There are three stand-out runs from combined writer/artist creators in the 80s Marvel Universe. Frank Miller's Daredevil, John Byrne's Fantastic Four, and Walt Simonson's Thor. Of the three, Thor was always my least favourite. Then again, Thor is also my least favourite character of the original 60s Marvel headliners. I admire what Stan did, bringing Norse mythology and cod Shakespearian dialogue into a universe largely populated by science heroes, but as a kid I'd have found myself hard-pressed to find any character I was less likely to relate to. (Apart from Superman.)
That said, Simonson's Thor was revolutionary for a number of reasons, and not just his highly stylised art which looked like nothing else Marvel was publishing at the time. He was also allowed to take a number of exciting risks with the character that hadn't been done before and probably wouldn't have been allowed had the book's sales not been in the dumper. Replacing the title character with a cow-faced alien (Beta Ray Bill) was just the first, and it's a trick that's been used hundreds of times since with everybody from Captain America to Green Lantern to Batman, Superman and Spider-Man getting booted out of their own books in favour of some short-lived imposter... though never one who looked quite so much like Ermintrude from the Magic Roundabout. In later issues, Simonson would even turn Thor into a frog... but that'll be covered in later volumes. For now, let's look at how it all began...
The most memorable storyline featured here - beyond Thor's replacement by Beta Ray Bill (which seemed to go on much longer when I was a kid but is actually wrapped up in a couple of issues) is the subplot featuring the creation of a mighty sword to be wielded by the fire demon Surtur. Every issue features at least a page of a mysterious blacksmith hammering this all-powerful weapon into shape, accompanied by the ominous, universe-echoing sound effect "DOOM!" (Great work from letterer John Workman, whose style compliments Simonson's extremely well.) Contrary to the speed of the Beta Ray Bill wrap-up, I was surprised by just how long this subplot continued - there are 12 issues collected here, the first few pages open with the weapon being forged... and the book closes with Surtur finally wielding his sword, ready to take action. A whole year in preparation... the fight that followed must have been epic... but again, I'll have to wait for volume 2 to discuss that.
The other major change Simonson made to the legend of Thor was in ditching his lame (pun intended) alter ego Donald Blake, setting up a new "Clark Kent" secret identity called Sigurd Jarlson instead. This leads to some amusing situations with Thor having to live in the world of men rather than just switching back to Blake whenever he needs to do the washing. I kind of feel Simonson could have made more of this, but maybe I'm looking back with a 21st century perspective. There's also an affecting subplot involving Balder The Brave... who's not so brave anymore.
I appreciated these stories much more reading them as an adult than I did as a kid. And Simonson's art is just as spectacular as I remembered it. While I still didn't enjoy it as much as Miller's DD or Byrne's FF, that's more the fault of the character than the creator. Making me care about Thor is always going to be a hard sell... I'll be interested to see how Kenneth Branagh gets on.
Because I wasn't as desperate to own these collections as I was FF & DD, I bought them properly On The Ration. Volume 1 I picked up some time ago on eBay for about a fiver, including p&p. I've sinced acquired 2 & 3 for similar markdowns, though it looks like 4 and 5 might be harder to come by.