This past weekend, hardcore comic readers mixed elbows with neophyte Marvel movie goers in multiplexes across America to see Marvel Studios "Thor" – a crossover that brought in $66 million out the gate. And that many of the audience members for the film may not have known the story of the Thunder God in advance didn't seem to hurt "Thor's" chances thanks to the fact that the movie brought the hero to earth in a major way. And that take on the character – both on screen and off – was popularized by writer J. Michael Straczynski.
When he came onto "Thor" for Marvel in 2007, the writer known to his fans as JMS took on the task of brining the hammer-wielding hero back to the Marvel U after an absence of a few years. When he'd left, Thor went out in a blaze of mythological glory – fighting some of the biggest, weirdest monsters in the Norse canon. JMS' take – accompanied by a full-on redesign by artist Olivier Coipel – brought the gods of Asgard to earth where their kingdom was reconstituted in the skies above Broxton, Oklahoma. The series proved a hit for Marvel, selling as the #1 comic when it debuted and serving as a platform for later Marvel event stories.
JMS went on to bring the book back to its original numbering with "Thor" #600 before moving on to work on Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation where he received a "Story By" credit. With the movie topping the box office thanks in part to its "god crashes to earth" take, CBR News reached out to the writer for his take on how the work he and his collaborators did helped prepare the character for big screen glory, how the real-life citizens of Broxton responded to Asgardians at their gate and how his work on the screen story and eventual cameo in the film went down.
CBR News: I'm not sure I've ever heard you talk about this before, and I was wondering what your first exposure to the character of Thor was – in myth or in Marvel? What stuck with you about him?
J. Michael Straczynski: I was lucky enough to start collecting comics when I was a kid, so I had a complete run of "Amazing Spider-Man" from issue #1 on; ditto for "X-Men," "Hulk," "Daredevil" and others, so my first exposure to Thor came via his introductory issue of "Journey into Mystery" #83. The first thing that struck me was Jack Kirby’s artwork; the sheer, raw power of it was unlike anything I’d seen before. I liked the Donald Blake alter-ego, and the science fictional aspects of the setting and of Asgard in particular. (And before you ask, no, I don’t have any of those comics any more; as I’ve noted elsewhere, my father destroyed my entire collection when I was a kid, blaming the bad influence of comics for some inadequate grades I’d received.)
Readers know the context of when you came on to relaunch "Thor" at Marvel – the character's absence from recent publishing plays – but what drew you to it creatively at that time? Had you been eyeing the character, or were the specifics of those circumstances a more interesting element?
Thor was kind of the unwanted step-child at the time; he had been off the grid for quite a while, and it seemed like nobody wanted to tackle him except me. The common wisdom was that it’s really hard, if not impossible to do much interesting or new with the character. They offered him to Neil Gaiman, who would’ve been a dynamite choice, but Neil wasn’t able to take on a monthly book. I said, “I’m here, I’ll do it!” Instead they offered the book to Mark Millar, who ran screaming out into the night. Finally, there was just nobody left standing but me, the guy who wanted it from the start, because I knew what to do with the character. I knew I wanted to turn parts of the concept on its head, and I’ve always had a knack for the sort of faux Shakespeare/ Christopher Fry style of dialogue Thor needed to make him more accessible while still remaining godlike. There’s a play by Fry entitled “The Lady’s Not for Burning,” which had exactly the sort of voice this book needed, and I can write that sort of voice, though nowhere near the exalted levels that Fry could reach without even trying.
More than anything, your run on the book dealt with bringing Thor and the Asgardians down to earth, both literally and figuratively. There's a broad range of stories that can be told with that cast, and oftentimes they're pushed to the cosmic limits. What made the story on earth more compelling for you?
One of the most important lessons any writer can learn is to take something and turn it upside down just to see how it looks. The obvious choice is to put Thor into something cosmic, which is why it’s been done so much. So what does that look like if we turn it upside down? You put him on Earth, in a setting as far from cosmic as you can get without sliding into an alternate universe. It’s all about contrasts: Thor standing next to five other mega-powered guys takes some of the shine of the raw power of the character; put him in small town America, among regular folks, and suddenly the contrast in power elevates him substantially. The same works in terms of heightening the style and distance between a god and mortals. Put Thor in the Avengers, and you get respect; put Thor in a small town and you get awe. And what the character needed most, I felt, was a really strong injection of awe.
It put me in a position to tell the sorts of stories that no one else had told before, and that’s the writer’s primary job: do what hasn’t been done to death already. How many times have we seen Thor and other Asgardians slugging it out with monsters like Surtur, Mangog or Ultron? Many. How many times have we seen Asgardians sitting in a town hall meeting discussing indoor plumbing (and their lack thereof)? Once. That doesn’t it’s better, only that it’s nice to have some counter-intuitive variation from time to time. I love bbq spare ribs. Love ‘em to bits. But if I had to eat ‘em every day, I’d go nuts in a month.
The other real mark of the work you did with Olivier, Marko and your other collaborators was complicating the characters in Thor's world. From Loki's origins and revelations about Balder the Brave, your issues saw some meaningful change to the cast. How do you balance plot turns that play with the root of the characters and the need to represent the archetypal nature of Thor's mythology?
First, I want to give a shout-out to Olivier’s artwork for really elevating the characters. When we redesigned Thor’s armor, a lot of folks gave us both, and Olivier in particular, a lot of grief over it. They thought the new outfit, inclusive of the armored arms, looked dopey, that it was unnecessary, you name it. But it’s since become the new standard for the character and was in part what made the character work visually in a film, which is why they adopted it.
To the issue of making the characters a bit more complex and interesting...for me, for good or ill (usually the former but sometimes the latter) that’s the fun of it, the whole reason for writing any character, to dig deep and find new or at least unexplored areas. It’s all about asking the next question. Loki is a trickster, a shape shifter...why can’t he come back as a female? It shifts the dynamic in amazing ways. As for Balder (or the Norse spelling, Baldur), it’s very clear in Norse mythology, especially the Prose Edda, that Baldur is Thor’s brother, Odin’s “second son.” I didn’t have to make that up, it was a gift just laying there and waiting to be used. So you just go through the characters step by step, asking the next question and turning them upside down to see how they look.
I got emails and letters from folks in Oklahoma city districts and towns, from teachers and historians, who were absolutely thrilled to have a superhero based in their state. I don’t think all of them necessarily “got” Thor or the importance of the character, but that was okay, because that’s how the folks of Broxton reacted to having an Asgardian god in their midst. Though politically things are a bit dicey these days, traditionally Americans have always embraced people from strange places with odd sounding names looking to make a new start: the Irish, the Dutch, the Germans and succeeding waves of immigrants...why should Asgardians be an exception? The folks at Broxton thought their new neighbors were a mite peculiar...certainly didn’t dress like anybody else in town, at least not since Irma Ray Lee left town to join the circus back in the thirties...but they seemed like decent folks, and that was what mattered. I love that about Broxton.
In looking at the differences from the comics to the movie, one of the real stand outs is the lack of Donald Blake, whom you also brought back into the four color fold. What do you think of Blake's role in the franchise as a whole? Is he an essential part of Thor, or something that can be absent if desired?
This goes back to your first question: when I first encountered Thor, he and Blake were joined at the hip (or the hammer). They were part of the same creative moment. So to not have them both in the story, for my money, it wasn’t Thor. Again, when word got out that I was bringing back Blake, lots of folks jumped all over me, complaining that as a character, Blake is lame (no pun intended). But he’s only flat if you write him that way. So I gave the character some teeth, a sense of humor, and a sense of adventure that led him to join Doctors Without Borders. I allowed him to actually talk to Thor while submerged (as Thor could now speak to him when the situation was reversed), so that one could comment on the other’s behavior, which created a really, really cool dynamic. Each could be, in a way, the conscience of the other...or could comment for comedy or dramatic counterpoint on the events of the story.
Yes, one can do without Donald Blake, as the book did for many years. But once again: do you want just BBQ ribs for the whole of your life, or do you want to vary the menu from time to time?
Fans no doubt noted your "Story By" credit when they saw the movie this weekend. What was your involvement like on the film?
I was involved at a very early stage, breaking the story in meetings with Kevin Feige and Craig Kyle and others. I’d meet, we’d talk, I’d break out the beats of the story, come back, we’d go over them some more, I’d work up a more detailed outline...by the time I was done the bones of the structure were there, all the major beats were worked out.
Now, here’s the part that nobody knows: when the time came for the on-screen credits to be arbitrated by the Writers Guild, I didn’t put in for credit on the outline. I had decided to let it go, because the writers who came after me were the ones who would have done all the heavy lifting. I felt that they were the ones who should get the credit. This attitude was a hold-over from my work in TV. On shows like "Babylon 5," "Crusade" or "Jeremiah," I would routinely assign stories to other writers, but I would never arbitrate for story credit, I didn’t think it was fair to cut into the residuals of other writers. Still don’t.
Then I got an unexpected email from Don Payne, one of the aforementioned writers, who was practically apoplectic that I hadn’t put in for credit, a sentiment shared by the other writers as well. When I explained my reasoning, he intimated that I was out of my freaking mind. “The outline is the movie,” Don said. “We were given your outline and it’s all there, it’s the story you created, and it’s the comic you wrote, which is also the basis for the film. You have to apply for shared story credit.” Neither he nor the rest cared that it would cut into their residuals: they were adamant about doing the right thing.
Finally, I agreed, and sent the outline in with the other story materials to the WGA for purposes of arbitration. (The WGA did not include or factor in the comic as it’s outside their purview.) During the process, Zack and Ashley, the other writers, also insisted that it be given proper credit since it had been the backbone of the movie from day one. And when the arbitration came through, the credit was there.
I convey the foregoing because there’s this notion fed by the popular press that in the movie business, writers will routinely try to screw other writers out of their proper credit for a few bucks. But these three writers willingly sacrificed a huge chunk of their residuals to ensure that proper credit went where they felt it was deserved, and they should receive massive props for that. They are emblematic of the best of us.
You also had a cameo! I heard the experience was a little different on the filming end than you anticipated. Were you pleased with what finally made it to the screen? Have you interacted at all with your fellow guest stars like Walt Simonson or Stan Lee?
At first, I was just going to be one of a bunch of guys sitting at a table in a banquet scene. But Ken decided that the cameo should be more than that. So then I was to be one of the guys trying to pick up the hammer. Then he expanded it, deciding that I should be the guy who drives up, walks to the crater, finds the hammer, can’t pick it up, and goes to get his friends for a tractor-pull. So suddenly I was in several scenes and had dialogue. (I’m also in the big car-pull scene later, to the left of the crater, near the car where Stan tries to yank it free; there was additional dialogue here but it was cut for time.) He was very gracious and welcoming on the set, and we spent a good amount of time between shots talking and hanging. When I mentioned that I’m putting together a film of my own to direct, he said that Natalie would be perfect for it, and that I should fly out to New Mexico, and as a thank-you he’d arrange for us to spend some time. Being under deadline on another film for Bruckheimer, I wasn’t able to take him up on the offer, but it shows the measure of the man.
So I’m very happy with how the cameo went, despite the fact that no matter how you adjust the film projector, you can still see me in the shot. And when the hell did my head become pear-shaped? When did THAT happen?
Overall, how do you feel the elements you strove to bring out in your run with Thor impacted the film on the whole?
I think the film is a great complement (and compliment) to the book, and vice versa. We set out to humanize Thor in the comic, to heighten his humanity by putting him in contact with average men and women, so that he could see his dreams reflected in their eyes. We succeeded in this, and the movie takes that approach to a greater and far more exalted level. On the day we shot the cameo – which was taken right out of the book, as a bunch of guys try to pick up the hammer out of the crater – I found myself thinking, “I’ve disappeared inside my own narrative.”
And I love when that happens. It was a lovely experience all around.
Marvel Studios "Thor" is in theaters now.