Marvel’s introduction of Thor in Journey Into Mystery #83 (published in August 1962) ushered into the world a comic book character that transcended traditional superhero characteristics. Stan Lee, who created Thor, along with his brother Larry Lieber and artist Jack Kirby, said he wanted the character to “be stronger than the strongest person.” After creating the Hulk a few months earlier, it was concluded that for this character to be that strong, he would have to be a God. And not just any God, but Thor, the Norse god of thunder.
And yet, throughout the bulk of the earliest Thor stories, which were featured exclusively in Journey Into Mystery, before the title transitioned into Thor in 1966, it’s uncertain if Marvel’s new creation is actually a god, or if he is a man who just plays a god in comic books. Unlike the 2011 film, the Journey Into Mystery creative team didn’t just dump a Norse god into the contemporary United States and expect him to fight miscellaneous supervillains and other Asgardian gods.
Thor’s origins start with the “lame” Dr. Don Blake (Lieber’s scripts deploys the word “lame” so often when describing Blake, one might wonder if Don legally changed his first name), a physically meek individual who needs a cane to help him walk. Similar to some of Marvel’s other heroes from the early Silver Age, Blake is your average, everyday person who gets transformed into a hero – in this case, a Norse God – through extraordinary circumstances. While trying to escape from alien invaders, Blake stumbles into a cave where he finds a staff that he knocks against a boulder, creating Thor’s hammer. Once Blake is in possession of the hammer, he is transformed into the Norse god of thunder.
In another example of Marvel’s Silver Age sensibilities, Blake has to hide his secret identity, or face the wrath of his “father” Odin, the ruler of Asgard. And, because this version of Thor is the star of a Marvel book, the creative team finds a way to give the character some drama that makes him relatable to the everyman. In this case, Blake has an unrequited love for the nurse Jane Foster, who is seemingly more attracted to the dreamy blonde Norse god that is running around town saving children, puppies and the world from Communists, aliens and other stereotypical 60s pulp villains.
As if this unrequited love weren’t hard enough for Thor to contend with, Marvel’s creative team also saddled him with restrictions to his god-like power. When holding his mighty hammer, Thor was able to achieve almost anything. But, once he put the hammer down, after 60 seconds he would once again become Blake. In a number of issues, including a fight against the Tomorrow Man in Journey Into Mystery #86, the story’s conflict is built around Thor losing his hammer and needing to miraculously get it back into his possession in less than 60 seconds, or risk being blown to oblivion (or exposing his double identity).
The creators sporadically sprinkle elements of Norse mythology throughout Journey Into Mystery, but it would be a stretch to classify these comic book stories as a serious “adaptation” of these Germanic tales. In Journey Into Mystery #85, readers are introduced to the “god of mischief” Loki, Thor’s half-brother and arch nemesis. Loki’s first appearance also marks the first mention of Asgard, which is described in the comic as “beyond our segment of time and space, there exists Asgard, the citadel of the Norse gods, which is connected to Earth by a rainbow bridge called Bifrost!” Lieber’s description of Asgard’s location sounds more like an alternative dimension from one of Marvel’s science fiction comics, rather than one of the “Nine Worlds” of Norse mythology.
Journey #85’s Thor/Loki confrontation demonstrates a lot of the creative confusion that muddies Thor’s early characterization by Marvel. When Loki reveals himself to his half-brother, Thor thinks to himself, “Loki, the Norse god of mischief! According to the legends, the most cunning and wicked of all the gods!” Later in the comic when Loki “commands” Thor to give him his hammer, the hero replies, “I cannot obey you, Loki! By the will of Odin, the magic weapon must never be wrestled from Thor!” (complete with a footnote explaining that Odin is “the ruler of all Norse gods!”).
These two little snippets of Lieber’s script seemingly contradict each other tonally and raise the question: is Thor a god, or a man with god-like powers? If Blake truly believes himself to be Thor whenever he holds his hammer, then why would a character like Loki be “legend?” Under the narrative rules established by the comic’s creators, Loki exists as a flesh and blood character on a plane of existence co-habited by Thor – not as some legend a la a mythical unicorn or the Sasquatch. Thor himself later confirms this idea when he invokes the edict of Asgard’s ruler, Odin. Thor does not regard his father as the “legend” Odin. In fact, one issue later in Journey #86, Thor is capable of “summoning” Odin to ask for his assistance.
The lines of Norse mythology and conventional superhero comic are further blurred in Journey #91. In this issue, Thor is battling with a Loki-controlled Sandu, “master of the supernatural.” When it looks like Thor is on the ropes, Odin appears and commands his “Valkyries” (again with footnote explaining how they were Odin’s attendants in Norse mythology) to bring his son the “enchanted belt of strength” (and wouldn’t you know, a footnote explains “in ancient mythology, mighty Thor actually possessed such an awesome belt!”).
This sudden introduction of the Valkyries and Thor’s belt is unashamed deus ex machina– introduced purely out of convenience by the creators and as an opportunity to insert some footnotes that provide a simplified explanation of centuries old mythology. There’s certainly nothing “wrong” with a mythological tale using a “god in the machine” plot device to solve an unsolvable problem, but its the first time Lieber/Lee and Kirby use such a device in Journey Into Mystery and comes across as being tonally out of place as a result. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the creative never returns to this narrative device in subsequent issues.
Ultimately, the first 20 issues or so of Journey Into Mystery read like a comic series having an identity crisis. Marvel hadn’t even created a consistent voice for Thor yet (it would be a few years before his dialogue was chock full of his “thee’s” and “thou’s”). It’s clear that the character’s creators wanted Thor to be a larger than life character with a power-set that exceeded the standard superhero’s, but they also wanted to avoid being obligated by specific rules and plot devices that originated exclusively from Norse mythology. The end result is a character that is part man, superhero and god, but never one more than the other.