Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Thor Retrospective Part 1: Jack Kirby

I first began reading Thor after picking up a bargain-priced 100-Page Monster issue of Thor (Vol 2, issue #32). It was a wonderful compilation of issues - that literally swung open the doors to my imagination with amazing stories, telling modern-day inspired tales of the Viking Gods. One issue, in particular, I found was recounting some of the fables from the actual myths! There was a Viking Longships class in my high school - where I was able to learn a lot about the Viking Mythology. Not an expert knowledge of it - but I'm informed enough, for instance, to shock people with the knowledge that Loki is the father or Fenrir (giant wolf), Hel (Goddesses of the Underworld), and mother to Sleipnir (Odin's eight-legged horse). Yep - I said "mother" -Loki transformed himself into a female horse in one fable, one thing led to another, and Loki gives birth a eight-legged steed for Odin! There's all sorts of weird and nonsensical stuff like that in the actual myths.

I began reading Thor, and have enjoyed the stories I've read over the years. Discovering how good Journey Into Mystery is, has resparked my interest in the comics again. The Mighty Thor recently had an introductory issue, #12.1 (which likewise re-tells some of the weirder myths from Viking lore), so it seems like a good enough starting point to start reading the series again. I am still weary, because Matt Faction has disappointed me before -- but I feel psyched up for reading the series again! Plus, Walt Simonson is returning to do art for the covers!

Anyway - I thought I'd recount my experience with the character and the comic books over the years. I hope you'll enjoy it!

Jack Kirby

For the Marvel Version of Thor, there's almost no bigger name connected to the character than Jack Kirby himself. Taking some of the basic frame-work of the old Viking Myths, Jack thought it would be interesting to re-interpet the characters in modern times. Gods as Superheroes, as it where. Thor was bound to another identity - that of Dr. Donald Blake - who transforms into Thor when he picks up the hammer Mjolnir, which reads "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of... Thor"

Jack Kirby's Thor was bound to the mortal form of Donald Blake - acting as his secret identity. While this may have simply been a thought-to-be necessary requirement for any type of Super Hero - it actually would serve a valuable purpose. Switching between Blake and Thor, by tapping his cane to the ground, the identity of Blake gave Thor a perspective on humanity and a love of Midgard (Earth).

It was never gotten into during Jack's time on the title, but retroactively an explanation for why Thor was bound to Blake was proposed -- that Thor had become arrogant and willful - so much so that Odin cast him down to Earth and bound him to a mortal guise to teach him humility.

Thor at first began with some more simpler stories - usually on Earth. Gods meeting mortals has always been a large part in Kirby's work - and here he got to do it quite literally. The adventures where simple, but slowly started to add more detail to Thor's larger world. Loki, Thor's half-brother, was introduced - and became Thor's ultimate foe. Odin was always chastising Thor for dividing his attention between Midgard and Asgard, and was especially critical of his romance with Nurse Jane Foster. Along with Stan Lee's eloquence for fake-Shakespearean dialogue, the operatic stories, of fathers vs sons, brother against brother, and unrequited love really shined.

Jack's interpretation of Asgard is really interesting - as he married old style trappings, like swords, armor, horses, castles, ect, right alongside high technology.

Jack actually didn't stay on the title for that long. Many other artists came in and filled in. Jack would come back eventually - and besides his work on the Fantastic Four - Thor was probably one of his most fertile breeding grounds for cosmic ideas and amazing adventures!

Thor battled sci-fi enemies, like the Time Traveling Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man. Thor likewise battled mythological monstrous menaces - like Ulik the Troll!

I don't know why exactly, but I remember really enjoying Thor's repeated battles against Cobra, a contortionist criminal, and a modern day Mr Hyde.

Thor battled Hercules in the first Thor Annual. I actually was given a copy of this and some other original Thor issues by my teacher in the Viking Longships class. I had tried to find out how much they where worth (not much), and in turn he offered them to me! I really cherish those issues, even though they are in bad condition.

The Destroyer was the ultimate menace - a creation designed specifically to kill Gods. Created by Odin, it was off handedly explained that it was created ages ago to defend Earth. Later writers would explain that the Destroyer was Odin's weapon against the Celestials (even bigger gods!)

Jack liked to experiment with the comic book medium, and introduced collages into his work. Printing technology at the time prevented the full color of these collages to come to life - but these served as incredible vistas, to convey cosmic sights.

Thor faced just as many cosmic threats as he did mythological ones. Ego, the Living Planet, is a great example of how wild and creative he was being on the title.

Thor's adventures kept getting more and more ambitious - with Asgard engaging in full scale war.

The boldness and creativity probably reached its zenith when Galactus was introduced into Thor's title. Galactus had already made a huge impact on all of comics in the pages of the Fantastic Four -- but it was here that Thor fought the mighty world eater, and would also show some of Galactus' origin.

All of Thor's adventures where eventually going to lead to end of the gods: Ragnarok - where all the gods die. Marvel, though, sure as heck weren't going to allow this wide range of characters to be killed off! Kirby was becoming increasingly unhappy with the management at Marvel, neither getting the credit or money his work was worth. So when he went over to DC Comics, there he introduced "The New Gods"!

That's pretty much how important Jack's run on Thor was -- it was somewhat of a prelude to his incredible Fourth World Comic line! While officially the two series didn't connect at all, the intent was clear with the tag-line on New Gods #1 "When the Old Gods Died -- There Arose The New Gods"

I'm only guessing here, but I think Jack is probably one of the most influential creators when it comes to the Viking Gods. When he first created the series, the public was more familiar with the Greek and Roman Pantheon. Jack even began doing 5-page back-up stories, "Tales of Asgard", which spelled out many of the myths. They of course might not have been accurate to the original stories - but the basic frame-work of the myths where explained to new readers. How Odin, after battling Frost Giants, discovered a baby of his fallen foe - who would one day grow up to be Thor's half-brother Loki.

Jack also introduced new elements to the myths as well - like the Warriors Three, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg. Volstagg, also known as Volstagg the Enormous, Volstagg the Voluminous, and the Lion of Asgard, was the main comedic character. His overweight girth and personality, while somewhat mocking at first, would eventually be used by other writers as wonderful, funny, and delightful character. All three of the Warriors Three would in years become cornerstones to Thor's supporting characters.

I've mostly been able to read Jack's long tenure on Thor through the Marvel Essential Trade Paper Backs. They might be in black and white - but I get to see the whole breadth of Jack's incredible stories!

I'll come back with part two, concerning the next creator who would become synonymous with Marvel's Thor: Walt Simonson

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