For nearly fifty years now, Thor has been the comic where the big issues of mankind’s relation to its deities have been thrashed out. And in that time, amidst all of the skull-cracking and “I Say Thee NAY!”ing, the writers have managed to craft some of the medium’s most stirring representations of religion awry, and the humanity at the heart of it all. With the release of the second Thor movie tomorrow, it seems a good time to look back at five Thor comics that challenged our notions of the greatness of the gods.
5. THOR 294 (Writer: Roy Thomas. Art: Keith Pollard and Chic Stone)
When Roy Thomas took over Thor from Stan Lee, he brought with him a desire to do justice to the deep tradition of Norse mythology and a sensitivity to the subtlety of man’s mythological craftsmanship. In this issue, we are treated to the secret origin of Odin, and not only that, but the story of how the gods fashioned their own identities from bits and pieces of the world they found both buried in the memories of shared experience and in the world around them.
Caught in a cycle of destruction and rebirth, the young gods must answer the question of why they are here and how they came to be, and in doing so act out the origins of our own creation myths. In a move that has a certain whiff of Feuerbach about it, Thomas shows Odin fashioning his pantheon, and the universe about it, from those things he most admires and fears about himself and the departed universe that gave him birth, only to watch that true and personal origin get buried in the myths spun by his children.
And isn’t that always the way? You find something astounding and great about yourself, and you feel the need for it to be more than just personal, to be a manifestation of a great and eternal truth, and so you cut it out of yourself and make a god of it. Humans are always doing crazy stuff like that, and Thomas captures it beautifully in this issue.
But my favorite part about this comic is the Letters page, which I’m pretty sure isn’t reproduced in collections, so you’ll have to shell out the big $5 to get an original copy, but it’s worth it because Thomas devotes two whole pages to an essay about the tilting of the Earth’s axis, Ragnarok, and how all of that ties into Marvel continuity, which is the sort of thing you just don’t see anymore. PLUS, if you’re a Wagner fan, this issue has all sorts of little call-outs to the Ring’s conception of Norse myth, and that’s always fun.
4. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY 87 (Writer: Stan Lee, Art: Jack Kirby)
Okay, this issue has nothing whatsoever to do with Humanism, or Atheism, or Theology, or really anything, and everything to do with the Ritual of the Stan, which is something everybody ought to do at one point, regardless of what you believe about the heavens above. The Ritual of the Stan is where you grab a bunch of Stan Lee comics and read through them until you get one which doesn’t quite hold together when read quietly to yourself. Then, you get up, flip back to the beginning, and read it aloud, in the manner of Stan Lee, and behold as it all starts coming perfectly together!
Some comics are just meant to be read aloud.
This is a pretty good one for it (though Loki’s second appearance is a great one too, if for nothing else than the culminating moment where Thor throws a bunch of bread crumbs at a group of pigeons and thereby saves the world). Thor spent a lot of time in the early issues fighting Commies. Issue 84, which was his second appearance ever, was one such and here, just three issues later, they’re back! Really, the cover says it all (again, read it quietly to yourself, and then read it as Stan Lee! and suddenly “electronically treated chains” makes total sense).
Is it one of the best issues of Thor ever written? No, but it’s one of the best times you’ll have reading a Thor comic, and even atheists deserve a bit of fun now and again.
3. THOR 493 (Writer: Warren Ellis, Artist: Mike Deodato, Jr.)
Before writing the heaven-shaking Supergod, Ellis wrote the World Engine story arc for Thor in the middle of the comic book Dark Ages, better known as the mid-90s. It was not an environment friendly for the crafting of complex mainstream comic book tales, but there were gems among the fist fights and flexed pecs, and World Engine was one of them. This is the third issue in the arc, and what makes it so remarkable is how directly it engages with the various explanations that exist in the Marvel Universe for the existence of the Asgardians, even while Thor finds himself grappling with the consequences of a mortality thrust upon him by his harsh father.
We see the Asgardians as they exist in the mythology of their human observers, and at the same time as laughing creatures of a science evolved beyond any merely human understanding. As beings who began with a purpose, perhaps, but who have squandered it and now burn themselves out in the fire of their own scorn and retribution. It is a grim story with the only relief coming when Thor and The Enchantress, long the bitterest of enemies, set aside the immensity of their godly past and decide to be, if only for a short time, a couple of mortals with nothing to lose.
2. Thor 577 (Writer: Dan Jurgens, Artist: Scot Eaton)
This is a single issue from one of the greatest arcs in Thor history. I’ve written about the arc as a whole elsewhere, but this issue is a pretty good stand-alone representation of everything that is challenging and exciting about the larger story. The humans have brought Asgard crashing down to Earth, and in the rubble and disaster of the moment, Thor has declared that the Asgardians will now take charge of the planet.
In the crucial moment of decision, Jurgens is at his best, showing us how, once a binary religious mindset kicks in, it runs roughshod over the humans it is meant to help. Lady Sif, Thor’s longtime friend and a potent warrior of Asgard, argues passionately that what the disaster betokens is that humans are now past the stage of needing gods, that their cohabitation of the planet will only bring suffering to both, but Thor, mad with frustration and egged on by Loki (of course), will have none of it, and so sets humankind in the teeth of benevolent tyranny, curing it of all its ills if only it will obey.
The whole series, from the Spiral arc through The Reigning and into this, the first issue of Gods and Men, investigates the consequences of charity unchecked by wisdom, and the compromises that power makes with itself in its perpetuation, and is, I think, not merely one of the best Thor experiences to be had in comics, but one of the greatest experiences, period.
1. Thor: God of Thunder 8 (Writer: Jason Aaron, Artist: Esad Ribic)
The Thor comic has gone through some exciting and unsteady times as of late, dying and being resurrected, and then dying AGAIN and being resurrected AGAIN, each time with a change of numbering that was entirely traumatic to all of us who love seeing those numbers in the longbox march magisterially forward. Jason Aaron rescued the situation last year with Thor: God of Thunder, bringing the world of comics a tale of stark and uncompromising honesty that catapulted Thor back into the consciousness of a resurrection-weary reading public.
He also brought us our first true atheist anti-hero in the form of Gorr, the God Butcher, a character whose modest goal is to eliminate all gods from the universe and thereby free mortal existence from its self-abasing subservience and the destructive violence that comes with it. You could pick anything from the first ten issues and it will be golden, but my favorite is issue 8, if for no other reason than the conversation between Gorr’s son and a young version of Thor:
Thor: You think this is a good thing, the killing of gods?
Gorr’s Son: It will be a better world without gods. No more fear of eternal damnation or lust for eternal reward. No more hatred between believers of rival faiths. Without the lie of eternity to serve as our crutch, we will have no choice but to finally cherish what precious little time we have. And to put our faith in only ourselves and one another.
It is a beautiful moment, tucked away in a little side-panel, but it says everything that needs saying about the tensions at the heart of Thor’s place in the Marvel universe, and about religion’s continued place in the hearts of a humanity that is starting to find its way back to itself again.
AND BEFORE YOU ERUPT IN INDIGNATION:
I am aware that Walter Simonson is not represented on the above list, and that his absence is an act of sheer madness. He is the man who defined how Thor looks and sounds, and how his universe hangs together, and anybody looking for a good Thor story will find it written upon each page of Simonson’s time at the helm. This list is the intersection of my personal favorite Thor stories (which include many, many Simonson issues) with my favorite humanist comics, with Stan Lee thrown in to add a bit of jolliness to the mix. The time when I just talk for pages and pages about my fifty favorite Thor comics is still far off, we can hope.
Marvel is good about making back issues available in trade format. The whole Warren Ellis story arc is available in Marvel Visionaries: The Mighty Thor: Mike Deodato Jr. Journey Into Mystery 87 and Thor 294 are both available at a great price in the Marvel Essentials series (each contains a ton of issues, though just in black and white). And there are complete trades of Thor: Gods and Men and Thor: Godbomb, available at your friendly Local Comic Shop! So get reading! Verily!