Thursday, May 17, 2012

Thor Retrospective Part 2: Walt Simonson

On the list of the best creators to ever work on the Thor comics, Walt Simonson would be right there alongside Jack Kirby tied for 1st place. Simonson's sketchy art style seemed somewhat similar to Kirby's blocky style - but, like with Kirby, Simonson backed up his visuals with storytelling. Both of their styles of drawing has a functionality - all with the purpose of telling the story, conveying emotion, and hammering away with bombastic action!

A huge hammer makes a wide swing, flying down with the power of the sun itself onto a seeming cosmic anvil. A sword is being forged. The identity of the wielder of the forge is not shown. An ominous and cosmic-shattering "DOOM" rings out when the hammer strikes the sword. (More on this later)

Simonson came onto Thor as both writer and artist - and made a forever lasting impression on the series, even felt to this day. He weaves incredible tales, much in the spirit of the Viking Myths, telling grand epic tales that stretched throughout multiple issues, with plot threads constantly encouraging you to read further. Simonson, simply put, took the series and the characters seriously - and put them in appropriate god-level danger and situations, requiring the best in comic book heroism!

His first issue on Thor really set the whole tone for his entire run. While he was of course embracing the wonderful universe Kirby had created - he was also here to do his own thing, and forge the series ahead into new territory. Nothing exemplified this better than the introduction of Beta Ray Bill!

This horse-Thor lookalike stumbled upon a unique premise. Thor's Hammer, Mjolnir, reads "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of... Thor" So Simonson asks the question - what happens if someone else, also worthy, picked up the hammer? That's exactly what happened when the alien Beta Ray Bill arrives on Earth and accidently ended up fighting Thor. Bill was able to steal Thor's hammer away from him - giving him all the power of Thor! This, however, left the real Thor transformed back into his old identity as Donald Blake.

It was incredibly exciting - seeing this strange new Thor, and how they would settle the problem of who is worthy to wield the hammer? Beta Ray Bill wants to keep the power so he can protect his people, aliens on a space ship who are under his protection. Who gets to keep the hammer, if both of these men are worthy of it? Challenges and test are done - but with no definitive answer. Odin sets out to end the debate by commissioning yet another hammer to be made. This hammer is dubbed "Stormbreaker" - and though they first met as rivals, Beta Ray Bill would forever become an ally and friend to Asgard. Sif - Thor's on-again, off-again Asgardian girl friend (Odin finally split Thor and Jane Foster up) - she takes a leave of absence, as she goes off with Beta Ray Bill, and eventually they begin dating.

Odin, meanwhile, makes some changes while he's busy commissioning new hammers, and what not. The creation of Donald Blake - an identity Thor has been bound to all this time, is finally put to rest. I suppose Thor finally reached the level of humbleness Odin wanted to see -- and Blake simply wasn't needed anymore. So the person Don Blake disappears, both from sight, but also from the memory of everyone who knew him. I actually really liked this move - as I thought Blake was somewhat of a redundant identity for the character. (I have different feelings on the issue nowadays, though.) Thor would not be spending all of his time in Asgard, though - he would still defend Midgard. As for when living on Midgard? Simonson actually seemed to have a bit of fun with this - as he put glasses on Thor, ala Clark Kent, and had him pretend to be an average working joe.

There where some truly wonderful moments all throughout Walt Simonson's Thor run. A two-issue story detailed the last Viking, who wishes to die in battle and ascend to Valhalla. This wasn't taking place in the past, though - this was a man from a hidden and forgotten Viking village, isolated and trapped in the comfort of surrounding mountains. These Vikings lived here for all these years - but eventually, without new blood injected into the community, their population dwindled until there was finally only a single man left. He prayed to Thor - and Thor heard him and came; hearing the prayers of worshipers, while common during the Viking Age, is a rarity in the modern one. Thor arrives to find this old man, on the brink of death, trying to enrage Thor into battle and have him kill him. Thor, though, is not the arrogant and angry god he once was - and holds his hand when facing the man. Soon Thor finds a sympathetic warrior - who is striving with all his might to die as a true Viking, in battle with honor -- but now that opportunity seems lost. Thor, though, is going to have none of that! He imbues the man with new energy, and calls on an ebony flying steed to carry the rejuvenated warrior. A monster, at the same time, happened to be rampaging through New York. Thor has to face and end this menace - and the Last Viking Warrior is going to help! Before leaving, though, a strange man in a tolkin-esq wizard garb appears - and imbues the staff of the Last Viking with a special power. Unknown to him, this wizard was actually Odin (he sometimes comes to Earth in concealed guises).

So, Thor and the Last Viking engage in battle with the monstrous rampaging dragon - and its the enchanted spear of the old man that wins the day - as it is the only thing able to pierce the Dragon's skin - allowing Thor to hammer it all the way through it's body. The revived strength of the elderly man fades, and he dies. Yet their task was done - the Last Viking was able to die an honorable Warrior's Death - and was able to ascend into Heaven on the wings of Odin's Valkyries to his eternal reward in Valhalla!

In between the big epics and character moments - it's stories like this, sprinkled throughout Simonson's run, that really elevated the whole series.

The development of Thor's burgeoning cast of supporting characters seemed to be on the top of Simonson's priorities. He added a level of depth and soul to so many characters. Be they evil, or buffoonish, Simonson treaded them all equally, giving weight and validity to their actions and personalities.

Two character immediately spring to mind, in terms of character growth under Simonson. Volstagg, the humorously overweight Lion of Asgard, always the butt of jokes, was transformed into a much more meaningful character under Simonson's watch. While Volstagg is still plays the fool and braggart - but we learn much more about him as the series went on. While Volstagg is still portrayed in these ways, it was hinted at that earlier in his youth he may indeed has been the great warrior he still boasts to be today! We are also introduced to Volstagg's voluminous family, with his wife and seeming endless amount of children. The parental side of Volstagg is shown - and it adds much more depth to his character. While he might still be, and always will be, the humorous character in Thor's supporting cast - it's because of Walt Simonson that Volstagg stops being a joke, and simply becomes a character who just happens to be humorous, with his larger-than-life personality.

Balder the Brave is the other character I thought received the most improvement under Simonson. It's strange, though - Simonson took up the series, I believe, shortly after Balder underwent a horrible experience. See, Balder's death, in the actual Viking Myths, is specifically noted as a heralding of Ragnarok. Inspired by this, Balder was supposedly killed and ended up in Hel. Loki, like in the myths, was the perpetrator of this cruel act. Balder, though, is brought back up from Hel (sort of like in the myths). He is a changed man, though, from the experience. His hair is completely white - and when Simonson gets his hands on him, the trauma Balder experienced went far beyond a simple loss of follicle pigment. The once Brave Balder is now traumatized - sorrowful and depressed. He has seen the depths of Hel, and all its horror - only to be alive once again. He goes through a tremendous journey of self examination. The Norn Queen, who has long since had an eye towards Balder, becomes a kind of confidant for a time.

Balder's journey was so well received that he was given a 4 issue mini-series!

The epic threats that are built slowly over issues as subplots explode into the most grand and epic adventures. Malekith the Accursed Dark Elf, unleashes the Cask of Ancient Winters. So powerful is this magical cask, that it blankets the entity of the Earth in snow. The world will most certainly end, if Thor isn't able to stop him.

The battle and defeat of Malekith, though, was only a warm up to the biggest story of Simonson's run. For an entire year worth of issues - we've been given hints and shown shadowed previews of a powerful sword being forged on a seeming cosmic anvil. Each issue the swings of the hammer, all echoing the ground shattering "DOOM", is progressively built up over 12 issues. Finally, at the very end, the menace is revealed.

Surtur, the giant fire demon has returned!

A power and force rivaling that of the Odin-Power, Surtur once before brought horrible ruin to Asgard. Now he is back, with a newly forged Sword Twilight.

All the warriors of Asgard heed the call to face Surtur's immense army. The denizens of Asgard make their stand on Midgard - where the invading forces are attacking. This leaves Asgard deserted - all but for Odin, and his two sons Thor and Loki. In a rare show of solidarity, Loki stands with his family against Surtur. A dimensional rift is able to be created, which Surtur falls into - but at the cost of Odin falling in along with him. The rift sealed - trapping Surtur and Odin.

Suddenly Asgard is without a King. The rank of succession, usually, would fall to either Thor or Loki. There's a problem, though: Odin is still alive! He's merely trapped. The Odin-force, the power which gives Odin his omnipotence to rule Asgard; since the power doesn't transfer to either Thor or Loki - they know it means their father still yet lives. Eventually a stop-gap solution is agreed upon - Balder, eventually in a better frame of mind, leads a council of sorts to govern Asgard. Odin eventually does return - but I do not believe it was during Simonson's tenure.

During the battle with Surtur the Bifrost Bridge (Rainbow Bridge), is shattered! The victorious warriors of Asgard, having defeated Surtur's army, are now stuck on Midgard. Slowly, but surely, people are transported by Thor back to Asgard - though its much harder depending solely on the dimensional traveling abilities of Thor's hammer. The wait, though, allows for several characters to visit New York. The Warriors Three have some humorous interactions with this odd world. Beta Ray Bill and Sif, who returned for the battle against Surtur, are able to spend time seeing the sights of New York. Fandral delivers flowers to the former co-workers of the now fictitious Donald Blake - seemingly putting a cap on the good doctor's vaguely remembered existence. More adventures await, as Simonson's run isn't even half over.

During Malekith's attack on Midgard, he had innocent mortals eat the food of the faire - which cast their souls to Hel (the Viking Land of the Dead), with their bodies left behind and under Malekith's command. Thor, Balder, and the the Executioner, the Enchantress' partner and body guard, embark on a mission down into Hel. Hela, the Goddess of Hel, has always wanted to obtain Thor's soul. While trying to save the mortal souls and allow them release from this horrible land, Thor engages in physical battle with Hela. Her touch alone can bring death - so Thor covers all of his body. He ends up marred by Hela's touch - his face scarred, requiring concealment. The Executioner receives a grand and valiant end when, at the cost of his own life, he fights against the endless hoards of Hela's undead army - allowing Thor, Balder, and the mortal souls the time they need to escape.

This trip into Hel, that the Executioner did not return from, elevated the once one-dimensional character into an incredible and complex person -- making his sacrifice all the more potent.

One of the best, and also most hilarious moments from Simonson's run is that of the Thor Frog Saga. Loki, up to no good like usual, manages to turn his brother into a frog! This might sound weird - but as far as modern-day additions to the Viking Myths, Frog Thor is probably one of the more faithful concepts to the sometimes wonky and weird tales of old.

Thor, lost on Midgard and without his powers, must persevere to try and stop Loki from his latest scheme. Though he be merely a frog - the courage and bravery of Thor still persists. Frog Thor fights against rats and other menaces in the wild grass in New York park.

Eventually Frog Thor is able to find his hammer. Grabbing onto it with his amphibian body, the most awesome things in comics happens - The Mighty Thor is restored -- but still as a frog!!! Apparently the rules listed on the hammer don't preclude animals, who happen to be worthy, from receiving the power of Thor!

The Mighty Frog Thor is able to travel to Asgard and foil Loki's scheme. He is eventually returned to normal afterwords.

This is an odd thing to point out as being cool - but Simonson, I think, was the first artist to give Thor a beard! The reason for the beard, though, is to conceal the still scarred face he carries from Hela's touch. Thor would sport a beard on other occasions down the road - but it started here, with Simonson. Its surprising what a little facial hair can do to change the look of a person -- and with Thor, his beard gave him a better similarity to the Vikings.

Hela touch continued to plague Thor, resulting in a curse upon him that made his bones grow weak and brittle -- and that he would no be able to die from his injuries as he would suffer more and more injuries. A special armor is needed to protect his body and allow Thor to continue on.

Thor would continue on to face even more menacing challenges. Simonson eventually stopped drawing the series, with Sal Buscema taking over - but with Simonson still doing the writing. I have only read three of the Walt Simonson Visionaries TPBs. There are two volumes after that I have not read - though maybe I'll look them up now. Still - what I have read deeply impressed me! Simonson defined Thor for an entire generation - and his run is still looked back on with reverence.

Next we jump ahead to the future (sort of literally!) - as I go over the Thor Comics that where coming out in my day and age: Thor Retrospective Part 3: Dan Jurgens

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