The latest in a series about influences from my childhood
Thor: The Dark World opens today, and you can be sure that our family will rush to go see it. We saw the first Thor movie and, of course, The Avengers, and we’re all big fans.
Many years ago, as a boy, I made the acquaintance of Thor, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the character or his adventures. The idea of a Norse god (who spoke pseudo-Shakespearean lines) who hung out in modern-day New York with folks like Spider-man and the Fantastic Four (my favorites, back then) didn’t do anything for me. Years later, when I was in college, a friend re-introduced me by loaning me some issues of The Mighty Thor and insisted I read them.
And I was so very, very glad I did.
Visionary Walt Simonson had recently taken over the writing and penciling for The Mighty Thor. Simonson had re-launched the character in a new and exciting direction by returning him to his roots, mining Norse mythology (then an obsession of mine) and melding it with modern times to produce sheer comic-book genius. During his run, Simonson pitted Thor against traditional enemies such as Surtur, frost giants, trolls, the Midgard Serpent, dragons, demons, dark elves, and—of course—his step-brother, Loki.
Surtur and friends, coming to destroy the universe (source)
Simonson also breathed new life into foes from previous issues of Thor: Hela, the Destroyer, the Absorbing Man, the Wrecking Crew, the Enchantress, Skurge the Executioner. And, of course, he created new characters, notably Malekith (the main villain from the new movie); Kurse (who also appears in The Dark World) and—most famously—Beta Ray Bill. Initially an enemy, Bill proves himself as noble as Thor; gaining similar powers, he becomes a staunch ally.
Simonson’s brilliant work helped show me how science fantasy can succeed; before that, I had been of the opinion that sci-fi and fantasy were oil and water. I also appreciated how Simonson meshed the mythic to the modern, in realistic and believable ways. For example, when Thor leads a group of Asgardian warriors to Earth to fight a demonic invasion, the sword-swinging Einherjar ally themselves with the U.S. Army, who give them M-16s. Vikings on horses, using guns to fight demons? It shouldn’t work, but Simonson makes it work.
Moreover, Simonson invested his characters with real depth: under him, these weren’t just musclebound oafs in silly costumes, but real people. In this great article at Comics Alliance, Chris Sims describes the poignant and heroic sacrifice of Skurge, but that’s not the only instance where Simonson’s characters shine. The aforementioned Beta Ray Bill, Sif, the Warriors Three, Balder the Brave: they’re all fleshed out and vividly portrayed. Even the arch-villain Loki is expanded upon in novel ways, at one point fighting against Surtur alongside Thor and his adopted father Odin—albeit for different reasons.
It was Simonson who gave Thor the beard that he sports in the movies, and created the Casket of Ancient Winters that was also in the first Thor movie. I would be shocked if The Dark World is not similar to Simonson’s story arc about Malekith.
If there’s anyone out there who still sneers at comic books…well, I have no shame in saying that Simonson had a big influence on me. In fact, I admit to stealing his sound effect for thunder (“THOOOOOM!”) and using it in Dragontamer’s Daughters. I still have my copies of his work on The Mighty Thor (though there are some holes in my collection), and I followed his brief but memorable stint on Fantastic Four, as well. Walt Simonson revived and rejuvenated Thor, and his vision continues to this day. You can find a hardcover compilation of his work here.