A DIALOGUE WITH WALT SIMONSON: THOR AND MORE PART 1
A couple of weeks ago, Marvel asked me to speak with Walter Simonson about his monumentally-important “Thor” run, now collected in a not-handy but quite-gorgeous Omnibus edition.
I think there’s a movie coming out, or something.
Anyway, I took the opportunity to reread all of Simonson’s “Thor” work in the week leading up to the interview, and I had far more questions than we had time to discuss in the hour or so before Walt had to rush off to the library to squeeze in some research time.
And what a discussion we had! I’m not sure I really had to ask Walt much of anything — if I had said, “Thor. Go,” I’m certain that he could have spent the hour talking about his experiences with the character and the comic book series, and his enthusiasm for Norse mythology and comic books appears as unbridled as ever. Honestly, I barely interjected more than a few “rights” and “yups” as we spoke about his approach to plotting long-form “Thor” stories and the kind of changes he brought to the series.
Really, this isn’t even so much an interview as it is a lesson from a master craftsman in what it was like to create one of the most memorable sagas in superhero comic book history. Walt is a teacher, after all, and when I asked him about his use of Surtur as the main antagonist in his opening year on “Thor” — foreshadowed for nearly twelve months before the actual battle occurred — the lesson began.
Walt Simonson: The idea of Surtur and the sword was something I had come up with in college, and at the time, in Marvel’s “Thor,” there was this thing called the Odinsword — originally called the Oversword, but it got changed after a few issues. It was this great sword sitting in a scabbard, in the middle of Asgard. In the Lee/Kirby mythology it was this sword that, if it were drawn, the universe would end.
There were a couple of stories where that sword became a part of the storyline, and my original idea when I was first reading this stuff and thinking about the Norse myths and thinking about the characters from the myths and in the Lee/Kirby material, was that — in the original myths, Surter was this big fire creature that lived in Muspelheim, the land of fire to the south, and in Ragnarok at the end of time, when the gods and their enemies meet to fight at the battle plane of Vigrid, Surtur kills the god he’s facing with his great sword of flame, and, presumably he cannot survive the end of everything, when everyone is dying all around him, he flings his sword across the vault of heaven and sets flame to all nine worlds, and everything disappears in flame. And Surtur vanishes as well, so presumably he dies with everybody else.
Tim Callahan: Sure.
Myths aren’t designed to be continuity conscious the way comics are [laughs], but he doesn’t appear again. My thought was that the Odinsword was, in fact, Surtur’s sword. And Odin had it in keeping because my view of Surtur was that he was really an elemental, very demonic, he isn’t a subtle character, he doesn’t have a lot of subtext. His idea is to destroy the nine worlds. All the known universe, basically.
Odin was keeping the sword to prevent that from happening prematurely. Odin knows that, sooner or later, the time will come when this is going to happen. That’s the way the Norse myths read. They’re kind of fatal in that regard.
But he didn’t want Surter to do it too quickly, so Odin’s got the sword, and I hadn’t worked out all the details but that’s what the sword was.
So, in the actual comic books, about three years before I took it over as writer/artist, there was a storyline that I think Ralph Macchio and Mark Gruenwald finished up, but it started as a Roy Thomas storyline, in which that sword was used and destroyed. By the time I was doing the book, the Odinsword was no more, and I did not want to go back and say, “oh, look, HERE’S the Odinsword. It fell behind the shed,” or whatever you would do.
So I decided to have Surtur forge his own giant sword — I called it “Twilight” for “twilight of the gods” — and it gave me a nice opening sequence that was run throughout the opening sequence, even though I was telling other stories: the Beta Ray Bill story, there was a Fafnir story, the Dark Elf story and there was one story about Odin and his brothers, but they were all kind of leading toward the Surtur climax where Surtur would try to take Asgard and destroy the universe.
The initial ideas that I had formed was based on stuff that no longer existed by the time I was doing the book. So I had to go back and rethink how I was going to do that, and it actually worked out pretty well.
Did you plan beyond that point when you first started on the book, or was it a matter of planning up through the Surtur story and then waiting to see what happened — if you’d be on the title longer than that?
I had ideas where I wanted to go, and I didn’t have the whole Surter story planned from the second I got on the book, really. The idea was to work toward the climax in the Surter story in “Thor” #350 because it was a nice round number, and I figured I could do a double-issue and maybe wrap it up. But by the time I got close to #350, I was thinking, “Okay, I’m not going to make it to #350 — I’m going to make it past #350 — I can’t squeeze it in.
You do have that with stories. They sometimes develop their own pace. I was shooting for #350, but it didn’t happen. I went a few issues past and I didn’t lose any sleep over it. Some of the stuff — I don’t think when it started I had the idea for Fafnir. Fafnir was a character from the old “Tales of Asgard” I’d always liked. I liked the way the dragon looked. That was from a strong period of Jack Kirby’s work, and Stan Lee’s writing on that was just great stuff. So it was fun to dig that guy up.
I did a thing later with the Casket of Ancient Winters that I invented for the book. What that really was — and, again, that wasn’t something from the old days — that was something I made up as I was doing the book. In the Norse myths, before Ragnarok occurs, there are several harbingers that lets you know it’s coming. One of those is a terrible, terrible winter. The winter lasts for three years, and it doesn’t break. It’s called the Fimbulwinter.
Basically it’s a terrible winter where brother kills brother. It’s an axe age where everybody goes nuts. And I didn’t have three years in the Marvel universe to work that stuff out. [Laughs] And I’m not sure I would have tried, but I created the Cask of Ancient Winters so that in the context of the comic, I could do a winter that would be everywhere.
And it was really a way to do a short version of the Fimbulwinter before Ragnarok, and, again, I didn’t do a classic version of Ragnarok where all the gods went to the battle plain of Vigrid and faced off against their traditional enemies. That stuff’s been done, off an on.
One of the great things about Ragnarok is, as a story, if you read the Elder Edda, and you see that story in verse, in Viking verse, it’s a great story. It’s one of the great stories, I think, in Western literature. It’s very powerful. And since comics — American mainstream comics — are really ongoing, communal efforts, where different writers and artists come on but the title goes on, they take different colorations over time. Batman has not been the same guy, really, since the 1940s, but…he’s the same guy. That’s kind of true for Thor and other characters as well.
What it means, in the case of Thor, is that the Ragnarok story is so powerful, that anyone who’s on the book for any length of time, wants to take their own crack at it. And I got to take two cracks. I did the Surtur story and then two years later I got to do Thor vs. the Midgard Serpent, a character he actually faces in Ragnarok, without having to do an exact duplicate. As a writer, it’s just such a great story that you want to try your hand at it.
That’s why that stuff cycles around from time to time. Roy Thomas, when he was writing the book, made the cyclical nature of the gods a part of his continuity. He did a whole thing that’s not in the Norse myths, but really makes sense for comic books.
To backtrack to the beginning of your run a bit, you not only established Beta Ray Bill as a character on par with Thor, but you also got rid of the Dr. Donald Blake persona. You wrote him out of the series.
I did. I wrote him out pretty quickly.
And that seemed to achieve a couple of things, from a reader’s perspective anyway. It separated Thor from the Marvel universe for a while — the other Marvel superheroes barely appear, at least for the first year-and-a-half of your run, except for a cameo here and there. And it also allowed the stories to take place on a higher plane, to use a consistently higher level of diction, it seemed, instead of have an emphasis on the dichotomy between Asgard and Midgard, it was mostly all Asgard for a while.
I did jump back and forth. The Casket of Ancient Winters — a lot of that stuff took place on Earth.
One of the things I liked about the comic, in the Lee/Kirby days, and I took that as my model is that it did take place on Asgard but it also took place on Midgard. That, as a god, Thor is really sort of “the guardian of ordinary men.” It’s not all “fantasy” stuff, though it is fantastic. But some of it does take place on Earth, where he’s grounded in a way that some of the other gods are not, and yet he can go off to Asgard and ride around and become involved in derring-do and get up to all of these things in the fantasy world.
So I liked that dichotomy and I tried to keep that, but the Donald Blake business, here’s what that was really about: when I read the comic back in the mid 60s, and I never talked to Stan about this, and I certainly never got to talk to Jack about this, but my feeling was that originally the comic started when an ordinary guy — a lame physician — found a magic stick.
He hit the magic stick into a stone wall, turned into the god Thor.
And within a few issues, they added things, like Asgard showed up, and then Odin showed up, Loki showed up, and all that stuff. All the accoutrements of the Norse myths began to appear in the comics. But initially, I think, Donald Blake was just an ordinary guy who had the good fortune to find this magic enchantment that made him into a different being and allowed him to save people and do good work.
Over time, as Thor’s home life became more complicated, with the friends he had in Asgard, the girlfriend he had in Asgard, the father, all that stuff developed and you had “Tales of Asgard” where they rode off and fought the Utgard Dragon or whatever it was, and Fafnir, and there were adventures of Thor as a kid where he got to lift the hammer for the first time, and they were all in the backstory.
And that backstory started to come into conflict with being an ordinary guy on Earth. Because really, the life of Thor, as a character, becomes more stronger and more detailed, and that leads to a question: what’s the relationship between Donald Blake and Thor, when this character is Donald Blake, is Thor off somewhere? Are they the same guy? What does that make Donald Blake, is he really an ordinary guy or…? And these are questions of storytelling that, as the book developed, began to be asked. And whether you wanted them to appear or not, as the book went on, these became questions.
They weren’t clearly answered. As it went on, the more elaborate Thor’s life became, the more the question became, “Who’s this Don Blake? He’s a physician, surgeon, whatever he is, but how does that work with his tie to Thor?”
And eventually, Stan and Jack did a two-part story around issue #159 about the origin of Dr. Donald Blake. The origin they gave Donald Blake was that Odin had decided — and, I have to say that, in the comic, it was not for the first time — that Thor was obnoxious and needed a lesson in humility.
I do have to say that, given how Odin was written, that he was the guy who was giving lessons in humility. Because, really, the guy who probably needed that lesson was the All-Father himself. But that was just me.
Yeah. You, and everybody else.
So that was the story, and Thor becomes a mortal. He’s lame because he needs to learn what it is to be frail, what it is to be human, to not be a god. And as a physician he becomes a student on a campus, and he has no memories of a childhood, but he has no questions about it, because it’s an enchantment. So basically, he’s Thor, under an enchantment.
I’m sure, back when they originally introduced Donald Blake in “Journey into Mystery,” that’s not what was going on. But I don’t really care. That’s how they chose to resolve the issue of “who is Thor and who is Donald Blake?” And it means that Donald Blake is essential a magical construct.
My own feeling about that is that once we knew who Donald Blake was, and once Thor knew who he was, and once, presumably, Odin had revealed this secret, Thor’s time as a mortal should have been over. He’d learned his lesson. He knew what Odin had wanted him to know. I felt that, from that point on, Donald Blake was more or less a ball and chain around Thor’s leg. I mean, it could be done well, it was done well, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me that Donald Blake was kept in the picture, once we knew what he was actually about.
When I took over the book, I thought, “I’m gonna act on that. Donald Blake has learned his lesson.” I was able to do a story in which Odin was able to take the enchantment — the Donald Blake enchantment that turned a Thor-type guy into an ordinary mortal — and switch it over to Beta Ray Bill. I think that worked out kind of elegantly, so the enchantment remained but it gave Bill something he’d lost, access to his original self which he’d sacrificed for his people, when he was trying to help them by becoming their great warrior. In Donald Blake’s case, it was kind of a punishment, but I turned it upside down so in Bill’s case it was a reward.
And that enabled me not to have Donald Blake around anymore.
NEXT WEEK: We talk about what the removal of Donald Blake allowed Walt to do with the series, and we discuss his approach to teaching comics, including the advice he most often gives to young comic book artists.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan