The year was 1962, and Marvel editor Stan Lee was feeling the pressure.
Stan had come out of the gate three for three: his first three new “Marvel Comics” had been met with unexpected success at the newsstands. THE FANTASTIC FOUR, the INCREDIBLE HULK and the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN were not only selling like hotcakes, but Stan was achieving critical success unlike anything he’d ever experienced. The fan mail was pouring in (in excess of a thousand letters a week), and Stan and Marvel were suddenly the darling of the press, with Stan doing print and radio interviews about the new generation of comic-book heroes.
The problem was, now what?
As Stan described in ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, he was a little stumped about where to go next. I’ll turn it over to Stan for a moment:
But what was left to invent? Who could be stronger than the Hulk? Who could be stronger than Mr. Fantastic? We already had a kid who could fly, one who could walk on walls and ceilings, and a female who could fade away whenever danger threatened – or whenever the artist ran out of ink. As you can see, we were hooked on superlatives at that time, always trying to come up with characters who were bigger, better, stronger. However, we had painted ourselves into a corner. The only one who could top the heroes we already had would be Super-God, but I didn’t think the world was quite ready for that concept just yet. So, it was back to the ol’ drawing board.
Stan was racking his brain for new heroes, but he kept coming back to the notion of “Super-God.” He knew there was no way to feature God in a comic without offending, well, practically everybody. In the midst of all this, Stan remembered one of those aforementioned radio interviews he’d been doing, in which the host had referred to the new Marvel stories as “twentieth-century mythology,” and compared them to Greek and Norse mythology. With that, Stan had his solution. Sure, there was no way they could publish a comic book featuring God as a super-hero. But a comic book featuring a god as a super-hero? No problem. Soon enough, Stan had settled on a mythological deity to give the Marvel treatment to, and the Mighty Thor was on the way.
Feeling that he was handling too much of the company’s writing himself, Stan turned over the Thor concept to his brother Larry Lieber, who had been working for the company on its line of monster comics. As for the art, Stan once again turned to Jack Kirby to bring his rough concept to life. Lee, Lieber and Kirby’s vision of the Norse God of Thunder made its debut in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #83 (August 1962), in “The Stone Men from Saturn!”
In the premiere story, we’re introduced to Dr. Donald Blake, a crippled physician vacationing on the coast of Norway. Coincidentally, also visiting the lovely Norwegian coast are the aforementioned Stone Men from Saturn. However, they’re not there for the scenery. A scouting force for a planned invasion of Earth, the stone chaps amuse themselves by uprooting and disintegrating trees. (A little-known fact: Saturnian Stone Men apparently hate trees.) The Stone Men are spotted by a local fisherman, whose warnings fall on mostly deaf ears, except for our good Dr. Blake, who decides to go investigate for himself.
Blake stumbles onto the aliens, but is quickly spotted, and the Stone Men are soon in hot pursuit. Running for his life, Blake stumbles and drops his cane, slowing him down even more. Seeking refuge in a cave, Blake finds the only way out blocked by an enormous boulder. Leaning against the cave wall, he accidentally activates a hidden trigger, revealing a secret chamber. Inside is only a “gnarled wooden stick – like an ancient cane.” When the stick turns out to be of little use in moving the boulder, Blake strikes the stick against the boulder in frustration, and with a flash of lightning, both Blake and the stick are transformed.
To his disbelief, Blake is now the Mighty Thor, Norse god of thunder. Looking down at the wooden stick, he sees that it too has changed, becoming a warhammer, bearing a peculiar inscription:
The boulder that had seemed immovable mere moments before is now lifted with ease, and Thor begins to experiment with his new weapon and physical form.
Thor discovers that he must continually hold the hammer to remain Thor (after 60 seconds without contact, Thor will change back into Blake, although the hammer will remain), and that by striking the hammer against the ground, both he and the hammer return to their original shape. Thor also discovers the hammer’s ability to control the weather, and that it always returns to his hand after it’s thrown. Best of all, Thor learns that by throwing the hammer, and then immediately catching the leather thong at the end of the handle, he’s able to hurtle through the air like a missile.
Thor’s lesson in hammer-handling comes none too soon, because before long the full Saturnian invasion force has arrived in Norway. Thor quickly dispatches the Stone Men’s ground troops, and handily dismantles the invaders’ “mechano-monster” as well. The Stone Men are freaked out but good, and split for Saturn pronto, not knowing how many more like Thor may be on Earth.
Larry Lieber, and after him Robert Bernstein, left the scripting duties after the first 14 issues, leaving the book, like most of the Marvel line, firmly in the hands of Stan and Jack. Once Stan took over the scripting, a distinct difference was noticed in the dialogue: Thor, (and later his fellow Asgardians as well) began to speak in a sort of archaic pseudo-Shakespearean old English, which may not have made sense when you considered that they were Norwegian, but which gave the character a sort of regal nobility that served the character well in setting him apart from the rest of Marvel’s costume-types.
Early on, Thor remained more focused on Earthbound villains and threats, but the series really kicked into gear when Stan and Jack began to focus the series on Thor’s Asgardian heritage. It was later revealed that Don Blake had never truly existed, that Thor’s human identity had all been a lesson in humility from Thor’s father Odin, mightiest of the Norse gods and ruler of Asgard.
Despite this, Thor continued to live a double life as both Thor and human physician Blake, partly because of the strong bond he’d forged with Midgard (that’s Earth for you non-Asgardian types) while in temporary exile from Asgard, and partly because of his love for Blake’s nurse, Jane Foster. With the new emphasis on Asgard, Stan and Jack began to introduce a whole new cast of supporting characters.
Aside from his father Odin, Thor found new allies in Balder the Brave, Thor’s loyal right-hand man, and in the beautiful but deadly warrior Sif, Thor’s intended bride since childhood.
Also introduced was Heimdall, the guardian of the rainbow bridge Bifrost, which connects Asgard to Earth. So finely honed were Heimdall’s senses, it was said, that “he could detect the flapping of a butterfly’s wings a thousand worlds away.” Man. That’s gotta be distracting.
Making their debut as well were the Warriors Three. Never really cool or interesting enough to support their own series, the Warriors Three would consistently show up at any sort of large gathering of Asgardians whenever Thor needed some backup. You had your Fandral the Dashing, an Errol Flynn-type swashbuckler, your Hogun the Grim, a dark brooding type, and your Volstagg the Voluminous, who was, well, fat. Really fat. John-Goodman-and-a-half fat. He wasn’t much on the hand-to-hand combat, but sometimes he’d sit on people. Anyway…
The central conflict of the series involved Thor and his half-brother Loki, the God of Mischief. We’ll get to him next week. Come on back.