My favorite Marvel character in August 1978 was The Mighty Thor. What follows is an examination of every issue of his Marvel comic book, from August 1977 to July 1978, issues #262 through 273. The mythological significance of these comics, especially in comparison to what I was learning from my Catholic religion, will be the focus. However, the insights are not so narrowly defined to only encompass religious comparisons. Any myths worth our attention provide insight into all facets of our lives, just like religious myths do. The Church was telling me how to behave and why, but I now believe I was learning similar lessons from Marvel’s Thor comic. The narratives were equally insightful and at least as long lasting for me. Though I still admire many of the stories of the Catholic Church, as some of them are beautifully interlocking myths, it is to Thor that I go when I think of my first true role model. Let’s see why, starting with our first issue, The Mighty Thor #262:
The cover, our first image of the Marvel Universe from this time period, featured the pantheon of Norse gods. This issue’s opening visual depicts not only Thor, the God of Thunder, but also the faces of other Norse gods: Odin, the Father of the Gods; Sif, a Norse goddess warrior who was Thor’s wife in the myths, revisioned here only as Thor’s true-love interest (and her hair changed from blonde to brunette); Hogun the Grim, a steely-faced god whose scowl was only matched by his courage with a mace; Fandral the Dashing, a true Scandinavian-type hero with blond hair; the voluminous Volstagg, a very large god, whose helmet shadowed over his eyes, producing a somewhat comical effect (together, Hogun, Fandral, and Volstagg were The Warriors Three – all created by Marvel); Balder the Brave, a god with no equal in heart and loyalty, whose role too often was only as harbinger of the demise of the world (echoing the real Norse myths); and even an odd superhero on the cover, a being called the Recorder, whose machine-like visage represented his task of recording any narrative which he was sent to document.
My seventh grade self was always impressed by a pantheon. The idea of several different beings, each with unique gifts, abilities, and powers, seemed then, as now, a truer representation of the world than three Christian gods, each being an aspect of one God they make up together. It is difficult to compete with variety, and each of the characters on the cover of Thor #262 were distinct to me in ways that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, sadly perhaps, were not. For one, their images were concrete, rather than nebulous. How does one describe what God looks like? I think the question is valid for youngsters, but not taken seriously enough by adults to answer.
Anyway, the story: Thor, Sif, and Fandral are being held captive on the Doomsday Star. They had been looking for Odin, who, as he seemed to do often, had gone missing. Hogun, Volstagg, and the Recorder had accompanied them, but Thor now believed those three to have been killed by the aliens who took him captive. The aliens tell their story to the captured Thor: they lived on Templeworld, a gleaming planet holding all the gold and grand treasures of their civilization. The One Above All –a huge golden god – freely gave his god-energies to power the world. Such wealth presumably attracted attention, and an armada of alien races – including the Skrull, Badoon, Aakon, and Kree – came to destroy Templeworld. The One Above All kept the world safe by destroying the invading armies, but died in the process. The aliens now had to seek new gods to power their world, though none they found were as powerful as The One Above All. Eventually they captured Odin, who they say is the second most powerful god they were able to capture.
Meanwhile, Hogun, Volstagg, and the Recorder are not dead, but actively working to rescue their comrades. Thor, Sif, and Fandral are brought to see Odin being drained of his energy as he powers the Doomsday Star. Unknown to Thor, Odin is still able to see and think, if not speak, and he now believes there may be a way out of this predicament, but is unable to communicate what that solution may be.
An interlude: We see another Thor, this time with Balder and Karnilla, Queen of the Norns. This Thor attacks Balder. Obviously, something is wrong here! Meanwhile, Hogun, Volstagg, and the Recorder scale the walls of the Doomsday Star, and see Thor speaking to Odin as he seemingly dies. The death of his father angers Thor and he finds the energy to burst his shackles, even as his three would-be rescuers arrive. It becomes obvious to the aliens that they will be defeated this time, so one of them enters the “spirit mold”, a device enabling him to use the stored energy of Odin-force to create a powerful spirit body that is their last chance to defeat the reunited Asgardians. Thus ends issue #262.
Before any analysis, a few words are in order about visual art and its relationship to mythology. As explored in the Introduction, some psychologists suggest the powerful images which we process into myth arise from the realm of our collective unconscious. Whether such a realm actually exists or not, the power of visual art to convey powerful narratives from our imaginations cannot be denied. It should not be surprising that some original Greek myths are known to us only through their depiction as images on pottery. Just as we think in narrative, we can also think in images. The two go together to enable us to envision our world, as well as the possibilities we imagine for our world. Images are powerful because they show us our actions as well as our possibilities for action. Imaginative stories and the real world are linked in ways we usually don’t consider. When a story stays with us, and we consider it deeply, that story is a myth for us. We gauge our thoughts and actions in the light (or darkness) of such stories. The artistic images we are exposed to when we are young often hold a special place in our imaginations because those images are the ones we first use to judge real world images against. There is no doubt many of the visual images in comics, conveying the narrative just as much as the words, have stayed with me. The characters and overall saga of Marvel’s Thor still resonate with me today. The pantheon of character faces on the cover of issue #262 pulls us into a world unlike our own, but enough like our own to allow my imagination to use the images and stories to compare them to my reality. Keep in mind throughout how an image can remain with us forever.
Back to the comic. The narrative themes of this issue help show how a comic book story of Thor could easily compete with the Catholic Church in my seventh grade mind. In the very first caption, this comic sets up a dynamic any Church, or even any family, strives for, usually pretending it exists even if it doesn’t. We find Thor came “in search of omnipotent Odin, most regal monarch of immortal Asgard, and his own loving father,” (1) the key word being “loving.” Myths are narratives that help us understand our lives and the world around us, not necessarily narratives that form our beliefs. I recall the Catholic Church always telling me that God the Father loves us, suggesting the Church is like a family. This implies that in a Catholic family we should expect normal human emotion, including our actual, human father to also love us. But being told we should be loved and should expect love are different than actually feeling and finding such emotion. Thor, though a superhero, still risks his life and his freedom to come and save the father that loves him. Though it may seem overly-dramatic, as a boy, the question of whether I could or would do the same for my father, and of course, for my god, was implicitly being raised.
As in all heroic stories, the New Testament of the Bible included sacrifice, including that of one’s life, to save others. Putting aside one’s safety for another is a standard measure of the hero: heroes often risk their lives for others. The narrative of Jesus says he gave up his life to save everyone. As Thor says here, “Before mine eyes, my good comrades – Hogun, Volstagg. And the Recorder – did sacrifice their lives that we might find the almighty Odin once more!” (2) Even in Thor comics, heroes offer their lives in order to have a chance to achieve something positive. I am not telling you that as an eleven year old I was comparing Thor with Jesus. And I certainly never thought of the voluminous Volstagg as a religious being! However, I start here because it is the mythic resonance of any hero, giving up something, including his or her life in a worst-case scenario, which is clearly found in both religious myths and in the myths of comic books. There is equality in the power of both narratives, and being equal, either narrative can become important enough to us to become a myth in our lives. It is the individual power a story holds for us that determines its status as a myth.
These three heroes, like many heroes in other stories, did not really die. In comics, death should never be believed, but isn’t that the same for other kinds of narratives as well? In today’s comics, deaths of characters are infamously used to spark interest, i.e., sales, and the superhero that actually dies and remains dead is rare. But this suggests another commonly resonant theme in myths of both religion and comics: rebirth, the theme of rising from the dead. Obviously, rising from the dead is the key myth of Christianity, celebrated and sanctified in Christian ritual. In superhero comics, dying and rising are similarly constant themes, always in the forefront, always a possibility as a hero goes to battle with an enemy impossible to defeat.
That is not to say a religious myth and a comics myth are exactly alike. There are interesting twists in the tales of gods presented in “Thor” that are not found in any religious tales I was being taught at the time. Thor, unable to break his bonds, is being held fast in the alien prison. The One Above All – a being we are told has greater power than even Odin, a god with so much power that he allows some of it to be used to power a world – uses up all that power in a cataclysmic battle with an invading alien coalition. A religious contrast can be made to Jesus, because though all-powerful, Jesus does not use power for the sake of displaying power. God, his father, is always described and thought of as being all-powerful, so there is never an idea that his power could be used up, dwindled to nothing. And in fact, the importance of Jesus’ story is that he deliberately chooses not to use his power to stay alive. He chooses death, a humiliating death at that, so that every other human may be able to escape death in the end.
However, though the idea of being all-powerful is tempting, the idea that power can be used up, that no one can be all-powerful because there is always someone or something that wants what you have, is a more reasonable conjecture. As a Catholic boy, one prays for many things. One usually gets very little of what one prays for. So we are taught to pray for things we really need, such as to be better boys, to act in better ways, etc., not more money or unlimited power. We learn that religion is about becoming worthy human beings so that we will then be saved through Jesus and will come to know God. This goal always seemed difficult to achieve. So, in Thor, and even in The One Above All, we can more easily see ourselves, beings with ability, but not so much ability that we can’t be prevented from achieving those things we desire. The idea of Omnipotence is a fleeting thought indeed for a rational mind, and in comics even the Omnipotent Odin seldom seems to live up to his name.
The Mighty Thor comic book used religious language often. Issue #262 came after many comics before it, since Thor as a Marvel character was introduced in August 1962. This story comes sixteen years later. In these comics, every historical pantheon of gods has their own realm. They are separated, unable to be destroyed by any other pantheon’s gods. The writers also indirectly suggested, to my young Catholic-school-boy-mind, that the Christian God was present in the Marvel Universe in which Thor found himself. Though it seems that in this era of Thor the writers never actually brought in Christianity, I will admit to being a bit perturbed by own imagined implications of the two existing together in the comics when I read Thor comics as a boy. I wanted my Thor comics and my Catholic religion held apart, separated, and never the twain shall meet. After all, if God was present in Thor’s universe, it seemed a bit unfair that Thor was not necessarily present in God’s. For me, this broke the fourth wall, bringing religion into the Marvel Universe and suggesting that perhaps Thor and Odin were not so great after all.
Back in this issue, as Odin is dying in front of Thor, he speaks just enough to get out these words, “Nay Thunder God…do not think ill…of this dying race. I say thee…forgive them. My son…for they…know not…what they…do…*” (3) (the asterisk is standing in for the letterer’s star symbol in the comic, that I cannot reproduce, that indicates Odin has said his last). Thor watches his father die, even as in the Christian narrative God supposedly watches Jesus die on the cross. However, in that story, it is Jesus who speaks similar words, as the Romans crucify him and then divide his clothes, saying, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (4) Even as a young reader, this parallel was immediately obvious to a Catholic school student. But how would I have processed such a parallel? Did I see the similarity and understand the reversal of roles, or did I possibly see Odin’s dying words as vindication: see, the same lessons we learn in school or church are in my Thor comics!
Looked at more closely, it seems odd that Jesus asks God to forgive the soldiers. This is part of God’s plan, and the harassment of Jesus is part of the lesson we are being asked to learn. We are to put up with certain behavior against us, because to become like the criminal should prevent our rise into heaven. Jesus died rather than hurt the soldiers that oppressed him. But was God ever going to personally punish these men? Perhaps, if Jesus asked him to. But the point was, Jesus was there to accept this fate. In the comic, Odin suggests to Thor that because these aliens are of a dying race, forgive them, for they simply are trying to survive. Perhaps he is also giving Thor a clue that he might just have a plan (one he is unable to share with his hot-headed son). The wiser father here asks the son not to take offense because he knows, Odin Knows!, his son would destroy these lost aliens. Even now, this seems more real than the son, Jesus, asking his father, God, not to harm the guys taking his clothes and killing him.
Of course, Odin had good reason to counsel his son, as Thor’s anger upon seeing Odin expire before him provides the burst of raw strength he needs to break his bonds. The aliens, dying or not, are never going to be forgiven by an angry Thunder God. As he runs the aliens down, the last panel shows the life force body of Odin, now controlled by an alien, coming to battle Thor. The son still needs the power of his father to keep him calm.
A last note about this issue: the presence of Sif, a female Norse god modified for the comics, is a character with no parallel in Christianity. Though re-visioning does occur today in an attempt to bring more women into the Christian worldview and myths, Mary the Mother of Jesus was historically the only woman given any important and prominent place in the Church. And she was honored for giving birth. Though Sif spends this issue shackled, she does appear on the cover, just like Thor, and she is certainly not a mother. She is a warrior, which does make her a perfect love interest for Thor, but also a more modern role model for women. Sif is as strong as any man and has become one of the few Marvel female superheroes brought to the screen in the current Marvel film series.
Though this ends this issue’s story, there is more to explore. Almost every Marvel comic of the time had a letter column (here called “The Hammer Strikes”), as well as a news page called “Marvel Bullpen Bulletins.” Through these two pages, the world of the Marvel Universe seemed to arise in the real world, providing depth to the perspective that the Marvel Universe was a full-fledged, optional mythology. Though this sounds a bit grand, bringing real world commentary into the discussion will help me express my own perspective. By creating a mythology – the actual comic book narratives – and then placing them within the real world – here, the Marvel Comics publishing company with letters and news – the Marvel Universe was created, a mythology with as much meaning and resonance for my life as any other mythology I was aware of. This includes the Catholicism I was being taught at the same time. So – what was in the letter column and the Bullpen Bulletins?
Understanding the entirety of the Marvel Universe is very important for my conception of the mythology that developed around it. In addition to the comic book creators, there is no mythology without someone to listen to or read the tales. For Marvel, there were the readers of the comics. Stan Lee, the original writer of the Marvel Universe, is well-known for that writing, but now, perhaps even more so for his marketing skills. Lee used an engaging, if hyperbolic, writing style to promote Marvel Comics any way he could, attempting to create a feeling of unity among the readers that they were all in this together. “This” not only meant following the comics’ narratives, and not simply as fans of Marvel comics. No, Lee’s intent was to make Marvel readers feel they were a special group of people for buying and reading Marvel. His style of hype sold a lot of comics, but the Marvel Universe became a real experience for readers. As an eleven year old, I did feel part of a larger community, not just a simple reader of comics. I was a Friend of Ol’ Marvel, part of Marveldom Assembled, a True Believer who faced front to acknowledge the heroes of the world that came to the aid of the less fortunate. And therein, by aiding those less fortunate, immediate connections arise to the religious doctrine and missionary zeal of the Catholic Church. However, Marvel, behind Stan Lee’s missionary zeal, asked you to come with them with more energy and color than the Catholic Church could ever muster.
More examples of how Lee used more than just comics to build the Marvel Universe will come later. For now though, I will extract only a simple bit of additional evidence from these pages. In the afore-mentioned letter column, “The Hammer Strikes,” there is a reader’s letter, who wrote, “I really held off writing to Marvel Comics for as long as possible. Why? I’m not sure. I was always aware of your comic books, but I grew up reading D.C. and continued reading their comics. I knew what your group represented, what your philosophy was about, and what revolution you stirred…,” (5) my emphasis added in italics. Because there was a philosophy at Marvel Comics, whether every reader understood it to be the same or not. Philosophy easily defined is a way of perceiving the world and how it works. I would suggest that with the variety of ways of thinking about the world, a philosophy can be another myth – a story about how the world works that someone finds useful wisdom in so they are able to see their own lives in that story. The letter writer to Marvel’s “The Mighty Thor” comic book in 1977 apparently also believed a comic book company could have a philosophy. More about this later: as we examine more narratives, it will become more apparent how these elements come together in mythology. In the Marvel Universe, you can be sure additional elements kept getting added.
In the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins in this issue, there is “Stan Lee’s Soapbox,” a column of Stan Lee’s authorship in which he raises a variety of issues. Here, Stan announces he will be doing a nationally broadcast radio show named “Focus On Youth.” At this time, Stan was trying to grow the Marvel Universe beyond comics. He had his sights set on additional media, including television, movies, and apparently, radio. Another item on this page becomes evidence for Stan’s attempt to make you feel part of a family and his hope that you will identify as a member: sadly, there is an announcement of the death of one of the Marvel artists, Bob Brown. Though I imagine I was not aware of who Bob Brown was at the time, the announcement is a tribute fit for a family, even one based on how many comics you buy a week. The announcement reads as follows: “…we received the saddening news that artist BOB BROWN had died of leukemia. Bob is probably best known to Marvel readers for his penciling work on DAREDEVIL, as well as on AVENGERS and MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE. During the last few years, Bob had also done much to promote better communication and exchange of ideas between American and European cartoonists. He was a gifted professional artist and a quiet, warm human being. He’ll be sorely missed.” (6) When I look him up now, perhaps Brown should be better known. He drew almost all the major superheroes for both Marvel and DC. His death notice, though small, was well deserved. And though there was a rivalry between these companies, when Brown passed away, he had just finished work on a Wonder Woman comic for Marvel’s rival, DC Comics. Lee, and whoever wrote these Bulletins, must have seen Brown as one of Marveldom Assembled, no matter who was signing his paycheck. Family stands together, no matter the circumstances. On to the next issue.
Excerpted from “Everything I Needed to Know about Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics)” ©2017 Joseph P. Muszynski
1. Wein, Len (writer), Walt Simonson & Tony DeZuniga (illustrators), Glynis Wein (colorist), and Joe Rosen (letterer), “Even An Immortal Can Die!” THE MIGHTY THOR #262, Marvel Comics Group, 1977, 1.
2. THOR #262, 2.
3. THOR #262, 23, panels 6-7.
4. Luke 23: 34, The New American Bible, accessed at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/__PX6.HTM, 6/15/2016
5. THOR #262, 19.
6. THOR #262, 28.