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Thor: A Guide for the Uninitiated

Justin here with a look at all things Thor in anticipation of the Thor movie next week.

Q: So... Thor, huh?
A: Fuck yeah, Thor!

Q: What's the deal with Thor?
A: We're talking about the Marvel Comics Thor. A Thor that's very different from the one in Norse mythology. Essentially, Thor flies around with his magic hammer, Mjolnir, protecting humans from bad guys. He can call down thunder and lightning, he's super strong, and he has the use of some other mythical relics.

Q: So, he's a god – but he hangs out on Earth and fights alongside Iron Man and Spider-Man?
A: Yeah. Thor is an Avenger. Even though he is magical in nature, he is friends with sci-fi themed heroes. He is from Asgard, the legendary home of the Norse gods where things are all mythical and magical. He has adventures both there and on Earth. In a sense, Thor is like Iron Man meets Lord of the Rings.

Q: Why should I care?
A: Well...

In the past, I never gotThor. He seemed really out of place looking at the Avengers. Most of his comics are in a kind of fake Elizabethan English that makes for awkward reading. Thor is a very strange kind of superhero. He's usually forced into formulaic superhero tropes, which makes him seem even more out of place.

Q: You mean like with a secret identity?
A: Exactly. Thor's secret identity is Donald Blake, a weakling doctor with a bad limp. While he is Blake, Thor's hammer is disguised as a walking stick. When Blake taps the stick on the ground, he's transformed into Thor.

Q: Why would a god need a secret identity?
A: Good question, and one that is handled with varying degrees of success. Typically Thor is presented as a very arrogant and combative god who is cast out of Asgard by his dad, Odin. Odin wants Thor to learn humility so that one day Thor can be a great leader.

Q: OK, so who's Thor's “Lois Lane?”
A: Jane Foster is Thor's love interest. She is typically portrayed as a nurse to Donald Blake. In the early Thor stories from the early 60's, there's a weird love triangle between Blake, Jane, and Thor. Sometimes (and I believe in the movie) Jane is an archeologist or museum curator specializing in Norse artifacts. However, Thor – the god part – also has his own love interest, Sif, a fierce Asgardian warrior woman.

Q: Wait – you're saying Thor and Donald Blake are the same but different?
A: Well, yes and no. In most versions, Thor and Blake have totally different personalities and interact in different ways. Sometimes Thor can be mighty and god-like and have Blake kicking around his head as a sort of inner monologue. This part is actually really confusing -- you're better off not dwelling on it too much.

Q: So who is Thor's arch-nemesis?
A: His brother, Loki, the god of mischief. Thor may be a lot of things, but he's not very smart. Loki typically gets the better of him through deception and illusion.

Q: Hmmm... my interest is peaked. What else can you tell me to sell me on Thor?
A: Anything goes in Thor comics. That's what makes him so awesome. It's about adventure and fun. In the best Thor stories, he can fight mythical monsters in Asgard, clobber evil aliens in deep space and come back to Earth to kick it with the Avengers. There's something about the conceit of Thor that I find really appealing. I like the tension between magic and science – because really for storytelling purposes they're the same thing. I'm a big fan of both S/F and Fantasy stories, so seeing the two in one comic is really fun for me. I like that Thor can simultaneously take itself sooooo seriously with the haughty language and regal spectacle while also being very goofy – one of the seminal Thor comics involves him being turned into frog-Thor for a few issues.

Q: Wow, Justin, I'm in! What are some great Thor comics I should check out?
A: You should seek out the following:

Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee – Don't let the fact that this comic is sold as an all-ages book fool you. This is the best place for a Thor novice to start. Thor: The Mighty Avenger is a continuity-free telling of the Thor story. You don't need to know anything going in. Langridge is a fantastic writer. Other than this, he is best known for a great run of comics based on The Muppet Show. Chris Samnee is an incredible artist and a fast rising star. His loose iconic style is a joy to look at.

Thor by J. Michael Straczynski – JMS of Battlestar Gallactica fame wrote an awesome run on Thor a few years back. Prior to his run, Thor and all the Asgardians were dead. In the first issue Thor rebuilds Asgard just outside a small town in Oklahoma. There are a lot of very entertaining scenes with Asgardians interacting with Oklahomans. One particularly great subplot has the Asgardian weather goddess fall in love with a fry-cook at the local diner. These comics are available in a one volume omnibus edition as well as several smaller trade paperbacks.

I'm currently making my way through the Volstagg-sized Thor by Walt Simonson omnibus. This 1,200 page volume contains what's generally considered to be the best run on Thor by anyone. And I have to say that even though I'm only about 250 pages in, I totally agree. Simonson wrote all of these and drew most of them (until the also awesome Sal Buscema took over). The book starts with a bang with the saga of Beta Ray Bill, a sort of alien-horse warrior who becomes one of Thor's closest allies. These comics aren't to be missed. These are also available in a more manageable size as Thor Visionaries: Walt Simonson – although I believe the last volume of that series is currently out of print.
If you want to see where it all began, your best bet is to check out the Essential Thor series. These low-cost black and white volumes reprint around 500 pages of comics per book. They're in black and white, but it's a great way to sample the early stories by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The stories may seem kind of hokey by today's standards. To me, they're always entertaining if a bit ludicrous. Even if you don't care for the stories, that's a lot of awesome Jack Kirby art to feast your eyes on.

Honestly, Thor isn't for everyone. He's a hard sell and a little hard to appreciate. I didn't like Thor until very recently when I discovered J. Michael Straczynski's run on the comic. But it's like this: all superhero stories are ridiculous, implausible, and fantastic. If you can buy that a rogue billionaire would fight crime like a giant bat or in a suit of armor, then it's not that big of a leap to accept a hammer-wielding thunder god. Let yourself like Thor. Let yourself have fun.

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Thor: A Guide for the Uninitiated + TIME