15 February 2009

Walt Simonson's Thor

It would be hard to point to a creator who has left a mark on a comic book title that is more indelible than the one Walt Simonson left on The Mighty Thor. Peter David and The Hulk maybe, or Chris Clairemont and The Uncanny X-Men certainly rival Simonsons mark on a title. For Thor though Simonson is the mighty template to which most readers compare current efforts. It isn't copying that people want, it is Simonson's sense of scale, and his lack of attendence to self-consiousness. Thor is big-time fantasy, Thor is the very epitomy of epic. Simonson more than most writers understood this. It is nice to see that Thor's current writer, J. Michael Straczynski, in an original, refreshing way, is swinging for the epic fences Simonson first defined.

Simonson though deserves special recognition for his particular creative genius. Not only did he write some of the definitive Thor story arcs, he also penciled and inked them. This is no small feat. But before I get into the particulars I have to first credit Marvel Comics with a bit of genius of its own. They have made available a great host (or horde if you are of a certain uncivilised mind) of classic work through its Visionaries series of trade paperbacks (hearafter, TPBs). My review of Simonson would have been nigh impossible without this commitment by Marvel to honor those past contributors to its titles. Many Marvel stories are also built on the continuities laid down ten or fifteen years in the past. Only the most diligent, resourceful collector is going to get their hands on the original issues. The Visionaries TPBs allows new readers to see not only what led to current issues in current issues, but also to see how the medium has changed (for better or worse) and how different writers have handled favorite characters.

Thor is not a plausible character. Hailing from Asgard, and being the son of Odin ruins any possiblity of plausiblity. He is a god of thunder. He is as strong as the Hulk, indeed one of the strongest characters in the Marvel Universe. He can control, the weather, create windstorms powerful enough to level cities, directlightening, and bring about a new Ice Age. He is the closest Marvel comes to a Superman. And on top of all this he also is somewhat over proud. So what can you do with him? Very little if you do not accept your starting conditions. Whether Simonson consciously knew this or not is irrelevant. Because his stories and his art proceed as if he did understand Thor's first principals.

Simonson did two things that granted his Thor depth. He managed to both embrace Norse mythology and simultaneously reject it, or at the very least refuse to be bound by it. He brings in the whole Norse pantheon, uses it to inform him about character, develops it. But he doesn't get satisfied with it. It provides the starting point from which he will manipulate the particulars, change things, add to, subtract from. Simonson's love, and knowledge of the original myths allows him to take the stories to the mythic heights such characters deserve, and the only environments in which they really shine. His knowledge made him capable of doing things like giving Thor a brother in Beta Ray Bill, or utilizing a villain like Fin Fang Foom in a way that didn't derail his stories. (Foom incidently did not appear in as many Thor stories as most comic readers imagine. It is another testament to the skill and artistry of Simonson that we all seem to remember the shape-shifting dragon from his appearences in Thor more than other books.) Simonson's ability to move beyond the source material but stay to true the spirit of the mythology is the touch that put his stories above the general villain of the month model so often employed by writers with nothing to offer. Another aide to his storytelling, which can be found in his introduction in the first volume was that he'd been experimenting with a set of ideas about Thor stories for a few years before tackling the character.

All this might be enough to turn out really quality tales of the thunder god, but may not be enough to elevate those stories to a level of greatness. Simonson understood how to tell a good story. He creates tension, uses evocative imagery, tells multiple strands of tale in ways that snare the reader and keep them turning the pages and mourn the end of an issue. What is this doom that is coming, who is it pounding at that ingot of star stuff, and why does he make us very afraid for all the nine realms? This ability to properly pace a story contributed as much to the greatness of the stories as the tales themselves.

Simonson's art is hard to describe. I suppose he is he closest thing the late eighties and early nineties had to Jack Kirby. Fantastical would be appropriate. Epic. Unrestrained. And for his work on Thor you would have at least square all those terms. His pencils never worked as well in other Marvel titles. X-Factor, X-Men or Fantastic Four all seemed somewhat hindered in their grasp at realism, plausiblity by his wild flourishes. But for Thor his art seemed perfectly matched to material. Simoson's pencils are full of energy, his lines seem quick and effortless as they hurtle his stories along.

Walt Simonson clearly deserves the visionary mantle. While clearly influenced by the pencils and gaudy drama of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, he managed to turn a difficult character into something any comic book reader would want to read. Indeed Simonson's Thor became something any student of mythology would want to read, while simultaniously regretting that the new tales wouldn't become canonical.


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