Tuesday, 19 December 2017

When did Don Blake become the real 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.


THE POWER OF THOR

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



2 comments:

  1. 'Twas also Larry who came up with the name Don Blake and Uru, and I notice that he's now credited as one of the creators in recent comics. (Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby.) Interestingly, Jane was called Jane Nelson in JIM #84, not Foster, though it's been corrected for most reprints except for recent ones. As you say, it's clear that Don Blake was meant to be a 'star-kissed Earthman' at the beginning, but the change that came later is probably more down to Jack I suspect, than Stan or Larry. Jack probably noticed the inadvertent (though obvious) contradiction in the way that Thor had come to be scripted - one minute thinking and talking as if he was a transformed earthling, the next as if he really was Thor. I should just point out, Al, that it was JIM #83 that it's noted that only Thor can lift the hammer, though it is reiterated in #85.

    As for that misspelling of 'Thorr' in the last panel, that isn't actually the original panel, which said something completely different. The original panel suggests that the tale is a try-out to test reader reaction, though this was probably only done to give the readers the impression that they were the 'real editors' - it's likely that other Thor strips had already been prepared and were lying in a drawer ready to run. The point being that the spelling error was a later occurrence and probably more down to the letterer than the scripter. Stan should've noticed it though.

    As for JIM #88, Ditko didn't just ink the cover, he redrew the 5th panel on the last page, the one with Thor flying to Asgard with Loki in a net. And the 'Thug Thatcher' tale was the first solo Thor tale I ever read (in two parts) in Fantastic #s 7 & 8 back in 1967, so I'm quite fond of it and now have the original US issue as well.

    Another great post, Al - roll on the next one.

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    1. Thanks for the additional info, Kid ... I've added your supplied scan of what's under the JiM83 final panel pasteover, above.

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