Late to the Party: Thor by Walt Simonson

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. Our focus this week is on Walt Simonson’s seminal run on the Thor comic series, consisting of the following issues: Thor #337-355, #357-369, #371-382; Balder the Brave #1-4.

History

In January 1978, Jim Shooter became Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics and held a stewardship over the line that would last nine years. During that time, Stan Lee moved to Hollywood to focus on selling Marvel IP for film and TV adaptations. The result was that Shooter had a tighter control over the direction of the comics than any other individual since Lee before him. Shooter’s tenure was a controversial period that had many staff accuse him of running the bullpen like a dictatorship. However, it was also a fruitful era that produced legendary runs such as Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men, Roger Stern and John Romita Jr.’s Amazing Spider-Man, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and Walt Simonson’s Thor. The latter run by the writer/artist combo of Walt Simonson – with the last stretch illustrated by Sal Buscema – will be the focus of today’s entry.

Personal Background

I grew up as a 90s kid with my primary purchases going towards the likes of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Ravage 2099 comics. Being a collector during the Age of Excess meant that I wouldn’t come to appreciate these seminal 80s runs until much later on. Over the years, I’ve worked my way through almost all of the major ones listed above and have appreciated some more than others. Frank Miller’s Daredevil, for example, was kind of an odd read in succession with his more modernized returns to the character in the Born Again and Man Without Fear storylines. It still had its obvious merits and is the foundational text for a reason, though it wouldn’t be the first book I’d recommend for a new reader. I’ve felt the same way about Chris Claremont’s verbose work on X-Men, though I still need to give it more of a shot. The only complete home run would be Roger Stern’s Spider-man, but that may be due to my affinity for the character in general.

When it comes to Thor, I had a blindspot for the longest time before he really entered the mainstream. The Avengers felt rather C-list compared to the likes of the X-Men and the FF as I was growing up and I didn’t give them an earnest shot until Brian Michael Bendis disassembled them. Thor, in particular, was such an odd IP that Marvel didn’t know how to market him anymore and the character sat dormant for several years. It wasn’t until John Michael Stracyznski revitalized the property in 2007 that I started on the series and more or less have followed it in all incarnations since then. In all of my reading though, there’s always been the feeling that I’ve been missing something from having not read the foundational text akin to Miller’s DD or Claremont’s X-Men. That was when I started to hear about Walt Simonson.

Probably the most famous Thor panel in comics history. (Thor #353)

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read a real Walt Simonson comic over my many years of collecting, aside from the odd fill-in spot on New Avengers or whatever. His idiosyncratic, angular style is immediately apparent. I also had this sense from reading later runs such as Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery, Jason Aaron’s Thor, and even the MCU Thor films and getting the sense that I was missing something without having read Simonson’s foundation that they were all clearly borrowing from. It was like reading the Daredevil runs by Bendis and Ed Brubaker without understanding why they spent so much time on Gladiator before realizing they were chewing from the same apple as Miller, but this time with Surtur of Muspelheim.

Analysis: The Known Unknowns

Every seminal classic comes with baggage in terms of the reputation and cultural knowledge that comes with it. I’ll start by naming the basic things I knew about this run from pure fandom osmosis:

  • The Surtur Saga (see famous panel above)
  • Beta Ray Bill makes his first appearance
  • Thor turns into a frog
  • Skurge has his last stand

Having now read the full run, I can certainly agree that these are the highlights. Simonson hits the ground running with his first issue, which introduces Beta Ray Bill as an alien humanoid who is just as noble and true as Thor himself. Bill is essentially a hoot. He’s a ridiculous looking horseman alien who even Odin thinks is so great that he builds him a second hammer and puts him on equal footing with his own son.

Basically any issue with Beta Ray Bill is a good issue (Thor #349)

I knew that the Surtur Saga was the crown jewel of Simonson’s run, but like a lot of classic runs the actual placement of that story is not always what you expect. Reading modern comics has gotten us so used to stories with a defined beginning and end that it’s easy to forget how older comics didn’t have the novel-like structure that today’s Hickmans or Morrisons will plan out. Simonson’s run starts out ambitiously as it spends a year and a half building up to this epic war between the Asgardians and Surtur’s forces. This story very much delivers on all fronts, but creates a problem when you collect all of Simonson’s issues as one complete package: it is the inarguable climax but takes place only 1/3 of the way into the entire run. I had went into these issues expecting the entire run to build up to the battle with Surtur, but instead it happens 16 chapters in and then you’re left with 27 more that are basically an extended denouement.

I can’t mention the Surtur Saga without mentioning how much the glorious sound effect inserts add to Simonson’s already kinetic storytelling (Thor #353)

Keep in mind, for a while it remains uproariously entertaining as Simonson deals with the odds and ends related to the fallout of losing both Surtur and Odin in the large scale battle. One of these memorable moments is when the Asgardians travel into Hel to essentially complete a side quest and Skurge has his big moment that’s overshadowed the character’s presence in every appearance since then. The most entertaining story, of course, has to be the one where Thor becomes a frog. Let’s get into it.

What did I just read? (Thor #365)

Somehow, even knowing that this story existed did not prepare me for how weird it truly is. First of all, it improbably gets its own 3-issue arc in which Loki casts a spell to keep Thor occupied while the next ruler of Asgard is selected. Not only that, but the first two issues have almost nothing to do with Asgard and instead focus on Thor resolving an ongoing conflict between the frogs and rats of Central Park by recruiting the NYC sewer alligators of urban legend. Basically, the entire IP of Mouse Guard could not exist without this comic.

Soon after this story, Simonson remains on as writer while previous fill-in Sal Buscema takes over art duties. Sal Buscema is a fine artist who I really enjoyed on his later Spectacular Spider-Man run. He basically does a competent job here, but I’m afraid to admit that the rest of the series after this was a slog for me to get through. The main problem is that the special sauce of the comic is definitely the weird creative spark that Simonson has when he’s writing and drawing on his own. Even in the earlier issues, it was clear that Simonson the Writer’s weaknesses were being shored up by Simonson the Artist. The characters across all these stories feel a little flat. Thor himself is kind of an honorable and good-natured cypher. There are a few melodramatic romantic subplots that simultaneously get too much attention but also not enough attention to really matter. Even Beta Ray Bill – the character who sold me on this series – quickly ends up in a plot loop without a character arc in which he’s repeatedly caught in a halfhearted love triangle with Sif and Thor while also getting summoned back to his people for vague reasons. The only character I felt any sort of affinity for was Volstagg, whose adoption of two orphaned humans was one of the few times I felt invested during the Buscema issues.

This heartwarming scene takes place during a Mutant Massacre tie-in for no reason except that Walt’s wife Louise happened to be writing X-Factor at the time. (Thor #374)

Team Zissou’s Soapbox: Lettering and Storytelling

If you’ll allow me to get on my soapbox for a bit, I can elaborate on something that bothered me and distracted me at times when I struggled to engage with these issues. I’m no Scott McCloud, but I’ll do my best to explain why storytelling conventions matter in comics. I’ll start with an example:

Note the balloon placements for now. Seems normal, right? (Thor #348)

Now let’s try that again, but with lines directing the reader’s eye…

Please don’t tell anyone this is what I do in my spare time. (Still Thor #348)

Most Western comics follow the convention that both the pages and panels are meant to be read from left to right, top to bottom. What happens often in these particular issues is that they use word balloons overlapping with panel separations to indicate which panel should be read last. This works out fine in the top row of images but creates confusion in the bottom row. Looking at the bottom left panel, it takes a moment to place the 3 panels in a continuity and understand that you’re meant to read it from top to bottom and then to the right. The final panel is the most perplexing as it doesn’t given you any guidelines and only becomes clear if you try to read it from left to right and realize that Thor is responding to a question he hasn’t been asked yet. It is unclear whether these balloon placement decisions are made by Simonson or the letterer, John Workman, but it is possibly a combination of both as the two have collaborated many times together. The strange flow persists even in the issues not drawn by Simonson.

Try and make sense of these word balloons. I dare you! (Thor #382)

None of these are odd-flowing panels were dealbreakers, of course, but ended up keeping me at a distance from the series when I was already having trouble getting on its wavelength for storytelling reasons and I had to start and stop many times just to reorient myself. It reminded me of a similar problem I have with Bendis comics where dialogue scenes are printed as double-paged spreads and it’s hard to tell if you’re supposed to track the panels across the page barrier. He’s said that he does that to avoid disruptions from ads, but the solution only creates more confusion. The key point is that the best comics keep the reader’s experience in mind for pacing and storytelling reasons. If you’re going to break rules, then it must serve the story. The best comics teach you how you should be reading them.

Conclusion

Although there was still a lot to love, I didn’t end up enjoying these comics nearly as much as I’d hoped. It felt like one of those cases where becoming too familiar with the imitators led me to find the source material to be kind of underwhelming. Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery and Jason Aaron’s multi-year Thor epic have become some of my favorite Big Two runs in recent years and somehow detracted from my enjoyment of Simonson’s fresh ideas. Amongst the many 80s Marvel runs I’ve read in recent years, I would sadly rank this one below the heavyweights I mentioned in my introduction.

Odds and Ends

  • This whole run feels like one extended Surtur Saga, but the last significant arc can stand on its own as the conflict between Thor and Hela. There’s a neat hook where Thor can’t heal from injuries or die anymore. It’s introduced very awkwardly though. An issue in the middle of the run has Thor scarred by Hela in vague but grave-sounding terms as he wears a face cover for some time before covering the injury with a beard(?). Eventually, it’s stated that the injury was this curse instead. I think I missed something here…
  • I didn’t have space for it here, but Simonson returns on art duties for one issue only to do layouts and it’s truly a spectacle that stands out during the sleepy last stretch. Every page is a single panel spread depicting a moment in Thor’s battle with the Midgard serpent.
  • Speaking of Midgard: most classic comics devote a lot of space catching up readers by having superheroes awkwardly explain their own powers at the start of every issue. In this very context-heavy series though, it’s hilarious that the majority of recurring footnotes are used to explain that Midgard is a synonym for Earth.
  • A Note about Reading Format: I have to confess that a big challenge for me was reading this series digitally at a time when my eyes were really starting to suffer from the overwhelming amount of screen time I’ve recently been getting from working at home during the pandemic. I usually don’t have any issue with reading digital comics, but these are unusual times. About halfway through these volumes, I started to regret overcommitting myself to finishing these out. If anything, it made me value print more than ever and I don’t think I’ll ever make the full move to go digital-only in this hobby.