Welcome to Marvel Librarian. Having missed out on comics in my formative years, I’m reading Silver Age Marvel comics for the first time, and writing about their highs, lows, and general weirdness.
This week, we have yet another big superhero debut. Journey into Mystery was another one of Marvel’s anthology titles, very similar to Amazing Adult Fantasy (although, for my money, it had the best title of any of them). Marvel’s superheroes were selling much better than the anthology books, thanks to titles like Fantastic Four, and so at this point the team was gradually transitioning all of those titles to superhero ones by introducing recurring superhero features as the A-stories.
So here we have the mighty Thor, a superhero I knew next to nothing about ten years ago, who then became my favorite Avenger. Yes, I’m even a Dark World apologist. It is nowhere near the worst MCU movie.
I think a lot of nerdy kids go through a phase where they’re really into mythology. It often coincides with the time in one’s life where you realize that the fairy tales and folklore you knew as a kid are actually full of violence and sex and your twelve-year-old brain thinks that’s super adult and interesting. Greek mythology was my favorite, but Norse mythology was close behind. So Thor being my favorite Avenger these days is no real surprise: child me would have found this splash page awesome.
It’s a common take that superheroes fill the role of mythology for modern day culture. I don’t actually entirely agree with that take and largely won’t be getting into that here. What I would argue, though, is that for children reading this material, they are very, very similar: larger than life figures with fantastic powers, stories that differ slightly in every telling, tales of justice and revenge and war, and of course, large amounts of material to absorb and memorize. Pulling concepts from mythology in a more direct fashion to fuel this superhero tales is an obvious idea, one that had been employed well before the debut of Thor. Indeed, in the very anthology books which were on the way out at Marvel, many of the stories were lightly retold versions of folklore and mythological tales.
This splash page, awesome as it is, also introduces one of the weaker concepts of early Thor: the fact that he had a dual identity as timid physician Donald Blake. We’ll be discussing that quite a bit as we dig into future Thor issues.
Thor’s first outing doesn’t pit him against Loki or anything else from Norse mythology, even on a surface level. Instead, we have Stone Men from Saturn. Like the Mole Man in the first issue of Fantastic Four, it’s clearly a case of taking a concept that would have been a sci-fi anthology tale a year or two ago and adapting it to fit the new superhero mold.
Donald Blake overhears an old fisherman claiming he saw these aliens. Deciding that the fisherman doesn’t seem mad, he goes to investigate himself. He finds the Stone Men, and is forced to flee when the hostile aliens spot him.
Running from the aliens, Donald hides in a cave. He dares not leave the way he came, lest the aliens find him, and he can’t move the boulder that blocks the other exit. Exploring in desperation, he finds a secret passage that contains nothing but an old wooden cane. He uses the wooden cane as a lever to try to move the boulder, to no avail. Frustrated, he strikes the cane against the rock…
…and undergoes a startling transformation! Kirby does some really striking, colorful panels for the character’s transformation that I just love.
Here’s the first appearance of Mjolnir’s famous inscription. It looks a little odd when it’s written in comic lettering, considering it’s supposedly inscribed in metal.
One thing I found kind of interesting about early Thor compared to, say, the MCU incarnation, is that the concept of being worthy of the hammer isn’t really explored in this first issue. In later Thor media, much is made of who is worthy of Mjolnir, and there are times when Thor loses the hammer due to not being worthy, or other characters being able to take up the mantle because they are.
Here, we see the inscription, but it isn’t at all made clear right away what exactly makes Donald worthy. Up until this point, all we know about him is that he’s a physically weak doctor on vacation, and the only thing he has done is investigate a story about aliens and then run and hide. Later issues seemingly try to rectify this by showing how Donald Blake is heroic in his own right, but we don’t really see that here.
This is just pure power fantasy, and it’s pretty glorious. He looks so joyous to come into this power.
You might be wondering here – what does it mean that Donald Blake is Thor? Does it mean he has the power and physical form of Thor, or does it mean he’s literally the mythological thunder god somehow incarnated into a human, or something else? The answer is whatever the comic’s writers felt like for that particular story. It fluctuates a lot, sometimes even having both concepts in the same story.
In this original story, Donald seemingly has no memories or knowledge from Thor’s life, something that would not be the case later on. After lifting the boulder with ease and freeing himself from the cave, he understandably decides, “holy crap, all of that was crazy, I’m just going to sit and think about everything I know about Thor from grade school.”
When he sets Mjolnir down, he discovers this significant limitation of his power. This is obviously introduced as a way to limit Thor’s massive power levels and to add drama to stories. It was later dropped, and the question of how to limit Thor’s power became less important once many cosmic threats were established with equal or greater power.
Two pages’ worth of panels are devoted just to explaining Thor’s various powers, and how he can transform back and forth from Thor to Donald Blake.
If you’ve forgotten all about the original plot with the attacking Stone Men from Saturn, don’t worry, so did Thor. While he’s testing out his new powers, the Stone Men have started attacking. They’re using jets that can deflect all missiles and project big scary holograms. The latter is a great excuse for Kirby to draw a big scary monster.
When I discussed the original Incredible Hulk issues, I talked about the fact that the Hulk is shown clearly flying in various panels while the dialogue describes him leaping, possible evidence of a conflict between Lee and Kirby. Here, possibly to stave off this issue, they clearly show and describe how Thor is able to fly with the aid of his hammer. It breaks the laws of physics and doesn’t make any more sense than “Thor can fly because he’s a god” would, but I can appreciate that it’s a distinctive visual.
Thor fights the Stone Men, and he beats them almost immediately with no effort on his part. There’s no real conflict in this issue – it’s all just a thin excuse to introduce the new character and give the reader the raw power fantasy of becoming a living god.
As the Stone Men fly away, vanquished, and the military approaches, Thor reverts to the form of Donald Blake in order to evade their notice, because he doesn’t want them to try to capture and study him as a curiosity. That makes a certain amount of sense, except that in just a few issues he’s acting freely in public as Thor – even making visits to children’s hospitals! – so it’s not like he’s really committed to keeping Thor’s existence a secret.
It’s also not entirely clear why he would go back to Donald Blake’s life instead of living as Thor basically full time except when he needs to disguise himself. This is something that later issues will struggle with reconciling.
The last image is basically the same message we saw in Amazing Fantasy #15, the one that said that Spider-Man would become a regular feature in the book, except this time they’re actually being honest about it. Journey into Mystery will continue from this point as a partial anthology book with a Thor story headlining each issue.
That’s where the Marvel Unlimited version of this issue ends. The Thor story is thirteen pages long, so it’s missing about half of the book. The other half presumably consisted of Marvel anthology tales of aliens and monsters.
Also, they misspelled Thor.
This first Thor story is fairly rote, and would be long-forgotten if it weren’t the beginnings of a beloved character. The exciting transformation sequence is really the only portion of note. Unlike Spider-Man, who is close to fully-formed right out of the gate, Thor is a character that takes a while for the Marvel bullpen to figure out.
So now we’ve established Thor, a new superhero who draws from Norse mythology for inspiration. Who will be his next threat? Loki? Another figure from mythology?
Well, you see, it’s 1963, so let’s have Thor fight a South American communist regime.
This issue introduces my least favorite plot line in these Thor books. Dr. Donald Blake loves his nurse Jane, but he dare not tell her, not because he’s his boss and he has power over her and that’s potentially very creepy, but because he thinks Jane would never marry a lame man. (Later, other artificial obstacles are set between the two.)
On the other hand, Jane does love Donald and is frustrated that he never says anything. Her situation definitely has retrograde undertones that the only reason Jane would be working this job is because she hopes to marry a doctor.
Anyway, there’s a big news story in the papers about a war in the fictional South American country of San Diablo, between “democratic” and “pro-communist” factions. The pro-communist faction is led by a man called the Executioner because Marvel comics have very subtle politics. Donald and Jane join a boat of medical personnel headed to the country to provide medical relief to the civilians.
The Executioner sends his fighter jets to destroy the unarmed medical charity ship because he’s Evil, so Donald Blake ducks away and turns into Thor to defeat them. We have many panels of Thor smashing the jets. In every instance the pilots are able to parachute away because we wouldn’t want an ancient Norse god to kill men in battle or anything.
Jane is dazzled by Thor’s looks because of course she needs to love both Donald and Thor for maximum tedious romantic plotline.
The Executioner, sitting around eating his customary giant novelty turkey leg, is furious that his men failed to take down an unarmed ship with four fighter jets and that their only excuse is “a mythological god appeared from nowhere.” His underling begs for mercy. My man, you signed up to work for “The Executioner,” you probably knew how this was going to end.
Traveling through the mountain pass to reach the village, the group of doctors encounters enemy snipers, which Thor takes out with a carefully targeted thunderstorm. Their next obstacle is tanks – yes, the Executioner sends tanks out against a small group of maybe two dozen unarmed medical personnel. That seems insane, but to be fair, he has no idea how they managed to defeat his fighter jets and snipers, so maybe this is a more reasonable escalation than I’m giving him credit for.
Thor easily destroys those tanks as well, but not before the communists capture Jane, because of course they do.
Thor is forced to turn back lest they threaten Jane’s life. He then purposefully gets himself captured as Donald Blake in order to get inside their base. There’s a momentary bit of drama where the Executioner takes Donald’s cane – Mjolnir in disguise – and threatens to shoot him unless Jane marries him, because of course we’re getting that trope. Donald tricks the Executioner into getting closer, grabs the cane back, and bloodlessly lays waste to the camp. The democratic faction shows up at the same time and attacks.
The Executioner tries to escape with giant sacks of gold, causing his men to realize they’ve been betrayed and turn on him. This panel is… uh. Quite an artifact of America’s perception of foreign relations in the 60s, isn’t it? It’s a good thing the Americans have never plunged any countries into war.
I wonder if they’re explicitly going for a Lois Lane / Clark Kent kind of dynamic here. After all, those were some of the best-selling comic books of the day. Scenes like this, where Jane pines after Thor and wishes the man she works with were more like him, definitely make me think of it. One difference is that Jane is never prying into Thor’s secret identity, because no one apart from the Asgardians actually realizes that Thor has a secret identity.
These first two Thor stories are pretty weak, honestly, but the idea is a solid one, and we’ll see it become better developed as we go along.
Next time! Ant-Man becomes a more traditional superhero.