By Erik Grove
My name is spelled weird. If you look right up there where it says "By…" you'll see it. Most Eriks spell the name with a "c" and most people writing my name misspell it. Close relatives have spelled my name wrong. On birthday cards. I've always really liked my name and what it represents; that tiny drop of Viking blood in my family history. At least that's what I've always imagined it represents and it's because of that drop of Viking blood (and all the comics) that when I was in 5th grade and we had a class project to pick mythological gods to study, I picked Thor. That started a lifelong fascination with my own personal heavy metal thunder god and luckily for me that intersected quite nicely with some of my favorite comics by some of my favorite comic book creators. So, in celebration of Thor: the Dark World being released for home media consumption and in celebration of my lifelong affection for Marvel Comic's most famous hammer hurler, I give you Essential 8 Thor Comics!
Thor Omnibus by J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel and Marko Djurdjevik
If you look at the publication history of Thor comics you'll see that the character has benefited from a lot of really incredible creators. Some of my all-time favorite writers and artists have worked on Thor but those amazing creators didn't always mean that the comics were best-sellers. J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel upended that completely when they launched a new volume of Thor in 2007 and their work on the book gives a very easy entrance point for readers new to the character and history.
The previous volume of Thor ended as part of the Avengers Disassembled event in 2004 and for nearly 3 years, Marvel left one of their mainstay heroes in limbo. Straczynski and Coipel bring Thor back by humanizing him (re-introducing the Donald Blake persona), slowly re-introducing the vast supporting cast, connecting Asgard to a small Midwest town in Oklahoma and bringing his majesty and wisdom back into the forefront. A confrontation with Iron Man in the 3rd issue of the run presents a Thor beyond the petty squabbles of other heroes. Gone is the dumb blond with a big hammer parody that talks in a faux Shakespearean dialect (and says "I SAY THEE NAY!" constantly) and in his place is a more temperate, regal god looking to find and reclaim his place in the greater cosmos. This vision of a more regal Thor is paired nicely with the folksy normality of Asgard's new home in Broxton and Coipel's gorgeous designs and art. This Omnibus includes the entire run including some stellar interior artwork by Marko Djurdjevik.
Thor by Walter Simonson, Volume 1
They should put an inscription on this book that says "Whosoever picks up this book, if he read it, shall know the awesomeness of Thor." Walter Simonson's run is nothing short of character-defining, Hell, it's genre-defining, and this is the beginning. This volume comes out of the gate with Simonson's incredible plotting, character development and art. There's a density to these comics that you don't find often. Simonson layers plots and subplots masterfully and draws the titular thunder god and his world with a style and elegance that has clearly influenced artists that have followed for decades. What I particularly adore about Simonson's run is that there's no hesitation or apology for the fantastic. His first story introduces a character named Beta Ray Bill that should sound silly to me but it's not because Simonson just goes with it. He fully embraces the escapism and giddy excitement of the medium. Yeah, Thor is going to wrestle an alien with a horsey face named Beta Ray Bill in the lava pit riddled landscape of Skartheim and then he's going to go into space with him and his ex-girlfriend on a flying chariot drawn by magic goats and fight space demons because that sounds amazing. Simonson takes action, intrigue, mythology, big cosmic ideas and a whole lot of fun and throws them into one of the best, most bombastic series of comics to ever hit the shelf.
Simonson's run has been collected in a few different volumes but these new reissues feature remastered artwork, modern coloration and a great introduction where Simonson explains what seems to be a guiding principle in his work (talking about Lee and Kirby's run): "Perhaps the most powerful lesson I learned from those comics was that if you kept a straight face, you could do anything. The wildest stories were possible if you invited the readers to come along on the journey without breaking faith with them." Thanks for inviting me to come along on this one, Walt.
Before doing a run on the monthly title, Matt Fraction did his first work on Thor with a series of gorgeously illustrated mythology heavy one-shots collected in Thor: Ages of Thunder. These comics aren't much like what Fraction would later do with the character and they take place long before modern times in a grimmer, bloodier era full of scheming giants, curses, raining blood and/or fire, jealousy and brutality. There's no brightly colored Rainbow Bridge or four-color Avengers here. These stories are blood soaked and medieval. They vividly demonstrate the flexibility and variety of stories that can be told with Thor and Asgardian myths. There's an overall theme in the several independent stories here but mostly the comic reads like the books of myths I remember from when I was a kid. Aiding and elevating Fraction's epic storytelling is a roster of some of the greatest artists in the business. Patrick Zircher contributes the most here with work is some of the best in his impressive career. Khari Evans, Clay Mann, Mike and Laura Allred, Doug Braithwaite, Miguel Sepulveda and Dan Brereton also deliver stunning work in one the most visually stunning Thor stories you'll ever find.
Marvel's Avengers and Fantastic Four titles weren't sales leaders in the mid 1990s. Looking for a way to get readers' attention, Marvel made the controversial decision to seemingly kill many of their most classic properties and outsource modern reinventions to Image founders (and former Marvel artists) Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld. As part of this, Thor was renamed back to Journey Into Mystery after issue #502 and without his own book, Thor became a supporting character in Liefeld's Avengers comic. A year into the experiment with Lee and Liefeld, Marvel brought their characters back in the splashy Heroes Return event and it was during that event Thor was given his first #1 comic written by Dan Jurgens, a big name creator with history working on such megastar characters as Superman and Spider-Man.
There were 85 issues in this new volume of Thor and all but the final 6 were written by Jurgens. It was an impressive run with a lot of highlights but my favorite part was the mind-blowing finale. During Jurgens' run, Odin died and Thor became the All-Father of Asgard. Thor relocated Asgard to hover above New York City and began using his godly power to change humanity. Humanity, predictably, felt threatened and launched a military strike on Asgard. This is the backdrop of Gods & Men but don't worry – you'll be caught up on the backstory quickly. Gods & Men starts decades into the future after this terrible confrontation over New York City. The first thing we see is Thor and Odin added to Mt. Rushmore and that's all we need to know that the world is a very different place. This grand finale to Jurgens's run is the Days of Future Past or Dark Knight Returns for Thor. Nothing is quite what it seems in a Utopian future ruled over by the Asgardians and Thor, the All-Father. This is a story full of twists and turns and great cameos. Loki has Dr. Strange's signature cloak, Captain America's shattered shield is on the wall as a trophy. This is a smart, compelling story that's given an impressive amount of space to breathe and ends with Thor learning the value of humanity. Scott Eaton pencils all but a single issue of this incredible story (with fill-in by Roger Robinson) and the storytelling is magnificent. Jurgens' entire run on Thor is stellar and while I really wish he'd had another issue or two stretch out the finale just a bit more (I wasn't done enjoying it!), Gods & Men is, in my estimation, a high water mark for Jurgens' contribution to the character and for all Thor comics.
Thor: Vikings (Max)
This is an insane comic book and I love it. Somehow I didn't know that Garth Ennis and Glen Fabry, creators I'm a big fan of but are not generally associated with superheroes, did a Thor miniseries until I started researching for this column. Vikings is a super-violent, crazypants mature readers' Thor comic put out through Marvel's Max imprint about 10 years ago. The story follows a group of bloodthirsty maniac Vikings turned into immortal killing machines lost at sea for a thousand years that then land in modern day Manhattan. They immediately set about killing everything that moves. Thor tries to stop them and is easily, and painfully, defeated. The Avengers are no match for them. New York City is covered in gore and bodies. Thor must team up with Dr. Strange and three time-displaced warriors to stop them. Ennis doesn't care about continuity or previously established characterizations (Dr. Strange is especially, and hilariously, different than his traditional appearances) and neither should you. Fabry does ultra-violence better than just about anyone in comics and gives page after page of gruesome, vicious battles. A lot of people will hate this comic and I can see an argument for that. I think it's a riot and I think some of you might think so too.
I try to only pick books for these lists that are relatively easy to get. The collected edition or this comic seems to be out of print so it might be a little challenging to find it or the single issues but if you want to see Vikings do terrible, terrible things in a flying long ship and laugh at every awful thing Dr. Strange says, it's worth the hunt.
The Mighty Thor, Vol 2 (Marvel Masterworks)
Thor first appeared in Journey Into Mystery #83 in 1962, created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Lee's younger brother and frequent scripter, Larry Lieber. Introduced during a very short period of unprecedented creativity, Thor was debuted the same month as Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy following the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man and the Hulk. Here's the thing though; those first issues featuring Thor in Journey into Mystery (the comic wouldn't officially be renamed Thor until #126) aren't exactly bad but they also aren't exactly firing on cylinders yet. In those early issues, Lee provides the plot with scripting from Lieber or R. Berns. Several different artists contributed, include Joe Sinnot, Don Heck and Al Hartley. It's in issue #97 when Lee and Kirby began working on short backup stories of Thor's younger years ("Tales of Asgard") that the mythos begins to come alive and then really kicks into gear in #101 when Lee and Kirby started a dedicated 6+ year run on the book that introduced many of the characters and villains and supporting characters that have endured for decades. I wouldn't tell anyone to avoid the first appearances of Thor but I also wouldn't tell anyone to start there. The evolution of Thor beyond a relatively generic hero with mythological roots to the Marvel icon that's lasted over 50 years begins in The Mighty Thor, Volume 2. You can find these issues collected in different ways. I picked this Marvel Masterworks edition because I think it best showcases the amazing and innovative Kirby art.
After the conclusion of Dan Jurgens' tenure of Thor, Michael Avon Oeming was given the challenging assignment of bringing about Ragnarok and ending the second volume of Thor during the Avengers: Disassembled story. After commendably tackling that apocalyptic storyline, Oeming returned to the character with Scott Kolins to release this miniseries set in Thor's earlier days as a hero (during the Lee/Kirby era). The storyline here is much lighter and full of adventure as Thor and the Warriors Three must go on a quest to save themselves from execution and stop a war between Asgard and giants. There are three things that ultimately make this comic really stand out for me. First is Kolins's work. His pencils are jaunty and expressive. They manage to evoke the Kirby era of Thor and an child's book of parables with impressive confidence. Second, Oeming sets Thor on this adventure without being able to rely on his trusty Mjolnir. He's sworn an oath not to use it to accomplish these heroic deeds and that makes him rely on cleverness and diplomacy. It's a rare and interesting twist to see a character, especially Thor, not try to resolve a conflict instantly with his fists but with his wits. Finally, there's a bookending story and lesson Thor learns about the horrors of violence and prejudice that make this comic really stand out to me. This is a surprising, readable and entertaining book from beginning to end and it's a must-read for Thor fans.
We live in a glorious era of Thor comics, folks. Right out of the gate with a new title, Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic deliver a lush, dense and masterful contribution to the history of the thunder god. I'm an admitted fan of Aaron's previous work but I wasn't sure what to expect when he was announced on Thor. After all, my favorite Aaron comics didn't tell stories that seemed to have a lot in common with Thor, but my doubt was pretty well dispelled after the first issue. The first thing that Aaron gets very right is that he knows that Thor is more than one character and he knows that Thor comics are more than just one genre. The best Thor stories move back and forth between ancient mythology and crazy Lee/Kirby cosmic sci-fi, between action, humor, drama and tragedy. They shift from a young, brash and impulsive Thor to a mighty, regal Thor. In Thor: God of Thunder, Aaron focuses on Thors from 3 time periods – young, unworthy to wield Mjolnir Thor, present day Avengers Thor and Lord Thor, All-Father of the far, far future. He ties their stories together through the villainous God Butcher, Gorr and I loved every page of it. These books are full of crazy inventive new ideas and Ribic delivers stunning, epic artwork with every page.
I've cheated to include the first two volumes because they tell a single complete story. There are two 5 part stories by Aaron and Ribic with a single issue flashback that tells Gorr's origins done by Butch Guice. I love the setup in the first volume and it's necessary for the second volume for obvious reasons but where this run just started to explode off the page with unbridled awesome for me was in Godbomb when the Thors start to interact with each other and Aaron introduces the Girls of Thunder, a trinity of bad-ass future Asgardians that deserve their own comics. This creative team has harnessed the power of heavy metal, beards, crazy mythology and Thor wielding two Mjolnirs to give me a comic book that feels like it looked at the entire history of the character and said, "oh yeah, let's include all of it." I'm very excited to see where it goes next.
Extra special thanks for this for this week's column go to the Multnomah County Library here in rainy Portland. If it wasn't for their robust collection of Thor comics, it would have been tough for me to read or reread all the thousands of pages required for this list without bankrupting myself and overwhelming my bookshelf. Sincere thanks and cheers to everyone that reads and shares these columns or that talks comics with me whenever and wherever. Finally, I want to give a special word of thanks to all of the esteemed Thor creators that put their mark on this epic character.
Agree with me? Disagree with me? Let's talk comics.
Erik Grove is a writer and comic book lover that lives in Portland, OR. Follow him on Twitter @erikgrove and check out his website www.erikgrove.com for comic book adjacent absurdly awesome fiction. (He kinda really wanted to sub-title this column "I Say Thee Yay!" but talked himself out of it.)