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Thor Month: The Walter Simonson Interview Part 1

The legendary writer/artist looks back at his seminal Thor run!

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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 mark your calendars for May 6 as the Odinson flies onto the bigscreen!

By Timothy Callahan

With the arrival of THOR #337 in 1983, Walter Simonson made an unforgettable mark on the Marvel universe. For the next four years, Simonson crafted tales of high adventure, tragedy, comedy, mythology, amphibians, and space aliens, and set a standard of quality for mainstream super hero comic books that has rarely been achieved since.

Simonson’s entire run has been collected in a massive hardcover edition, THOR BY WALTER SIMONSON OMNIBUS, filled with over a thousand beautifully-drawn pages of Norse gods and heroes fighting against Frost Giants, dragons, elemental forces, and the ever-mischievous Loki.

In this first installment of a two-part interview, we talk with Walter Simonson about his start as writer/artist on THOR and the thought process behind one of his most famous creations.

Thor By Walter Simonson Omnibus cover

Marvel.com: Let’s begin, appropriately enough, at the beginning. Where were you, career-wise, and where was THOR when you took over writing and drawing the series?

Walter Simonson: As far as I know, and I don’t have any hard evidence to back this up, the general scuttlebutt at the time seemed to be that the book was not doing very well. Some of the stories were that it was in some danger of cancellation--I don’t know if that was true.

But it wasn’t doing very well, and by 1983 I’d been drawing comics for a little over 10 years, and mostly I was a penciler and inker. I had a solid professional reputation at that time. I had done some work that had netted some awards earlier in the 1970s, so that really cemented me as a professional that editors knew. And I had been fortunate enough to work with some really good writers and do some books I really enjoyed doing. In the late 1970s, I had a chance to begin writing some comics as well. The first one was BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Marvel had been doing a comic based on the TV show. I had become an artist on it for a while, but when [writer] Roger McKenzie left, I was offered a shot at writing it.

The advantage, from my point of view, was the book wasn’t doing all that well. It was kind of the same situation with THOR. When I wrote it, it wasn’t doing well, and if it went down the tubes, people would just say, “well, he gave it a shot.” And if it did well, they’d say, “wow, Simonson! Cool.” In the case of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, it went down the tubes. But I wrote several issues and really cut my teeth on writing that way. I wrote four out of the last five issues, and I had a lot of fun doing them.

I learned a lot from Archie Goodwin, who was my partner on some stuff at DC earlier. What happened was that after those issues had come out, Archie caught me in the office one day and he complimented me on them. He’d liked what I had done. That was tremendously thrilling to me. I still think Archie is one of the finest writers mainstream comics have ever had.

Well, it turned out he was supposed to write an adaptation of a movie that was coming out around that time--1980 or whatever--and he was really busy, so he asked me if I wanted to write a movie adaptation in three issues, and I thought, “what the heck, I’m game for almost anything.”

The movie was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The artist was John Buscema, inked by Klaus Janson. So I got to work with those guys. Of course in a movie adaptation, it’s not like you’re making up every word, because you have the screenplay and a lot of guidance. That worked out very well. Archie was very pleased with it. I just took that as a sign that I had done pretty well, that I had written something that was at least coherent.

And around that time I wrote my own characters--characters that I created called the Starslammers, and Marvel published that as a graphic novel. Somewhere in there, as I had become a writer as well as an artist, and because I had written some stuff that had seemed fairly well thought of--however well, or not well, it had sold--Mark Gruenwald, who was the editor of THOR, was looking, I presume, for kind of a new direction for the book.

Thor #337, Walter Simonson's first issue as writer/artist

I had been a reader of THOR in college. I had read the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby stuff. I had loved it. I had been a Norse mythology fan since I was a kid and was thrilled to discover a comic that was kind of based on Norse mythology--there’s not a one-to-one correspondence, but there’s no reason there should be. I was delighted to find it, and I didn’t care that it wasn’t exactly the myth. For one thing, Thor didn’t have red hair in the comics. I was fine with that.

Out of that period of Marvel, that golden age, THOR was probably my favorite comic, particularly around the time of issues #114 through #140 of JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY [which morphed into THOR with issue #126].

Marvel.com: And in your younger days you came up with Thor stories of your own, for fun, right?

Walter Simonson: Just as a fan. I had put together some ideas for some Thor stories, not with the idea that I would ever really do them, but just as fans do, for fun. You like these characters and you think of stories for them. In my case, I not only thought of stories, I had drawn about 30 pages of inked comics. I didn’t letter them. This was before I became a professional, and it was my first sustained effort at drawing comics. I followed my own plot, I simply didn’t provide dialogue for it. I inked them all in a spiral bound drawing notebook. I worked hard at it, and after 30 pages I thought it was neat, but I thought I needed to learn to ink better, so I said, “I’ll come back to this later when I really know more.”

14 years later I was talking to Mark Gruenwald, and I do not remember this clearly now, but I’m sure when Mark and I were talking about comics, I mentioned the ideas I had for Thor. So, at some point, when I was doing the Starslammers graphic novel, Mark came to me and offered me the chance to write and draw the THOR comic book for Marvel.

He was very clear that I did not have to follow any of the stories that came before. Essentially, he gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted to do. And he gave me a list of ideas a on piece of paper--I wish I still had it, but I haven’t seen it in 30-plus years, so I presume it’s gone…

But it was a series of ideas, up to and including killing Thor, that I could do if I wanted to. Now Mark didn’t want me to do those ideas, but he wanted to persuade me that he was quite serious that I could do whatever I wanted to do. And that is not an offer you get in mainstream comics.

Marvel.com: I can imagine!

Walter Simonson: And, honestly, I don’t think you’d ever get that offer now. Comics are different than they were 30 years ago. I don’t know if I was as stunned by the offer as I would be now! [Laughs] Now I know more, but when you’re younger you just think, “well, this is just kind of the way things are.”

I was delighted. I had done a bunch of Marvel comics already. I had done layouts for THOR years earlier for Len Wein to write. I had done the Hulk, and I had done some other stuff. I was quite familiar with the Marvel Universe at the time.

So I took over the book as a writer and artist, and, as I said, it was a time when THOR was not selling very well, which wasn’t a bad place to be, because if the book didn’t do well, nobody would have blamed me.

As it happened, my THOR did actually catch on, and it did fairly well. I just jumped right in with both feet.

Marvel.com: Beginning with “Thor” #337. With an image of Beta Ray Bill smashing the old logo off the cover.

Walter Simonson: The one thing I did do, and I like doing this with books that I write…I tried, in the opening story, to do something that had not been done before in the series. And at the time I took over THOR, it had been running for 20 years. That’s a long time, and you recycle a lot of ideas in mainstream comics.

So when I thinking about what to do--and I had all these ideas from my original stories from much earlier--but I wanted to do something that seemed fresh. In the course of that thinking, I decided, looking over the Thor stories they had done up to that point, I thought about the idea that up to that time, Thor had his magic hammer Mjolnir, and the enchantment essentially said, “whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”

Up to that point in the comic, nobody else had actually held the hammer. Actually, in one of the Lee/Kirby issues, Loki had some extra magic-juice and was carrying around the hammer, and at the time I read it I thought, “oh, that’s not really happening, I’m sorry, Stan and Jack just kind of forgot what they were doing for an issue, and I’m just going to ignore that entirely.” The point was that no one else had picked up the hammer. Not really. I took that to mean that, after 20 years of comics, there was no one in the Marvel universe who could pick up the hammer besides Thor.

I thought it would make an interesting story to create a new character, because the existing characters probably couldn’t do it--nobody had really tried, but they were all around--but I would create a new character who would be designed to be able to pick up the hammer. And that would mean he would be able to possess the power of Thor.

And that was the character I ended up naming Beta Ray Bill.

Now, at the time there were no real collections of comics. Nobody did comics with the idea that these will all be coming out in trade paperbacks or hardcovers five years down the line, 10 years down the line, 20 years down the line. It just wasn’t being done. Comics came out, and you could go in comic shops and buy back issues, but there were no real collections, so you weren’t doing comics that would be six issue story arcs that would make convenient trade paperbacks. You were just doing comics.

The idea was that you wanted to bring the reader back the following month. At the same time, because you were not doing collections, comics were kind of a short form. They came out every month. They were 22 pages long. That’s not a lot of room to really have a complex story, or even a chapter of a story, and have a lot of complex characters and have stuff happen. So you use a lot of shorthand.

Beta-Ray Bill first wields Mjolnir

In the course of those early issues, when I created Beta Ray Bill he was created with a history that I felt would give him the qualities needed to pick up the hammer. He would be worthy, but he would also be a warrior--he would have need of that kind of power. At the same time, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time explaining what was going on. You want your readers to be able to see what’s happening pretty much instantly without a lot of captions or explanations. So with that in mind, what I did was create a character--kind of a science-fiction guy--who, when he picks up the hammer, or the magic walking stick, which is what it was at the time…he picks it up, and it kind of explodes. He explodes. And he turns into a guy wearing a kind of ersatz Thor suit.

That’s not really because the hammer was a secret tailor that changed people’s clothes. It was a shortcut, so that the minute this guy picked up the stick, smashed it into the wall, turned it into a hammer, and he turned into a version of Thor…I didn’t have to explain to anybody what had just happened. Even if you had never read the comic before, it would be very clear from the wings on the side of his head, the blue discs on his chest, and the red cape, looking kind of like an ersatz Thor, it would be very clear that he had Thor’s power. I didn’t have to sit there and write a caption that read, “AND AS THE HAMMER STRIKES THE WALL AND THE LIGHTNING FLASHES AND THE KIRBY CRACKLE BOILS, HE BECOMES A THOR-TYPE GUY!”

Those were the kinds of things you would do back in the 80s when comics were kind of a short form. I don’t know if I would do the same thing now, but that’s the way it was back then and it actually worked out pretty well.

Beta Ray Bill, I thought, was pretty nifty. I enjoyed doing him. I used him kind of sparingly in the course of the four years I was doing the book, but he seems to have a longer shelf life, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

NEXT WEEK, IN PART 2: Walt talks about his collaboration with Sal Buscema, his approach to writing comics, and what was on his mind when he turned Thor into a frog.

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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