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Book Review: The Mighty Thor by Walter Simonson

The Mighty Thor Omnibus

Walter Simonson and Sal Buscema

Marvel Comics, 2011

Perhaps hoping to cash in on the box office success of their movie starring the same character, Marvel Comics has at last issued its long-promised omnibus edition collecting the entirety of writer/artist Walt Simonson’s run on “The Mighty Thor” comic book from the 1980s. Simonson’s epic, slightly tongue-in-cheek take on the character Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, and Jack Kirby created in 1962 has long been considered – by fans and non-virgins alike – as one of the highest creative peaks of the title, if not the single best chapter in the life of Marvel Comics’ oddest super-hero. Simonson’s tenure as writer (he sometimes turned over the artwork chores to veteran penciller Sal Buscema, who did the best work of his long career on this book) extended for some thirty-five issues plus a special issue or mini-series here and there, and the whole great mass of it is here collected in one wrist-spraining volume for the first time.

This alone would be cause for celebration among Marvel connoisseurs and fans of well-done superhero comics everywhere – Simonson’s work always has and always will repay re-reading – but there’s an added element in this volume that may hint at another explanation for its existence. In addition to box-office opportunism, it’s encouragingly possible that this omnibus edition came about out of the simple joy of craftsmanship. Marvel could easily have simply reprinted all of Simonson’s celebrated issues, slapped an exorbitant price-tag on the resulting collection, and called it a day. But although this volume retains the exorbitant price-tag, there’s a big difference: the coloring all throughout has been painstakingly re-done by Steve Oliff and Olyoptics 2.0. The results are astonishing: every page, every single panel is different from the originals fans saw thirty years ago. Metals glint in afternoon light, the sky of the underworld is a baleful blood-red, flesh-tones virtually pulse with life and blood, and Simonson’s copious special effects glow on the page. Exorbitant price-tag or no, this re-mastering is quite obviously a labor of love, and it sets a very high standard indeed for any future such volumes (seeing this treatment given to those old Lee-Kirby issues of “Thor” would be a fanboy’s dream come true).

Inspired by the “Thor” issues of his childhood, Simonson brought to his own run on the character a mythic sweep at once poignant and unabashedly sentimental. When the very last Viking (mystically preserved until the present day) falls in combat beside Thor, he’s apostrophised straight out of Homer: “A truer companion hath no mortal been to me! Oh, Eilif, my shield-bearer Eilif!” When the world-ending assault of the fire-demon Surtur lays waste to Asgard, Simonson gave fans the scene they’d always wanted: Odin, Thor, and Loki fighting alongside each other to protect their home: “Well struck, O my sons! Thy father’s pride in his children is beyond all measure!”

And in what most of those fans would consider the single high point of Simonson’s time on “Thor,” the villainous Executioner finds redemption by standing alone at the bridge of Gjallerbru against the oncoming legions of the death-goddess:

They sing no songs in Hel, nor do they celebrate heroes … for silent is that dismal realm and cheerless … but the story of the Gjallerbru and the god who defended it is whispered across the nine worlds, and when a new arrival asks about the one to whom even Hela bows her head, the answer is always the same: He stood alone at Gjallerbru … and that is answer enough.

It’s possible that such a straightforwardly romanticized take on this character is no longer possible in our post-9/11 age (the Earth-side of the climactic battle with the forces of Surtur takes place on and around the Twin Towers, and it’s predictably jarring – both seeing it and recalling how we thought nothing of seeing it when these issues first came out), but that take is here in all its glory in this gigantic volume. Marvel is to be congratulated for listening to the better angels of its nature and producing an archive of lasting quality.

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