For a long time I never much cared for the Mighty Thor, even when drawn by one of my all time favorite comic book artists, the great Jack Kirby. I loved a lot of the concepts behind the character, and he fought a great set of villains, but something about that big lock of blond hair just didn't work for me.
Stan Lee's goofy pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue for Thor didn't help much. Verily, I rarely ever paid attention to the book when I made my weekly spin of the comics rack in search of a comic to purchase.
But in 1973, inside Detective Comics #437, I paid my first real attention to the artwork of Walt Simonson. I had seen his art earlier on backup stories for various DC comics, but nothing that ever really enticed me to buy. When the first Manhunter backup story appeared in that issue of Detective, however, I became an immediate fan. He had a fresh, original style that combined American comics illustration techniques with a dash of foreign and underground comic influences.
The weaponry used by his characters looked authentic, and he had obviously been heavily influenced by Asian kung fu cinema. Simonson's artwork had a unique energy that made him an artist to watch.
After the Manhunter series was finished, Simonson's artwork appeared sporadically in both DC and Marvel books. Simonson was not a fast artist, which made him a challenge to hire for deadline-obsessed editors. He drew a Batman story in Detective, a Heavy Metal adaptation of Alien, a small run on Marvel's adaptation of Battlestar Galactica and The Rampaging Hulk, among other books during this period.
Marvel utilized his talents by making him a layout artist for other artists, producing artwork that would be finished by inkers. His layouts were often heavily inked by artists with styles that competed with his, and the final product usually did not resemble his own work. But the layout work allowed Simonson to flesh out his art style more, bringing more of a Kirby flavor to his figures. He also ventured into comics writing, making him one of the first writer-artists of his generation.
Simonson's reputation reached its pinnacle with Marvel's Mighty Thor #337 in November 1983, a book that was both written and drawn by him. Simonson's striking cover image of an alien version of Thor smashing the Thor logo was shockingly original and stood out against the other comics of that week. It marked a book that was intent on bringing a whole new experience to readers. Simonson took possession of the Thor canon by immediately making dramatic changes.
The alien featured on the cover of #337, the monstrous-looking Beta Ray Bill, was created to challenge Thor for his hammer, the mighty Mjolnir. Thor had been sent to encounter Bill at the request of S.H.I.E.L.D., and when he lost contact with his hammer for too long he reverted to his human Donald Blake identity. The alien Bill picked up the transformed hammer, which had reverted to Blake's cane, and struck it, enacting the mystical Thor enchantment on himself. He was transformed into an alien version of Thor, possessing much of the same power.
In an effort to resolve the challenges that followed, Thor's father Odin granted Bill a hammer of his own, making him a fantastic ally for Thor. Simonson's story arcs were full of plot twists, wonderful characterization and new ideas, such as Thor eventually abandoning his Donald Blake alter ego. It was a shocking development that turned into a way for Simonson to actually strengthen the normally wooden Thor character.
Under Simonson's guidance, the series became a marvel for its continued stories and sub-plotting. By telegraphing shocking things to come it enticed the reader to return for each surprising issue.
Simonson both wrote and drew the series for years, usually inking himself or being inked by ace inkers of the time, such as Terry Austin or Bob Wiacek.
Using ex-Heavy Metal art director John Workman as letterer, Simonson revolutionized comic book lettering by developing unique, powerful lettering sound effects that often overwhelmed the figure artwork to startling effect. When the sound effect "DOOM!" signified impending danger, the reader could almost feel the book shake.
By the June 1986 issue, however, Simonson decided to reduce his involvement in the title. He settled back to continue as writer and cover artist only, and welcomed aboard legendary Marvel Comics artist Sal Buscema as his replacement. Buscema attempted to ape Simonson's unique style, but lost much of the artistic magic that Simonson had developed for the book.
This version continued to be heads and shoulders over most previous versions of the character, but the book gradually ran out of energy. It just seemed to be missing a key ingredient. Simonson was a unique artistic talent who could not be replaced. Simonson continued as writer until August 1987, when his wonderful run came to an end.
In the 19 years since then, Marvel has continually struggled to find another creator who could match Simonson's high water mark for Thor. From rebooting the character numerous times to killing off members of his supporting cast, nothing has generated the interest of Simonson's run.
Simonson may very well have been the definitive Thor creator, establishing a creative pinnacle for the character that may never be reached again.
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