I didn’t grow up reading comics. I didn’t know much about superheroes. My biggest introduction to any superhero was in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films, which came out when I was a teenager. His Spider-Man 2 is still one of my favorite superhero movies; I watch it all the time. Then came Christopher Nolan’s Batman series; Batman Begins is another of the greats for me. While other superhero movies are brash and entertaining in theaters, these two series feel rewatchable because they are so character-driven. They focus on that inner conflict heroes face when they lead normal lives by day and fight crime at night. Leading a double life — and then not being able to tell anyone about it — is a tough gig.
Thor was one of the flock of “other” superheroes who passed me by. I barely knew the character existed until the 2011 movie came out. The films reveal a fun mix of Norse mythology and science, as the god Thor leaves Asgard for Earth and falls in love with an astrophysicist, and all that made me want to learn more about the comic book character. After some research, it seemed the best place to start was with Walter Simonson’s legendary run of the series back in the 1980’s.
This run stirs up all sorts of elements in a perfect blend. There’s humor, as when Asgardians take leave in New York City and marvel at the cookware in the “meadhall” called Macy’s Department Store. There are quiet moments of Thor maturing, such as when he recovers from injuries and grief as his grandfather’s home. There are subplots with love potions, Loki’s scheming, and the great Asgardian hero Balder. There are epic fights; the biggest I’ve read so far has been a showdown between the the Asgardians and the Frost Giants in New York, a battle commanded by the honorable alien Beta Ray Bill. And through all of this action, there’s the mysterious threat of a fiery enemy forging a great weapon, the word “DOOM” threatening the reader with what’s to come.
Walter Simonson’s run is collected in five volumes called Thor Visionaries. I’m currently reading the third volume, so I have yet to see things like Thor turning into the Frog of Thunder. (I can’t wait for that.) But already I love this run and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to explore Thor’s mythology for the first time.
In vol. 1, the greatest story is Thor meeting Beta Ray Bill. His story is the first in Simonson’s run, so really my initial introduction to Thor comics was all about Bill. The story begins when S.H.I.E.L.D. asks Thor to investigate an alien ship, which he believes to be a warship on inspection. But Beta Ray Bill, a horse-like alien, is guarding the ship from inside. He and Thor have a fierce battle over it.
On its own, this isn’t all that interesting — until Bill picks up Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. This just hasn’t happened before. Only those worthy to wield the power of Thor can pick up the hammer, and the fact that Bill wields it instantly elevates him to more than some forgettable alien villain.
After Bill beats Thor, he is able to journey to Asgard and tell his story. It turns out Bill’s race, the Korbinites, is nearly extinct, and the last of his people are inside a fleet of warships. It’s Bill’s job to protect them, along with his sentient ship Skuttlebutt. The reason for Bill’s appearance is a scientific process that gave him the abilities of a wild beast, making him better able to protect his people.
Odin decides that Thor and Bill should battle for Mjolnir. During the battle, Bill is able to scrape to a win over Thor, but he chooses not to kill Thor. Impressed, Odin decides to forge Bill his very own weapon, called Stormbreaker; it has the same powers as Thor’s hammer. From then on, Beta Ray Bill can strike Stormbreaker on the ground to return to his original Korbinite form. On top of all that, Sif — my favorite character in the series, a mighty warrior and Thor’s old flame — falls in love with Bill and decides to accompany him when he leaves Asgard.
Beta Ray Bill makes other appearances in the series, joining the Asgardians when they need aid. In fact, the second volume of Thor Visionaries shows his most epic return in the Asgardians’ fight against Frost Giants. Thor is needed in Asgard, so he names Beta Ray Bill commander of the Asgardian forces fighting in New York. After all, with Stormbreaker, Bill has all the powers of Thor, and he has already deemed himself an honorable friend of Asgard. The warriors who don’t know Bill are quick to judge him as an outsider, but Bill wins them all over in the end. There’s one interesting moment when the Asgardian warriors want to rush to attack an overwhelming enemy force, but Bill chooses a careful infiltration instead. It’s not exactly the Asgardian way to sneak around the back, but Bill’s intelligence wins the battle.
I also love Thor Visionaries for its small moments. For instance, early in Simonson’s run is a brief nod to Superman. First, Thor takes human form and adopts glasses for his new secret identity: a construction worker called Sigurd Jarlson. But the spectacles aren’t enough — he actually has to bump into Superman:
The first volumes also contain quite a few heroic moments that shed light on Norse mythology. You can tell Simonson loves the legends surrounding Thor and what Asgardian culture would be like. For instance, there’s a brief story involving Thor meeting a very old, weakened warrior whose only wish is to die in battle so he can go to Valhalla. And so Thor takes him to battle in New York against the dragon Fafnir, during which the old warrior gathers all his strength to save Thor’s life and dies a hero. It’s a small, moving moment, and in many ways forgettable — but these are the little touches that give this run of Thor so much depth.
To be honest, Thor shouldn’t be my favorite superhero. I like superheroes who struggle with their secret identities, who do good deeds with no attention or reward for their everyday selves. I love Captain America for being someone who spent his life weak and beat up, and because of those experiences understands humility after he gains superpowers. Thor, an impatient royal and a warrior who wields a magical weapon that gives him incredible power, isn’t the easiest to relate to at first glance.
But Simonson’s run of Thor seems to highlight all of the attributes that make this superhero feel so human. He’s courageous, but he also has moments of weakness. He whines. He grieves. Other times, he’s gracious even when he doesn’t get what he wants. He loses people he loves, he helps others, he has to make difficult choices when others’ lives are at stake. These are all things to which we can relate as people, and they’re what make Thor so lovable in the long run.
7 thoughts on “Exploring Thor Comics: Walter Simonson’s Run (“Thor Visionaries”)”
I didn’t grow up reading comics either. I watched a ton of Batman cartoons and all of the movies. I also liked Smallville and the Superman movies later on. The Spiderman and X-Men movies were pretty good too. All of those Marvel movies were also first introductions to the characters for me.
It sounds like the Thor comics would be fun to read! If I were to read up on any of the Marvel characters’ comics, his would definitely be the one. I might read them someday, but the next comic series I’m reading is Fables. I was supposed to get the first volume/compendium for my birthday, but it’s backordered.
Ooh I’m also going to read Fables soon. Someone lent me a copy of the fourth volume a couple of months ago, and I feel bad I haven’t returned it yet as I still need to finish the first three! Actually, I have a very long comics list to read through this year…
I definitely recommend this run of Thor if you do decide to read some of his comics. Also, let me know how you like Fables. We’ll have to compare notes! =)
After taking a few years off from reading comics I have wanted to jump back in for quite awhile, but haven’t had the time. This past week I was able to take the plunge and have been having a blast reading while just laying in bed. I’ve been reading the Superior Spider-Man and its awesome. I have also reopened my Marvel Unlimited subscription (great service for anyone at all interested in reading comics) and have added dozens of issues to my library. I haven’t read any individual Thor stories, i’ve only experienced him when partnered with another. I’ll have to make sure to add some Thor to my reading list.
Very happy to be reading comics again.
That is awesome. I haven’t heard of the Marvel Unlimited subscription… I’ll have to check that out. I have to say, these Thor comics are exceeding my expectations. They feel a little old-fashioned (the art style, I guess), but the stories are really exciting and sometimes get kind of emotional.
What comics do you like? I’m always interested in recommendations if you have any!
I definitely recommend Superior Spider-Man and a good hardcover collection of its early issues (although Unlimited has the issues as well) is this volume here which collects that last issues of Amazing Spider-Man #698-700 and the first 5 issues of Superior Spider-Man.
Superior is the current main story arc for the character and is a terrific look into the last battle between Peter Parker and Doc Ock and the cool twist that comes from that changing both of their lives forever. As a fan of Spider-Man but never really being a big fan of Peter Parker’s character, the last few issues of Amazing collected here are very well done and emotionally very gripping. The aftermath in Superior and its continuing story is very exciting as well.
Some other stories I have enjoyed are the initial run of the Runaways and of course collections such as Watchmen and Walking Dead. And although I haven’t read them, I have heard nothing but great things about Ed Brubakers Gotham Central and Brian Bendis’s work on Daredevil. I will be checking out both soon.
And Marvel Unlimited is a $10 a month service that allows you to read thousands of comics whenever you want on the PC, Phone or Tablet. They add new issues every week and so there are entire runs of stories to read such as hundreds of Thor’s, Deadpools, Avengers, X-Men and so on. Great way to catch up.
Nice post. I have been searching for a sort of jumping off point to get into Thor comics for some time now. It sounds like this would be a great place to start.
As for some comic recommendations, I would suggest Saga. A wonderful sci-fi series that currently has two trade paperbacks, this comic is well illustrated and has a nice blend of high technology and magic.
Thanks for the recommendation! I actually already read Saga — Stephen Rhodes over at the Rhodes Review mentioned it a few months ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I agree that it is a great blend of technology and magic, I love the worldbuilding and characters!
Yeah, I think this is the best place to get started with Thor comics. Though I’ve heard that because it’s the best, none of the other Thor comics afterwards quite compare… =)