01/05/2011. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy
The Essential Thor - Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. pub: Marvel Comics. 536 page softcover. Price: GBP 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-078511-866-4.
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Taking advantage of current trends now is a timely moment to review ‘Essential Thor - Volume 1’, a bumper collection of Marvel Comics original stories of the long-haired Thunder God. Most of the tales are bought to us by the famous combination of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby but there are a few from other writers and artists. Actually, Stan Lee plotted all of them but occasionally gave scripting chores to his brother, Larry Leiber, and some bloke called Robert Bernstein. Don Heck and Joe Sinnott drew three issues each and one Al Hartley drew issue #90 but the rest is by Kirby.
Thor started out in ‘Journey Into Mystery‘, one of Marvel’s lesser publications that used to feature fantasy or Science Fiction short stories. The God of Thunder made his debut in issue #83 (August 1962) and this collection goes up to issue #112. Many of the Thor yarns are just thirteen pages, stretching to sixteen later because Mighty Marvel gave twenty-two or twenty-three pages of super-hero action in those glorious days, as did DC, to be fair. Beginning in issue #97 there is a five page ’Tales Of Asgard’ feature which would have made the original comic all Asgardian.
The first story is ‘The Stone Men From Saturn’. Lame Doctor Donald Blake is on holiday in Europe, presumably Norway, when a fishermen tells of seeing creatures from outer space. Blake goes to investigate and ends up fleeing from them into a cave where he finds a gnarled old cane. Trying to lever a boulder from an exit route with the cane he gets frustrated and whacks it on the rock. With a Kirby-esque flash the stick turns into a hammer and he turns into Thor, God of Thunder! An inscription on the hammer says: ‘Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of…Thor’. Those three dots show that the Norse inscriber had a sense of drama. It was also prescient of Odin to write in English.
Blake is obviously worthy because he has the power. He is nearly as strong as the Hulk, he can make storms by banging his hammer on the ground and it comes back to him when he hurls it. By throwing it, letting go and then grabbing the thong as it leaves his grasp he can even fly. This show’s Stan Lee’s knowledge of physics at its most profound. Come to think of it, if it always comes back to the original spot when he throws it he should only be able to travel in circles, like a friend of mine who bought a car so nice he was afraid to park it anywhere. He drove from A to A.
Thor easily sees off the Stone Men from Saturn and copes, too, with the Executioner, a ruthless warlord in the tiny South American country of San Diablo. Like many villains of the time the Executioner was a communist. They were evil people who wanted to conquer freedom and democracy and featured frequently in action adventure stories of the time as villains, like Arabs now. Happily, this was quite a short phase in Marvel’s early history and Thor soon went on to better foes: Sandu the Magician, the Tomorrow Man, the Radioactive Man, Merlin, the Cobra, Mister Hyde and, most of all, his own evil half-brother, Loki. Actually, Loki started out as more mischievous than evil but, for drama’s sake, he got nastier. Loki bought in the Asgardian theme which grew and grew until eventually, though not in this collection, Thor spent more time there than on Earth. Here he is basically Don Blake and becomes Thor once in a while to fight evil. He also has the compulsory early Marvel love interest in his nurse, Jane Foster, who Odin forbids him to marry because she is a mere mortal.
The development of Jack Kirby’s art is wondrous to behold. In the first issues he does seven or eight panels to the page and the figures are quite slim. This art is by no means bad but is not as dramatic as later stuff. From issue #90 to #101, with a few exceptions, the art was done by Joe Sinnott and Don Heck, who both did a fine job by the way. In fact, this is some of the best Heck art I have seen and he also gave a very distinctive looks to Kirby pencils when he inked issue #97, ‘The Lava Man’. A bit too distinctive on page five, panel one where mighty Odin seems to be wearing rectangular spectacles but very good overall.
Art and story are both firing on all cylinders in the latter half of this collection with tales that I still remember thrilling me in childhood. Of particular note are ‘The Enchantress And The Executioner’ in issue # 103,’Giants Walk The Earth’ in issue #104 and ‘Every Hand Against Him’ in issue #110 when Cobra and Hyde kidnap Jane Foster and Thor beats up half of Asgard looking for Loki because he obviously put them up to it. Chic Stone took over the inking chores on these later issues and his heavy black lines are well suited to Kirby’s pencils.
Great stuff and it got better. Lee and Kirby hit their peak in the mid-sixties so the next forty or fifty issues of ‘Journey Into Mystery’ are among their finest work. This is the creative renaissance that pushed little Marvel Comics into the big leagues and pushed the competition to better efforts, too. Because they did it all without resorting to extreme violence or scantily-clad super-heroines who look like glamour models these collections are eminently suitable for children. This was partly because of the Comics Code and partly because Kirby can’t really draw pretty women, though the Enchantress does look a bit tempting in some panels.
Highly recommended. Own it now, on paper!
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