Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Mighty Thor

It's been a while since I've written about comic books. With Thor back in publication, I thought I would take a look at his history.

Thor started as one of Marvel's second wave of heroes. By this point Stan was using a cookie-cutter approach to new heroes. Look at Thor, Iron Man, and Daredevil. All three had a supporting cast that was limited to their co-workers. Each was secretly in love with his secretary (or nurse). Each had a personal defect that kept him from declaring his love (bad heart, blindness, or, in Thor's case, a bad leg). As a hero, each one also had a built-in weakness that allowed any run-of-the-mill villain to be a challenge. Iron Man constantly ran out of power. Daredevil kept having things affect his radar sense. Thor had to keep hold of his hammer.

It is also interesting to note that the classic Avengers - Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man, the Wasp, and Captain America) were all regular people who gained powers through technology or magic (except Cap who didn't have any powers). Contrast this with the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, or Spider-Man who always had their powers.

According to Origins of Marvel Comics, Stan wanted to create a Superman-style character but wanted him to be original. He solved this with a hammer. It also gave an easy substitute for kryptonite. Stan was overloaded at the time so he assigned the writing duties to his brother Larry Lieber. Larry was a competent but uninspired writer. Thor fought a wide variety of creatures including lava men, stone men, the Radioactive Man, and a guy from the future. Stories almost always included Thor losing his hammer and turning back to Don Blake.

As I mentioned, the supporting cast was limited to one person - Jane Foster, Blake's nurse.

Then something unusual happened. Up in Asgard, Loki escaped from centuries of imprisonment and went to Earth to confront his old enemy Thor. Loki never seemed to question why a human doctor was also Thor.

Not long after Stan took over writing. This is just a guess but I assume that Larry turned in a complete script. Stan was too busy for that so he usually had a story conference with the artist. They would come up with a basic plot but it was up to the artist to decide on the pacing and other aspects of the story. The artist for Thor was Jack Kirby whose imagination was infinite.

Between them, Stan and Jack overhauled the book. The whole Asgardian pantheon was added as the supporting cast. A Tales of Asgard backup feature was added featuring a young Thor. The class of villain that Thor was fighting became much better and he almost never lost his hammer. A number of Marvel mainstays were introduced including the High Evolutionary, Ego the Living Planet, and the Recorder.

Fans started wondering about Don Blake and Thor. What happened to the real Thor? By this point Blake couldn't confess his love for Jane because he was Thor and Odin objected. Why? If Blake was just a mortal and any worthy person who had the cane could become Thor then was was the problem.

Eventually it was explained - Blake was Thor and had always been Thor. Odin wanted to teach Thor humility and had made him think he was a mortal. Not long after Thor broke up with Jane and Sif was introduced as a replacement.

From that point on Blake became a minor character, mainly appearing when someone needed surgery.

All good things come to an end. Kirby left Marvel for DC. The strip continued on with Stan and John Buscema. The stories were still good but no memorable characters were introduced. A couple of years later Stan moved and Gerry Conway took over.

The strip quickly stagnated. Roy Thomas brought a little life into in in the late 1970s, first with Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods which turned out to be a false start. Later he adapted the Ring cycle. This was brought to a conclusion in a story arc that included the Odin Sword, the Destroyer, and the Celestials.

Jane Foster appeared again and merged with Sif for a while before separating again.

The strip really took off again in 1982 when Walt Simonson took over. He was a fan of the original sagas and brought Thor back to his Norse roots. Most of the supporting characters were revamped. Some villains like the Executioner and the Enchantress were rehabilitated. He also created Beta Ray Bill who became an alien version of Thor. Ragnarok came again.

When Simonson left the strip quickly stagnated again. The Powers that Be decided that Thor had to have a mortal identity (Under Simonson, Thor disguised himself as a mortal construction worker). Thor was merged with Eric Masterson, an architect and single father. Naturally, being a part-time god messed up Masterson's life.

There was a spate of replacement heroes. Thor's version of this had the real Thor's identity submerged so that only Eric Masterson existed. Eventually Thor was restored and Masterson given his own strip as Thunderstrike.

There was a short-lived group called the Thor Corps consisting of Thunderstrike, Beta Ray Bill, and a different Thor from the future. The real Thor was not included.

The restored Thor got off to a bad start. He wet crazy and almost destroyed the universe.

The strip faltered again. This time it was given a new direction - Thor became mortal. In a three-issue story arc, he lost most of his powers but was able to triumph with the help of the Enchantress. His powers were only restored for a short time before he lost them again. He went into the hero business literally with the Enchantress charging for his services. While this plotline was promising, many other Marvel titles had wondered. Tony Stark was a teenager, the Torch had married a Skrull, etc. Marvel "killed" them all - actually sending them to an alternate world in Franklin Richards' mind.

The heroes returned with new creative crews. Thor found that the Asgardians had vanished and he was merged with yet another mortal - this time a paramedic named Jake Olsen.

The strip slowly reestablished itself. Jake was given a supporting cast including Jane Foster who was now a doctor. He acquired a side-kick named Tarene who assumed the form of a female Thor-in-training. She even had her own supporting cast.

Then the strip embarked on a long-term story arc. First Odin died leaving the Odin Force to Thor. Thor decided that humanity would benefit by closer contact with the gods and brought Asgard into our dimension. After solving humanity's ills, Thor took over the Earth. The plot skipped forward a few decades to Earth under the Asgardians' rule. It should be no surprise that it had a dark side.

Eventually Thor came to his senses and changed time so that Asgard never conquered the world.

This was followed by the Asgard Disassembled arc in which Ragnarok came - again. With the Asgardians dead, Thor killed off a set of super gods known as Those Who Sit in Shadows. Finally he entered the sleep of the gods and wort of died.

Now he's back. Surprisingly, so is his Don Blake identity. The last couple of issues have been a bit formulaic with Thor visiting a disaster area to find a missing Asgardian. Still, the stories are intense. Issue 3 featured the fight we've been been waiting for - Thor vs Iron Man. Tony Stark cloned Thor during the Civil Wars and Thor was upset so he broke Stark's armor.

Where will this lead? Only time will tell.

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