My favorite run in comics is Walter Simonson’s “Thor.” Yes, the same run that just came out in a glorious, re-colored Omnibus edition. If you don’t have a copy, you need to go buy one. Now. Seriously.
I’m like most any other creator: I wanted to work on the characters that had inspired me as a fan. So Thor was at the top of my “dream list,” along with obvious ones like Batman and Superman, and oddball choices like Nova and Moon Knight. But I can attest that getting your dream job isn’t always a dream come true, and it doesn’t always turn out like you want it to.
Walt’s “Thor” is among the books that got me back in to comics. I’d stopped reading comics altogether by the time I was in high school. Girls, sports, keggers in the woods — you know the drill. But one weekend, the local mall was holding an antiques show. I happened to be walking through the mall, don’t even remember why at this point, and noticed a few tables of comics. The one that jumped out at me was “Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans.” Huh? Marvel and DC in the same book? How could that happen? I bought it up, and it sparked my imagination like few other things. Maybe that’s why I’ve ended up working on so many inter-company crossovers.
“Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans” — with art by Simonson and Terry Austin, who is now one of my closest friends, and known as Uncle Terry to my kids — tuned me back onto comics. Not long after, I pulled a copy of “Thor” #337, with the classic cover of Beta Ray Bill smashing the logo, off the spinner rack at a convenience store. It was my gateway drug, pulling me back into monthly comics. I’ve been a Thor whore ever since.
Less than a decade later, I was writing my first monthly book at Marvel, “Silver Surfer,” which was essentially my on-the-job training for figuring out how to do this job. A year or so into that assignment, an opportunity to write “Thor” came up. Jim Starlin, who ushered me into Marvel and essentially gave me a career, was offered the monthly writing gig on “Thor,” but didn’t have time to take it on. So Jim and I worked out a co-writing scenario, with Jim eventually planning to pass the book to me to write solo. Unlike the Surfer, who was a character that I liked but initially had no attachment to, this was a chance to write one of my favorite characters and follow in the footsteps of my favorite run of all time. The editor (who shall remain nameless; you can look it up if you want) agreed to the plan and invited us to suggest an artist, since no one had been assigned yet.
I’d met Cully Hamner, who was part of Gaijin Studios in Atlanta, not long before. His current assignment — his first regular comics gig — was drawing “Green Lantern Mosaic” for DC, but Cully was thinking about a move to Marvel. Seemed like a great fit, especially after floating the idea past our editor, who asked if Cully could put together an illustration of “his” Thor. That illustration, which accompanies this column, offered a powerful Thor hefting a massive hammer. Great piece. The original still hangs in my office.
I sent the piece into the office, and the editor called to say how much he liked it — but then admitted an artist had already been hired for our “Thor” run. The artist was Bruce Zick, whose work obviously drew great inspiration from Kirby. One of the lessons I learned early on from Starlin is, as a writer, finding your own artist can be akin to self-preservation. You want to work with someone who shares at least some of your storytelling sensibility and overall approach. Of course, there are artists who were handed to me — Darryl Banks on “Green Lantern,” Stjepan Sejic on “Witchblade,” to name two — who went on to become great collaborators and friends. But that kind of “blind date” isn’t always successful.
This was the case on “Thor,” unfortunately. Sometimes a team doesn’t click. Sometimes the various parts don’t come together to make a greater whole. From the first page of our first issue (#460), the art didn’t work for me. While the environments were suitably epic, the figures and faces — forgive my candor — were awkward to my eye. This wasn’t the vision of Thor and his cast that I’d hoped for. Starlin was equally disappointed, departing the book after only a few issues. I stayed on for a full year, but was never happy with or proud of what we were doing. Instead of being excited when new pages showed up, I was ambivalent at best.
I loved the environments Bruce Zick drew. Whenever I could, I pushed the story in a direction that allowed us to include some epic, double-spread landscapes of Asgard or whenever else the action was set. But ultimately, superhero comics are about people, and I never warmed to Bruce’s people. There was an interesting, somehow alien aspect to his pencils, but by the time the pages had been inked and colored in assembly-line style, much of that was gone. Zick was removed from the title after eight issues (via fax, from what I heard, which is a shitty thing to do). He was replaced with, not the artist I requested, but rather M.C. Wyman, who was pretty notorious for swiping Andy Kubert figures. Wyman drew the next four issues, my last on the title.
(An aside: “Thor” isn’t the only place you’ve seen Bruce Zick’s art. He’s a busy animation concept artist, designing amazing environments for everything from Disney’s “Pocahontas” and “Hercules” to Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E.” I can remember sitting in the theater seeing “Hercules” and realizing, just by looking at what was on the screen, that Bruce had designed it.)
Full disclosure, there were certainly story problems as well. We’d embarked upon a long arc of Thor becoming delusional and eventually violent thanks to Odin’s repeated psychic meddling in his son’s head. Our Thor wasn’t really the classic, heroic Thor, the one I was so fond of from Simonson’s run. Our Thor was more of a sympathetic anti-hero. The arc dragged on, eventually crossing over with my “Silver Surfer” title and Starlin’s two “Warlock” books for the “Blood and Thunder” storyline. Marvel is collecting “Blood and Thunder” as a trade this summer. Not my finest moment, certainly, but I guess I’m still glad it’s getting collected. It’ll be the first time I’ve looked at any of those issues in years.
The artist I’d requested after Zick’s departure was Tom Grindberg, who had drawn “Thor Annual” #18, which I wrote. It’s really the one issue during the run that I remember fondly. I was able to write Thor, in Asgard, being Thor. A page from that Annual hangs in my office, too, an image of Thor calling down crackling lightning and drenching rain. The plan was for me to stay on the title for a second year, with Tom as artist. Tom spent a weekend as my house and we brainstormed a storyline that included Thor on Earth, in space and even being turned into a woman for a while. I still have the stack of sketches and designs Tom produced over that weekend. But despite Tom even completing a cover — seen here probably for the first time ever — none of it ever happened.
Our editor couldn’t decide which direction the book should pursue — earthly super-heroics or Asgardian/cosmic adventure. Around that time, Tom was pulled over to draw “Secret Defenders,” a title we were never officially offered, and never officially accepted, but ended up working on anyway because of the strangest lunch meeting I’ve ever attended. But that’s a story for another column.
Without a direction or an artist, I made the decision to leave “Thor.” I hated to do it. I felt like I’d fumbled my chance at writing a series I had so badly wanted to work on. But once I made the phone call to tell the editor of my decision, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Yes, there was a twinge of regret, but there was also a realization that for any number of reasons, I wasn’t going to be able to do the kind of book I wanted to do. Better to walk away than keep beating your head against the wall, and produce a book that nobody is happy with.
It doesn’t always work out that way, of course. I’ve always been a huge Tarzan fan, and my one and only experience writing the character (in the “Batman/Tarzan” crossover) was sheer pleasure. And right now I’m finishing up a job with another “dream character” — Conan, who is a huge touchstone for me in comics and prose.
As a kid, I read far more issues of “Savage Sword of Conan” than I ever did of “Avengers” or “Uncanny X-Men.” I also read all the original Howard tales, as well as all the pastiches. Obviously it’s an absolute treat for me to put words in the Cimmerian’s mouth. So far, so good. Sort of.
The opportunity to work on Conan came in the form of an offer from my editor at Dark Horse, Dave Land (who shepherded my creator-owned “Samurai: Heaven and Earth”). Dave offered me and Bart Sears the Conan short story that appeared in USA Today. When that turned out to everyone’s satisfaction, we started on a two-issue storyline that will appear in June and July as “Island of No Return.” I love working with Bart, I love how the issues are turning out. Everything should be great, right? But last week, Dave Land was laid off. The project is continuing with another editor, and it’ll be fine. But even understanding the economic realities of the comic market, there’s a bittersweet tinge.
Thus far in my career, I’ve had three runs of 50-plus issues: “Silver Surfer,” “Green Lantern” and “Witchblade.” None of those titles was a particular favorite of mine as a reader before I started writing it. And maybe that’s why they turned out to be such good fits. When you come at a series without the emotional baggage of being a hardcore fan, you can approach it objectively, and do what’s best for the story. I think that’s often where the best work comes from.
But let’s be honest… I still want to go back and get “Thor” right.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts,” “Witchblade” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image, set to debut in May, 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, ronmarz.com