his father will not allow him to find love on Earth – he is not allowed to indulge in any Earthly pleasure that might distract from his objectives. In At the Mercy of Loki, Prince of Evil!, as Odin does not answer his son’s pleas (prayers?), Thor laments, “Odin has ignored me! He’s foresaken me!” It’s hardly the most subtle of riffs on that iconic Gospel scene. Similarly, when illustrating the Norse creation myth of “Aske and Embla”, who are “destined to start a new race, in the image of the immortals of Asgard”, Kirby draws them in a setting clearly intended to evoke the Garden of Eden.

Kirby’s influence on the book is obvious, and vital ingredient to its success. At the same time, Lee also contributes a great deal to Thor. Lee’s style is melodramatic and overblown, somehow managing to seem gloriously over-written despite a restricted word-count. This can be distracting and headache-inducing in certain circumstances. However, Lee’s overblown scripting adds a sense of pop culture grandeur to the book.

Gotta shoot!

Gotta shoot!

Consider this wordy introduction to the first story, ruminating on grand themes like fate in the clumsiest of manners:

Two principles in a grim pageant… neither one noticing the other! But how different would things be if they were to meet at this moment! How different would be the future of all mankind! But ours is a drama decreed by the fates to be acted out! Nothing can stop it! Nothing can change it!

It creates a powerful sense of inevitability and destiny around what is really jsut a knock-down brawl between Thor and some stone aliens from Saturn.

Sticking it out...

Sticking it out…

Lee’s faux Shakespearean dialogue is downright absurd in places (“you call thyself a chef??”), but it is also perfectly suited to the larger-than-life melodrama of Thor. Everything is over-blown and absurd and impossible and ridiculous, and that is part of the charm of it all. Thor really wouldn’t be what it was without the contributions of both Lee and Kirby to crafting this superhero reimagining of classic Norse mythology.

This is grand, sweeping, epic stuff. This is the stuff that really works as part of Lee and Kirby’s Thor. It’s just a shame that the duo are almost at the end of this collection before they really get into the swing of things. It gives Thor a distinctive voice, making it into more than just another launch of a new Marvel superhero, and turning it into a vehicle to explore all these wonderful science-fiction and fantasy high-concepts.

A (bi-)frosty reception...

A (bi-)frosty reception…

Thor is one of the best of the Silver Age Marvel comics. It just hasn’t quite got there yet.

5 Responses

  1. Great review. I love how your writing is very accessible yet more considered and deeper than most. The only problem is those lame picture captions – you don’t need to put a desperate pun alongside every picture.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Truman. It means a lot.

      Are the puns really that bad? I know they’re terrible, but I thought they added a sort of an appealing cheesiness to the reviews? (Sometimes I fear that people think I take everything too seriously when I go on and on about the themes of Grant Morrison’s Batman or the political commentary in Michelinie and Layton’s Iron Man, or when I tear into Steve Englehart’s West Coast Avengers.)

  2. Will there be a review of the second omnibus? Also whatever grievenses we have about the writing, the art here is top notch. I’m also inclined to believe a little of both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the original creation of Thor.

    • I was hoping to get the second omnibus done for the film, but time really got away with me. I’m currently racing to get as much of The X-Files covered before the revival begins and to get Star Trek done for the fiftieth anniversary. I am looking forward to not having on-going projects and just being able to do whatever tickles my fancy, to be honest. But I do want to finish what I started, and both my X-Files and Star Trek reviews are significantly closer to the end than to the beginning.

      • Thank God. No offense Darren, but I seriously do not care for either of those shows and am a little tired of seeing them time and again when coming done to the wonderful m0vieblog. Glad to hear you’re almost done.

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