The Many Incarnations Of Thor

Fri, May 6th, 2011 at 10:28am PDT

Comic Books
Matt Adler, Contributing Writer
16

The Original

Most of us feel the need for a change every once in a while. A new wardrobe, a change in hairstyle, a new job, maybe even a little nip and tuck as Father Time comes calling. So shouldn’t this be even more true in the case of the seeming endless lifespan of an immortal? It certainly seems so when it comes to Marvel Comics’ Thor, who has undergone a dizzying array of changes since his debut nearly 50 years ago. In honor of his feature film debut, opening this weekend, we here at CBR thought it would be fun to take a look back at those myriad incarnations of the God of Thunder and share them with you.

Before there was Thor, there was Donald Blake. Or at least that’s what 1962’s “Journey Into Mystery” #83 would have us believe, in Thor’s Marvel Comics debut. Donald Blake was a mild-mannered doctor who walked with a limp (they had the nerve to call him “lame” back then); hardly a man you would expect to secretly be a mythical God of Thunder. And yet when Blake found an enchanted walking stick while hiking in Norway, that’s exactly what he transformed into. Designed by artist Jack Kirby, Thor cut a striking figure with his flowing blond locks, red cape, winged helmet, knee-high flared boots, and of course the iconic discs on his tunic. As God of Thunder, he possessed the full powers of the raging storm, including the ability to summon wind, lightning and rain. His hammer Mjolnir could crush any opponent, and still return to his hand on command. He was hampered by one major limitation however; if Mjolnir was away from his hand for more than 60 seconds, he would transform back in to Dr. Blake.

Beta Ray Bill

This limitation was eventually lifted however and by the time of Walt Simonson’s run Blake himself had already been revealed to be a fictional identity. Simonson decided to shake things up as soon as he came on the book, and introduced Beta Ray Bill, a horse-headed alien who, during the course of the story arc, managed to lift Mjolnir and be transformed into his own version of Thor! Odin recognized the nobility inherent in this alien, and granted him his own hammer, dubbed Stormbreaker, so that he could continue his heroic exploits. He also removed the Blake enchantment from Thor’s own hammer, since Thor had no more use for the Blake identity, and gave it to Bill so that he could shift between his super-powered and normal forms.

But Thor found himself still wanting of some kind of mortal identity with which he could interact with ordinary humans. He turned to spymaster Nick Fury, who helped him craft the identity of Sigurd Jarlson, a construction worker. Jarlson was nothing more than the mighty hero with his hair styled a little differently (pulled back in a ponytail) and wearing glasses (sound familiar?). Later on in the legendary Simonson run, Thor ran afoul of the Norse queen of the dead, Hela, and was left with his face scarred and his bones made brittle. This led to a new look, in which he covered up his scars by growing a beard, and protected his now-fragile body by donning a suit of enchanted Asgardian armor.

Thor, sporting a beard and enchanted Asgardian Armor.

When writer Tom DeFalco came onto the series, he decided to introduce a new twist on the Don Blake dynamic, by having Thor bond with a mortal man who had his own life, as opposed to the fiction that Blake had been. Architect Eric Masterson was introduced into the series initially as a supporting character, and was involved in a construction accident that left him with an injury which mirrored Blake’s own disability. When a villain delivered a fatal wound to Masterson in the course of one of Thor’s battles, Thor appealed to Odin to save him, and Odin responded by merging the two, so that Masterson could be sustained by Thor’s godly power. The two shared their existence similarly to how Thor had worked with the Blake identity, transforming one into the other simply by tapping the hammer (or walking stick, as Masterson) on the ground. But Masterson had his own friends and family, and his life frequently conflicted with the demands of Thor’s heroic career.

This arrangement took an abrupt turn when Thor crossed a major line, and slew his evil brother Loki, in an effort to prevent him from ever endangering mortals again. As punishment, Odin banished Thor to an unknown place, and Masterson found himself transformed into a new God of Thunder, albeit now with a beard. He felt he should distinguish himself from the original Thor as long as he was going to play the role, and went to a costume shop with ideas for tweaks on the Thor costume (the shop owner never suspecting he was anything other than an ordinary customer), which included a modified helmet that covered the upper half of his face, armored boots, and an overall metallic sheen.

Thunderstrike!

Masterson eventually helped restore Thor to his rightful place, and was rewarded by Odin (who, it turns out, was not the one behind Thor’s banishment) with a mystical mace that allowed him to transform into yet another variation on the God Of Thunder. Dubbing himself Thunderstrike after the name of the mace, Masterson designed another take on the Thor look, which dropped the helmet, tied up the requisite long hair in a ponytail and accessorized with a sleeveless leather jacket and thunderbolt earring. What he may have lacked in fashion sense, Masterson made up for in heroics; despite having significantly less power than Thor (those enchantments don’t come cheap), Masterson fought valiantly against the forces of evil, before his death in the final issue of his series. His son Kevin has recently taken over the role of Thunderstrike.

Thor as seen in "The Crossing" (L) and "Heroes Reborn" (R)

After Masterson and Thor parted ways, Thor went through an uncertain period, eventually winding up shirtless and powerless during Warren Ellis’ run on “Thor.” However, shirtless may have been preferable to what came next; as part of a line-wide “Avengers” revamp, emblemized by “The Crossing” storyline, Thor, along with several other Avengers got new costumes. Thor wasn’t one of the lucky ones; his costume featured bizarre headgear that served no discernable defensive purpose, gigantic shoulder pads, a half-shirt to show off his ripped abs, random leather wrappings around his arms and legs, and chain trailing from Mjolnir. This look mercifully didn’t last long however, as Thor‘s book was cancelled in the wake of “Onslaught” and “Heroes Reborn.” Thor (or at least a version of him) was next seen in the “Heroes Reborn Avengers” series and while this look may have been easier on the eyes than “The Crossing” costume, there were other issues. This incarnation of Thor was a complete reboot, with no knowledge or memories of any of his adventures before, in keeping with the premise of the “Heroes Reborn” relaunch. Many readers complained at the time that this Thor spoke and acted wildly out of character and towards the end of the “Heroes Reborn” run, Walt Simonson, acknowledged as one of the best Thor writers of all time, was brought in to finish the “Avengers” series and did a story which slyly commented on the Thunder God’s out-of-character portrayal.

A rather shirtless Thor (L) and as King of Asgard (R)

The “real” Thor, complete with classic costume, was restored to the Marvel Universe during Dan Jurgens and John Romita Jr’s “Heroes Return” relaunch, and with the relaunch came a new mortal identity. Thor was this time bonded with paramedic Jake Olson, in a complicated storyline which eventually revealed that the Jake Olson Thor was bonded with wasn’t the real Jake Olson (who had been killed), but a mystical construct, who went on to have his own existence. Whew. Odin eventually separated “Jake” and Thor, before being killed in battle with the fire demon Surtur, and leaving Thor to take over as the new King of Asgard. The new job comes with two big perks; Thor inherits the Odinpower, making him nigh omnipotent, and he also gets a striking new costume, courtesy of artist Stuart Immonen. This included an expanded helmet that protects more of his head, chain-linked breastplates over scale armor, and the coup-de-grace, a fur-lined cape! Unfortunately, being king isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and the pressures of the job, combined with the mental stress of being separated from his mortal identity, leads Thor to get carried away; he brings Asgard to Earth, and eventually becomes a mad world dictator in “The Reigning.” Fortunately all is set right, since that would be a difficult status quo to maintain.

Thor’s series comes to an end again at that point, when he and the other Asgardians are wiped out in a seemingly final Ragnarok. But in 2007, J. Michael Straczynski came on to relaunch the series yet again, bringing back the Donald Blake identity, and giving Thor his current costume, which inspired the movie portrayal. This Thor doesn’t favor bare arms, as he’s armored almost head to toe in what looks like chain mail (or perhaps some kind of mystical Asgardian weave) and wears a tunic over it which resembles his old costume. He is also significantly more powerful than past incarnations, most notably now being bulletproof, perhaps a nod to some fans who have complained about their hero not getting the same respect as another publisher’s flagship powerhouse.

What’s next for the God of Thunder? No one can be certain, but with all signs pointing to a critical and commercial success for his feature film, we can be sure that his immortality is more assured than ever, no matter what he wears, what he calls himself, or what feats of strength he can perform. The Mighty Thor is here to stay.

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TAGS:  thor, thunderstrike, asgard, walt simonson, beta ray bill, warren ellis, heroes reborn, marvel, marvel comics, avengers

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