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 ..."
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.
THE POWER OF THORWhen 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.
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?|
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.
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 ...|
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.
|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.|
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.|
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.|
|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.|
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.|
|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.|
|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.|
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