Run down an essential reading list for this legendary creator's acclaimed 1980's run with the God of Thunder!
By Kiel Phegley
Quotes from this story come from a previous Marvel.com interview with Walt Simonson
Today, the hammer of Thor may have landed in the hands of a woman ready to make the world shake with the power of the Thunder God, but that doesn’t make the first time the Avenger has seen his mantle passed along.
In fact, throughout Marvel history there one particular wielder of Thor’s power used their skill with the lightning to change the hero’s world forever: writer/artist Walter Simonson.
In a pioneering run during the 1980’s, Simonson reinvented THOR as a comic many times over, welcoming new and exciting—and sometimes strange!—faces to the world of the Odinson, and amping up his villains like never before. Combine that storytelling sensibility with one of the most dynamic and stylized visual imaginations in comics, and Simonson’s 44-issue tenure with the character stands out as one of the greatest achievements in Marvel’s 75 years!
To celebrate, we’re highlighting some of the biggest epic arcs and most stunning single issues from the Simonson era including the birth of Beta Ray Bill, the villainy of Surtur and Kurse, and one Froggy detour, along with the memories of Simonson himself.
THOR #269 – 271
A longtime fan of the character, Simonson seemed a preordained match for Thor. The creator told Marvel.com in 2011 that “I had been a reader of THOR in college. I had read the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby stuff. I had loved it. I had been a Norse mythology fan since I was a kid and was thrilled to discover a comic that was kind of based on Norse mythology—there’s not a one-to-one correspondence, but there’s no reason there should be. I was delighted to find it, and I didn’t care that it wasn’t exactly the myth. For one thing, Thor didn’t have red hair in the comics. I was fine with that.”
Simonson completists and Thor fans alike would do well to take a look at some of his late ‘70’s contributions to the art of the series. He drew a number of issues for writer/editor Len Wein in that era including this blistering, battle-filled three-parter where the Thunder God took on the villainy of A.I. system F.A.U.S.T.
While a god with a hammer versus a computer may seem like an easy fight, the sentient hardware enlisted a number of Marvel heavy-hitters for the battle including dynamically redefined Daredevil villain Stiltman—complete with adamantium armor—and the Negative Zone bruiser Blastaar. Top those battles off with an all-Avengers team-up including appearances by Nick Fury and Captain Marvel, and you’ve got a classic Marvel Universe slugfest made all the better by Simonson’s early experiments in his signature style.
THOR #337 – 340
By the time Simonson took the full time gig as writer and artist of THOR in 1983, the book had lost some of its creative verve. Luckily, legendary editor Mark Gruenwald had just the solution:
“He was very clear that I did not have to follow any of the stories that came before,” Simonson recalls. “Essentially, he gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted to do. So I took over the book as a writer and artist, and, as I said, it was a time when THOR was not selling very well, which wasn’t a bad place to be, because if the book didn’t do well, nobody would have blamed me.”
What came next would be the stuff of Marvel legend. Looking for a way to shake up the series, Simonson lit upon an overlooked piece of the cosmology of the Marvel U and spun it into a whole new kind of Thor story that’s still being used today.
“I tried, in the opening story, to do something that had not been done before in the series,” Simonson says. “In the course of that thinking, I decided, looking over the Thor stories they had done up to that point, I thought about the idea that up to that time, Thor had his magic hammer Mjolnir, and the enchantment essentially said, ‘Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.’ Up to that point in the comic, nobody else had actually held the hammer; I thought it would make an interesting story to create a new character, because the existing characters probably couldn’t do it—nobody had really tried, but they were all around—but I would create a new character who would be designed to be able to pick up the hammer. And that would mean he would be able to possess the power of Thor. And that was the character I ended up naming Beta Ray Bill.”
The horse-looking alien warrior proved just the shot in the arm the book needed. And over the first four issues, the hero brought some much needed muscle to THOR as he first assumed the power of the god before teaming up with him to battle demons from the underworld, truly proving his mettle.
“When I created Beta Ray Bill he was created with a history that I felt would give him the qualities needed to pick up the hammer,” explains Simonson. “He would be worthy, but he would also be a warrior; he would have need of that kind of power.”
THOR #350 – 353
Simonson made more early moves besides bringing new faces to the table. The creator reached far and wide into Thor’s Norse roots in order to build up both the heroes and villains of the book in new and exciting ways.
“Thor had a rather large supporting cast of both good guys and bad guys,” he says. “He had the whole town of Asgard, he had his pal Balder, he had the Warriors Three, he had his father, he had Sif, he had a bunch of mortals floating around. He had bad guys like the trolls, Surtur and so on.”
That last villain would make one of the biggest impressions on fans early in Simonson’s second year on the book. In “The Surtur Saga,” the wicked King of the Fire Giants forged the massive Twilight Sword in order to threaten all the nine realms. The villain’s coming had been teased from the very first pages of Simonson’s first issue as the sound of “DOOM!” clanged off Surtur’s fiery anvil—lettered with remarkable style by John Workman—but the final battle proved a four-part story that brought all the forces of Asgard to the fore as Thor, Odin, Balder the Brave and more combined their forces to fight off Surtur. Even the mischievous Loki joined with his brother to stop the threat, though as Simonson’’ stories reminded us again and again, the villain’s turn towards good would prove much more a selfish act than a selfless one.
Simonson excelled at more character-focused stories too. Even though the one-shot issue “The Icy Hearts” had its fill of godly battles, the tale delved deep into the roots of Thor’s family and added as much personal drama to the action as possible. The issue also stands out as the welcoming party for artist Sal Buscema who would collaborate with Simonson on the rest of his run.
“Sal was an old pro, and he did a wonderful job,” Simonson notes. “Sal was a wonderful storyteller. He still is a wonderful storyteller. But he really understood pacing and which shots to choose, so actually writing a script over his artwork; it was like butter.
“Writing over his pencils, it almost wrote itself. It was incredibly easy. I had a great time working with Sal. I loved working with him.”
Fans of Thor on film can’t miss this brutally satisfying issue that introduced the villain Kurse into the series. Twisted by Malekith the Accursed from a typical Dark Elf and into a monster of a foe, Kurse represents everything that works about Simonson’s run on the book. He’s an evolution of a piece of the Thor mythology, a bone-crushing character whose appearance automatically ups the action quotient of the issue and a design that stands out as both ornate and yet strikingly memorable.
THOR #364 – 366
Perhaps the most memorable of all Simonson’s THOR stories would also be the most bizarre one in his entire run: the introduction of The Thunder Frog!
A plot by Loki to undermine the power of Thor turned the hammer wielder into a common amphibian. But the story that followed would be anything but common, turning from silly to serious with each new issue.
“I parodied my own work with two issues where Thor was a frog,” Simonson explains. “It was two things. One, it was an homage to Carl Barks, whose work I’m a huge fan of, with his Donald Duck comics and Uncle Scrooge. And also it was a parody of my own stuff. It’s a heroic quest with frogs doing the heroic questing. It was also a tip of the hat to Steve Ditko, because there’s one scene where the Thor frog has to lift the hammer, but of course he’s only about as big as the underside of the hammer, so if you go back and look at his dialogue or thought balloons whenever he’s lifting the hammer, I shamelessly swiped from that wonderful scene that Stan wrote where Spider-Man is lifting this giant piece of machinery where the Master Planner has him pinned in this underwater base that’s about to collapse. It was my tip of the hat to that.”
Simonson refused to slow down as he neared the end of his time on THOR. Returning to the book as penciler, he detailed the widescreen story known as “Mjolnir’s Song” to much acclaim. Taking its cues from the Norse legend of Ragnarok, the issue details a battle between Thor and Jormungand, the World Serpent; this behemoth of a Midgard lizard supposedly holds the destiny to kill Thor with its dying breath, but for 22 pages, Simonson showed why the Thunder God will live forever in a tale told entirely in full splash pages. From the fiery inferno created as Jormungand towers over our hero to the teeth-shattering victory blow Thor strikes with Mjolnir, the story displays all-out action as only Simonson can draw it.
Read more THOR on Marvel Unlimited and visit marvel.com/75 to continue Marvel’s 75th anniversary celebration!