Welcome to another edition of Catching Up with the Classics where I talk about a comic book series or story that I have failed to read up to this point. This time I am taking at Walt Simonson’s run on Thor.
My Background: In this section, I review my experience with the material beforehand so you know where I am coming from as a reader. I’ll cover experience with the character, creators, as well as my understanding of the praise for the book before reading.
(Should be noted for this article I read Mighty Thor #337 – 355)
This is one of the first additions to this series where I have read some of this run before catching up with it fully. Due to some great finds in some dollar bins, I have read a couple random issues of this run. It was long before I knew who Walt Simonson was or the high regard for his work. All I knew was the story was about Thor a character I always found rather intriguing.
For much of my life, I have always been fascinated by mythology and theology and how they often intertwine. The idea of literal heavens and hell going to war was the pinnacle of epic storytelling to me. In addition, the 90’s had a mini explosion of shows and films based on legendary characters like the infamous Kevin Sorbo Hercules and the rather underrated Hercules Disney movie. James Woods as Hades is still one of Disney’s best-realized villains.
Thor came from a similar ilk but had the added bonus of an awesome accessory in Mjolnir and lighting powers. When I was back into comics full force J. Michael Straczynski’ and Olivier Coipel’s run on the character was just beginning. It was everything I could have wanted and more. I love what Jason Aaron is doing with Thor these past few years but for me, their run will remain the defining one for the character.
For many, I know Walt Simonson is the person who made Thor into the character he is today. Oddly I have actually been able to meet him in real life before reading much of his career achievement. Last year I had the opportunity to listen to him and other comic creators like Tom King talk about their love of Jack Kirby at the Baltimore Comic-Con. It was a treat to witness and will go down as one of my favorite con moments ever. Whatever I think of his work I know that he came off as a great guy who showed great appreciation for the fans and his fellow creators.
Initial Impressions: In this section, I provide my initial thoughts on the comic and elements that caught my eye on first glance. Especially items that would stand out for today’s audience in a big way.
One of the hardest things in comics is creating new characters that stick around. The most popular comic book superheroes from today are nearly identical to the most popular comic book superheroes from thirty years ago. Even when it comes to lower tier characters rarely do they stick around after the initial writer is gone. One of the few things writers can greatly change is the supporting cast around a character so it makes sense that it changes from era to era.
With that said it only took Walt Simonson two issues to create a character that has not only stuck around but became a fan favorite for many Thor fans in Beta Ray Bill. If you were to look at a list of the best Marvel characters to not appear in films he will surely be on nearly all of them. Luckily in the last Thor film, we got a small glimpse of his face and he has at least appeared in animated form in the Planet Hulk movie. The question then becomes what about Beta Ray Bill made him have such a longer impact?
Perhaps I am not qualified to fully answer that question but reading these issues decades after their initial release a few things caught my eye. On a purely aesthetic point of view, his character design is eye-catching due in large part to how unique it is compared to other characters. One of the biggest reasons he has probably not shown up in films is the challenge of getting his look right. No one comes close to drawing him as well as Simonson. Most cannot capture the depth of his face in quite the same way. It may seem superficial but having a great design is key to a character working.
There have been many characters that look cool but do not stay around for long. Just look at the nineties for countless examples. Having a longing impact takes more work than that.startsart with setting the stage right away to let readers know this is not your everyday character. For one he goes toe to toe with Thor and comes out on top. That would be like a wrestler debuting during the height of Hulkamania and pinning Hulk Hogan in the middle of the ring clean. As they say, you are making him look strong right away.
Add to that the final twist that this horrid beast is somehow worthy of wielding Thor’s hammer Mjolnir to flip everything you assumed right around. It is the ultimate signifier to tell the audience this character has something special about him. Many have picked up the hammer since but at that time the concept was rather fresh. The Avengers filmed used a similar tactic with Vision during Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is a quick way to add an element of depth to a character and as it is one of the few actions that can add immediate intrigue.
Lastly, Simonson took that set up and followed through by crafting a tragic backstory that concisely combined all the ingredients you want in an underdog story. He offered himself up for the betterment of his people, which left him forever deformed, and now he finds himself the last of his species as he was unable to complete the mission he was literally designed for. It’s not revolutionary, as great storytelling is not about reinventing the wheel, rather understanding how that wheel works and giving it the perfect pathway to flow freely.
Info/Concerns for New Readers: In this section, I covered information I think will be helpful to others who may be inclined to catch up with this classic as well.
When someone is looking to get into comics for the first time I rarely point them to classic books or much of anything prior to 2000, especially in the superhero world. That is not a knock on the quality of those books but rather due to how they were targeted to a specific sensibility for the time. Of course, there are exceptions but something like this run on Thor has its fair share of expository dialog that may drive new readers crazy. If you are looking to break into Thor comics for the first time Simonson’s run is not where I would advise you to start. Either J. Michael Straczynski’s run or Jason Aaron’s current run is much more suitable for today’s audiences.
That is not to take anything away from what Simonson accomplished. It should also be noted that he revitalized the character in Marvel comics and writers like Straczynski’ and Aaron are still reaping the rewards for his hard work. He pushed Thor to be more focused on his mythological roots and dived deep into the ancient history the character was based on. That is a big reason why people label his run the defying run on the character because he did exactly that. There may not be one single writer that had a bigger impact on a character he or she did not create.
Worth The Hype: In this section, I give my final overall review of the property. Does it deserve the praise it has received? Does it stand the test of time? Or does it not hold up to today’s standards of storytelling?
By definition, Thor is not a character that will work for everyone. Similar to how Lord of the Rings is not a movie all will enjoy. There is a certain cadence to the dialog that feels unnatural but fitting for the world. It’s like a simplified version of iambic pentameter that involves a lot more punching to the face. I say that because many could go back to this run and feel like it does not hold up if those elements get in the way from fully enjoying the story. As someone who is a fan of the character, there is no question Walt Simonson deserves all the praise he has received for his work on Thor.
That is not to say these comics are flawless. Specifically, when it came to creating dynamic and multi-layered villains you will not find an abundance. Malekith was the one that stood out the most in how flat he was as a character. Knowing how he was one of the films dullest villains in the films I wanted to see how well he fared as a character in the actual comics. He is an evil character who wants to do evil things and not much more than that. As if he the fantastical version of a henchman designed to do a specific job for the betterment of his boss. That would be enough if his presence added excitement to the story and that was not the case.
Part of that is due to the genre and purpose of the story. Sometimes it is perfectly suitable for a villain to be evil. Simplicity does not always equate to a lack of sophistication in storytelling. Surtur, for example, has everything you want in a classic Thor villain. His sheer presence adds a level of epicness to the story. Simonson slowly built his return bit by bit to the point where I was happy to read this in trade form as I could only imagine the anticipation of those who read it at the time. Having over a year buildup was worth it as when he finally makes his move against Asgard it had all the feelings of a major event while maintaining the intimacy of a solo series.
When Simonson’s Thor series excelled the most were two key areas. The first being his ability to weave together so many moving pieces at once without ever making you feel lost. This was Thor’s title but he was just the biggest piece of a massive puzzle. By the time Surtur’s story was nearing its height there were around five different major storylines going on at the same time. Typically a recipe for disaster but through sharp editing and great pacing there is no concern about getting lost or feeling any plot point is unnecessary.
You care about those plot points because Simonson knows how to make you care about his characters. Look no further than the character of Roger Willis. An ordinary man standing next to and fighting literal gods. Similar to what Simonson Beta Ray Bill, Simonson makes Willis into an ultimate hero with his sheer wiliness to fought insurmountable odds. He adds a level of humanity to the story and brings this massive tale of nine realms down to an Earthly level. Similar to how the companions work in Doctor Who. Juxtaposing characters with paradoxical personalities like Willis and Thor evens out the tone of the story giving you something tangible to relate towards.
Ultimately you can add my name to the list of people who put Simonson’s work on Thor on an Asgardian pedestal. From his work as an artist to his talent as a writer, Simonson clicked as a creator when he was on this title. It was refreshing reading a comic full of heroes who enjoyed being heroes. Currently, the tendency is to have our cape crusaders broken down people attempting to fill a void through heroics.Reading Simonson’s work you can see how you can make heroes who do not have to regret the hand life dealt them to make interesting. Give them unimaginable odds and find ways for them to overcome the impossible. That is how legends are made.