Reading Room: Top 5 Reasons Why Walt Simonson's "Thor" Rules All Midgard
One idea we had for Thor Week was a Reading Room blog entry documenting the top 5 Marvel Comics Thor stories worth checking out. The only problem is that I hit the original Stan & Jack comics (Jack’s sci-fi/fantasy Asgard is really something to behold), and then the Walt Simonson run on Thor…and that was it. There are comic books that you will enjoy if you are a fan and
there are comic book runs that turn people into fans regardless of how you
felt about the characters beforehand. There are also comic book runs so definitive that I’d be happy to just close the book and move on after reading them. I think two comic book runs do both: Walt Simonson’s run on Thor and Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing.
So, I present the Top 5 Reasons Why Walt Simonson Thor Rules All Midgard. The entire run (plus his 4-issue Balder the Brave mini-series) is collected now in a great big recolored Omnibus edition, and the trade paperbacks aren’t hard to find, either. Here’s five of my reasons why I think they’re worth your time.
5. “Everything You Thought You Knew Was Wrong! Nothing Will Ever Be the Same Again!”
American superhero comic books make the above two promises all the time, and they almost never deliver. Simonson’s Thor run did. He doesn’t waste any time signaling his intentions, since his very first cover has Beta Ray Bill shattering the cover logo that had served The Mighty Thor since the days of Stan and Jack, with a new logo appearing on the next issue. As it turns out, this is a fine metaphor for Simonson’s run in general: it breaks down the old and uses the remnants as raw materials to construct something that looks familiar but feels new, vibrant, and alive. On the surface, it’s the same historical building, but the remodeling reinforces it for modern building codes and gives it central air conditioning and three-prong outlets. His total run lasted for just under four years, but in that time, he tossed out some hoary old chestnuts like the secret identity and the critical weakness and replaced them with elements gleaned from mythology of the Norse and the Kirby-ian flavors. Indeed, Simonson’s greatest trick is probably the way he blends these dual drives together so seamlessly to ease out the old stuff and replace it with new stuff that fits so naturally that you soon can’t imagine things any other way. It’s the same trick that Alan Moore did in Swamp Thing and George Perez did with Wonder Woman, except Simonson beat them both to the punch. Moore didn’t get started uprooting the Swamp Thing for several months after Simonson kicked off his run on Thor, and it would be 3 years before Perez and his creative partners would repeat the trick on Wonder Woman at DC.
Now is also as good a time as any to say that Simonson’s run has aged exceptionally well, largely because the structure is the same as modern-day comic book story arcs. The difference is that it never ever feels like Simonson is padding for the trade paperback. There may be some silly stuff and digressions along the way, but Simonson’s Thor never wastes time. It also helps that the more florid dialogue and over-explanation prevalent at the time is more palatable to modern ears because of the pseudo-Shakespeare the Asgardians all spout.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the quality of Simonson’s makeover is that nobody after him has really messed with it too significantly. It is change that has endured in a genre that lives and breathes only when nothing ever truly changes. In the comics, Thor has been disassembled and even faced down the end of all things (again) since Simonson’s run, but these efforts feel weak and insignificant and soon blew away as the insignificant trivialities that they were. The Thor of the live-action movie, as well as the Thor in Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, both owe as much to Simonson’s Thor as they do to Stan and Jack’s. Simonson built something that endured.
4. The Space Between the Notes
A common storytelling maxim says to put your characters in a tree and then throw rocks at them. I like to think that once Walt Simonson realized that his tree was Yggdrasil, the spine of the universe, he thought to himself, “Man, I’m gonna need some really big freaking rocks,” so he whipped out the biggest damn rock he could find in the form of Ragnarok, the end of the gods. Despite the niggling thought in the back of your head that knows Marvel Comics wasn’t about to shut its doors because Walt Simonson felt like destroying the universe in ice and fire, it’s easy to believe that Thor and his companions are really facing down Armageddon.
The god-sized scale of the stories makes it easy forget the equal skill and effort applied to the smaller, quieter, subtler elements of the work. If music is the space between the notes, then the core of an epic is in the pauses between the polysyllabic booms, swords hammered out of hearts of stars, and fights so big they can only be told in splash pages (a visual trick repeated much less effectively in the better known “Death” of Superman many years later). It’s in the beautiful way that Simonson can express the heartbreak of the Lady Sif purely through her body language, Odin bargaining with the dwarf Eitri for a favor, the soliloquies that present the troubled minds of Thor and Beta Ray Bill after their battle for the right to Mjolnir, the trickery Odin must use to persuade the children of Asgard to leave on the eve of battle and his subsequent farewell to the Lady Frigga (above), or the sweet sendoff for the last supporting cast members of the old Thor stories. It’s in the laughs that Simonson never forgets to include, because even the gods tell jokes and find humor in their lives no matter how grim things may seem. These are the moments that turn these lines on paper into living, breathing characters, and it’s the reason why it matters so much to us that they are facing down Ragnarok. Without that, it’s all just sound and fury signifying nothing. Lots of people can do that. Few can make us care about it.
Walt Simonson can make us care about it.
3. Beta Ray Bill
The best compliment I can give to Beta Ray Bill is that he’s a concept that Jack Kirby would have come up with in the Fourth World: cosmically-scaled high concept with a slightly silly name, played almost entirely straight in its overblown operatic grandeur. Bill is rooted in a loophole in the original Marvel Comics: if only those worthy of the power of Thor can lift his enchanted mallet Mjolnir, what if someone else turns out to have the same noble heart as the Thunderer? It’s just more interesting that this someone else is a genetically modified space-horse guy with a name that combines the fantastic and the mundane, flying around the cosmos defending his people with a sentient battleship named Skuttlebutt. I love how Simonson builds on a throwaway element of the Thor comics to add a major supporting character to the Thor cast, while using him as a tool to prune away some of the dead wood that Thor is better off without. If the original Lee/Kirby Thor comics blended fantasy and sci-fi, leaning more heavily on the fantasy, then you can say that Beta Ray Bill is truly Thor’s counterpart because he’s rooted in the same blend but leans more heavily on the sci-fi.
Plus, he’s a genetically modified space-horse guy with a name that combines the
fantastic and the mundane, flying around the cosmos defending his
people with a sentient battleship
named Skuttlebutt, and he has a magic hammer named Stormbreaker. There is absolutely nothing in that sentence that does not totally rock.
2. Frog Thor
As I mentioned, Simonson never forgets to add a bit of humor during the big, heavy portents and operatic speechifying that goes on in these comics. Nowhere is this more in evidence than with Frog Thor, a quick diversion from the main story when Thor falls once again to some crazy scheme of Loki’s and is turned into a frog in Central Park. When he manages to pick up Mjolnir while defending the park’s native frogs from a pack of savage rats, WHAMMO! Frog Thor.
Yes, it’s utterly preposterous, but also utterly charming and hilariously funny and, best of all, perfectly in keeping with just about everything else that has happened before. On the one hand, it’s a completely unnecessary diversion. On the other, how can you not adore a comic so happily willing to parody itself (and, according to Simonson, pay tribute to both Carl Barks and Steve Ditko at the same time)? Frog Thor is so cool that Marvel saw fit to figure out how to make him into his own standalone character; combining him with the Inhumans’ pet Lockjaw (a gigantic bulldog/mastiff thing that can teleport through space) for Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers leads to a comic that I am almost legally required to own and adore due to the combined awesomeness of its collected elements.
Frog Thor is awesome. If you don’t think so, we have nothing more to say to each other. I’ll want my CDs and T-shirts back and I’d de-friend you on Facebook if I had a Facebook account.
1. “He stood alone at Gjallerbru”
I can’t talk about this point in any depth without big-time, massive spoilers and I can’t do that to you in good conscience if you haven’t read these comics yet. Suffice it to say that the sentence above is the punch line of a definitive Crowning Moment of Awesome.
Simonson’s run has many of those, but this one sticks with you.
If you must know what this is about before reading the comics, I couldn’t do better than what Dave Campbell already wrote about it on the much-missed Dave’s Long Box blog. I had (and still have) the same reaction as Dave whenever I hit this scene.
“He stood alone at Gjallerbru…
…and that answer is enough.”