If I Had A Hammer!: Hero History #1
- Tuesday, March 29, 2011
To enhance your appreciation of the source material for the upcoming film, Thor, we offer this brief "hero history."
After creating the Fantastic Four, Hulk, and Spider-Man, Stan Lee wondered what he could do for an encore. In his breezy chronicle of the time, Origins of Marvel Comics, he writes, "we had painted ourselves into a corner. The only one who could top the heroes we already had would be Super-God." While shying from a concept sure to offend, Lee couldn't shake the idea of some kind of heroic deity. Eventually, he hit on the mythological Norse gods as a source of comic book heroism. Thus came…the mighty Thor!
As scripted by Larry Lieber and drawn by Jack Kirby, Thor's origin story provided him with the basics—a civilian identity in frail Dr. Don Blake, a flashy, caped costume, and a multi-purpose accessory. Batman had his utility belt, Captain America his shield. Thor got the Uru Hammer, a weapon that could not only smash boulders and bring storms but allowed him to fly as well. He'd throw it on its thong, see, and let momentum do the rest. Silly, maybe, but then nobody has ever adequately explained how Superman does it with no visible means of support.
Appearing in Journey Into Mystery #83 (Aug., 1962), the first entry in the series trundled out the tired invaders-from-space threat. After the thunder god got his own title, however, the scripts got better. In an inspired scene, Lee had the red-caped divinity sitting in a soda shop, sipping a shake, surrounded by adoring fans. "Alas, I find I have no earthly coin of the realm upon my person…But if thou wilt permit me to charge yon frothy drink…? When the proprietor says it's on the house, Thor clasps his hand: "So be it! Truly, thy heart is as generous as thy nectar is sweet!" Granted, King James English might sound a tad inappropriate in the word balloon of a Norse god, but Lee plainly reveled in his Shakespearean dialogue.
Then in his prime, artist Jack Kirby made Thor's home, Asgard, into a place of wonder and glory. Set across a shimmering Rainbow Bridge, it was a militant heaven populated by sword-slinging warriors. Among these were the brave Balder and beautiful Sif. Reminiscent of the Three Musketeers were the laughing Warriors Three, including the tubby but valiant Volstagg (an obvious homage to Shakespeare's Falstaff). Slinking in the shadows was Thor's long-horned stepbrother, the villainous Loki. Presiding over all was "the lasting power…the lightning wrath…the living judgment," Thor's father, Odin.
As is often the case in real life, father and son didn't always see eye-to-eye. Headstrong Thor's love for Don Blake's nurse, Jane Foster, forced him into confrontations with his bearded daddy—and ejection from Asgard. (It was Thor's arrogance that had caused Odin to wipe his memory and put him in the body of the feeble physician in the first place.) Eventually, however, Loki would once again show his hand, forcing Thor into epic battle with the likes of the fire demon Surtur and Skagg the Storm Giant. Along the way, the paternal breach would be healed once more. Filled with dynamic, imaginative adventures painted on a cosmic canvas, the Sixties were Thor's best years.
Jack Kirby left the title, and Marvel, in 1970. Lee turned the feature over to a variety of writers and artists, notably Roy Thomas and John Buscema. Thomas integrated a variety of Norse elements, but, by the end of the decade, an industry-wide drop in sales all but forced cancellation of the title. With the Eighties, however, came a new lease on life. Walt Simonson took over as writer-artist, cranking out memorable adventures. In the four years Simonson told the tale, our hero turned into a frog (albeit a heroic frog), lost his hammer to a horse-faced alien named Beta Ray Bill, and, in either the silliest or boldest of moves, took to wearing Clark Kent-style glasses for a disguise. Once again, Thor was exciting and fun to read.
His last twenty years have been checkered. Scribes and artists have come and gone. Aside from growing a beard and donning armor, the character has changed little. Though he's popped up in various animated versions of Marvel heroes, he hasn't exactly taken the wider media by storm—until the announcement, that is, of Kenneth Branagh's film.
Some might ask whether Christians should patronize a deity other than Christ, in this case a Norse god. I think the question would mystify Thor's creator. Stan Lee was looking for a new source of heroic fiction, not trying to revive an ancient cult. His "gods" were part Niebelung, part Shakespeare, part soap opera, with a dash of comedy. No kid I ever knew that read these comics talked about starting the Church of Thor. Idolatry is alive and well, but it's much more subtle than that. No, in Thor, as in any super-hero, there is the greater hope that the fantasy might inspire real-life hammering on evil.
Gary D. Robinson is a preacher, writer, and comics fan in Xenia, OH. He blogs at www.garydrobinson.com
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