Wednesday, 31 January 2018

What the Heck's going on with Thor?

THE EARLY YEARS OF THOR, like the earliest Hulk stories, were a succession of false starts and reinventions. After the first run of Kirby issues, Stan tried to bring in more mythic elements with the help of his brother Larry Lieber on scripting and veteran Atlas penciller Joe Sinnott on art chores. But he wasn't happy with the way Journey into Mystery - and for that matter Strange Tales, Astonish and Suspense - were going and took the drastic step of taking over the writing of these titles himself, and then giving each a meaningful facelift. That this all happened in the same month means it wasn't a coincidence, but a plan.

The July 1963 on-sale issues of the four anthology titles were the last written by Stan's hired gun scripters. Starting with the following month's issues, Stan transformed almost the entire Marvel line...

This was what Marvel's assault on the newsstands looked like during the summer vacation period of 1963. Four major revamps, more Spider-Man, the all-new Fantastic Four Annual, The Avengers, The X-men ... and limping along in the rear, Daredevil, courtesy of the tardy Bill Everett. It was like Stan had declared war on DC.
Strange Tales 114 (cover-dated Nov 1963) offered a trial appearance of Captain America in the Human Torch strip, and Dr Strange as a permanent back-up feature. Tales of Suspense 47 & 48 (Nov/Dec 1963) showcased Steve Ditko art and a new costume for Iron Man. In Tales to Astonish 49 (Nov 1963), Ant-Man became Giant-Man (or Giant Man, it varies).

And it wasn't just the anthology titles. Amazing Spider-Man became a monthly with issue 4 (Sep 1963). Strange Tales Annual 2 (Sep 1963) was published, alongside Fantastic Four Annual 1 (Sep 1963). Also on the stands that month, Avengers 1 and X-Men 1. And I'll also venture that Daredevil would have been part of the same flurry of launches if Bill Everett hadn't taken so long to draw issue 1.

Some of these transformations I've already looked at in-depth, some I've still to cover, but this time we're here to look at the third and ultimately unsuccessful version of Thor in Journey into Mystery, before Jack Kirby became a fixture on the title.


As with the above-mentioned anthology titles, Journey into Mystery received its Stan Lee makeover with the Oct 1963 cover-dated issue 97 (on sale in August). Lee brought back Jack Kirby for the main strip and instituted a back-up, Tales of Asgard, which he had Kirby draw and which he himself also scripted.

The main thrust of the plot in Journey into Mystery 97 seems to be the failed romantic designs Don Blake/Thor has on his nurse, Jane Foster. I was never a fan of this storyline, as I found Jane a bit whiney, and couldn't figure out what on midgard Thor ever saw in her.
Though the credits on Journey into Mystery's Thor strip give Jack Kirby as the penciller and Don Heck as the inker, the pencils provided by Kirby could have been no more than layouts, presumably to get Heck - on temporary secondment from Iron Man - up to speed with how Stan wanted Thor to be depicted. All of the faces here are very much in Heck's style, though the figures are very obviously strongly influenced by Kirby.

Stan also shifts the focus of the story, placing more emphasis on the love life of Don Blake, which had been merely background noise during the first year of the strip's run. To my mind this is a typical Lee trademark, spotlighting the romantic heartache of his heroes. He was doing the same schtick with Spider-Man (the Peter Parker-Betty Brant-Liz Allen triangle) and Iron Man (the Tony Stark-Pepper Potts-Happy Hogan triangle), and would later apply the formula to Daredevil.

In this Thor story, Blake begs leave of Odin to romance Jane Foster. Odin refuses and Foster - the flibbertigibbet - loses interest and wanders off with another handsome doctor she's found, Basil or Bruce (take your pick) Andrews.

Almost incidental to all this is Thor's battle with the Lava Man, a villain that's a step up from Thor's usual calibre of foe. If you look at the way Stan would handle the other B-characters during this period, it's as though he made a conscious effort to improve the villains faced by his heroes. In the few months that followed, Iron Man got The Mandarin and The Black Widow, Giant-Man got The Human Top and The Black Knight and the Human Torch got ... well, okay, maybe not so much The Human Torch. But The Lava Man did well enough to come back, menacing Thor and his Avengers buddies in Avengers 5 (May 1964).

The Human Cobra (and his partner Mr Hyde, whom we'll meet in the very next issue) was one of the key villains of the early Thor stories, every bit as slippery and creepy as his namesake.
Journey into Mystery 98 (Nov 1963) provided Thor with an even better super-villain, The Human Cobra, another in Stan's long line of animal villains. And, not wanting to stray too far from plausibility, Lee had his baddy Klaus Vorhees gain his power by ... being bitten by a radioactive cobra. And when The Cobra menaces Jane Foster and her new boss Basil-or-Bruce, the suave medico shows his true colours by refusing to resist the villain's demands. Jane - perhaps a little unrealistically - takes issue with this and deserts Basil/Bruce and returns to Don Blake, right after Thor rescues her and lets the Cobra escape ...

We never hear from Basil/Bruce again, but the Cobra would return before too long, partnered by the villain of the very next Thor tale ... Mr Hyde.

The cover of Journey into Mystery 99 is quite a bit misleading ... there's no scene with Don Blake worrying about an unforeseen menace he'll be unable to fight.
The last Journey into Mystery with a 1963 cover date was issue 99 (Dec 1963), and featured another "new" villain. Inspired by the Robert Louis Stevenson story, disgruntled medical worker Calvin Zabo is turned down for a job by Don Blake. Seeking revenge, Zabo fiddles about in a laboratory and comes up with a serum that replicates the work of Dr Jekyll and turns him into the inhumanly powerful Mr Hyde. Zabo is delighted with his new persona, and gloats that he'll be able to commit crime as Hyde, then transform back into Zabo to escape justice - though I don't believe we ever see him as Zabo again.

In between bouts with Hyde, Thor is also petitioning Odin to allow him to marry Jane Foster, though the ruler of Asgard seems less than convinced. This plot thread would continue for a few years before eventually being resolved on Jack Kirby's watch.

Personally, I kind of agreed with Odin. I didn't think Jane Foster was worthy of Thor, either. She seemed too much of a damsel in distress, quite lacking in the kind of mental strength you'd expect from a prospective goddess.

In the event, Mr Hyde pulls the old stunt of impersonating the hero and committing bank robberies, so Thor will be blamed. Quite why he needs to do this, I do not know, as he's already established that he can just switch from Hyde to Zabo and no one would be able to find him.

The tales closes with Mr Hyde in, erm, hiding and promise from Stan that Thor will again pick up the chase the following month.

Usually reliable Don Heck appeared to be phoning in his artwork for this short run of issues. What is going on with that Thor figure in panel 4 of page 7?
Journey into Mystery 100 (Jan 1964) was a relatively low-key milestone issue, as it wraps up the Mr Hyde story with no great fanfare. As the tale opens, the citizens and police of New York are still convinced Thor's a bank robber. The thinking behind this is pretty shakey. It doesn't seem especially logical that the God of Thunder would feel compelled to turn to petty crime. After all, what does a god need with bundles of U.S. currency? 

Thor figures out pretty quickly that it was Hyde behind the robberies and retreats to his Don Blake identity while he figures out what to do. Recklessly, he goes out to dinner with Jane Foster, as though he's forgotten that it's Blake Mr Hyde has the problem with, rather than Thor. It's no surprise, then, that Hyde kidnaps Blake and his nurse and holds them captive in his ruined castle, just outside New York.

Hyde's masterplan is to steal a nuclear submarine and sail the seven seas with Jane as his reluctant companion. But Don Blake escapes his bonds, transforms to Thor and is soon giving Mr Hyde a hammering.

Worried that Hyde will somehow make good his threat to kill Blake if anything were to happen to him, Jane tries to delay Thor's defeat of Hyde by, erm, hiding his hammer. Odin sees this well-meant treachery and this is to colour his opinion of the girl for the foreseeable future. Hyde escapes so Thor hurriedly leaves to "rescue" Don Blake.

This short run of Don Heck artwork on Thor was marginally better than Joe Sinnott's efforts, but far from Heck's best work. The stories looked like they were drawn to short deadlines, with Heck only putting in as much background art as he thought he needed to. And Stan's scripts seem rushed, as well, with some story stumbles that normally wouldn't have gotten past Stan the Editor.

Thor is furious that his father won't recognise his love for Jane Foster and storms about the city, wrecking municipal property and other people's trucks, so the Avengers try, unsuccessfully, to talk him down. Watching this, Odin decides to punish his son by taking away half his strength.
So it didn't come as a great surprise that Stan brought Jack Kirby back with Journey into Mystery 100 (Feb 1964) as permanent artist on both the five-page Tales of Asgard back-up and the main Thor strip. Yet, the two-part story would read quite a bit like the last story that Stan had prepared for Don Heck, with Jack Kirby drafted in to draw it, rather than looking like a proper Lee-Kirby production. While quite a bit of plot happens in Asgard - four pages of JiM101's running time is taken up with Asgardian manouevrings - and The Avengers stage an intervention when Thor's bad mood puts the city at risk, the main part of the story concerns the return of Zarrko the Tomorrow Man, who'd first menaced Thor way back in Journey into Mystery 86 (Nov 1962).

This time, the future foe's memory is restored, remotely, by Loki and the Tomorrow Man travels to the 20th Century with a giant robot and embarks on a rampage of destruction to bring Thor out. But without his full strength, Thor is no match for the robot and has to agree to obey Zarrko to save the city from inevitable automaton destruction.

Zarrko transports Thor back to the future to help him subdue the 23rd Century. My question is, if Zarrko has control of giant robot that can lay waste to a city, what does he need Thor for? But that's not important right now ... and we leave Thor, on his way to the far-flung future, with Loki gloating that Odin will never forgive the Thunder God for aiding the future criminal.

Kirby's art for this issue is a marked improvement over Don Heck's efforts, though the inking is by one of my least favourite of Kirby's Silver age embellishers, George Roussos. But Kirby's art would step up to another level with the following issue ...

Even though this feels like the tail end of the Don Heck era of Thor, Jack Kirby is here inked by the mighty Chic Stone, who would go on to produce some of the best embellishment of Kirby's art throughout 1964.
The following month Journey into Mystery 102 (Mar 1964) concludes Thor's struggle against the Tomorrow Man with only half his strength to call upon. First there's a two-page recap of the story so far ... which seems a tad excessive. Then it's on with the story. Thor, sworn to aid Zarrko conquer the 23rd Century, tries to limit his destructiveness as much as possible. Battling one future machine after another, Thor finally prevails and travels with Zarrko to the secret location of the all-controlling robot, the point at which he's technically free from his promise and can again battle Zarrko directly. Thor contrives to re-enable the controlling robot's defences and Zarrko is trapped in an energy field and turned over to the authorities.

In my opinion, despite the presence of Chic Stone as Kirby's newest (and best) inker during this period, this is still really the end of the Don Heck era. The Lee-Kirby period of Thor wouldn't start until the next issue of Journey into Mystery.

But that's a story for another time ...

The real Kirby-era of Thor would begin with Journey into Mystery 103, when Jack got his feet under the table and began to influence where the character would be going over the next five years.

Next: Comic Books on the Big Screen

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Thor: The Wilderness Years

THE EARLIEST THOR STORIES have always been associated with the grand art of Jack Kirby. But it wasn't actually that way. While the first seven issues of Journey into Mystery that featured the Thunder God were drawn by Kirby, these tales had none of the epic sweep the Silver Age version of the character is remembered for. Thor would battle Commies and gangsters and we'd rarely see more than tantalising glimpses of Odin and the fabled realm of Asgard. Then all too soon, Kirby was off the title, re-assigned by Editor Stan Lee to other more pressing projects, like the epic first Fantastic Four Annual (Oct 1963), as well as new titles X-Men and The Avengers

Working over a plot by Stan Lee and a script by Larry Lieber, Al Hartley turned in his only superhero story of the Silver Age, "Trapped by the Carbon Copy Man". The result was less than legendary.
Another artist had to be found for Journey into Mystery 90 (Mar 1963, on sale January) ... and for that task, Stan selected Al Hartley.

The tale begins with Dr Don Blake resolving to tell his nurse, Jane Foster, that he is really The Mighty Thor and that he loves her. This would be an ongoing sub-plot for the first few years of the Thor strip. Stan seemed to want a romantic undercurrent - usually an unsuccessful one - in every title he wrote. As a ten-year old I found this a little tiresome. The Reed and Sue relationship I didn't mind, as they were a couple from the get-go. Even Hank and Jan were all right, because they too quickly became an item. But could I have been the only one who thought it was a bit creepy that Professor X was secretly mooning over Jean Grey in those early X-Men issues?

Al Hartley's art in Journey into Mystery 90 is a real anomaly, and has all the hallmarks of a rush job. The main figures seem crude and cartoony and the backgrounds are sparse and often absent altogether.
Just as Blake is about to reveal his true identity, Thor's father Odin intervenes and forbids him to say any more. But when Blake goes out to walk it off, he finds all kinds of strange behaviour. Cars driving on the sidewalks, polkadot bridges and advertising posters pasted over apartment windows.

The explanation for the madness is that aliens with designs on conquering Earth have substituted duplicates for important decision-makers (and Jane Foster) in an effort to make the Earthlings confused and frightened and so easier to conquer. Yes, I thought was was a bit lame, too. So Blake offers to betray Thor to the aliens - much to the captured Jane Foster's horror - then turns the tables by giving the aliens a darn good thrashing.

It's probably the least of the early Thor stories, not helped by an especially hokey script and the inappropriate artwork of Al Hartley


Henry Allan Hartley, born 25 October 1921 in New Jersey, was the son of Congressman Frederick Allan Hartley. His father, said Hartley in a later interview, "encouraged me. He knew I wanted to draw from the time I could hold a crayon ... My father wanted me to pursue my own dreams and never attempted to steer me in any other direction."

Hartley drew for his local newspaper while still in high school, and sold a Western comic-book story to the pulp publisher Street & Smith. When the Second World War broke out, Hartley enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew 20 missions as a B-17 bomber pilot over Europe.

On leaving the Service in 1945, Hartley began looking for work as a cartoonist, and quickly landed work with Stardard Comics, drawing his first regular assignment, "Rodger Dodger" in Exciting Comics 51-67 (Sep 1946 - May 1949), gag strips like "Zippy" and "Henry" in Fighting Yank, and a range of short humour strips for America's Best Comics. Hartley also produced art for Ace Comics and ACG.

Al Hartley went quickly from one and two-page fillers for Standard Comics, to six-page stories for Ace Comics and ACG, before landing at Timely Comics, where he produced work in many genres for Stan Lee.
It wasn't long before he found work at Timely Comics, as Hartley related to Alter Ego magazine: "I'd developed enough of a reputation that it wasn't difficult to get a job at Timely in 1949. Stan Lee knew my work and hired me. When I started working with Stan, he wrote most of my stories, although I later wrote all of my own stories. We did all kinds of genres: war, Westerns, detective, science-fiction - you name it. We’d take a theme, and I’d illustrate the story. There were no typed scripts, just a very loose plot line. It was my job to draw the story with as much excitement, surprise, and suspense as I could. Then, Stan would write the dialogue. It's hard to put a time frame on it, but I'd guess we started working that way in the mid-1950s."

After a couple of covers in 1954, Al Hartley became the main artist of the Patsy Walker titles in 1956, supplying covers and interior art for both Patsy Walker and the companion spin-off Patsy and Hedy.
By 1953, Hartley was working almost exclusively on Atlas' burgeoning line of romance comics, like the long-running Love Romances, Girls' Life and Love at First Sight. Then in 1954, he produced his first work for the title he would be most associated with, Patsy Walker, a cover for the September issue, 54. But it would require another two years of toiling across the Atlas range before Hartley started drawing regularly for the Patsy Walker titles, starting with the November 1956 issue of Patsy Walker 67.

Under Al Hartley, Patsy Walker lasted 58 issues, and Patsy and Hedy running even longer at 61 issues. Hartley also wrote and drew the 1966 Marvel curiosity, Patsy Walker's Fashion Parade, an annual-size collection of one-page items showing Patsy in a range of different outfits.
Patsy Walker lasted until 1965, and its companion title Patsy and Hedy ran until 1967. Once the Patsy Walker books were cancelled, Hartley began working for Archie Comics. Shortly after, he became a committed Christian and founded Spire Comics, specialising in religious themed comics. He also entered into a deal with Archie owner John Goldwater to licence the use of the Archie characters in his Spire comics.

How Hartley ended up drawing the Thor strip in Journey into Mystery 90 is anyone's guess. Even Hartley couldn't remember. "Superheroes weren't really my forte," he told Alter Ego. "I don't recall the circumstances that led me to draw that story. At that stage of the game, I was mostly doing work that I was more comfortable with, mostly teenage and humor stories." 

Al Hartley: 25 October 1921 - 27 May 2003
Al Hartley was by no means a bad artist. Quite the opposite. He may not have preferred drawing superhero tales, but it's plain from his 1950s output for Atlas Comics that he could turn his hand, successfully, to any genre. While we'll never know the true circumstances behind the Hartley-drawn Thor story, it's likely that Stan needed a rush art job while he cast around for a replacement for the departing Jack Kirby. "Trapped by the Carbon Copy Man" has all the characteristics of a filler story, probably plotted, scripted and drawn in days. My best guess is that Stan's selected artist also had a tight deadline and Stan worried he wasn't going to make it, so commissioned this fill-in "just in case". After all, as I noted last time, Stan and the Bullpen weren't making history here, they were just making 12c comics.

In the end, though, the replacement artist Stan settled on was an interesting choice ...


Journey into Mystery 91 (Apr 1963) gave us the Thor tale, "Sandu, Master of the Supernatural", plotted by Stan, scripted by Larry and pencilled and inked by Joe Sinnott. In it, Loki increases the power of a sideshow mind-reader, Sandu, so that he can levitate and teleport any object. Advised by Loki, Sandu separates Thor from his hammer and, binding Thor with chains, buries him beneath a building. Thor only escapes when a deus ex machina, in the shape of Odin, sends two Valkyrie bearing Thor's magic Belt of Strength, enabling Thor to escape and defeat Sandu.

At the darkest point in Thor's battle with Loki's lieutenant Sandu, Odin despatches two Valkyrie to deliver Thor's Belt of Strength to help him escape from a seemingly inescapable death-trap.
As with earlier stories, the events here further cement Don Blake's real identity as Thor, son of Odin, as the monarch of Asgard has no qualms about sending Thor the Belt of Strength when his son's defeat seems imminent. Sandu's not the greatest villain, resembling in many ways the Miracle Man of Fantastic Four 3 (Mar 1962), but as the puppet of Loki, he'll do.

As an artist for Thor, Sinnott's not a bad choice from Stan's point of view. He's reliable and has a long association with Stan and Marvel Comics, going right back to the early 1950s. And of course, he'd become Marvel's premiere inker from 1965 on, providing consistency across Marvel's flagship titles as pencillers came and went.


Joe Sinnott was born on 16 October 1926 in Saugerties, New York. One of seven children, his father ran a successful cement manufacturing plant. Joe enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and served in Okinawa, driving a munitions truck. He was discharged in 1946 and worked for three years driving a cement truck for his father. In 1949, he enrolled in the Cartoonists and Illustrators School.

One of his instructors was Tom Gill, who asked Sinnott to assist on a range of Dell western comics. "Tom was paying us very well. I was still attending school and worked for Tom at nights and weekends," said Sinnott in a later interview. "We'd do the backgrounds and the figures, but since they were Tom's accounts, he'd do the heads so it looked like his work. I did this for about nine months. It was great learning," he said, adding, "I can never have enough good to say about Tom Gill. He gave me my start." Sometimes pencilling, sometimes inking, Sinnott would work with Gill on the early Atlas titles Kent Blake of the Secret Service and Red Warrior.

One of Joe Sinnott's early Atlas jobs, here inking over the pencils of Tom Gill for the second issue of Red Warrior (Mar 1951).
While still at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School, Sinnott wanted to branch out on his own so he approached Stan Lee separately and was put to work straight away. "I'd go down to the city on Friday," Sinnott told The Jack Kirby Collector, "and Stan would give me a script to take home. I'd start on Monday morning by lettering the balloons in pencil. Then I'd pencil the story from the script and ink it and leave the balloons penciled. I'd pencil a page in the morning, and ink it in the afternoon. I never burned the midnight oil; I'd start work at 7:45 in the morning, and I'd work until about 4:30 in the afternoon. I always figured if you couldn't make a living in eight hours a day, you shouldn't be in the business. I'd bring the story back on Friday and he'd give me another script. I never knew what kind of script I'd be getting. Stan had a big pile on his desk, and he used to write most of the stories himself in those days. You'd walk in, and he'd be banging away at his typewriter. He would finish a script and put it on the pile. Sometimes on his pile would be a western, then below it would be a science fiction, and a war story, and a romance. You never knew what you were getting, because he always took it off the top. And you were expected to do any type of story."

Three of Joe Sinnott's rare covers during Marvel's Atlas years. However, his interior art output was prodigious ... in excess of 1300 pages of pencilled and inked art from 1951 - 1957.
For the next six years, Sinnott would pencil and ink more than 250 stories for Atlas, in every genre - war, western, horror and crime -  contributing interior art to the company's mainstream titles like Marvel Tales, Battle Action, Wild Western, Spy Thrillers ... though very rarely covers. 

When the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957 hit, Sinnott had to find other work. "I was up to $46 a page for pencils and inks," said Sinnott, "and that was a good rate in 1956, when the decline started. I was down to $21 a page when Atlas stopped hiring me ... Stan called me and said, 'Joe, Martin Goodman told me to suspend operations because I have all this artwork in-house and have to use it up before I can hire you again.' It turned out to be six months, in my case. He may have called back some of the other artists later, but that's what happened with me."

Joe Sinnott during his Atlas Comics heyday, in the mid-1950s
During those lean six months, Sinnott took on any commercial art job going - record covers, billboard art, Charlton comic strips and even ghosting for DC Comics artists, before Stan called him back to resume work on the fledgling Marvel Comics. And with the January 1959 Marvel comics, Joe Sinnott was off and running again, pencilling and inking his first cover for Journey into Mystery 50 (Jan 1959).

On his return to Marvel in 1959, Sinnott seemed to pick up where he left off, pencilling and inking a variety of stories for the fledgling Marvel. Then, just as suddenly, he stopped and worked almost exclusively for Charlton, pencilling for Vince Colletta's inks.
Over the next year, Sinnott was back knocking out pencils and inks on four and five page stories for Stan Lee's mystery, western and war comics. Then he stopped working for Marvel and concentrated on his Charlton work for the next two years, till the end of 1961. I couldn't uncover a reason for this.

It would be two years before Sinnott returned to Marvel. His first inking job over Jack Kirby pencils during this period was for the Strange Tales 94 (Mar 1962) story, "I Was a Decoy for Pildorr: The Plunderer from Outer Space", though he had also inked the earlier "I Was Trapped By Titano the Monster That Time Forgot" in Tales to Astonish 10 (Jul 1960).
Then slowly, he began pencilling stories for Stan Lee again, starting with Gunsmoke Western 62 and Tales to Astonish 31 (both May 1962). He had also inked - over Jack Kirby pencils - Fantastic Four 5 (July 1962) and Journey into Mystery 83 and 84 (Aug - Sep 1962). "Before Stan called me to ink Jack on Fantastic Four 5, I never knew the Fantastic Four existed," Sinnott later recalled." I lived up here in the Catskill Mountains, and I never went down to the city at that time. Everything was done by mail and I didn't know what books were coming out, even. Stan called me up and said, 'Joe, I've got a book here by Jack Kirby and I'd like you to ink it, if you could. I can't find anybody to ink it. I was dumbfounded by the great art and the characters. I had a ball inking it. I remember when I mailed it back, Stan called me. He said, 'Joe, we liked it so much, I'm going to send you number 6.' But I had committed myself to another account at Treasure Chest ... and this was a 65-page story I was going to have to do on one of the Popes." This would have been "The Story Of Pope John XXIII, Who Won Our Hearts", in Treasure Chest vol 18, 1 - 9 (Sep 1962 - Jan 1963).

It was just a few months later that Joe Sinnott took on his short run, pencilling and inking the Thor stories in Journey into Mystery 91 - 96. "At the time, the rates at Marvel were terrible," recounted Sinnott, "and I was really rushing my work. Not that I wasn't trying my best at Marvel, but I did the best I could with the limited time we had. My main account artistically was Treasure Chest. Looking back I wish I'd done better work on Thor, but at the time it was just another job, and I certainly didn't think the character was going anyplace. At the time, I was probably penciling and inking one page of Thor a day, doing three or four pages of romance for Vince Colletta, and squeezing in some Archie after supper."

It was those poor rates that would keep Sinnott out of Marvel until the tail end of 1965, when he began inking Kirby in earnest with Fantastic Four 44 (Nov 1965).


Journey into Mystery 92 (May 1963) presented an Asgard-heavy story, once again drawn by Joe Sinnott, but Lee had engaged DC writer Robert Bernstein to script the tale under the pen-name of "R. Berns" (though I can't imagine that fooled any of the DC editors).

"The Day Loki Stole Thor's Magic Hammer" is almost entirely an Asgard-bound tale, with guest appearances by Odin, his wife Frigga and Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge. Oh, and Loki's the bad guy.
Stan's plot has Loki contrives to escape from his enchanted "uru" chains by attracting Thor's hammer with magical magnetism, reasoning that the hammer - made of the same material - will shatter the bonds. This leaves Thor to battle a succession of mystical menaces, hurled against him by Loki, without his hammer and, in typical DC style, Thor fashions first a hammer of wood, then a hammer of stone, as weapons of defence.

Joe Sinnot turns in a workmanlike job with the art, but Bernstein's script creaks badly at several points and has the inescapable odour of one of those Silver Age Superboy scripts that he'd been writing for Mort Weisinger. So much so that I wonder how much of a plot steer Stan had given him.

It's Stan's old friends the Communists again, this time making themselves all radioactive and hypnotising Thor to toss his hammer away ... it's not actually explained why Thor's hammer doesn't immediately return. There quite a neat scene at the end where Don Blake has to dive to the bottom of the Hudson River to retrieve the hammer, though.
Journey into Mystery 93 (Jun 1963) was a bit of a change of pace. Despite the art team of Jack Kirby and Chic Stone, the story had no Asgard at all and instead concentrated on a scientific menace, The Radioactive Man, a Red Chinese scientist who turns his body into a living atomic pile. Exactly why Kirby was assigned the art on this story in the middle of the Joe Sinnott run has been lost in the mists of time. It's unlikely it was deadline problems, as Sinnott has always been very clear about his methodical working habits. It's unlikely it was a pencilling "lesson" for Sinnott set by Stan, else he'd have had Sinnott ink it - and Stan wouldn't have been using Jack that way this early in Marvel's development.

It's a workmanlike story that seems separate from the Thor adventures on either side of it, as it doesn't in any way advance the development of the Thor concept. And Bernstein's scripting is a little careless. In one scene he has Thor, hypnotised by the Radioactive Man, throw his hammer away. Of course, the enchanted mallet should return under its own power, but it doesn't. Turning back to Don Blake, our hero invents a TV scanner to trace the whereabouts of the hammer, even though Blake is a medical doctor not an electronics expert.

The plot device of having Thor struck on the head to cause his personality shift is just the kind of story Mort Weisinger was commissioning over at DC Comics. I have no idea why Stan thought this would be a better approach for Thor what what Larry Lieber had been doing.
With Journey into Mystery 94 (Jul 1963), Sinnott was back, along with Loki and Asgard. Again scripted by Bernstein, this story had Loki cause Thor to be struck on the head by his own hammer, causing a personality shift that makes Thor evil. The two brothers then team up to cause havoc in Midgard, ultimately confronting the United Nations to demand the surrender of Odin. But second blow on the head restores Thor to normal and Loki is recaptured. It struck me as I was reading this that it scanned like a DC Comics story of the same period, hardly surprising since Bernstein had scripted almost exclusively for DC from 1957 onwards.

In "The Demon Duplicators" Thor battles standard issue mad scientist Prof Zaxton, who creates an evil duplicate of Thor, with two hammers. 
Journey into Mystery 95 (Aug 1963) trod a similar path to the previous issue. While Sinnott's art was workmanlike, the Robert Bernstein script used to time-honoured cliche of the hero's evil duplicate. Prof Zaxton is demonstrating Dr Don Blake's new android before an invited audience, with the aid of Thor. We know Zaxton must be evil because his name starts with a Z. Due to a mistake by Zaxton, the android announces he's malfunctioning and will explode within seconds. Only Thor's quick thinking prevents a catastrophe, as he flings the android high into the sky where it detonates harmlessly.

When Thor transforms back to Dr Blake and returns to his office, he finds Zaxton has arrived ahead of him and is holding Nurse Foster hostage. Zaxton demands that Blake help him modify his duplicating machine so it can replicate living creatures, specifically humans. But when Blake changes to Thor to try to stop Zaxton, the crazy scientist duplicates Thor, and a battle ensues. But because the evil duplicate isn't worthy to possess the power of Thor, the original defeats him relatively easily. The payoff is that Zaxton duplicates himself to confuse Thor, but the original accidentally perishes, leaving the good duplicate to carry on.
In another contrived Robert Bernstein scripted story, we see a magic battle over Washington DC, a cameo appearance by Robert F. Kennedy and the denouement where Thor scares Merlin into surrender by transforming from his Thor identity to Dr Don Blake.
Joe Sinnott's last issue as Thor artist would be Journey into Mystery 96 (Sep 1963), a tale which pits Thor against the magician Merlin. Archeologists have discovered the tomb of Merlin and have shipped the sarcophagus to the U.S. to put on display in a museum. But when they open the coffin, they're surprised to see Merlin looking as though he were asleep rather than dead. In fact he is only asleep and soon revives to begin menacing America, beginning with sending a rocket off course. Thor soon catches up with Merlin in Washington DC and the two engage in a magic duel, until Thor demonstrates his "superior" magic by transforming back to Dr Blake. The terrified Merlin surrenders and goes back to sleep in his coffin.

I told the story of how Stan replaced Larry Leiber as scripter on Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales and Tales to Astonish with Robert Bernstein and Ernie hart, and later admitted to Larry that he'd been wrong, in an earlier post, so I won't rehash it here. But suffice it to say that Stan had become pretty disillusioned with his hired-gun scripters by mid-1963 and with the October and November issues of the anthology titles, took over scripting Iron Man, Ant-Man, Human Torch and Thor himself, and gave each of them a boost in the form of a new gimmick in the process.

So the October issue of Journey into Mystery would see the return of Jack Kirby for one issue, to set up Don Heck as regular penciller, Stan Lee taking full control of the writing and the introduction of a Kirby-drawn back-up feature, "Tales of Asgard", which would feature the adventures of Thor alongside his fellow gods, away from the realm of men. 

But that's a story for next time ...

Next: What the Heck is going on with Thor?

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

When did Don Blake become Thor?

IT'S EASY TO FORGET, with almost sixty years of Marvel Comics behind us, that in the earliest days Marvel Editor Stan Lee and his rag-tag band of writers and artists were simply trying to put of comic books every month in genres they - and their Publisher Martin Goodman - thought would sell. There was no plan to take over the comics world, or create multi-million dollar movie franchises. They just wanted to make a living and perhaps have a little fun doing it.

So when Fantastic Four began selling a little better than expected, in the first half of 1962, Stan began looking for other ideas he thought might click with the readers. But because these were superhero comics, a trend that had died in the late 1940s and had failed again in the mid-1950s, when Atlas had tried to revive Captain America, Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, Stan didn't really give them his full attention. While he was busy scripting FF and The Incredible Hulk, and refining the concept of Spider-Man which would soon appear in Amazing Fantasy, he was also focussing on the long-running title that were proven best-sellers - his western titles Gunsmoke Western, Kid Colt Outlaw and Rawhide Kid; his Millie books Millie the Model, Life with Millie, Patsy Walker and Patsy and Hedy; and his generic romance titles Love Romances, Linda Carter and Teenage Romances. So when Martin Goodwin wanted more superheroes, Stan was in no hurry to write them himself, but began casting around for other costumed character concepts that might work.

"How do you make someone stronger than the strongest person?" Stan wrote in his 2002 autobiography, Excelsior: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee. "It finally came to me: Don't make him human — make him a god. I decided readers were already pretty familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. It might be fun to delve into the old Norse legends ... I pictured Norse gods looking like Vikings of old, with the flowing beards, horned helmets, and battle clubs  ... Journey into Mystery needed a shot in the arm, so I picked Thor ... to headline the book. After writing an outline depicting the story and the characters I had in mind, I asked my brother, Larry, to write the script because I didn't have time ... and it was only natural for me to assign the penciling to Jack Kirby ..."

OK, so Kirby's interpretation of Thor didn't have a flowing beard, and there were no horns on his helmet (we were fobbed off with wings, instead. Probably because Kirby really liked drawing wings on the sides of his characters heads.) But for all that, Thor's costume was a pretty cool design.
Though, later on, Jack Kirby would claim he was the instigator of Thor, it seems that Stan's version of events is more plausible and is corroborated by Lieber who always said he wrote full scripts for Kirby. “Stan made up the plot, and then he'd give it to me, and I'd write the script. Tudor City had a park, and when it was nice I'd sit there and break the story down picture by picture. I was unsure of myself just sitting down to write a script. Since I knew how to draw, I'd think, 'Oh, this shot will have a guy coming this way ... this shot will have a guy looking down on him,' and later I'd sit at the typewriter and type it up. After a while, I'd just go to the typewriter ... These were all scripts in advance … Jack I always had to send a full script to." (My italics.)

Now, I had always had it in my head that the character of Thor was a bit directionless for the first year or so while Larry Lieber was scripting them, and that later, when Jack Kirby returned to the title with Journey into Mystery 97, the whole idea of Don Blake being Thor - as opposed to simply wielding Thor's power - became cemented in the Marvel mythos. But that doesn't appear to be the case.

Looking back over the first year or so of the Journey into Mystery Thor stories, it seems quite apparent that it was either Stan or Larry who began to change their view of just who Don Blake was.


When Thor first appeared in Journey into Mystery 83 (Aug 1962, on sale in May that year), the story held that a holidaying American, Dr Don Blake, chanced across a gnarled walking stick in a cave in Norway. If you think it's pretty implausible that a U.S. citizen would be on vacation in Norway in 1962, you're not going to believe the next bit. While out walking around the Scandanavian countryside, Dr Blake stumbles, literally, upon an alien invasion. Giant "Stone Men from Saturn" have decided that Norway is not just the perfect holiday destination, but it's also exactly where rocky aliens should start their conquest of Earth. All of this is just a McGuffin to drive Dr Blake into the cave where he discovers the magic walking stick.

In many ways, the origin of Thor is similar to that of the original Captain Marvel. Billy Batson and Don Blake are both slight of stature. Both transform into their god-like alter ego in a flash of lightning. Both are granted their powers by a white bearded Higher Authority. (Click on the image to enlarge)
It's pretty clear from the above scene that Stan and Larry initially wanted to imbue a human being - in this case the disabled Doctor - with the power of Thor. There's no intention here I can see that Blake actually is Thor. The inscription on the hammer actually says, "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor". 

Once Blake escapes from the cave, he sits down in the forest to consider what's happened to him. He even has to pause to search his schoolboy memories of Norse mythology to list Thor's characteristics and powers. So Don Blake is definitely not Thor at this point.

Smashing trees in half, calling down extreme weather - surely there should some more environmentally friendly way for Dr Don Blake to explore his newfound Thor-y abilities?
The middle third of the story, has Don Blake trying out his new abilities, to great destructive effect. He also figures out that he can fly by whirling his hammer, releasing and hanging onto the thong to rocket through the sky behind the flying hammer. I don't ever remember the Thor of legend being able to do this - and there must be a more comfortable way to fly - but it has become part of the Thor ouevre and we all now accept it without question.

Of course, Don Blake uses the power of Thor the Mighty to send the "Stone Men from Saturn" packing, but while researching this blog entry, I came across a couple of interesting similarities to earlier stories. Jack Kirby has claimed on several occasions that he created Marvel's Thor and cited as evidence an earlier story in Tales of the Unexpected 16 (Aug 1957). But I looked that story out and found very little in it that resembles the Marvel version in any way, except perhaps the way Kirby draws Thor's hammer in both stories.

The DC version of Thor lasted just six pages in an early issue of Tales of the Unexpected, drawn by Jack Kirby and written by an unknown scriptwriter. While the hammer in this tale does look like the Marvel hammer, that's about all the resemblance I could find between the two stories.
And Kirby was a notorious recycler of ideas - as was Stan, to be fair. So it's fascinating to dig back into the earlier Marvel fantasy stories and look for the roots of some of the later super-hero tales. I'm no big fan of the Marvel "prototype" theory, that allows dealers to charge twice as much for old fantasy comics just because one of Ditko's old lady characters bears a passing resemblance to Peter Parker's Aunt May, but the appearance of a stonelike alien call "Thorr" must surely raise the odd eyebrow.

Meet the "Stone Sentinels of Giant Island". They look pretty much like "Thorr, the monster who waited a million years to destroy the world", wouldn't you say? Any resemblance to the Stone Men from Saturn must be a coincidence ...
It's quite uncanny that the alien called Thorr looks pretty much exactly like the Stone men from Journey into Mystery 83. Even more uncanny that an almost identical cover first appeared on House of Mystery 85 (Apr 1959), also drawn by ... Jack Kirby. 

But for me, the crowning coincidence of the lot is when somehow, the letterer managed to misspell Thor's name in the last panel of the Journey into Mystery 83 story and Stan the editor failed to catch it.

Notice how Don Blake refers to himself as a mortal man. And how about that humdinger of a mistake with the misspelling of Thor's name? Interestingly, the published lettering is a pasteover. Kid Robson provided the above right scan of what's under the pasteover, and I've added it as an edit.
With Thor's origin and the introduction to his powers out of the way, Stan and Larry could get down to the business of pitting him against The Communists. So it was that the globe-trotting Dr Blake found himself at the mercy of a military firing squad in Thor the Mighty's very next adventure, in Journey into Mystery 84 (Sep 1962).

In Journey into Mystery 84, Thor (now The Mighty Thor) is still essentially Dr Don Blake wielding the power of Thor, despite a couple of lines of "godly" monologue. And he has an unaccountable urge to protect his "most precious secret" identity.
With a civil war underway in the South American country of San Diablo, Dr Don Blake and his nurse Jane Foster volunteer to treat the casualties. But the boat taking them down the coast is attacked by fighter jets (bearing a hammer and sickle emblem, so there's no doubts about who the bad guys are). What's not so clear is exactly who Thor is. When Thor takes to the air to destroy a flight of jets bent of sinking the medical ship, Thor shouts, "Now shall the attackers feel the wrath of the Thunder God." That speech pattern has the feel of the way the later Thor would speak - all sort of mock-Shakespeare. Yet just a couple of pages later, his work done, Thor thinks to himself, "Now I shall change back to my rightful self underwater, where none can see me." So at this point he still considers his Don Blake identity the true one.

The remainder of the story doesn't shed any further light on whether this is the real Thor we're seeing. But Journey into Mystery 85 (Oct 1962) would be something of a game-changer for the character.

Journey into Mystery 85 shows us, for the first time, that Asgard does exist and that there are others like Thor ... real, honest-to-gods gods. Even Thor seems a bit confused by the revelation.
For the third appearance of Thor, we were treated to a glimpse of Asgard, and for the first time got to see some of the other inhabitants of the legendary realm of the Norse gods. Here, Loki god of mischief contrives to escape from the tree where he's been imprisoned by the other gods, though he blames Thor most of all. When Loki travels to Earth to search out his mortal enemy, Thor doesn't seem to recognise him. And in the magic battle that follows, it's revealed that no one but Thor can lift the hammer.

At the beginning of the story in Journey into Mystery 85, Thor doesn't seem to know who Loki, later revealed as his half-brother, is. Perhaps being confronted by a fellow Asgardian has begun to restore Thor's memory, but by the end of the story, he not only knows where Asgard is, but knows how to return Loki there using his hammer.
After Thor defeats Loki, he knows enough to hurl the God of Mischief back to Asgard using his hammer, so he now has some godly awareness. But given that Stan was plotting and Larry was supplying the full scripts that Kirby required at this point in Marvel history, it seems safe to say that it was Stan who was slowly changing Thor from frail Dr Blake into the real God of Thunder.

By the time we get to the fourth Thor story, Don Blake knows enough to call on his father Odin when things get tough. This is also the first time the hammer is referred to as "The Uru Hammer", a term that Larry Leiber just made up.
Journey into Mystery 86 (Nov 1962) continued Don Blake's transformation into the real Thor. The story is a simple "super-scientist from the future threatens our present", a plot device that Stan would return to more than once, notably with Kang the Conquerer, but "On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man" was the first time that Thor calls on his father Odin for help and Odin responds. That's important, because if Blake wasn't really Thor, then surely Odin would be saying something like, "Hey, who are you, and where did you get my son's hammer from?" This more than anything else confirms for me that Blake is now the actual Thor.

Does Thor mean he is the actual real immortal Thor, or does he just mean that the man in the trap is a decoy Thor? I like to think it's the former.
But all of this does set up something of a conundrum, doesn't it? I mean, if Don Blake is really Thor, why is he also Don Blake? Was Don Blake born? Does he have parents? Did he really go to medical school for six years? I know Roy Thomas would later try to resolve these apparent contradictions, but I've always wondered what was Stan's thought process during these early formative months of Thor's existence. Perhaps he didn't really think about it too much at all. After all, they're just comic stories, right?

And while it's perfectly possible that Kirby was making suggestions and alterations during this period, there's no evidence to support this. To me, it's clear that it's Stan, with a bit of help from his brother Larry, that was the driving force behind this transformation, not Kirby as I'd earlier thought.

Amongst a fairly standard early Marvel story portraying the Russians as the bad guys, there's one bit where Thor called on his Asgardian father Odin to smite the baddies with the lightning of wrath.
Journey into Mystery 87 (Dec 1962) was another of Stan's standard Red-bashing stories, which would be pretty much rehashed in the Ant-Man yarn in Tales to Astonish 41 (Mar 1963). Communists are kidnapping American scientists to work on an unspecified project. So Don Blake arranges to have himself kidnapped so Thor can deal with the situation. That's it. There is, however, one scene in the story where Thor calls upon Odin to reduce the commies' castle to rubble.

Unusually, Steve Ditko had a hand in this issue. His inking is very apparent on the cover art. Also on the cover, Odin claims Loki for his son. Meanwhile inside the book Odin tries, unsuccessfully, to control Loki.
Journey into Mystery 88 (Jan 1963) features Loki, Odin and Asgard once more, establishing that Loki is also a son of Odin ... right there on the cover. The tale starts with Loki being returned to Asgard by Thor's hammer (as seen in JiM85), and Odin sending him to his room without his tea. But Loki sneaks out of Asgard to return to Earth, now armed with the knowledge that Don Blake is Thor. The middle bit has Loki using Jane Foster as a decoy to separate Thor from his hammer. Of course, Thor manages to get his hammer back and return Loki to Asgard, where once again Odin acknowledges this Thor as his son.

Behind a great pinup cover of Thor striking a heroic pose lies a fairly ordinary story of gangsters holding innocent folks against their will, a kind of comic-book Desperate Hours. That and a one-page recap of Thor's origin.
The following month's issue, Journey into Mystery 89 (Feb 1963) featured a fairly generic gangster tale, where Thug Thatcher is wounded in a battle with the police and forces Dr Blake and Nurse Foster at gunpoint to treat him. Blake can't transform into Thor in case the crooks learn his identity. Just why this would be a problem is never really discussed. Given that Don Blake now realises that he's actually Thor, why would he need his Don Blake identity any more?

Secret identities are a conceit of the superhero business I've never quite understood. Yes, some superheroes might need to keep their real names confidential. Spider-Man, perhaps, as he was a teenager with a frail aunt before he was ever a superhero and because the Daily Bugle has branded him a menace. Maybe Batman ... but Thor? Not so much. And don't even get me started on Superman.

Tellingly, Stan kicks off the tale with a one-page re-telling of Thor's origin and names the main players - Odin and Jane Foster (Blake's unrequited love interest) - "for the benefit of those readers who might have missed the earlier issues of Journey into Mystery." That indicates to me that the sales of JiM must have increased rapidly over the first six months' worth of Thor stories and that Marvel were getting a lot of requests for back issues. The published sales figures bear this out, with the title averaging 132,000 per month in 1962 and 188,000 a month the following year.

Overall, a fairly unremarkable issue, Journey into Mystery 89 would be the last Kirby-drawn Thor for a while. Unknown to the readers, Stan had several major projects on his schedule for 1963 that would require Kirby's time - the monumental Fantastic Four Annual 1, Strange Tales Annual 2, The Avengers and The Uncanny X-Men. So Jack had to step away from Thor and Ant-Man with JiM89 and Tales to Astonish 40 (both Feb 1963).

For the rest of 1963, Stan would struggle with staffing up to meet the creative needs of his burgeoning super-hero comics line, drafting in additional scripters Robert Bernstein and Ernie Hart. The following month, Thor would have a new and unexpected artist, and for the next half a year Journey into Mystery would struggle artistically, though its sales would maintain a meteoric rise.

Next: Thor - The Wilderness Years