While I can’t claim to have distinct memories of the moment my fourteen-year-old self first laid eyes on the cover of Thor #195, one half-century ago, I feel confident in telling you that I was pretty happy about it (new Marvel Comics “picture frame” cover design notwithstanding). That’s in part because penciller John Buscema and inker Frank Giacoia provided a well-crafted illustration, obviously; but for me, it had more to do with the subject of the illustration. The God of Thunder and his best buds, the Warriors Three (who just so happened to be my favorite members of Thor‘s supporting cast, but hardly ever seemed to make the cover) battling a bunch of trolls? That seemed to put us right square in the middle of the high fantasy territory that often, but not always, supplied the milieu for the Son of Odin’s adventures, both in his current run and in the old Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Journey into Mystery stories I was then enjoying in reprint form via Special Marvel Edition. More to the point, that particular territory was my favorite milieu for Thor stories, as it had been since I’d caught the high fantasy bug by way of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the summer of 1970 — and the main reason why Thor had become my favorite Marvel superhero in the months since then.
Adding to the cover’s high fantasy mystique was the story title bannered at the bottom (though, as we’ll see in a moment, it wasn’t the story’s real title) — “The Well at the Edge of the World!” — which called to mind (at least for your humble blogger) William Morris’ seminal 1896 high fantasy novel The Well at the World’s End.* Not that I’d actually read Morris’ immense work, mind you, but I knew it by reputation, and I may have even already parted with the two-and-a-half bucks it cost to buy both paperback volumes (numbers 20 and 21, respectively, in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series — which, if you’re unfamiliar with it, was practically the only place you could go in the early ’70s if you were looking for fantasy fiction that hewed more closely to the Tolkien model than either Conan-esque sword-and-sorcery on the one side, or Narnia-type children’s fantasy on the other).
But, enough about the cover, eh? Let’s go ahead and turn to the book’s opening splash page, so we can learn what the actual title of our story is:**
OK, so the official title seems to give away who the big bad of this story is going to be (one of them, anyway). — which seems something of a shame, considering that the cover has completely avoided showing Mangog at all. On the other hand, it’s not like Marvel is blowing a last page reveal — ol’ Manny will be showing his ugly horned head as early page 12 — so let’s move on.
In his 2011 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Mighty Thor, Vol. 11, Gerry Conway writes that he considers Thor #195 to be the issue with which his run on the title really begins, despite his having scripted the previous two issues. That’s quite understandable, considering that in #193 and #194 he was wrapping up a multi-issue storyline begun by his predecessor, Stan Lee. And in fact, you could start reading Thor with this very issue and not feel at all like you were coming in late; it’s unquestionably the best jumping-on point that the series has offered since #184, almost a whole year earlier. In some ways that’s remarkable, as it seems very likely that #195’s contents — or at least a goodly portion of them — were originally intended to be the last two thirds of a 25-cent/48-page version of issue #194, before Marvel publisher Martin Goodman abruptly pulled the plug on the company’s brief experiment with extra-length, all-new comics. I base this assertion on the fact that #194’s lead story — the Conway-scripted finale to Lee’s plotline — ran only 15 pages, with a 5-page “Tales of Asgard” reprint taking up the remainder of the issue. And of those 15 pages, the last one-and-a-third were devoted to previewing this issue’s storyline. All things considered, it’s a wonder that the break between the two issues feels as well-defined as it does (at least from the #195 side).
Of course, the sense of a clear break between issues — and story arcs — does get significant visual reinforcement from a changing of the guard on the artistic side of things, as the inker for the past two issues, Sal Buscema, passes the brush to the quite stylistically dissimilar Vince Colletta. As much as I’d enjoyed Sal’s inks over his brother John’s pencils for #193 and #194 — and the inkers who’d preceded him in the months before that, chiefly Joe Sinnott — I enthusiastically welcomed Colletta’s return to the book after over a year’s absence. Colletta had worked on virtually every issue of Thor over a five-year period (beginning in 1964, when the book was still called Journey into Mystery), and for me, his inks simply looked “right” on Thor, especially when the action was set in Asgard and related locales. I might have felt differently had I been aware that he’d been guilty on occasion of erasing details from Jack Kirby’s pencils, both on Thor and, more recently, on Kirby’s Fourth World titles for DC Comics (Kirby’s belated discovery of this infraction was perhaps the main reason Colletta wasn’t inking most of those books any more, ironically freeing up the time on his schedule that allowed him to return to Thor). But, as they say, ignorance is bliss.
Wait, Thor and Sif are gonna tie the knot? And they’ve even set a date? This is big news to us readers — though not, it seems, to Sif (thank Frigga).
In the just-completed “Odin-Ring” storyline, Loki had tried to force Sif to marry him, but had been thwarted at the last moment by the God of Thunder’s timely arrival. It now seems that in the presumably brief interval between issues, the longtime couple have had a convo or two and reached the conclusion: “right idea, wrong groom”. Which makes all the sense in the world — Thor and Sif were married in Norse mythology, after all.
But, as we’re about to see, All-Father Odin is about to gum up the works by sending the two lovebirds on separate missions. After the next couple of pages, Thor and Sif won’t share another panel together until issue #202 — by which time, everyone (including scripter Conway) seems to have forgotten all about the wedding plans, at least, they’re not mentioned again. Did Conway actually forget about this plot thread, or did he simply change his mind? Or had it changed for him, perhaps by editor Stan Lee? We’ll probably never know.
While readers of Thor #194 will already have a good idea what’s bugging Big Daddy Odin, those readers just picking up the book with this issue are in the dark as much as the Thunder God. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion; indeed, it may actually enhance the suspense of this sequence.
Odin makes an imperious pronouncement completely out of left field, and then gets bent out of shape when somebody pushes back just a tad? Ehh, must be Wednesday.
For his part, Thor seems to have decided to just go with the flow this time. Maybe he’s learned his lesson after all the previous occasions when he’s bucked Odin’s commands, only to be instantly slapped down for it — and then see everything somehow ultimately turn out for the best, anyway.
This scene represents the first appearance of Hildegarde, a character I’m afraid I probably didn’t appreciate as much as I should have back in the day. That’s probably due mostly to her not matching up perfectly with my fourteen-year-old’ self’s notions of sexual attractiveness — though, in my defense, her arbitrary cold-cocking of Sif didn’t exactly make for the best first impression.
That action seems even less intuitive as a way to introduce Hildegarde after one learns that Gerry Conway evidently conceived her primarily as a friend for Sif. As the writer told Back Issue magazine for their 53rd issue in 2011:
…I liked the idea of [a friend for] Sif — here was this female, and she didn’t have any female friends, you know? She didn’t have anybody that she hung out with. I thought, “Who’s the kind of person who would be an appropriate pal for her?” And then I had just read or watched some take on the Rings [sic] cycle, and I had this notion of a big Viking woman, this big massive Viking woman, and Sif was not that woman! So then it was, “Give her a pal, a big Viking woman, and see where that goes!”
Following her debut here, Hildegarde would become a regular member of Thor’s supporting cast, appearing in most issues through #232 (though only sporadically after that).*** Although later comics would identify her as a Valkyrie, she’s not presented as one in this initial run of stories; nevertheless, as Conway alluded to in his comments, her character design is clearly inspired by the conventional idea of what a Wagnerian soprano is supposed to look like — you know, the sort whose final vocal performance indicates the imminent conclusion of an opera.
Hildegarde’s remark about how she “did foolishly seek to please” one of the Warriors Three is a little confusing — she appears to be referring to an earlier incident we readers haven’t seen (in the present story, Thor and his friends have already departed the scene before Odin summons Hildegarde, so it must have occurred sometime before this adventure begins). Nevertheless, we can’t help but be intrigued. Who’s the guy? Is it the dashing Fandral? The grim Hogun? Mayhap e’en the voluminous Volstagg?**** Bring on the “woman’s talk”, please!
Ahh… now we’re getting somewhere! Methinks ’tis Hogun who has captured the fancy of the fair but formidable Hildegarde… although I suppose he could be referring to some other lady of Asgard’s court. For that matter, Hildegarde may have a different Warrior in mind, as well. One can easily imagine several ways that this might go.
And, alas, one will have to go on imagining, most likely to the end of time. Because the storyline never comes back to this subplot (or subplots) — neither from Hogun’s point-of-view nor from Hildegarde’s. As with Sif and Thor, Hildy and the Warriors Three will be traveling on different narrative tracks for the next six issues — and by the time everybody gets back together again, Conway has either forgotten all about the situation he set up here, or has perhaps just thought better of it. I know you’re all disappointed to learn this — I certainly was, back in 1972 — but best to deal with the heartache now and get it over with, in my view.
All right, moving on: Calling on the power of his enchanted hammer, Mjolnir, Thor determines that the way to the Well lies south — and so, off in that direction does our foursome tread…
And it’s action time! At least it is for about another page — but then matters conclude as they inevitably must, with the disagreeable spider-dragon thingy dispatched to the bottom of the chasm…
This is the first appearance of the “elders”, Asgardian senior citizens who have obviously been around for a good long while, but whose lack of visibility in Thor stories up to this point is explained by Bulwar’s remark that Odin had asked the old guard to keep a low profile all these years (centuries?) so “that the young gods might find their own glory.”
If the creation of Hildegarde was motivated by Gerry Conway’s wish to give Sif a peer to hang with, was there similar thinking behind the introduction of Bulwar, Whitemane, Khan, and Rongor — i.e., was the idea to give Odin a few drinking buddies in his own age bracket? Perhaps, but I’m inclined to think that the truth of their genesis lies instead in a brief news item buried within the 52nd issue of the comics fanzine Newfangles, dated October, 1971:
The phrase “Kirby’s killing of the old gods” refers to the cataclysm depicted in DC Comics’ New Gods #1 (Feb.-Mar., 1971) — the event which provides the origin for the gods of New Genesis and Apokolips, divinities whose subsequent conflict lies at the center of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythos. Though this is never expressly stated by Kirby in the books themselves, this long-ago cataclysm is (and was) widely understood to be the same as Ragnarök — and the “old gods” the same as the Norse Gods. There’s even a strong possibility that Kirby originally conceived the Fourth World as a potential “replacement” for the Thor series at Marvel, but either couldn’t sell Stan Lee on the idea, or opted not to try. So it’s not at all surprising — or even particularly mean-spirited, in my opinion — that Marvel would eventually respond in this lightly teasing fashion, by introducing a brand-new group of elder gods who have to rise to the occasion to save Asgard when the younger ones are unavailable (which I realize isn’t quite the same as “when the young ones mess things up”, but is close enough, I think).
I must acknowledge here that this is all speculation on my part, and is not corroborated by any external evidence that I’m aware of.***** But it seems very likely to me, and probably one of the main reasons that, unlike Hildegarde, Odin’s old gang wouldn’t be staying around for very long.
Although Odin refers to the world he boneheadedly sent Loki to in #194 as “that blackest of worlds”, readers shouldn’t confuse it with the planet actually called “Blackworld”, which is where he’s sent Sif and Hildegarde. Got all that?
As we’ve already noted, the presence of Mangog in this issue had been given away by the title on page 1. But readers who were already familiar with the character (as my fourteen-year-old self wasn’t, save vaguely, as I’d only started buying Thor with the issue immediately following the conclusion of the original Mangog saga) would be wondering how in the Hel he’d managed to survive, since Thor #157 had established that Mangog was nothing more than a spell Odin had cast to imprison a race of “a billion billion beings”, who proceeded to fade out of existence (or at least appeared to) once Odin broke the spell and returned that race to life.
Hmm, that explanation doesn’t exactly square up with what you told everybody back in #157, Odin, about Mangog being just a spell and all. But I guess we’ll have to allow it, because we all understand that Jack Kirby’s great character design for Mangog ensured the villain would have to be brought back some day, somehow.
Meanwhile, on the world called World’s End (not to be confused with the World Beyond), Volstagg’s feet are getting sore from all that walking. But, no worries; Thor has a plan:
While I’m sure it didn’t faze my younger self in 1971, the dialogue engaged in by Thor and company in this scene, with its references to making the Yrrl-beasts “slaves” and calling them “toys in these, our godlike hands“, doesn’t play at all well with me today. The Asgardians essentially come across here as entitled assholes; it’s not a good look on these supposedly noble heroes.
Trolls? Frankly, these guys don’t look much like Ulik and his brethren, the trolls who’ve made multiple appearances in past issues of Thor. But I’m sure the God of Thunder knows whereof he speaks.
Regardless of how I feel about that earlier business with the Yrrl-beasts, it’s always a pleasure to see the Warriors Three doing the things they do so well Especially Volstagg.
“Gods have no need of slaves.” OK, that’s much better.
And that’s it for Sif and Hildegarde in this issue; if they ever get around to that “woman’s talk”, we don’t get to hear it.
As for the mystery of Blackworld, it will continue to grow slowly in the background over the next six issues, before finally taking over the main narrative in issue #202. Fear not, you’ll learn all about it in future posts.
And so ends the first chapter in the latest saga of the mighty Thor. As I recall, I was fairly well satisfied with this issue in October, 1971; I had been hoping for a high fantasy adventure, and by and large that was what I got. Sure, there was that business about traveling to other planets — but the characters did travel by magic (or whatever it is you call what Odin does) — and there was no advanced technology in sight, nor a single glimpse (or even a reference!) to Earth. Eventually, as the storyline progressed from issue to issue, it would become apparent that the Blackworld thread was actually more science-fictional in nature (and that would be fine, honestly) — but for now, this was Thor the way I liked Thor best.
The only real question at this point was whether young Gerry Conway (the writer was nineteen at the time Thor #195 was published) would be able to follow through on all the situations he’d set up in this initial installment, and bring them each to a satisfying resolution. Of necessity, this blog’s answer to that question will have to be delayed to a future entry; but if you haven’t yet had your fill of Odinson action for this October, I hope you’ll come back three days from now for even more Thor, as we continue our march through Roy Thomas and Neal Adams’ Kree-Skrull War epic in Avengers. No, there won’t be a single troll in sight — but my inner fourteen-year-old won’t mind, and I bet yours won’t, either.
*In alluding to this classic, Conway was following in the footsteps of fellow Marvel writer Roy Thomas, who’d been influenced by it when christening his “Well at the Center of Time” in Avengers #84 (Jan., 1971) — though in Thomas’ case, the reference was not quite as direct. And in fact, the “next issue” blurb accompanying the final panel of Thor #194’s lead story had been even more on the nose, avoiding replication of the exact title of Morris’ work by only one “the”:
**Oddly enough, “The Well at the World’s Edge!” would later be used as the official, title-page title of the third chapter of this storyline, appearing in Thor #197; for that one, the cover would go with the alternative title, “Mangog Unleashed!” Or, maybe it’s not so odd, after all — since #197 is the issue in which Thor as his fellow questers will actually arrive at the Well, making the title that refers to that destination a rather better fit for the later comic than it was for #195.
***Hildegarde has had something of a renaissance in recent years, appearing with some frequency in Marvel’s various Thor and Valkyrie series, and playing an active role in the company’s War of the Realms and King in Black events. Of late, she’s even been subbing for Volstagg (who’s currently serving as Asgard’s senator in the Congress of Worlds) as a member of the Warriors (sometimes Ministers) Three.
****Longtime Thor readers with excellent memories might recall that in Volstagg’s debut appearance back in 1965, he’d been established as being a very married man, making it highly unlikely (if not impossible) that he’s the Warrior that Hildegarde is currently crushing on. But your humble blogger had only started reading Thor in 1968 (and had yet to encounter this particular story in reprint form or as a back issue), so I wasn’t aware of that in 1971.
*****In his indispensable Old Gods & New: A Companion to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (TwoMorrows, 2020), John Morrow makes the case for identifying another, later plot development in Thor, occurring around issue #202-203, as Marvel’s “friendly retaliation” for Kirby’s multiple deicide at DC. With all due respect to Mr. Morrow, I think my candidate fits the facts better than his; but explaining my reasons why will necessarily have to wait for a later post.