By the time September, 1968 rolled around, I’d been interested in Thor for a while. I’d been intrigued by the couple of appearances he’d made in in Avengers issues I’d bought, and I was fascinated by the idea that this Marvel Comics superhero was apparently the same guy as the Thunder God from the Norse myths I’d studied in school (even if the Marvel version was blonde and clean-shaven, rather than red-haired and bearded, like in the myths). I have a distinct memory of gazing at a copy of Thor #152 sitting in the spinner rack at the Short-Stop, and wondering not only who the big ugly bruiser Thor was fighting with was, but all those other strangely garbed characters in the background, as well. But in February of ’68, when that book came out , I was still feeling my way as a new Marvel reader, and wasn’t quite ready to take the plunge. I was feeling a lot more comfortable with Marvel by September, though. And, in fact, I might have sampled Thor even earlier, if I hadn’t been able to tell from the Mighty Marvel Checklist’s monthly issue descriptions that the series was then in the midst of an ongoing storyline, featuring the Mangog, that lasted through the summer.
But in September, Marvel gave me just about the best jumping-on point a new reader could ask for, with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s “The Way It Was!” — a story which not only made no direct reference to the immediately preceding issues’ continuity, but also offered a more-or-less complete introduction to the God of Thunder and his world, incorporating Thor’s origin story from 1962’s Journey into Mystery #83 as part of the package.
But, of course, I wouldn’t have known all that before I saw Thor #158 in the spinner rack. No, I’m fairly sure that I was motivated to pick up and buy the book based on little more than the cover — which was of course by the book’s usual art team of Jack Kirby on pencils, and Vince Colletta on inks. Right?
Well, no. At least, not entirely. While there’s little doubt that Kirby and Colletta rendered the three small figures of the son of Odin that grace the cover (and which may have been photostatted from earlier artwork), the large head-shot is, by all accounts, not by Jack Kirby*. (Or, well, maybe just a little bit by him. See below.) So who did draw Thor’s face?
Both Marvel’s official web site and the Grand Comics Database credit Marie Severin — the great Marvel artist who passed away just a little over a week ago, at the time of writing. That might sound like it should be definitive; but not so fast. Writing in the 54th issue of The Jack Kirby Collector (Spring, 2010), the anonymous writer of a “Norse Oddities” feature mentions not only Severin, but also Vince Colletta, and even Tom Palmer (like Colletta, an artist best known as an inker) as possible candidates. And, somewhat more recently, there’s been some discussion in various Facebook groups regarding how this cover might have come together five decades ago. Comics historian J. David Spurlock, for example, has contended that Severin did the pencils, but believes that her work was then inked by another great Marvel artist, Bill Everett — who, like Severin, was then on staff at Marvel. Spurlock has also speculated that Kirby might have actually drawn a Thor portrait himself, which editor Stan Lee (also Marvel’s de facto art director at the time) might have decided he disliked for whatever reason, and had re-done, with the new version pasted down over Kirby’s original. Comics artist-writer Erik Larsen, on the other hand, has opined that the inker may have been Syd Shores. Meanwhile, comics writer Kurt Busiek has suggested that the published illustration is an actual Kirby drawing, inked by Colletta, which Lee subsequently had Severin, Everett, and/or someone else “fix”, fairly drastically. And so on…
As you can see, there’s a rough consensus that Marie Severin at least contributed to the cover’s Thor portrait — but that’s about as far as it goes. And there doesn’t seem to be any actual provenance — in the form of a first-hand account by any of the creators involved — even of that. But, hey, that’s the way it often goes in comic book history. Personally, I like thinking of it as the late Ms. Severin’s work, regardless of whoever else may have had a hand in it — and I’ll probably go with that, until somebody proves otherwise.
But enough about the cover (great as it is). Let’s have a look at the insides, shall we?
As noted earlier, the opening of the story, while following naturally enough from the previous issue’s conclusion of the Asgard-based “Mangog” story arc, makes no reference to recent events — a small oddity that, combined with the hodgepodge of a cover and a few other strangenesses we’ll get to in a bit, has led some fans to conclude that both this issue and its follow-up, Thor #159, were fill-ins of a sort. That may well be, but from the perspective of my eleven-year-old self, coming in cold in September,1968, it was all to the good.
While I knew very little about Marvel’s take on the mighty Thor at this point, one of the few things I did know about was his secret identity, the mortal physician Donald Blake — I even knew about the “sixty-second rule” by which Thor would become Blake if he was separated from his hammer for sixty seconds, thanks to the non-super-powered Captain America having used that vulnerability to trounce the God of Thunder just a couple of months back, in Avengers Annual #2.
“It all began… on that fateful day…when I found this cane… within the hidden cavern!” Gee, wouldn’t my eleven-year-old Thor-newbie self like to know more about that!
And of course, when said self turned the page, five decades ago, he found it was his lucky day:
Here the story segues straight into Journey into Mystery #83’s 13-page “The Stone Men from Saturn!”, with a few alterations to the original splash page (shown at right) and final panel (which we’ll get to later) being the only differences between this version and its initial 1962 publication. And as there weren’t any individual credits given for this section of the issue, either here or on the first page splash, I suspect that my eleven-year-old self simply assumed that it, like the framing sequence, was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. That’s in spite of the fact that the art looked quite a bit different than the Kirby art I was beginning to grow used to — after all, even at age eleven I knew that artists’ styles evolved over time, and, hey, Kirby would have drawn this very first Thor story a whole six years ago. (Today, on the other hand, having knowledge of the full scope of Kirby’s career from the Thirties to the Eighties, I’m amazed by the extent of the transformation in his art in a little more than half a decade.) I probably wouldn’t learn until the next time I encountered the story, in Lee’s 1974 Origins of Marvel Comics, that while Marvel’s editor and chief writer may indeed have plotted it (or at least co-potted it with Kirby), the actual scripting was done by Lee’s younger brother, Larry Lieber. And I wouldn’t learn until several more years had passed that the inks were by Joe Sinnott, rather than Vince Colletta.
Regardless of who wrote or drew what, however, from the reprinted episode’s very first panels, my younger self was given a glimpse of the earliest days of “Marvel Comics”, when the company’s bread-and-butter was still primarily made of anthology books featuring monstrous invaders from space — like, for instance, Stone Men from Saturn:
In later years, as comic book writers both at Marvel and elsewhere began to take a somewhat more sophisticated approach to science fictional concepts, the Stone Men’s backstory was retconned so that their homeworld became Ria, a planet in the Krona star system, and “from Saturn” came to mean only “from a base they established on one of Saturn’s moons after traveling through space from Krona”. But in 1962, or even 1968, Marvel wasn’t there yet. And anyway, it didn’t really matter where the Stone Men came from. What mattered was that they were here, they were formidable, and they meant us Earthlings no good whatsoever:
Maybe no one else takes the old fisherman seriously, but the frail, lame visiting American tourist sure does! The very next day, Dr. Don Blake heads to the location to check out the man’s story, Coming upon a mysterious set of footprints, he follows them until he finds…
Up to this point, the story has followed a pattern that would have been familiar to the readers of Marvel’s “mystery” titles in 1962, pitting an ordinary human being against an exponentially more powerful alien foe, with nothing going for him but courage and smarts — but on the next two pages, the tale takes a decidedly different turn:
I can’t recall whether my eleven-year-old self consciously recalled the Arthurian legend of the sword in the stone when I first read the preceding sequence, back in 1968. At that time, I was still about five years out from taking the plunge into what would become a lifelong obsession with all things King Arthur; still, I’m pretty sure I was at least familiar enough with the basics of the legend to recognize the reference, if only subconsciously.
Our newly-transformed protagonist quickly discovers that in his new, godly form, he has the strength to lift the previously unbudgeable boulder, and thus slip out of the cave the back way:
One of the earlier-mentioned “strangenesses” that has led some fans to conclude that #158 and #159 of Thor are fill-ins is this issue’s very incorporation of Thor’s origin story as a reprint. Such fans note that Marvel had never done this before; at any earlier time, when an origin or other episode from a previous issue needed to be shown, it had simply been rewritten and redrawn.
But it’s hard to see how Lee, at least, could have recreated his brother’s JiM #83 script for Thor #158 without extensive rewriting — mostly because of Thor’s speech patterns, which don’t vary in any significant way from Don Blake’s. In the intervening years, Lee had evolved his manner of writing the Thunder God’s dialogue, making it steadily more formal, until it “matured” into the Elizabethan-based mode of speaking evident in this issue’s opening pages. If Kirby had redrawn the origin tale, Lee would have either had to rewrite our hero’s dialogue to include the requisite “thees” and “thous” and so forth, or would have to explain why Thor hadn’t always spoken that way. Reprinting the story just as it was originally published — “For the purpose of achieving total authenticity“, as page 4’s introductory blurb had it — allowed Lee to sidestep the question. As it was, when my younger self read this for the first time back in 1968, I did wonder a bit about the difference in the way Thor talked — but I accepted it as part and parcel of the story’s “oldness”, in the same way that I accepted the minor differences in how the Thunder God looked (the blue coloring on his helmet, the “T” on his belt buckle, and so on).
None of that proves that Thor #158 wasn’t a fill-in, of course; but i don’t believe that the mere presence of the reprinted pages should be taken as evidence that it was.
For my younger self, it was fascinating — and very helpful — to see Thor explore (and explain) his powers in such detail on these pages. Of course, it would soon become clear to me in reading Thor’s current adventures that some of the specific mechanics detailed here — stamping the hammer’s handle twice on the ground to call up a storm, three times to end it, and so on — had been ultimately found rather unwieldy, and by 1968 had essentially been abandoned.
Unfortunately, if not unexpectedly, NATO’s air power is no match for the superior technology of the Stone Men…
…but luckily for all of us, Earth’s newest (or should that be oldest?) superhero is on the scene — and he’s got yet another major power we haven’t seen yet:
As a kid, I loved the idea that Thor’s power of flight was, in a sense, a trick — that he simply threw his hammer really, really hard, and then let himself be pulled along behind it. These days, of course, that rationale seems a little silly — but I was nevertheless delighted to see it referenced in last year’s Thor: Ragnarok movie, where our hero’s explanation of the mechanics to his new buddy Korg (who, perhaps not so coincidentally, is a Kronan — i.e., a Stone Man from Saturn) is played for some not-for-the-little-ones laughs:
Ahem. But, getting back to our story:
The Stone Men try dropping a huge metal cage on Thor, but he easily pries the bars apart. They then try to disintegrate him with their rayguns, but his flying hammer knocks the weapons from their hands before they can fire, prompting one to exclaim: “The Earthling can not be stopped!”
And that was indeed “the way of it, exactly as presented in the first memorable version” — well, except for the splash page, as we’ve already mentioned — and the very last panel, in which the “Editor’s Note” inscribed on the hammer Mijolnir features some rather different copy than it did in JiM #83. Um, I guess “Thorr” could be the Thunder God’s name as translated into Pirate, right? (Sorry, not sorry.) Anyway, I figure Lee must have been pleased as punch to have had the opportunity to drop some new, replacement text into that panel.
But now that we’re done with this flashback sequence, it’s “back to the pandemonious present” — or is it? Page 17 does bring us readers back to new material by Lee, Kirby, and Colletta — but as we soon see, Don Blake isn’t quite through strolling down memory lane:
We’ve just witnessed the origin of Thor, and now we’re getting a guided tour of his Asgardian milieu? Once again, my eleven-year-old Thor-newbie self was not about to complain.
Thor’s dad certainly made a strong first impression on me back then, although of course I would eventually come to realize that to describe him as “all-wise” and “all-just” was stretching things just a bit, even in the Lee-Kirby days.
Here were all my old friends from the cover of Thor #152, and more besides. I recognized Hercules (even with the weird mis-coloring of his hair and headpiece), but I knew nothing about the others — and I was eager to learn more.
“I’ve got to know!!” My eleven-year-old self might not have been quite as anxious as Don Blake was to learn “The Answer!”, but I was still pretty darn curious. I’m sure I intended to pick up the next issue when it came out, to get the rest of the story.
But I didn’t.
How come? Well, fifty years later, I’m not really sure. It’s possible I just never saw it, as I still didn’t have reliable regular transportation to my local options for buying comics in September, 1968, not to mention the vagaries of newsstand distribution being what they were at that time. (Regular readers of this blog have heard me sing this song before, and will forgive the repetition, I hope.) Or maybe I did see it, but didn’t realize it was the very next issue, since the cover scene of a giant menacing our hero didn’t seem to connect in any obvious way to Thor #158’s storyline. (Yeah, there’s that “The Answer at Last!” blurb in the bottom right hand corner, but it probably would have been obscured by whatever comic was displayed below Thor #159 in the spinner rack.) In any event — I didn’t buy and read this issue until several years later, by which time The Mighty Thor had become my very favorite Marvel character, and I was avidly acquiring back issues as fast as I could.
But, hey, that’s no reason why you, dear reader, should have to delay your gratification…
In “The Answer at Last”, Odin appears to Don Blake and reveals to him the secrets of his past. We readers, along with Blake, witness an episode from the long-ago past in which Thor recklessly breaks a truce between the Asgardians and the Storm Giants and almost starts a war, incurring Odin’s ire. (This sequence, which serves as the source for the issue’s cover scene, will probably seem familiar to anyone who saw the first Thor movie.) This is followed by another vignette, in which Thor and his “Warriors Three” buddies inadvertently start a barroom brawl. After Odin shuts down this unseemly display, he summons Thor to call him to account — and then, finally, on page 15, we and Don get the answer we’ve been waiting for:
As with the truce-breaking scene earlier in the issue, the entire sequence of Odin making Thor mortal and exiling him to Midgard to learn humility should be familiar to any viewer of 2011’s Thor film, as it serves as the basis of that movie’s plot — the most obvious difference being that, in the movie — as in the current Thor comics — there’s no Donald Blake.
At the end of issue #158, our hero had asked, “Is Dr. Blake merely a myth — a casual creation of all-wise Odin?” Issue #159’s answer is, “Well, maybe not exactly a casual creation, but otherwise — yeah, pretty much.”
In retrospect, of course, it seems clear that the original intention of Lee, Kirby, and Lieber in 1962 was indeed for Dr. Donald Blake to be “a normal, average human“, who “accidentally stumbled upon the greatest discovery of all time!” He was merely a regular Joe who came to possess the power of a Norse Thunder God. But all three creators, as well as the others who contributed to the “Thor” strip in its early Journey into Mystery days, were flying by the seat of their pants. In the end, they (or perhaps just Kirby) couldn’t resist bringing more and more of the imaginative riches of Norse mythology into their stories. And while it might have worked for a while to have scenes in which, say, Loki immediately recognized Blake-Thor as his long-lost brother, while our hero had to draw on his book-learning to know who the God of Mischief was (as in the panel from JiM #85 shown at right), the deeper that Lee, Kirby, and company got into Asgardian lore, the less sense that made. If Blake really was Thor, then where had Thor been before Blake found the cane in the cave? Fans wanted to know — and so the creative team were all but required to come up with some kind of answer.
And the fact that such an answer was required is one reason I find it hard to buy the idea that Thor #158 and #159 were simply fill-ins, cobbled together at the last minute primarily from an already-published story and other existing material. (Among the more compelling theories concerning the “oddities” of these issues that I haven’t yet mentioned is one that posits that both the “storm giants” and “tavern brawl” scenes in #159 were originally supposed to be “Tales of Asgard” stories that got bumped when Stan Lee decided to give that feature’s back-up slot in Thor to the Inhumans.) Yeah, they do sort of stand out, sandwiched as they are between epic storylines involving Mangog on one side and Galactus on the other — but, as I’ve said, this story had to be told at some point. Why not in the fall of 1968?
Of course, once the secret of Dr. Donald Blake was finally revealed, Don’s days as a viable character were numbered. Oh, he managed to hang around for another fifteen years or so, but neither Lee and Kirby, nor any of the creators that followed them on the series, seemed to have much of an idea what to do with him — until, finally, writer-artist Walt Simonson effectively killed him off in an issue near the beginning of his classic run, by having Odin transfer the enchantment that allowed Thor to become mortal from Mijolnir to another mystic hammer, Beta Ray Bill‘s Stormbreaker. And he was hardly missed by Thor fandom-at-large, at least not to the best of my knowledge. (Eventually, as you might imagine, someone — namely writer J. Michael Straczynski — did try to bring Don Blake back, but it didn’t last.)
Simonson’s disposal of Dr. Blake was published in 1984, but I must have been skeptical regarding how permanent the change was — or perhaps just didn’t realize how irrelevant the good doctor would eventually become for latter-day fans. Because in the summer of 1986, when I had to pick out a single issue of Thor to ask Jack Kirby to sign at the Dallas Fantasy Fair, I chose Thor #159 –which, though far from the oldest or most “valuable”, money-wise, of the Thor comics in my collection, still felt like an important, even a “key” issue. Thus, on the appointed day, the deed was done; later, as I was basking in the afterglow of having actually met and spoken to the King of Comics, I idly imagined that sometime in the next few years, I’d get the chance to meet Stan Lee at a con, as well, and I’d ask him to sign the same book.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to another con for quite a few years — adult responsibilities, and all that — and I’d pretty well given up on ever getting that second signature. But at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con — a mere three decades after Jack Kirby autographed my copy of Thor #159 — I finally had the good fortune, and privilege, to have Stan Lee sign it as well:
So, yeah — as far as I’m concerned, Thor #159 will always be a key issue. ‘Nuff said.
*I’d like to say that it’s obvious that Kirby didn’t draw the Thor portrait — but with some chagrin, I have to admit that it wasn’t obvious to me — not for years, or even (gulp) decades. When I first saw this book as an eleven-year old, fifty years ago, the only Thor artists I knew about were Kirby and Colletta, and I didn’t have a clue about the kinds of things that went on in a comic book publisher’s production department. Since some of the cover had clearly been done by the book’s regular art team, I just assumed that the whole cover was — despite the fact that the head of Thor didn’t (and, of course, still doesn’t) look like any other head Jack Kirby ever drew, on Thor or anyone else. This is actually one of my all-time favorite portraits of Thor, as well as being the primary focus of one of my very favorite Silver Age covers (the latter distinction being attested to by the cover’s prominent placement in the original title banner of this blog) — but if you’d asked me as recently as five years ago who drew it, I’d have told you “Jack Kirby” — even though it’s painfully obvious to me now that it couldn’t have been. Which I guess just goes to show that sometimes, we do indeed see only what we want — or, at least, expect — to see.