The Mighty Thor Omnibus, Volume 1, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – As I’ve become somewhat more interested in comics recently and I’ve been interested in mythology for a long time, I thought I should check out some of these early Thor stories. Making a classical god into a twentieth-century superhero was an interesting idea, although the way it worked was a little confusing. Basically, the lame physician Dr. Donald Blake is on vacation in Norway when he finds Thor’s hammer in disguise as a walking stick. Tapping it on the ground turns him into the god, although if he’s without it for more than sixty seconds he turns back into the rather frail Dr. Blake.
He actually uses this to his advantage occasionally, because when villains tie up the huge, muscular Thor, Blake can easily escape the bonds. But are Blake and Thor the same person or two different ones? Obviously Thor existed long before Blake did, and when the doctor first encounters Loki, he only seems to know the trickster god from the myths themselves. Later, however, Blake recognizes other inhabitants of Asgard. I guess it takes a little while for him to regain his memories. I believe the eventual explanation was that Odin placed Thor’s spirit in Blake’s body in order to teach him humility, but this isn’t mentioned in these early comics. It’s not too surprising that the 2011 Thor movie (I haven’t seen the sequel yet), while it does include a nod to the name Donald Blake, basically left out this aspect altogether. Of course, superheroes being physically weak before gaining their powers (or in cases like Superman having to feign weakness in order to avoid suspicion) is a staple of the genre. So is heroes getting new powers whenever they need them, although I guess this makes sense for a god. Not only can Thor throw his hammer out into deep space (from which it always comes back), but he can use it to drag himself through the air, control the weather, and even travel through time. There’s also a sort of love triangle that isn’t really a triangle based pretty blatantly on that of Superman and Lois Lane. Blake has a thing for his nurse Jane Foster, and while she has feelings for him as well, she thinks he’s too timid and wishes he were more like Thor. And he can’t just reveal his secret identity because Odin has expressly forbidden it. Jane is such a stereotypical girly girl here that it’s just ridiculous.
Thor fights a variety of foes, starting with the Stone Men from Saturn.
I’m not exactly sure how people made of stone can live on a gas giant, but maybe they’re actually from Titan and just SAY they’re from Saturn; the outer planets probably have their suburbanites as well. Loki soon emerges as Thor’s main antagonist, sometimes fighting Thor directly and other times tricking other gods or granting powers to mortals so they can battle in his stead. How little back story some of the bad guys have is a little disappointing. The Absorbing Man is presented as one of the most formidable of these early foes, but he’s just some random criminal who was granted supernatural powers by Loki. From what I understand, many of the early Marvel villains seemed to have no particular motivation beyond robbing banks and getting revenge. Since it’s the sixties, the thunder god also occasionally fights communists.
The dynamic between Thor, Loki, and Odin is altered somewhat from the source material by making the trickster Thor’s adopted brother rather than Odin’s blood brother. Loki’s status is a bit inconsistent, as sometimes he’s chained up, but other times freely able to come and go from Valhalla. It seems to repeatedly be the case that Odin doesn’t want to think badly of Loki, despite all the bad stuff he’s done in the past. I’m not really sure why Loki is a skinny guy in green; I guess he’s kind of a Robin Goodfellow sort in his appearance.
Of course, Marvel also gave Thor blond hair and no beard, and Odin two functional eyes. Other members of the Norse pantheon show up on occasion, as do other residents of Asgard invented for the comics. The short Tales of Asgard stories go some way toward reconciling the classic myths with more modern concepts. There’s a version of the creation myth that accounts for a round Earth revolving around the Sun. Loki’s attempt to kill Balder with mistletoe is also acknowledged, although here it’s unsuccessful, meaning Balder can appear occasionally in the modern day. The final story in the volume has Thor visiting Olympus and fighting Hercules. The two are evenly matched, and only stop fighting when Zeus makes them.
One of my favorite pictures in the volume was this overview of Asgard, which really comes across as more of a futuristic theme park than the collection of sprawling estates I imagined from the myths.
Come to think of it, IS there a theme park based on Norse mythology? Now that Disney owns Marvel, maybe they should make their own Asgard.
It seems that Marvel’s version of the Norse pantheon is so prominent in popular culture that it’s a little difficult to present these characters in other ways, which doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem for the Greek deities. That’s not to say it hasn’t been done, though. Thor, Loki, and Odin all show up in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which was published by DC Comics. Diana Wynne Jones’s Eight Days of Luke uses all three as well. Douglas Adams brings somewhat different interpretations of Thor into Life, the Universe, and Everything and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing… makes the god as he appeared in the former into a major character. And I understand that Rick Riordan, who already wrote successful series featuring the Greco-Roman and Egyptian gods, is starting one based on the Norse.