The Mighty Thor as told by Walter Simonson

I almost entitled this post ‘The Mighty Thor as told and drawn by Walter Simonson’, but the drawing is part of the essence of the medium of the comic book; it is part of how the story is ‘told’ in a broad understanding of the verb ‘to tell’. And Simonson both wrote and drew The Mighty Thor, issues 337-382 (Nov. 1983 – Aug. 1987).

I recently finished the fifth volume of the collected work of Simonson’s Thor saga by Marvel Comics. It was a great ride. I like comic books from the 1980s. There was a strong emphasis upon telling a story, as well as about making each issue count; you don’t have to buy four issues to get a story. However, if you do read four issues of Simonson’s run on The Mighty Thor, you’ll find yourself reading many stages of one big story. Any issue can be your first, but if you stick with it, the story continually expands from the point where you began.

It is, of course, this interconnectedness that makes Simonson’s telling of Thor strong. From the first issue, we see the sword of Surtur being forged, but have no idea what this means, who this is, where this is going — or even what is being forged, at first. Only over the span of multiple issues does this become clear. Meanwhile, we have Thor and Beta Ray Bill; we have Loki scheming; we have monster battles in New York; we have Malekith the Accursed. Yet there is a trajectory for each individual story, tying it into the wider story.

Thus, Malekith leads to Surtur which leads, on the one hand, to Loki almost succeeding at his conquest of Asgard, and on the other hand, Thor and co. riding to Hel. This latter leads to Thor’s curse, which leads ultimately to new armour, Jormungand, and the end of Simonson’s run. Loki seeking Odin’s throne connects us with Balder the Brave (whose miniseries is included in the collected volumes). As I say, it’ s a good ride.

And it should be! J.R.R. Tolkien presents the argument in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ that English literature, because it’s greatest writer was a poet and playwright (Shakespeare), has missed the importance of good stories, with real plots (good plots, complex plots, entertaining plots), overvaluing the internal psychology of characters, which is the sort of thing plays lend themselves to. It’s an interesting hypothesis. Simonson has given us plot, story, a wild ride.

And this makes sense. Super hero comics were originally born as light reading for young boys. That mature women now also read them is good. But the increased sophistication of comic books should not mean a concurrent abandonment of story. Simonson shows us how you can tell a somewhat narratologically complex story through the visual medium of comics.

Such emphasis on a quality plot also makes sense because this is Thor. Walter Simonson knows his Norse myths. He draws his Asgard with an eye on Viking-age Scandinavian material culture. And he interweaves various aspects of Ragnarok into his run in The Mighty Thor, as well as other, broader characters, settings, themes, and stories from Old Norse mythology. There is a narrative realism to the mediaeval sagas — they and the Eddic poetry still tell good stories, whether we think of Njal’s Saga or the Volsunga Saga or the Voluspa.

Simonson also knows his superhero books. So we have traditional superhero tales alongside Viking-style tales alongside some sci-fi. It’s great.

In a very mediaeval sense, it’s romantic. And that’s, alongside the epic, is just what I love.

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2 thoughts on “The Mighty Thor as told by Walter Simonson

  1. michaelhoskin

    There are many little things I love about Simonson’s Thor, but largely I love how it interacts with the past, present and future.

    Simonson was a huge fan of Thor and the affection he had for the Lee-Kirby days certainly comes through, but he didn’t treat Lee-Kirby as the series’ only forefathers, and much to his benefit! Balder’s time spent in Hel was a recent development which he crafted into a compelling character hook for the Brave one. He brought in the little-loved villain Zaniac and did his best to make him seem frightening. Simonson’s well of Thor lore was as deep as Mimir.

    But then he also looked to the past as a means of bringing more of the mythological elements from the Norse eddas into the comics pages for the first time, so Loki’s parentage of Hela becomes text; note also how the Midgard Serpent references only one person other than his present red-caped-stranger has ever lifted his foot before (a clue Jormungand fails to explore further). Thor’s goats become an indispensable part of the series; even the non-mythological characters are given weight so that you would swear Amora must have stepped from the legends.

    But then he looked to the present; he always reflected what was going on in comics and culture of the time, referencing everything from the Fantastic Four living in the Avengers Mansion to the Mephisto mini-series to Iceman being kidnapped by Loki.

    Finally, to the future; he put his stamp on the series by introducing all sorts of compelling new characters from Beta Ray Bill & Lorelei (both in his first issue) to Kurse, Malekith and Eilif. He wasn’t simply commenting upon what had gone before or what others were doing, he was attempting to tell new stories from what had already been set up, to pose new challenges to Thor and rattle a few cages.

    P.S. There is also the greatest death scene in all of fiction. He stood alone at Gjallerbru. And that answer is enough.

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