Throughout Jack Kirby’s prolific career in the comic book medium, it’s easy to discern what it was he was most passionate about, what excited him the most when it came to the kinds of stories he wanted to tell. You see it stretching all the way back into the Golden Age and continue well into the Bronze Age, similar themes and characters popping up again and again, almost as if he’s telling one, long, massive story that no one company could contain. Kirby had a fascination with the gods and finding out just how human they actually were. You can see it in his acclaimed Fourth World series of books in the early 1970s, and he continued that work over at Marvel in the later half of that decade with the Eternals. He even carried it into independent publishing with his creator-owned Captain Victory epic in the early 1980s. But, to really get an idea about where these incredibly complex themes, stories, and characters came from, you have to go back to the very beginning of his massive epic.
You really have to start with Thor.
Well, maybe not that Thor. We’ll get to him in a minute. Kirby obviously had more than a passing interest in mythology and bringing it into the modern world with larger-than-life Shakespearean operas laid bare on the four-colored pages of American comics. In particular, he seemed to love Norse mythology, specifically Thor, the God of Thunder. The first time we catch Kirby trying to bring these characters to life was actually years before Marvel had even had an inkling about its own superhero properties. Kirby was working for National Comics in the early 1940s with Joe Simon, writing and illustrating their creation, the Sandman, in the pages of Adventure Comics. In a one-off adventure, “The Villain from Valhalla!,” the Sandman was confronted with a powerful new foe who wielded a massive, electrical hammer that could blow holes through cars and buildings alike. This foe called himself Thor and used his massive power to rob banks. Eventually, the villain was brought to justice and was revealed to be nothing but a gangster with a penchant for technological weaponry named (get this) Fairy-Tales Fenton. This iteration of Thor would appear a handful of times throughout the years, but Kirby never revisited the character, probably for good reason. This wasn’t exactly what Kirby was after, it just wasn’t big enough.
Flash forward a decade and we still find Kirby at National Comics, now calling themselves DC. Kirby was still writing and illustrating small stories for their catalog of anthology books and was working on a horror/suspense title called Tales of the Unexpected. It was here that we see Kirby attempt to tackle the character of Thor once again, but this time, it wasn’t a two-bit gangster with a beard. In “The Magic Hammer,” a regular man discovers the titular hammer and finds that it can bring lightning and rain wherever it strikes the ground. The man is able to make some money with his new hammer, but it all goes south when the owner of that hammer shows up to reclaim it. The owner is none other than the Norse God himself, Thor, who had been looking for his hammer since it was stolen by his brother, Loki. It’s an interesting tale that brings us closer to seeing what Kirby wanted out of the gods he envisioned. No longer were they mere mortals playing pretend, now these were the real deal. But, again, there was something missing, something epic, something even bigger.
And then Marvel happened.
In the 1960s, Marvel was booming. Fresh off the success of their superhero smash the Fantastic Four, the company was willing to try any number of different ideas to add to their growing catalogue of heroes. Kirby was back over at Marvel after some time away and now, with the company growing to greater heights with each passing month, he was able to really let loose. In August of 1962, Kirby and Stan Lee introduced the world to the mighty Thor in the pages of Journey into Mystery #83. An anthology title from its days producing monster and science fiction comics, Journey into Mystery had a decidedly mystical slant from that of its sister magazines and was a perfect fit for this new, sensational hero. Donald Blake, a crippled doctor, is visiting Norway when, of course, an alien invasion occurs. Running for his life, Blake loses his cane in the rush and finds an old stick in a dark cave. Upon striking the stick against the ground, Blake is transformed into the mighty Thor and is able to beat back the invaders.
Where before Kirby was limited to the short stories he was telling over at DC, here he could let his stories breathe. Thor was able to be more than a mere god, he was able to be a hero. The Donald Blake persona allowed Kirby to keep Thor within the Marvel pantheon of superheroes and he even had his Thunder God join the Avengers, but where the character really shined was when he was outside the realm of the earth and exploring the Nine Realms of Creation. Kirby was able to introduce such characters as Thor’s father, Odin, his evil brother, Loki, his best friend, Baldur, and countless other gods of Norse mythology. He even brought in the Greek pantheon and set Thor against the incredible Hercules in a fight whose waves are still being felt today. Kirby was even allowed his own back-up stories which he called the Tales of Asgard, where he could explore all the other characters he didn’t have time to touch on in the main Thor feature. Or, he could regale us with a tale about Thor’s youth and his journey to become the hero we know today. Whatever the story was, it was hard to imagine anything more epic at the time.
But, you could tell that Kirby wasn’t satisfied with everything that was going on with the book. As the years went by, he was steadily working his way toward a definitive endpoint. Kirby was convinced that Thor and his friends needed to eventually die in the legendary Ragnarok of Norse legend so that new stories could be told. So that New Gods could rise to take their place. Kirby was planning to end the Thor stories and begin what would later become known as his Fourth World series when the infamous disputes with Lee began to get worse. Kirby realized that anything new he contributed to the company was never going to be his to truly shape and mold as he saw fit, and Marvel wasn’t just going to let a popular character like Thor simply end. So, Kirby eventually left Marvel altogether and created the Fourth World over at DC Comics.
His epic tale of these New Gods and their cosmic struggles became Kirby’s primary focus, but Marvel Comics wouldn’t be the last time we would see the Norse Gods of old. In a small tale from the Forever People #6, a New God named Lonar is exploring the ruins of the Old God’s destroyed kingdom, the legendary Third World. Among the rubble, he lefts a mighty, familiar helmet and, with it, Kirby is able to finally put his story of the Old Gods to rest. It may not have been the perfect ending we all had wanted for our favorite Norse hero, but it was an ending nonetheless, a rarity in superhero comics. Kirby would continue the themes and epic stories he had begun with Thor for years to come, but, it seemed the tale of Asgard was over.
Kirby was no stranger to epic storytelling. Everything he touched seemed to come alive with a yearning to go bigger and bolder than had ever been seen before. And, while it took him a few decades to finally get there, he finally realized his dream with the creation of Marvel’s Thor. The power, the grace, and the sheer humanity he poured into each page of his seven-year run should be celebrated and if you’ve always wanted more from your superheroes than simply punching bird-themed bank robbers, than this is certainly the place to go. Though, you know, there’s plenty of the bank robbers, too. It’s still comics, after all.
If you’re interested in checking out Kirby’s Thor for yourself, there are a few familiar ways to grab the whole story, including the Essential Thor volumes 1-4. Again, these are cheap and they collect a ton of issues in each volume, but they’re in black and white, so your mileage may vary. You could also check it out in color in the Marvel Masterworks Thor volumes 1-9, but we’ve discussed previously about how hard these are to find for cheap, so only get these if you only read Masterworks. Thankfully, I can once again recommend the Mighty Thor Omnibus volumes 1-3 for your reading pleasure, with all the goodies you’ve come to expect inside, all in color. There’s no wrong answer, and as long as you get to experience Kirby’s Thor for yourself, you’re doing it right.
It’s mighty fine reading, all things considered.