Thor returns to cinemas this week, in the second installment of an improbably successful film franchise that has made Chris Hemsworth into a worldwide movie star and familiarized millions with the titular norse thunder god. I call Thor’s success improbable, because of all of Marvel Comics’ Silver Age comic franchises, Thor was exceptionally challenging as a subject for film, with a complicated backstory involving earthly heroics and mythological monsters; an extensive supporting cast of demigods and royal rivals; and an origin as muddled as any found in comics.
The creators behind the film franchise sifted through a half-century of Thor comic books to present a cohesive and relatable Thor for the big screen, and for the most part they were successful — cheerfully embracing what worked, ignoring what did not. The result was a movie origin story laden with comic book lore, as Thor fought with his father, Odin; matched wits with Loki; adventured with the Warriors Three; battled giants and the Destroyer both; and visited a town where sharp-eyed viewers could spot a “Journey Into Mystery” billboard, honoring the title of the comic where Thor debuted in 1962. The screenwriters even worked in a throw-away gag by using “Don Blake” as a hastily-concocted cover identity for Thor.
In doing so, the screenwriters side-stepped the issue of Thor’s “secret identity,” which is one of the most confusing in comics. At first, things seemed simple enough. Thor’s introduction in Journey Into Mystery #83 adhered to standard genre tropes, with mild-mannered Doctor Donald Blake stumbling into the life of a superhero by picking up a stray stick in a Scandinavian cave, striking it on a rock, and finding himself magically transformed into the God of Thunder. By Silver Age standards, it was an origin no stranger than the bite of a radioactive spider, or receiving a ring of power from a dying Green Lantern.
It was a tidy package — Thor’s powers and costume were all bound up inside that stick, a set of powers that anyone worthy enough might inherit. This suite of superpowers even came with a built-in weakness: if Thor was separated from his hammer too long, the mighty god would revert to the weak mortal. As superpowers went, Thor’s fast-changing identity was less of a burden than many of his peers — with his powers just the tap of a cane away, Don Blake didn’t need a phone both to change into his super-suit!
Writers Stan Lee and Larry Lieber made much of Thor’s duel identity, separating him from his hammer at just the wrong moment, and indulging in that hoariest of Silver Age cliches by involving Don Blake in a romantic triangle with himself, as the object of Blake’s affections, the lovely Jane Foster, seemingly had eyes only for Thor. But almost from the start, Thor’s origin and identity seemed to fray at the seams, and would eventually unravel to the point that Marvel would institute one of the first story “reboots” in comics history.
It is perilous to ascribe intentionality to the long-range storytelling of any Silver Age comic, and Thor’s evolving history was very much made up as it went along, but there was something undeniably disorienting about this origin. Readers with an eye toward retroactive continuity might even detect the origins of Don Blake’s pending identity crisis the first time he assumed Thor’s identity, as Blake racked his brains to remember what he knew of Thor from school.
Just two issues later, in Journey Into Mystery #85, Thor’s half-brother, Loki, ushered in a whole raft of confusion. It seemed Blake inherited a family along with his hammer, and if Loki was to be believed, Thor had been missing from Asgard for ages, implying that “Thor” was an identity that predated Don Blake, and not just a costume and a set of superpowers residing inside an ancient artifact.
The following issue, a distinct Thor identity was even more evident, as Thor made an appeal to Odin, Lord of Asgard, whom Thor acknowledged as his father. In a scant three issues, Don Blake went from struggling to remember his Norse mythology to asserting his divine paternity!
Creators Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Larry Lieber were no fools — when they found something that worked in a comic, they went with it. While the first dozen issues of Thor pingpong all over the place in terms of tone and the types of adventures Thor encounters, the one constant — the one thing that worked better than anything else — was Thor’s mythological roots, and the vast array of locales, supporting characters, and foes that came with them. It is fascinating to watch Thor’s creators course correct in the book’s first year, gradually abandoning standard Silver Age science fiction superhero stories to embrace Thor’s Norse origins.
Journey Into Mystery #97 was a watershed in this regard, as it introduced Tales of Asgard, a backup feature where Jack Kirby brought the Norse pantheon to life in a blizzard of armor, fur, and a tangle of horns atop scores of crazy helmets. Inspired by mythology, these tales vastly expanded Thor’s world, but also made clear that Thor was extant centuries before Donald Blake wandered into that cave.
Issue #98 marked a subtle pivot that would loom large in the eventual resolution of Don Blake’s growing identity crisis. Thanks to Odin’s decree that his son could not wed the mortal Jane Foster, the Thor identity for the first time began to seem a burden …
… while the following issue implied that Don Blake was actually a mortal made into a God, and that this is something Odin could do at whim.
Was immortality just another superheroic trapping, like a cape or a mask? Was Don Blake made immortal when he struck that stick on a rock, as Odin implies can happen to the worthiest of mortals?
This was as close as the series would come to asserting that the Thor’s identity was a boon bestowed on a mortal. The Tales of Asgard feature in issue #100 introduced Thor and Loki when they were boys, firmly asserting that Thor had a long history prior to his first appearance in Journey Into Mystery #83. With this issue, the name of the comic was changed to “Thor” — but the true identity of our hero was as confusing as ever. Was he a mortal who somehow merged with an ancient god? Or was something even stranger in the offing?
It would still be years before fans got their answer. The mystery was largely set aside. Issue #113 suggested that Thor was serving out an undefined mission on earth, and that his heritage was something that might be renounced in favor of his Don Blake identity …
… but in the stories that follow, the Blake identity would disappear for issues at a time as Thor’s adventures became increasingly cosmic, with no place for the meek Doctor Blake. By issue #122, Thor clearly self-identified as a god, separate from mortals like the hapless Harris Hobbs …
In the issues that followed, Thor would acknowledge his own immortality, and even go so far as to reveal his identity — as Thor — to the long-suffering Jane Foster. More and more, the book settled into the notion that it was Thor masquerading as Don Blake, and not the other way around. This scene from issue #129 was played for laughs, but Thor was clearly amused by his encounter with a cab driver, acting like a stranger in a strange land in ways that Don Blake would never share.
With the Thor persona now clearly in charge, the series wrung maximum melodrama from his relationship with Jane Foster, and Odin’s decree that she could not wed his son. When Thor brought Jane to Asgard in issue #136 — and when Jane failed the test that would make her immortal — there was a sense that Thor could no longer be a creature of two worlds (or two identities).
With this defeat, Jane was all but written out of the series, shuffled off to earth as an amnesiac, and Thor just as quickly began a romance with the goddess, Sif. Stories would follow where Blake tried to take up his medical practice again, but these interludes felt like a gimmick, and an unwelcome distraction from Thor’s more cosmic pursuits.
Something had to give … and in issue #158, Don Blake (or is it Thor?) finally gave voice to questions fans had been asking on the letters pages for years. Who was Don Blake?
The answer would come the following issue, in a story titled — appropriately enough — “The Answer At Last!” Jack Kirby got things going in his own otherworldly style, as Don Blake dreamed his way to enlightenment …
… and his origin was fully “ret-conned,” as Odin revealed he exiled Thor from Asgard, to wander the earth as Donald Blake as a lesson in humility.
Suddenly it all seemed to make sense. Thor could not remember his past, because he was under an enchantment … and Don Blake always seemed a blank slate, because he had no actual past!
And with that, we had our answer. There never was a Don Blake, not in any meaningful way — just the God of Thunder, “now, and fore’er!”
So be it, indeed! It was a brilliant storytelling stroke, at once reconciling the many inconsistencies of stories past and firmly setting the series in the preferred direction fans and creators had discovered together the previous six years. It was an early case of comic book “ret-conning,” and an uncommonly successful example, in that few fans today remembering Don Blake at all.
Jack Kirby would leave Thor after issue #177. With him would pass an era, and many questions went unanswered. Had Thor genuinely learned humility from his time on Earth? How would Thor regard the fallout of his father’s plan, particularly the emotional havoc it wrecked upon people like Jane Foster? These would be questions for later creators to address (or ignore, mostly), as the Don Blake identity faded away, year by year, until he was no more than a sight gag in a blockbuster movie.
Today it is bizarre to think of Thor as anyone but Thor — a secret identity seems pointless for this ancient and proud superhero. But Silver Age readers will not forget Don Blake, or Thor’s strange origin, which may be unique in that a secret identity was imposed on a hero as a punishment, leaving us to wonder how the gods truly regard we mere mortals they have pledged to protect.