After getting incredibly hyped by the Thor: Ragnarock trailer reveal at this year's San Diego Comic-Con I wanted to take a deep dive into the Norse god from space who talked like a Shakespearean extra who forgot their lines. Reading some amazing stories by writers like Jason Aaron and Walt Simonson was invigorating and made me curious about the ORIGINAL story that got this whole ball rolling. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology there are plenty of legal (and not-quite-as-legal) ways to explore the foundations of superhero history and what I discovered after reading Thor's first appearance in 1962's Journey Into Mystery #83 was that no Marvel character has been as twisted and reformed as ol' goldilocks himself.Let's see just how bizarre things get.
Thor's first villain wasn't the treacherous Loki or the unstoppable Destroyer, they were squat little rock men from planet Saturn. These Easter-Island looking goobers arrive in Norway to plot their takeover of earth and a large chunk of the Thunder God's first adventure is dedicated to their terrifying strength and abilities... which they mainly use to fuck up some trees for no reason.
No seriously, these guys just HATE trees for some reason.
It sort of makes sense when you realize that Journey Into Mystery was a science fiction and horror anthology series. It's these kinds of stories that gave birth to such famous Marvel monsters like Fin Fang Foom and Groot, so when Stan Lee wanted to revitalize the commercially flailing book, he had to introduce the new superhero in a format that would be familiar to the regular readership, that format being "goofy looking aliens drawn by Jack Kirby wreck stuff while talking to nobody in particular".
Poor Donald Blake. He's a skilled doctor trained at Harvard University, a kind-hearted and inquisitive everyman. While Matt Murdock was limited by his blindness and Peter Parker faced the challenges of poverty, Donald Blake had a bum leg that required the use of a cane. It's actually pretty weird seeing him fumble about in these early comics, as a modern society we don't really consider "lame" as one of the default disabilities. Maybe it's medical technology that's advanced or our understanding of injuries has evolved but it's awkward to read now. Despite his physical setback, Donald Blake decided to travel to Norway, by himself, on a hiking trip, at which point he is promptly chased into a cave where he finds a magic cane that's ACTUALLY a magic hammer that transforms him into a jacked dude.
Almost all modern interpretations of the character has hand-waived Donald Blake away. It was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby who actually retconned this secret identity as just an illusion set up by Odin to teach the REAL Thor a lesson about humility. That doesn't gel with these initial stories, as even in Thor form we're given glimpses into Donald's thoughts as he experiments with his new powers and struggles to remember his grade-school mythology lessons to help understand what happened to him. Too many comic fans have argued about which of a superhero's two personas are "real". Is Clark Kent merely a cheap disguise for Superman or vice versa? In this story it's clear, Thor wasn't the story of a god brought low to Earth, but a man who unwittingly became elevated to godhood.
Thor was a unique creation in the Marvel pantheon at the time. Stan Lee himself says the character arose from the need to create a hero even more powerful than The Hulk. But you can't have too much power in a universe that had previously been known for being the more "grounded" and "relatable" take on the superhero mythos. So The Mighty Thor has a bunch of caveats. To activate the transformation, Donald Blake MUST strike his cane on the ground once, and tap again to transform back even if he doesn't want to (this was used often as an excuse to leave Thor vulnerable after "accidentally" hitting terra firma with his hammer mid-battle). In fact, almost ALL of Thor's abilities were based on a tapping-based system, making Mjolnir look less like a mighty weapon and more like the world's most formidable Bop-It.
Not only that, but it's established that Thor returns to human form if he hasn't been actively touching the hammer for more than sixty seconds. Once again, these bizarre limitations made the character more prone to being captured, overwhelmed, and challenged back when the canon universe didn't have a roster of villains adequately ready to deal with him on a physical level yet. This is also where it's established that Thor technically can't fly, he merely throws his own hammer in the air and quickly re-catches it so he can be pulled along its trajectory.
In the next issue, we're introduced to Thor's lady crush Jane Foster and surprise, surprise, Donald Blake is just TOO DARN SHY to admit he has feelings for her. This is of course back in the good old days where propriety and bashfulness were better reasons to not ask someone out and not THE FACT THAT YOU'RE HER BOSS, DUDE. Whatever hospital Donald works at seriously needs to get their HR Department in order because there's definitely a filmstrip or something that explains this sort of thing. The main problem is that our hero is too self conscious about being a "lame man" and assumes that a woman as lovely as Jane could never love a HANDSOME HARVARD EDUCATED DOCTOR WITH FULL RESIDENCY. Man, fuck magic hammers, this is the most unbelievable part of the whole premise.
After a harrowing adventure defeating a South American Communist dictatorship, the key love-triangle of the story is cemented as Jane becomes infatuated with Thor and Donald's love grows more unrequited. Remember fellas, you don't need the strength of a Norse demigod to impress the ladies. The only hammer you need to lift is YOUR OWN SELF-ESTEEM. Also maybe seek therapy or something I don't know this is a humorous article about Thor, not a crisis hotline.
LOKI, the great deceiver, the father of monsters. In both the Eddas of myth and the pages of fiction there is no grander villain to be found. The raw menace and charisma in his portrayal by Tom Hiddleston is one of the most celebrated performances in superhero cinema, but in his first appearace in Journey Into Mystery #85 he was a proper goofy bitch. Leading Thor on a chase across New York City the horned bad guy jumps onstage at a Broadway show, attempts to murder people on the subway, and makes an escape by jumping on the old Mobil gasoline logo and flying away on a red pegasus. They also introduce Loki's since-forgotten weakness that he cannot use his magic powers if he's wet. No really, that used to be a THING.
Just imagine how Kenneth Branagh's Thor movie would have gone if instead of the Shakespearean melodrama and pathos, we were shown Loki's ACTUAL origin story. Instead of a tale of two brothers torn apart by petty jealousy we'd have... TREE SHENANIGANS.
The standard story of the creation of Thor involves Stan Lee coming up with the plot, his brother Larry Lieber handling the script in his first major writing credit, and Jack Kirby handling the art duties and layout. But Jack Kirby insisted that he had done a version of Thor for DC, and that he was the primary creator of the character. It turns out that 1957's (published by DC five years before Marvel) Tales of the Unexpected #16 does indeed have a story by Kirby that has lots of similarities to Marvel's iconic tale.
The short story called "The Magic Hammer" tells a cautionary tale of a desperate cowboy who finds Thor's legendary magic hammer in the middle of the American desert. After exploring its many abilities (lightning, creating storms, and causing massive destruction when thrown) he begins to amass wealth by using the hammer to help drought-stricken towns... for a hefty price. He grows richer and more greedy, fueled by the power rush he receives from the hammer until he is visited by an oddly familiar specter.
If it was just the identical hammer design, that would be one thing. If it was JUST the cape and silly helmet, that would be another. But what's most telling about this proto-Thor is the sleeveless tunic with random circles on the front. Seriously has anyone ever explained what the deal is with those random circles on his costume? Do they have a purpose? Why are they there? Anyway, this lends credence to Kirby's oft-repeated claim (especially in his embittered later years) that he was the main creative force behind many of the famous Marvel characters, with Stan just kind of scribbling in some dialogue over the characters, themes, and designs that fans were drawn to.
As a counter-point, it could be said that Stan introduced a level of vulnerability and sillyness to the story that made it more palatable to its intended audience. However most lists of Thor's greatest stories include lots of Horse-Faced-Alien-Badasses and Giant Serpents and World-Ending Weapons of Destruction and not "shy doctor who gets a clown wet". Whatever the case may be, it's amazing that modern day comic heroes all have their original texts available for anyone to read, we have a permanent record of these characters origins and evolution, something we never could get from the myths of antiquity.