Selling Thor by the pound– a review of Thor by Walter Simonson Omnibus

No one drew gods like Jack Kirby.  From Asgard to New Genesis, Kirby created gods who were larger, big shouldered, beautiful and powerful.  His gods were amped up superheroes but they carried themselves with a grander swagger than any earth bound heroes.  His superheroes were strong.  His gods were pure grandeur.  Since Kirby, there have been many comic creators who have tried to take his gods and create new stories around them but most have failed to latch onto Kirby’s imagination.  Nearly every revamp of his New Gods have felt grounded and uninspired when compared to the wild ride that was Kirby’s Fourth World.  Or worse yet, they remain too reverent of Kirby’s work, approaching it as a holy scripture they can’t change or modify.  Creators like John Byrne, who did a competent run of New Gods stories years ago, approach Kirby’s work with an unfaltering fidelity to it.  When he wrote and drew Fantastic Four, the only continuity Byrne paid attention to was anything written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby even though there had been over 100 issues since the Lee/Kirby team had been broken up on that title.  Hardly any of the creators that walked in Kirby’s footsteps on any of the books he wrote or drew could come close to recreating Kirby’s magic.

During his Thor run, now collected in one giant tome,  Walter Simonson was just as faithful to Kirby as anyone before or since has been.  Where others tried to recreate Kirby in their stories, Simonson takes his respect and awe of Kirby and channels it into creating something that Kirby may have proud of.  For two years (and yes, Simonson’s run was nearly four years– we’ll get to that,) Simonson created stories that crackled with energy, wit and myth.  He took the worlds that Lee and Kirby created in Asgard and Earth and began writing a new mythology for Thor.  Simonson wrote stories that are great superhero stories where Thor needed to save the world and universe against from an ancient and powerful enemy and made the character a god again within those obvious superhero stories.

Simonson shot for the moon right away with a couple of stories about the end of the world, or at least Thor’s world.  He immediately knocks Thor down a peg or two with the introduction of Beta Ray Bill, an alien who is worthy of the Thor’s hammer.  Both a rival and a surrogate brother, Beta Ray Bill shook up Thor’s little world even as Simonson interspersed a fiery demon hammering out a sword to the thunderous “DOOM” for a number of issues.  Simonson built up to Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, for the first year or so of his run and then spent the rest of his run trying to put Thor, Asgard and all of the other characters back together.

His first year contained energy and excitement, the kind that I think Kirby must have enjoyed seeing in one of his creations.  Simonson remains reverent enough about the continuity that came before him but jams it full of his energetic drawings.  By the time he started Thor in 1983, Simonson’s artwork magically captures the spires of Asgard as it does the alleys of New York City.  Of all of his contemporaries at Marvel at the time, his artwork has aged the best as it looks as bright and lively in 2011 as it did in 1983.  Some of that is due to Steve Oliff’s lively recoloring but it’s also due to the way that Simonson builds with images with pen and ink.  The gods of Asgard look like the powerful, beautiful and and epic characters that Kirby created them to be.

The new Omnibus shows how Simonson carried through with the story that he began in Thor #337 with the introduction of Beta Ray Bill.  From that first issue, Simonson built the events culminating with Surtur’s destruction of Asgard and the loss of Odin as the only way to defeat Surtur.  After that, Simonson’s run looked at how you clean up after doomsday, picking up the pieces of Asgard and trying to learn how to live after the loss of Asgard’s father and leader.  Simonson uses the full spectrum of Marvel’s continuity and Norse mythology to create a richer and grander Thor story than has been seen since.

Simonson did stay on the title a bit too long, giving up the artistic chores for the last year or two to Marvel’s Sal Buscema, who does his best Simonson impersonation but never captures the intensity and energy that Simonson had in his art.  Buscema was a fine but workman-like artist.  The last third of this book, with Buscema’s artwork, feels like almost any other Marvel book of the same period, especially when Simonson crosses over with a couple of X-Factor storylines.  Under Simonson’s art, the book was lively and full of unexpected images.  With Buscema, the book loses its visual identity even as Simonson feels like he couldn’t tell what kind of stories he wanted to tell.

With the change in art came a change in the storytelling.  Buscema wasn’t able to pull off the grandeur that Simonson captured in the earlier issues so it feels like Simonson stopped writing those types of stories.  Under Simonson’s artwork, a story about Thor becoming a frog and fighting rats in Central Park feels as epic as Surtur’s siege of Asgard.  For most of Buscema’s art run, it felt like Simonson was trying to wrap up plots that he began almost as early as his first issue.  His story about the fall and rebuilding of Asgard was grand and ambitious.  If he had stopped writing it when he left the art, that story would have been unfinished.  As it is, he finished his story but the ending is no where near as powerful and memorable as the beginning of the story was.  Those concluding issues contain some of the weakest stories about Thor encountering X-Factor or fighting a Judge Dread knockoff.  Buscema was a solid superhero artist and that’s what his Thor felt like instead of the myth-making look that Simonson gave to the book.

Fifteen years later, Simonson would take a crack at another Kirby character, the Fourth World’s Orion.  Like his Thor run, Simonson would remain completely faithful to Kirby without just rehashing stories that Kirby himself told.  Simonson began his run on Thor with the end of the world and then followed those story threads to watch as Thor and the Asgardians had to rebuild their world.  The excitement that he generated in each panel of his artwork bled into the excitement as he expanded upon the mythology of a hero.  For a couple of years, Thor looked and read like nothing else Marvel was publishing.  And today, it still feels as unique and fresh as it did nearly 30 years ago.

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