Artist Oliver Coipel revamped Thor’s look for Marvel Comic’s reboot of the series, written by J. Michael Straczynski, in 2007.
Author’s note: a few things have changed since this was written. First, there was the resurrection of Thor by Marvel Comics in the acclaimed run on the new title by J. Michael Straczynski, alluded to in the comments from Tom Brevoort below. Also, there were new incarnations of Norse myths in independent comics, such as Grant Gould’s The Wolves of Odin.
And one other thing, what was that? Oh yeah, Marvel’s Thor is going to be a female character now, which has some people excited (nothing wrong with a more diverse Marvel lineup) and some people upset (because they forget Marvel’s Thor has also been a frog and a horse-faced alien, among other incarnations).
Add to that, two blockbuster movies starring Chris Hemsworth as the titular thunder god, who also featured in The Avengers movie and in its sequel, The Age of Ultron, due out in 2015. If you want to see how the god of thunder went from medieval god to modern superman, read on…
The Modern Edda: Norse myths in comics
Though their names leap out at us from the days of the week, Norse gods were relatively obscure until recently. Opera figures of Siegfried and Brunnhild were one tentative step into this pagan world, but it took another form of entertainment to plunge a new generation into the old myths: comic books.
In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, the main character Shadow Moon falls in with a mysterious old man he calls Mr. Wednesday, a crafty, charismatic, cunning fellow, who introduces him to a whole host of other strangely familiar people — the gods of all the cultures who settled in America. Mr. Wednesday — an incarnation of Oðinn — has a penchant for artful schemes and beautiful women (particularly those from Minnesota).
It’s easy to forget that not too long ago, the Norse gods were hardly a part of Western popular culture. None of them had the name recognition of Hercules, Zeus or Venus. Wagner notwithstanding, the old Norse culture was something of a different area, familiar and yet somehow recognizable.
Ironically, that began to change with a children’s comic book published in the United States in 1938.
Action Comics No. 1 featured the first appearance of Superman, who, along with Mickey Mouse, has become one of the most recognized characters in the world. Jerry Siegel, who created Superman with Joe Schuster, has said that he was deliberately cooking up a character who took aspects of many of the mythical strongmen — Samson, Hercules, and others — and rolled them into one.
The character was popular enough to spawn an entire industry — that of the comic book superhero.
Much is made today of the so-called mythology of comic books, and comparisons can range from the superficial (strange powers equal godhood) to the in-depth (Superman’s origin as the archetypal immigrant story). However, there was another comic-book team who took myths very seriously, and in large part served to bring Norse mythology to a whole new audience.
A journey into mystery
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had worked at the precursor to Marvel Comics in the 1930s and ’40s. Following the Second World War, superhero comics declined in popularity, and romance, western and horror titles became the norm.
However, in the fallout from a U.S. Congressional hearing about the perceived excesses of comic-book stories, from the horror titles in particular, superheroes came to the fore once again. Among the many new or revived costumed heroes was one drawn from the Old Icelandic Eddas: Thor, the god of thunder.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought Thor to life in an existing Marvel comic, Journey into Mystery, in 1962. Thor has been a major character in the Marvel “universe” ever since, palling around with other characters such as Captain America, Spider- Man and the Hulk. It’s easy to disregard, then, how unusual an idea it was to bring explicit mythology into the “kids’ stuff” of pop culture.
The written sources for the Norse myths are far more scarce than those for Greco-Roman mythology. They are preserved primarily in two Icelandic compilations: Eddukvæði, or The Poetic Edda; and Snorra-Edda, the Prose Edda by Icelandic writer, poet and historian Snorri Sturluson. (The Poetic Edda is sometimes called The Elder Edda, because some of the material may have been composed as early as the ninth century. The Prose Edda, written in the 12th century, is sometimes called the Younger Edda.)
Because literacy was not common in Norse cultures prior to their contact with Christianity, runic alphabets notwithstanding, many of the Norse myths were not written down until the new religion had introduced the Latin alphabet.
This comparative obscurity may have actually helped the Norse gods, or Æsir, capture a whole new audience in the 20th century.
Richard Reynolds writes in Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology that Thor was unusually successful as a comic book creation, compared to other figures from mythology such as Hercules, who never caught on in American comics despite being more familiar.
Reynolds points to the artwork of Jack Kirby as being among the reasons for its success, providing Asgard and the gods with a science-fiction sheen that enabled them to fit in alongside other superheroes.
Part of it was also the expectations built up by the superhero genre itself — Superman and Wonder Woman had already developed decades’ worth of their own “mythologies.” Stan Lee had confidence that Thor’s mythology would not seem out of place.
Furthermore, the very unfamiliarity of the Norse myths made it easier for Marvel Comics to seem to create them from scratch, using elements from the original sources, but creating new plots and settings. Purists may howl over the discrepancies: the Thor of the Eddas is red-bearded, hot-tempered, and somewhat gullible. Marvel’s incarnation was blond, clean-shaven, and the soul of nobility.
A further difference was language. The Old Icelandic that Thor speaks in the original sources is often that of the common person, which may partly explain why he was so popular. Marvel’s Thor, however, came to speak in a faux-Shakespearean idiom, completely different from any other Marvel hero. (One common example: rather than a simple “no,” Thor is given to declaring, “I say thee nay!”)
And for all his superhero trappings, Marvel’s Thor has always had strong ties to his medieval origins. An early feature of the comic was a series of backup stories which were (sometimes) close retellings of the myths.
Melding two traditions
Walter Simonson, who wrote and drew Marvel’s Thor title in the 1980s, was also drawn to the old stories.
Simonson was born in Tennessee to parents of Norwegian descent, and grew up in Washington, D.C. He loved reading books of mythology, but enjoyed the Norse myths best. He says he liked their “doomhaunted quality” — unlike the Roman and Greek gods, the Æsir had an ending, Ragnarök, waiting for them.
He also enjoyed the Lee/Kirby Thor comic (which, after Journey into Mystery No. 125 was rechristened The Mighty Thor), and when he had the opportunity to work on the title as writer and artist, he brought his own knowledge of the Eddas to it. He had already drawn it for a year in the late ’70s, following the style of his predecessors.
“What that meant for me is that when I went back to the book several years later and began writing it as well as drawing it, I’d kind of done my ‘Stan Lee/Jack Kirby’ Asgard. I sort of felt a little freedom to move beyond that.
Simonson introduced some of his own new characters, such as the alien Beta Ray Bill, the only other being deemed worthy of wielding Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. He also brought in more elements from the Eddas, such as Naglfar, the ship made from dead men’s nails, or Garmur, the huge canine guardian of the underworld. One character he reintroduced was Surtur the fire giant, who nearly succeeded in his bid to destroy Asgard. (In case you’re unfamiliar with this legendary mid-’80s take on the hero, click here for why you should read Walter Simonson’s entire run on Thor.)
“Thor, for me, looks back into the past,” Simonson says. “Because of the nature of the character and because of his mythological antecedents, he looks back to the mythological past, and the values it encompasses and the stories that are told there. The Fantastic Four, because of the pulp science fiction techno look to the strip, and the way it was written, looks forward to the future. A very much from its time [the 1960s], very much an optimistic future, in which technology would be able to solve lots of problems.
“I was always a big fan of the myths and when I discovered the Thor comic book, I was delighted,” Simonson says. “Of course, like anybody else who’s read the myths, I realized immediately that Thor didn’t have a beard, he wasn’t red-headed, he didn’t wear his iron gloves to throw the hammer around. But you know, I wasn’t a fanatic about that stuff. I just enjoyed the stories for what they were.
“Later, when I was doing the comic, I did actually give him a beard.”
He adds that he wanted to make Thor’s hair red as well, but given the colour limitations of the printing process, it would have been too similar to his cape, which would have meant more changes to the hero’s signature look. “In the end I just thought it was too much of a pain in the neck, just to make the hair work.”
On what the appeal is of the characters from Norse mythology for modern audiences, Simonson says it’s difficult to pin down. Thor was always his favourite Marvel character, the company’s equivalent to Superman, and Simonson enjoyed touches like Thor’s archaic way of speaking and his nobility.
But in general, he says, the “doom-haunted quality of the Norse myths is terribly appealing. It’s really the sense that you get a complete story. There really is an ending.” He adds given the fragmentary sources for them, there is a “cryptic quality of some of it, where there are clearly things we don’t know about what the stories were back in those days or how they worked, and unless they find some other documents and somebody’s at it, we aren’t ever going to know.”
He mentions the poem Lokasenna, “The Flyting of Loki,” which is filled with references that have not been fully explained. There were also a wide variety of stories, from the clownish story of Thor dressing up as a giant’s bride, to the tragedy of Baldur’s death.
And while Thor gets much of the attention in the comics, in the myths Loki emerges as a singularly complex character.
“Most of the gods in most of the myths, they’re pretty much set; they’re who they are all the way through the stories,” says Simonson. “Loki is a very interesting, odd character, because he is a kind of a different guy in earlier stories from what he becomes in later stories.”
Loki goes from being a clever trickster who is helpful to have on your side, to a malicious force conspiring against the gods and men.
“So when you read the stories themselves, there is a progression, an almost modern progression of character that a lot of mythologies don’t have.”
Loki is a character who gets a great deal of attention in the popular Danish comic series Valhalla, drawn by Peter Madsen and written by Henning Kure.
The series is published by Interpresse in Denmark. The first volume, Ulven er Løs (about the binding of the wolf Fenrir) was published in 1979, and the 13th, Balladen om Balder (“The Ballad of Baldur”) will be published this fall. Madsen’s take on the Norse myths is humorous, and his tales adhere in many aspects to the original stories. The theft of Iðunn’s apples and Thor’s “betrothal” to the giant king, among other myths, are brought to life.
Madsen says his attraction to working on Valhalla was simple.
“The Norse myths are part of my cultural background,” he says. “As a child I was told the stories by my mother, and as I started to draw I was very much attracted to fantasy material, so a logical step seemed to combine the two interests. Besides, when we got the chance to make our own comic strip we wanted to make something original with roots in our own culture instead of a western, a space opera or a totally out-of-the-blue fantasy world.”
After a few volumes had been published, he also worked on the Danish feature-length animated cartoon, Valhalla, about Thor’s journey to the court of Útgarðaloki, which appeared in 1986. Since then he has continued with the Valhalla series as well as other graphic novels, such as Menneskesønnen (“The Son of Man”) based on the life of Christ.
In approaching the myths, Madsen says, “I honestly just read translations of the stories and some interpretations of them and go from there. Henning Kure, the writer of the series, has learned to read the Old Norse language — the only ‘old’ text I’ve read is the Old English story Beowulf — meaning he has been able to read, for example, Snorri Sturluson in the original language. Henning also attends a lot of Nordic mythology conferences, lectures and so forth at universities all over the world to get inspiration and vent his own ideas.”
The Valhalla series has been extremely popular — it has been translated into ten different languages, though not English, and the audience ranges from young children to university professors.
When asked why he thinks modern readers enjoy these tales of gods and giants, Madsen replies, “The short answer would be that stories that have been told and retold so many centuries are bound to distill an essence of human experience, and in the case of the Nordic myths an essence of drama, humour and… even wisdom.”
Influenced by Led Zeppelin
A new series in recent years was Michael Avon Oeming and Mark Obie Wheatley’s Hammer of the Gods, published by Image Comics in the U.S. In it, a Norseman named Modi is blessed by a valkyrie. However, the gods seem to have turned their backs on men, and Modi seeks them out to challenge them for their negligence.
Oeming says his initial inspiration for the series came from Led Zeppelin, of all things. This may not be so surprising given that one of their biggest hits, “The Immigrant Song,” is about vikings and Iceland — and its influence is clear in Oeming’s work (Hammer of the Gods is, of course, the title of a famous biography of the band).
He too, however, went back to the original stories. “I had been reading about the Norsemyths for a long time, so I had all that stuff build up,” he says.
The character of Modi, seems to embody some traits of the mythological Thor — he is hot-tempered and fierce in battle. His crisis of faith over the desertion of the gods seems very modern, however. Is he, then, the 21st-century’s viking?
“He has to be,” Oeming says. “We couldn’t do a real viking. I couldn’t have our hero stealing, raping and killing during the springtime. There was a different moral code back then, so he’s certainly updated — though quite a bit aways from [television’s warrior-princess] Xena!”
Oeming’s work on Hammer of the Gods attracted Marvel’s attention, and he was hired to work on ending the Thor series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Of stepping into their shoes, Oeming says, “It was certainly a bit scary, especially since they wanted me to do Ragnarök. I was pleased though, once I found a way to tie the origin with Thor, both as a character and a series, into the final story to wrap up the series.”
Given that in comic books, heroes rarely “die” permanently, does that mean Thor will once again be rubbing shoulders with Spider-Man and the Hulk?
Tom Brevoort edited Marvel’s Thor series for six years from the point it was relaunched in 1998 until the character died in 2004. He says, “The death of Thor wasn’t ever truly intended to be a permanent thing.” The intention was to bring him back as part of a relaunch of other major Marvel characters such as Captain America and Iron Man.
“Thor was supposed to be a part of that — but our initial launch plans fell through, and since that happened, we’ve been biding our time waiting for the proper stars to align in order to bring the character back correctly.”
He also says the death was part of an ongoing continuity.
“Ragnarök is one of the principal components of the original Norse myths, and we’ve hinted at it in the comic book pages many times. So when it came time to close out the previous series of Thor, it felt right for us to do our version of the Ragnarök legend, and bring the tale to a proper close.”
The story was popular, but he adds that “certainly a vocal fan base has told us that they’re anxious to have him back on a regular basis again.” While he did not give details, he hinted that Marvel’s Thor will be reappearing soon.
For more information, visit http://marvel.com/characters/bio/1009664/thor for Marvel Comics’ interpretation of Thor; http://www.petermadsen.info/pages/vh/valhalla-eng.html for Peter Madsen and Henning Kure’s Valhalla comics and other series; and for Michael Avon Oeming’s Hammer of the Gods and other work visit http://michaeloeming.com/.
Lesser known incarnations
Norse mythology crops up in comics in other surprising places.
- Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series for DC/Vertigo featured an exasperated Odin, sly Loki and brutish Thor.
- Jeffery Stevens’ online series Brat-halla (http://brat-halla.com/comic/1-balder-dash/) chronicles the misadventures of the Norse gods in elementary school.
- Read a satirical debate between evolution and the Eddas at The Pain (www.thepaincomics.com/weekly041229a.htm).
- A boy from Minnesota wields the hammer of Thor in Darkstorm Studios’ The Hammer Kid by Kevin Grevioux.
- Furthermore, Dave Sim, Canadian writer/artist behind underground institution Cerebus the Aardvark named his publishing company Aardvark-Vanaheim — the Vanir being the mysterious rivals of the Æsir, whose war is referred to in the poem “Völuspá.”
Originally published in Lögberg-Heimskringla, 14 July 2006.
UPDATE: For an excellent consideration of the mythological Thor in original sources, and whether Marvel’s blonde, clean-shaven thunder god might be just as valid as the red-headed, bearded incarnation, visit Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried’s Norse Mythology Blog here.