In the 1980s, superhero comics were in the process of reinventing themselves for a more sophisticated audience, and one of the creators who took advantage of that was writer/artist Walt Simonson when he took the reins at Marvel Comics’ Thor.
Chris Clarememont and John Byrne had made their mark on The Uncanny X-Men; Frank Miller and Klaus Janson had overhauled Daredevil into something epic. (Byrne and Miller, of course, later revolutionized Superman and Batman, respectively.) But Simonson, who had worked on The Mighty Thor in the late 1970s, already had mythic material to start with, and when he returned to the title he built it into a world-shattering story.
Tracking down the individual issues can be a pain; but recently his entire 1980s run on Thor, including his Balder the Brave miniseries, was collected in a Marvel Omnibus edition, and it’s well worth the price.
From the beginning, Simonson introduces the shadowy, apocalyptic figure who will threaten to bring about Ragnarök: Surtur. Readers up on their Norse mythology may have guessed who it was; but one of the strengths of Simonson’s writing was that he reinvigorated the superhero pantheon at Marvel by drawing from the Old Norse sources to give Thor adversaries worthy of him.
So not only did Thor face the fire giant Surtur (responsible for the destruction of the world in the Poetic Edda), but also Hela, goddess of the dead; the dragon Fafnir; and the World Serpent, Jormungandur — all larger than life in terms of power, and Thor did not always win.
It’s true that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had brought in a great deal of the Norse myths to their superhero treatment of Thor, but many of those elements had fallen away, to be supplanted by more sci-fi and comic-book tropes. Simonson brought back the rougher, more magical sensibilities of the mythic, and often contrasted this with the everyday realities of 1980s New York City. So Thor took on a new secret identity as a construction worker, had to find an apartment, and when the forces of evil attacked, the backdrop included the World Trade Center and Central Park.
He nevertheless felt free to add brand-new characters, such as Beta Ray Bill, the horse-faced alien deemed worthy by Odin to wield Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. He also drew from other cultures, such as Celtic myth, for adversaries such as the dark elf Malekith, and his lieutenant Algrim the Strong, who after falling to his apparent death in a struggle with Thor, returned to menace the thunder god as the even more powerful Kurse.
Along the way, Simonson threw a few curve balls. Some were lighthearted, such as Thor falling under a spell that transformed him into a frog. Others were far more serious, such as when he stormed the land of the dead to rescue the imprisoned souls of bewitched mortals, only to be mutilated by the goddess of death herself, Hela.
Simonson introduced a very real mortality to Thor, in which he increasingly could not shake off his injuries and needed to relay more on his wits, while facing ever more powerful foes.
Partway through his run as writer and artist on the title, he handed off the artistic duties to Sal Buscema. While Buscema’s work is good, it doesn’t have the same chunky kineticism of Simonson’s.
There’s no replacing the grandeur of the original Norse myths, despite the scarcity of remaining sources. But considering Stan Lee and Jack Kirby succeeded in reintroducing the Norse gods into pop culture as superheroes despite their relative obscurity, you couldn’t ask for a better synthesis of the old and new than Simonson’s take on ancient myths in the modern world.
The Mighty Thor Omnibus
- By Walt Simonson
- Marvel Comics, 2011
- 1192 pages
- Four and a half stars out of five