Comics You Should Read: Walt Simonson’s Epic “Thor”

Ever since his creation as a Marvel Comics superhero in 1962 by Stan Lee, Thor has taken part in some of the most epic stories to ever come to life on the comic page. While Stan Lee, John Buscema, Jack Kirby, and more artists helped to bring Thor to vivid life and create the many elements that would forever define the Norse God hero, there is one creator who left the greatest stamp on Thor: Walt Simonson.

As both writer and artist, Simonson crafted an epic tale for Thor, one that spanned more than 40 issues. In his time as the brain behind Thor, Simonson pushed the Avenger in exciting new directions. Not only did he create a massive storyline that smoothly transitioned between minor arcs, but he created new wrinkles in the Thor mythos, many of which have heavily informed the decades of comic book stories that have followed.

In the years since, writers and artists have followed in Simonson’s steps, but none have been able to reach the dizzying heights that he sent The God of Thunder to during his run. Not even the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have a chance at equally the massive storyline cooked up by Simonson.

An Epic Through and Through

Through the use of smaller storyarcs that seed continuing stories, Simonson created a vast arc that works in smaller pieces while being even greater when taken as a whole. From the very start in Thor#337, Simonson decided to shake things up in a major way. Ever since his beginning in Marvel Comics, Thor shared a body with Donald Blake – a meek and mild human alter ego who would transform into Thor when he struck his wooden cane on the ground, changing the cane into Mjolnir at the same time, and vice versa.

At the very outset, Thor encounters the strange alien Beta Ray Bill, who bests the hero in combat and is shockingly proven to be worthy of lifting the enchanted hammer Mjolnir, a feat never done in comics before. Through their struggle, Bill is given his own hammer and the Donald Blake persona is removed from Thor, making him into The God of Thunder 24/7. It was a smart move. Simonson’s coming stories had no time for small human drama, this was to be an epic tale from start to finish!

Each issue strikes a wonderful balance between the current main plot and the many seeds being laid for future developments. These slowly brewing elements suck the reader in, making the end of one story arc satisfying but also tantalizing, as these many threads would not come to a close for dozens of issues. Enemies old, new, and transformed all target Thor at one point or another, causing devastating setbacks for the Avenger and threatening the future or Asgard and even the entire cosmos.

Of course, where would a classic Thor story be without his devilish brother Loki? The God of Mischief plays a vital role throughout these many issues. While his machinations create many of the story’s most dire situations, he is not always the cackling mastermind. In fact, when faced with the universe-shattering threat of the fire demon Surtur, Loki even joins forces with Thor and Odin, the two people he despises the most. These developments make him into a far more dynamic and interesting character than he would be as a straight villain.

Thor’s Greatest Moments

By pitting the God of Thunder against numerous classic and new foes, these dozens of issues feature many of the moments that have become synonymous with Thor. Some are stunning, some are tragic, and others are even outlandish, but they all find The God of Thunder in fine form.

The Birth of Beta Ray Bill – This alien hero may look like a villain at first glance, but he is quickly proven to be a true hero with a good heart. His nobility and heroic nature stand in stark contrast to his ugly form. In fact, Simonson set out to create a hero who proved that looks did not need to coincide with heart.

The Surtur Saga – A gigantic fire demon from the realm of Muspelheim, Surtur had been previously featured in Thor’s ongoing stories, but this is by far his most defining tale. Armed with the magical blade Twilight and backed by a vast army of demons, Surtur seeks to destroy Asgard and Midgard (Earth) in one fell swoop. But it’s the team of Odin, Thor, and Loki who stand in his way of universal annihilation. The massive scope and sacrifice that come with this story set in motion everything that follows.

Escape from Hel – Thor and a company of Asgardian soldiers venturing into the realm of the dead, Hel, to rescue a legion of souls who have been captured by the death goddess Hela. Of course, they are surrounded by evil legions and must battle their way both in and out. It all culminates with the sacrifice of The Executioner, a former foe of Thor’s who attones for his sins with a battle at the gates of Hel. But not everyone escapes unharmed. Thor is viciously slashed across the face by Hela, causing him to covered his disgusting wounds with a mask and eventually a beard, leading to a new look for the once clean shaven Avenger.

Frog of Thunder – Loki plays a strange trick on Thor, turning him into a powerless frog. The Thunder God retains his intelligence and joins forces with the frogs of New York City’s Central Park to defeat an army of rats. But when Thor is able to lift Mjolnir, he’s turned into a giant all-powerful frog instead of his old self. It may be strange, but this fairy tale take on Thor is easily one of his most unique and all-around fun stories.

Of course, there are plenty more amazing pieces that form this massive story. Reading them as one whole tale easily makes Simonson’s run on Thor into one of comic history’s most massive and utterly satisfying arcs.

An Ending for the Ages

While Simonson’s epic tale is filled with huge moments, massive fights, and spectacular imagery, its finale dwarfs them all. The plans against Thor concocted by both Loki and Hel have resulted in the World Serpent being unleashed. This massive dragon is not only powerful enough to swallow the Earth, but is destined to kill Thor in combat as he is destroyed in turn by The God of Thunder.

However, Thor has received a special curse from Hel for his actions against her. His body has become brittle, causing bones to break under blows that he would normal withstand easily and without the ability to heal them. Except that he has also been cursed with the inability to die. It’s a devious plot by Hel to turn Thor into a wreck, suffering incalculable pain for all eternity.

Now, faced with the enormous World Serpent, Thor fights his greatest enemy across the Earth, which has been frozen in time for their epic encounter. While Thor has equipped himself with armor to prevent further injury, the Serpent is far too powerful for its defenses. Playing out in full page spreads, Thor uses his wits and mighty Mjolnir to frustrate his enemy. But Thor sacrifices everything in one supersonic midair attack, obliterating the World Serpent while also completely destroying his own body.

It’s a shocking but necessary culmination for Thor, who Simonson showed to be consistently self-sacrificing and noble. But this isn’t the end for The God of Thunder. Through ingenuity and wit that may surprise casual Thor fans, the hero uses his intelligence to outwit the many enemies stacked against him. It’s appropriate that the issue featuring this turnabout is called “Ye Old Shell Game,” since it sees Thor playing tricks on the typical tricksters. Of course, it all boils down to a scene where Loki gets some well-deserved comeuppance.

Mixing Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Superheroics

Being that Thor is simultaneously a superhero, mythic god, and interdimensional traveler, the hero can fit in well with many different types of stories. Simonson uses this well throughout his run, mixing all three elements into something that fits into all three categories while also being its own thing. Seeing Thor, Sif, and a Norse-powered alien rocketing across the cosmos on a goat-powered cart to intercept a spaceship fleet while fighting a horde of demons is quite the sight, but Simonson makes it work and even feel cohesive!

Comic book art during the 1980s was a very mixed bag. While some of the mediums greatest artists rose to prominence in the decade, there was also a large share of art that started out decently and has since aged poorly. Thankfully, Simonson’s work on Thor has stayed looking great. The way that energy streams out of characters and explodes across the page make epic battles feel even more powerful. As Thor and his allies fight foes across The Nine Realms, brilliant and dazzling worlds spring to life, with characters spouting language that would feel just at home in an ancient play. This is truly epic stuff.

Add to that the fact that the reissue of his work was completely recolored, using today’s vibrant digital inks for a much brighter and varied work that was impossible decades ago. The new colors really make Simonson’s art pop, breathing new life into the work.

Today, Simonson’s entire run has been collected into one enormous omnibus, as well as individual volumes, both collecting the newly recolored art. If you love comics, you absolutely need to read these stories!

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