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Journey into history: Thor in the comics

Nov. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Tom Hiddleston Chris Hemsworth
On the big screen, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), left, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) play out a sibling rivalry that has thrived for decades in Marvel's comic books. (Walt Disney Studios/Marvel)
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On the big screen, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), left, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) play out a sibling rivalry that has thrived for decades in Marvel's comic books. (Marvel Comics)

The Norse god Thor first thundered into the Marvel universe in the sci-fi anthology comic “Journey into Mystery” No. 83 in August 1962. He was the brainchild of Marvel patriarch Stan Lee, his brother Larry Lieber, and comics legend Jack Kirby.

Within two years, Lee and Kirby assumed full control over the character, changed the book’s title to “The Mighty Thor” and produced a run that rivaled their work on Fantastic Four in scope and energy.

Throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, just about every top-flight creator at Marvel took a turn on Thor — in his own book, in the Avengers, of which he was a founding member, and in various guest appearances.

Lightning struck when Walt Simonson took the reins with issue No. 337 in November 1983. Simonson, known for his superlative work on a number of comics, created, added and stripped elements from Thor with abandon, and pushed the book’s sci-fi-meets-fantasy themes to the fore, creating a sales hit and a high point of the era.

Simonson left Thor in 1987 and the Thunder God rode out the rest of the ’80s and ’90s with some great moments. Tom DeFalco and Dan Jurgens both had long runs, and Warren Ellis hit a home run with “Worldengine.” But by 2004, sales had flagged to the point that Marvel killed Thor and shelved the title.

But beloved comics characters often have multiple lives, and in 2007, Thor thundered back to life and has since appeared in a number of high-quality ongoing titles and miniseries. Now, with the success of the Marvel film franchise, he’s become a major money maker for the company — and a pop-culture fixture.

With history stretching back more than five decades, Thor has a massive catalog. Here are some easy ins to some of the best Thor stories.

Marvel Masterworks: The Mighty Thor

A few years back, Marvel began releasing its popular Silver and Bronze Age collection series as trade paperbacks — a welcome move, as many of the early hardcover volumes were long out of print. Volume 1 starts with Thor’s debut in “Journey into Mystery” No. 83 and goes from there. The 12th volume of the hardcover series hit the stands just a few weeks ago. The first four trade paperback editions are out, easy to find, fairly cheap and, by the end of Volume 1, loaded with Stan Lee/Jack Kirby epic goodness.

Thor | Walt Simonson

Certainly the greatest run since the Lee-Kirby era — and arguably the best. Walt Simonson’s long stint as writer and artist (along with Marvel’s sturdiest workhorse, Sal Buscema) is loaded with definitive Thor stories, including the introductions of Beta Ray Bill, Dark World heavy Malekith, Thor Frog (yes, indeed), and a star-studded spin on Ragnarok. Volumes 1 and 2 are on the racks, the third is slated for a mid-December release and the last two are scheduled for early next year.

Avengers Disassembled: Thor

Once again, Ragnarok comes calling, but this time it’s for real. Really. Helping set the table for the controversial “Avengers Disassembled” storyline, this wraps up 40 years of continuity in an epic and disturbing fashion, epitomized by an image of Thor hoisting the disembodied but still-living head of Loki as he faces down the big baddies aboard a Viking galley in the cosmic ether.

Thor | J. Michael Straczynski and Kieron Gillen

After a three-year hiatus, Thor returns to a world that desperately needs him: Marvel’s “Civil War“ is over and Captain America is dead. Straczynki pens a simultaneously reflective and expansive yarn in Volumes 1-3 and Gillen seamlessly takes it over the finish line in “Latverian Prometheus.” All of that leads into the bombastic and action-packed “Siege,” but also easily stands alone.

Thor: The God of Thunder

Three Thors battle the aptly named God-Butcher in this cosmic epic that spans millenia and light years. Want a heavy dose of big awesome that requires no knowledge of anything that has happened in the character’s previous five decades? Start with Vols. 1 and 2, then jump on to the monthly comic which currently features the timely return of Malekith, the new Thor movie’s villain.

Thor: Tales of Asgard

A collection of stories focusing on Thor’s younger years that ran as a back-up in “Journey into Mystery” may have Stan Lee’s name on it, but this is a Jack Kirby Silver Age showcase all the way.

Thor: Ages of Thunder

The collection of Matt Fraction’s one-shots about a Thor who’s young, dumb and full of rage and petulance isn’t your father’s “Tales of Asgard” (see above); it’s a fantasy-fueled, bloody and bitter affair featuring an excellent array of artists. Fraction also wrote Thor’s short-and-sweet “Secret Invasion” tie-in. (All you need to know: The alien Skrulls attack Asgard during their invasion of Earth).

Thor and Loki: Blood Brothers

Villains often see themselves as misunderstood heroes. Couple that with a myth-sized sibling rivalry, and you get this twisted gem. Originally released as simply “Loki,” it paints a somewhat sympathetic portrait of Thor’s arch-enemy, giving him a fresh, thick coat of depth and complexity. Rodi also wrote the worthwhile “For Asgard.”

Journey Into Mystery | Kieron Gillen

At some point, Loki dies and is reborn as a kid — a kid determined not to make the same mistakes of the past; this time, he’s really going to be the hero. No more lies. No more deceptions. No more mischief. But hey, Loki is the god of mischief. Can he overcome his divine nature to be the person he wants to be? Not exactly — and that makes for one of the most enjoyable and unique comics in recent memory. You can wait for the first volume of the Complete Collection or you can start here. The first arc spins out of Fear Itself, which has its moments, but “Journey Into Mystery” is solid from start to heartbreaking finish.

The Ultimates 1 and 2

Ultimate Marvel was a successful effort to recast classic Marvel characters in a continuity-free line so new readers could jump on and old readers could delight and rage at the differences and similarities to the classic Marvel universe. Some of the Ultimate line has crept into the movies: most notably, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. as the driving force behind the formation of The Avengers. The Ultimates are essentially the Avengers, and Ultimate Thor is either a hippie cult leader with some stolen high tech or he’s an Asgardian god. Comics to munch popcorn to.

Also-rans

The Trials of Loki, If Asgard Should Perish, The Quest for Odin, Ragnarok, Thor by Dan Jurgens, Thor: The Mighty Avenger, Gods, Gladiators & the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Vikings (dig for the singles, as the trade is sadly out of print) and the cheap (when in print) black and white reprint Essentials.

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