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Thor Month

Thor Month: The Walter Simonson Interview Part 2

We wrap up our discussion with legendary Thor writer/artist Walter Simonson!

By Odin’s beard! We’re celebrating the May 6 release of “Thor” with a bevy of daily new content, from interviews with the cast and crew of the film to looks back at key stories from the comics and even more surprises! Visit Marvel.com every day for new Thor Month coverage, and head out to your local theater now to see the Odinson fly onto the bigscreen!

By Timothy Callahan

In Part 1 of our interview with Walter Simonson, we talked about his early days on THOR as a writer/artist and how he used inspiration from his days as a fan to craft his first stories for the series, resulting in the creation of Beta Ray Bill.

Here, we wrap up the Simonson interview with an in-depth look at his writing process, his collaboration with artist Sal Buscema, and get the final word on how his run looks in its giant THOR BY WALTER SIMONSON OMNIBUS incarnation.

Thor #355

Marvel.com: It’s interesting that you say that you used Beta Ray Bill “sparingly,” because though I had read an issue here and there of your run when I was just getting into comics, it was the “Ballad of Beta Ray Bill” trade paperback from the late 1980s that really exposed me to what you were doing on THOR. So, from my perspective, Beta Ray Bill was a major character in your run, though after reading the run from beginning to end, I realized that, yeah, Bill was just a supporting character after the opening arc. It wasn’t like it was a buddy comic with Beta Ray Bill and Thor.

Walter Simonson: No, it was really Thor’s comic. And one of the interesting things about THOR, and it was interesting to me back when I read it as a fan and [something that] was fun to play with as a writer on the book, is that Thor had a rather large supporting cast of both good guys and bad guys. He had the whole town of Asgard, he had his pal Balder, he had the Warriors Three, he had his father, he had Sif, he had a bunch of mortals floating around. He had bad guys like the trolls, Surtur and so on.

In some ways I tried to use Northern storytelling--Scandinavian storytelling--to put braided stories together where you would follow a number of subplots developing over time. My model in some ways was the Lee/Kirby stuff--they would do this occasionally--and you’d get a page or two pages of seemingly irrelevant stuff happening and then you’d cut back to the main story. Then three or four issues down the line--or in one case, twelve issues down the line--you would discover the relevance that this had as it would bubble up into the foreground and become a new plot that was actually happening in the book.

I actually really liked doing that, and I kept a chart for a while because I couldn’t keep track of everything that was going on.

Marvel.com: What did the chart look like, was it kind of a grid with everything listed on it?

Walter Simonson: It was a spreadsheet, really, so yes it was a grid…and I think I’d run the issue numbers across the top and then I ran the individual character names down the left, and in each box I’d write a short note about where that character would be in that issue. So Balder will do this here, the Warriors Three will do this, or Fandral’s doing this, Sif is here, Thor’s doing this, and that enabled me to keep track of everything. I didn’t follow it slavishly. Stories also have their own momentum. They develop as they go along, and I was flexible, but it allowed me to keep track of all the threads in a way that enabled me to tell them all coherently, to tell all the things that were going on at once, and yet keep it fairly clear.

Marvel.com: I’m fascinated by the structural aspect of that. Would you allot a certain number of pages for the subplots, or just list everybody out and get a sense of the dominant plot threads?

Thor #358

Walter Simonson: I had a specific plot for each story. I usually had one dominant plot for a few issues. The number of issues per plot varied, and, again, I was going back to the Lee/Kirby model. The Beta Ray Bill story took four issues, and that was the longest story out of the whole run.

Marvel.com: Yeah, they were mostly two or three issues.

Walter Simonson: Right, I had a few that were two issues, and a couple that were three, and I even had a couple that were one-off issues where the whole story was done in one. So I had that stuff going on. I would work out my major plots, then I would also work out what subplots would bubble out inside that comic.

It’s hard to remember, but, largely, I know I do this now and I think I did it back then--I was still a pretty new writer--but I worked my own stuff in what used to be called “Marvel style,” which goes back to the days of Stan and Jack and Steve Ditko, and my understanding is that Stan would call them up and give them a plot over the phone or maybe he would hand them something to read. It wouldn’t be very complex and then the artist would sit down and draw up 12 or 20 pages or whatever the story required and then Stan would write dialogue over it. And that was the way many of us at Marvel worked in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and now it’s much [rarer] for anyone to do that. Now it’s much more full script.

But I write my own stuff Marvel style. I will write out a plot--usually you need to type it out to submit it to an editor so they know you’re not doing anything screwy--and then I’ll diagram a book. I’ll draw 22 little boxes. I will write in each box what’s going to happen on each page. In 22 page books it’s not much of a problem, but with longer books I’ll begin writing at the front and the back. If I’m doing a graphic novel at 64 pages long, I’ll write some notes in the front, write some notes in the back, and write some notes in the middle and kind of spread them out throughout the book, smooth them out, just to make sure I don’t end up on page 18 with half my plot to go. I want the rhythm of the plot to be smooth all the way through. Once I get the structure of the plot through the 22 pages in a way that makes sense, then I’ll draw the thumbnails.

Thor #364

It’s at the structure stage, in the diagrams where I’m drawing my little boxes, where I’ll decide how many pages a particular subplot is going to need. Okay, Balder’s going to be crabby at this point, he’s going to avoid dueling Agnar, Volstagg will grab Agnar and sit on him, and that will give me a page or two pages or whatever it is and I will be able to tell how many pages a sequence is going to need to be effective. So I’ll factor that into my diagrams. Once the diagrams are done, I’ll thumbnail the book, which is mostly one page per a piece of typewriter paper--I’m old, it’s typewriter paper; now it would be copier paper. Basically I’ll draw boxes on a piece of copier paper that represents my page. I’ll break that down into panels. I’ll break those down into compositions. They’ll be simple line drawings. Circles for heads. Not very comprehensible. Stick figures. Not a lot of drawing at that stage, but at that point all I’m really doing is fixing the composition of the panels, fixing the composition of the pages [and] the actual storytelling.

Usually, at that point, that’s when I’ll write my script. I’ll put my thumbnails next to my typewriter. When I first started on Thor, that was back in the typewriter days, and my first three or four scripts were done on the typewriter. Somewhere in there we got our first word processor. Weezie, my wife, was also writing POWER PACK for Marvel, and when she sold POWER PACK, she said, “we’re getting a word processor,” so we got an old model Kaypro, which was a great old word processor. It had 64k worth of memory. [Laughs]

Marvel.com: A whole 64k! Wow!

Walter Simonson: But it worked great. Word processors now, for what I do, are no better now than WordPerfect was back in the day. The later strips were all done on the word processor, but the first scripts were typed out, and I’ll write my scripts out that way, so that if I see that my script is going some way that my layouts aren’t quite going I can go back and change the layouts, because at that stage there’s so little investment in the drawing that erasing is not hard to do.

At the later stages, if you’ve done a lot of drawing, a lot of rendering and working on light and modeling and all that stuff, boy you hate to erase.

But my general plan is to keep everything, from the layouts to the script, as loose as possible, up to the point where I think, “okay, this is where I want to go.” At that point I’ll do pencils, I’ll get the book lettered, I’ll ink it, I’ll keep going.

Thor #366

Marvel.com: Is that the same approach, the Marvel style and everything, that you’d use with Sal Buscema when he came in to draw the second half of your THOR run?

Walter Simonson: Yes, I mean Sal was an old pro, and he did one issue with Thor’s great-grandfather, issue #355, I think it was, and he did a wonderful job. Sal was a wonderful storyteller. He still is a wonderful storyteller. But he really understood pacing and which shots to choose, so actually writing a script over his artwork…it was like butter.

Writing over his pencils, it almost wrote itself. It was incredibly easy. I had a great time working with Sal. I loved working with him.

Marvel.com: You can see the synergy between the two of you on the second half of that run. It seemed, though, when he was drawing THOR, it was a little less…dense. Maybe it was just the difference in the way you two guys would lay out your pages, but there was a certain density to the first half of your run, and then it seems to open up a little bit more when Sal comes in. Was that something you were aware of as you were scripting those scenes? Did it seem more narratively opened up, or is it just a matter of the way the art looks on the page?

Walter Simonson: I think it was the way the art looked. I don’t think I made any real changes in my stories, per se. My layouts tend to be a little more extreme than Sal’s, with larger panels here and smaller panels there, and our sense of composition is quite different, so I don’t know that such an openness was part of a plan so much as writing for me, on my own layouts, was a little different than writing for Sal over his layouts. Because his storytelling was so good, I was completely happy to go with what I was getting, and, like I said, it was extremely easy to write.

Thor #373

I particularly remember the story with the great-grandfather, with Tiwaz, because Sal--and I gave him a fairly detailed plot--but he did such a lovely job that I was able to write stuff in there that I was very pleased with and yet it all seemed very natural; it seemed to flow quite naturally out of the artwork. And that was what it was like to work with Sal. I was able to pay attention to the writing. I wasn’t sitting there thinking, “aw, I sure wish he’d drawn this differently,” or “I wish he’d done some different storytelling here,” or whatever. It was all just right there.

Marvel.com: You wouldn’t have to go in with captions and add words explaining what was supposed to be going on.

Walter Simonson: Not more than you’d expect. I mean you’d go in with words and help establish the tone and atmosphere, but as far as the storytelling itself, it was incredibly smooth, and I think that’s one of Sal’s great gifts. It’s generally overlooked because I don’t think it’s something comic book readers generally pay attention to. You kind of read it and look at the drawing and maybe the composition, but I think the actual panel-to-panel continuity, and how the entire page is composed, it’s just not something that most readers are looking for.

Marvel.com: Also, and I’m using terms like “first half” and “second half” as a shorthand here, but in the second half of your run, after the Surtur story reaches its epic conclusion, you seem to tell different kinds of stories than in the first half. So it’s not just that Sal drew a bunch of issues at that point, it’s that the stories themselves are a bit different. Is that something you wanted to do, to go in different directions, or was it a matter of having a big Surtur story planned and then a sort of vague sense of where you wanted to go after that?

Walter Simonson: Well, if you do a book, you kind of get your own shot, and that was especially true back then where, as I said, I had carte blanche to do stuff. So I took advantage of that and tried to kind of stretch the book in several different directions with stories that were epic and stories that were small-scale, stories that were kind of tragic, stories that were kind of funny. The Thor frog leaps to mind.

Marvel.com: [Laughs] Let’s talk about that.

Thor #380

Walter Simonson: I parodied my own work with two issues where Thor was a frog. It was two things. One, it was an homage to Carl Barks, whose work I’m a huge fan of, with his Donald Duck comics and Uncle Scrooge. And also it was a parody of my own stuff. It’s a heroic quest with…frogs doing the heroic questing. It was also a tip of the hat to Steve Ditko, because there’s one scene where the Thor frog has to lift the hammer, but of course he’s only about as big as the underside of the hammer, so if you go back and look at his dialogue or thought balloons whenever he’s lifting the hammer, I shamelessly swiped from that wonderful scene that Stan wrote where Spider-Man is lifting this giant piece of machinery where the Master Planner has him pinned in this underwater base that’s about to collapse. It was my tip of the hat to that.

It was cool, I got to do a lot of stuff. If you look at the Norse myths themselves, there’s stuff that’s really funny, and stuff that’s really grim--you can hardly even be that grim in a comic book--and I liked that range. In the comic, when I was doing it, I was trying to catch not so much the exact Norse myths, but I felt I had this big range that I was permitted because of the source material.

Marvel.com: Your Thor run is now in this giant Omnibus format, over a thousand pages long.

Walter Simonson: Scary, isn’t it? [Laughs]

Marvel.com: What do you think when you look at that giant tome of a comic book series, when you reflect on your run?

Walter Simonson: Well, for a very lazy guy, I’m stunned at the amount of work that must have gone into that [Laughs]. I haven’t had it all together in one spot, and, of course, when you put the floppies together, they don’t weigh as much as that book, but overall I have to say I’m really pleased about it. I’m pleased I did that much work. I’ve never gone back and reread my entire series. Mostly I don’t go back and reread my own stuff. I’ve gone back and reread some of the individual comics. There are certain comics from my THOR run that I’m very proud of, that I like. Or certain scenes.

There’s a scene that I like, rather early on, where Odin talks to Etri the dwarf when he wants to have a new hammer made, and there [are] two pages where they talk and I just love that scene. There’s something about the dialogue of that scene, with the two of them chatting, that I was really pleased about. So I have reread that occasionally. And the Thor/Midgard Serpent business with the fake Viking poetry I like. The story of Thor and his great-grandfather. So there are places I’ve gone back and looked at occasionally.

But I have gone through it a bit…and looked at the new coloring by Steve Oliff, which I think is just beautiful. Looking through it I’m delighted that I was able to do that work. I’m delighted that I was allowed to do that work by Marvel at the time. That I had the freedom to take a character that I loved as a fan, and tell a bunch of stories with him, and I think they hold up pretty well even more than 20 years after they were done. I don’t know how a modern eye would see it, but in looking through it, seeing the pictures and how the storytelling is done, it seems like pretty good comics.

And that’s not a bad place to be.

For more Thor, visit the film's official site and our "Thor" movie page!

Buy your "Thor" tickets now on Fandango, Moviefone or MovieTickets.com!

Check out the list of Required Reading: Thor Collections, and find the best jumping-on points with Thor: Where to Start!

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the epic adventure "Thor" spans the Marvel Universe from present day Earth to the realm of Asgard. At the center of the story is The Mighty Thor, a powerful but arrogant warrior whose reckless actions reignite an ancient war. Thor is cast down to Earth and forced to live among humans as punishment. Once here, Thor learns what it takes to be a true hero when the most dangerous villain of his world sends the darkest forces of Asgard to invade Earth.

"Thor" is from a screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne and a story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich. Marvel Studios’ President Kevin Feige will produce the film. Alan Fine, Stan Lee, David Maisel and Marvel Studio’s Co-President, Louis D'Esposito, will executive produce.

In addition to "Thor," Marvel Studios will release a slate of films based on the Marvel characters including "Captain America: The First Avenger" on July 22, 2011; "Marvel's The Avengers" on May 4, 2012; and "Iron Man 3" on May 3, 2013.


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