Oct 3, 2013

Walt Simonson's Thor: A Retrospective

Thor: The Dark World is coming out soon, so all my articles for October 2013 are about the God of Thunder! Some call it OcThorBer, but I'm just gonna call it Thor Month. This week, we're talking about...

Walt Simonson's Thor
by Duy

It's pretty much agreed upon that the definitive Thor run is Walter Simonson's, which ran from Thor #337–382 (November 1983–August 1987). It was made available in the 5-volume Thor Visionaries: Walt Simonson trade paperbacks in the early 2000s, collected in an Omnibus in 2011 with retouches and recoloring, and is now being reissued in a new set of trade paperbacks.

Walt Simonson wrote the entire run and drew most of it, before Sal Buscema took over pencilling duties. Christie "Max" Scheele was the colorist, while John Workman lettered. For the most part, Walt and Sal inked themselves, but other inkers included Bob Wiacek, Terry Austin, Albret Blevinson (apparently Bret Blevins and Al Williamson working together), Al Milgrom, and Geof Isherwood.

Simonson's run is so historic and acclaimed that it gets special mention in Marvel's retrospective books like Peter Sanderson's Marvel Universe and Les Daniels' Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics. For you more casual readers, it's the Thor equivalent of Frank Miller being on Daredevil, or Alan Moore being on Swamp Thing. It's noted as the first great Thor run since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's run that established the character and his world. Without further ado, let's take a look at some of the things that make Simonson's Thor so good!

Walt Simonson Loved Mythology

Simonson recently announced that he's doing a project called Ragnarok for IDW, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who read his Thor run that his love for Norse mythology is genuine. Time and again, Simonson infused mythological tropes and mythical modes of storytelling into Thor, from the fantastical nature of some of the events to the cadence and diction of the characters. Witness, for example, Volstagg relating to Agnar the sad tale of Balder the Brave.

Simonson also wasn't afraid to use the Norse traditions of life and death, despite the fact that it could have, back then, alienated some hardcore superhero readers and "realists." That means that depending on how you died, you went to one of two places: Hel, where the goddess Hela presides over those who did not die in battle, or Valhalla, where warriors who fall bravely go. And because in Norse mythology, as well as in the world of Thor, these places are just as "real" and "physical" as Asgard, you're not surprised to see the warriors of Valhalla come out of there every now and then to help out.

Walt's love of the source material is most evident when Thor fights Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent. Told for a whole issue purely in splash pages, the battle is accompanied by what Simonson calls in Panel Discussions his "imitation of Viking poetry," which he says "gives a mythic echo," on top of the dialogue giving you a "contemporary echo."

"Bright was the day beneath the sun,
As they rose golden into the glad sky.
A song sang in the breasts of the foemen,
A chorus heralding the end of hatred.
The battlefield would decide their fate.
Ere the sun would set, neither would walk home."

But my favorite part that really makes the whole run feel like a contemporary take on mythology occurs when Thor is on Earth, attempting to prevent Surtur the fire demon from getting to Asgard. Surtur sets fire to New York, prompting Thor to summon some rain to put the fires out. When the rain stops, a rainbow appears — because the pathway to Asgard is Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge, Thor inadvertently led Surtur to his home. Once there, Surtur proceeds to destroy the Rainbow Bridge, causing bright shards of color to fall from the Earth's sky.

It's little touches like this that really add a nice, fantastic, mythical flourish to what Simonson never forgot was still a superhero book.

It's Aged Really Well

For my money, it's a run that has aged extremely well. Very little about it feels dated, and a large part of this is because Simonson managed to work in the aspects that would have usually dated an 80s book in a manner that is seamless and serves the story. He doesn't treat recaps and exposition as a chore, and in fact, used it to exercise his writing chops.

For example, look at the tale of Eilif the Lost, the last surviving Viking, who still believes in the Norse gods. Thor meets him in one issue, and here's the next issue's recap.

So it's a bit wordy by modern standards, but that's one example of just how perfect a storm Simonson's Thor was — it took a character who, by the nature of his world, was prone to lots of talking in an era where, by the impermanent nature of the medium back then (these were long before everything was getting collected into trade paperbacks), lots of talking and recapping was necessary. And with it came a writer who so clearly loved the material, enjoyed writing in such a way that combined mythology and superheroes, and was just plain damn good at it.

Despite That, The Quiet Moments Make It

The 80s may have been an era for talky comics, and Thor's world may lend itself to a lot of talking — they are incredibly grandiose — but one thing you can absolutely see with Simonson is that he knew when to keep things quiet, or at least, keep the talking down. When Thor grants Eilif the Lost some strength, Odin gives him his blessing.

Older comics would have had Thor stating that it was Odin in disguise, some comics of that era would have as well, and perhaps some comics today would too. Simonson just knew it was obvious and let the art tell the story. (The first appearance of Odin in the next issue is him returning to Asgard, still dressed as this old man.)

The best example of a "quiet" moment in Thor, however, is the last stand of Skurge the Executioner. Needing to free some human souls from Hel, Thor takes some gods, including Balder the Brave and some Valhallans (and equipped with a bunch of guns they bought from Earth, natch!) into the realm of Hela. On their way out, they're chased by the army of the dead, and Thor knows there's no way they can cross the bridge back to the land of the living without someone holding the army off. As he prepares to stay behind, Skurge knocks him out. Then this happens.

Balder silently handing the gun off to Skurge says more than any words could. The rest of the sequence has only minimal narration, all meant to maximize the impact of Skurge's sacrifice.

Actions Have Consequences, in a Thor-Specific Way
Reading through the Internet for what other people have said about Simonson's run, it's pretty clear that Skurge's death is one of the most well-remembered moments from it. In fact, it's so well-remembered that Skurge has actually stayed dead, and with sequences such as "He stood alone at Gjallerbru," how could it not be?

Skurge's death even manages to get to the icy heart of his lover, Amora the Enchantress, who had spurned him for so long.

So even in a story where life and death are not exactly the same as how we perceive it, actions have consequences. In fact, the first story in Simonson's run has Thor losing to a horse-faced alien named Beta Ray Bill, who proves to be worthy of the power of Thor.

To be honest, when I first read the first trade, I was underwhelmed and disappointed, because as someone who hasn't read much of Thor, of course I wanted a story that established why I should, you know, be reading Thor. But I had to look at it in context — back then, no one else had lifted Mjolnir, and this was unheard of.

The introduction of Beta Ray Bill had a ripple effect on the mythos of Thor. Aside from proving that others could lift the hammer, it also led to Thor giving up his mortal identity of Dr. Donald Blake and taking on the identity of Sigurd Jarlson, construction worker. Instead of magically turning from a mortal to a god as he did when he was Blake, "Jarlson" was just Thor disguising himself with a ponytail and glasses. (That leads to this Easter egg.)

By leaving Bill on Earth, Simonson managed to go for an extended stretch where Thor was on Asgard and stayed there. In such a way, the Asgard and Earth portions were balanced without any storytelling rhythm being broken.

Thor's stuck on Asgard for a while because of the aforementioned destruction of the Rainbow Bridge by Surtur. The defeat of Surtur also leads to Odin's disappearance, and he stays gone for the rest of the run. Later on, Hela punishes Thor by making it so that Thor can't heal from wounds or broken bones, but can't die either, prompting Thor to build battle armor. In such a way, Walt bypassed the standard superhero problem of "Well, you know he can't die anyway, so where's the suspense?"

It's to Walt's credit that even with the immortals, actions have consequences.

Walt Really Thought the Storytelling Through

I love talking technique and trying to figure out the way creators put pages together, and in Simonson's Thor (actually, in all of Simonson's work), there's a quality that I could really only call "cerebral" or "calculated." It's all so thought through and it's part of what makes his work so distinct. In Panel Discussions, he mentions that since Thor was of the past, the layouts on Thor were relatively restrained (as opposed to the perhaps more innovative layouts he was doing in Fantastic Four at the time). The result is more straightforward storytelling where he let the content of each panel dictate the speed of the reading and the impact of the material.

There's one trick Walt and Sal (or maybe it was letterer John Workman) kept pulling that I thought deserved special mention, and it's a small trick. Too many people I know — and I'm guilty of it too — read comics by reading the words and very cursorily glancing at the pictures. This run kept bypassing that problem by placing dialogue balloons at the bottom of the panels, bridging them. In the example below, as Thor talks to his benefactor Tiwaz, a lot of readers would read the words at the top of the panels and skip to the next, until realizing that it made no sense and they had to read the bottom part.

Sal drew this. I've never been a big fan of Sal, but this pair works. If anything, the Walt/Sal pair highlighted the need to have artistic consistency, even if they were distinctly different.

In this way, it ensures that your eyes go over everything. Actually, in this sense, it would make a good gateway comic, in that it can help condition the way a new reader would consider the words and pictures.

Walt Has the Power

Walt Simonson is the artist that reminds me most of Jack Kirby.

Simonson structured shots and allocated space to particular moments that gives particular moments their impact. Simonson knew just when to zoom out, when to zoom in, and angled the shot as much as possible so the reader always got some of it coming his way.

And to maximize impact, Simonson would increase panel sizes, pulling out the splash pages only when really necessary, like when Thor takes Eilif to his final battle.

I used the word "cerebral" a couple of paragraphs ago. Maybe "measured" is a better word. Maybe "precise." But in comic book terms, in his execution, Simonson was not unlike the King.

These Are the Best Sound Effects I've Ever Seen

That "THWRKKOOM!" in panel below does more than just give sound to Mjolnir hitting Surtur. It's also a visual element that rounds out the image. Simonson has noted that a lot of his sound effects may not actually be pronounceable, but that they arrest the eye and guide the reader.

As a math guy, as well, I enjoy the angular and geometric nature of Simonson and Workman's sound effects. It's part of that "calculated" feel I spoke of earlier. Here are a few of my favorites.

"SHATTER!" because what better sound effect is there for something shattering?

"DOOM" cut in half because, hey, a sword's being used.

The best example of the thought that went into these, however, is in the first splash page of the first issue, which shows Surtur forging the Twilight Sword. "DOOM!" is ornately drawn and is a gorgeous piece of typography, and simultaneously functions as sound effect and title.

I did notice how these sound effects stopped being so ornate and resembled more conventional sound effects as Sal took over, so I feel safe in saying that Walt, when he was still the artist, worked really closely with Workman in making sure things came together.

Whimsical and Serious, There's a Balance

Shortly after Skurge dies in one of the greatest death scenes in history, Thor gets turned into a frog, in a tale that's a tribute to Carl Barks.

And shortly after he gets turned into a frog, he's able to lift Mjolnir, in a sequence that's a tribute to Steve Ditko. It turns him into a godsized Thunder Frog.

This kind of thing happened all the time. Something with a lot of gravitas would happen, then something completely silly. Shortly after Thor and Loki and Odin repel Surtur, with Odin sacrificing himself to save everyone, Thor mourns him. It's a really touching issue. It's also immediately followed up by Thor falling victim to a love spell by Lorelei (the Enchantress' sister) and a rather comedic arc where Lorelei, who's in love with Loki, tries to use the spell to convince Thor to put Loki on the empty throne. Enchantress tries to break the spell with a kiss. I don't know how you can read this and not chuckle a little.

That tonal balance is achieved within the stories as well. Whether it's by using Volstagg of the Warriors Three as comic relief or juxtaposing mundane Earth things with grandiose Asgardian characters, like where Hogun the Grim gives Hildy (Volstagg's daughter) a cap, Walt provided some lightheartedness even in the heaviest of moments.

I also just want to mention that Walt had a lot of fun with the titles of the stories. The big fight with Surtur is entitled "Ragnarok and Roll!" The issue where Thor is a Frog of Thunder is entitled "SIR!" because on the cover of that issue is a blurb that goes "What do you call a 6'6" fighting-mad frog? (Answer inside!)". Simonson really had a lot of fun.

At the height of the biggest battle Asgard will ever face, Odin and his sons come together (because even Loki knows that ruling a charred piece of rubble sucks) and proclaim what they're fighting for. Odin fights for Asgard. Thor fights for Earth. And Loki? Well, he fights for himself.

It's brilliant.

How Can You Not Love These Characters?

Walt's Loki is a joy to read because he's just so crafty and out for himself. I have to admit, trying to read it in Tom Hiddleston's voice is both rewarding and challenging — rewarding because it's really fun, and challenging because my default Loki voice is the one from the 1966 Marvel cartoons, where he kind of sounds like Skeletor.

Lorelei and Amora the Enchantress are fun to see through because they're sisters who can't stand each other and try to outdo each other. Their meticulous plotting is almost as fun to read as Loki's.

Sif, on the other hand, had to go through some introspection to see how much she loved Thor, and how much Thor loved her. She spends most of the time hanging out with Beta Ray Bill, but as Sif is a warrior born, few warriors are as fun to read as she is.

Skurge the Executioner was a one-note villain who acted only as muscle to Amora, but in his stand at Gjallerbru, Simonson gave him an added depth that made us believe in his potential as a hero.

The other villains, from Malekith the Dark Elf to Kurse to Hela to Surtur, all test Thor and bring him to his limits. Malekith obtaining the Casket of Ancient Winters brings an unstoppable Ice Age to the Earth, prompting Thor to enlist the help of Beta Ray Bill, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four. (The battle on the side of the Avengers was depicted in their book, but is not in these volumes.) Kurse is unstoppable, wanting only Malekith's death, and getting to Thor at the worst possible moment — as he's just battled Hela. Even one-note villains, like the witches Balder and Thor face prior to Balder's coronation, are worth a read.

The Warriors Three provided much enjoyment, as they always do, with Fandral being the straight man, Volstagg being the funny one, and Hogun providing the stark contrast to the Enormous One.

I could easily go on, of course, but I think the point is made. The entire time I was reading this run, I didn't think any characters were wasted. They all contributed to the overall story.

It should be noted that as much as this was Beta Ray Bill's introduction to the Marvel Universe and that he does have a few adventures throughout the run, he is not the supporting character who gets the most attention, nor is it Sif. No, it's Balder the Brave, who Thor admits is his superior in courage and his equal in nobility. Balder himself goes through a character arc. Recently returned from the dead, Balder has to undergo the immortal equivalent of PTSD and goes slightly nuts whenever he has to fight anyone. It can't be helped, of course — he's an Asgardian, after all — and before long he's helping out Thor, fighting Hela, and getting spun off into his own miniseries, right before the Asgardians crown him king.

But of course, the star of the show is Thor. And Walt's Thor was a Thunder God who went on adventure after adventure, met everything head-on, and had a nobility and a grandeur reserved for a very small number of superheroes.

In a time when superheroes regularly got "deconstructed" and made to look fallible and all too human, Walter Simonson managed to show us, via the Mighty Thor, that superheroes can in fact resemble humanity — with petty squabbles, problems with love, and mourning their families — without once forgetting the grandeur and scope that they're capable of, the fantastic worlds they're capable of taking us to, and the sense of wonder that they can instill. Superheroes and gods are larger than life, and can make us feel larger than life as we read them.

Thank Walt Simonson for creating something that can forever remind us of that.

You can get Walt Simonson's Thor in five published Visionaries TPBs:

One omnibus:

Or with the new TPBs they're releasing now:


Ben Herman said...

I agree with you, this was absolutely one of the definitive runs on Thor, and all these years later it still holds up. Heck, I wish that Marvel and DC still published comic books like this! Walter Simonson (plus Sal Buscema and John Workman) did such amazing, now-classic work. I'm thrilled that these issues are once again getting collected.

By the way, a couple of other great aspects that I want to point out are the Justice Peace/Zaniac story, which was a really eerie melding of sci-fi & horror, and the ongoing arc in the later part of Simonson's run when Thor is afflicted with the curse of brittle bones by Hela, but he still keeps on fighting against the odds, eventually forging an awesome suit of battle armor for himself.

Imran Husain said...

This article is a really nice appreciation of one of the all-time greatest runs on a comic book! We all know the stories are great, but it's nice to take a step back and consider WHY they're so great. Fun read!

Anonymous said...

The first paragraph has several inaccuracies. The Thor Omnibus was released in 2011, which is not "soon after the early 2000s" as the paragraph suggests. Also, the omnibus already had the recoloring; the new trade paperbacks don't change anything.

Duy Tano said...

Thanks, all!

Anon: I have edited the column for those corrections (and also to add in that Albret Blevinson was apparently Al Williamson and Bret Blevins working together.)

Anonymous said...

"Walter Simonson managed to show us, via the Mighty Thor, that superheroes can in fact resemble humanity — with petty squabbles, problems with love, and mourning their families — without once forgetting the grandeur and scope that they're capable of, the fantastic worlds they're capable of taking us to, and the sense of wonder that they can instill."

That's been the theme of Norse mythology in particular (and Greco- Roman, Celtic, etc) for hundreds of years

Duy Tano said...

That's a good point!

B McMolo said...

Fantastic write-up, thanks for this. Simonson's Thor holds a special place in my heart. You sketched out why quite agreeably!

Unknown said...

I would sure like to hear your opinions of the VERY Simonson-ic version portrayed in "Thor:Ragnarok".

Duy Tano said...

Will this do? http://www.comicscube.com/2017/11/so-that-skurge-scene-in-thor-ragnarok.html

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