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 a 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.

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