Thor #151 © 1968 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY JACK KIRBY AND VINCE COLLETTA.
Just as DC Comics has the all-powerful Superman, Marvel has the Mighty Thor, literally a god with extraordinary powers and, like his Kryptonian counterpart, with an earthly alter ego. Integrating themes from the warrior heroes of Norse mythology, Marvel introduced Thor as its fourth superhero. He appeared in late 1962, in the same month as Spider-Man's debut, and he has been one of the company's most enduring stars ever since.
His first adventure was chronicled in Journey into Mystery #83, which introduced readers to the frail, lame Doctor Don Blake, vacationing in Norway. Stumbling across an alien invasion force of the Stone Men of Saturn (who bear an uncanny resemblance to the statues on Easter Island), the startled doctor takes refuge in a nearby cave. There, hidden in a deep chamber within, he finds a cane, which he strikes against the wall, only to find himself transformed into a blond, long-haired Adonis wearing a Viking costume (of sorts) and wielding a magic hammer, called Mjolnir. Blake becomes the Thunder God Thor because, as an inscription on the hammer declares,
Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of As Thor, Blake can fly (with the help of his hammer) and control the elements, and he possesses extraordinary strength. The hammer also returns, like a boomerang, after being thrown; when the handle is hit twice on the ground it allows Thor to bring on a storm of any type or magnitude; and it makes for one mean weapon in a superhero battle. However, if the hammer is out of Thor's grasp for more than one minute, he reverts to his civilian identity as Blake. Having summarily dispatched the Stone Men back to Saturn, Blake/Thor heads home and on to a long career as a superhero.
Thor was created by Marvel editor/writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, but neither was consistently able to fit the feature into their schedules for its first few years, so Lee's brother Larry Leiber scripted much of the early material. After several issues, Kirby moved on to the new X-Men and Avengers titles, but not before contributing to the strip's nascent supporting cast. Having returned to New York, Dr. Blake set up a practice with a pretty young nurse called Jane Foster—think Lois Lane and Clark Kent—with whom he promptly fell in love. In true comic book style, revealing to her that he was really a superhero was strictly forbidden by Thor's father Odin, ruler of the Norse gods in far-off Asgard. Issue #85 introduced Thor's villainous half-brother Loki, the God of Mischief, who was to be a perpetual thorn in the hero's side and the feature's arch-villain, always plotting to take over Asgard.
For its first couple of years, the strip was much like any other comic, with regular forays down to Earth by the treacherous Loki, interspersed with occasional communist plotters and local hoods, such as the Grey Gargoyle, Radioactive Man, the Cobra, and Mister Hyde. Gradually, however, the series began to evolve as Lee and Kirby returned (with issue #97 in late 1963) and changed the strip's focus from earthbound crime- fighting to the more expansive, imaginative realm of fabled Asgard. The pair introduced a new backup series,
Tales of Asgard, which adapted Norse legends and integrated them with the lead strips' growing band of Asgardians. Among the most important new characters were the dashing Balder, a brave, sword-wielding fighter; and Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun, collectively known as the Warriors Three. Then there was Heimdal, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge to Asgard, and the beautiful and plucky Sif—a future love interest.
The Norse legends had fascinated Kirby since childhood and, coupled with his almost boundless imagination, they inspired some of his greatest art: astonishing battle scenes (often featuring the massed armies of Asgard), vast cosmic vistas, and extraordinary creatures. With issue #126 (in early 1966), Journey into Mystery was retitled Thor, and the comic entered its most creative period with a stream of new stars and villains. A lengthy narrative introduced the Greek god Hercules (later to join the Avengers), his father Zeus, and the ruler of the Netherworld, Pluto. This was followed by an excursion into a far-off galaxy with the Colonisers of Rigel and Ego, the Living Planet. Later stories featured the High Evolutionary (a sort of Dr. Moreau for the space age); the grotesque Ulik and the Rock Trolls; Hella the Goddess of Death; and the two great beasts, Surtur and Mangog, bent on bringing about Ragnarok—the destruction of Asgard and all around it. Amidst all the rest, of course, there were regular plots and schemes by Loki.
This was heady stuff, and Kirby's narratives (it is widely accepted that he was the guiding force in the project) were complemented by Lee's flowery, almost Shakespearean language—all
forsooths. In issue #124, Jane Foster discovered that Thor and Don Blake were one and the same and, unable to cope with the enormity of it all, was gone within the year, to be replaced by the rather more heroic Sif. The creators used the Blake identity less and less and, by 1970, it had largely been abandoned. That year was a watershed for the feature, as it witnessed Kirby's departure for arch-rival DC Comics, where he would create the New Gods, very much in the same imaginative tradition as Thor.
Within a year, Lee, too, had gone, but his replacements Gerry Conway and Len Wein, with artist John Buscema, carried on in much the same tradition as Kirby and Lee. Indeed, it is a hallmark of the strip that for the next three decades—the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—it rarely strayed too far from the Lee/Kirby blueprint. Trends from
relevance to hard-boiled action to the darker 1990s came and went, but Thor was invariably toughing it out with Loki in Asgard, travelling through space or preventing Ragnarok—again. Buscema was the principal artist throughout much of the 1970s, combining his peerless draftsmanship with a strong sense of action. In lesser hands, however, the strip has struggled.
Following one such thin period, fan favorite Walter Simonson took over the comic in 1983 (with issue #337) and revisited the original premise that a worthy bearer of the hammer shall possess the power of Thor, by giving it to a bizarre-looking alien called Beta Ray Bill. Over the next four years, Simonson—a Kirby devotee—recaptured the grandeur of his idol's vision, reviving some of the old favorites and even turning the original Thor into a frog! Thor soon got his hammer (and body) back, but while Simonson was on the comic almost anything he did was received with rapture by its readers. In the late 1980s Simonson left Thor, and the former Amazing Spider-Man creative team of Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz took his place.
In the early 1990s (in issue #433), DeFalco and Frenz combined Thor's essence with a new human host, the architect Eric Masterson, to create effectively a new Thor, who had to learn to be a superhero all over again. In time, the old Thor reappeared and the Masterson incarnation (complete with beard and ponytail), now known as Thunderstrike, spun off into his own, short-lived series (1993–1995). Thunderstrike also teamed up with Beta Ray Bill and a Thor of the future called Dargo, in the wonderfully named (if ephemeral) Thor Corps. After issue #502, as part of a companywide late 1990s restructuring plan known as Heroes Return, the Thor comic restarted its numbering at issue #1, and readers were introduced to yet another new Thor.
In the wake of Heroes Return, a stricken Thor was given a new mortal incarnation—Jake Olsen, an emergency paramedic—but new writer Dan Jurgens did not stop there. After a period of finding his feet, the new Thor was split apart from his human host by Odin, who feared that his son had become too attached to planet Earth. Odin then died and his almost limitless power was transferred to his son, who became (as a new cover legend proclaimed) Thor, Lord of Asgard. As Thor climbed the ladder of godhood, Asgard was transported to Earth and, in a daring move on Jurgens' part, the strip saw the emergence of a new religion: Thorism. As lowly earthlings attempted to cope with the gods who now walked among them, effectively creating world peace in their wake, it was left to Olsen to question the wisdom of Thor's actions.
As of 2004, the comic has yet to recapture the commercial heights of the Simonson era. Jurgens' run has been by far the most radical of the strip's existence, and perhaps only posterity will reveal how successful he has been in revitalizing the series. By contrast, critics have long considered the Kirby era one of Marvel's finest achievements and these comics have been extensively collected in oversized
Treasury Editions, hardback
Masterworks anthologies, and paperback
Essentials compilations. Since 1963 Thor has been a regular star of The Avengers, and periodically appears in numerous Marvel comics as well as in merchandise and toys. Occasional rumors of a feature film have come to nothing, but movie technology has now advanced to such a point that Kirby's extraordinary imagination might just be captured on film at last.
Marvel Studios released the movie version of Thor in 2011, starring Chris Hemsworth in the title role and costarring Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, and Ray Stevenson.